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Good Japanese Movies (2010-15): Hard Times

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GJ Cole itcherRecent years have seen an escalation of extreme cinema in Japanese culture, pitting heroes and heroines against tough circumstances and torturing them with bizarre levels of invention. Of course, we’re happy to lap it up – Japanese cinema aficionados are attracted to the culture by its uncompromising visions and the sound philosophical basis of the often disturbing images it offers. Here are five of the toughest propositions Japanese filmmakers have offered us lately. ~ GJ Cole


From yakuza movies to war films and even a documentary on Bosnian coal-mining, Japanese directors have in recent years confronted the difficult existential truths of life with a wide variety of visual invention.

After a decade away from the genre, the iconic Takeshi Kitano returned to his trademark yakuza apocalypse narrative with ‘Outrage’. The survival rate of his characters causes one to question why they would ever consider a career in organized crime in the first place.

Relative newcomer Hitoshi Matsumoto and cult favourite Sion Sono both take sexuality as the starting point to explore the perverse cruelty of human nature and the ways in which our identity is mediated through our body.

Legendary horror-meister Shin’ya Tsukamoto takes an unprecedented realistic approach to war with his disturbing remake of the World War II survival film, ‘Fires on the Plain’. And Kaori Oda takes us beneath the surface in her feature debut, a documentary observing the conditions, dangers and aesthetics of a Bosnian coal mine where safety is compromised by tough economic factors.


Tough Japanese Movie Recommendations

‘Autoreiji’ / ‘Outrage’ (Takeshi Kitano, 2010)

It’s better to lose technically than to be knocked out, right?

Returning to his gangster-flick roots after years of formal experimentation, Kitano crafted this meticulously framed and choreographed yakuza meltdown as an attempt to reconnect with the wider audiences he enjoyed in the nineties.

Lacking the simple eloquence of ‘Boiling Point’ or the emotional punch of his ‘bad cop’ movie ‘Fireworks’, ‘Outrage’ is still a solid, artful and exciting thriller. Kitano eventually takes centre-stage as Otomo, a yakuza middle-manager drawn into an escalating dispute between rival families. When his own boss chooses to sacrifice him, Otomo fights back with the kind of blunt but imaginative violence familiar to viewers of Kitano’s earlier work.

Filmed in super-wide 2.35 ratio, every shot is a lesson in composition, and what the movie lacks in narrative sophistication it makes up for in flair. A sequel followed a couple of years later – although who could possibly be in it, given the death toll of the original?

‘Koi no Tsumi’ / ‘Guilty of Romance’ (Sion Sono, 2011)

When you have a secret, you’re careful with the secrets of others…

Opening as a police procedural in which a female detective is set the task of investigating a corpse that has been chopped up and combined with a mannequin, the structural ambitions of ‘Guilty of Romance’ soon exceed this generic introduction.

Director Sono’s apparently literary ambitions skew the film into an epic tale of a novelist’s wife who escapes her passionless marriage by dabbling in porn and prostitution.

Meeting an intellectual-turned-prostitute who strives to imbue Izumi’s transgressions with a meaningful philosophy, there are too many perversely conflicting needs at play for the situation to resolve peacefully.

Mixing styles and alternating colour palettes between the different microcosms that his anti-heroine inhabits, Sono creates an environment both varied and suffocating in which he explores themes of love, sex, violence and femininity. His Sadean blend of the visceral and the philosophical marks Sono as a unique filmmaker among his compatriots.

‘R100’ (Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2013)

People tend to divide things into two categories, then they decide which group they belong to. It provides them with an identity and a sense of security…

‘R100’ stands for ‘Rated 100’, which is to say that if you are below 100 years of age you are deemed too young and impressionable to sit through this movie. Those centenarians of strong enough heart to make it to the end, though, are in for a treat.

Nao Ōmori plays Takafumi Katayama, the most ordinary of ordinary men, except for his penchant for S&M. Signing up for an (unbreakable) one year contract with a dominatrix service whose service is to attack and humiliate their clients in public without warning proves to be a step too far beyond his personal boundaries. Did I mention the contract was unbreakable?

Negotiating the absurdly dangerous scenarios that ensue with cartoonish hyper-violence, Katayama’s quest for survival spirals to unexpected depths – all commented on by the film’s fictitious director and production team, increasingly flustered by the unwatchable levels of depravity the movie seems to be reaching.

Hilarious, ridiculous, and one-of-a-kind, ‘R100’ has its tongue violently buried in its cheek. No comedy movie could be that outrageous. Could it?

‘Nobi’ / ‘Fires on the Plain’ (Shin’ya Tsukamoto, 2014)

While technically a remake of the 1957 movie and an adaptation of its source novel, it’s no surprise that Tsukamoto’s film stands alone as the bold statement of a unique auteur obsessed with the inherent contradictions of human violence, masculinity, and civilisation.

A WWII Japanese soldier wanders alone in the Philippines jungle, alternately hunted and tortured both by locals and his own army. His attempts to cling on to his sense of humanity conflicts with his efforts to cling on to life and limb, and he undergoes a series of horrendous physical and moral tests as the war disintegrates around him.

Differing from Tsukamoto’s previous films in its position towards ‘the real’, ‘Fires on the Plain’ turned off many of the few who saw it for its anachronistic digital photography and nagging sense that this is just a bloke with a camera and a costume running around the woods in the twenty-first century.

If you can get past that and accept it as an alienation effect that brings the grotesque truth of war closer to home, ‘Fires’ can be seen as a daring, original and risky proposition, a gesture of uncharacteristic transparency from a filmmaker who usually buries his themes in layers of science-fiction, melodrama or genre code.

‘Aragane’ (Kaori Oda, 2015)

In short autobiographical documentary ‘Thus a Noise Speaks’ (2010), Oda took the multiple, overlapping layers of cinematic narrative as both metaphor and medium for self-expression and social interaction. Coming out to her conservative Japanese family, Oda documented both the ‘live’ story around her announcement, and various sub-plots and manifestations of her attempts to film re-enactments of the same story with the same family members acting as themselves.

‘Aragane’ is a vastly different proposition, and it takes cinema and filmmaking as a metaphor for life, and vice versa.

Working under the mentorship of the great Béla Tarr ten thousand kilometres from home, Oda elected to film in observational style the daily workings of a Bosnian coal-mine for her debut feature.

Remaining behind the camera, Oda’s presence is still felt through the outsider-curiosity of her eye, her aesthetic fascination, and her deep sense of empathy that social indifference cannot dampen.

Of course, you’d need this background information to draw the perhaps unconscious parallel between miners and film students as the only people who willingly get up at the break of day only to descend into darkness until night falls. But the play of light, of glances, of sounds and sensations alternately known and unattributable, form a gentle argument for mystery, wonder, mindfulness and consanguinity both in art and in our lives.

Best seen in a cinema, Oda’s lone ventures into this subterranean microcosm erode the very borders of the screen.


New Horizons

Half a century after the new wave, Japanese filmmakers continue to expand our sense of what can be achieved and evoked in film, with transgressive and subversive movies whose visual invention and probing intellectual curiosity are unique within the world of cinema.

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