Wow, I had no idea that 2020 would turn out like this when I wrote last year’s end post. We’re a few days away from the end of what has been a plague year. I almost got caught out at the start when I was in Japan and the borders were going to be closed, back at the end of March, but I escaped with the help of some friends. Since then, I have been in work on reduced duties or at home waiting to be called in for odd jobs. When not working, I was doing shopping with my mother and checking in on my grandmother.
During this time of waiting, I watched a lot of films, some as part of the Osaka Asian Film Festival, Nippon Connection, Japan Cuts and the New York Asian Film Festival, a lot just for pleasure. I took part in a physical film festival in Japan and I helped organise and execute an online film festival twice and during all of this I wrote a lot of reviews. Probably more reviews than in previous years. On top of it all, I also helped start a podcast about Asian films called Heroic Purgatory where I discuss films with fellow writer John Atom (the Christmas special is already out and the second season coming in 2021!).
When I was able to go to the cinema I watched a wide variety of things. In the UK, the last film I watched was Parasite with my mother. In Japan, I went to numerous screenings at the Osaka Asian Film Festival and an animation festival at the Yujiku Asagaya (just before Tokyo’s lockdown). At home with a lot of time on my hands I got into the cinema of Mario Bava and re-watched lots of Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento movies. I waded through hours of 70s and 80s horror movies from America and I went back to some tried and trusted Japanese classics. Most of all, I tried to get more Japanese indie films out there and so I think this is reflected in my list of top films from 2020.
So, what are they?.
KAMATA PRELUDE 蒲田前奏曲 (2020) Dirs: Ryutaro Nakagawa, Mayu Akiyama, Yuka Yasukawa, Hirobumi Watanabe
An omnibus film done in four distinct styles and set around the theme of being a woman in modern Japan, it feels genuinely concerned with a female viewpoint with issues such as #MeToo, career aspirations, and gender dynamics in all of the stories. Magical realism, Hirobumi Watanabe’s black-and-white comedy and sharp satire of the film world are the content of the stories and they speak of modern Japan in a refreshingly bracing and thoughtful way.
I got to interview lead actress Urara Matsubayashi and director Mayu Akiyama. Here’s the interview.
Videophobia (2019) Dir: Daisuke Miyazaki
Miyazaki is an indie film maker whose works I’m always interested in viewing because of the way he addresses contemporary issues in a unique way and with Videophobia he tackles how our digitised world can lead to existential crises as we hand over control of our identity and ultimately lose our agency. It’s done through a story of a young woman’s one-night stand that leads to what can only be described as a virtual sexual assault and the slow dissolution of her self. Instead of being heavy-handed, it’s a subtle Lynchian nightmare where paranoia takes over everything. Shot in the style of an existential horror film that takes place in Osaka, it is very distinctive and has something to say about our society.
Here’s my interview with Daisuke Miyazaki.
Kontora (2019) Dir: Anshul Chauhan
A family drama with echoes of World War II, the film felt very real in its details of frustration around small town life and limited opportunities as felt through great performances, especially the one at the heart of it, a fiery one from new actress Wan Marui. Seeing it on the big screen was a must as its gorgeous visuals and magnetic performances kept me riveted and showed that there’s a lot of potential from the indie side of the Japanese film industry.
Here’s my interview with director Anshul Chauhan.
GEMINI 双生児 -GEMINI- (1999) Dir: Shinya Tsukamoto
It has been many years since I last reviewed a Shinya Tsukamoto film and watching this was a much-needed reminder that the man is a genius storyteller and visual stylist as he brings to life an Edogawa Rampo short story of a man thrown down a well by his “double” and psychologically tortured. Set in Meiji-period Japan, it has a fantastic set, visual stylisations and a collection of actors in their prime as they bring this gothic tale to frenzied life. Released on blu-ray by Third Window Films, this is a must-have.
Shell and Joint (2019) Dir: Isamu Hirabayashi
Isamu Hirabayashi wowed me with this black comedy that I first wrote about as part of a preview of the Rotterdam International Film Festival. Sex and death are the themes in this film made up of vignettes populated by a variety of characters, some human, some not. Its stories are done in different genres and snake their way through to various humorous or melancholy conclusions but what was constantly impressive was the visual design given to each shot.
An asteroid is on a collision course with Earth and its only through a punk song that humanity can be saved. Unlike a Hollywood disaster film which would go full-macho with plenty of male divas and explosive theatrics, the heroes of this film are a seemingly random collection of oddballs who, it turns out, have a butterfly effect on each other. Devoid of dopey bombast and staid tropes, this is full of hopes everyday people can relate to in an excellent heart-warming film full of fantastic performances in an ingeniously constructed series of nested stories. It was given the blu-ray treatment by Third Window Films and comes packed with fantastic extras.
