My Desert Island: Japanese Films

When I lived in Japan, I didn’t watch many films. My Japanese never developed to the extent that I could really understand films without subtitles, which generally ruled out the cinema. Anyway, I was more often focussed on exploring the world outside. But cinema was a route to Japan for me, and now I’m back on the other island frontier of Eurasia, I’ve been watching a lot of films. I’ve also been rewatching some of my favourites, and discovering a new richness and subtlety that I missed before.

This year, I cried watching The Long Goodbye, a deeply moving story about dementia and its effects on a family. It made me think about the emotional power of so much of the Japanese cinema I fell in love with. So without further ado, here’s my desert island films- eight pieces of Japanese cinema I’d take with me to tropical exile.

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After the Storm8  海よりもまだ深く/  After the Storm (Koreeda Hirokazu, 2016)

Interestingly, the title of this film in Japanese, ‘umi yori mo mada fukaku‘ translates as ‘Still Deeper than the Sea’. I don’t know why the title selected for the English release was so different, but I prefer the Japanese, which is less literal and more lyrical.

These two hours will absorb you totally in the difficult family life of Ryota, a novelist bereft of inspiration, who gambles away his money and has finally exhausted the patience of his now estranged wife. The beauty of the movie is in its understatedness- Ryota doesn’t destroy himself or his family, and they don’t cast him out, but he chips away at them nonetheless, from the sister who distrusts him to his gentle, fatalistic mother. Ryota tries to find paths back into the family, bribing his son Shingo in the way only a divorced parent can get away with, and clumsily trying to rekindle a sexual relationship with his wife.

The film is a powerful portrait of an addiction, but it isn’t primarily that- it’s a story of generations within a family. The film wouldn’t be half as strong without its excellent supporting characters, like the long-suffering matriarch, grandmother Yoshiko, whose long life has taught her that things don’t always turn out the way you want, but sorrow for the past has little purpose. However, most of all it’s a deeply empathetic study of the relationship between separated parents and their son. Profoundly ambiguous about the role of Ryota in his son’s life, Koreeda questions whether the decision to remain close to a troubled parent should be made by the child or their guardian. It’s a difficult question, and one which the director is not inclined to offer easy answers to.

7  にっぽん昆虫記/ The Insect Woman
(Imamura Shohei, 1963)

The Insect Woman

Of all the films on my list, this is by far the most controversial and the one I was least certain about placing here. It’s flawed; sometimes the changes in personality are too wrenching to be believed. It is often difficult to watch, alternating between agonising hardship (the film’s lead sleeps with her boss to get food rations) and icy black humour (a prostitute pretends to be a virgin for a drunk client, using fake blood kept in the fridge). Over the course of the film, it tells forty years of the story of Tome, a poor rural woman who moves to the city to work ‘for the fatherland’ during the second world war, and then must navigate her way through the shifting sands of post-war survival. In Tome’s world, authorities generally abuse their power, and men are not to be trusted.

The stark coldness of Tome’s world is not limited to its menfolk- the film’s women often laugh about appalling things, such as ‘Papa’ Chuji’s sexual relationships with young children which is treated with terrifying matter-of-factness. To survive in the city, Tome ditches the alarming mysticism of her country youth, and learns to assert herself. However, she herself in time becomes ruthless, selling out her friends to the police and to one another, seemingly stuck in a cycle of exploitation. Perhaps only her daughter Nobuko is able to escape the pattern.

Imamura is not unique in showing the numbing, life-devaluing effects of the Second World War, and the film could easily just wallow in misery- there’s enough to go round in Tome’s world. It is rescued by the resilience of the communities of women knit through the film, who are forced by their experiences to become shrewd, resourceful and adaptable, finding ways to live after the destruction of the war. For all their trials and suffering, they are often more successful at rebuilding than the men around them.

6  パーフェクトブルー/ Perfect Blue (Kon Satoshi, 1997)

Perfect Blue

Released in 1997, Perfect Blue was born in the Wild West years of the world wide web, at a time when people were first coming to terms with the changes it would inflict on their lives. Perfect Blue could easily be a well-crafted, compelling yet simple story of a pop-idol choosing a new career in an industry that is determined to exploit her. We explicitly see the cynicism of an industry which treats young women especially as commodities, and we see Mima struggle with pervy, obsessive fans and with making her voice heard above record executives and the people who run her world.

However, by constantly blurring the lines between character and actor, the film becomes much more than the story of a pop-star-turned-actor and her stalker. The film comments on victim-blaming and on how actors lose control of their own lives, and even their identities. It brilliantly captures the loneliness of Mima’s delusions as she sits on her bed, head spinning, tormented by dreams of lewd photographers and grisly crimes. For those (myself included) who can sometimes find anime’s visual extravagance a bit ‘much’, Perfect Blue is down-to-earth in its animation style, faintly noir in fact, capturing the paraphanalia of the entertainment industry and the vast anonymity of Tokyo, and making the flashes of extreme violence all the more striking. A few words of warning: the film does sometimes show a harsh attitude to feminine sexuality which can be a little jarring, not to say hypocritical.

