KineJun Best 10

Mark Schilling schill
Sat Jan 8 07:50:32 EST 2000

A few comments on the Kinejun list:

1) Strange to see "A, Haru," which I reviewed in October 1998, named as the
best film of 1999. A December cut-off I can understand, but why include
films released in the fall before the year supposedly under review? 

2) One again conventionally made, dully serious "humanistic" films by older
directors win out over more adventurous fare by younger filmmakers that
really indicate where the industry is heading. 

3) Once again, any film that makes into a "Big Three" film festival
competition gets a nod. If its good enough for Berlin, it's good enough for
the Kinejun panel. 

4) Once again, animation gets the back of the panel's hand. 

For the curious, here's my own Best Ten for 1999, which will appear in the
Japan Times this Sunday:

Best 10 for 1999
By Mark Schilling

When I started reviewing films in this space in 1989, my colleagues in the
English-language press were routinely proclaiming the awfulness of Japanese
movies and the doom of the Japanese movie industry. But I found that, for
all the industry's real problems, including a hardening of the imaginative
arteries at the top, there were more talented people doing good work than
the doomsayers would have had me believe. A decade later, though those
problems still exist, Japanese filmmakers continue to do good work -- and
are gaining more recognition abroad for it. 
 	In 1999 several Japanese directors with international followings,
including Takeshi Kitano, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Nobuhiro
Suwa and Rokuro Mochizuki, released new films, with mixed results. Others
who deserve more international attention than they are getting, such as Jun
Ichikawa, Masato Harada and Kazuyuki Izutsu, also weighed in strong new
work. Finally, new faces such as Toshiaki Toyoda ("Porno Star") and
veterans such as Isao Takahata ("Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun") made
films that pushed boundaries artistically, technically and commercially.
All these films, and more, earned a place on my Best Ten list for the year.

In order of release:

1. Porno Star. The title is misleading. Instead of a made-in-Japan
"Boogie Nights," Toshiaki Toyoda's debut feature is a violent fantasy about
the life and death in the lower depths of Shibuya. While populated by
recognizable Shibuya types, its meditation on the macho rites of blood and
brotherhood has as little to do with the realities of the Shibuya scene
circa 1999 as "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" did with realities of life
in the Old West.
	The hero, Arano (Hiroshi Chiharu), is a stone killer in a hooded khaki
jacket who joins a crew of Shibuya bad boys engaged in a variety of hustles
and fighting a turf war with a gang of adult yakuza. More than its
ostensible plot, however, the film's focus is Arano's attempt to "purify"
Shibuya by bathing it in yakuza blood. In filming this mad quest, Toyoda
has created images that are violently surrealistic, piercingly beautiful.
Though he may worship at the shrine of Quentin Tarantino, his real
spiritual father is Jean Cocteau. 

2. Nodo Jiman. As close as the Japanese film industry has come recently to
a musical, Kazuyuki Izutsu's "Nodo Jiman," depicts the human comedies and
tragedies behind the enduringly popular NHK amateur song show of the same
title. While featured the expected comic types,  Izutsu is more interested
in getting at the core of the show's human appeal than running easy riffs
on its corniness. Though his heroes may lack the pipes of their
professional betters, they are up there singing not only lyrics, but their
entire lives, in performances that go straight to the heart.
	The most memorable is Shigeru Muroi's Reiko, a struggling enka singer who
wants to perform at least once in a real concert hall, even if she has to
pose as an amateur to pass the audition. A veteran of the indie scene,
Muroi expresses Reiko's deep weariness and fierce pride with a precision
honed by her own experience. See "Nodo Jiman" and gain a new appreciation
for Japanese soul.  

3. Kanzen Naru Shiiku The story of Ben Wada's "Kanzen Naru Shiuku" (Perfect
Nurture) is morally objectionable, his execution, erotically joyous and
emotionally convincing. A salesman (Naoto Takenaka), kidnaps a teenage
schoolgirl, Kuniko (Hijiri Kojima) and brings her back to his room. There
he tells her that he wants her to join him in a perfect union of body and
	 A repulsive premise for a romance? Yes, but the salesman caters his
captive's every whim, while rejecting her insincere advances and even
giving her a chance to escape. He wants the real thing -- or nothing at
all. Finally, she realizes that she wants it too -- and the fireworks
explode. Takenaka and Kojima have the chemistry needed to make the film's
central relationship rise above the merely pathological to a carnal
intensity seldom seen in Japanese films, adult or otherwise. They remind us
that, even in these PC times, eros obeys no rules but its own.  

4. Tomie. Ataru Oikawa's third feature has a simple-but-brilliant premise:
a teenaged murder victim named Tomie who won't stay dead -- or stop
killing. Her prime target is Tsukiko (Mami Nakamura), a former classmate
who knows her secret. 
	As Tomie, Miho Kanno shows why she has earned her Queen of Horror title
since her 1995 debut in Shimako Sato's "Eko Eko Azaraku." Though suitably
creepy, her performance gives her character more dimensions that the usual
horror movie monster could ever imagine. Tomie's envy of Tsukiko -- her
former friend is entering the country of adulthood where she can never
follow -- has a genuine, if goosebump-producing, pathos. 

