This list is for films I have watched in a cinema or at home. I go to the cinema a lot and I watch at least two films a week at home and have started to attend film festivals. As a result I see a broad range of films. This is in no way objective or a definitive account of every film released in a year but I know what I like and I like films with wit, intelligence, visual beauty and a degree of whimsy – a mixture of entertainment and pure cinematic joy that pushes the medium. Here are the films, click on the links to go to the reviews and see why I think these films are genuinely great.
Last Judgement (Shinya Kawakami, 2018)
This was part of the 2019 run of the New Directions in Japanese Cinema and I saw this at an early screening towards the end of the Osaka Asian Film Festival (OAFF) 2019. It was the last of the five films and it was like a shot of adrenaline in my arm at a time when I was falling asleep. The percussive editing and soundscore left me shaken and excited by the energy, the camerawork and shot selection swooning with the smoothness and snappiness, and the charismatic acting swayed me into the story of two rivals at an art school vying for a place in a prestigious university but really discovering what it means to be an artist.
I sat up in my chair and started furiously writing notes at all of the visual and aural finesse on the screen. This 30 minute short was like someone taking me for a ride in a cinematic supercar, swerving and shooting along some scenic alpine mountaintop course. Okay, that was a bit overcooked but the film stuck with me so much I made sure to review it when it came up again later in the year.
Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2018)
Japan is a nation with all sorts of problems but few films address them directly. This is a slice of social realism from one of the great chroniclers of Japanese life, Hirokazu Kore-eda as he tells a heartbreaking story of an unconventional family saving a little girl from abusive parents but everyone falling under the wheels of an uncaring state as a result.
In his depiction of an unconventional family who have fallen behind the rest of society, Kore-eda tackles the class system and familiar issues of family bonds and how what is sanctified by the state and pushed by the media is sometimes more poisonous to an individual than the love offered by alternative families. This is the apotheosis and refinement of Kore-eda’s oeuvre and his talent for getting into the lives of his characters and selecting actors who brings the situation to life is almost peerless. In short, Shoplifters is one of his best.
I Am a Hero (Shinsuke Sato, 2016)
As a huge fan of the manga, and zombie movies in general, I was eager to see brought to life in a live-action format and I wasn’t disappointed as director Shinsuke Sato and writer Akiko Nogi did a fantastic job converting the first few volumes of the manga into an action spectacle replete with the essential characterisation and development that made the story so compelling.
Actor Yo Oizumi perfectly essays Hideo, the scaredy-cat manga artist and guides him through numerous chase and action sequences that lead to a fulfilling character arc. It’s one of the best zombie movies I have ever seen with one of the best opening zombie invasions committed to celluloid.
A Silent Voice (Naoko Yamada, 2016)
This story of a boy trying to atone for bullying a deaf girl is the work of Kyoto Animation, a studio best known for putting in a tremendous effort in design and animation to create beautiful stories, most of which are full of hope. This is one of their darkest works and after the fire at Kyoto Animation, I helped to programme it at the anime festival I work for. I believe in its quality.
I have never seen a film get the physical and mental effects of guilt and shame and the efforts of those feeling those emotions to hide it and fit in so right like this one did. The character postures, facial expressions and movements and the hesitant voices dulled with emotional pain. and yet, despite the pain, it is full of levity and hope as characters reach out and try to reassure and comfort each other and so the narrative constantly balances between the joys and sadness of human experience and the perfectly done animation brings everyone to life. I cared so much for all of the characters and I know that audiences I watched it with were moved because the emotional energy that could be felt was electric, the sobbing and crying really loud.
Melancholic メランコリック (Seiji Tanaka, 2018)
This film epitomised the struggle for millennials and the gap between them and previous generations through a smoothly executed genre-mashup and smart character observation through lead character Kazuhiko, a university grad taking on “menial” work and resisting pressure from older characters as he tries to maintain his happiness but gets caught up in the criminal underworld. His values shine through as ones held by young people and it leads to a very satisfying ending as he places happiness with family and friends first.
Kamagasaki Cauldron War, The 月夜釜合戦 (Leo Sato, 2018)
Shot in and around the Nishinari area of Osaka, it tells an amusing tale of the antics of a sex-worker, an orphan boy and a pickpocket who get drawn into an absurd search for a cauldron, the symbol of a yakuza gang, and get caught up in the wider politics of the local area. Leo Sato really brings the character of the area and the people who inhabit it out in this film which is a charming and silly tale full of respect for a unique community.
Miracle of Crybaby Shottan, The 泣き虫しょったんの奇跡 (Toshiaki Toyoda, 2018)
I’ve played shoji. I don’t understand it. This film makes it seem like the most important game ever even though it’s so static. Toshiaki Toyoda pushes the art of cinema as much as possible to relay the drama of shoji but what I valued most about the film is its story of a person following their dream and how that person is brought up by a community that believes in him. It results in a tearjerker of an emotional climax. The ending is a fine moment of release and the overall message of the film, and Shoji’s example, is that pursuing a passion leads to happiness. It’s a healing message in a way as it shows perseverance is a skill and it will urge audiences to keep going. It’s a message I needed to hear.
Samurai Marathon サムライマラソン (Bernard Rose, 2019)
Based on real history, this presents a fast-paced narrative with a bunch of likeable characters played by the likes of Takeru Satoh, Nana Komatsu, Mirai Moriyama and Shota Sometani who take part in some swashbuckling action in nicely integrated separate sequences amidst the rugged landscape and there’s also plenty of humour – mostly the betrayals during the race..
