The Japanese Blogathon demands lists, but seems a little short on anime, horror, and giant monsters. I've only been watching movies from Japan for less than ten years, but here are my very favourites so far, good for those who prefer the cult, the weird and the bloody. Bring on the comments...
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967, UK/USA)OK, I'm cheating with this first one. It wasn't produced in Japan, but it was my first taste of the country, and a rare example of an international movie filmed extensively on location there. For years, this was the a rare glimpse of the Japanese, that wasn't a war film.
The fifth James Bond film, 007 goes to Japan to prevent an evil genius (who inspired the look of Dr Evil) from starting World War III. His plan is to kidnap US and Russian space capsules, while they're still in space! Bond (Sean Connery) teams up with the Japanese secret service (and their army of ninjas!), shooting up Tokyo, fighting killer helicopters, and descending into an extinct volcano (one of the largest working sets ever built - with a full-sized space rocket, helicopter landing pad and even a monorail).
You Only Live Twice doubles as a travelogue, including a Shinto wedding, a Buddhist funeral procession, a fishing village, sumo wrestling, the neon lights of Tokyo, and the spectacular landscape of southern Japan. A great introduction to the country, although not everything in this travel guide is to be believed. "In Japan, men come first, women come second!" Lots more Japanese Bond here.
YOKAI DAISENSO/SPOOK WARFARE (1968) I love movie monsters, but started to get tired of the same old legends getting rehashed. I was then delighted to find a whole new parade of monsters, ghosts and demons in Japanese folklore, where they're more famous than our Dracula, Frankenstein, Jason and Freddy. On TV these weird yokai monsters populate the anime of Gegege No Kitaro. In film, they famously appeared in three movies in the sixties, the best of which was this one.
A battle unites all the yokai monsters in Japan against a common foe - a powerful ancient Egyptian shape-shifting vampire! The historical setting is influenced by the gothic atmosphere of Hammer Horror films. Yokai Daisenso (1968) was released on DVD in the US as Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare. It's not to be confused with the equally entertaining modern Yokai Daisenso, released on DVD as The Great Yokai War (2005), and directed by the maverick Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi The Killer).
SUKEBAN DEKA - THE MOVIE (1987)
Entertaining, daft, and a perfect example of a summer holiday TV spin-off. A Japanese schoolgirl faces an army of baddies (and a helicopter gunship) armed only with a steel yo-yo... The Japanese can't compete with big-budget action movies, so they invent nutty stuff like this. Schoolgirls preventing a coup d'etat. You'll believe a yo-yo can kill.
Like anyone, once they find a format that works, they milk it. Time and again, I watch a Japanese movie and find it's actually part of a phenomenon. Sukeban Deka lead me to the movie sequel, the anime, and three TV series...
GAMERA 2: ADVENT OF LEGION (1996)
Japan is world famous for giant monsters, kaiju movies. Yes, it's a man in a suit, but they've perfected the technique. Also, Gamera being a giant turtle, really doesn't look like a man in a suit. Neither does his main adversary here, the beetley crab-type-thing, Legion. Gamera 2 has a solid story for the non-monster action, together with bloody, realistic fights, huge explosions, city-wide destruction and marvellous miniature special effects. Cleverly directed to give the mayhem a human point of view. It's like Cloverfield without the camera-shy monster.
As a Godzilla fan, I feel traitorous for recommending this rival of the monster that started it all, but it's still the best all-round Japanese giant monster movie. Of course, if you like it, try a load more, and the (28) Godzilla films are a great way to see how Japanese entertainment has changed trough the years, stretching from 1954 to 2004. If you're up for it, here's my big Godzilla DVD guide.
RING (1998)Predictable choice, but I can't not include this, even though it's a slow-burner. Ring defined Asian horror films for years and even if it doesn't shock you, it'll certainly explain a lot about what happened next in the world of horror. With a string of novels, a series of film and TV adaptions, there's a lot to the Ring mythos even before you even start taking in the US remakes. Start with the first Ring, but if you want more, here's my guide to this Japanese phenomenon.
BATTLE ROYALE (2000) I reviewed this earlier in the week.
Please don't miss out just because you don't like subtitled films. You'd watch it on TV if it was called When Schoolkids Attack
. To recap - 42 teenagers are trapped on an island and told that the only way off is to kill all the others...
UZUMAKI (2000) If Tim Burton adapted a horror manga on acid, it would look like this. Based on Junji Ito's horrifying manga classic, the stylised look and creepy story build to a series of genuine shocks. Set in a small village that's increasingly obsessed with spirals, Uzumaki is an excellent example of how Japanese cinema makes the most of more limited budgets. Though one day I hope Ito's epic manga will get a bigger budget, to tell the whole epic story of the village of Uzumaki.
JU-ON/THE GRUDGE (2000)While Ring gave me a scare, Takeshi Shimizu's Grudge series continually and repeatedly creeped me out. Not for nothing that he's still making these today. If you like them, make sure you don't miss out on his scariest film, Reincarnation (Rinne, 2005). I'm almost offended that it hasn't been remade in America...
GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE (2004)
Another way animation is changing with the times is by mixing 2D with 3D animation. The integration between the two styles struggles a little here, but the result is spectacular. The CGI recreation of the contents of a corner shop (for a slow-motion shootout) is mind-boggling. The airborne approach to the abandoned city at twilight, and the Chinese festival, are animation milestones. Beautiful, colourful, feasts for the eyes, as wel as a detective story with killer cyborgs and psycho-villains.
You won't understand everything in the story without having seen Ghost In The Shell (1998), but watch this just to travel twenty years into future.
PAPRIKA (2006)Adult animation, from another giant of the art, Satoshi Kon. The plot, a machine that can make dreams a reality goes wrong, and starts leaking into our world. Only when the inventors make contact with their alter-ego dream-selves can they attempt to correct the problem. Eye-bending, mind-altering visuals, to the music of regular collaborator Susumu Hirasawa. Kon is the director of Millennium Actress and the superior anime series Paranoia Agent. A fuller review here.