J-Film Thoughts & Commentary: 2001-2009 – Contemporary Masterpieces (Five-Star Films)
Contemporary Japanese cinema is a tough area to navigate. You’ve got the idol fluff, the TV-Corporation produced C-movies, the mainstream films that are actually good, and the art-house, among others. Here’s a list that includes my favorite films released between the years of 2001 and 2009. It will be updated as new films are added to it, as it will be used as a reference post. Ever wondering what you should watch next? There’s a good chance that you’ll find something you love in every one of the following films. Some films are graded higher because I just loved them so damn much, some are graded higher because they are just damn well-made. In any case, this is a good list. Hopefully you can enjoy these films as much as I have.
Not only are they well-made, I’d watch them again any day…
Fish Story (フィッシュストーリー) — Nakamura Yoshihiro – 2009
Thoughts~ Whoa, whoa, whoa…wait. You say that a meteor is on its way to destroy Earth in 2012 and a SONG is going to save the world!? A timid loser who saves a rape victim, a “champion of justice,” and a no-name punk rock band…a story told in a way that will blow your mind. Read my review.
Departures (おくりびと) — Takita Yojiro – 2008
Thoughts~ Well you should know of this film already, right? Departures won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2009. It revolves around the story of Daigo, an unemployed cellist, who moves back to his hometown with his wife and decides to take a job which, unbeknown to him, prepares the dead for traditional funerals. Departures explores death, human emotional growth, family, and ultimately the enjoyment of life. It is one of the most touching and well-done films of the past decade. Amazing music by Hisaishi Joe and great acting all around–I specifically enjoyed Yamazaki Tsutomu.
Tokyo Sonata (トウキョソンナタ) — Kurosawa Kiyoshi — 2008
Thoughts~ Incredible film about the downward spiral of a family in recession-time Japan. Haunting and modern. It both gave me chills and made me tear up. Tokyo Sonata is a modern horror story with a premise that doesn’t seem much like horror at all. Once you realize that the seemingly normal family portrayed in the film is going quickly downhill, the chills begin–this could happen to your normal family. Expertly handled by societal horror master Kurosawa Kiyoshi.
5 Centimeters per Second (秒速５センチメートル) — Shinkai Makoto — 2007
Thoughts~ *Anime film* 5 Centimeters per Second is a film split into three parts, all stages of one man’s life–from boyhood to adult. Each part deals with a new relationship–it emphasizes the fact that it is difficult to forget your first love. This is an absolutely beautiful film, I have never seen animation quite like it–combining CG and drawn artwork. All I need to say is that you need to watch this movie. It is an emotionally moving masterpiece.
Little DJ-A Tale of a Little Love- (Little DJ〜小さな恋の物語) — Nagata Kotoe — 2007
Thoughts~ Little DJ is a spin on the SekaChuu story (boy and girl fall in love, girl develops a deadly disease, tragedy strikes), with genders reversed. It’s a rare example of a tragic movie that actually works. Acting is surprisingly impressive, especially by Fukuda Mayuko and Kamiki Ryuunosuke, who are both children. The film features a very inspirational and touching story and used its screen time very well. One of the few films that have emotionally moved me.
Be With You (いま、会いにゆきます) — Doi Nobuhiro – 2004
Thoughts~ An enchanting Japanese romance film that is the best of its class. Be With You concerns a father and son whose wife/mother has passed away, but only after promising to return during the rainy season–which she does, without her memories of them. So, they remake their memories, revisit their past, and rediscover their love. Unforgettable music and fitting acting contribute to the overall feeling of nostalgia and warm fuzziness that you’ll feel while watching. If you are not incredibly touched by this film, that is quite strange.
