Japanese films had a good 2004, even if eight of the 10 top box-office slots went to Hollywood. The Japanese exhibition business is coming to resemble the American one, with more multiplex screens and wider openings. This structure favors major Hollywood product — the latest “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings” — over the local, which is usually competitive only in certain formats (TV spinoffs, animation) or under certain brand names (Hayao Miyazaki, Godzilla).
This year, however, many big Hollywood titles underperformed, an indication that Hollywood’s grip on the local market is weakening. The glaring exception was “The Last Samurai,” which not only topped the year’s box-office chart, with 13.7 billion yen, but beat its U.S. gross. Meanwhile, several Japanese films outdid themselves, beginning with Isao Yukisada’s “Sekai no Chushin de Ai o Sakebu (Crying Out Love In the Center of the World).” This weeper about a man’s journey of remembrance for a lost teenage love grossed 8.4 billion yen, while leading the boom for so-called jun-ai (pure love) films and TV dramas.
Meanwhile, original talents emerged, including Kazuaki Kiriya (“Casshern”), Masaaki Yuasa (“Mind Game”) and Taku Tada and Gen Sekiguchi (“Survive Style+5″) and several veterans, including Yoichi Sai (“Chi to Hone”) and Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Dare Mo Shiranai”), turned in their strongest-ever work.
Hayao Miyazaki, as always, was in a class by himself. Despite being released on Nov. 20, his new animation “Howl’s Moving Castle” will not be listed on the Eiren’s official box-office chart for 2004. It is almost certain, however, to equal or better the all-time box-office record set by his “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away)” in 2001 with 30.5 billion yen.
Without further ado, my top 10 of Japanese films for 2004:
1) “Chi to Hone (Blood and Bones)”
A career-best film for director Sai, with a career-best performance by Takeshi Kitano, “Chi to Hone” is an unsparing, unsentimental look at the life of a monster: A Korean man who, in the early postwar years, becomes a family patriarch and successful businessman in Japan, but bullies and betrays everyone around him. An ethnic Korean himself, Sai knows his hero and his world inside out — and makes his story both compelling and appalling. Playing the hero, Kitano dominates the screen with chill efficiency and force.
2) “Dare Mo Shiranai (Nobody Knows)”
Based on a real incident and infused with Kore-eda’s documentary sensibility, this drama depicts the lives of four children, each with a different father, who are abandoned by their terminally irresponsible mother. The oldest boy (Yuya Yagira) tries to keep this unusual family unit intact, but over time, the children’s world unravels. Not a tear-jerker, “Dare Mo Shiranai” is rather a patiently observed, artfully filmed look at the realities of being young, alone and anonymous in an indifferent society.
3) “Howl no Ugoku Shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle)”
The first Miyazaki animation with a shojo manga-esque love story and hero — the temperamental, but charismatic wizard named Howl — “Howl’s Moving Castle” is still very much Miyazaki in its lovingly detailed faux European world and engagingly odd characters, including a testy flame called Calcifer and a mute bouncing scarecrow. Most of all, Miyazaki’s genius for creating moments of dream-like magic is still very much intact.
4) “Mind Game”
Not fitting into any genre or style, Yuasa’s debut feature is a wild, careening ride that takes its sad-sack twentysomething hero from an Osaka yakitoriya into the belly of a whale, with a stop-off in heaven as conceived by the Mad Hatter. On the way he discovers a new sexual confidence and a voracious appetite for life. “Mind Game” is to most Japanese animation what extreme skiing is to a schuss down the bunny slope.
5) “Survive Style+5″
This comedy by scriptwriter Tada and director Sekiguchi — a pair known for their award-winning TV ads — takes five story lines that seem to exist in parallel universes and weaves them into a surreal, slapsticky, upbeat comedy whose moral seems to be that love conquers all, even death and the laws of physics.
6) “Swing Girls”
Shinobu Yaguchi scores again with the zero-to-hero formula that made his 2001 comedy “Waterboys” a hit. This time, instead of teenage boys taking up synchro swimming, it’s teenage girls taking up swing jazz. Instead of running though the same changes, however, Yaguchi comes up with fresh licks that make “Swing Girls” a delight — as well as an excellent jazz primer. And the girls play their own instruments, with passion, energy and passable chops.
7) “Aoi Kuruma (A Blue Automobile)”
The hero (Arata) of Hiroshi Okuhara’s “Aoi Kuruma” — with spiky yellow hair and wrap-around shades — may be cool to the nth degree, but he is also wrestling with a childhood trauma that left him with a scarred eye and spirit. His volatile relationships with his career-woman lover and her sexually bold kid sister forces him to open up — and finally confront his demons. With a minimum of wastedmotion and a maximum of close observation, Okuhara builds a cinematic ride with heart and style.
Kazuaki Kiriya’s first feature may be based on a 1970s anime, but it revives the spirit of the great silent era folies de grandeur. Think “Metropolis,” but with digitally generated robot armies and an aesthetic inspired by Futurist art and early Soviet propaganda posters. The story, about rebel mutants on the rampage in an Orwellian alternative future, may be an operatic hodgepodge, but Kiriya’s vision has a nightmarish beauty and conviction.
Shinya Tsukamoto’s excursion into the farther reaches of the human anatomy and spirit, using cadavers to illustrate the finer points, verges on the morbid, if not the horrific. But as his medical student hero (Tadanobu Asano) dissects, he begins to retrieve memories he lost in a car crash — and reunite with the woman who died in it. Best known for his ultra-violence, Tsukamoto has created a love story that mixes lyricism with formalin to memorable effect.
10) “Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls)”
Tetsuya Nakashima certainly has fun with his film about two fashionistas — one into biker leather, the other into pink and frills — who become unlikely friends and allies. He also goes beyond easy stereotypes and laughs to create credible unconventional characters who admirably resist being pounded down. In the process of bringing them to life, Kyoko Fukada and Anna Tsuchiya enthusiastically trash their super-idol images.