Penguin Highway ペンギン・ハイウェイ (Hiroyasu Ishida, 2018)
The maturing of a little boy over a summer where his sleepy hometown is invaded by an army of cute penguins. What makes this film charming is the main character’s intelligence and the resulting confidence as this precocious child searches his local area for the reasons why the penguins came into being. His character growth features genuine moments of care and love for those around him and it was touching to watch.
Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)
This was pure delight for those familiar with the forms of Americana and movie culture that Tarantino puts on the screen and celebrates in this films but the film is more than that as we delight in the presence of characters and thus feel involved in various situations, both joyful and scary, that are developed to perfection thanks to the film’s verisimilitude and the plot which swings in and out of different storylines and delivers different types of atmosphere. The actors are charming and the movie becomes a truly moving farewell to the era portrayed. This feels a lot more mature than most of Tarantino’s works and stands as one of his best.
2018 was the year of “I haven’t achieved my dream yet but I do what I want”. I travelled back to Japan for a second time and spent a month in the country, visiting places from Kawagoe to Onomichi and some things in between and I worked at the Osaka Asian Film Festival again. I’ve become involved in more than just Kotatsu, I have become part of other festivals in Europe and America which is so much fun and such an honour because I love films. I have also continued to contribute to V-Cinema and Anime UK News, typically highlighting indie gems, many of which form my top ten titles of the year.
To summarise what I have experienced in terms of cinema, I have contributed to V-Cinema’s end of year post which will be out soon.
Now here is my Top Ten Films of 2018, starting with number one…
Columbus (Dir: Kogonada) I watched this one twice at the Osaka Asian Film Festival and came out of each screening in tears because its tale of children having to make the decision to connect or separate with a parent resonated with me. Fantastic acting, cinematography and a haunting score and an intelligent script gave me something wonderful to engage with.
Love and Peace (Dir: Sion Sono) I reviewed four Sono films this year but none hit the sweet spot like this charmer. A tale of a man corrupted by rock stardom given to him by his friend, a turtle, that turns into a kaiju movie that culminates on Christmas day takes the audiences to fun places with a witty script and acting and adventurous visuals but what got me the most was how sincere and openly affectionate it was.
Of Love and Law (Dir: Hikaru Toda) There is a lot of hatred and selfishness out there in the world but Hikaru Toda’s documentary film offers an alternative vision where love and kindness and looking after our fellow man take precedent. It follows two wonderful lawyers who take the cases of those who are at risk of being left out of society and we see how traditions like gender roles and closet fascism can hurt people and those brave enough to defend the human rights and free speech of others.
Amiko (Dir: Yoko Yamanaka) First love can hurt and this is something high school girl Amiko finds out when the object of her affection disappears. The film strikes some sad notes at the end but remains playful and defiant in the way Yamanaka keeps the tone light with her energetic shooting style and in how her main character, the titular Amiko takes to the world with her free-wheeling and rebellious attitude. Also, random dancing.
Ordinary Everyday (Dir: Noriko Yuasa) A teacher gets mixed up one of his student’s family and ends up in a psycho-thriller. I like a good supernatural tale and this delivered on it. Shot in down-town Tokyo what we have in this short is a superb build-up of atmosphere through visual and aural elements that keep the story off-kilter until we get to the ending which will have audiences flawed and laughing. Noriko Yuasa is definitely a director to watch.
Room for Let (Dir: Yuzo Kawashima) I’m scratching the surface of Kawashima’s career having watched four of his films but this one is my favourite. It is a warm-hearted and rambunctious tale of a bunch of oddball characters washed up in a mansion overlooking Osaka in post-war Japan. Everyone is unique and funny and dealing with their own mostly comedic problems and as we sort through them we get closer to them and begin to never want to part company.
The Sower (Dir: Yosuke Takeuchi) This is a first-rate drama about how people deal with mental health as one man faces ostracisation from his own family after a tragedy occurs to an innocent. It features raw emotions that create harrowing moments of cinema but also life affirming ones that will make you see the value of human connections.
Interview with the director.
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Dir: Kazuo Hara) I watched this when I was just beginning high school and it had a massive impact on me because of the subject of the doc, Kenzo Okuzaki, an anti-establishmentarian who goes on a rampage across Japan looking to uncover the truth behind possible wartime massacres. Watching it again this year was a reminder of how boundary-breaking the man was as he defies cultural mores to bring justice to those who had their lives thrown away in war.
Here and Here (Dir: Yoshimasa Jimbo) A pregnant writer travels around Busan, South Korea, collecting people’s first memories but she is worried about the health of her baby. This turns from a travelogue of sorts into a spiritually moving tale but its done with simplicity of writing and direction. A beautiful film that had me choked up. I got to meet the director and lead actor and get their autographs.
Sweet Bean (Dir: Naomi Kawase) 2018 saw the world lose veteran actor Kirin Kiki so I reviewed this 2015 film. It is a story of characters isolated from society who form bonds and find themselves brought back to life. The characters face the unfairness of their lives and still manage to find beauty. Kiki’s character remains a source of positivity and hearing her talk about her emotions and background proved to be a massively moving experience in this quiet but moving film. It also helps that this is a beautiful thanks to the scenes bathed in the pink glows of cherry blossom trees.
