Japanese films did quite well both commercially and critically in 2013, with Hayao Miyazaki’s final feature animation, “Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises),” thumping the Hollywood competition at the local box office. But the industry’s over-reliance on sure-thing manga, TV shows and novels for source material has put a damper on its creativity, while abroad the demand for quirky, violent films from Japan is still strong. Often lost in the cracks are good indie films that try to tell original stories about actual human beings.
1. “Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya)”: Likely to be the last film by 78-year-old Ghibli anime maestro Isao Takahata, this retelling of this 10th-century Japanese folktale is also among his best. Beautifully animated, exhilaratingly imaginative and heartbreakingly sad, it exemplifies better than any film in recent memory the aesthetic of mono no aware — the pathos inherent in all things.
2. “Soshite Chichi ni Naru (Like Father, Like Son)”: The best of current directors making films in the Japanese humanist tradition, Hirokazu Koreeda has created another extraordinary drama: two boys switched at birth, whose respective parents decide to exchange them. Like the best of Koreeda’s films, this one not only stirs emotions but also challenges viewers to examine their own values, priorities and lives.
3. “Yokomichi Yonosuke (A Story of Yonosuke)”: Shuichi Okita’s drama about a naive country bumpkin who strives to mix with his more sophisticated peers at a 1980s Tokyo college avoids the usual fish-out-water clichés. Instead, Okita has filmed a touchingly perceptive examination into the impact one life can have on others, even decades later.
4. “Kyoaku (The Devil’s Path)”: Based on a nonfiction novel, Kazuya Shiraishi’s tale of a dogged reporter (Takayuki Yamada) who digs up the truth about a series of murders is less a crime thriller than an unvarnished study of human nature at its most evil. Lily Franky is brilliantly cast against type as a wily, ruthless demon in human guise.
5. “Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises)”: Hayao Miyazaki’s farewell to feature animation is also a highly personal film whose airplane-designer hero, dedicated to making beautiful war machines, embodies Miyazaki’s own contradictions as an outspokenly anti-war artist who is nonetheless a lifelong World War II aviation buff. Full of animation brilliance, from a frighteningly realistic earthquake sequence to gorgeous evocations of prewar Japan, it is also an old-fashioned tearjerker.
6. “Sayonara Keikoku (The Ravine of Goodbye)”: Tatsushi Omori takes a story repellent on its surface — a woman becomes the lover of her rapist — and creates a tense, credible drama about the contradictions of the human heart, as well as the consequences of regretted crimes. Yoko Maki plays the abused heroine with a fine balance of simmering rage and weary resignation.
7. “Thallium Shojo no Dokusatsu Nikki (GFP Bunny)”: Yutaka Tsuchiya boldly mixes documentary and drama in this film, based on a true incident, about a teenaged girl who poisons her mother in the interest of “scientific research.” Referencing everything from extreme body modification to bleeding-edge genetic research, this engaging film is disturbingly unperturbed about our possible future as self-designed humanoid entities.
8. “Homesick”: Satoru Hirohara’s film is a coming-of-age drama, though its slacker hero, an unemployed house painter living alone, is pushing 30. Despite the hero’s adventures with three neighborhood kids, the predominant mood is one of melancholy, as time relentlessly marches on. The film offers no easy answers to his dilemma, only piquant observations about life on the margins and childhood’s long-delayed end.
9. “Ore Ore (It’s Me, it’s Me)”: Satoshi Miki’s surreal comedy about a man who begins to encounter versions of himself in a world gone mad is a mind-bending excursion into the absurd. Miki may insert sly gags into the background, but in the foreground he explores questions of individual identity and existential truth with an unbridled imagination.
10. “Nihon no Higeki (Japan’s Tragedy)”: Masahiro Kobayashi’s dark drama about life among Japan’s dispossessed frames primal performances from Tatsuya Nakadai as a terminally ill man who nails himself inside a room to die with his memories and Kazuki Kitamura as his emotionally fragile son. Stark and unrelenting, the film concludes on a note surprisingly upbeat, at least for Kobayashi.
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