10 great Japanese films of the 1990s

The 1990s were a transitional decade for Japanese cinema, in which new auteurs, including Hirokazu Kore-eda and Takeshi Kitano, first came to prominence.

Jasper Sharp

Maborosi (1995)

Maborosi (1995)

Japan boasts one of the healthiest film cultures in the world. It’s the third largest exhibition market (after the US and China), and since 2008 domestic productions have taken over half of all annual box-office revenues.

Indeed, it’s hard to believe that in the waning years of the 20th century, many were talking about Japan’s cinema in terms of crisis. In 1996, admissions dropped to an all-time low of 10% of the industry’s peak year of 1958, while in 1998 the market share for Japanese films plunged to 30%.

One might say that this sense of impending doom, following the collapse of the traditional studio system, echoed that within the wider cultural sphere. The 1980s had ended with the death of Japan’s longest-reigning monarch, Emperor Hirohito, while the 1990s was characterised by economic gloom and the double whammy of the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo subway attacks by the renegade Aum Shinrikyo cult in 1995. In 1993, Japan’s oldest film company, Nikkatsu, had filed for bankruptcy, while the surviving major studios refocused on distribution and the new markets of satellite broadcasting and straight-to-video.

And yet the 1990s paradoxically saw the release of what was at the time Japan’s highest-grossing domestic hit ever, Princess Mononoke (1997), and its biggest success in North America, Shall We Dance? (1996). New markets and co-production possibilities opened up, particularly in neighbouring Asian countries, and a new generation of auteurs, including Takeshi Kitano, Shinji Aoyama, Naomi Kawase and Hirokazu Kore-eda (whose Maborosi is re-released in the UK on 26 April), began winning awards at major international festivals. Most of these filmmakers are still going strong to this day.

Here is a selection of 10 great works from this exciting and overlooked era of transition, ambition, invention and creative ferment. Most screened in the UK at the time, although regrettably few subsequently made it to home video during the noughties obsession with anime, J-horror and Asia Extreme. Alas, as ever, 10 is never enough…

The Cherry Orchard (1990)

Director Shun Nakahara

The Cherry Orchard (1990)

This sprightly and enchanting work, sadly little-known outside Japan, charts the fears, friendships and infatuations of the members of a drama club at a high school for girls in the run-up to their presentation of the titular Chekhov play, an annual school tradition to mark their passage into the adult world.

It’s a film of modest drama but considerable charm, as the corridors and classrooms resound with its characters’ everyday chitchat, banter about their crushes and gossip about their teachers. Meanwhile, emotions run high as rumours of an out-of-school misdemeanour by one of the students threatens the cancellation of the performance.

Director Shun Nakahara, an alumni of Nikkatsu Studio’s erotic Roman Porno line of the 1980s, does a wonderful job keeping things fresh, fluid and naturalistic, while spreading the focus evenly among a large and essentially all-female cast (save for a boyfriend hanging around on the sidelines and the ominous loitering presence of the authoritarian school principal). 

The Most Terrible Time in My Life (1993)

Director Kaizo Hayashi

The Most Terrible Time in My Life (1993)

A distinct return to the form of his magical debut, To Sleep So as to Dream (1986), Kaizo Hayashi’s first entry in his Mickey Spillane-inspired Mike Hama (Yokohama Mike) trilogy is a similar exercise in cinephilia. It’s shot in dazzling monochrome scope, with retro-noir art direction by Seijun Suzuki’s long-term collaborator Takeo Kimura and cameos by Tetsuo director Shinya Tsukamoto and Branded to Kill star Jo Shishido.

Masatoshi Nagase plays the private dick operating from a run-down downtown Yokohama repertory cinema, where prospective clients need tickets before being granted an audience in the projection booth office. In this first story, Hama comes to the aid of a waiter caught in the crossfire of ethnic gang rivalries in the port city’s Chinatown, eventually leading him to Taiwan in one of Japan’s first co-productions with this neighbouring country.

Hama returned in The Stairway to the Distant Past (1995) and The Trap (1996), and on television in 2002, in 12 hour-long episodes individually written and directed by such noteworthy talents as Sogo Ishii, Tetsuya Nakashima, Shinji Aoyama and Britain’s Alex Cox.

