Androids and the avant-garde: The best Japanese films screening at TIFF

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Special To The Japan Times

The Tokyo International Film Festival offers a once-a-year chance to see Japanese movies, both new and classic, with English subtitles. Getting tickets, however, especially for the films in the Competition and Special Screenings sections, may not be easy. With that caveat, here are my personal picks among the Japanese films this year:

Competition

All three of the Japanese films competing for the Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix deserve to be in TIFF’s highest-profile section, for different reasons.

“Foujita,” director Kohei Oguri’s first film in 10 years, faithfully outlines the rollercoaster career of its title artist, Tsuguharu “Leonard” Foujita, who was the toast of the prewar art world in Paris but was reviled for his wartime propaganda work in Japan. The film is a gorgeous cinematic work of art itself, with images of hallucinatory beauty.

Based on Oriza Hirata’s stage play about a dying woman being cared for by a humanoid robot, Koji Fukada’s sci-fi drama “Sayonara” is set in an apocalyptic near-future Japan, but uses no digital effects whatsoever in its slow build to a powerful, haunting climax.

“The Inerasable,” Yoshihiro Nakamura’s latest, may be labeled “horror,” but it’s more of an atmospheric mystery that delves into a dark past. As with so many of Nakamura’s films, various plot threads tie together in a skin-crawling climax.

Japanese Cinema Splash

This section of new Japanese indie films by mainly up-and-coming directors.

Eiji Uchida’s “Lowlife Love,” about a struggling director, is not quite the slacker comedy it seems. Ditching his likable real-guy image, Kiyohiko Shibukawa plays the director as a louse you love to hate, while Maya Okano stands out as an abused acting student you want to cheer.

One of the highlights of the 2013 TIFF Japanese Cinema Splash section was Rikiya Imaizumi’s drama “Sad Tea,” with its intricately constructed love story. His new film, “Their Distance,” promises more of the same romantic roundelay.

Special Screenings

Most local film adaptations of popular TV dramas are TV episodes writ large, but cop thriller “Mozu,” based on an Emmy-nominated TBS/Wowow series, promises to be different, headed by king-of-all-media “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, cast once again as a tough guy.

Japan Now

This new TIFF section is packed with excellent recent Japanese films, including Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Umimachi Diary” (“Our Little Sister”), Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Nobi” (“Fires on the Plain”), Nobuhiro Yamashita’s “Misono Universe” (“La La La at Rock Bottom”), Momoko Ando’s “0.5mm” and Masato Harada’s “The Emperor in August.” See my rave reviews about all of the above in The Japan Times’ online archives.

Japanese Cinema Classics

This section features digitally restored versions of Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 period epic “Ran” and two Kon Ichikawa films: 1958 drama “Conflagration” and 1970 documentary “Japan and the Japanese.” The last is a rarity that gives a fascinating glimpse of boom-era Japan.

Terayama Films

This section presents four films by playwright/director/writer/photographer Shuji Terayama, a leading figure in Japan’s postwar avant-garde. Included is “Farewell to the Ark,” the multi-generation family drama Terayama directed while seriously ill from the cirrhosis of the liver that killed him in 1983.

Ken Takakura and His Era

This selection of 10 films celebrates the career of late action icon Ken Takakura. One essential film is “Abashiri Bangaichi” (“Abashiri Prison”), Teruo Ishii’s taut, gritty 1965 prison-break film that shot Takakura to super-stardom.