Genkina hito’s Top Ten Films of the Year (2021)

Bear with me while I mix personal reflections and obvious observations of cinema for this year!

While 2021 saw cinemas open for longer and many festivals going ahead around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic still causes uncertainty in the market as new variants put exhibitors on edge and ready to cancel events while audiences seem to be put off going to see films that aren’t big Marvel properties. In these trying times, streaming films online is increasingly becoming the de facto way to view the latest releases for many but cinemas aren’t out for the count!

In Japan, where the Covid-19 situation doesn’t appear to be as severe as the rest of the world, multiplexes thrived with big titles like Demon Slayer and the recent Rurouni Kenshin big-budget entertainment duopoly setting screens ablaze (before the latter went straight to Netflix pretty quickly). In contrast, Japan’s network of independent cinemas, or, mini theatres, are still under threat. At the time of writing, there have been no closures this year – although the Yujiku Asagaya has changed its name to Morc Asagaya – okay, not a major source of drama but it was the first ever mini theatre I visited and the last one I went to when I was in Tokyo in 2020. Indeed, it was the last cinema I went to…

This year, all of my viewing has been online with Amazon Prime, YouTube (like the Universal Horror classics) and festival screeners. While I have watched probably hundreds of films, I published around 60 reviews. I try to do over 30 a year, so this number is pretty good. It covers a variety of festivals and home releases that I have been enthusiastic about or volunteered to cover via V-Cinema Show. I was also fortunate enough to interview a number of directors as part of coverage for a number of festivals – my festival highlights were the Osaka Asian Film Festival (OAFF) and New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF), both of which totally had perfect programmes. Also enjoyable and a great source of films has been the Heroic Purgatory podcast where, this year, I talked with the host, John, about Asian films from the 90s.

I’ll list some of the more interesting ones below along with my favourite films of the year. These were all first-time watches for me that have remained seared in my memory!


1: The Slug is the debut feature of Choi Jin-young and it is a perfectly formed film of a woman confronting the emotional trauma of her teenage past and learning to accept herself. With a flashback structure that becomes brought to life with a touch of magical realism that places the past and present forms of the main character together, it is a story told with such ease and yet with such profound emotion. Subtle imagery surrounding hearts, the house the main character dwells in which is the focal point of the film, and a bittersweet romance all help to furnish this story with more emotional resonance. I cried multiple times when I watched this film and on subsequent re-watches. It’s just so good. (OAFF 2021)

2: No. 3

A brand new discovery for me despite it being available in the West via Third Window Films for over a decade! This film was the debut of Song Neung-han. A satire of Korean gangster society and also the forces of globalisation in Korea at a time when it was opening up to the world and industries were liberalising after shaking off decades of dictatorship. It does all of this via the career travails of a middling gangster named Tae-ju (Han Suk-kyu) who rises through his gang’s ranks but finds his career stalling due to his mediocrity. His co-stars were future acting titans Choi Min-sik and Song Kang-ho. You can hear me heap praise on the film over at Heroic Purgatory.

3: The Eel

Shohei Imamura’s 1997 Palme D’or winner The Eel is based on a novel but plies topics that have long been an interest to him, including outsiders and the dark surging emotions that lie beneath the surface.The Eel Film Image Takura (Koji Yakusho) and Keiko (Misa Shimizu)

A strong drama from the heyday of contemporary Japanese film, it features a complex main character wrestling with the desire for isolation and a traumatic incident in his past and a coterie of fascinating side-characters who help him re-integrate with society, it was the subject of a Heroic Purgatory talk that zeroed in on Asia in the 90s.

4: Junk Head

Directed by Takahide Hori, this award-winner has blown audiences away, including me.  

©2021 YAMIKEN

This is a unique proposition: a far-future dystopian sci-fi body-horror stop-motion movie produced by a tiny team of creatives. It took years to do because it could only have been done in this medium as the gnarly models and insanely detailed sets have that wonderful physical presence and cool designs that suggest talents unleashed in ways that production committee movies wouldn’t allow. The story itself is an equally scary and funny road movie that will satisfy on its own but also promises a sequel and prequel that promise to blow the world up more. NYAFF 2021

You can read my interview with animator Atsuko Miyake here.

5: Ninja Girl was refreshing for a Japanese film insofar that it wore its politics on its sleeve with a direct criticism of the nationalist/xenophobic tendencies of conservative societies and the resulting stultifying and mind-destroying nature of small-town life that it inevitably leads to. A little Japan mindset, if you will.

It’s a cute comedy NINJA GIRL STILL 1 Imagewith an 80s aesthetic but it is perfect in the way that image and text work together to draw these issues out, all while pointing to the stagnation and economic doom invited by blind nationalism and the apathy of individuals that allow these things to transpire. Lead actress Saki Fukuda is just magisterial as the titular Ninja Girl. NYAFF 2021

6: Hold Me Back really nailed that existential angst over change.