This year was dominated by work at two festivals. Although I do things for other festivals, I dedicated myself to the Osaka Asian Film Festival at the start of the year while I was in Japan and the Kotatsu Japanese Animation Festival 2017 during the autumn. Both experiences were great because I got to do what I love the most, writing about films. I also got to work with some really great people and made friends and meet some great filmmakers. I have to say thank you to all of them. I hope these people stay with me. As far as I’m concerned, they have my loyalty for what it’s worth. Once I got back from Japan, I made sure to take my family to see as many films as possible. It’s something we already did but family time is important. As a result of all this activity, I saw lots of films this year. Here’s an article on VCinema I contributed to about a year in cinema and here are my top ten for 2017:
Joint number 1: Blade Runner 2049 (2017) / The Disaster Artist (2017)
From out of nowhere came two Hollywood films. Well, not from out of nowhere. I was aware of the fact that they were being made and was hoping they would be good because I’m a big fan of Blade Runner and I seem to have memories of watching The Room going back around a decade at least so when my mother said she wanted to see this one I hoped it would be funny.
Both were glorious. I wish I wrote review notes for them but I just sat in the cinema absorbed by the world of Blade Runner 2049, the gorgeous detail-packed visuals and awesome score, the great acting. I sat through The Disaster Artist with a big smile on my face and laughed many times but was touched by the friendship and dedication to art at the centre of the story. Both films were great cinema experiences that I had with my family and we’re going to do it again in our local arthouse cinema soon.
2. Mind Game (2004) I have been an anime fan since I was a child but recently I stopped watching anything other than feature films. Then I watched this and fell in love with anime all over again. Masaaki Yuasa crafted a film that urges audiences to seize life and it works because it’s fun and energetic, animated with love and care, and the story is full of characters who you’ll love as they examine their lives whilst stuck in the belly of a whale. It’s sublime, I was left breathless and giggling. As soon as the credits rolled I stood up and led the round of applause. But the story never really ends… I cannot wait to purchase the DVD/Blu-ray.
3. The Long Excuse (2016) Miwa Nishikawa is one of my favourite film directors of all time and this film is a great demonstration why. She writes fascinating and complex characters and puts them in situations that try them and expose all sorts of flaws that you may have or may recognise in others. Through their journeys you learn something about life. As well as being very well-written, it’s brilliantly shot and Nishikawa gets fantastic performances from her actors. I cried during each of the four times I watched this film.
4. The Night is Short, Walk on Girl (2017) Masaaki Yuasa has been mentioned on this blog multiple times over the years and for good reason, he’s a certified genius. 2017 was the year the World woke up to it. I was sat amidst an audience of anime fans when I saw this OH MY GOD, it was GLORIOUS. We whooped and howled and laughed and cried as we witnessed a boozy night in Kyoto turn magical complete with romance and rock operas. It is such a blast. I now have the book it is based on!
5. A Room of Her Own – Rei Naito and Light (2016) My taste in art runs from Impressionists and Old Masters to installations created by contemporary Japanese artists. This film is about one of the leading contemporary artists in the World, Rei Naito. It gives us something of her background and method of work but it goes in depth into how art makes us feel and the connections artists make with the people who view their work. It’s shot in such a cinematic way by Yuko Nakamura that it’s easy to engage with the art and feel how vital it is to life. A very rewarding film!
6. BAMY (2017) I watched this one four or five times. Maybe six. When I should have been watching something else, I jumped straight back into this film and enjoyed it again and again. It’s got a tight running time, it’s got a script that explores it central premise effectively and the supernatural aspects are all perfectly shot. For a hardened horror fan like me, it was a fun subversion of all the ghost stories I have grown up with, particularly those of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, but it’s also a great film in its own right and I’m glad I watched it as many times as I did. I want to watch it again.
7. After the Storm (2016) This was the second film I watched in a cinema with my mother and sister following my return from Japan. I cried almost immediately as I recognised locations from my travels/life in Tokyo but what got me most was the journey of the main character and his family, all written perfectly with just the right amount of depth to make them feel real, as they came to accept the faults in their family unit. I think the ending is hopeful.
8. The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (2017) I watched this film and recognised the Tokyo I lived in – exhausting, energetic, massive, fun, full of people and chances. Sadness, happiness, it’s all there and told through the lives of a group of characters audiences will surely come to care about. Yuya Ishii handles the different narratives well and it’s great getting involved in the lives of ordinary people. I loved every minute of my experience in Tokyo (no exaggeration) and every minute of this film which is why I wanted to start 2018 with it!
9. Japanese Girls Never Die (2016) As a British person, I’m familiar with the Angry Young Man films that emerged in the post-war era but I’m a Japanophile and interested in the Angry Young Woman films that tell tales of women fighting against the strictures of patriarchal society in Japan. Told with such ferocious and messy energy and a verve and style not often seen, this film left a mark and when that mark was examined closely, it told of the unfairness of gender relations. In a year full of scandals that are finally forcing men to examine their behaviour and change it so women can become equal and live safely, this film has a lot to say. Also, Maho Yamada has a small part but she is perfect in it.
10. Poetry Angel (2017) This one is charming. Really charming. It doesn’t aim to do anything massive except tell a story of people trying to communicate what is going on inside them and yet every second spent with the characters is fun and the atmosphere is pleasant and relaxing. You get the sense of community and friendship from this film and that’s a valuable feeling to have. Also Maho Yamada. She’s perfect in everything.