All About Lily Chou-Chou (リリイ・シュシュのすべて ) — Iwai Shunji — 2001
Thoughts~ In my opinion, this cinematic genius in the original and groundbreaking type. All About Lily Chou-Chou deals with childhood bullying and subjects such as the internet as a social medium, music as a comfort zone and a connecting force, exploitation, and general problems that youth in Japan may experience–to the extreme.. My first time watching Lily, I was mesmerized and when the credits began to roll it felt as if I had awoken from a dream. Perfect Iwai (very experimental, handheld) cinematography, great soundtrack, and inspired acting by many young actors who would go on to become very famous. People have varying opinions on this film, but I consider it to be a unique, stand-out film that embodies much of what people love about Japanese cinema.
Yeah, these are exceptional films as well…
Be Sure To Share (ちゃんと伝える) — Sono Sion —2009
Thoughts~ A drastically different film from what Sono usually produces, it surpasses the others in its thoughtfulness and attention to detail, in my mind. Read my review.
Welcome to the Quiet Room (クワイエットルームにようこそ) — Matsuo Suzuki — 2007
Thoughts~ I consider this film to be very unique in terms of Japanese cinema, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Uchida Yuki delivers a knockout performance as a patient that is sent to a psychiatric hospital after a drug overdose that was mistaken for a suicide attempt. There are many well-known, A-list actors/actresses that make cameos in the film, it’s quite entertaining to see who will pop out next. While definitely being a dark comedy, the film is deep, exploring what it means to truly live.
Always – Sunset on Third Street 2 (ALWAYS 続・三丁目の夕日) — Yamazaki Takashi — 2007
Thoughts~ Like its predecessor, it is a multiple-award winner, including best actor and best film. This is a great sequel that in my mind improves slightly upon the previous film. There is a cinematic splendour that surrounds these films which doesn’t exist in many Japanese films. Always 2 gives me the same feeling as Hula Girls and Waterboys, for example–though it is not a slapstick comedy, it brings about nostalgic feelings. It is an incredibly touching film with great production values (CG is effectively used to re-create post-war Tokyo) and great acting.
Thoughts~ I’ve seen this film repeatedly, and every time I am impressed. Admittedly, I do find that Yamada Takayuki tends to overact a bit–but then again, his character is a bit of a depressing fellow. Tegami is about a guy (Yamada) who has to go through life carrying the stigma of his brother’s crime–he murdered an elderly woman. It is a good examination of the hardships that somebody like this faces. Having a criminal as a family member in Japan is a horrible misfortune, you are basically blacklisted by society. The ending to Tegami is, how should I put it…so full of emotion that you cannot help but feel what the characters in the film are feeling. Tamayama Tetsuji (the brother) is worth watching the movie for, if just for his scene at the end.
Scars of the Sun a.k.a. Sun Scarred (太陽の傷) — Miike Takashi — 2006
Thoughts~ A bleak and cold film that is quite disturbing, though extremely effective. Aikawa Sho plays a man whose young daughter is brutally murdered by a gang of young delinquents. What’s next? Revenge. This film is satisfying and well-done. My favorite Miike film.
Memories of Tomorrow (明日の記憶) — Tsutsumi Yukihiko — 2006
Thoughts~ I’m a sucker for great acting, and Watanabe Ken gives one of the greatest performances I have ever seen, playing an early-onset Alzheimer patient. He won Best Actor at the Japanese Academy Awards for his role, of course. The rest of the cast consists of well-known actors and actresses that perform admirably, especially Higuchi Kanako, who plays Watanabe’s wife. The movie is incredibly well-directed with a good soundtrack to accompany the ups and downs of the narrative.
Letters from Iwo Jima (硫黄島からの手紙) — Clint Eastwood — 2006
Thoughts~ Clint Eastwood is a master director and I am so glad that he made this film. It depicts the Japanese side during WWII, specifically during the invasion by the U.S. of the island of Iwo Jima. Watanabe Ken and Kazunari Ninomiya are great in this film, among other strong performances. Perfect music, directing, and cinematography add to the visual splendor of the film. Nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Always–Sunset on Third Street (ALWAYS 三丁目の夕日) — Yamazaki Takashi — 2005
Thoughts~ Always takes place in a small community located in post-war Tokyo during the time in which Tokyo Tower is being built. The film follows the story of a number of different residents in the community–an auto worker, a young budding mechanic from outside the city, a struggling author, etc. It includes a strong ensemble cast that delivers on all fronts. Nostalgic, touching, and well worth the watch.