Hana-bi5  花火/ Hana-bi
(Kitano Takeshi, 1997)

I’ve used the Japanese name here, because the literal translation, ‘Fireworks’, feels wrong somehow.

It says a lot for Takeshi Kitano that he stars in, as well as directs, two of the eight films on my list. Remarkably, the composer Joe Hisaishi leaves his mark on three of the eight, commanding the opening minutes of this taut, psychologically scarred movie. And this is a movie destined to be remembered for its beginning and its end. The start, a pastiche of gangster car wash, pointillist painting and a cold swoop over a coastal drive, weighted down with a foreboding piano soundtrack. The end… no, I can’t. You have to see it.

Nishi is a police officer, whose increasingly violent methods are causing problems. He is finally forced to retire from the force- with his wife suffering from a serious illness, Nishi spirals out of control. Hisaishi aside, the film is almost painfully quiet, but rarely calm- it is shot through with staccato bursts of violence and chaos. The violence is sometimes explicit, as with a particularly stomach-churning meeting of chopstick and eyeball; sometimes it literally takes place in the shadows, which dance across the screen as Nishi fights. Between the bursts of action, the threat of violence haunts the movie. The yakuza will not leave Nishi, and he can’t leave his profession in the past either. The result is a tension that seems certain to lurch to a violent conclusion. Kitano is excellent as a defiant, dangerous man with little to lose. The paintings in the film are actually his own, created while he was recovering from an accident.

medium II4    羅生門/ Rashomon (Kurosawa Akira, 1950)

Rashomon would be captivating even if it had no deep philosophical import. The cinematic setting in itself is remarkable; a cluster of disconsolate men shelter from the rain under the broken gate of a ruined temple, itself an explicit metaphor for the ruin of an unspecified1 war which consumes all in its path. Amid the ruins, the wise priest of Kiyomizu-dera is consumed by a ‘horrible’ mystery, that of the alleged murder of a samurai and the rape of his lover. The insistent, tense music, closeness of the camera and compelling madness of the bandit all keep you tantalisingly close to the action of the story. However, the persistent uncertainty about what has happened, and to who, is a centrifugal counterweight. The central actions are often seen through a fog of branches in the dense forest thickets.

The story of the murder is told four times- once by the bandit, once by the lover, once by the dead nobleman (through a spirit medium) and once by a bystander. The third is the most disturbing scene of the film. The medium is blown about in front of an altar, evidently in the throes of some agony, before speaking with the voice of the murdered man. Each character tells a story which affirms some virtue. The bandit knows he’s no hero, but he paints himself as dashing, with a certain idiosyncratic code of honour. The lover sees herself as a virtuous woman defiled; the dead man views himself as an honest one betrayed.

The passerby’s story is less dignified, and more plausible, than any of the others; but is it the truth? The old adage that ‘truth is the first casualty of war’ is supplanted by another, still more troubling idea in Rashomon. The creeping realization that torments the priest of Kiyomizu-dera is that there may be no such thing as objective truth. Sometimes, it’s impossible for us to discover the ‘whole truth’. Our stories about the world may be incompatible, and there’s no way to split the difference. The film has inspired artists and artworks ever since, not least one of the finest late Simpsons episodes, Trilogy of Error2.

Lady Eboshi3  もののけ姫/
Princess Mononoke
(Miyazaki Hayao, 1997)

Ashitaka, a poor village boy living in a medieval Japanese village, inherits a strange, physical curse while fighting a demon. The superstitious people of his village know that the curse will consume him, and they cast him out into the world. Wandering, Ashitaka meets a monk who tells him of the Great Forest Spirit, a shapeshifting ethereal deer that lives in the forest beneath the hill-fort of Iron Town. The town, it would appear, is under siege from the forest creatures that live outside its gates- particularly the wolves, led by the ferocious, human-presenting spirit who is also the movie’s namesake. Ashitaka, himself part ‘beast’, begins to realise that the conflict is more complex.

Studio Ghibli have produced many masterpieces, but there’s something about the sympathy shown for both sides of an intractable, supernatural conflict that makes Princess Mononoke so special. The film’s female protagonist is noble but remote, fighting for her world but partly cut off from Ashitaka. The primary antagonist, Lady Eboshi, is a sharp contrast; she can be cold and ruthless, but she is also a friend of the town’s poor and downtrodden women, and the defender of its frightened families. It’s easy to see why she’s a hero to the people she fights for. The film achieves a beautiful sleight-of-hand in making its antagonists easier to empathise with, reminiscent of what a teacher once told me about Paradise Lost. The film features several strong female roles, a notable strength of Miyazaki’s creations.

Of course, the animation is stunning; the figurine kodama spirits of the forest are particularly magical, but the whole film is suffused in the enchanted glow of pre-modern storytelling. Perhaps because Shinto has preserved so much of Japanese tradition, that world can be created convincingly by a modern director; but it’s also the animated genius of the director that shines through its sylvan landscapes.

