Are Japanese films in decline? Not at the box office, where they still beat the Hollywood competition (with the huge exception this year of “Frozen”), but what about international festival invitations, awards and critical buzz? The answer depends on your perspective. For overseas festivals specializing in Asian, genre or animated films, Japan still looms large. But on those elevated planes where competition selections are made for the Cannes Film Festival and nominees are chosen for foreign language Oscars, Japanese filmmakers figure less in the conversation, and those who emerged in the current millennium figure hardly at all. That said, they and their elders still make films that challenge and engage, including the ones on my top 10 list for 2014.
Mipo Oh’s uncompromising drama about two life-battered outsiders who find each other in the grittier parts of Hakodate, Hokkaido, is not an easy sit, with scenes that repulse as well as reveal. But the struggle of Chizuru Ikewaki’s hard-nosed prostitute and Go Ayano’s unemployed guy, with his drinking problems and dark past, to get to the titular light is powerful and real. Masaki Suda shines as the heroine’s hyperactive, hard-to-read younger brother.
Daihachi Yoshida’s film about a housewife-turned-bank-employee who slips into embezzlement may have a caper movie arc, but it’s more of finely layered character study, anchored by Rie Miyazawa’s incredible performance as a woman who boldly and disastrously flouts society’s rules, beginning with her taking of a college-boy lover (Sosuke Ikematsu).
3. Tokyo Tribe
Sion Sono’s rap musical, set in a gang-ruled near-future Tokyo, may impress some as being blatant cultural appropriation and others as cheeky parody, but Japan’s rap scene is real and Sono is thoroughly conversant with the genre. The result is high-energy entertainment surprisingly close in spirit to “Cabaret,” with Shota Sometani serving as a louche Joel Grey-like MC.
Tetsuichiro Tsuta’s indie epic about a young woman (Rina Takeda) coming of age in a remote Shikoku valley, with a silent adoptive father (Min Tanaka) and struggling urban escapee (Shima Onishi) for company, segues midway from social to magical realism. Gorgeously shot on 35 mm, the film make the transition with an imaginative sureness informed by Tsuta’s lifelong acquaintance with his characters’ mysterious milieu.
5. 0.5 Miri (0.5 mm)
Momoko Ando’s drama about a young caregiver (Ando’s sister Sakura) who makes a precarious living by attaching herself to strange elderly men, takes chances in both its offbeat subject matter and its rambling road-movie execution. But Ando’s enigmatic heroine fascinates even as she puzzles, while the film’s observations about the hardships of growing old in present-day Japan are blackly funny and piercingly true.
Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s drama about the incestuous relationship that develops between an orphaned girl (Fumi Nikaido) and the distant relative who becomes her guardian (Tadanobu Asano) is disturbing and gripping in equal measures. Nikaido segues stunningly from a bubbly girl with a dark secret to an adult woman with a dead core, who has icy control over the ruined man who once dominated her.
This comedy drama by Hitoshi One, which began life as an actors’ workshop, features four women and five men on the social margins in a raucous romantic roundelay. Never condescending but often surprising in its twists, the film explodes beyond its stagy set-up to entertaining and revelatory effect.
Ayumi Sakamoto’s debut feature about two former high school classmates who become frenemies once they work together has a unusual structure, capped by a brilliant 24-minute one-cut climax, as well as an unusually astute feel for how relationships between women can evolve and corrosively dissolve.
Koji Fukada’s tribute to the romantic dramas of Eric Rohmer has a summer-by-the-seaside story that unfolds with a casual naturalism that is nonetheless artfully structured. Fumi Nikaido’s college student heroine ably serves as its all-seeing, truth-telling center.
This comedy by Yosuke Fujita stars TV comic Miyuki Oshima as a shaven-headed guy with a good heart and an allergy to females. His late introduction to romance is laugh-out-loud funny in Fujita’s usual dry, deadpan style, though the story is more about the pains and joys of human connection, played charmingly straight.