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With centuries of rich and unusual culture and history to draw upon, Japanese cinema is uniquely placed to explore the physical, emotional and philosophical trials of our times. The late nineties saw a cluster of ambitious, high-scale movies that used violence and breathtaking visual imagery to explore the struggles inherent in the human condition.
Takeshi Kitano returned with his most explicitly emotional film so far, putting his regular bullet ballet into the context of a frustrated and misunderstood cop with difficulty expressing his emotions – especially in light of his wife’s terminal illness.
Hideo Nakata and Kiyoshi Kurosawa wandered into fantasy territory, one taking an enchanted tree and the other a haunted videotape to question ideas of spirituality and man’s rejection of nature for concrete and electronics.
While ageing director Kinji Fukasaku was perhaps most interested in violence for its own sake in his notorious ‘Battle Royale’. There are moments of sociological speculation among acts of hyper violence in that particular bloody epic. With the same year’s ‘Eureka’, Shinji Aoyama chose to keep most of the gun-play off-screen in his emotive study of the effects of violence in the lives of everyday people.
These are truly great movies directed by people unafraid to give full reign to their visual ambitions and emotional instincts.
Work is all I’ve ever known…
The legendary filmmaker’s most ambitious movie up to that point ‘Fireworks’ takes some of the tropes of Kitano’s earlier gangster flicks, but shifts his own acting role from yakuza to cop.
His moral code remains consistent though, and themes of loyalty and self-sufficiency come to the fore as Kitano (as Detective Nishi) quits the force and plans an elaborate bank robbery to help pay for his wife’s leukemia treatment.
The brutal violence and cruel humour remain, but added to the mix are a sense of sadness and poetry only hinted in his more pared-back masterpiece, ‘Boiling Point’.
The almost-wordless relationship between Nishi and his wife is bitter-sweetly romantic as they face up to her inevitable fate with humour and grace. Mixed in are scenes with Nishi’s former partner, disabled after a shooting incident, who takes up painting to quietly subdue his despair while he recovers.
Such scenes and the elegiac atmosphere – inspired by Kitano’s own real-life recovery from a near-fatal accident – set ‘Fireworks’ apart from the average crime movie.
Four people died from watching this videotape!
Before ‘The Ring’ (2002) there was ‘Ring’ (1998): one of countless Japanese horror movies that didn’t really need an American remake. Such was the influence of the original movie that the sub-genre of ‘J-horror’ – psychological, rather than gore-oriented thrillers – can be traced to the 1998 version.
Its ability to unnerve home viewers (as horror fans so frequently are) is cleverly connected to its premise: a haunted videotape. Those who watch the tape are instantly contacted by telephone (even the spirit world needs communication devices) and told they’ll drop dead in seven days. And then they do.
A roving journalist’s zeal for the case inadvertently results in herself, her son and her ex-husband being saddled with the curse. They race to solve the case before the three of them collapse in terminal psychological agony.
Nakata’s deadpan, subtly unnerving narrative technique and cold cinematography make for a horror movie more incipient than sensationalist. The results are terrifying.
Starting out as a rather dull police procedural, ‘Charisma’ is actually an eccentric and philosophical ‘wanderer’ movie that uses the remaining hour and a half to blossom into a full-scale absurd fairy-tale.
The ever-sympathetic Koji Yakusho plays a cop scarred by his inability to prevent two deaths in a hostage situation. Sent on leave by his boss, he retreats to the woods where he is robbed by persons unknown, and left for dead in his burning car. Not overly perturbed by this turn of events, he hangs around anyway, getting drawn into a bizarre stand-off over the ownership of a rare tree named Charisma.
Kurosawa’s movies are always packed with strange imagery, but this is one of his strongest for the (literally) organic way the oddness takes over from everyday reality.
The descent into madness is detailed in stunning yet understated cinematography and nuanced scenarios taking in ecology, spirituality and self-determination – thankfully, all treated with a sense of wonder and of silliness that make it utterly compelling.
You just have to fight for yourself; no one’s going to save you. That’s just life, right?
Famously foreshadowing (and influencing) the ‘Hunger Games’, ‘Battle Royale’ plunges its young cast into a hyper-violent survival contest where brains, brawn, and pure luck are the most valuable assets – along with superior weaponry, of course.
Bloodier and crueller than its Hollywood descendant, ‘Battle Royale’ feels somewhat closer to home, given that the kids involved are a class of contemporary schoolchildren diverted to the ‘game’ while supposedly on a field trip.
The killing contest is the result of strict legislation following an earlier student uprising. So it’s as daft as one would hope, but the political ramifications are there once you look past all the highly inventive killing.
‘Fireworks’ director Takeshi Kitano stars as the embittered former teacher tasked with managing the scheme, and he brings his typical dark, dry humour to the role. But it’s all about the teenagers: their bubbling hormones and simmering loves and rivalries adding rich layers to this shoot-em-up classic.
Do you think one can live only for others?
Clocking in at just over three and a half hours, ‘Eureka’ is a movie you’ll need to devote an entire, languid afternoon to.
The slowly opening discreetly tells the tale of a local bus massacre by a frustrated salaryman (サラリーマン). Months later, the story picks up the trail of the three survivors: the bus driver and a young brother and sister. When a series of murders starts to occur in the small town, suspicion falls on the two male survivors, their grief patterns mistaken for weirdness or perversity.
But the hard plot points are widely dispersed between long sequences of the survivors and the kids’ visiting cousin, as they try to make sense of it all. Eventually they go on a road trip, echoing the bus journey that drew them all together. Sepia tones, nuanced character work and the constant striving for a cathartic moment of recovery ‘Eureka’ create an atmosphere to get lost in, and which more than justifies the film’s length.
Aoyama has stated that his key influences were John Ford’s ‘The Searchers’ (1956) and Jim O’Rourke’s mellow, bittersweet ‘Eureka’ album (a perfectly-selected track from the album plays over the denouement), and if you’re familiar with those texts, you’ll have a good idea what to expect – and will likely get more than you hoped for.
These are five emotionally draining films, but they are bound to stay with you for years to come. Such is the dramatic impact and thought-provoking originality of each one.
There are trashier, quick hits available in the Japanese canon – and there’s nothing wrong with that! – but for a truly satisfying, epic experience, any of these films would be a great place to start.