Favourite Japanese Films Of The Decade

Konnichi wa. Firstly, yes, I know it’s a little late, but you know what else is late? YOUR FACE.

You know, it actually took me some time to choose a film which I loved as much as the other 9 films on this list. Sure, there were some Studio Gibli flicks I could have picked, and any number of other horror films, but I wanted the films here to be more than just mere entertainment; they had to be films which affected me on a deeper level, and be the sort of film I would kill and eat your grandmother for if I thought that would help in getting another person to see it.

Enjoy your meal granny - it will be your last
Enjoy your meal, granny – it will be your last

I restricted myself to having only one film per director here, otherwise the list would have been saturated by Miike and Sono. On top of that,  as even though I watched a lot of Japanese films this decade, their early burst of quality was eventually usurped by films from other Asian countries, particularly South Korea. I may do a Top 10 Asian films Of The Decade soon, but don’t hold your breath. Seriously, you’ll probably die.

It's A Me - Dy-ing!
It’s A Me – Dy-ing!

So, without further Apu, I present my list. As always, feel free to leave your comments in the section below. Labelled COMMENTS.

10. Fish Story

Something Fishy This Way Comes
Something Fishy This Way Comes

So many Japanese filmmakers saw the success of directors like Miike and thought that they could simply make wacky, bizarre adventures and have a hit on their hands. While some of these undoubtedly succeeded, most were embarrassing and the only thing weird or quirky about them is how everyone involved didn’t do a Suicide Club train leap when they were completed. Fish Story has a funny name, sure, and you’d be forgiven for thinking this is just another zany trip into Otaku paradise. Before watching that’s pretty much what I thought. There is weirdness sure, but it all feels normal, and is played fairly straight throughout. The main strangeness comes from the unusual structure of the film – it leaps around in time, throwing you into the middle of things with a new bunch of characters without warning, tells you a quick story, and then moves on sharply. With all this leaping you would think the pacing would suffer or you would get frustrated, but astonishingly, quite the opposite is true; The movie is evenly paced, and while it revs up and slows down at points (as all films must) this all feels organic. If you pay attention throughout you can make most of the connections between characters and scenes, and the final payoff reveals all in a wonderful way, even if it isn’t necessarily surprising.

There are several standout scenes here which alone should warrant you watching it and saving your grandmother from an imminent, cannibalistic end – the punk band playing through Fish Story in the recording studio, one character channeling Neo on board a Cruise Ship, and of course, the ending which ties up the tale. The film has action, romance, great music, and those scenes at the start for some reason were creepy to me and put me on edge as I thought I had been misled and that it was, in fact, a horror movie.

9. The Twilight Samurai

It Says 'If You Read Off This Parchment, You Will Die In 7 Days'
It Says ‘If You Read Off This Parchment, You Will Die In 7 Days’

The Samurai movie hadn’t been big business for quite some time, and although the two are only distantly related, I credit the surprise success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with causing the resurgence in Samurai movies. Directors now saw that martial arts movies could have a decent, credible plot now, which led to a host of smarter sword fighting movies, historical epics with some sword fighting thrown in to balance the drama, and eventually to films similar to The Twilight Samurai. Yamada’s quiet, introspective film has moments of beauty and humour, tragedy and warmth, telling a simple story of a reluctant, low ranking Samurai who cares more about the welfare of his senile mother and young daughters than his own appearance, stature, wealth, or self. The film is engaging thanks to a carefully thought out script, gorgeous cinematography, endearing characters, and top-notch acting. Despite a raft of awards and nominations, including being the first Japanese film in over twenty years to be nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award, it’s not one that many people talk about or appear to have seen.

8. Noroi

Nope nope nope
Nope nope nope

As you will all be aware, ever since Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield, there has been a ridiculous influx of POV/documentary style horror movies. Once again, some of these have been very good (Troll Hunter) while others have not (Unmentionable low budget POV rip off#3). Noroi is interesting in two ways – first because it appeared 3 years before Cloverfield, 2 before Paranormal Activity, and second, because it appeared arguably after the J-Horror bubble had burst. That explains why no-one has seen it then. Koji Shiraishi is a vetran of the found footage genre, and with Noroi he merges deftly typical J-Horror tropes, reality TV escapades, and psychological terror to create something deeply unsettling. This is like Cannibal Holocaust for the 21st Century, but without all the raping and tortoise massacre. This has a complex structure for its sub-genre, dealing with various timeframes and people and places, all to give the impression of a true documentary or police report, although like most horror films it is a series of low burning scares leading to the terrifying conclusion.