Honourable Mentions: I Am Not Madame Bovary, A Double Life, Zigeunerweisen, Haruneko, Being Good, Neko Atsume House, Close-Knit, Daguerrotype, Noise, Rage, Emi-Abi, Slack Bay, Getting Any?, Promises, Yamato (California).
This is a film about a girl who takes up boxing but becomes more than that as we learn more about the background and life of main protagonist Ichiko. With a sharp script and excellent acting from Sakura Ando, 100 Yen Love becomes a genuinely inspirational and uplifting film about a person fighting to better themselves and raise their value in the eyes of others. My first film of 2016 and it’s a great one.
Miwa Nishikawa provides a stunning portrayal of a close relationship between two brothers complete with intense love and jealousy. The reliability and malleability of memory become key to a murder trial when the eldest brother is accused of killing a woman. Will his younger brother save or condemn him? Find out and enjoy the brilliant acting by Joe Odagiri!
Miwa Nishikawa is awesome. This is a small scale drama about a family held together by lies threatening to tear themselves apart when their errant son returns from exile promising to get them out of a financial pinch. It’s full of small moments that hold lots of big emotions and it’s masterfully shot so it all feels natural!
A wonderful film about family ties. It contains the small dramas and reconciliations, challenges and epiphanies that make everyday life so memorable. As is usually the case with a Hirokazu Kore-eda film, it is beautifully shot and has great performances from the actors. It gives a great insight into how Japanese people live, how Japanese families operate and life in small city Japan.
When Marnie was There
Reputedly Studio Ghibli’s last feature-length film, perhaps it is this which gives the film a lot of emotional weight but that would do it a disservice because it is a strong film in its own right. Although it features a strong story of a girl’s maturation, a familiar feature of Ghibli films, it has differences in its approach to storytelling from the way it focuses on one girl’s psychological issues with the minimum of fantasy to the different ways the art showcases the mental turbulence of its central protagonist – those grey skies.
This is from the director of Blue Ruin and it’s another anxiety-inducing tale of violence as a punk band comes under siege from a bunch of Neo-Nazis. It is another intense and surprising experience with harrowing scenes of violence with strong performances from its cast.
This is a fun film which mixes live-action and animation to tell a timeslip tale involving a girl who travels back to her grandmother’s past to discover secrets surrounding a pet myna bird and save her grandmother! It also has a lot of commentary on the Fukushima disaster. It may be an odd indie but it will charm anyone.
Takeshi Kitano provides a hard-boiled tale of true romance as a tough cop and his terminally ill wife take one last trip together across Japan with yakuza dogging them at every turn. Bittersweet romance done the Japanese way so beautiful and tragic, fleeting moments of happiness and it’s all done with beautiful visuals and a great score from Joe Hisaishi.
Miwa Nishikawa’s talk of a couple who lose everything and plan to scam it all back has all the hallmarks of a black comedy but it develops into an examination of a bitter and twisted couple experiencing an intense love-hate relationship.
This small film mixes a gentle drama with backstage insights into the Japanese film industry to create a slightly sentimental tale about the passing of classical ways of making jidaigeki films as well as the actors who made those films so memorable. Real life stunt men who poured blood, sweat and tears into samurai films from the 50s onwards are lionised and given one last hurrah.
This is the road-trip film from Kitano and he returns to his funnyman roots to tell a bittersweet tale of a young boy who goes in search of his mother. Kitano plays an ex-gangster who has to take responsibility for the kid and it all goes wrong until he takes his task seriously. What emerges is a touching tale of friendship with lots of funny moments and characters that keep the audience laughing.
Dolls is like a combination of bunraku theatre and live-action films. It tells three tales of tragic romance and does so with a heavy dose of visual and aural beauty as the landscape of Japan and Joe Hisaishi’s score combine to make an intoxicating journey into the lives of the characters.
A coming-of-age-medical-drama. That’s gotta be a genre. In this film we see a variety of characters make their way through Japanese medical training. The wide cast and the massive amounts of subjects studied, the fact that the film is straight from the 1980s and capturing the febrile politics of the time, this is a snapshot of history that also has good drama.
Katsushika Hokusai, the famous artist who inspired The Impressionists, had a daughter who was also an artist in her own right. Little is known about her but the film Miss Hokusai aims to establish her place in the art world and does an admirable job by imagining what life was like in late 19th Century Japan, a time when samurai, traders, artisans, peasants and lords rubbed shoulders together and the spirit world still held sway in everyday life. Find out more about this remarkable lady through this film.
In 2015 I scaled back on the amount of films I saw at the various festivals I tend to go. I did go to the Japan Foundation, London Film Festival, and Kotatsu Japanese Animation Film Festival but saw fewer than usual, although I did stay for nearly every film at Kotatsu, classic anime titles. I also began helping out at Kotatsu by writing for them which is exciting!
Most of the reviews I wrote were for DVDs I bought years ago, terrible horror films, but some gems were amongst them.
Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise
I saw this at the Kotatsu Japanese Animation Festival on the big screen and it was incredible. I knew it would be. I originally watched this film in high school and was blown away by how epic this grand adventure was – it covers life, love, war, the history and future of mankind. The film takes place in the kingdom of Honneamise and it is a nation on the verge of war. That war might explode but the struggle of its unlikely hero might bring about peace. The main protagonist is Shirotsuh Lhadatt, a man struggling with ennui and a lack of direction in life. After he meets a religious pacifist his desire to see mankind overcome its base motivations and aim for a brighter future.