Like Grains of Sand (1995)

Director Ryosuke Hashiguchi

Like Grains of Sand (1995)

It was in the 1990s that the first generation of Japanese filmmakers came out to overtly represent LGBT concerns and subject matter, spearheaded by Ryosuke Hashiguchi. His 16mm debut, A Touch of Fever (1993), about a college student who moonlights as a rent boy, was among several debuts by noteworthy directors, including Shinobu Yaguchi, Lee Sang-Il and Naoko Ogigami, who emerged from this decade onwards with financial support from Tokyo’s Pia Film Festival, established to discover new filmmaking voices.

Hashiguchi’s follow up, Like Grains of Sand, depicting a love triangle between two teenage boys and a female classmate (played by pop idol Ayumi Hamasaki), is a vivid and naturalistic evocation of the confusion of adolescence and the search for social and sexual identity within the stifling conformity of a high-school environment. Sadly, despite finding audiences both at home and abroad, subsequent films by Hashiguchi, which include Hush! (2001) and Three Stories of Love (2015), have been all too few and far between.

August in the Water (1995)

Director Sogo Ishii

August in the Water (1995)

Raucous punk films such as Crazy Thunder Road (1980) and Burst City (1982) saw Sogo Ishii (who later renamed himself Gakuryu Ishii) heralded king of the early-1980s indie scene. Following a near decade absence, he returned with a triptych of more meditative, dreamlike pieces, beginning with Angel Dust (1994), a mesmeric psychological thriller featuring a renegade poison-syringe-wielding religious cult member on a murder spree across the Tokyo subway, which eerily presaged the Aum attacks.

In August in the Water, high-school diving champ Izumi’s arrival at her new school out in the sticks coincides with a double meteorite strike that bizarrely prompts a drought and a bizarre epidemic causing the local inhabitants’ inner organs to petrify. Psychedelic mushrooms sprouting around the meteorite craters and cosmic messages relayed by dolphins add to the hypnotic hotchpotch of New-Age weirdery and environmentalist allegory. It is among the oddest from this idiosyncratic and notoriously intransigent director’s oeuvre, and ample evidence of Japanese filmmakers’ ability to explore thematic areas and stylistic forms barely imaginable within other national cinemas.

Gonin (1995)

Director Takashi Ishii

Gonin (1995)

‘Gonin’ literally means ‘Five Men’, and among their number are some of the most familiar faces of the decade, namely Koichi Sato, Masahiro Motoki, Naoto Takenaka and Takeshi Kitano. This latter, it should be added, is not part of the motley group of outcasts who, left on the margins for various reasons after the dramatic burst of the economic bubble, decide to get mad and get even by raiding the headquarters of a powerful yakuza group and making off with the loot.

This gripping and tautly constructed heist film is about as close Ishii – a former adult manga artist who moved into the field of action movies like Black Angel (1998) by way of polished erotic dramas such as Angel Guts: Red Vertigo (1988) and A Night in the Nude (1993) and then back out again in the same direction with the glossy rape-revenge thriller Freeze Me (2000) – gets to social commentary. A zeitgeisty reinvigoration of the yakuza genre, it’s also devoid of the less palatable sexual politics found in some of his other work, and a brilliant reminder of what a dazzling visual stylist he can be, perhaps the closest Japan ever got to a John Woo or a Brian De Palma.

Love Letter (1995)

Director Shunji Iwai

Love Letter (1995)

To keep the memory of her fiancé Itsuki Fujii alive, two years after his death in a mountaineering accident, Hiroko makes the symbolic act of writing a letter to his childhood address, far away in the snowy northern island of Hokkaido. With the house he grew up in long demolished, the letter finds itself in the hands of another Itsuki Fujii, and a lengthy correspondence develops, triggering a torrent of teenage memories and emotions. The twist is that not only is the living Itsuki a woman (the name, like Evelyn or Leslie, is non-gender specific) but also a dead ringer for Hiroko and a classmate of her deceased lover.

