It’s pretty easy to critique the Japanese live-action film industry. While the number of domestic products being made has steadily increased over the past couple of decades, comparatively few of them have made enough money to be deemed mainstream hits while many struggle to even recoup production costs. It’s an industry riddled with earnest but terrible acting (because flavour-of-the-week models, TV personalities, musicians and idol group members are often hired in place of professional actors) and littered with a huge amount of derivative content (since so many films are based on flavour-of-the-week anime and manga franchises aimed squarely at already-established fanbases). In terms of available budgets and overall quality, the Japanese film industry simply cannot be compared to its American counterpart.
While all this may sound like I’m painting an overly bleak picture of mainstream Japanese live-action films (arthouse cinema being a totally different topic that I might deal with in a separate post sometime), there are a number of exceptions to the rule. I’d like to take the opportunity to introduce a few of them here, particularly for new viewers interested in checking out some films that are visually strong, showcase decent acting, and aren’t based on preexisting anime or manga.
Going in chronological order, let’s start with Zatoiichi, released in the U.S as The Blind Swordsman: Zatoiichi. The character himself has been around for a long time – he’s based on the classic figure that started tearing up the screen back in the 1960s and has seen a ton of remakes in TV as well as film ever since – but this particular version of him is hands down my favourite. It also happens to be my favourite Kitano “Beat” Takeshi film by a long shot, and since he directed, wrote, co-edited, and starred in it, this is absolutely a Beat Takeshi film, albeit perhaps more ‘normal’ than his usual fare. The man has a lot of credits to his name but I can’t help but still see him as a comedian before anything else – and that’s not a critique in this case but a compliment. Zatoiichi is not a comedy, it’s a sometimes quite bloody action piece and a samurai drama, but Beat Takeshi brings a charmingly light-hearted touch to what might otherwise have been an overly serious or conventionally dull affair. Most importantly of all it’s a fun watch, and also one that adds a distinct sense of freshness and originality (and dare I say it, even artistry) to a highly traditional genre.
Kamikaze Girls/Shimotsuma Monogatari (2004)
This was based on a light novel originally released in 2002, but keep in mind before you run away screaming that this is not an anime. I happen to think that the light novel format actually quite suits the transition to the big screen, if only because the stories tend to fit those quirky one-shots a lot better than they do episodic content. And if I could use only one word to describe Kamikaze Girls then it would definitely be ‘quirky’ – this is a vaguely surreal, purposefully over-the-top and definitely tongue-in-cheek film that nonetheless makes for an easy watch, mostly because its sense of humour feels so very genuine. At some points it might almost be called a parody rather than just a chick-flick comedy, but the great thing about Kamikaze Girls is that it doesn’t rest on in-jokes and genre convention and as such never comes across as stale or contrived. It also helps a great deal that main duo Fukada Kyoko and Tsuchiya Anna have a fantastic dynamic going on, and they bounce off each other so well that it all seems remarkably natural despite the movie’s inherent poppy weirdness. The snappy editing style is a lot of fun too, and I had no idea until long after I first watched it that Kanno Yoko (of Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Wolf’s Rain, and Zankyou no Terror fame) was the composer here as well. The amount of talent behind this one really shines through.
Shinobi: Heart Under Blade (2005)
The 1950s novel The Kouga Ninja Scrolls has spawned numerous adaptations, probably most famously the manga and anime series Basilisk (of which I’m not particularly fond). Shinobi: Heart Under Blade is a different beast entirely, which uses the same character names but otherwise is a product all on its own; you can (and should) view it as a stand-alone production with basically no relation to any of the other adaptations out there. I’ll get this out of the way first, the movie isn’t really on par with the others listed here. It’s cheesy and not particularly deep, it’s merely competent in its delivery rather than great, and it conforms in every single way to its genre and storyline (think Romeo and Juliet with ninjas). That said, it conforms in the best way possible in that it’s basically perfected its material to become the best ninja drama/romance showdown of its kind that I’ve seen to date. The action is fun without being stupidly overdone, most of the acting is surprisingly solid despite the cliché writing, and everything’s paced well the whole way through. If you’re after something of decent quality but don’t want to have to think or even concentrate too hard, Shinobi might be just the movie for you.
It’s impossible to write any post at all about good Japanese films and not mention Okuribito. Very loosely based on the 1993 memoir Coffinman written by a Buddhist mortician, Okuribito is a heartfelt drama with just enough well-timed comedic moments to save it from being a too-heavy watch. It also performs beautifully in nearly every way but especially in terms of its cinematography and musical score. Though it occasionally slips from quietly emotive to a touch overwrought – the acting is good overall but at times a little melodramatic – the film generally maintains a nicely grounded atmosphere that suits its rural setting. Much of the praise from critics upon its release came from its visual and musical polish though, and rightly so; this is an unmistakably high-quality production, and the soundtrack in particular is positively dreamy. You have Fujisawa Mamoru to thank for that, better known by fans as Joe Hisaishi, who’s done most of his composing for Ghibli films including Spirited Away (of which Okuribito’s music is very reminiscent). Bottom line is that if you have an appreciation for the cello or gorgeous background shots, or have any interest whatsoever in how Japan approaches death from a cultural perspective, this is a definite must-watch.
Lala Pipo: A Lot of People (2009)
If Kamikaze Girls was too much for you then you should probably avoid Lala Pipo; the screenplay was done by Nakashima Tetsuya who directed and scripted the former film, and his hand really shows in the…. again, shall we say ‘quirky’ manner of delivery. Lala Pipo, based on the 2005 novel by the same name, is an altogether sharper and more adult affair than Kamikaze Girls though – which is probably to be expected given that the story revolves around a bunch of intersecting characters all involved one way or another in the Japanese porn industry. The humour is morbid enough to border on black at times and there are a couple of moments that definitely push the boundaries in taste, so if you’re the kind to get easily offended then again, you may want to give Lala Pipo a miss. If on the other hand you’re up for something vibrantly colourful, brilliantly cast, weirdly upbeat despite the content, and more than a little bit crazy, then Lala Pipo should be fun and cheeky in all the rights ways. I hasten to add that although it’s about the porn industry (sort of – it’d probably be more accurate to say that this is a character-driven work rather than one that sheds any major light on the industry itself), it’s not a porn movie. It’s certainly not a kids movie either, but most of what you see onscreen is relatively tame.
Shiawase no Pan/Bread of Happiness (2012)
Of all the titles listed here, this is the one I suspect most people likely haven’t seen or maybe even heard of. It’s an original story (there’s a game-based anime of the same name floating about but that’s purely coincidence – they have absolutely nothing to do with each other), and I don’t even know whether or not it ever received an official release outside of Japan. Still, if you can track a copy down then it’d be well worth the effort because this is a perfectly lovely film, albeit not anything ground-breaking or out there. Shiawase no Pan is a quiet drama set in small-town Hokkaido, and like the bakery/restaurant our main characters run is warm and sweet. Made up of a series of vignettes centered around the diverse mix of visitors who for one reason or another find their way to the bakery, the story is unified through the personal journey of the two owners Rie and Nao (but especially Rie), as well as through the overarching sense of nostalgic comfort via actual comfort food. So much love is put into their bread that it literally brings happiness to the people who eat it, and that translates over into the feel of the movie itself.
Question of the post: Do you have any favourite live-action Japanese movies that aren’t based on anime/manga? I’ve seen a fair few but this isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, so let me know your recommendations in the comments!