This is a thoroughly good drama all about a young woman discovering who her long lost mother is and coming to terms with her absence. The restrained emotions and Maki Horikita’s performance makes it easy to watch.
When a detective botches a hostage negotiation he is put on extended leave and heads to a forest where he embarks upon a strange journey of self-discovery which may lead to an apocalypse. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s weird existential film combines horror, comedy, and absurdity to create a unique experience as one man gets back to nature…
A five hour film about four thirty-something female friends provided a lot of substance as lives and social mores in contemporary Japan are explored and it also provided a lot of relief in the sense that it showed Japanese cinema could tackle adult subjects with subtlety and depth. It will be divisive due to its slow-moving nature but I found it worthwhile since it spent its time revealing universal truths about human relations..
Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends
A fitting end to a great trilogy of live-action films that contain some of the best fight sequences to be seen in recent Asian, heck, recent cinema. The use of history and fantastic acting make it a thrilling watch especially on a big screen.
The ultimate death game from the twisted genius that is Takashi Miike. Working from a demented manga, he crafts a cute and cartoony splatter film full of children’s games gone insane. Ryunosuke Kamiki steals the show with his acting.
Puzzle is a wolf n sheep’s clothing. It wears its cute aesthetic well and has a narrative made trippy and hard to pin down thanks to weird editing and a script that flits between perspectives and time periods, but at its heart is a tale of hopeless alienation and violence.
A graphic and disturbing take on the famous book which chronicles the survival of a Japanese soldier at the tail end of the Second World War. With the Philippines about to fall, Private Tamura must get from one end of the island to the other but he has to negotiate physical battles with Americans and psychological battles with his fellow Japanese soldiers who are all slowly being driven mad through exhaustion. A harrowing experience.
A goofy horror film that camps everything up for glorious effect. Based on a Kazuo Umezu manga, it takes a formulaic story and makes everything extra creepy.
Loneliness drives people crazy in this film about a young woman who spies on loners abandoned by friends and family. Her activities are simply a way for her to cover her own loneliness which leads her down some dark avenues.
Honourable Mentions: Cold Weather, Versus, The Mission, Profondo Rosso, Black Coal, Thin Ice, Sicario, Spectre, A Letter to Momo, Short Peace, The House with Laughing Windows, A Bolt from the Blue,
I watched a lot of films in 2014. I was going to the cinema nearly two or three times a month and renting/buying a lot of films so I have built up an impressive list that spans genres and eras ‘60s (Kuroneko, Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41) and ‘80s (Blade Runner, Ghostbusters) and 2014s… I attended the 2014 edition of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme and the Kotatsu Japanese Animation Film Festival and the Terracotta Far East Film Festival in May which is where I met Akira Nagai, director of Judge!, the actors of Be My Baby, and I enjoyed watching The Snow White Murder Case. In September/October/November I was in London for the Raindance Film Festival and BFI London Film Festival where I met and interviewed/talked to even more directors.
This is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped by slavers in New York and sold to plantations in the southern states of America from which he tries to escape. Director Steve McQueen paints a complicated picture of plantation life and does not flinch from showing the gruesome details of the slave system. The film becomes harrowing as it enters the territory of horror both physical and psychological and delivers a real sense of what slavery must have been like while also beautiful at times.
Two outsiders lost in a fog of confused emotions and mistreatment at the hands of others and just sheer bad luck. The sunny seaside setting of the port city of Hakodate may look nice but we see the seedier side of things with prostitution and alcoholism, sexual exploitation and other crimes but we marvel at the resilience of the two characters as they seek some light in their darkness. Chizuru Ikewaki was magnificent and Go Ayano made a strong impact in a film that was tough but perfect in every way.
Kyoto Inferno is the second part of the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy and it quickly establishes events and re-introduces characters as it sets in motion a tight and dramatically urgent plot that sees the fragile democracy of Meiji era Japan threatened by a bloodthirsty killer named Makoto Shishio. Fantastic action from actors giving tremendous performance, wearing traditional costumes, and battling on gorgeous sets which look to have been transported from Japan’s recent historical past! I cannot wait to see the final part!
Yasuhiro Yoshiura has created a boy meets girl story but gives a wonderful twist to the formula because said boy and girl have different gravities and must clutch onto each other to stop themselves from plunging into bottomless pits/the sky. The two must go on the run to avoid authoritarian government trying to capture Patema and they use their strange gravities. Yasuhiro Yoshiura demonstrated that he has a wonderfully light touch when it comes to delivering comedy and moments of humanity amidst convincing and detailed sci-fi milieu with his work on Time of Eve and he does so again.
Amma Asante’s film about a real life person. Dido Elizabeth Belle is a mixed-race girl at the heart of the British legal system as the ward of the most powerful judge in Britain at a time when the issue of slavery is being discussed and she brings her influence to bear. Assante crafts a love story and intriguing political drama that complicates and updates the traditional costume drama formula by looking at race and gender in a beautiful period drama. Belle is played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and she is phenomenal.
Ryuichi Hiroki uses naturalisc acting and dialogue to and assured direction to bring to life the stories of normal people. We start with the tale of two girls, Emi and Yuka, both united by having physical infirmities and both developing a deep friendship which is affecting thanks to the performance of the actors. It is soon spun out into the tale of their friends and family and their community and the emotions are still strong Hiroki’s direction layers their emotions on the film and which becomes so intoxicating that the small tragedies and joys are keenly felt.
