5 Films Proving That There Is More to Japanese Cinema Than Adaptations and Family Dramas

Is there a chance for the Japanese movie industry to change? Here are are five films that answer yes to this question

The voices of critique, regarding the tangle Japanese cinema is currently in, have grown in number and intensity the latest years, since the overwhelming majority of films are either manga and novel adaptations, or family dramas in indie fashion, quite similar to each other. However, in such a vast industry, there were bound to be some exceptions. Here are five films that prove that Japanese cinema has a future beyond the aforementioned categories.

1. Lowlife Love (Eiji Uchida, 2015)


Tetsuo is a film director who had mild success with a film he shot some years ago, but has not produced anything from that point on and his life is in shambles. He is 39 years old, he still lives with his parents and sister in a small house, and has a constant lack of money. His miniscule income comes from some overpriced acting lessons he gives to a number of students he has promised to include in his next film, and from shooting AV videos that he sells to some Yakuza via his assistant, Yoshihiko.

Eventually, hope appears in front of him in the faces of two new students: Minami, a timid and naive girl who wants to be an actress, and Ken, a scriptwriter. Both of them appear to be extremely talented and Tetsuo believes he will be finally able to shoot a film in the way he wants. Around those characters roams Kida, a suspicious producer and former director; Kyoko, a ruthless aspiring actress; Kano, a former indie director who has become commercially successful; and Kaede, a girl obsessed with Tetsuo.

Eiji Uchida centers his film on the two words of the title. The first one actually describes the various characters appearing in the film, not one of whom appears to be decent or unselfish. The one on the top, however, is definitely Tetsuo, played in a suitably awful fashion by Kiyohiko Shibukawa. His character is immature, lazy, devious, and in constant readiness to exploit everyone around him to achieve his goals of shooting a moneymaking film and having sex.

The overall depiction of the no-budget industry is gruesome, especially for actresses, who are presented as prey for the male filmmakers, particularly because they are intent on shagging their way into movies. The approach the director takes towards them borders on misogyny, although he stresses the fact that since the directors are not even slightly better humans than them, sex is actually their only way to make it.

In that fashion, Uchida presents another pessimistic message, that of total hopelessness in the industry for them all, a notion that becomes even more evident in the ending scene.

However, somewhere in all of this, Uchida managed to include some humor, chiefly through the behaviour of Tetsuo, Kida, and Kaede. One of the most hilarious scenes of the film takes place in Kaede’s room, where she keeps a picture of Tetsuo’s head on the wall, occasionally writing her opinion of him on it.

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2. ANTIPORNO (Sion Sono, 2015)


I have to admit one thing about Sion Sono. I do not like his films he made regarding or inspired from the Fukushima disaster, at least for their most part. I believe that Sono is at his best when he is portraying extremity on the screen, particularly through a combination of sex and violence. The resurrection of the "Roman Porno" series gave his the incentive to do exactly just that, and the result was, as always, impressive.
“Anti-Porn” is quite difficult to describe, since the borders between fantasy and reality, and past and present, are almost non-existent. In that fashion, the film starts with Kyoko, a famous novelist and artist, who wakes up in a studio bursting with a yellow color, except the toilet, which is vividly red. There is obviously something wrong with her, as she starts to rave about anything that comes to her mind, without actually making sense, like when she shouts “I am a virgin and a whore.”

Things become even more frantic when her assistant, Noriko, enters the studio. She seems to be utterly subservient to Kyoko, who treats her as harshly as possible, both psychologically and physically. A little later, an editor and a photographer arrive along with their three assistants, all of whom are extravagantly dressed, not to mention that two of the assistants are wearing strap-ons.

A little later, it is revealed that the whole setting was part of a film shoot, and that the actual star is Noriko, who treats Kyoko in reality as she in the film. The rest of the movie shows Kyoko’s past and the reasons that led her to the porn industry, in a highly surrealistic fashion.

Sion Sono directs a film that looks more like a theatre play than an actual movie, at least for its largest part, as it unfolds inside a single set. Apart from that, Sono seems to be in his element, as the total artistic freedom he was offered allowed him to let his extreme artistry run amok.

