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Friday, Dec. 31, 2010

2010 top movies: best moments in a mixed 12 months for Japanese cinema

Special to The Japan Times

This was the best of years and the worst of years for Japanese films. On one hand, dire TV-network-produced blockbusters continued to fill multiplexes. On the other, makers of indie films, both big names and small, struggled for funding and distribution, as the mini-theater (art-house) sector continued its slow death spiral.

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The story, however, was not quite as simple as evil Toho — the Godzilla of local distributors — stomping the good little guys. In fact, Toho and other majors released some of the better films of the year. And some of these better films even became bigger hits than the glorified TV episodes or the live-action versions of anime and manga franchises that are the local industry's surest box-office bets.

"Akunin (Villain)": Sang-il Lee's drama about an intense young laborer (Satoshi Tsumabuki) who falls for a thirtysomething men's store clerk (Eri Fukatsu) while on the run from the police for murder is rightfully being showered with awards. Lee, who made Yu Aoi a star with his 2006 hit "Hura Garu (Hula Girls)," extracts a similar career-best performance from Fukatsu as the shy, unworldly but stubbornly devoted clerk. Lee does what masters of Japanese cinema used to do with regularity, but now seems little short of a miracle: craft incisive, luminous drama from the common and sometimes sordid materials of ordinary lives.

"Kyatapira (Caterpillar)": Based on a story by Edogawa Rampo about a soldier (Shima Onishi) who returns to his rural village minus his arms and legs, veteran provocateur Koji Wakamatsu's World War II home-front drama is spare, powerful and uncompromising. Shinobu Terajima, as the hero's wife, perfectly balances the competing impulses of pride in her husband's sacrifice (as well as joy at her consequent rise in status) and disgust at what he has become: a voracious maw for food and sex. Like a caterpillar she has to service, but yearns to crush.

"Kokuhaku (Confessions)": A junior high teacher (Takako Matsu) plots vengeance on the killers of her toddler daughter — two students in her class. Tetsuya Nakashima's pitch-black drama about this nightmare scenario violates many a formula rule — the killers are unmasked early on, the teacher is cool and distanced (as well as emotionally numb), and violent and disturbing scenes are presented with flashy music-vid visuals. But "Confessions," like much of Nakashima's work, has a strange power born of its contradictions.

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"Jusannin no Shikaku (13 Assassins)" © 2010 "13-NIN NO SHIKAKU" SEISAKU IINKAI

"Jusannin no Shikaku (13 Assassins)": This reworking of a 1963 Eiichi Kudo samurai swashbuckler is cult favorite Takashi Miike's attempt to go head-to- head against the masters of the genre with all of his formidable talent and energy. This ambition is present in every frame, but especially in the 50-minute climactic battle, with the 13 assassins squaring off against a sadistic lord and his 300 minions. What begins as an entertaining riot of excess ends with wounded, desperate men fighting for their lives — and with a pathos new to Miike's work.

"Ototo (About Her Brother)": Yoji Yamada's contemporary drama about the vexed relationship of a hard-working druggist (Sayuri Yoshinaga) with her alcoholic, failed-actor brother (Tsurube Shofukutei) avoids the usual genre cliches, from shining eyes to swelling violins. Instead, Yamada strips his story to its essentials, while steadily building to the moments when pretenses fall away and the truth emerges. Some are immensely sad and even terrifying, but some are beautiful as well. "Goruden Suranba (Golden Slumber)": As he did in his 2009 international breakthrough "Fish Story," Yoshihiro Nakamura injects his personal obsessions, from the shape-shifting nature of truth to the connectedness of human beings, into a story with a multilayered, brain-teasing plot. His hero, a deliveryman (Masato Sakai) who finds himself the designated patsy in an assassination plot, spends most of the movie on the run, while trying desperately to figure out whom he can trust. The middle section sags under all the subplots, but builds to an ending with a wonderful rush of revelation — and hope.

"Boizu on za Ran (Boys on the Run)": Daisuke Miura's slacker comedy about the campaign of a dweebish trinket salesman (Kazunobu Mineta) to bed a pretty coworker (Mei Kurokawa) and beat up a slick romantic rival (Ryuhei Matsuda) is on the dry, understated side, while reveling in down-and-dirty realism and rejecting any hint of sentimentality. The gags come at odd moments and angles, but get bigger laughs as a result. Welcome the arrival of a unique comic mind.

"Suito Ritoru Raizu (Sweet Little Lies)": Indie veteran Hitoshi Yazaki paints a portrait of a dying marriage tinged in terminal gray. Despite the austere, chilly stylistics, however, the drama of the couple's fake outward harmony and hot extracurricular sex is filled with turmoil, mysteries and paradoxical truths. As the wife, Miki Nakatani projects not only a wintry isolation but also a flinty intensity that can suddenly burst into flames. "GeGeGe no Nyobo" "(GeGeGe's Wife)": Takuji Suzuki's biopic about manga artist Shigeru Mizuki (Kankuro Kudo) and his wife, Nunoe (Kazue Fukiishi), may have its manga-esque moments, as when Mizuki's ghostly characters spring to animated life from the page, but it's mostly an unvarnished, affectionate and dryly funny look at his long, grinding struggle to simply make a living — forget about fame and fortune. By turns appalling and inspiring, this is a small gem of what might be called "slow cinema": leisurely paced, but tastier and more nourishing than all the visual brain-rot out there.

"Yukai Rapusodi (The Accidental Kidnapper)": Actor/director Hideo Sakaki may have borrowed from Kevin Costner's "A Perfect World" for his tale of an ex-con (Katsunori Takahashi) who fakes the kidnapping of a brassy 6-year-old boy (Roi Hayashi), but he gives it a spot-on comic spin. Facing zero prospects (other than sudden death from the boss' underlings), the boy, on the run from his scary gang-boss dad (Sho Aikawa), and the ex-con develop a natural rapport while quarreling, escaping and chomping on convenience-store food under the stars. Think "Huckleberry Finn" in Japan, with a beat-up station wagon instead of a raft.

Mark Schilling's Top 10

1. Akunin (Villain)

2. Kyatapira (Caterpillar)

3. Kokuhaku (Confessions)

4. Jusannin no Shikaku (13 Assassins)

5. Ototo (About Her Brother)

6. Goruden Suranba (Golden Slumber)

7. Boizu on za Ran (Boys on the Run)

8. Suito Ritoru Raizu (Sweet Little Lies)

9. GeGeGe no Nyobo (GeGeGe's Wife)

10. Yukai Rapusody (The Accidental Kidnapper)

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