It’s hard to be an optimist about the present state of Japanese cinema. One reason is the decline of the mid-budget film, previously the refuge of much quality work, with many talented directors going either fully commercial or extremely indie. Micro-budget films are not inferior per se but their subject matter tends to be limited. There are an awful lot of films now about slackers scraping by without partners or prospects. Some, with no apologies, are on my top 10 list for 2015.
10 Antonym (Rasen Ginga): In Natsuka Kusano’s debut feature, two women who are complete opposites — a self-absorbed wannabe scriptwriter (Yuri Ishizaka) and her shy, admiring co-worker (Asami Shibuya) — unexpectedly click as the latter polishes the former’s bad radio drama. Originally structured and sensitively directed, “Antonym” heralds the arrival of an important new talent.
9 Round Trip Heart (Romance): Yuki Tanada tells the story of an express train cart-pusher (Yuko Oshima) — who searches for her long-estranged mother accompanied by a dodgy movie producer (Koji Okura) — with wry humor, unforced warmth and a refreshing lack of respect for narrative conventions.
8 Bakuman: Hitoshi One’s feel-good drama about two high school boys trying to scale the Everest of the manga industry — “Weekly Shonen Jump” magazine — is everything big-audience Japanese films should be but rarely are: smartly structured, imaginatively shot and compulsively entertaining.
7 Obon Brothers (Obon no Ototo): The woebegone hero of Akira Ohsaki’s black-and-white semi-autobiographical film is an indie director (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) trying to get his long-delayed second film made, while sponging off his cranky elder brother (Ken Mitsuishi) and being divorced by his straight-talking wife (Makiko Watanabe). For all its laugh-out-loud moments, the film is more of a ruefully perceptive slice-of-life drama than a black comedy.
6 Being Good (Kimi wa Iiko): Mipo Oh’s ensemble drama centers on the struggles of ordinary people in impossible situations, including a young teacher (Kengo Kora) flailing in his first year in the classroom and a mother (Machiko Ono) sliding into the same abusive hell she experienced as a child. Unsparing in her truth telling, Oh is also understanding of her characters, while offering hope, if not pat solutions.
5 Kabukicho Love Hotel (Sayonara Kabukicho): Ryuichi Hiroki’s ensemble drama set in the title no-tell hotel begins as a dark comedy informed by the director’s early years in the so-called pink film (i.e., soft pornography) business. However, the stories of the hotel’s guests, staff and self-deluded manager (Shota Sometani) contain pathos as well as punch lines. As usual, Hiroki captures every nuance with his gently probing camera.
4 Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary): Hirokazu Koreeda’s off-beat family drama about a teenage girl (Suzu Hirose) who comes to live with her three adult half-sisters at their rambling house is less engaging than his best work. However, Hirose’s performance as a wary, if welcome, stranger in a tightly knit household is a small, bright gem that further confirms Koreeda’s genius as a director of the young and gifted.
3 100 Yen Love (Hyakuen no Koi): Masaharu Take’s boxing drama may have a slacker at its center, but Sakura Ando’s performance as aspiring pugilist Ichiko is anything but standard. When she decides to give meaning to her drifting existence by becoming a professional boxer, the film soars with with training and fight scenes of raw intensity. “Rocky,” step aside.
2 Fires on the Plain (Nobi): Shinya Tsukamoto brings his own cyberpunk, fiercely anti-war sensibility to this story, based on Shohei Ooka’s semi-autobiographical novel about Japanese soldiers in the Philippines during the desperate last days of World War II. Shot on a tiny budget with the action viewed through the bleary eyes of its frightened, somehow determined hero, “Fires on the Plain” is nightmarishly powerful.
1 Three Stories of Love (Koibitotachi): Ryosuke Hashiguchi developed this ensemble drama from an actor’s workshop and cast it with unknowns. But he has also finely honed its loosely connected stories of three people emotionally adrift: a lonely bridge inspector (Atsushi Shinohara) grieving his murdered wife, a middle-aged housewife longing to escape her stultifying home life and a homosexual lawyer rightfully dumped by his younger lover. The climax is both a brilliant tying together and a quietly stirring celebration of life.