I’m a big fan of East Asian films and have particularly leaned into Japanese cinema in the past few months. In this blog, I will review three Japanese films and one TV series that I’ve watched recently, going from more recent releases to older ones. Overall, all four of these works are worth watching, especially if you’re interested in Japanese culture and film.
Still from the Japanese film: In This Corner of the World
In This Corner of the World / この世界の片隅に (2016)
This is an epic, animated period film with likable characters and engaging relationships that takes place in Japan during the 1930s and 40s. Directed by Sunao Katabuchi (片渕須直), whose previous film is another nostalgic animated film (Mai Mai Miracle, 2010), In this Corner of the World centers on the life of a young woman named Suzu who marries and goes to live with her husband’s family during World War 2. Based on the manga by the same name by artist Fumiyo Kono (こうの 史代), this film gives non-Japanese viewers a different perspective on World War 2 that is in particular contrast to the American point of view. Its depiction of idyllic Japanese family life against the constant threat of war brought on by the Allied forces, is reminiscent of pro-Allied WWII films but with the roles switched.
I’m conflicted: the film does not carry any remorse about Japan’s part in the war, but instead focuses on the strength of the Japanese people and their resilience. In one line from the film Suzu repeats: “we should not surrender to violence” after the American dropping of the two atomic bombs.
It’s an interesting look into one of the Japanese perspectives of the war–not to say that this is the only Japanese perspective–and how it differs from other countries. The everyday life and struggles are explored in detail and with care for each of the characters. Also, the aftermath of the Hiroshima bomb was done heartbreakingly and is not for the faint of heart.
Poster image from 100 Yen Love starring Sakura Ando
100 Yen Love / 百円の恋 (2014)
Sakura Ando (Shoplifters, 0.5 mm) gives an amazing performance in this lead role of a 30-something year old flabby slacker transforming into a fit, skilled boxer. 100 Yen Love is a reference to the 100 yen store (the Japanese equivalent of the American 99 cents stores) that the lead character, Ichiko Saito (played by Ando), finds employment after being kicked out of her parent’s home. The film was submitted to the 88th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language, much to the surprise of director Masaharu Take (武 正晴), but eventually did not get nominated.
The film is definitely inspiring. I couldn’t help but practice some of the boxing movements myself when Ando was on screen shadow boxing. This film has a dark, wry sense of humor that is engaging. However, its treatment of the subject of rape is bit too flippant and I wish it gave the topic a bit more gravity and justice.
What is great about this film is the way the title and the story leads you to believe that the “100 yen love” is about one thing but in reality it’s a different kind of love than expected. Ando’s performance carries a lot of nuance and intensity–even after her physical transformation she’s able to keep the character’s signature stare and biting personality.
The film keeps our hopes in check though, and in a way I find this refreshing. Things don’t always turn out the way you want, but it is in the process: whether it’s love to heartbreak, heartbreak to love, couch potato to athlete, etc...where real life and drama resides.
Still from Paranoia Agent
Paranoia Agent / 妄想代理人 (2004)
Paranoia Agent is a 13 episode animated TV series directed by Satoshi Kon (今敏) and written by Seishi Minakami (水上清資). The two of them would team up again in 2006 to create Paprika (2006), which also explores the idea of projected desires, and would be Kon’s last completed feature film before his untimely passing in 2010.
Paranoia Agent was released in the U.S. in mid 2005 on Adult Swim with an English dub. The plot centers around a large cast all tied together by an unknown juvenile assailant, the Lil’ Slugger (aka Shonen Bat), who has been attacking multiple individuals throughout the Musashino area of Tokyo with a crooked, golden bat.
The series is intriguing: the surreal nature of the Lil’ Slugger (i.e. how he appears and leaves without a trace) against the stark real world problems that his victims face present a strong juxtaposition. The show takes a dark turn when one of the victims dies and the stakes become even more drastic.
Towards the middle of the series, it drags a little with the episodic exploration of non-main characters and how their lives are influenced by the threat of the Lil’ Slugger. However, the show returns back to form in the last three episodes as it delves into the true nature of the Lil’ Slugger.
One gripe I have is that if the inciting event that creates the slugger was more intentional than accidental, it would’ve played more into the theme of guilt which is extensively explored in the series. Other things I wished were explored more earlier on was Detective Ikari’s relationship with his wife.
One thing I do like is how the series connects diving into one’s subconscious to the visual of floating in water that are very reminiscent of Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995). Even the Detective’s name, Ikari, and him searching to find a way to break the walls of deception, may be an homage to Evangelion.
If you’ve seen Perfect Blue or Paprika, you’ll feel right at home with this trippy series.
Dolls /ドールズ (2002)
I remember seeing a poster of this film online years ago (see above). The colors and the visual atmosphere grabbed me and I knew I really wanted to see the film. I was not disappointed.
Directed by Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, the film features three sets of characters with their own storylines that loosely connect to each other: a tragic couple turned beggars, a young man obsessed with a pop star, and a yakuza boss that wants to reconnect with an old flame.
Visually it's amazing. The landscapes and the costume design in this film are incredibly vibrant adding a surreal energy to the film. Lead actress Miho Kanno shares in an interview that the costumes by costume designer Yohji Yamamoto are like pieces of a puzzle. However, it does seem a bit unreal that two beggars would be dressed so cleanly and nicely. There are some other parts that are a bit too surreal for me. The obsessed fan and what he does to be able to visit his idol and his conclusion seemed a bit too melodramatic. The yakuza boss’s ex-girlfriend and what she does and sacrifices, is another heartbreakingly melodramatic scene.
What really makes the film for me is the interaction the main female actress has with the lead male character outside in the snow. Just that small gesture, given in the context of the suffering they’ve endured thus far, is incredible. It’s an amazing performance by the lead actress Miho Kanno.
This reconciliation and how the ties that bind people can destroy them but also save them is a theme that stuck with me after the film.