2    菊次郎の夏/ Kikujiro (Kitano Takeshi, 1999)

from Kikujiro

The great Japanese novelist Murakami Haruki once said that he hated Japan in the self-satisfied 1980s, when it was awash with stock market speculation, dazzling displays of wealth and endless corporate drinking parties. He thought that the long-burning financial crisis of the 1990s was a good thing for the country. Sure, Japan was lost, but being lost is a prerequisite for finding yourself and figuring things out. Having first set foot in Japan in 2018, I can’t speak to the truth of Murakami’s words, but it’s clear that the late nineties unleashed an explosion of unparalleled creativity from the archipelago, stretching from surrealist anime to electronic music to clever, socially astute naturalist films.

Just like Japan in the nineties, Kikujiro is a lost kind of movie. It meanders through the story of Masao, an elementary-school kid who’s spending his summer in Tokyo with his kind but often absent grandmother, while his mother works way to the west, in Toyohashi. Feeling sorry for him, his neighbour puts her unscrupulous, yakuza-affiliated husband on the job, telling him to take Masao to see his mother. The film is held together by two excellent performances; the sweet, somewhat passive performance of Masao really captures that childhood bafflement with adulthood, and absorption with mundane activities like aimless kicking a ball in a bag or sprinting around a field dressed in ‘angel wings’. But there’s no doubt that the star of the show is the gangster ‘uncle’ (played by Takeshi Kitano himself), permanently short-tempered, always on the hunt for the next rube, stealing cars, cheating and lying his way through life, redeemed only by his growing affection for Masao.

The film can be touching, as it captures the vastness and strangeness of the world for Masao. But it undercuts sentimentality at every turn with dark, surreal humor; the lowlife neighbour blaming his bad luck in betting on a ten-year-old, and practicing his swimming moves on a ryokan3 table, not to mention a comically perfect extortion scene in a suburban car park. And it undercuts its humour in turn with moments of real darkness and loss. The surreal dream sequences fuelled by Japanese theatre are just another mesmerizing aspect to this true outsider movie.  It’s a road trip film like none you’ve ever seen, or are ever likely to see again.

1  歩いても 歩いても/ Still Walking
Still-Walking-3-625x339(Koreeda Hirokazu, 2008)

I had such a difficult time selecting a Koreeda film to occupy pole position. I’ve never known a director who weaves such diaphanous, emotionally rich portraits of family dynamics, in all their beauty and ugliness. I nearly chose I Wish, a movie which grounds childhood daydreams in the messy real world, as it reunites two young brothers separated across Kyushu by a divorce and a volcano. However, with great difficulty I’ve chosen Still Walking, as the most brittle and perfect of Koreeda’s films.

Junpei died as a young man, but his memory lingers. His brother Ryota lives in Junpei’s shadow, especially in the eyes of his retired father.  Consequently, Ryota doesn’t want to visit his parents on the anniversary of his brother’s death, when these feelings hang heavy over the house. Worse still, Ryota is visiting with his wife , a widow who has remarried, and his stepson, who feels excluded from the family.

Kore-eda’s absolute genius is his ability to show what’s spoken and what’s unspoken all at once, picking apart the smallest details of a family gathering- a nudge to a giggling child, a stuttering change of topic- in his attempt to explain how family defines and describes people’s lives. Through this small house with thin walls, conversations carry and distort. At one point, Ryota corrects his mother through a wall as she tells an old school story about him. The adult children and their parents often trade slight, barbed comments: their generations clearly give them different outlooks on life and different abilities. The film’s focus on the minutiae of domestic tasks only emphasises the separated, big-city, konbini lives of the adult children. They inhabit a subtly but definitely different world from their aging parents4, and in fact the attitudes to food are just a smaller signal to deeper, harsher divides over marriage and material values which emerge.

Hanging over everything is the sense that every little detail of family life is remembered  (or misremembered) by someone, and every scrap goes into the making of an adult, and for better or worse, none of it can be escaped. ‘Children don’t necessarily grow up the way you want them to‘, is the take of Ryota’s sister Yukari (played by Yui Natsukawa), and one of several constant themes. Do children ever really look after their parents, or do their parents still end up looking after them? Can you, or should you, ever live on behalf of someone else? What, in the end, makes a family?

Koreeda garden

1- the original book placed the war in the eighth century, in one of the spasms of violence around the moving of the capital of Yamato. The film placed it in the twelfth century, probably in the Gempei Wars, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

2- several websites disagree with this analysis. IDGAF. I see it.

3-  a ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn- they usually have tatami mat floors, and guests sleep on futons. Breakfast, and sometimes dinner, will be included in a ryokan price. I worked at a ryokan in Yufuin, and stayed in a couple on my travels (in Matsue, for example).

4- a common theme in Japanese cinema- the renowned director, Ozu Yasujiro shared many of the same preoccupations in Tokyo Story (1952).


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