I don’t want to give much of the story away for those of you who haven’t seen it, but it’s basically the story of a paranormal investigator who has gone missing, and what we see are his last whereabouts – a collection of tapes and interviews concerning a curse. This is a slow burner, but it’s intriguing enough, realistic enough, and punctuated by enough freaky moments to keep you watching until shit gets unreal at the end.

7. Zatoichi

He's gonna get it in the gunnells.
He’s gonna get it in the gunnells.

Takeshi Kitano has long been an icon in Japan and beyond, his films often lyrical, yet violent glimpses into modern man. With Zatoichi he goes back to the past and delivers an epic re-telling of the blind Samurai legend, and what is probably his best film. Zatoichi has all the trademarks of Kitano – madcap humour, slapstick, existentialism, quiet scenes destroyed by sharp, explosive violence, characters who say more with their actions than their words, but there is so much more to enjoy here – the strange musical moments where the background cast act out the soundtrack whilst going around their daily business, the turning-on-their-head of various tropes and expectations, and of course, Kitano’s excellent performance as the lead. This has healthy doses of action but like Kitano’s best work, it is the way he draws us into the story with his loveable loser characters which is the heart of the movie, and which keeps the audience returning for more.

6. Departures

Have A Pebble. Merry Christmas, dear
Have A Pebble. Merry Christmas, dear

For what was seen by some fools as ‘a shock’, Departures became the first film since Twilight Samurai to get an Oscar nomination and gave Japan its first official Oscar win for Best Foreign Film. A glorious film, it is a simple drama about one man’s life, a man who takes a job performing funeral rites (dressing and preparing bodies) and the repercussions he experiences (the job is seen as an ugly, low-caste, relic of the past, similar to being a talent show judge). What is most surprising is the film’s ability to suck you completely into its world and have you smiling, crying, laughing effortlessly. It’s difficult to point out what it is precisely that pulls us in, but you can take your pick from the performances, the wonderful soundtrack from Joe Hisaishi, the unexpected humour, the reflections from the story you will inevitably see in your own life. It is a poignant, old-fashioned drama with enough emotional content to charm even the most heartless viewer.

5. Ju-On: The Grudge

9, 10, never sleep again
9, 10, never sleep again

At the height of my Japan obsession, Ju-On: The Grudge was released, and I was hooked. Having grown up on horror films and feeling like I had seen it all, it was a moment of epiphany when I first saw Ringu. The Grudge took J-Horror to the next level, merging all the quiet moments of Ringu and its ilk, with the all-out, played for shocks stylings of Hollywood Horror’s best. The Grudge was not interested in hanging around and building tension for 80 minutes before unleashing its big scare, but instead, it goes for the jugular from the opening minutes, providing scare after scare, thrill after thrill, and still manages to save the best till last. Ostensibly the third in the Ju-On series, this can be taken as the real starting point as it was the first cinema release. Relating its tale in segments, with overlapping time frames and characters, you get the uneasy feeling that no-one is safe, everyone’s fate is inevitable, and worse – that this film is only a tiny part of the overall terror spreading. Shimizu does an immense job with a limited budget, mixing old school scares with some ultra-inventive and original moments, using make-up and effects to perfection, and like Carpenter with Halloween, employing every trick in the book to pack in as many scares as possible. The sound effects are chilling, the performances all have a ghostly coldness to them, and the ending is not Hollywood. Arguably the peak of J-Horror before the genre began to wind down.

4. Visitor Q

A child-friendly image
A child-friendly image

It’s not easy to pick your favourite Miike film, because he is like the entire history of cinema rolled up into one chaotic collapse. He has touched on so many genres, he makes a million movies a year, and he has had so many great films that picking a favourite is as unenviable a task as overhearing a Twilight versus 50 Shades discussion. Visitor Q gets my vote because it was the first Miike film which really pushed all of the boundaries he had previously flung himself at. From violence to incest to sadomasochism to necrophilia, all wrapped up with the blackest of humour, and under the guise of a family’s return to love and redemption, it is his anti-commercial masterpiece. The documentary quality versus the ridiculous goings-on is interesting and never feels like a gimmick, each performance is first-rate, it doesn’t suffer from the deliberately, often confusing bizarre business that some of Miike’s other work has, but rather seems like a hyper-real depiction of a fucked-up family. It’s incredibly funny, and in the end, ultimately heartwarming, even if it does makes you question why you would watch such a film. That song over the end credits is great too.

