2016 was a year of dramatic highs and lows for Japanese film, but the best of the bunch give me hope for the future. Here are my favorites. All except Harmonium are reviewed on this site.
In This Corner of the World, Sunao Katabuchi. I can never really rank films, but if I had to, Corner might be tied for first place with The Red Turtle (which may not technically count as a “Japanese” film since it was directed by a Dutch filmmaker co-produced by a non-Japanese production company and Studio Ghibli). Unlike the more popular (and inferior) Your Name, Katabuchi’s film lets its story unfold slowly and authentically, with beautiful, hand-drawn animation used to great effect. One of the few films I saw this year that made me tear up (and made the rest of the theater openly weep).
The Red Turtle, Michaël Dudok de Wit. Regardless of whether it technically counts as a “Japanese” film, I’ll put The Red Turtle on this list because it owes so much to Ghibli sensibilities. And yet so much about it is fresh and new, especially fact that it contains no dialogue. It washes over you like the beautifully-drawn waves that lap the shores of its deserted island setting, a poem of images that’s also an engaging, timeless story of love and loss. It wrecked me in the best way possible.
Creepy, Kiyoshi Kurosawa. As Japanese horror seems to be dominated more and more by over-the-top schlock and promotional vehicles for generic pop stars, I’d begun to wonder if J-horror would ever scare me again. With Creepy, veteran Kurosawa answers that question with a resounding yes. The film is layered and deeply unsettling, especially in the remarkable performance of Teruyuki Kagawa as the neighbor who embodies the film’s title in every word out of his mouth and movement of his body.
Harmonium, Koji Fukada. Harmonium feels like what Koji Fukada has been working toward for years–with a much heavier dose of darkness than his previous films. It’s essentially a retelling of his earlier Hospitalite, about a family whose lives are turned upside down when a man from the husband’s past shows up and moves into their home with his sexually aggressive wife and an endless stream of foreign guests. This time screwball comedy is exchanged for deeper questions about how well we really know anyone, and how fragile are the bonds that we depend on to keep us safe and sane.
Ken and Kazu, Hiroshi Shoji. In a year with no shortage of great performances, Shinsuke Kato and Katsuya Maiguma shine as the titular Ken and Kazu, two hard-luck, low-ranking gangsters desperate for a big score that will move them toward some semblance of security. This short, tightly structured film is one of the first yakuza films to make me feel true sympathy for its characters, probably because Ken and Kazu don’t revel in the violence and hedonism that comes with the gangster lifestyle. For them, it’s just the only job available.