1998 Best 10

Mark Schilling schill at gol.com
Thu Jan 7 22:09:13 EST 1999

Just to show that I put my money where my mouth is and to stimulate a bit
more discussion, here's my best 10 list for 1998 that ran in the Japan
The list is in reverse order of release.  

Mark Schilling

1. Tadon to Chikuwa

Of all Japanese directors now working Jun Ichikawa is the closest to
Yasujiro Ozu in style, spirit and talent, but he has also been typed,
unfairly, as <ital> jimi <ital> and eclipsed by colleagues with flashier
styles and trendier concerns. 
	In "Tadon to Chikuwa," Ichikawa has spectacularly abandoned this label. In
many of his films his characters seethe with suppressed emotion -- in
"Tadon" his two heroes -- a frustrated taxi driver and maddened writer --
explode. Also, he films these eruptions using surreal computer graphics --
not exactly the most Ozuesque of devices. 
	His heroes are familiar types from his other films: lonely guys with
sensitive souls who can't quite adjust to the world around them. Also, his
subtle, sure grasp of character is still much in evidence, as is his fine,
sharp eye for composition and color. He can make even his comic grotesques
come revoltingly alive, while injecting his scenes of stylized mayhem with
ironic beauty.
2. Odoru Daisosasen

The smash hit detective drama "Odoru Daisosasen -- The Movie" (The Big
Investigation -- The Movie) has shown the way for fighting the Hollywood
juggernaut . 
	First, it is a real stand-alone movie. Prior acquaintance with the hit TV
show on which "Odoru" is based -- which relates the serio-comic
adventures of a salaryman-turned-detective -- is helpful but not necessary
to understanding the story. 
	Most importantly, despite the inevitable J Pop theme song and other
familiar elements, "Odoru" succeeds in bringing a fresh approach to its
tale of a big kidnapping case that become a contest between cops on the
beat and cops among the elite. There are no explosions, no car chases, no
corpses that suddenly return from the dead. Instead, with wit and
precision, it delves into the mysteries of the Japanese organizational
mind. The most popular live-action Japanese film of the year is also among
the most

3. Ikinai 

This debut by long-time Takeshi Kitano assistant director Hiroshi Shimizu
contains characteristic elements of the Kitano style, including the puckish
deadpan humor, spare narrative structure and shotmaking economy, but it is
not baldly imitative. Instead, in making this black comedy about a busload
of bankrupts bent on suicide in Okinawa, Shimizu has displayed an
individual knack for effectively making narrative points with the least
possible melodramatic fuss, much like the simple but evocative Peruvian
flute music on the soundtrack.  
	The premise may be simple, but the film develops it with admirable finesse
and ingenuity, as well as plenty of stops along the way to reveal the
personal quirks of its thirteen characters. Also, Nanako Okouchi's
performance as the film's effervescent life force is winningly unaffected,
subtlely funny and unexpectedly touching. No wonder the male passengers
especially the younger ones, start to want to get off that bus alive 

4. Ganbatte Ikimasshoi (Give It [Your] All)

Exhausted as the zero-to-hero formula may be, filmmakers still occasionally
figure out  ways to inject new life into it. One is Itsumichi Isomura,
whose "Ganbatte Ikimasshoi" (Give It [Your] All) describes the struggles of
a fledgling girls' rowing crew in a Shikoku high school in the
mid-seventies. In telling of their rise -- and their one brief shot at
glory, the film reflects the real pains and joys of adolescence, while
rejecting sentimentality. Isomura has a keen eye for the small crises that
loom so large in teenage life, the large disappointments that so often turn
out to be more important than the occasional successes. He has also
introduced a formal discipline into his narrative and camerawork that
creates the precisely right tone of remembrance; a look back from a middle
distance that is neither frigidly objective nor cloyingly emotional, that
leads, at the end, to exactly the needed moment of catharsis. 

5. Ai o Kou Hito (Begging For Love) 

The winner of the International Critics Prize at this year's Montreal World
Film Festival, Hideyoshi Hirayama's "Ai o Kou Hito" (Begging For Love) does
not approach its subject matter -- a cabaret hostess's abusive treatment of
her only daughter -- as an opportunity for dissecting or denouncing a
social ill. Instead, with uncommon insight and honesty, "Ai" discovers the
roots of abuse less specifically in Japanese society than in the mysteries
of human nature. Its abusive mother is not a devil in a flashy red dress,
but a woman with a terrible vitality and purity. 	 	
	Playing a double role as the mother and the daughter as a grownup seeking
to exorcise the ghosts of her childhood, Mikiko Harada is a shoo-in for
domestic best actress awards. She is especially good as the mother, who
seems to epitomize the anarchic and often desperate days following Japan's
defeat. As the daughter, she is considerably more subdued, but she can also
roar her anger and pain simply by the set of her jaw or the glare of her
eyes. A diva has been born.

6. Shiawase ni Naro ne (Let's Get Happy)

 Limitations, Akio Murahashi's "Shiawase ni Naro ne" (Let's Get Happy) so
eloquently proves, have their uses. This movie about a yakuza gang caught
in a war it doesn't want, while never leaving the confines of their
headquarters, plays like a comic version of Sidney Lumet's "12 Angry Men":
a human drama unfolding in a self-locked cage, with the pressure building
as the minutes tick by. 
	Despite the film's light, even farcical. tone, in debating their response
to this war -- surrender, fight, or flee -- Murahashi's gangsters reveal
much about contradictory impulses of real human beings in extreme
	The most amusing is Narimi Arimori as the boss's scheming wife. Her hot
little vamp with a heart of ice may be a cliché, but she charges it up with
sexy verve and comic talent. Her constant, and unexplained, changes of
costume, from resplendent kimono to slinky designer gown, are a neat touch
worthy of Monty Python -- yet another indication of a movie made by a
creative mind, not a formula. 

