The Failure of Modern Japanese Cinema

The general inability of mainstream Japan to make simple, realistic introspective drama is modern Japan’s true loss.

I couldn’t have said it any better than this quote, from a user on iMDB, partially describing the movie “Always: San-chome no yuhi”. I gave that movie a 6 out of 10, which is almost too nice; at times, the movie feels like a cartoon, and at others it feels like an emotional tug.

But instead of reviewing that movie, I want to talk about why so many Japanese movies (including “Always”) aren’t making the mark. The first thing to say before even talking about this is to recognize who the audience of these movies are. It is not a Western audience. I would wonder what an American audience would think of such scenes as the Suzuki Auto man instantly breaking down the wooden glass doors of his house in a Hulk-like manner. Thankfully, we’re basically spared from any more of these comic book scenes. The filmmakers do not think anything strange of this at all. They are making the film for Japanese. And it seemed to work, as it swept the 2006 Japanese “Academy Awards”, winning Best Picture and several acting awards, not to mention technical awards. This is quite peculiar to me-were there really no better Japanese movies in 2005 than this one?

No matter if there were or not, the movie has spawned two sequels, and I wouldn’t doubt if we saw another one in five years. I likely won’t seek those ones out. Why? I don’t know how much more of the blatant cheesiness I can deal with. Of course, this isn’t in every Japanese movie. But I see some movies and wonder how it can be so easily dismissed by an audience. Are these strange scenes cute? Are they funny? I’d rather a movie be grounded than go for senseless humor.

Since this isn’t a BuzzFeed article, I can’t nitpick too much about things. But I will talk about one scene from a movie that will forever bother me. In the movie, “Honey and Clover” (based off of the anime series of the same name), there is a cat. This cat is in a scene with other real-life actors, kind of in the background, perhaps drinking milk. Except there is no real, live cat to be seen. There is an animation of what is supposedly a cat drawn in this scene. No characters really react to this cat’s presence. Is it even there? Was I hallucinating? No, we’re supposed to just accept that the cat is there and that it is a real living cat, even though it clearly isn’t. Can you imagine if they did this for a personified character? We’d be getting another Roger Rabbit…which is fine, except that that movie was very intentional about that character being animated in the ‘real world’. “Honey and Clover” was nowhere near that. We have to just pretend and believe that that cat was a real cat. It wasn’t close to real at all. In any case, I don’t know how they got away with it.

How unnecessarily distracting that cat was! Had they made a “normal” movie, I think there would just be a real cat there. Were they in cohorts with the humane society and they just didn’t want to take any risk that a live cat drinking milk might actually be in some danger on a film set? Or maybe they did have a live cat but quickly gave up when they thought it couldn’t be trained properly for that scene. I am calling it laziness, no matter what the actual reason is. It’s not artistic to have a cat portrayed in a movie like this. I’d like to know how a Japanese person reacted to watching this scene. And I know it was only about 5 seconds, but this is still rather annoying.

There’s a reason why “The Kirishima Thing” won the Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture in 2013. No, it’s not because it’s another retread of the same ground that “Always” was traveling on. Here we have a movie breaking all molds possible. We don’t get the sweeping orchestral moments. We don’t get the grand finale where all characters and plotlines are redeemed and complete. We get real life. We get the life of high school students. We get the pressures that they face and the everyday interactions that they have to deal with. The topic of the movie, a captain of a school’s volleyball team quitting suddenly, leaving his teammates dumbfounded, is utterly relevant and altogether fascinating.

If every Japanese movie took notes from “The Kirishima Thing”, cinema would be radically different. Moreover, moviegoers would have different expectations. We wouldn’t necessarily be expecting a twist two thirds of the way into the movie. We wouldn’t need that typical feel-good ending. We would be okay with movies ending suddenly becaue they need to end exactly at that moment.

There are so many ideas expressed in movies like “The Kirishima Thing” and another one titled, “All About Lily Chou-Chou” that are uniquely part of Japanese culture. The topics of quitting an after-school club in high school to junior high school bullying and obsessions are things that could be portrayed in Western cinema. When Japan makes movies on these subjects, it’s not ‘putting a Japanese spin on a topic’, like the Japanese version of “Sideways” did to the original 2004 American movie (yes, Japan remade the Oscar-nominated “Sideways”). These are Japanese issues through and through. The director of “Chou-Chou”, Shunji Iwai is hailed as one of the best directors in Japan, featured on NHK often and I don’t doubt that the director of “Kirishima”, Daihachi Yoshida, could reach a similar status someday.

What I realized in the end is that, we need to experience different types of movies as moviegoers. I think this is like friendships; some people are satisifed with one type of person, but I think we need different types of friends in our lives, too. So although I just slammed on sappy dramas and the like, the fact is we need some movies like that sometimes. We need good thrillers sometimes as much as we need good comedies from time to time. That’s why I hope that Japanese filmmakers will consider the way a film should really feel, rather than deliver on supposedly tried-and-true tropes. I hope that they will put in the hard work to make every aspect of a film excellent, no matter what genre or subject matter. If they follow the examples set by other great filmmakers, Japan can get out of its rut and compete head to head with great Western cinema.

-Feel free to take a look here at what movies I thought were excellent Japanese movies, released in the past 20 years or so.