The Japan Times’ three film writers got together before Christmas to discuss their top picks of movies released this year. Unusually, this year both Giovanni Fazio and Kaori Shoji agreed on their No. 1, choosing “The Broken Circle Breakdown.” Mark Schilling picked Mipo Oh’s “Soko Nomi Nite Hikari Kagayaku” (“The Light Shines Only There”).

Soko Nomi Nite Hikari Kagayaku (The Light Shines Only There)

M.S.: I heard that “Soko Nomi Nite Hikari Kagayaku, ” was Japan’s nominee for the best foreign language Oscar. But even without that pedigree, I would have picked this as my No. 1. It didn’t take me long to make that decision — for me, there was no competition for that slot.

K.S.: What else did you like this year?

M.S.: “0.5 mm,” by Momoko Ando. It stars Sakura Ando. You know, in Japanese cinema this has been a good year for women, with Naomi Kawase’s film being selected for Cannes and Sakura Ando winning best actress at the Hochi Film Awards. But going back to the “Light,” this one is a real winner. In the end, the light really shines.

G.F.: I really liked Tatsuji, the brother. I thought he was spot-on as the punk who never got any breaks.

M.S.: Yeah, he’s almost the stereotypical Japanese punk — obnoxious, dirty teeth and all that — but he energizes the film. Otherwise, it’s mostly Go Ayano being dark and moody. And Chizuru Ikewaki, whose career I’ve followed for years, being wounded but still sexy.

G.F.: Yeah, Ayano being Tadanobu Asano. But the film is best described as doro doro (dark and muddy). The way Ayano and Ikewaki makes love in the ocean — that’s so doro doro.

K.S.: But Chizuru Ikewaki is like that. To me, she’s the epitome of the Showa Era woman, the woman who’s always had it rough and is never glamorous but full of sexuality — that sort of thing.

G.F.: The thing I liked best was the milieu and ambience. It really caught the poverty level and seediness of small-town Japan. Every detail felt believable, but one problem was that Ayano’s character falls for Ikewaki’s character knowing she’s flawed. I mean, she works in a bar as a prostitute, she has a yakuza boyfriend and she also does another unmentionable thing — which is a spoiler — but anyway, for me that was when the story hit the speed bumps.

K.S.: Not for me. To me, it all comes in a set: prostitution, yakuza boyfriend and this other thing — as it so often does in small-town Japan. Interestingly, the original author of this story is from that background, and though he was a candidate for the Akutagawa Prize several times, he never made it and killed himself at 41.

M.S.: It’s not a mutiplex film, to be sure. The director (Mipo Oh) is Korean-Japanese, a very petite woman with a very tough will and a strong presence. She took chances that a more established director would never take.

The Broken Circle Breakdown

G.F.: Shall we move onto “The Broken Circle Breakdown”? The closing scene was on YouTube, but it’s hard to find the DVD on rental shelves, even though it opened way back in February.

M.S.: Yeah, in the U.S. it only made about $30,000 dollars.

G.F.: But the band in the film is actually on tour now. They started touring after the film was made.

M.S.: What really struck me in the beginning was — wow, these Belgian people in this Belgian film are singing bluegrass. I couldn’t get over that.

K.S.: Yeah, and in perfect southern accents.

G.F.: I would try to explain how good the film was, but as soon as I told people that it’s a Belgian movie about bluegrass singers, their eyes would glaze over.

M.S.: It reminded me of the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line.” But it’s not a success story in the same way that Johnny Cash’s was.

G.F.: It’s got contradictory messages on so many levels. All the songs are from the good old days in the Deep South, and they have a real redemptive quality. But the music still couldn’t redeem them (the main couple in the story) from the tragedy of losing their child.

K.S.: There’s a lot of religion and politics going on, too.

G.F.: Yeah, they loved the U.S. and the American South and the husband embraces the whole culture: cowboy hats, bluegrass, pick-up trucks and all the rest of it. But he’s also an atheist, which clashes with the Bible Belt culture, and he hates George W. Bush who is from the South.

K.S.: I thought it was brilliant how the husband lifts the whole American cowboy culture from watching TV and learning to play bluegrass and mimics the whole thing, and yet it still felt so authentic.

M.S.: The guy (Johan Heldenbergh) reminded me of Kris Kristofferson back in the day. Over-the-hill hippie.

G.F.: But the music was gorgeous. Without the music, the movie wouldn’t exist.

M.S.: It’s wasn’t meta, like “Leningrad

Cowboys” — they played it straight.

G.F.: The husband loved the music, and he could play it so well but he didn’t believe in it.

M.S.: Yeah, he went only so far with it, and mocked his wife who tried to take comfort from the lyrics, and from religion. I wanted that guy to be punished.

G.F.: He was a dick. But in the end, he’s punished — he realizes what he’s lost.

K.S.: I have a feeling that maybe it wasn’t enough of a punishment.

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