While most film-lists of the decade have already been released, I have waited a year to release my list of Japanese films of the past decade. This extra year gave me the time to explore Japanese films that I had, for various reasons, not yet seen. But – and it has to be said – I did not see all that Japan had to offer in the last decade. But for me, at this moment, the following ten Japanese films earn a place within the best Japanese cinema had to offer.
As these kind of lists are, by definition, subjective – our subjective position determines the way we experience films as such, I wanted to introduce the reader to a second top of the decade list, one written by Niels Matthijs of Onderhond. By adding another critic’s list, a second opinion, I wanted to celebrate diversity in opinion and subjectivity as such. Furthermore, I hope that both our lists can help readers to jumpstart their adventure in Japanese cinema.
Before we delve into the lists, I wanted to add one special mention: 37 Seconds (2019) by Hikari. While this film did not make my list of top 10 Japanese movies of the decade – or Matthijs’ list for that matter, this film is still of incredible importance for (Japanese) cinema. This film is not only important because it proves how necessary representation is in cinema but also because it reveals, albeit in an indirect way, how acting within a fictional narrative can enable a subject to embark on an adventure of true personal growth.
Top 10 Japanese movies of the decade
That’s it is an exquisite and highly entertaining marriage between Bloodthirsty Butchers’ punk music and Gakuryu Ishii’s crude and highly mobile cinematography. While the bombardment of powerful visuals never ceases, the narrative is nevertheless able to touch touchingly upon a very delicate matter: the necessity of a symbolic place from where one can realize one’s subject in society. By venturing into this matter, Ishii creates a refreshing narrative that, besides being about love in a rather unconventional way, is all about coming-into-being. A must-see that, by virtue of that thrilling twist at the end, will long linger in one’s mind.
Number 10: Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen (2016) by Tatsuya Oishi and Akiyuki Shinbo
You may think 64 minutes is rather short, but it’s perfect for a film like this. After a short period of acclimatization (probably depending on how familiar you are with the franchise), the film washes over you like a tornado, constantly throwing you off balance and finding new ways to surprise. The knowledge that two more films will follow helped me to part from this crazy experience. Kizumonogatari is anime the way I like it. It’s a directorial tour de force, a film that proves there’s still some life left in the Japanese animation scene. It’s probably a bit much for some, but if you’re into more experimental and weird animation and you don’t mind a little silliness, this is definitely one to check out. [Full review click here]
One’s Be My Baby is an extraordinary narrative that offers one of the most dense and rich explorations of the complexity of the relational dynamics between the sexes. While the narrative has subtle comical flair, Be My Baby does not fail to confront the spectator with the two most important obstacles to romantic happiness: the refusal to take one’s own and the other’s subjective position into account (through deception or misogynistic conduct) and the unquenchable power of sexual desire (by having affairs or by ordering hookers).
Onderhond’s Number 9: Yakuza Apocalypse (2015) by Takashi Miike
Yakuza Apocalypse is the kind of Miike I adore. The film looks good, sounds good, is stacked with crazy ideas and even weirder characters and dares to cross the line of common sense more than once. It’s the ultimate in entertainment without having to sacrifice or compromise on quality. It’s the kind of film only Miike could make, leaving like-minded directors wanting they had the same privileges. Best Miike film in years, which bodes well for the future. [Full review click here]
Number 8: One Cut of The Dead (2018) by Shinichiro Ueda [DVD/BLU-RAY available Third Windows Films]
One Cut of The Dead is one of the most pleasant surprises of this year and one of the funniest movies released this year. While the one-take ‘horror’ narrative might raise some eyebrows at first, the clever and inventive meta-narrative that follows successfully turns One Cut Of The Dead into a very hilarious tongue-in-the-cheek referential comedy that, when all is said and done, concerns nothing other than the joy, even if it is against all odds, of releasing a movie.
