Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post).
This past weekend saw the release of Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” a movie that was inspired by classic Japanese cinema (even if some feel that it may ultimately have been more informed by its director’s personal worldview).
The film is littered with references to revered old masters like Akira Kurosawa, Seijun Suzuki, etc., but movie-lovers the world over may be much less familiar with the more recent history of Japanese cinema.
This week’s question: What is the best Japanese film of the 21st century?
The life-long, nourishing adventure of making one’s way through Ozu, Mizoguchi, Imamura and Miyazaki (just to name my four favorites) shouldn’t be rushed. But if a person ever wanted a “one-stop shop” for everything that’s exquisite about Japanese cinema, I can’t pick a better example than Hirokazu Kore-eda’s resilient yet devastating 2008 grief drama “Still Walking.” It’s basically all the feelings of Yokoyama family over 24 hours, as they continue to grapple with the ripped-out loss of their son, Junpei, 15 years after his accidental death by drowning. The title in the film’s original language captures the continuum better: “Even If You Walk and Walk.” Sometimes words like closure and catharsis don’t really work.
“Like Father, Like Son.” This film, written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, took me by surprise. The premise alone, about a father who learns that the son he raised was switched at birth with his biological son, is already heartbreaking. Top that with Masaharu Fukuyama’s portrayal of the father who faces the unthinkable decision to give up the son he loves for the son he’s never met, and it is just shattering. “Like Father, Like Son” is such a moving portrait of fatherhood and familial love that has somehow flown under the radar. Make sure you watch this original film before there is an American remake. It’s beautiful.
You could really choose any of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s films as “The Best Japanese Film of the 21st Century.” His glimpses of complex family dynamics are always moving without working hard to tug at your heartstrings. But I’d pick “Our Little Sister” as the best of the best. Three sisters take in a much younger half-sister after their father’s death. There’s unresolved pain from their parents’ separation, but Kore-eda doesn’t delve into the histrionics usually involved with depictions of “broken families” in American films – these young women know they have to make do, get on with life, and leave the self-pity behind. Kore-eda is often compared to Ozu for his gentle pace and his focus on small moments, but Louisa May Alcott is just as much a reference point for “Our Little Sister.” I’ll always cherish the moment the sisters find a box of their late grandma’s clothes, open it, dig their noses in the folds of cloth, and declare, “That’s grandma’s smell!”
If there must only be one, let it be Koji Wakamatsu’s 190 minute “United Red Army” (2007).
Tough call to choose between Yoji Yamada’s “The Twilight Samurai” and “The Hidden Blade,” which both are excellent and topped my year-end lists in their respective years. Both of them examine Edo-era Japan in a way that hasn’t really been covered even in Kurosawa’s films, but I guess I’ll go with “The Hidden Blade” because that’s one of the best non-Kurosawa samurai films. (Unfortunately, “Love and Honor” ended the trilogy on a low note because it wasn’t nearly as good.)
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.” Most would argue that the indisputable crowing jewel of Japanese cinema this century came early on with Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” and I would agree. But in an effort to celebrate another masterpiece, I’ve chosen Isao Takahata’s exquisite “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” as a work of nearly identical caliber. It took more than a decade for Ghibli’s second-in-command to dive into another animated feature following “My Neighbors the Yamadas,” but the result was a sublime effort with a delicate aesthetic but potent observations. “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is a meditation on the human condition from the perspective of an innocent and otherworldly being that falls in love with mankind’s flawed existences and the joy and suffering that define it. It’s also an artistic triumph that delights with exuberant handcraft where the each pencil stroke comes alive on screen. Takahata made something at once pastoral, timeless, and epic in proportion with an emotional depth rarely seen in films – animated or not.
I don’t think that the Japanese cinema is in extraordinary artistic shape, at least, not on the basis of many of the most heralded films that have been released here, and I wonder whether there are better movies being made in Japan that aren’t getting shown here. One film from among the recent Japanese films that I’ve seen stands out as a truly exalted experience: Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Happy Hour,” from 2015, which, I learned to my surprise, is his eighth feature in a career that only began in 2007. (He’s now only thirty-nine.) Which leads me to wonder: where were–and are–his earlier films?
I’m not qualified to answer this question — I’m hardly a specialist in Japanese cinema. But I would be remiss in not missing a chance to stump for Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s outstanding 2015 film “Happy Hour,” a 5+-hour colossus that begins as a low-key humanist drama before slowly morphing before your eyes into something much stranger. The logline is that it’s a drama about five Japanese women charting their friendship, using duration to build character depth, and that’s absolutely true, but there’s so much more going.
I don’t know if I can legitimately argue that it’s a profound masterpiece on par with the likes of “Spirited Away,” “Millennium Actress,” “Nobody Knows,” or even Hirokazu Kore-eda’s criminally under-seen “Air Doll,” but none of those films makes me happier than Nobuhiro Yamashita’s “Linda Linda Linda.” Named after the classic Blue Hearts rock song “Linda Linda,” this euphorically fun movie tells the story of a group of schoolgirls who recruit the new Korean exchange student (Bae Doo-na) to be the lead singer of their band. It’s so rich, so charismatic, and so damn catchy, you’ll be itching to show it to all your friends. Paranmaum forever!