Yosuke Fujita’s dry and deadpan comedy is a good-natured story about a nice guy who avoids women because of a horrible past event. His friends try to get him together with a lady but the results aren’t what they hoped. Seeing his romantic travails and emotional growth is both hilarious and touching as he slowly comes out of his shell and gets to know a member of the fairer sex. Great enka music underscores some truly strange and delightful moments. Review coming soon.
Tetsuya Nakashima’s crime-thriller about a corrupt ex-cop (Koji Yakusho) looking for his angelic daughter (Nana Komatsu) who has gone missing sounds conventional but Fujishima’s directorial style artfully presents everything as an intense visual and aural assault on the senses that is disturbing and shocks as we see the cast of characters who are all dubious if not downright evil tear chunks out of each other.
Yoshihiro Nakamura takes a novel by Kanae Minato and crafts a coruscating satire on the Japanese media landscape and social media. A temping TV director named Yuji is fed a story about murder and immediately takes liberties and uses sticky journalism to create a media frenzy surrounding the possible perpetrator, Miki Shirono. Motives for everyone are murky and fine performances from Go Ayano and Mao Inoue keep the audience guessing and play on sympathies. Nakamura’s directing is flawless and inventive, especially the integration of social media in the film.
Adam Wingard and Simon Barret’s film about a soldier named David (Dan Stevens) who arrives at the house of a squad mate who was killed in action offering sympathy but hiding ulterior murderous motives. It is anchored by Steven’s performance which is a barrage of charm and good looks, a smooth veneer that hides a psychotic killer who emerges slowly until the explosive ending which erupts in chaos. The film combines black comedy, slasher and action film dynamics and it is all centered on a fantastic performance by the charismatic Dan Stevens.
This thriller is about a ghoulish loner named Lou Bloom, an amoral guy who cannibalises others to rise up the career ladder in the American news media. The role of Bloom is taken by Jake Gyllenhaal, a great actor who oozes strangeness and charisma and I was swept up by his performance which was equal parts sleaze and intelligence. Journeying with him through the nighttime streets of LA makes the film unpredictable until it builds to an exciting conclusion.
There is a girl who is a genius when it comes to music but she is beset with doubts. There is a guy who loves playing the piano but lacks the drive to succeed. The two meet and a fondness for each other grows into a chaste relationship and caring relationship. Koji Hagiuda’s drama is a totally conventional seishun eiga (coming of age movie) but with its lead characters of Uta Naruse (a sparky Riko Narumi) and Oto Kikuna (a solid Kenichi Matusyama) and perfect direction and convincing use of music to make the protags individual, it is still affecting.
Honourable Mentions: How Selfish I Am!, Rentaneko, Judge!, Edge of Tomorrow, Godzilla, Parade, Blue Ruin, The Wind Rises, Black Butler, The Grand Budapest Hotel, POV A Cursed Film, And the Mud Ship Sails Away, I’ll also throw in Blade Runner and Ghostbusters because seeing them on the big screen was a great experience!
The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme made a major impact in the first month of 2013! Four really great films, three of which are in the top ten! This was followed by the Terracotta Far East Film Festival in June where I watched three Japanese and one Korean film, the Raindance Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival 2013 where I watched a lot more films.
Shady is one of the best films that I have seen in recent years. I saw it at the 2013 Raindance Film festival and re-watched t on DVD and it stands tall. It has the mix of dark psychological drama familiar from Roman Polanski and the delicate high school drama of Shunji Iwai to create a memerising story of two girls who become intertwined in a dark story of bullying, jealousy and the need for human contact. 5/5
Sono Sion promised an entertainment film and with Why Don’t You Play in Hell? he crafts a madcap farce that also acts as a love letter to cinema. A renegade film crew full of mad cinephiles get to make the ultimate film which involves two rival yakuza gangs in an epic battle. The film flows with so much blood and humour and the editing and direction are so fast and loose that the two hour running time flies by! 5/5
The Woodsman & the Rain is an extremely well made film. So well made that there are no misplaced elements with a well written script that provides a comfortable stage for great acting from its leads Koji Yakusho and Shun Oguri as well as the support. It offers a great insight into the joys of films and the process of filmmaking and it remains engaging enough to withstand multiple viewings. I can just relax and watch it over and over again. 4.5/5
Have you ever considered how dictionaries are made? Get an insight into the people and passion that have an effect in this humorous and touching film where a team of oddballs collaborate to create the ideal dictionary, The Great Passage. It won big at the Japan Academy Awards and they were well-deserved, especially Ryuhei Matsuda as the hapless Majime! 4/5
“If you really see something, you can feel it.” Poetry was both harsh and soft, both ugly and beautiful. Dreadful events inspire the best of humanity in a lead character you may not see an may ignore. Thanks to subtle direction and a powerful central performance I was left thinking that this is a wonderful film which tells you a lot about humanity and it has to be seen. 5/5
6. Zero Focus
Zero Focus is an adaptation of a classic Japanese mystery novel. It is full of death and politics and is quite fascinating. Intelligently and beautifully shot, it offers an insight into post-war Japan and its portrayal of the effects on war through a sharp character-study makes it quite a distinctive crime thriller. Great performances and direction. 4.5/5
Mai Mai Miracle overcame my initial scepticism to win over my heart. I was surprised at how moved I was with it. Similar emotions pass through me with the best Studio Ghibli films so that should tell you a lot about the quality here. The animation is perfect, the message is brilliant and I am proud to have seen this in a cinema! 5/5
This is an anime that is strikingly beautiful and filled with fun characters and yet it will get ignored because the of the story. Ostensibly it isn’t anything spectacular or original and some things aren’t explained all that well but it is stuffed so full of history and great relationships that it works really well and is a pleasant and rewarding watch that I found myself enjoying so much. 4.5/5
I Saw the Devil is a totally unpredictable serial killer thriller and all the more enjoyable for it. Kim Jee-Woon has made another great film and it is thanks to a smart story and two great performances from the actors Lee Byung-Hun and Choi Min-Sik. The film is exhausting and the ending is fantastic but it is extremely brutal. Even a hardened horror veteran like myself was shocked at points! 4.5/5
The Kirishima Thing is well-acted and insightful drama about the web of relationships in a school when the most popular guy in class disappears and everybody has to re-evaluate their views on life and are forced to question what really matters to them. Some grow and watching them do so and watching something true to life is rewarding. 4.5/5
The Story of Yonosuke is the second film by Shuichi Okita to get into my Top Ten of the year after The Woodsman & the Rain. It is a story about memories and the effect people can have on each other. Beautiful, poignant and full of great performances, especially from lead actor Kengo Kora and atress Yuriko Yoshitaka, it is easy to recommend. 4.5/5
My review may have read quite lukewarm and the final mark of 3/5 does not inspire confidence but this is a enjoyable throwaway action title which I have watched quite a few times since posting about it. I would say that this is definitely better than some of the director, Ryuhei Kitamura’s later efforts that I have recently watched!
