Top 12 Japanese films of 2021

Introduction

In this year full of challenges, restrictions, anger, and vaccinations, we were lucky that cinema kept providing content: familiar experiences, experimental concoctions, or mere straightforward fun. Yet, some of these narratives delivered on their promise, some didn’t. Some impressed, some could barely hold our interest.

So which films impressed us? Which films should you put on your to-watch-list? Find out in our list of best Japanese films of this year. Enjoy. [Rather than offering a list of ten films, we opted this year to deliver a list of twelve films and 3 honorable mentions.]

Honorable mentions

The Asian Angel (2021) by Yuya Ishii

While Ishii’s latest film does not reach the emotional heights of All The Things We Never Said (2020), The Asian Angel does succeed in showing, in a powerful and touching manner, the possibility of intercultural friendship and romance. In fact, in these recent times, where ongoing tensions mark the bond between Japan and South Korea, Ishii delivers a humanistic message that is, maybe more than ever, highly needed.   

The Last of The Wolves (2021) by Kazuya Shiraishi

Last Of The Wolves might not reach the heights of the masterpieces of the genre, but Kazuya Shiraishi delivers, with this sequel, another amazing and highly entertaining yakuza/police thriller – quite possible the best thriller of this year. With an engaging narrative structure that pumps tension into the narrative and a finale that stands out due to the twists and the crude explosion of violence, Shiraishi reminds us, in a rather confronting way, that the past of the ‘honourable’ Yakuza is soaked in blood.

Last of The Wolves (2021) by Kazuya Shiraishi

Sexual Drive (2021) by Yoshida Koda

Sexual Drive is an amazing and unconventional narrative that not only explores the eroticism of the oral drive in an enticing and visually pleasing way, but also succeeds to touch, in a lighthearted way, upon the complexity of sexual desire as such. Kota, in fact, reveals three aspects of sexual desire: its dependence on the image the subject has of the sexed other– Madonna or whore, the need for the subject to accept the polymorph perverse reality of his own sexual desire, and the fact that the male and female subject never meet each other as subject in the act of copulation.

Top 12 films of 2021

12) We Couldn’t Become Adults (2021) by Yoshihiro Mori

We couldn’t Become Adults offers an elegant and moving exploration of a how certain subjects unwillingly compose their own romantic failures. Yet, this is not a narrative of big romantic mistakes, but a forlorn story of how the inability to meet oneself as subject renders the subject unable to encounter the Other’s subjectivity. We couldn’t Become Adults is well worth a watch.

We Couldn't Become Adults (2021) by Yoshihiro Mori
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11) Moonlight Shadow (2021) by Edmund Yeo

Moonlight Shadow is, in short, fabulous. The blend of Yeo’s elegant and poetically flavoured composition and Komatsu’s pitch perfect performance offers the spectator one of the most touching explorations of the inability to mourn and what can enabling allow the subject to embark on the journey of saying goodbye. With his latest, Edmund Yeo affirms that he is one of the most accomplished visual poets of contemporary Asian cinema.  

10) Love, Live, and Goldfish (2021) by Yukinori Makabe

Love, Live, and Goldfish is an amazing narrative that explores elements marking contemporary Japanese society (e.g. the difficulty of expressing oneself, the enduring impact of the aesthetic tradition of Iki, and the female urban dream of wealth, …etc.) in a highly engaging and satisfying way. While Makabe’s narrative does not offer anything truly new or groundbreaking, what it does brings to the table is served with excellence. There is, in other words, not one single false note in this lighthearted musical romance.  

Love, Live, and Goldfish (2021) by Yukinori Makabe

9) Baby Assassins (2021) by Yugo Sakamoto

Baby Assassins is an amazing narrative that far outstrips its low budget nature. Sakamoto does not only breathe a fresh air in both the action and buddy genre, but the pitch-perfect performances, enticing action-choreographies, and an effective composition allows him to deliver not only one very heartwarming buddy film – exploring the establishing of amical bonds – but also one of the most satisfying Japanese action films of this year.

8) Underdog (2021) by Masaharu Take

Underdog is an amazing narrative, not because it delivers an epic boxing-narrative with lots of thrilling boxing action, but because the epic nature of the narrative is psychological in nature. Rather than dazzling the spectator with fantasmatical heroism of the art of boxing, Take takes the spectator on a lengthy adventure that reveals, in an emotional and surprisingly cathartic way, the importance of finding subjective meaning in one’s life to animate one’s subject and direct one’s subjective trajectory. Underdog beautifully and powerfully shows that the heroism of the art of boxing lies in the very subjective meaning that power the jabs, the hooks, and the uppercuts.

Underdog (2021) by Masaharu Take

7) Beyond the 2 infinite minutes (2021) by Junta Yamaguchi

Yamaguchi’s Beyond The Two Infinite Minutes is a highly entertaining and cleverly constructed sci-fi film that not only underlines the power of romantic desire, but also reveals how tricky knowing the future can be. While Beyond The Two Infinite Minutes is less impactful than the somewhat similar One Cut Of The Dead (2018), it still has the potential to become, just like Ueda’s film, an international cult-hit.

6) Dreams on Fire (2021) by Phillipe Mckie

Dreams On Fire does not only offer an extremely well-crafted ode to the art of dance and a moving celebration of the energetic emotionality and the artful poetry of the moving body, but also a powerful reminder of the importance of chasing one’s dream and not giving up on one’s desire – dancing is not only living but surviving. Yet, Mckie does not deliver a mere idealization with Dreams On Fire. With his keen insight, his exploration of sub-cultures does not only evoke how making-it is function of chance-encounters, but also how the path of chasing one’s dream is littered with obstacles. McKie’s film is not only the best dance-film of recent years but might very well be one of the best Japanese films to be released this year.

Dreams on Fire (2021) by Phillipe Mckie

5) Spaghetti Code Love (2021) by Takeshi Maruyama

Maruyama’s Spaghetti Code Love is, in short, a masterpiece. Not only does he masterly paint the melancholic zeitgeist of these times with his evocative composition, but he also beautifully explores the irresolvable tension that marks our neurotic desires – be it a desire to be desired or a desire for recognition – and the societal and relational context that limits and inhibits us. The powerful and naturalistic performances ensure that Spaghetti Code Love powerfully speaks to the spectator’s subjectivity – his fears and hopes – and enables Maruyama’s evocation of a glimmer of hope that remains present in this dark depressive modern relational mess to positively impact his audience.

4) Over The Town (2021) by Rikiya Imaizumi

Over The Town is, in short, an amazing narrative. