The contemporary film geek is inundated with news about Anime features and creepy J-Horror films being remade in the west, but Japanese cinema offers so much more than that.  My wife and I dedicate one night each week to movie-watching and we alternate who picks the title.  So far this year, she has introduced me to a handful of musicals, silent films, and classics from the 30’s and 40’s while I’ve been sticking to a program of Japanese films.  At the halfway point in 2010, here is my Japanese Movie Night wrap up, presenting a pretty broad survey of Japanese cinema (though it tends to skew modern.)  Click on a title to view the trailer via the magic of YouTube.

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Linda Linda Linda (2005)
Modern Japanese movies can be somewhat impenetrable, at least to my western eyes.  Everyone’s probably familiar with the zany gameshow humor and the kind of stuff parodied quite well on The Simpsons but a movie like Linda Linda Linda doesn’t play with that kind of over-the-top slapstick or outright non sequitur nonsense.  Nevertheless, it IS funny in a strange and understated way.  It also takes some work to stick with the pace of a lot of the Japanese films I’ve seen in recent years.  I don’t think it’s by chance–I know that when I used to try to watch Japanese TV, it was as if nothing was ever happening on the screen.  Scenes of drama would be spotted with long pauses and silence and the actors and camera would often look frozen.

Linda Linda Linda is typical of all of those qualities, and yet I found it to be a sweet and thoughtful look at the awkwardness of being a teenager.  In fact, more than any recent western movie that’s tried to play up the awkwardness of that time in our lives, this film gets all of the tense and uncomfortable moments just right without ever making the characters look like buffoons.  Napoleon Dynamite is a great chariacature, but he only exists in that strangely out-of-time world with uncomfortably odd characters.  I enjoyed that film, but this displays every bit of the ugly teen experience while feeling completely honest.  Because it seems so real, it can sometime feel too slow or even boring, but the movie is working towards something and it’s not relying on an action beat or a laugh every two minutes to keep the story moving.

Ichi (2008)
Inspired by a 2010 film that we saw in the theater, I sought out a Zatoichi film for one of our movie nights, but I wish that I had stuck with something a bit more traditional.  Ichi is a spin on the tale of the blind swordsman that swaps the gender of the hero to no terrific effect.  I was hoping to see some kind of Kill Bill or Chocolate style female badassery, but instead Ichi was a mostly boring and flat-looking tale of a put-upon woman.  There are plenty of samurai TV dramas in Japan and this reminded me of one of those.  The costumes looked a bit too bright and costumey, the acting was a little stiff, and the cinematography didn’t look quite up to snuff for the big screen.  I’ve heard nothing but good things about Beat Takeshi’s Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman so I’m going to give that a try to wash away some of the disappointment of Ichi.

Yojimbo (1961)
Ranked by Vern as one of the top badass films of all time, Yojimbo will seem slow and tame by modern standards but it’s still a pretty brawny piece of work.  Toshiro Mifune makes for an interesting, nameless hero.  He’s a man of integrity, but he doesn’t mind spending the first half of the moving playing two competing gangs in a town against each other for money.  His sympathies seem to lie with the oppressed but he’s never the kind of knight on a white horse hero that you might expect.  Instead he’s quick to use the crime lords’ greed to pit them against each other, and it’s not until they turn on him that he has to fight more actively for his own ends.

Tampopo (1985)
is one of my absolute favorite films.  I lived in Japan in the late 1980’s and this movie from 1985 reflects a lot of what I remember about Japan.  From the trucks with the lights on top that indicate their speed to the noodle shops to the completely odd non sequiturs, Tampopo is quintessentially Japanese.  It borrows heavily from the west with it’s John Wayne-inspired hero, but its sense of humor and pace could only come from a Japanese director.  I re-watch Tampopo maybe every ten years and I always find something new in its exuberant story of foodies, chefs, noodle masters, and misfits.

Bizzarro Saturday Morning: Japanese Edition
One of the great things about living in Atlanta is the Plaza Theater, a real-deal rep house that screens as many vintage and cult films every month as it does new releases.  One of the semi-regular series that the Plaza hosts is C. Martin Croker’s Bizarro Saturday Morning, where the voice of Space Ghost’s Zorak screens vintage cartoons from his personal collection of old 16 MM films.  We checked out the Japanese edition that fell on our scheduled movie night and we got to see vintage, dubbed episodes of Astroboy, Speed Racer, and Ultraman.  While the films were fun, the audience had that “everyone’s a comedian” vibe so it felt like sitting in a living room with 60 of my un-funniest friends.  This behavior plagues almost anything campy that plays at the Plaza, but sometimes I have to grit my teeth and put up with it to catch things like Super Inframan and Destroy All Monsters.

