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I was introduced to contemporary Japanese movies by chance. Unlike many movie critics who may extol films such as In The Realm of the Senses, Seven Samurai, Tokyo Story or Rashomon, I tend to prefer the more recently produced ones.


Why Japanese movies in the first place? They just happen to be some of the best - says the Wiki:

Movies have been produced in Japan since 1897, when the first foreign cameramen arrived. In a ranking of the best films produced in Asia by Sight & Sound, Japan made up eight of the top twelve, with Tokyo Story ranked number one. Japan has won the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film four times, again more than any other country in Asia.

My list consists of movies featuring my favorite Japanese actors - again not the ones most critics admire (read: Ken Watanabe, Toshiro Mifune, Seizo Fukumoto). What can I say? I belong to a younger generation. I don't have to force myself to see the so-called classics to appreciate how good Japanese movies are. The ones I have the opportunity to watch are already good enough for me.

Part One of this 6-part series after the jump!

Villain (Akunin) - 2011

Satoshi Tsumabuki who we ranked numero uno on our list of the Top 30 Hottest Japanese Actors, has won many acting awards. But it was in Villain (Akunin) where he grabbed the Best Actor at the Japanese Academy Awards for his role as the jilted lover Yuichi Shimizu who committed murder.

villain-akuninWhat the movie is all about: Yuichi Shimizu (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is a young man who takes care of his grandparents in a decaying fishing village in Nagasaki. His grandparents raised Yuichi instead of his mother. Yuichi now works as a civil employee. He is a lonely man.
One day, Yuichi meets Yoshino Ishibashi (Hikari Mitsushima) an insurance sales woman from Fukuoka. They first met through an online dating site. Their meeting ends in tragedy with Yuichi murdering Yoshino. Unexpectedly, a rich young university student from Fukuoka, named Keigo Masuo (Masaki Okada) endss up as the prime suspect. Hiding in fear & agony, Yuichi goes on with his daily life.
Then one day, Yuichi receives an email. The email is from Mitsuyo Magome (Eri Fukatsu), a woman from Saga. Yuichi and Mitsuyo exchanged emails in the past after meeting through an online dating site. Mitsuyo currently lives a mundane life, working at a men's clothing store and living with her younger sister. Looking for companionship, Mitsuyo decided to reach out to Yuichi after a lengthy time without correspondence.
The two lonely souls then meet for the first time and throw themselves into a moment of love. By this time, Yuichi is now a wanted criminal and his face appears on the news. Nevertheless, Mitsuyo persuades Yuichi to run away with her and not turn himself in. Running away places heavy burdens on their families as well as the victim's family.

Critical Buzz: Twitch review says it all:

As for the acting, nothing but praise. Eri Fukatsu has a tough role to play and does so with great conviction, but it's Satoshi Tsumabuki that really blew me away. His character is almost impenetrable but at the same time he's the center of the dramatic complications, so in the end it all comes back to his performance and his ability to transfer the dualities of his character to the audience. It's one of the strongest roles I've seen in quite a while. The supporting cast is nothing but perfect either, though their impact is not as dominant as that of the two main actors. [ read more ]

Our rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Parade (Paredo) - 2010

Some may say this is the Japanese version of the French movie, The Spanish Apartment, where a group of young men and women adapt to live together in an apartment. In Parade, it's much smaller in numbers and also reduced to a cramped two-room dwelling. It took me months to search for the movie and I'm not disappointed. It's a slow burner like Villain, and the success depends on the ability of the actors to keep the viewers interested - I'm especially fascinated with Karina, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Keisuke Koide and Kento Hayashi (who played a male prostitute).

paradeWhat the movie is all about: "Parade" is the story of a strange living situation in a 2LDK apartment (having two bedrooms, a living-dining room, and a kitchen) in suburban Tokyo. There are five residents ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-eight: a male student with no evidence of any drive; Kotomi (Shihori Kanjiya), an out-of-work aspiring actress who longs for a celebrity boyfriend; Miki (Karina), a heavy-drinking female illustrator; Satoru (Kento Hayashi), a male prostitute with a spectator like attitude toward life; and Naoki (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a salaryman who works for a film distribution company and says strange things in his sleep. The roommates are not in any way romantically involved with one another, but one can see subtle hints of affection and friendship among them. In the end, however, none of them really know each other.