In that fashion, the film includes lesbian sex, plenty of abuse, the protagonist throwing up every time she is about to have an orgasm, and women running around naked for no apparent reason. That is when he is not being completely blasphemous, as the film also shows, a number of times, Kyoko’s parents having sex and her watching, when she was a teenager.

Apart from the evident shocking element, though, Sono makes a clear comment regarding the porn industry, exhibiting how futile and hypocritical it is. Furthermore, he extends the same comment to the world of art, which is being portrayed as even more futile and hypocritical, but also utterly pretentious.

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3. Hime Anole (Keisuke Yoshida, 2016)


Based on the homonymous manga series by Minoru Furuya (I know, but this is too great a film to pass and it actually has nothing to do with the majority of the other manga adaptations, like the ones Miike is shooting at the moment), the film starts as a comedy-drama, from the plethora that comes out of Japan. In that fashion, the central heroes are two awkward individuals, Susumu Okada and Yuji Ando, who work for a cleaning company. Yuji talks like a robot and seems to lack any kind of social skills, and Susumu is an unambitious youth who is troubled by the fact that his life seems to have no meaning whatsoever.

Eventually, Yuji tells Susumu that he is in love with a waitress at a cafe, Yuka Abe, and asks his help to get to know her. The first time they come to the shop, Yuji points out another man who seems to be constantly there, also having an interest in Yuka. This man, Shoichi Morita, proves to be Susumu’s former classmate. Soon, Yuka informs them that Morita is stalking her, and they decide to “protect” her. Furthermore, the girl seems to have a crush on Susumu, bringing him into an awkward position.

The second part, however, changes the focus to Morita, and with that comes a total change in the film itself. Morita proves to be a psychopathic criminal, and starts a killing and raping spree against anyone that gets in his way. His final targets, though, are Yuka and Susumu. Two characters that also appear in the first part, another classmate and his girlfriend, prove to be the ones that instigate this mania.

Keisuke Yoshida manages to elaborately merge two films into one, as the transition between the two parts is utterly smooth, despite their many differences. The fact that the second part, containing violence, gore, and sex, comes after the first one (which could be rated PG-13), is a very unusual tactic, but Yoshida made the most of it.

The same applies to the messages he presents, as the first part shows the lives of the people living on the borders of society and where that can lead them, while the second highlights the consequences of bullying and violence in general.

This transition between the two parts is portrayed through an intricate and very impressive scene. As Susumu and Yuka have sex, Morita tortures and kills a woman, as the setting switches a number of times and the moves of each “couple” mirror each other in the most unsettling fashion.

The scene exemplifies the direction, the camera work, the editing, the sound, and the special effects of the film, whose prowess becomes evident, particularly in the violent scenes of the second part. Some of them are truly grotesque, particularly the ones that involve rape, as the movie fills up with exploitation elements.

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4. At The Terrace (Kenji Yamauchi, 2016)


The film is based on Kenji Yamauchi’s own stage play, titled Trois Grotesque, which was the winner of the 59th Kishida Drama Award.

Set as a stage play, the film takes place solely on a terrace of an aristocratic house, as the party held there by the Soejimas is coming to an end. The remaining guests, most of whom are already half-drunk, start gathering at the terrace: Haruko Saito, a woman with very white skin and hands that every man present seems to admire. Kazumi Soejima, the hostess, who seems to be a little jealous of Haruko. Tanoura, a young engineer working for Toyota, who seems to admire more than Haruko’s hands. Taro Saito, Haruko’s husband, a very elegant man. Mr Soejima, the host, who also seems to like Haruko. Masato Saito, a man who used to be 90 pounds, but is now thin. Lastly, and after some time, Teruo Soejima, the son of the hosts, makes a late appearance.

As alcohol seems to take control of most of the people present, thoughts and words that wouldn’t come out otherwise, fall on the table, creating tensions and revealing secret agendas and actual characters. Mrs Soejima’s jealousy takes the better of her, and eventually starts an oral fight with Haruko, who insists that her hostess is better looking, particularly due to her large bossom, that Mrs Soejima has taken care of presenting in all its grandiosity. Tanoura is mocked for liking Haruko, and proves a lousy drunk, as he is constantly crying, occasionally for no apparent reason. Mr Soejima starts flirting openly with Kazumi, while Masato seems to have health problems due to his rapid loss of weight, and starts fading repeatedly. Taro seems not to be bothered by the fact that everyone seems to lust on his wife, since he has an agenda of his own. Teruo’s appearance, who also seems to know Kazumi, complicates things even more as he reveals the true character of his father, and vice versa.