Honourable Mentions: Detroit Metal City, Vulgaria, I Saw the Devil, Zero Focus, Mushishi, The Berlin File, Pacific Rim, World War Z, The Land of Hope, See You Tomorrow Everyone, A Woman Called Abe Sada,Ninja Kids!!!, The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck & God in a Coin Locker, The Twilight Samurai, Serpent’s Path, Eyes of the Spider, The Guard From Underground, License to Live, Shindo – The Beat Knocks Her World, The Drudgery Train, I Wish, Our Sunhi, The Ravine of Goodbye, Rebirth, Rurouni Kenshin
2012 has been marked by my attendance of the 56th BFI London Film Festival and a strong mixture of Japanese films as well as western ones and three seasons, two dedicated to Sion Sono and one dedicated to Shinya Tsukamoto.
Joint Number 1: Shame
The idea of there being any misery surrounding sex addiction seems laughable but this powerful and touching film proves that when sex becomes a compulsion it can be devastating. Here is the first brilliant film of 2012 thanks to a brilliant script, direction and two central performances.
Joint Number 1: The Wolf Children
Seen at the 56th BFI London Film Festival – Here’s an early review – Hosoda proves that the dull title that was Summer Wars was only a bump in the road. The Wolf Children is an emotionally powerful film about the love of parents and the changes in the relationship between parents and children. It is highly effective and very beautiful and one of the best animated films I have ever seen.
Seen at the 56th BFI London Film Festival – here’s an early review – God-tier musical. Miike can be hit or miss but with this he proves that his talent at making genuinely amusing films is still alive and well. A film that is so extreme, post-modern and funny, I take it to be a parody of the source manga…
3. Key of Life
Seen at the 56th BFI London Film Festival – here’s an early review: one of the funniest comedies I have ever seen. There are three great central performances which combine with a sharp and witty script to make a tired trading places scenario and genuinely amusing and fresh take on a person’s ability to wear societal masks and try and shape their existential personalities.
I liked this film a lot. Just when I want to give up on Hollywood it produces a film that nowhere else can and reminds me why I love movies and watching them at a cinema. The Cabin in the Woods is a love letter to a genre badly in need of change and it injects life into the genre by making it so unpredictable and intelligent! It is fun and should be seen by every serious horror and film fan.
When I first saw this as a teenager I was left flabbergasted and confused by the visceral and psychic shock the style and content delivered. It may have been over ten years since I last saw it and I may be more aware of cinematic techniques and extreme cinema but this still blows me away. From start to finish my mouth was gaping open and waves of horror and disgust poured over me. The amount of energy and inventiveness on screen is amazing and disturbing. If you consider yourself a cinephile willing to push the boundaries of your experiences then buy this film.
Joint Number 6. Prometheus
Where the film truly succeeds and justifies its existence is in every other area other than writing. The acting is excellent (even if the script means that actors are underused), set-design is perfect and Ridley Scott delivers the visuals, tone, and pace of a film that suits an action adventure. It is different for the franchise and that is good because the sequels and spin-offs to Alien have shown diminishing returns. I found this a fun film with memorable visuals and performances. Where does it come in the franchise? Alien, Aliens, Prometheus and then a wide gap before we get to the other franchise instalments.
Joint Number 6. Skyfall
This has to be my favourite Bond. It is a mix of the best of Bond and gritty, sexy, believable, relevant and fun. The acting is pitch-perfect and its focus on character gives it real depth and heft which other entries in the franchise lacked. It is a modern Bond for a modern age and one of the best action films of recent times… heck, I think it is one of the best action films of all time because I can see me watching this more than Terminator and the Bourne trilogy of films.
Himizu is tough, violent, and angry. It is a celebration of the will to live and a rallying cry for anybody in a tight situation as well as a nation that has suffered disaster. I cannot say I loved it because there is so much anger and hurt on screen but I found it challenging and emotionally powerful and as the final scene played out I was in tears and I realised that I had been on a truly gripping emotional ride.
