Aside from our love/hatred of music, the thing that bonds us together at UTM is our appreciation for Japanese cinema. We’ve lost countless hours to Crunchyroll and spent entire nights out sitting in a dark corner of a club enthusing about Kurosawa’s legacy.
We figured we’d share our favourite picks after one such discussion, so here it is.
Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988)
Akira is an animated dystopian adventure film with cyberpunk tones that was adapted from a novel by Katsuhiro Otomo, and takes place in a post-World War Three Japan.
Jumping forward to the post-WW3 era, Neo-Tokyo has sprung from the ashes of Tokyo to become a dystopian fantasy filled with neon lights, fantastic technology, and a whole set of problems; such as corrupt politicians, anti-government rebels and a pervasive military presence.
The story follows teenage biker gang member Tetsuo Shima in his struggle to deal with the manifestation of strange telekinetic powers, peculiar visions of a mysterious young boy, and rather disturbing hallucinations, including his internal organs falling onto the street (which Tetsuo quickly tried to put back into his body). After discovering Tetsuo’s powers, the military quickly scrambles to capture him to perform further tests, and Tetsuo soon learns that he is not alone in having these powers.
‘Akira’ is one of the defining animated sci-fi movies of its era and changed the way science fiction was produced for screen in the western world. With a combination of stunning visuals, fantastic audio production, and an intriguing storyline, ‘Akira’ quickly became a cult classic despite its initially slow reception.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Mitsuo Yanagimachi, 1976)
Post-rock giants Godspeed You! Black Emperor took their name from this high contrast black and white documentary which follows a motorcycle gang around the streets of Shinjuku, capturing the nihilistic joie de vivre of the young loafers who call themselves members.
The band gave what was a relatively unknown documentary a wider audience after adopting the title. It could’ve gone forever without that many western eyes gazing upon it in wonderment, and it would’ve faded into obscurity if that was the outcome. Therefore, it feels like a real privilege to follow the Japanese youngsters, donning leather jackets emblazoned with swastikas, as they encounter the police and face problems with their elders both at home and within the Black Emperors.
Due to the relatively unknown nature of the documentary, the poorly done subtitles often precede the action and sometimes don’t appear at all. Rather than being problematic, it adds to the charming, DIY aspect of the film, and also serves the viewer’s ego if you’re so inclined to brag about seeing such things. Which I definitely am.
Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
It’s pretty tough for most people to deny Akira Kurosawa’s being Japan’s most influential director, and for good reason. Not only did he rightfully gain huge success in Japan, but his work also made a great impact on western cinema, encouraging film-makers to re-think the way they shot intense battle scenes, and introducing a clever use of slow-motion shots.
What better example of Kurosawa’s limitless skill is there than Seven Samurai? After the opening credits, there is no fucking around. Straight away we’re introduced to a crippled 16th century Japan, and a group of bandits who make a plan to raid a small farming village in a few months.
“Land tax, forced labour, war, drought, and now bandits!” In order to protect themselves from the bandits, the people of the village decide to hire a group of samurai. The first half of the film shows us the assembling of our hungry team of protectors, and we see that each one of the seven, has something of a deeper reason to fight, and bonds are formed.
The second half, battle commences, and it’d prove to be one of the greatest in film history. Not only do we see the excellent sword-fighting that’s to be expected, but we see great, complex strategy, giving the battle an interesting depth.
Many great directors owe this film for its influence, from wild-west master Sergio Leone to Star Wars creator George Lucas. A must-see for any adventure film fans, and a massive landmark in Japanese film.
Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)
The current trend of the Western world unashamedly ripping off Japanese culture has reached an all-time peak in caucacity. Scarlett Johansson has been cast as Motoko Kusanagi in the live-action bastardisation of Ghost in the Shell, nothing is sacred and Hollywood is trash.
The line had already been crossed when the absolute travesty that is The Fucking Hunger Games made its screen debut. It’s because Battle Royale had already done the dystopian future where a corrupt government forces kids to fight to the death for the purpose of television, and it did so one billion times better than The Fucking Hunger Games.
The lead role in The Fucking Hunger Games went to Jennifer Lawrence who was particularly uninspired, yet received plaudits from white people everywhere. Please, for the sake of what’s right and good, watch Battle Royale. Remember Tatsuya Fujiwara’s sensational performance as Shuya Nanahara. Remember how frighteningly real and engrossing Masanobu Ando was as Kazuo Kiriyama.
Most importantly, remember that it’s a Japanese film and that no amount of predatory, colonial behaviour can ever whitewash this incredible piece of art, no matter how many Hollywood dollars are thrown at it.
Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
What’s the most important thing in life? What should we hold most dearly, and how limited is our time in which to hold it? Yasujiro Ozu directs his answer to this, in the compelling drama film of 1953, Tokyo Story.
If you were to read the back of the DVD case, you wouldn’t think much of it. Grandparents go to visit their family, and because of the family’s busy careers, they can’t spend a decent bit of time with them. So what? So, beneath the surface, this Japanese masterpiece is questioning how you should spend your time in this life, and more so, who you should spend it with.
Throughout the film’s 2 hours, we feel like the film is screaming ‘family should be priority! Family SHOULD be priority!’, and doesn’t that sound like a very familiar theme in modern drama films? Well, it all started here.
Along with the film’s deeper meaning of life being short and oh-so precious, this film is easy-flowing, with each scene allowing the viewer to connect and empathise further with each member of the family, understanding the difficulty of their very personal, realistic and lifelike situations.
The film’s ending is a heartbreaker, but leaves a very clear statement about how you should go about life and the people you care about. If you watch this and don’t feel deeply encouraged to keep your family and friends as close to you as possible, you may well not even be human.
Sonatine (Takeshi Kitano, 1993)
Sonatine is arguably the best hip hop film of the 90s. Whilst the film’s tale of ultra-violence and intrigue has very little to do with hip hop whatsoever, the film’s visual design, absurdity and ice cold wit is very much in tune with the hip hop scene of the modern day.
Starring and directed by Japanese bigman Takeshi Kitano and released in 1993, Sonatine is the tale of a Yakuza enforcer on the verge of retirement is sent to a TOWN to negotiate between warring Yakuza factions. Whilst no bloodshed is promised, it doesn’t end up that way, culminating in a beautifully choreographed series of fights and expertly paced intrigue.
Everything from the film’s wavey, ambient soundtrack, to its gripping dialogue, to its ultraviolent but hugely colourful imagery is very much representative of modern day hip hop, from its ultraviolent themes to its vibrant visual design. Sonatine is a gripping tale of brutality, with it’s extensive kill count, juxtaposed by an intriguing tangent of psychedelia in the second half of the film.
From start to finish Sonatine is a riot of mildly psychedelic ultraviolence, filled with expertly crafted writing, sumptuous 90s colour and garms. Whilst it may not be the easiest watch, the film flows along strange and unexpectedly rewarding paths.