There are plenty of memorable moments, such as the- well, I don’t want to spoil anything for the uninitiated, but every time I watch that firework scene my jaw drops – and it’s not even that important a scene in the movie.

3. Ringu 0

Oh lord, now you've done it...
Oh lord, now you’ve done it…

The Ring series gets a lot of hate outside of the original (and don’t get me started on the remake), but I think the sequels are terrific films in their own right. Ring 2 ups the number of scares from the original, but gets bogged down in explanation. Ringu 0 mostly gets back to basics, telling the story of Sadako’s origins in a tragic, haunting, horrific way, and it is the prettiest to look at, and most emotive film of the first three films. Norio Tsuruta echoes Nakata’s style, but instead lets us draw more feeling from the characters. We learn, in a Carrie-esque way about Sadako’s upbringing – she is a quiet outsider trying to make her way as an actress but due to jealousy from others and a series of strange events, she is led down her gripping path to her inevitable demise. As a worshipping fan of Ringu this is like a gift from the Gods – not only is it a genuinely brilliant follow-up to that classic, but it works well as a standalone film. There are many standout performances here, particularly from Yukie Nakama, and the scares are effective. Rather than the threatening presence from the previous films, here the evil Sadako is in full-on Terminator mode, and even at times seems gleeful in her victim stalking – this rings (sorry) true as this is the moment where she is first set free.

There are a couple of excellent moments here which truly raise the film into the best of the best ranks – the entire chase through the forest when Sadako gives herself over to her evil twin, the screen saturates, all life and colour draining, and the final, horrific, horrible, twist scene which is at once brilliant, and tear-jerkingly awful.

2. Love Exposure

Six hours!?
Six hours!?

Love Exposure, for me at least, came blasting out of nowhere – it had been some time since a Japanese movie had truly grabbed me and not let go, but when Sion Sono’s epic popped up it was like my original love of Japanese movies had been uncovered all over again, like a virgin, touched for the very first time, again. Like Miike, you never know what you are going to get with Sono, from a genre and style perspective, but you know that you will be interested and generally in for a good time. This is a tale of love between father and son, son and pants, son and girl, girl and cult, cult and something, director and movies, audience and movies, director and music, and exposes these loves and relationships in no uncertain terms. It’s difficult to put into words how much I love this film, and again it is one which seems to have a magnetic power over anyone who comes within its radius.

There is a glorious soundtrack, a music video quality at times which doesn’t take away from the substance (unlike say, Confessions), the performances are uniformly of the highest quality, especially from Nishijima, it is funny, heart-breaking, hair-pullingly awkward, and not nearly long enough at 4 hours. I need to see the 6 hour version. As you will see from the site’s wallpaper, I like this movie….

1. Battle Royale

These games are filling me with... hunger...
These games are filling me with… hunger…

Honestly, it couldn’t really be anything else, could it? The best film of the decade, regardless of country, genre, or anything else Battle Royale is also the most important film of the decade. This is a film which all children should watch in school, a film which all film students should study, a film which deserves to be revered in the same breath as any film on those Best Ever lists. If you’re reading this list, I’ll assume you’ve seen it, so there’s no sense in discussing it any further. As perfect as film as any film could be, do all grannies a favour and force their grandchildren to watch. Now.

And once you’re done with the watching, you can let me know your thoughts in the comments below, as mentioned above and have a go at the poll.

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3 thoughts on “Favourite Japanese Films Of The Decade

  1. Arria Cross September 20, 2015 / 3:21 pm

    Hello Carlos. This is a great list. Thanks for sharing it with me. I only watched 2: “Ju-on” & “Ringu”. Pretty common, as I don’t watch a lot of Japanese movies or drama for that matter. However, “Noroi” sounds intriguing. I’ll hunt for it and gather the courage to watch it. . .or maybe grab an unsuspecting friend to watch it with me. 😉
    That being said, I don’t know 80% of the titles you included in this list. All of them sounds interesting. Great post. Keep it up. Cheers!

    • carlosnightman September 20, 2015 / 4:19 pm

      Thanks! Noroi is probably the most difficult to find, while Departures would be the most ‘mainstream’ film on the list, but they’re all worth a shot.

      • Arria Cross September 20, 2015 / 7:44 pm

        You’re welcome and thanks! I’ll try hunting for “Noroi”.

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