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Good Japanese Movies (2005-10): Into the Metaverse

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GJ Cole itcherJapanese cinema is known for its bold and familiar genres – yakuza movies, anime, pink films and minimalist horror to name a few – but alongside the familiar mainstays there are always some strange new forms to contemplate. The late noughties found Japanese directors with a curious sense of the relationship between different layers of reality, summoning dream logic, self-reference and worlds within worlds in their pursuit of genre-busting cinema. ~ GJ Cole

Reality Is Subjective

The flourishing of the internet and the maturation of cyberpunk may well be considered key reasons behind the rise in the noughties of movies that referenced different realities and levels of metaphor in their increasingly convoluted plots.

Live-action horror ‘Nightmare Detective’ and fantasy anime ‘Paprika’ chose as their questionable heroes ‘dream detectives’ who could enter the sleeping subconscious minds of others, and whose capabilities became increasingly sought-after as new dangers were perceived to slip between the waking and the dreaming life.

‘Takeshis’ and ‘Kyoshin’ each follow their director’s respective alter-ego, quite literally in the former as the ‘movie star’ Takeshi Kitano goes head-to-head with a failed actor also played by himself. ‘Kyoshin’ is more subtle in its references to real life, but it can be read as an allegory for director Sogo Ishii’s own existential doubts and creative re-invention.

Hitoshi Matsumoto’s ‘Symbol’ is just very silly. Again featuring the movie’s director in the lead role, it is a playful tale taking place in two concurrent realities – the director appears as the lone character in the more fantasy-oriented scenario of the two, with the implication that film directing requires an uncomfortable distance from the ‘reality’ in front of the camera.

Thankfully, these films are mostly as entertaining as they are complex. So take a deep breath and prepare to ascend to the next level of Japanese filmmaking.


Conceptual Japanese Movie Recommendations

‘Takeshis’’ (Takeshi Kitano, 2005)

That guy… the one who looks like me. What could his life be like?

If you’re already familiar with the work of director/movie star Takeshi Kitano, this is an essential text; if you’re new to his particular brand of philosophical violence and deadpan black humour, there is still plenty to appreciate in this surreal, pseudo-autobiographical movie.

Kitano stars in two roles, as ‘himself’ (a famous movie star) and as ‘Mr. Kitano’, a Takeshi-lookalike trying to get a break in the acting biz while working as a shop assistant.

Obsessed with his more famous doppelganger, Mr. Kitano insinuates his way into his life – and appears to act out violent fantasies of typical ‘Kitano’ scenarios when he is snubbed.

Every character in the film has their own double, and the structure is a patchwork of absurd scenes, ironic encounters and surreal imagery.

‘Papurika’ / ‘Paprika’ (Satoshi Kon, 2006)

…the Internet and dreams are similar. They’re areas where the repressed conscious mind escapes…

You have to make a clear decision when you click ‘play’ on ‘Paprika’: are you going to attempt to follow the twisted and contradictory dream logic, or just let yourself be drawn along by the stream of (sub)consciousness plot?

‘Paprika’ is the dream-world alter-ego of Doctor Atsuko Chiba, a near-future psychiatrist experimenting with an as-yet illegal new form of therapy: the DC Mini, a device that enables one’s therapist to enter your dreams and get to the root of your issues. When the device is stolen, a series of increasingly invasive dream-hacks take place, threatening the safety of Chiba’s patients and team – and eventually the whole city.

The anime-look may feel over-familiar at first, but it quickly twists into a surreal and unpredictable roller-coaster of otherworldly imagery, with theme and aesthetic becoming indivisible from one another.

It might be a bit daft and fluffy next to more rigorous animated explorations into the deep subconscious (‘Waking Life’) or the soul (‘Ghost in the Shell’), but if you make that initial decision to just enjoy the hell out of it, ‘Paprika’ will prove itself to be an enjoyable and visually astonishing ninety minutes.

‘Akumu Tantei’ / ‘Nightmare Detective’ (Shinya Tsukamoto, 2006)

You feel empty. You want something that makes you feel alive…

If the dream world of ‘Paprika’ is a bit too colourful and lovely for you, Tsukamoto’s ‘Nightmare Detective’ offers a live action, bloody noir alternative.

Rookie detective Keiko Kirishima (played by pop-star Hitomi) is landed with a tough first case: people seem to keep slashing themselves to death in their dreams. Surrounded by nay-saying male colleagues, Kirishima is forced to do business with reluctant emo dream medium Matsuda if she is to stop the serial killer in his tracks.

The film’s logic holds together even more delicately than Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’, but Tsukamoto (who also plays the killer) creates a superbly moody, vaporwave Tokyo with a minimal colour palette, blown-out light sources and richly detailed locations. The disturbing violence is under-paved with the director’s trademark black humour, making for a punchy genre flick with character and verve.

If you’re not already haunted by Tsukamoto’s distinctive brand of cinema, this is the director-as-dreammaker-turned-murderer impaling himself deep into your unconscious mind!

‘Kyoshin’ / ‘Mirrored Mind’ (Sogo Ishii, 2006)

We came all the way for this film. Why don’t we finish this one as it is?

Reinventing his cinematic identity, Sogo Ishii’s contemplative 2006 movie is almost essay-like in its form: abstract images shot on video, personal connections and meandering conversations weave through the story of an actress who rediscovers herself on relocating from the stresses of Tokyo to the apparent simplicity of Bali.

Musing on the purpose and value of filmmaking, the character feels like an avatar for Ishii himself, exploring a personal sense of zen through the relegation of plot and action in favour of vague images, geometric games and the unhurried contemplation of his cast.

It’s a peculiar turn for the director, but it works on many levels, and there’s no other film quite like it in Japanese cinema.

‘Shinboru’ / ‘Symbol’ (Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2009)

A man wakes up in a big white room with no doors and windows and no idea what he’s doing there. A decorative cherub emerges from the wall, whose little clay penis proves to be an operative button for the mystery room. Upon pressing it, the man is presented with a series of props and tasks, apparently to be put to use in the purpose of his escape from the room.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, Escargot Man prepares for a big wrestling match.

The two stories are more closely connected than they seem.

TV comedian Matsumoto has quietly introduced himself as a key surrealist auteur of Japanese cinema over the past decade, never allowing considerations such as ‘maturity’ or ‘respectability’ to trouble him.

‘Symbol’, his second feature, feels almost unique within cinematic history – although Vincenzo Natali’s ‘Cube’ (1997) might be considered its sensible older brother.

A frustrating puzzle movie – all the more frustrating for the (loveable) idiot we watch trying to solve the puzzle with beach balls, umbrellas and rope – ‘Symbol’ is a refreshing and utterly entertaining piece of A-grade Japanese nonsense.


Worlds within Worlds

With so many layers to pick apart, engaging with Japanese meta-films such as these can be a complex task. Thankfully the richly imagined parallel universes are realized with enough wit and intelligence to make them a rewarding challenge.

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