7. Somaudo no Monogatari (In the Weald) (4/21/98)

The winner of the 1997 Cannes festival Camera d'Or prize for her debut
feature "Moe no Suzaku," Naomi Sento returns to her first love, the
documentary, in "Somaudo Monogatari," (In the Weald). Shot in the mountain
village that was the setting for "Moe no Suzaku," the film presents a
series of encounters between Sento and nine elderly villagers. Talking to
them more as a daughter than an interviewer, Sento captured the flavor of
their lives and the essence of their characters through not only their
words, but their work and even their faces in extreme closeup, as though
she were to trying to read their souls from the lines on their weathered
	Often we hear only the voice of a storyteller off-camera as she continues
to silently work. It is as though we were listening to her think. Sometime
the words pierce, as when the father of the lost son says that, even though
many years have passed his son's death, he still cannot bear to look at his
photographs. With patience, sensitivity and art, Sento has again created an
evocation of a people and way of life that is strongly individual,
intensely felt, entrancingly beautiful. 
8 Perfect Blue 

What is your worst nightmare? To be trapped in a dream and know that you
can never wake up? To realize, to your horror, that there is another self
-- at once alien and familiar -- struggling to break through the layers of
artifice and replace the automaton  in the mirror? 
	It is from such sweat-drenched dreams that the creators of "Perfect Blue"
have made the first psycho-horror animation. The heroine is a nubile young
idol-singer-turned-actress who is being stalked by obsessed fan, but in
telling her story director Satoshi Kon and his colleagues have gone beyond
the usual shocks and scares to examine the inner workings of Japanese show
business and the outer reaches of the psyche in a wired age, whose virtual
idols crawl from their digital matrix into the very souls of their models. 
	In the world of the cartoon, everything and anything can happen.  Kon and
company have simply taken that insight one big step farther. By turning the
cutesy conventions of the shojo anime (girls' animation) genre on their
head, they have created a phantasmagoric world in which a sweetly grinning
doppelganger in a frilly pink mini-dress can become the embodiment of
implacable evil.
9 Love & Pop 

In his first feature film, "Love & Pop," animator Hideaki Anno has gives us
a lonely, conflicted adolescent as his central character and fills the
screen with a blizzard of images, text and dialogue, just as he did in his
hit "Evangelion" TV series and films
	Anno has that rarest of commodities in the Japanese movie business -- a
visual and story-telling imagination that is fresh, inventive and totally
indifferent to received ideas about what can be done with film. Using a
small digital camcorder, he explores every corner of the world of the
heroine and her ko gyaru (high school girl) friends, from every conceivable
angle, in a giddy procession of quick cuts. 
	His stylistic intent, however, is less titillation -- voyeurs will find
the movie a crashing bore -- than ironic comment on his characters and
their fragmented, materialistic, chimerical transactions, which usually
involve separating warped middle-aged men from large wads of cash. Theirs
is a world in which nothing lasts, nothing is what it seems and the only
value is the gratification of appetites that have grown monstrous and
absurd. Anno captures it to perfection. 

10 Hana-Bi 

Winner of the Golden Lion at the 1997 Venice Film Festival, Takeshi
Kitano's "Hana-Bi" proves again that this comedian-turned-director has an
original mind able to brilliantly re-imagine hackneyed material and make it
unquestionably his own. Also, from the violent extravagances of his early
work he has evolved into a cinematic stylist who gets his effects with the
utmost economy of means. 
	In telling his story of two cop buddies on radically different 
trajectories -- one heading toward a new life after a near-fatal wound, 
the other headed  toward death after robbing a bank to pay off various 
karmic debuts -- Kitano displays a familiar macho romanticism, but
 refined almost to the point of  abstraction. Also, though his cop-on-a-
mission story line is a genre staple, Kitano rejects its implicit 
melodrama. Instead, he reduces his two cops to their human essence 
and  then, with a directorial  gaze coldly observant, if wryly sympathetic,
 watches as that essence expresses itself, for better or worse.  
	His off-beat reductionism -- the cinematic equivalent of Theolonious
Monk's jazz -- looks seductively simple to imitate, but he is the only one
who can get it right. And he's never gotten it righter than in "Hana-Bi."  

> From: Mark Schilling <schill at gol.com>
> To: KineJapan at lists.acs.ohio-state.edu
> Subject: Re: 1998 KineJun Best 10
> Date: Thursday, January 07, 1999 9:50 PM
> >From: Mark Schilling <schill at gol.com>
> > To: KineJapan at lists.acs.ohio-state.edu
> > Cc: aya_f at altamira.co.jp
> > Subject: Re: 1998 KineJun Best 10
> > Date: Thursday, January 07, 1999 
> My first reaction to the Kinejun list might be summed up as yappari
> ojisanpoi da ne. All the predictable festival winners and the big
> mainstream "humanistic" films with prominent names attached. No
> no documentaries, no first-time directors, no directors younger than 38
> (the age of Miike Takashi, the baby of the group). Also, the most popular
> live-action film of the year and one of the most entertaining, Odoru
> Daisosasen, is not on the list -- tainted by its TV origins perhaps?
> I'm glad to see that "Ganbatte Ikimashoi" made it so high on the list,
> though -- it's a beautifully made film that has been shamefully neglected
> by festival programmers. Maybe its Kinejun selection will give it a
> We can only hope.
> Mark Schilling

More information about the KineJapan mailing list