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Friday, Dec. 22, 2006


The sun is rising


The Japanese movie industry has had a boffo 2006. Market share of Japanese films is expected to hit the 50 percent mark for the first time since 1985, production may well exceed 400 titles for the first time since 1973 and six films, led by Studio Ghibli's "Gedo Senki (Tales from Earthsea)," have grossed more than 5 billion yen.

So happy days are here again? Not if you are talking about art, rather than commerce. Financing and distribution for indie films are becoming harder to find, while the sequels, remakes and comic/game/best seller-based movies that dominate Hollywood are also taking over here, for much the same reasons: The TV nets and other media giants that back them are wary of risk and eager to build franchises. Some commercial films, such as "Kiraware Matsuko no I-ssho (Memories of Matsuko)," entertain in original ways, however fitfully, but more, such as the never-ending procession of bathetic romantic dramas, have the formulaic predictability that their TV-conditioned audience evidently loves, but puts me in a coma.

Here, in rough order, are the films that kept me widest awake in 2006:

1. "Camus Nante Shiranai (Who's Camus Anyway?)"

Camus Nante Shiranai
Shuji Kashiwabara and Hinano Yoshikawa in "Camus Nante Shiranai"

Mitsuo Yanagimachi's comeback film about a college production of a film based on Camus' "The Stranger" has the immediacy, energy and shot-on-the-fly feel of the best Altman, while telling an intricately constructed story of adolescent love and loss with a probing, sympathetic intelligence.

2. "Bashing"

Masahiro Kobayashi's ripped-from-the-headlines drama violates every box-office rule in the book in telling a downbeat story of a woman who, kidnapped while on a lone do-gooder mission in Iraq, is ostracized in her rural hometown on her return -- and becomes embittered instead of empowered.

3. "Ashita no Kioku (Memories of Tomorrow)"

This harrowing drama of a middle-age man afflicted with Alzheimer's may follow the same downward arc as dozens of local melodramas about the ravages of senility, but Ken Watanabe's all-stops-out lead performance and Kanako Higuchi's nimble direction lifts "Ashita no Kioku" above the genre standard.

4. "Paprika"

Satoshi Kon has shied away from a-nime cliches throughout his directorial career, but "Paprika" is his boldest, most thoroughly realized departure from convention. Its title heroine, a therapist who can enter her patients' dreams, may share attributes with other anime cuties, but the phantasmagoric worlds that Kon creates for her, as well as the story's mashing of dream and reality, make "Paprika" a mind-bending standout.

5. "Strawberry Shortcakes"

Based on a cult shojo manga (girls' comic), Hitoshi Yazaki's comeback film follows the romantic misadventures of two pairs of women -- and turns the usual story arc upside-down. Instead of leading them to Mr. Right, their various encounters with men, from the comic to the horrific, open their eyes to certain truths, both unpleasant and liberating, about themselves, their significant others and life in general. Yazaki tells this tale with flashes of mordant humor and dashes of quirky surrealism, but most of all with a nuanced appreciation for the complexity -- and contrariness -- of the heart.

6. "Bushi no Ichibun (Love and Honor)"

The third film in Yoji Yamada's samurai trilogy, "Bushi no Ichibun" is more tragic in tone -- its samurai hero loses his sight from food poisoning -- and youthful in feel. Takuya Kimura and Rei Dan, as the samurai and his wife, inject a needed passion and vitality into the film's somber story of a married couple torn apart by rumor and suspicion.

7. "Hula Girls"

Sang-ill Lee's drama about women from a Tohoku mining town who join a Hawaiian hula troupe in the 1960s might be called a Japanese "The Full Monty," but with better dancing.

8. "Pavilion Sansho Uo (Pavilion Salamandre)"

Masanori Tominaga's debut feature about a bizarre family power struggle over a giant salamander is not just wacky in the usual ha-ha, wink-wink sense, but truly, if entertainingly, insane.

9. "Saga no Gabai Baachan (Granny Gabai)"

Based on a autobiographical novel by comedian Yoshichi Shimada, this Hitoshi Kurauchi film about a spunky granny in Saga who raises her grandson in place of his hard-pressed mother was one of the surprise hits of 2006, and deservedly so. Kazuko Yoshiyuki delivers a dryly comic performance as the granny, an eccentric who drags a magnet behind her on the street to pick up stray scrap metal for sale, but has a large store of hardscrabble wisdom she imparts by word and example to her homesick grandson.

10. "Ski Jumping Pairs: The Road to Torino"

What began life as a CG short by Riichiro Mashima about the fictional sport of "ski jumping pairs" (two guys ski-jumping on the same pair of skis) morphed into a full-length feature that, with Masaki Kobayashi directing the live-action portions, is Japan's answer to "This Is Spinal Tap."

For other related stories, please click the following links:
A golden year
It's a mad world

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