To call this funny is an understatement. The script along with the acting creates a focussed comedy which becomes steadily farcical. Kim Je-woon’s first feature film displays his talents perfectly and also acts as an excellent introduction to South Korean cinema and its future superstars. It would later be remade as The Happiness of the Katakuris by Takashi Miike but for my money the Korean original is better.
In my opinion, few countries produce films that portray and reflect on life, death, relationships and all sorts of other weighty things as well as Japan. In the case of death there are films such as Departures and After Life but it is Vital which stands out as the best I have seen. The journey from trauma, through restoration and on to peace is always intensely beautiful, the story always building to something fascinating, the visuals and music are always arresting, the performances are always compelling. Vital easily shows up other films with similar themes by having more life and soul and style. I surprised myself by liking the film more than I thought I would and as a result I have placed it in my top ten Japanese films of all time.
Although the film spends a lot of time covering murder and death this plot thread is less fascinating than the developing relationship between Yuko and Itsuki. Just so you know there is little blood and gore just a lot of artfully posed corpses and an ever so slight mystery. The real meat, for me at least, was the growing connection between the two central protagonists and their character growth.
Honourable Mentions: The Artist, The Woman in Black, Cold Fish, 2 Days in New York, Retribution, Angel Dust, A Bittersweet Life, Irma Vep, Suicide Circle, Tokyo Fist, Kotoko, Isn’t Anyone Alive?, Strange Circus, Petty Romance, Whispering Corridors, Memento Mori, Berserk: Golden Age Arc I: The Egg of the King, The Voice
2011 was marked by my decision to focus on writing about east Asian films in general and Japanese films in particular. I embarked on a long series of horror reviews that still hasn’t ended and a season dedicated to Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Joint Number 1: 13 Assassins
It is only May but I have witnessed the best film of 2011 and it is 13 Assassins. The following review will contain nothing but fulsome praise for Takashi Miike’s film so brace yourselves…
Joint Number 1: Tokyo Sonata
I love Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s existential horror films like Cure and Pulse so seeing him depart into the mainstream with a family drama was bittersweet but ultimately rewarding because it resulted in a masterpiece that finally revealed the genius his fans have long-recognised.
2. Source Code
The ideas of the film are far more ambitious and interesting than a lot of other films in cinemas and the result is highly enjoyable and smart. Uneven in tone? Sure, but we should be thankful that an original premise concerning parallel realities delivered with imagination and intelligence is on the big screen.
Joint Number 3: The Skin I Live In
I cannot claim to be a fan of Pedro Almodóvar. The subjects of his films rarely interest me. After reading a plot synopsis of The Skin I Live In I could not resist its lure or the chance to reappraise my views of him as a director.
Joint Number 3: Cure: The Power of Suggestion
I dislike serial killer films and the few I do find watchable are pretentious (Seven) or have great pantomime performances (Silence of the Lambs). Cure is the first I love. It is because of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s interest and deployment of urban decay and malaise, and most importantly the supernatural and psychological.
This is the type of film that Quentin Tarantino might be making if he had followed the path of Foxy Brown. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, a man with a passion for crime films, and adapted by Hossein Amini from a short novel by James Sallis, this is a highly stylised neo-noir car film for smart people who dislike Fast & Furious.
5. True Grit
The world created is fascinating as the details, dialogue and acting and tone look and sound genuine and enrapturing. There are a lot of long shots that capturing the beautiful landscape from forests to plains, but it is the people and details inhabiting this landscape that really impress.
It is one of those tales of Royalty finding a genuine friend in a commoner. The rapport between Firth and Rush humanises the film and makes it compelling instead of a dry and dusty history programme. A great film indeed.
The only way I would ever learn about Palaeolithic cave art would be through a film narrated by Werner Herzog. The subject isn’t necessarily my cup of tea but through the beauty of the images and Herzog’s narration it became an absorbing journey exploring the concept of time, reality and perception. And the 3D is awesome.
Speaking as a cinephile, Submarine is one of the most technically interesting and enjoyable films I have seen since Scott Pilgrim. It deploys editorial and directorial techniques from a range of influences like French New Wave, using film language inventively as it melds super-8 footage, narration, intertitles, objective camera etc into a heady examination of the pathos, melancholy and hilarity of growing up.
9. Jane Eyre
Quite possibly one of the best literary adaptations in recent years, the film has captured what I imagined when I read Charlotte Brontё’s classic novel. The film is so atmospheric and well-acted I have to call it one of the best films this year with some fine performances that bring the characters to life.
Overall I enjoyed the film a lot and I consider it one of the best of Spielberg’s latest releases as it reminds me that few directors that can do such fun action-adventures as he can. It is one that both children and adults will enjoy and I highly recommend it.
Honourable Mentions: Black Swan, Stake Land, John Carpenter’s The Ward, Fair Game, Norwegian Wood, Insidious, Sawako Decides, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Melancholia, Uzumaki, Bright Future, Loft, Audition
3. London Assurance (Yes, I know it’s a theatre production)
5. Kick Ass
6. Four Lions
Monsters, Somewhere, Let Me In, Chico & Rita, We Are What We Are, Green Zone, The Ghost, Gainsbourg, Shutter Island, Thirst, Ponyo, The Secret in their Eyes, Ju-on: White Ghost, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Certified Copy, This is Spinal Tap, Rembrandt’s J’accuse, Starfish Hotel…
This list will be updated as regularly as I see films.