Onderhond’s Number 8: That’s It (2015) by Gakuryu Ishii
That’s It is a blast. Energetic, mysterious, fun and wild, it’s one big, entertaining mess. The film looks amazing, sounds great and the actors are all on top of their game. Up there with Ishii’s best, but fans of Ishii’s Sogo persona should take note that it’s a little different from his earlier work. Even so, there’s no reason not to give this one a try, as That’s It is one of those niche films that deserves a warm, loving and caring cult audience. [Full review click here]
Number 7: Helter Skelter (2012) by Mika Ninagawa
Helter Skelter is a very visually appealing narrative that proves that a colourful and flashy cinematographical style is perfectly able to support and empower the emotions of the narrative. The careful composition of shots/scenes (i.e. colour, camera movement, …) and the fabulous performance of Sawajima Rika captivate the viewer, taking him along on the emotional undertones that support the unfolding of Lilico’s personal drama. This dramatic journey enables the spectator to feel, albeit in exaggerated form, the effects of the fact that the ego is first and foremost a bodily image, a bodily Ego ever function of the Other. These effects put the aspect of being loved and its relation to self-love in a beautiful way into question for the spectator. Helter Skelter is in other words a must-see, a narrative revealing Mika Ninagawa’s talent to realize her vision in a masterly way.
Onderhond’s Number 7: Short Peace (2013) by Koji Morimoto et al.
Short Peace proudly honors the rich tradition of Japan’s animated anthologies. It’s up there with the very best, bustling with innovation and creative freedom. There’s no weak link here, no bad parts or boring bits. It’s a celebration of animation as an art form and it stands in stark contrast to other contemporary feature-length animation films. Watching the umpteenth anime series turned feature film or childish animal-ridden comedy will only get more and more irritating after having watched a film like this. Kudos to Otomo, Morimoto, Ando, Morita and Katoki for making this mind-blowing film. For those with only the slightest interest in animation, this is a must-see. [Full review click here]
Kurosawa’s masterful formal approach to cinematography shows vividly that creepiness lurks at the surface of society, behind the facade of daily life as image, and that the horrors of today are, in fact, hidden in plain sight. As much as we want to ignore the foreign element in our view of reality, Creepy’s subtle approach confronts the viewer over and over with the realm of the foreign, culminating in a finale that is sublime by virtue of its constrained nature. Creepy is a masterpiece and truly lives up to its name. And yes, you will think twice about getting cozy with your neighbours.
Number 6: Colonel Panics (2016) by Jinseok Cho
Colonel Panics isn’t the easiest of films. It’s probably a little overambitious and it maybe tries to cram a little too much in its 89-minute running time. It also doesn’t pull any punches and Cho simply bombards his audience with his vision and ideas. On the flip side, it’s a wonderfully stylized, strongly realized and often completely baffling film that has both heart and brains and lacks any kind of commercial filter. It’s exactly the kind of cinema I love and admire, but which is scarce and hard to find.[Full review click here]
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a major artistic accomplishment, due to the sublime execution of the narrative. The honesty and purity of the art, the ease by which the moving interplay of brush strokes and charcoal lines convey emotion, the thoughtful and effective use of music, and so on: in every aspect of the narrative, we feel the work of an exceptional craftsman. Furthermore, the narrative successfully ventures into the problematic reality of desire and delivers a wonderful, but sad meditation on desire and its effects. In our opinion, we should compare The tale of Princess Kaguya with the premise of the narrative. Just like Kaguya-Hime is a gift from heaven, this movie is a gift from Takahata and Studio Ghibli. All what is left for us to do, is to accept and take this gift, cradled in own palms, to our friends and family and share this phenomenal masterpiece.
Onderhond’s Number 5: The Whispering Star (2015) by Sion Sono
Yet another take on Sono’s trademark style and while difficult to compare to his earlier films, I feel that fans shouldn’t have too much trouble adapting to the film’s particularities. If you’re unfamiliar with Sono or you downright hated his other films, this might not be the film for you. I’m firmly in the first category though, and I feel it’s one of the best things Sono has done so far. It’s original, quirky, stylish and otherworldly, which is quite a feat considering Sono’s track record. A tough cookie on the outside, but incredibly rich in taste and texture on the inside. [Full review click here]
This exquisite touching family narrative is – whichever way you look at it, another must-see from Kore-eda and a corroboration of the fact that he is one of the best directors currently alive. Even though the themes touched upon in Shoplifters are familiar in Kore-eda’s oeuvre, this narrative constitutes the deepest exploration yet into the question of what family is and what a bond beneficial to one’s subjective well-being is made of. With Shoplifters, Kore-eda touchingly emphasizes that, while there may be something irreducible about the biological bond people share, genuine loving relationships have nothing to do with this bond.