Takayuki Yamada may be a big star with matinee idol looks but he has a habit of making interesting films that go beyond the usual. Here he plays three different men in three different stories of love done in three styles with a candy-coloured funky aesthetic for each. Milocrorze is always a fun film about the power of love, whether as a samurai epic or a swinging 70s satire of relationship counselling, and the amount of invention and design on screen is always enjoyable.
A Beloved Wife 喜劇 愛妻物語 (2019) Dir: Shin Adachi
Nobody ever said marriage was easy but it seems positively nightmarish here as we watch what seems to be a mismatched couple of a sex-obsessed lazy writer and his hard-working and very frustrated wife go on a working holiday with their daughter. It shows the comedic highs and exhausting lows of a relationship in a sunny black comedy that is also wise (and kind enough) to show us why this came together and how much they truly care despite the dysfunction. Asami Mizukawa blew me away with her fiery performance and Gaku Hamada was also very impressive as a louche creep who has some plus points (as hard as they are to see).
Part of a collection of films commissioned by the Hong Kong International Film Festival that required filmmakers to make low-budget features about love, All the Things We Never Said is a performance-driven piece about the difficulty of conveying love in Japan and the dissolution of a family over a number of years that this brings. While none of the story elements were original the performances were raw and believable and led to a knockout of an ending that actually had me sobbing.
Lucky Chan-sil 찬실이는 복도 많지 (2019) South Korea Dir: Kim Cho-hee
The debut film from director Kim Cho-hee, this is a sure-footed and gently funny story of a middle-aged woman experiencing an existential crisis as her job as a movie producer seems to die a death with the director she works with. Having to reset her life from a zero point, her angst over how she should proceed leads to some biting commentary over age but it remains bright-eyed with hope as the world of movies offers eternal hopes. It seems to draw upon Kim’s own background as the lead character, as portrayed by the brilliant Kang Mal-geum in what must be a break-out performance, has lots of similarities and the story feels very real as does the love of cinema.
I published reviews for all of Fukada’s features I had seen in February this year and was excited to be able to watch his shorts during the summer. I’ve been aware of them for a while. Indeed, I wrote about this short when it was first released in 2014 and it stayed with me so when it was streamed as part of the We Are One Global Film Festival I just had to watch it. A melancholy experience of a brother and sister going through a homecoming in a rural environment, its simple story conceals a lot of depth as its two characters wander around a beautiful landscape.
The Taste of Tea 茶の味 (2004) Dir: Katsuhito Ishii
An essential blu-ray release from Third Window Films, The Taste of Tea is a laidback look at a modern family living in the Japanese countryside. This family experience various stories featuring ghosts, first love of a high schooler, and an animator trying to balance her home life with work. It features surreal flights of fancy (as depicted by weird characters and low-key CG) that help accentuate the everyday emotions of its characters who are all charmers and are all warmly depicted. There is a sense of love and respect for all in this film (apart from the ghost of a yakuza with poop on his head). I had watched the directors other works as a teen before this one but this became my favourite.
The Tale of Iya 祖谷物語 おくのひと (2014) Dir: Tetsuchiro Tsuta
This is a film I have waited a long time to see and it was one of my must-watch films of 2020 (I’ve been able to get five of them). A slow-moving elegiac film about the contradictory forces lurking in the countryside, its slow-burn drama is helped massively by the beautiful location of Shikoku’s Iya Valley. I was transported there and became part of its life.
The Day of Destruction, 破壊の日 (2020) Dir: Toshiaki Toyoda
During the Covid-19 pandemic, festivals were forced to go online which presented director Toshiaki Toyoda with the chance to make a big statement. This one was always due to come out before the Tokyo Olympics but what would have been a cinema release limited to Japan became an online sensation amongst J-film fans when it became a surprise addition to Japan Cuts. It became an even bigger event when Toyoda, making his comeback on the film scene, took advantage of the internet to build the hype with a live-streamed procession starting from a shrine on the streets of Shibuya to a concert hall.
The film was promised to be a fiery “state of the nation” and it lived up to its billing with an almost apocalyptic tale of a young man training as an ascetic monk to take on the evils afflicting Japan. Brooding, menacing, visually arresting and containing a message telling the audience that complacency and corruption are the enemy, this film was a standout that channelled the frustration found worldwide as well as taking advantage of all of the tumult this year.
As fun as watching things online can be, I hope that in 2021 we beat the pandemic and return to cinemas and meet up in person again. Until then, stay safe!