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Good Japanese Movies (2000-05): The Modern Weird

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GJ Cole itcherJapanese cinema is known for its unusual tendencies and eccentric auteurs, and the early noughties were no exception. Filled with body-horror slashers, punk cats, haunted plumbing and puppet people, this list guarantees something strange for every taste. ~ GJ Cole

The Art of Odd

Following the end of Japan’s turbulent twentieth century the nation’s filmmakers had some pretty mixed-up ideas about how a film should look and feel.

Two of Japan’s greatest horror directors veered in opposite directions in their efforts to elicit thrills and chills from the audience: Takeshi Miike illustrated his live-action gangster flick ‘Ichi the Killer’ with manga-esque levels of blood and butchery, whereas Hideo Nakata opted for understatement, somehow conspiring to make water – mere water! – terrifying.

Meanwhile, legendary comedian-TV host-filmmaker-painter Takeshi Kitano also took a new direction, taking the traditional Japanese theatre form of  ‘Bunraku’ and applying its principles to the cinema: ‘Dolls’ maybe weird for non-Japanese audiences, but it’s certainly a unique movie whatever your background.

And a pair of animators going by the name of ‘Trees of Life’ apparently decided to cram all their obsessions into one single movie, creating ‘Tamala 2010’: part religious myth, part capitalist critique, part cutesy cartoon, and starring a Betty Boop-style chain-smoking alien kitten. I don’t think humankind has a genre name for that type of film just yet.


Bizarre Japanese Movie Recommendations

‘Koroshiya Ichi’ / ‘Ichi the Killer’ (Takashi Miike, 2001)

Put some feeling into it, already! If you’re going to give someone pain, you’ve got to get into it!

Notorious sensationalist-horror director Miike is on top form in this cartoonish slash-em-up full of memorable images and characters.

The film revolves around a super-cool scar-faced sado-masochist gangster who breathes smoke through holes in his cheeks as he tries to keep his world in order; and Ichi; a former-bully turned martial arts virtuoso with blades in his shoes.

Victims are sliced, diced and drained with ever-mounting creativity and the comic book violence and dialogue is utterly entertaining and playful.

Unfortunately, the film is marred by various rape references which are completely tasteless (in a bad way) and out of tone with the rest. But viewed with discretion, the discerning horror/yakuza fan can find lots to tickle the imagination.

‘Honogurai Mizu no soko kara’ / ‘Dark Water’ (Hideo Nakata, 2002)

It was locked! Someone else must’ve opened it!

‘Ring’ director Nakata returns with a ghost story of similarly mundane origins: is the leak in a divorcee’s apartment haunted? Doesn’t sound a promising premise, but there are chills to come.

Hitomi Kuroki stars as a young mother who gradually draws parallels between the uncanny occurrences in her new home, her cute-as-pie daughter, and the little girl of the same age that used to live upstairs… until she went missing.

A spooky, smooth as steel horror/thriller in which fear is induced through a series of scenes whose very banality raises the tension to sofa-gripping levels, ‘Dark Water’ forces the viewer to ask: what’s going in beneath the surface? If you find the style a bit too clean and nice, though, you may yet be grabbed by the more visually explicit climax.

Later adapted into both a manga version and a Hollywood-remake, the minimalist chill of Nakata’s austere thriller continues to influence horror directors to this day.

‘Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space’ (Tol, 2002)

Yeah, everyone was waiting for something…

Created by mysterious artist collective ‘Trees of Life’ (Tol), ‘Tamala 2010’ rides high in the bonkers stakes among other Japanese anime creations without being part of anything outside of its own, bizarre universe.

Tamala is, yes, a punk cat, but she is also the reincarnation of an ancient Minervan cat goddess. Quitting ‘Cat Earth’ to return to her home planet, Tamala instead crashes down in Hate City, Planet Q, where she falls in love with a dog and is literally hounded to death by another.

Death is not the end of things in this universe, and there are plenty more layers of mythology to come. The exquisite, highly detailed animation references Hello Kitty and Betty Boop more than high-octane manga, but ‘Tamala 2010’ is chiefly an animation for adults (indeed, a rather information-laden second act will lose most kids and a fair proportion of grown-ups).

Full of imagination, nihilistic non-sequiturs and cult references, ‘Tamala 2010’ is surely to be recognised as an overlooked gem some day in the future, perhaps only when Earth people are truly ready for it.

‘Rokugatsu no hebi’ / ‘A Snake of June’ (Shinya Tsukamoto, 2002)

Shinya ‘Tetsuo’ Tsukamoto’s cruel humour re-emerges in this relatively underplayed erotic thriller about a lonely telephone counsellor trapped in a sexless marriage. When Rinko receives a delivery of voyeuristic snapshots of herself in the post, she fears blackmail and worse. Her stalker, though, has a more complicated philosophical scheme in mind.

With shades of neo-noir similar to the work of Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-Wei, Tsukamoto evokes a nameless Japanese city built of dehumanizing order and isolation. His trademark sense of the absurd threads throughout the movie, but it retains a slightly more sombre tone than usual.

Sensual blue-tinted monochromes dye this claustrophobic world a moody shade of lonely. Haunting and perverse, ‘A Snake of June’ is a unique proposition even within Tsukamoto’s peculiar oeuvre.

‘DŌruzu’ / ‘Dolls’ (Takeshi Kitano, 2002)

After a decade of alternating mindful crime flicks and silly or mawkish comedies, nobody quite expected this from Kitano.

‘Dolls’  interweaves three highly symbolic love stories (influenced by traditional Japanese puppet theatre) between tragically star-crossed lovers. A young go-getter runs away with the fiancée he previously spurned, following her failed suicide attempt; an obsessive fan takes drastic action when the pop star he loves is disfigured in an accident; and an elderly gangster attempts to make peace with a lover from his youth.

The stories, while evocative in themselves, are really just skeletons for Kitano’s stylistic and thematic experiments. The richness in colour, use of costume and seasonal elements, and traditional imagery make for a moving and epic triptych.


Whatever Next?

What came next was more weirdness: the bold visions of these inspiring filmmakers ensured them success. At least enough to keep on doing what they’re best at: create astonishing images, characters and scenarios that you won’t find anywhere else.

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