Onderhond’s Number 4: Petal Dance (2013) by Hiroshi Ishikawa
Petal Dance is a more than solid addition to Ishikawa’s oeuvre. While as a whole not quite up there with Su-ki-da and Tokyo.sora, it’s still by far one of the most impressive Japanese drama films I’ve seen. Playfully poetic, magically serene and pleasantly dreamy, watching this film is a calming experience that puts you right in there with the characters while providing a superb aesthetic frame. Ishikawa is still the man to beat, and he only fortifies that position with Petal Dance. [Full review click here]
Ice Cream and the sound of Raindrops is a truly remarkable narrative, monumental in its intimacy. By exploring the sheer complexity of growing up in modern society, Daigo Matsui succeeds in letting the contemporary pessimism about the future we, ourselves, must shape our lives in reverberate in an extremely piercing way. For us, Ice Cream and the sound of Raindrops is Daigo Matsui’s best work yet. And it might even be the best movie of 2018.
Onderhond’s Number 3: Promare (2019) by Hiroyuki Imaishi
Promare is bonkers, hyperactive, grotesque and madcap, a dream come true for those who chase adrenaline cinema, executed in such a way that it oozes unbridled quality and creativity. I’m a little afraid we won’t see anything like it in years to come, although the somewhat surprising popularity of this film may put some gears in motion. Whatever happens next though, Imaishi made another masterpiece. I can’t say I was surprised, but I sure was relieved. [Full review click here]
The Limit of Sleeping Beauty is, in short, a beautiful, refined work of art. Ninomiya’s visual way – a way allowing the main character’s subjectivity directly structure the cinematographical composition, of approaching the radical difficulty to integrate the death of a loved-one into one’s own subjectivity is utterly mesmerizing and touching to boot. The touching nature of The Limit of Sleeping Beauty is not only function by Ninomiya’s perfect grasp of the visual medium, but also due to the amazing performance of Sakurai. Sakurai’s subtly layered performance pulls the spectators into the narrative, leaving him but one wild mesmerizing way out.
Onderhond’s Number 2: The Limit of Sleeping Beauty (2017) by Ken Ninomiya
A film where every element has its place, without being too direct and obvious on how it all fits together. The presentation is gobsmackingly beautiful, with soundtrack and cinematography constantly feeding off of each other. The acting is superb, the story intriguing and the pacing pretty damn perfect. It’s not the easiest film to recommend, especially not to people who prefer the golden days of cinema, but it’s a real trip that launches Ninomiya as one of the most promising directors of his generation. [Full review click here]
NUMBER 1: GUILTY OF ROMANCE (2011) BY SION SONO
This is the only film in our list that did not receive a formal review on our website. Why is it included then? Because it is, in our view, an extra-ordinary piece of filmmaking. This film does not only mesmerize with its exquisite visual poetry but also has the ability to leave the spectator dumb founded for a few days. With Guilty of Romance, Sion Sono does not, as the title implies, deliver a romance narrative but a narrative that goes beyond romance as such. This masterly composed exploration of the social and subjective destructivity of (sexual) enjoyment beyond any kind of love whatsoever is not only an unforgettable and highly confronting piece of cinema, but simply the best piece of Japanese cinema made in the last decade.
Onderhond’s Number 1: Helter Skelter (2012 ) by Mika Ninagawa
Helter Skelter is above all an audiovisual experience. The film looks feverishly beautiful and is madly detailed in every possible way. Every new scene and each new shot is a true marvel. While 127 minutes is quite a stretch for the material at hand, I never felt bored and the combination of lush visuals, strong acting and a fun score prevented the film from ever becoming stale. The entire film is an oddly compelling and insanely stylized fever dream that left me completely dazed and fully perplexed, a rare and significant accomplishment. [Full review click here]