Linda Linda Linda (リンダ リンダ リンダ) — Nobuhiro Yamashita — 2005
Thoughts~ THIS is how high school films should be made. Four high school girls form a band in order to play at the school festival, planning to sing selected songs from The Blue Hearts, including “Linda, Linda, Linda.” A Korean exchange student (Bae Doo Na) is randomly recruited as their singer, which adds both comedy and heart to the film. Yamashita transitions to his first big-ticket movie and fully succeeds. Acting is spot-on and is accompanied by stellar camerawork and great music, which really makes this film rise above the rest. It is filled with nostalgia and only hindered by an ending segment that drags a bit. Watch this film and prepare to be entertained AND impressed.
Hana and Alice (花とアリス) — Iwai Shunji – 2004
Thoughts~ Comedic teenage romance film about two best friends who devise an elaborate story just to get a guy. I love Iwai’s script and camerawork, as usual. I also love Aoi Yu, who performs great along with Suzuki Anne. The ballet scene at the end is one of cinematic genius. More comprehensive review and film clip here.
Zatoichi (座頭市) — Kitano Takeshi — 2003
Thoughts~ Kitano Takeshi plays a great Zatoichi. (Zatoichi, if you don’t know, is a famous blind samurai character who has spawned countless films, remakes, adaptations.) Kitano is a very entertaining actor that brings mystery, charisma, and general bad-ass-ness to the blind samurai character. There exists a quirkiness to the story, with nice twists, and most of all great action scenes. A very enjoyable and smart samurai film.
Laundry (ランドリー) — Mori Junichi — 2002
Thoughts~ Laundry is a heartwarming story about Teru, a young man who suffers from a brain injury sustained at a young age and Mizue, a single woman with many problems of her own. Kubozuka Yosuke is probably the greatest actor alive in Japan. His performance, along with Koyuki’s, is perfect. The film is comedic, dark, touching, and beautiful. It is a film that must be seen and appreciated for what it is.
Ping Pong (ピンポン) — Sori Fumihiko — 2002
Thoughts~ An eccentric and ultimately touching film about two drastically different high school ping pong players, Teru (ARATA) and Peco (Kubozuka Yosuke). Teru is quiet and introverted while Peco is loud and wild. Kubozuka once again delivers an incredibly attention grabbing performance. The CG used in the film to show the intense scenes of ping pong is well-done and not in-your-face. You’ll find yourself rooting for the characters as they train and play in tournaments. This film is a great combination of entertainment, hilarity, and emotions that is presented in a fresh, unique manner. In addition, the script is penned by the prolific Kudo Kankuro. Enough said.
Waterboys (ウォーターボーイズ) — Yaguchi Shinobu – 2001
Thoughts~ A must-see Japanese film that is among the most hilarious that I’ve ever seen. Waterboys is basically about a group of high school boys who form a synchronized swimming team and the shenanigans that they get up to whilst preparing for their performance. It’s a comedic, feel-good teen movie that also introduced Tsumabuki Satoshi to the world as a strong, funny leading man.
Go (IMDb link) — Yukisada Isao — 2001
Thoughts~ Go depicts the story of a Japanese-born Korean boy (Kubozuka Yosuke) and his love for a Japanese girl (Shibasaki Kou). I love both of these actors, and they performed admirably in their Romeo and Juliet-inspired roles. Go won Kubozuka a Best Actor award at the Japanese Academy Awards along with the 41 awards total for the film. In all aspects, a great film that deals with the controversial issue of racism in Japan.