Critical Buzz: iSugoi comtemplates on the message of the movie:

Parade is an exceptionally well-made film that questions our notion of intimacy and the relationships we share within the realm of that notion. It brings forth how we place ourselves in relation to others and the strangely unconventional practices that can strengthen those bonds no matter how disturbing they may become. While the film drastically differs from its rather comedic first half, it ultimately transforms itself into something entire different by its end, becoming a poignant statement on how we may accept others no matter their actions, especially if we have significant faults of our own to contend with. Perhaps to say we fully know someone is to know their deepest secrets and desires no matter how awful they may be, but only then we can say we ultimately know the entirety of someone. Fantastically acted and directed, the film remains a frightening example of not fully knowing people we think we know—and the bizarre circumstances that may ultimately arise from it. [ read more ]

Nippon Cinema also provided an insightful review, saying:

A subtle, good-humored approach is maintained right up until the end when that's all suddenly traded in for shock value, making the final act all the more impactful and chilling -- even if the intensity is a bit forced in the final few frames. Most will probably suspect the first half of the finale long before it ever arrives, but that's not necessarily unintended. In fact, it makes the final sequence even more effective as we realize we've followed a carefully laid trail of breadcrumbs right into a psychological ambush. [ source ]

Our Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Lady Shogun and Her Men (Ooku) - 2010

I wanted to find out if Ninomiya Kazunari's acting is as good as his Hollywood movie, Letters from Iwo Jima. It took me just a few days to discover that, indeed, Mr. Ninomiya is no one-movie wonder. Over a few years, he has acted in some very good movies produced in Japan that can rival his performance in Clint Eastwood's highly acclaimed war drama. In so doing, I also discovered this gem of a movie that features the amazing acting of Kou Shibaski - a portrayal of a strong, independent-minded woman that is so lacking in many Hollywood movies.

the-lady-shogun-and-her-menWhat the movie is all about: In the year 1716 a mysterious epidemic sickens men in the country of Japan, dropping the population of men to 1/4th of its prior state. With the drastic reduction of men, the gender roles have become reversed. Woman become the dominant members of society and males are sought out for the ability to produce children.
A young man named Unoshin Mizuno (Kazunari Ninomiya) hopes to marry childhood sweetheart Onobu (Maki Horikita), but due to class differences realizes this is almost impossible. To raise his social status and also save his poor family, Unoshin Mizuno enters the Ohoku (inner chambers of the Shugun's castle) and attempts to vie among 3,000 other men for the affection of the female shogun. What Unoshin Mizuno quickly learns about the Ohoku is that the men there are all beautiful, but highly ambitious and conniving. In this environment, the 7th shogun Tokugawa passes away and the new shogun Yoshimune Tokugawa (Kou Shibasaki) takes the thrown and enters the Ohoku ...

Critical Buzz: The acting in The Lady Shogun and Her Men is surprisingly good. What I've noticed about Japanese actors and actresses is that they are, for the most part, understated but tend to overact when portraying key dramatic moments. That's the general impression I get when I watch Japanese shows. It all feels a little forced, a little unbelievable, and I can't get rid of the feeling that they're all just acting out, instead of inhabiting a character. So, The Lady Shogun and Her Men was a nice experience, especially because I loved both Mizuno and Yoshimune and they were played out well by their respective actors. The latter only came halfway into the movie but her impact is so big, I kind of think in retrospect that the movie doesn't really become interesting until she makes her appearance. [ source ]

Our Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Ping Pong - 2002

I maybe biased in my view of this movie simply because I play ping-pong (or more "technically" known as table tennis). Just as in any sports, you need to be extremely fit to play competitively. So I can appreciate the demanding physical exercise the competitors have to undergo to reach their level of play. Since sports is about competing, if you can't handle the pressure and you always feel symphatetic about the other player, then you cannot win. This is basically one of the premise of Pingpong which provide us with a background of one of the main character's personality. But the movie is more than a good look at the sport, it's more about friendship and the ability to move on when one is faced with adversity.

ping-pongWhat the Movie is all about: As children, the introverted Smile was being bullied by a gang of kids until the brash Peco comes by and chases all of them them away. Peco then takes Smile under his wings and teaches him how to play the game of ping pong. From there a life long best friend relationship comes into existence between these two polar opposite kids.

Fast forward a decade later, Smile and Peco are now about to compete in a high stakes regional ping pong tournament. While Peco has always wanted to be the best ping pong player in the world, he has never had the drive to fully devote himself to the game. Rather than finding him practicing in the high school gym you would more often than not find Peco hustling other kids out of money at the local ping pong parlor. This is in contrast with Smile, who has the god given talents to actually become the world's best ping pong player, but is to humble to destroy his opponents. More often than not he allows his opponents to win points and even entire games out of sympathy for them.

Now these two best friends try to deal with their own inner turmoils, as they move further and further into the regional ping pong tournament. Peco has to overcome a knee injury while trying to rediscover the fun aspects of the game of Ping Pong. Meanwhile, Smile now seems to have gained the killer instinct by going through a rigorous training regiment instilled by his high school coach. As the tournament progresses it becomes more likely that these two best friends will face off against each in the final match.

Critical Buzz: Tom Keogh @Seattle Times comments:

Director Fumihiko Sori, who created some of the visual effects on "Titanic," makes table-tennis a spellbinding treat for the eyes. He has a way of finding the wackiest possible vantage point for his camera in any given situation. Sori's shot of a brooding Smile and his cheerful coach taking a spin on a carnival ride is alone worth the price of admission.