HOLD ME BACK STILL 5
©2020 ”Hold Me Back” Film Partners

Through a stellar lead performance from Non, we get a rumination of the angst that adulthood brings as her character’s journey captures how the ever-present constant that is change and the massive range of possibilities that exist can cause a person to simple freeze and try to remain in some sort of stasis. Such a thing is not possible and it is a painful realisation that risk and loss lie behind many choices. Instead of being all Ingmar Bergman and maximalist miserabilist about it, director Akiko Ohku gives us a subtler and more enjoyable rom-com that ends on a killer line that shows the character’s bravery and growth. NYAFF 2021

7: Goto-san is a film set during the Covid-19 pandemic but offers commentary on the failures of capitalism.

Goto-san Film Image Hirofumi SuzukiAgain, another refreshing film from Japan as it directly addresses real-world economic concerns. Its setting of an internet café proves to be a canny choice for the dislocation felt by the titular Goto-san but Hiroshi Gokan channels the atmosphere of the place to make a wider comment on the state of a generation of Japanese who face economic uncertainty as wealth dries up and unstable jobs prove to be pitfalls. Absolutely scary wherever you are, not least because many people in every country around the world are suffering through similar economic circumstances.  OAFF 2021

Here’s my interview with the director, Hiroshi Gokan.

8: Ito is just my third Satoko Yokohama film after The Actor and a short but it is my favourite.

Itomichi Film Ren Komai and Yoko Nishikawa

I found it a clean and efficient use of the “coming-of-age story with a regional setting and its culture” formula that the Japanese film industry has slumped into. In this case, Aomori Prefecture and its unique shamisen styles form the backdrop for a teenage girl finding herself and exploring her family history. While it is a story of mothers and daughters, it made me think of my own mother. How everything is linked together at the end through a thrilling shamisen performance and a sequence involving waving that made me burst into tears. OAFF 2021

Here’s my interview with Satoko Yokohama about her making of the film.

9: yes, yes, yes was, from beginning to end, one of the most powerful dramas I had seen in 2021.

With a cast of four, a story told over a few days, and an economy in editing and other technical aspects, the film is laser-focused on how grief over a mother’s sickness reshapes a family. Its austere black-and-white style focussed my mind on the stark contrast between life and death as well as the strong acting of pent up emotions boiling over felt brutally real. The emotional release at the end was tear-inducing and powerful and made me consider the value of life. Truly, one of the best acted films of this year. OAFF 2021

Here’s my interview with director Akihiko Yano.

10: Joint is one of the most atmospheric and informative crime films I have seen.

If I had a criticism of modern yakuza stories, it’s that they borrow the style of the infamous criminals and don’t say anything original or new. With Joint, I had that familiar story of the main character trying to escape a life of crime and the clash between old and new ways but it was back with a lot of details about the crimes that underpin the modern yakuza business and it featured interesting commentary on the thin line between big capital and crime as well as the encroachment of foreign gangs and globalisation on such a closed criminal underworld. This context proved riveting, as did the dapper look and charismatic performance of lead actor and the exquisite visuals. OAFF 2021

 Here’s my interview with the director, Oudai Kojima.

Honourable Mentions:

Three SistersDong Teng TownTailwind, The Real ThingOver the Town.

If you made it this far down, thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope we can all watch more great films in 2022!

Donten Town Image

9 thoughts on “Genkina hito’s Top Ten Films of the Year (2021)

  1. Interesting list! I’ve seen exactly zero of these titles and only heard of half of them via your blog! I guess very few international distributors have your insight.

    Maybe our year end lists will overlap next year then? 😉 Have a good one! 🙂

    1. I hope you can see these films. I don’t know what the chances of them getting a wider release are but they deserve it.

      Of course, if you review them, I’ll definitely read what you have to say!

      Have a great New Year!

  2. Thank you so much for this list!! I’m not sure how easy (hard) it’ll be to access them but particularly looking forward to The Slug and Ito. As always your reviews are so appreciated and your list has been bookmarked! Wishing you a Happy New Year with loved ones!

    1. Thank you so much for always taking a look at my posts and thank you for the kind comment. These films are definitely keeping an eye out for and I hope you get the chance to watch them – Ito should have had more exposure!

      I hope you have a fantastic New Year!

  3. Thank you for this! I’ve spent this year coming back to my favorites series and movies, maybe to find some comfort with all this pandemic situation. So, I forgot to follow the novelties!

    A lot of the “coming-of-age story with a regional setting and its culture” is my cup of tea, and this are the good years! But I know that it’s gonna stop, like every other mode, so hang on there.

    1. I’ve been returning to 90s cinema and anime that I grew up with, so I get where you are coming from! 😀

      Film is a huge medium that can support all sorts of stories. I’m glad you have stories you can enjoy. The regional films do tell you something about Japan. My comment was partly inspired by watching older films and recently looking up the list of Japan’s entries for the Best International Feature Oscar:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Japanese_submissions_for_the_Academy_Award_for_Best_International_Feature_Film

      I mean, lavish supernatural productions like Kwaidan and serious political film Coup d’Etat! I can’t think of any equivalents since horror and politics have fallen by the wayside. As you say, hang in there! And keep checking out new films!

      Thanks for visiting!

      Have a Happy New Year!

    1. Thanks!

      I’ll have to alert people to this via Twitter and this blog (I need more time, too!).

      If you haven’t seen it, UNDER THE OPEN SKY features an incredible performance by Koji Yakusho!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.