Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Knowing my history, my education, and my crazed fanaticism of manga and anime, not to mention films, my friends are often curious what I think the best of the best is, when it comes to Japanese cinema.

Of course, I would love to ramble on and on about this or that Anime, or the cultural significance of manga, and even about Japan itself, but the truth is there is more to Japanese culture than just cartoons. When asked what I would recommend as must see cinema, I had to narrow it down quite substantially a vast and eclectic list of films and decide on the top ten. This is my list of the top ten must see Japanese films. Share this with whomever you feel would be interested!

1) Spirited Away

-I pick this, because Miyazaki is THE filmmaker that will be talked about, even long after Akira Kurosawa is but a fleeting memory. Also, in terms of story tellers in cinema, East or West, he is flat out the best. He captures such a rich pallet of imagination and wonder, that his films are magical, even to the point of being almost spiritual. Spirited Away is at the top of his uplifting imaginative stories. It also has the most references to Japanese customs, culture, and historicity, making it single handedly the MUST see film from Japan.

2) Rashomon

-Those who study film have to watch Akira Kur0sawa films. Granted, anyone of his films would be a great adventure for newcomers, film buffs, or Samurai fans... this is one of my favorites. Where there is Japan and cinema, there is Akira Kurosawa.

One of the very first films to do a 4-way story. A tale told by four different people, about a murder. Such a brilliant script, I was blown away by the originality of this film. I can't recommend it enough.

3) The Afterlife

-The original Japanese title is "Wonderful Life," but since there was already that name being used it was changed to afterlife. What I like best about it is its originality, experimental and bold, but also it has a wonderful message about life. The premise is, when you die, what ONE memory would you take with you from life... if you could only have just one? Directed by Hirokazu Koreda.

4) Kamikaze Girls

-Originally entitled "Shimotsuma Monogatari" this film came up through the ranks of Japan's eclectic theatrical releases and made a name for itself. It went on to sweep the Tokyo Film Awards, in which Kyoko Fukada won best actress for a Japanese film. Kamikaze girls represents an adventure story about the most unlikely of friendships, all the while depicting contemporary Japan along with all of its quirks and fetishes. It's a smart film, often times borderline satirical, yet one hundred percent intelligent and entertaining. Directed by Tetsuya Nakashima. Based off of the best selling book by Novala Takemoto.

An entire study on Japanese popular culture, fashion trends, school structures, gang & yakuza crime, animation, self worth, longing for identity in a homogenous culture which seeks to be similar, language, customs and traditions can all be discussed in relation to this film. Unlike most Japanese cinema, this film captures a broader "feel" of Japan today than any other film I've ever seen. And believe me; I've seen a lot of films.

5) Ringu (Japanese); The Ring (American)

-Yes, it is a scary movie. Yet this is the first film in a series of endless remakes of Japanese films flooding the West. It is interesting to view how Japanese cinema has reinvigorated Hollywood's imagination, not to mention our own. Specifically, it is nice to see such a wonderful remake as seen in the American version -something that respects the original source. The American version of the film was so well done, and if you ask me, a heck of a lot scarier, but when it comes to entertainment, one of the questions should be, why does this particular story above all others suck us in and frighten us more than anything we have in our western culture? With a deeper study of both films, I think the answers will be evident that it is the cultural portrayal of supernatural which is real that scares us. The fantasy is just added entertainment value.

An entire study on East vs. West cinema can be made among the two films techniques, acting, and execution. Both films are important in studying the "psychological" barrier we have to break down in order to allow ourselves to feel scared and let the fantasy sway us. Why don't slasher films like Freddy Kruger and Jason scare us any more? Why do movies like Final Destination only make us laugh? Why do we flock to Japanese horror films? Why? Because they're damn scary... but it's the escapism that's the rush. The real study comes in figuring out why Japanese cinema has figured out how to frighten the entire world. They're not just ghost stories, they are INTELLIGENT ghost stories. And the Ring film is the best of them.
Alfred Hitchcock may have been the master of suspense, but the creators of the ring have become the masters of psychological suspense and terror.

6) Shall We Dance?

-Much like the Ring films, Shall We Dance is another Japanese film that was remade into an American version. The only thing is, even though the American film is an excellently crafted work of cinema, it loses it profound cultural significance. This is another one which could be viewed along with its American counter part, but more importantly, the Japanese edition is a must see film. It has historical relevance, cultural relevance, and social relevance when it comes to social interaction in Japan. Why was the concept of ballroom dancing so controversial for the Japanese? Another question is, why would it be for a salary man? Lots of social commentary can be found in this movie, and throughout, you learn to laugh along with the eccentric cast of characters as we learn what along with them things that are really important in life.

7) Gion no Shimai

-Available on VHS in America. If you want a real great film, find a copy of "Sister's of Gion." This is a 1936 film depicting the most accurate portrayal of post Meiji Geisha’s.

IMDB.COM's plot summery is as such: Umekichi, a geisha in the Gion district of Kyoto, feels obliged to help her lover Furusawa when he asks to stay with her after becoming bankrupt and leaving his wife. However her younger sister Omocha tells her she is wasting her time and money on a loser. She thinks that they should both find wealthy patrons to support them. Omocha therefore tries various schemes to get rid of Furusawa, and set themselves up with better patrons.

Considered to be one of the best pre-war films by the acclaimed Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi.

8) The Place Promised In Our Early Days

-Coming back to Anime momentarily, The Place Promised In Our Early Days captures something innately Japanese. In what Rodger Ebert calls a "pillow shot," or that pristine moment of contemplation lacking in western cinema where we glimpse a landscape, pause, and the only focus is the train crossing off in the distance, this Anime captures these in almost every scene -as the original title of Kumo no Mukô, Yakusoku no Basho eludes to. The film is a science fiction made by Makoto Shinkai, the same guy who single handedly created, animated, and directed Voices of a Distant Star.

The film runs like a poem, and captures the feeling of growing up, falling in love, losing a loved one, and wondering if there is more in life than just walking through the motions. When an alternate reality forces our character's to awaken from a corrupted worldly logic, we have a neat story which shows that the human connection and genuine love can overcome any adversity. The film is melancholy in its tone, but entirely bitter sweet in its execution. Above all of this, it is one of the most beautifully animated and wonderfully orchestrated pieces ever made.

There are a slew of other Kurosawa films one could choose, such as RAN, hailed as his masterpiece. There are many more notable samurai flicks also, such as Oni-Baba directed by Kaneto Shindo. I really am disgusted when somebody chooses a bad 'Yakuza' film or gangster film just because it has dark and gritty noir like appeal. Although there are some good gangster films.

Of course, there are many significant anime films. Other amazing and culturally significant pieces like Shoji Kawamori’s Spring and Chaos (No. 9). It’s an animated biography of Kenji Miyazawa, one of Japan’s most beloved modernist poets.

Ghost in the Shell and Akira (Both at number 10) are among the most talked about; mostly because they’ve been in the spotlight the longest. "Hello Kitty" and “Pokemon” could be a case study in cross marketing techniques alone. “Mobile Suit Gundam” and the entire “Gundam” universe could be compared with our own “Star Wars” fetish. I didn't put Isao Takahata's sorrow felt war film Grave of the Fireflies on the list, although in retrospect, I probably should have.

There are lots of directions to go in discussion of animation from Japan. Also because of their quality and originality, film fanatics like me can talk about their technical innovations as well. Currently there is such a massive onslaught of the medium that it’s easy to lose track of what quality Anime is.

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