I have to admit one thing. I adore single location films (Johnnie To’s Three comes to mind), even more when they are based on and set as stage plays. In that fashion, I found Kenji Yamauchi’s (Her Father, My Lover) adaptation splendid. However, At the Terrace stands on a higher level than most similar films, particularly for two reasons. The first one is the pace, which is dictated by the rapid way all of the actors speak, and the constant change of the person talking. The second one is that so much is happening, despite the single location, mainly through dialogue, but as time passes, through actions also, in a tactic that finds its apogee in the truly shocking finale. Lastly, as in an actual theatre play, after the story has ended, Yamauchi presents his actors on screen, through portraits of sequences of the film, in an original and well thought “trick.”

The film may be on a single location, but cinematographer Kiyoaki Hashimoto had much work to do, since the camera movement is constant, as it focuses on the person talking each time. In that fashion, he did a wonderful job, not lagging these changes even for a second, and retaining the fast pace Yamauchi wanted the film to have.

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5. Destruction Babies (Yuya Yagira, 2016)


Winner of the Best New Director prize at the Locarno Film Festival, and one of the greatest recent Japanese films, “Destruction Babies” is a combination of Miike’s “Izo”, Tsukamoto’s “Tokyo Fist” and Toyoda’s “Pornostar“.

The film starts in Mitsuhama, a small port in the west of Ehime prefecture where two brothers are living, abandoned by their parents. The younger is named Shota and seems like a regular high-school boy, and the second is Taira, a delinquent who is introduced through a fight with the local gang, he against half a dozen that is. Almost immediately after the fight, and a little before the mikoshi (portable shrine) festival, Taira leaves and embarks on a trip of blind violence through the streets of the city, where he picks fights with anyone that comes across his way, including the members of the local gang who run a  hostess club.
Taira wanders tirelessly in the streets, being beaten, but always returning to win against his opponents. Eventually he meets Yuya, a high school brat that is intrigued by his behavior and decides to follow him, even starting to give him orders regarding his opponents. As their fights start to circulate through the internet, Shota tries to find his brother, while Nana, a shoplifter and a hostess to the aforementioned club, gets involved with the violent duo, with terrible consequences.

The way Tetsuya Mariko directs the film is quite hard to believe, as Taira goes from street fight to street fight,  in a loop that seems to make him stronger each time is repeated. Apart from his first victim, though, the rest of his opponents somewhat deserve it, since they include yakuza and two brats with dyed blond hair who decide to make fun of him. This endless fighting could become tedious, but Mariko’s direction and Yuya Yagira’s magnificent, silent acting make it very hard to look away from the screen.

For Mariko, who also pens the script along Kohei Kiyasu, violence seems to have a poetic and very meaningful hypostasis, as he uses it to communicate his messages. The first one is a sharp comment regarding Japan’s youth, as portrayed through Yuya, an adolescent who seems lost in the world of social media, aimlessly roaming in pachinko parlors, looking for any kind of excitement. Furthermore, his transformation during his “trip” with Taira is quite shocking to watch, as he gradually becomes even worse than his “mentor” is. The second one regards the Nada Kenka Matsuri, a festival dedicated to the God of fighting, where 3 mikoshi fight and try to break down one another in front of the god. This message becomes evident at the end of the film, abstractly explaining Taira’s actions. However, Mariko also presents violence as a disease that seems to transmit to everyone associated with it, both perpetrators and victims, transforming into animals.

The combination of Yasuyuki Sasaki’s cinematography and Lee Hidemi’s editing is one of the film’s strongest points, with the two of them being responsible for the utterly realistic and very impressive fights. Furthermore, Sasaki presents a number of impressive images, both in the roads of the urban setting and in clubs, pachinko parlors, and other interior spaces.

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Asian Film Vault: 5 Films Proving That There Is More to Japanese Cinema Than Adaptations and Family Dramas
5 Films Proving That There Is More to Japanese Cinema Than Adaptations and Family Dramas
Is there a chance for the Japanese movie industry to change? Here are are five films that answer yes to this question
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Asian Film Vault
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