TV and music video director Shunji Iwai’s first feature revels in its artifice, possessing a pop-promo slickness, a plot hinging on more than just a single contrivance and a tendency towards soft-focus sentimentality and honey-toned nostalgia. It’s certainly of its era, but also an undeniably stylish and tightly realised work, and a real game-changer in many respects, not least because it was among the first batch of Japanese films to be distributed in South Korea since the end of the Second World War, where it proved as huge a hit as elsewhere in Asia.

Shall We Dance? (1996)

Director Masayuki Suo

Shall We Dance? (1996)

In this infectiously exuberant homage to ballroom dancing, Koji Yakusho plays the easy-going but office-bound accountant who, after spotting a beautiful woman in the window of a suburban ballroom dance school on his daily journey home, plucks up the courage to leap out several stops early. Following his first faltering steps, he is soon immersed in a clandestine world of evening lessons and weekend socials, inhabited by a like-minded tribe of salaryman clodhoppers (including a scene-stealing Naoto Takenaka as the company’s IT support engineer). Before long his wife gets wind of the new spring in his step and hires a private detective.

A fish-out-of-water ensemble comedy very much in the mould of Masayuki Suo’s earlier Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (1992), Shall We Dance? was the top-grossing Asian film of all time in North America, prior to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), although the original seems to have been eclipsed by Peter Chelsom’s lumbering rumba-ing remake starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez. 

The Bird People in China (1998)

Director Takashi Miike

The Bird People in China (1998)

Before emerging seemingly fully formed in the west with the comic-book hyperbole of yakuza films like Dead or Alive (1999) or the gruelling proto-torture porn of Audition (1999) and Ichi the Killer (2001), Miike had already directed just shy of two dozen movies across a variety of genres, although mainly straight-to-video gangster and action titles.

Many consider The Bird People in China, one of his theatrical features made on a decent budget, to be among his finest. It’s a buddy-come-road movie whose tone meanders between the comic and poetic in its fish-out-of-water portrait of an uptight and unadventurous company rep on a business trip that goes awry. He finds himself off the beaten track in China’s Yunnan Province, and stuck with a gangster sent by his mob to trail him. The pair soon wander into a secluded mountain village whose inhabitants’ limpid blue eyes and ritual attempts at flight using makeshift wings of wood and paper hint at an earlier outsider visitor half a century before. 

After Life (1998)

Director Hirokazu Kore-eda

After Life (1998)

Following several pioneering TV documentaries and his debut feature Maborosi (1995), in which a young woman is left with her young son to cope in the wake of her husband’s mysterious death, Kore-eda’s international breakthrough film is also his most formally bold, certainly in comparison with the more straightforward dramas he has become known for over the past decade.

A near derelict public building, surrounded by dead autumnal leaves, serves as purgatory for a new batch of newly deceased, who upon arrival are asked to select a key moment of happiness or enlightenment from their mortal existence to be constructed by the staff of this halfway house and lived over again in perpetuity over their next life. This self-reflexive and intellectually daring meditation on life, death and memory, which can also be read as an analogy for cinema itself, is also undeniably emotionally potent, and signalled the arrival of a new wave of Japanese arthouse cinema in the west.

License to Live (1998)

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa

License to Live (1998)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s non-genre work tends to be overlooked against such esoteric horrors as Cure (1997), Pulse (2001) and Creepy (2016), but License to Live provides ample evidence of the director’s trademark methods of undermining and interrogating narrative and genre. Not only is it a difficult film to pigeonhole (Is it drama, is it comedy?), it’s a tricky film even to describe beyond its initial premise of a 24-year-old man attempting to settle back into daily life, after awakening from a 10-year coma, while staying with a friend (played by a tousle-headed Koji Yakusho) of his mysteriously absent family, who ekes out his own precarious existence running an indoor recreational fishing pond on the site of a bankrupt dude ranch.

Scenes begin in media res and end without obvious resolution, devoid of the context of cause and effect and perversely refusing to push the narrative towards any apparent conclusion. The cumulative effect, nevertheless, is of its protagonist’s sense of disconnect and estrangement from a Japan that had transformed rapidly over the decade since its apogee of economic and cultural self-assurance.

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