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Departures (2008)
I wondered how this small Japanese film that no one had really heard of went on to grab the Best Foreign Language Oscar for 2008 and now, I get it.  Departures addresses so much of what it means to be Japanese, that it might be one of the first films I would recommend to anyone trying to get a handle on Japanese culture.  Its characters are pulled between the modern world and the traditional in a way that perfectly sums up my impression of contemporary Japan.  The movie tells the story of Daigo Kobayashi, a good but not great cellist who is left directionless when his small orchestra disbands.  When he winds up taking a job assisting a man who performs a ritual of preparing bodies for burial, he has to keep the job a secret since it is a position seen by many (including his wife) as disgusting.  The ceremony is, like most traditional Japanese things, slow and precise and filled with meaning but it doesn’t necessarily fit into the modern daily routine.  As the film moves from one ceremony to the next, it’s clear that some families value it, some just feel obligated to perform it, and that most people who don’t have to sit through it have no idea why anyone would take a job doing such a thing.  Departures is a wonderful, beautiful film that is full of reverence and humor.

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
Satoshi Kon is a director who makes films that just happen to be animated, and Tokyo Godfathers is perhaps the best example of that.  There’s nothing about the story that requires this to be a cartoon, and yet there it is in Kon’s typical loose, fluid style.  It’s a pretty slight movie dealing with three homeless men who find a baby and vow to do right by it.  Though there is a lot to like in Kon’s Christmas tale, perhaps the most interesting thing about it is that it was made as an anime film.  Cartoons in the west are almost always super-stylized, aimed at kids, and free to break the laws of physics to illicit a laugh.  Kon instead produces one of the most naturalistic animated films you are sure to see.  Tokyo Godfathers made me realize how little silence and stillness we usually get in animated movies.  Maybe most studios don’t want to pay to have a shot of a man sitting and staring at the ground animated by hand.

Seven Samurai (1954)
Akira Kurosawa’s dialogue with movie Westerns is fascinating.  He borrowed visual elements from old American films and placed them in feudal Japan to tell the tales of Japan’s version of cowboys.  In return, American film makers were inspired by Kurosawa, turning the Seven Samurai into The Magnificent Seven and borrowing the narrative structure of The Hidden Fortress for Star Wars.  Seven Samurai is THE quintessential men on a mission movie.  It spends more time assembling the team than it does putting the team to work, but that effort lets us get to know everyone so that their sacrifices for the town actually mean something.  The final battle scenes are amazingly tactical.  They play out as planned in small waves rather than through chaotic swarms–a technique that again makes the fighting personal.  If this film were remade today it would probably assemble the rag-tag gang of heroes in the first 20 minutes and then overwhelm the screen with thousands of CGI extras.  Thankfully, Kurosawa knew better.

After Life (1998)
After Life is a beautifully simple fantasy about a stop over point on the way to heaven.  The premise is brilliant and deceptively straight-forward: you are allowed to take one memory with you when you die.  How the film addresses that premise, the theme of letting go, the nature of memory, regret, and joy–well that is sublime.  After Life plays out like a more serious and considered take on what Michel Gondry was trying to do with Be Kind Rewind, but it works in such a delicate and meaningful way that the film’s ending caught me a little off guard.  No character is wasted here, and while the film’s threads don’t all resolve on camera, that seems to be part of the message of the movie in the first place.

Tokyo Drifter (1966)
Tetsuya Hondo is a Yakuza man who wants to leave the life of crime behind him, but who can’t seem to stay out of trouble no matter where he goes.  Seijun Suzuki’s 1964 gangster movie is highly stylized and at times it looks like a pop art painting brought to life.  The story here isn’t the draw–it’s the look and vibe of the film that really make it memorable.  This was my first taste of Suzuki’s work, but based on the strength of Tokyo Drifter and on the fact that Suzuki was eventually dropped from Nikkatsu studios for making gangster films that were too incomprehensible, I’m eager to check out some more.

Man, Woman, and the Wall (2006)
Our first Pink Film of the year was a delightful introduction to the genre.  For the unaware, Pink Films are a kind of softcore launching ground for new directors in Japan.  They feature a fixed amount of sex and skin, but they are often free to explore all kinds of themes as long as they deliver the wank material.  To put the genre in perspective, Oscar-winner Yojiro Takita (director of 2008’s excellent Best Foreign Language Film Departures) got his start directing films like Molester Train: Rumiko’s Ass and Groper Train: The Search for the Black PearlMan, Woman, and the Wall is a far more interesting film than you might think given the requisite three sex scenes and the voyeuristic theme.  It concerns a man who spies on his sexy neighbor by listening to her through the wall.  One of the sex scenes between the neighbor and her creepy boyfriend was a little tough to watch, but it played in perfectly with the film’s examination of the problems that contemporary adults have with intimacy.