All around Peco and Smile are fascinating characters, mostly boys, whose sense of self and self-worth is defined by their narrow idea of competition as a matter of honor. As their various fortunes yield to reality, the small shifts we see in character perspective about what's important are nothing less than remarkable. There's a lot of razzle-dazzle in "Ping Pong," but there's a lot of soul, too. [ read more ]

Our Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My Back Page (Mai bakku peji) - 2011

When a movie features two of the best young Japanese actors currently working today, one cannot help but expect a good showing. I was not disappointed. Watching Satoshi Tsumabuki and Kenichi Matsuyama pit acting talents is worth the price of the DVD. Says Tsumabuki about his role:

In the movie I play a newspaper reporter. I did not live in the 1960's and 1970's. The director did not live in the 1960's and 1970's either. I studied and thought a lot about the differences between then and now. I concluded a big difference was the passion. To have that kind of passion it is also important to have determination, especially as a journalist. I focused on that area. The final scene. Actually, that scene was not originally intended to be the final scene in the movie. That scene was originally scripted somewhere in the early portions of the film. Then during the filming Nobuhiro Yamashita wanted to put that scene as the final scene. Nobuhiro Yamashita and screenwriter Kosuke Mukai discussed that possibility and decided to make it the final scene. Before we shot that final scene, Nobuhiro Yamashita came to my car and told me "need something." I didn't understand what he meant exactly, but I did feel what he felt. I was able to express Sawada's emotions and how he accepted the situation. That scene became the most memorable for me. It was one long take and Nobuhiro Yamashita didn't call out "cut." [ source

my-back-pagesWhat the Movie is all about: In 1969, Sawada (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is filled with idealism that permeated that era and starts working as a gonzo journalist for a weekly magazine.
Two years later, Sawada interviews activist Umeyama (Kenichi Matsuyama) with senior reporter Nakahira (Kanji Furutachi). Umeyama boasts that his group will steal arms and take action in April. Sawada doubts Umeyama's claims but is attracted to his personality. An incident occurs ... Sawada hears news that a man was killed at a army post ...

Critical Buzz: A Page of Madness commented:

Matsuken (AKA Kenichi Matsuyama) makes a second high profile appearance in as many years as a 60s/70s generation 20-something in My Back Page. Unlike Toru, the uncommitted protagonist of Norwegian Wood, here he gets to stretch his actor's chops in a complex manifestation of a driven student radical, Umeyama. Based on the real life remembrances of critic Saburo Kawamoto, director Nobuhiro Yamashita (Linda, Linda, Linda) cast another rising star/heartthrob, Satoshi Tsumabuki (Villain), to play the role of Saburo as a young journalist – called Sawada for fictional purposes. The smartly directed duo get the rare opportunity to dig into the crazy times of social and political change with a cinematic chemistry that makes a beautiful emotional sense of the relationship between two complex men. My Back Page is a welcome addition to a recent spate of films dealing with the radical turmoil of 30 or so years ago. Coupling a bittersweet nostalgia with an unromantic looks at motivation, actions and consequences, it reveals and revels in an emotional honesty that says more than most history books. [ source ]

Our Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 Memories of Matsuko - 2006

Miki Nakatani gives a performance of epic proportions in this Tetsuya Nakashima movie. If you appreciate the kind of acting by Audrey Tautou in Amelie or Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose, then you'll wonder at this movie about an idealistic, pure hearted and naive woman named Matsuko Kawajiri. Eita Nagayama, who is fantastic in Harakiri: Death of a Samurai, plays a supporting role as Matsuko's relative who discovered the fascinating story of his Aunt right after her mysterious death.

matsukoWhat the Movie is all about: Sho (Eita), a young teenager that lives by himself in Tokyo, receives a surprise visit from his father. His father is carrying a white box, the he explains to his son, contains the ashes of his Aunt Matsuko (Miki Nakatani). She was recently found murdered by a river in Akawara. His father explains that Aunt Matsuko lived alone and because he has to go back to his hometown, asks Sho to go to his aunt's former apartment and clean up any mess that may be left behind.

Once Sho, arrives at his Aunt's apartment, he discovers that she lived in a filthy old apartment, full of trash bags filled with junk that she has had collected over the years. Sho does not remember ever meeting Matsuko, nor does he know of anything about her past. As he goes through her belongings and speaks with some of her neighbors, he gradually pieces together her life which was filled with tragedy and heartbreak ...

Critical Buzz: Time out London also gave this a 5 -star rating and commented:

And this is Nakashima's most impressive achievement– for all its stylistic intensity and dizzying narrative overdrive, this is a profoundly compassionate, humanist work. In surprisingly sober fashion, the film covers an array of vital issues, from the mistreatment of women in Japanese society to the emptiness of celebrity obsession, from the trap of brutal relationships to the inescapable, agonising truth that those most open to the world are also those most likely to be crushed by it. [ read more ]

Our Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


There are a lot more coming up!

Have you seen the list of movies above? What can you say about the acting performances in these movies? Which one is your favorite? Let us know what you think!

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