Some years, the top four or five Japanese films quickly leap off my short list to my annual Best Ten. But this was not a great year for the local film industry, in terms of either box office or major awards winners. No masterpieces, in other words, though several have stayed with me, usually more for their performances or their story or their style, rather than all three combined.
1. “Tsumetai Nettaigyo (Cold Fish)”: The story of this Sion Sono shocker, about the mousy owner of a tropical-fish store who gets eaten alive, personally and professionally, by his piranha of a rival, is a bad dream brought to life with Sono’s by-now-patented Grand Guignol theatrics. The highlight is Denden’s superbly evil incarnation as the villain, all avid grins, hellacious rages and voracious appetites.
2. “Egoist (Keibetsu)”: Similarly riveting is Anne Suzuki’s performance as the gambler hero’s pole-dancing lover in this Ryuichi Hiroki drama. Instead of the usual wild/sexy rebel without a cause in this fable about young lovers on the lam, Suzuki plays the character as warily observant and self-aware, and besotted with Kengo Kora’s lean, wolfish lead. The climax to this overly long film is worth the wait, as Suzuki mesmerizes in one of Hiroki’s signature long takes.
3. “Moteki (Love Strikes!)”: Hitoshi One’s ensemble dramady is about a 29-year-old otaku (Mirai Moriyama) who suddenly finds himself attractive to women. Though based on a hit manga and TV series, the film functions as a cleverly conceived standalone overflowing with energy, both sexual and comic. Masami Nagasawa triumphantly sheds her boring nice-idol image as the hero’s nerdy but smoking-hot inamorata.
4. “Kigeki Konzen Tokkyu (Cannonball Wedlock)”: Newcomer Koji Maeda’s comedy is smart but original. The setup — a full-of-herself office lady (Yuriko Yoshitaka) decides to ditch four of her five boyfriends and marry the survivor — is Hollywood rom-com cute, but when the first to go, a pudgy bread-factory worker (Kenta Hamano), blithely rejects her rejection, the film goes its own engagingly inventive way.
5. “Kazoku X (Household X)”: Young filmmaker Koki Yoshida’s spare family drama abjures the usual narrative devices, including back story about its depressed, isolated housewife heroine and her uncommunicative husband and son. But Kaho Minami’s fiercely distilled performance as the housewife holds the attention moment to moment, as Yoshida’s camera sensitively tracks her descent into her domestic abyss — and her desperate attempt to escape it.
6. “Endingu Noto (Ending Note: Death of a Japanese Salesman)”: Mami Sunada uses her own family as documentary fodder, following her terminally ill father in the last months of his life. Despite the bouncy music and chirpy narration, the film provides an unflinching, unsentimental view of the dying process, as personified by a former workaholic salesman who plans every aspect of his end, beginning with a belated conversion to Christianity.
7. “Ichimai no Hagaki (Post Card)”: Announcing the end of his own career with this World War II drama was 99-year-old director Kaneto Shindo. It begins as a black comedy, with the spunky heroine (Shinobu Otake) waving off two successive husbands to meaningless war deaths. But it also delivers a heartfelt, if theatrically stylized, protest against war’s insanity, all the more powerful for its autobiographical echoes.
8. “Kiseki (I Wish)”: Yes, Hirokazu Koreeda’s family drama is a failed attempt at mainstream success, and yes, his 2004 masterpiece “Dare mo Shirenai (Nobody Knows)” is a more penetrating look at children’s lives. But this film about two brothers (played by real-life siblings) who try to bring their divorced parents back together has a lot of charm, as well as insight into the way kids actually think and behave. It’s “Tom Sawyer” comes to Kyushu.
9. “Ichimei (Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai)”: Takashi Miike’s period swashbuckler is not going make anyone forget the 1962 Masaki Kobayashi classic that inspired it. But Miike brings his own brand of pathos and violence to this tale of a hollow-eyed masterless samurai (Ebizo Ichikawa) who asks a powerful clan for permission to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) on its grounds — for reasons he later reveals, to the clan’s regret.
10. “My Back Page”: Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Age of Aquarius drama takes a long and winding road in telling its story of a self-inflated student radical (Kenichi Matsuyama) and self-conflicted young journalist (Satoshi Tsumabuki) who become uneasy friends and allies in the chaotic late 1960s and early 1970s. But Yamashita nails the anxious, ambivalent mood of the era better than even his directorial elders who lived through it.