5. Osaka Monogatari. Set in the Osaka manzai world, Jun Ichikawa's "Osaka
Monogatari" (Osaka Story), is a family drama whose mother and father are a
struggling manzai act. Thhe father, however, soon leaves to live with his
younger lover and one day disappears altogether. His 14 year-old daughter
begins a long search for him that takes her into her parent's past and
speeds her own transition to adulthood. 
	In filming this search, Ichikawa illuminates the social landscape, while
capturing the significant details that reveal the inner life. Osaka, he
shows us, may have been obliterated by the war and rebuilt out of
recognition, but its pre-modern spirit, with its love of laughter and its
dislike of pretension, is still alive and well. As a drama, "Osaka
Monogatari" may have its longeurs, but as a celebration of a city, a people
and a way of life it is powerful and sublime. It is Ichikawa's "Rhapsody In
Blue," to a manzai beat. 

6. Wonderful Life. In "Wonderful Life" (After Life), Hirokzau Kore-eda
takes a well-worn theme -- the journey to the Other Side -- and re-imagines
it with none of the usual clich?s. In addition to the expected
entertainment, "Wonderful Life" provides enough intellectual and spiritual
stimulation to fuel conversations and haunt dreams for hours and days after
the credit crawl. 
	Set in Limbo, the film depicts the work of guides who help the newly dead
select their most precious memory to take with them into eternity. Some
have no trouble choosing, but while other agonize and still others refuse
to choose at all. Using nearly 500 video interviews with ordinary Japanese,
as well as personal reminiscences from his professional actors,  .Kore'eda
achieves a level of honesty, spontaneity and humor that rarely comes from a
prepared script. In assembling these memoires into a cinematic montage,
Kore-eda creates an intimate human reality that has nothing to with New Age
wish-fulfillment, everything to do with the essence of who we are and the
meaning of where we've been. 

7. Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun. Based on Hisaishi Ishii's gag manga in
the "Asahi Shimbun" about an accident-prone family, this latest film by
Isao Takahata and his Studio Ghibli animators may not fit the image of
other Ghibli hits -- there is no spunky young heroine with her magical
animal familiars --  but it is a dazzling and delightful expression of
Ghibli's craft and creativity. Instead of imposing their house style,
Ghibli animators have brought Ishii's characters to hilariously and at
times touchingly individual life. They have brilliantly expanded the manga
beyond its four-frame format, without sacrificing its impolite humor or
folksy appeal.  
	In making "Yamada-kun" Ghibli opted for full-digital animation -- a studio
first -- while using nearly 150,000 drawings to achieve fluid, realistic
motion and a watercolor palette to evoke atmosphere and mood with warm,
delicate shades. Not only triumph of the animator's art, "Yamada-kun" also
happens an ideal cure for the recessionary blahs.
8. Kinyu Fushoku Retto: Jubaku (Jubaku). Most young Japanese directors
equate art with personal concerns and a small, intimate scale. Masato
Harada has bigger ambitions -- the theme of his latest film, "Kinyu Fushoku
Retto: Jubaku (Jubaku)," is nothing less than the iron triangle of
business, bureaucracy and underworld gangs that have dominated the history
of postwar Japan. 
	Its story about a quartet of middle managers who try to reform a
scandal-plagued bank has a ripped-from-the-headlines flavor. But instead of
the cinematic equivalent of good, gray journalese, Harada has injected a
visual dynamism and narrative pace that is very Hollywood, while respecting
the integrity of a story that is, in its complexity and ambiguity, very
9. M/Other. Made with no written dialogue, Nobuhiro Suwa's film about the
end of an affair between a middle-aged man and younger woman plays like
uncut reality. It is, however, not just a compilation of improvisations,
but a most accomplished work of filmmaking art. Suwa's aim may be the whole
truth, uncomfortable or no, but he also cuts through the mundane to reveal
the intimate moments of his protagonists' relationship, both the violent
and tender. At its rawest, the film seems less acted than lived, but it
never fails to engage our attention, our emotions.
	. As the warring couple Tomokazu Miura and Makiko Watanabe skillfully
create the illusion of a relationship based more sexual compatibility than
true understanding. Once an idol star, Miura has matured into an actor
capable of both nuance and power. As Aki, Watanabe Makiko is intriguingly
inarticulate. Though able to handle the commonplaces of ordinary
conversation, she expresses her innermost feelings only in silences, blunt
phrases, emotional eruptions. In her we can hear the voice of a generation.

10. Minazuki. Rokuro Mochizuki is a maker of films about men on the edges
of society, at the ends of their respective ropes. The hero "Minazuki" is a
slump-shouldered salaryman (Eiji Okada) whose wife leaves him for a hunky
young gangster, taking his life savings. In his search for her he enlists
the dubious aid of his wild gangster brother-in-law (Kazuki Kitamura) and
begins a turbulent affair with a soapland masseuse (Takami Yoshimoto), with
whom he finds the sexual charge and human connection that had been missing
in his life.
	 Mochizuki uses the standard genre tools of sex and violence less for
surface effect than as tools to strip his characters to their essential
selves. While not trying to excuse their actions, he illuminates them with
a stark, if fundamentally sympathetic, light. Neither an exploiter nor an
ideologue, he is only interested in the truths that human beings reveal in
the outer limits of lust and rage, need and despair. 

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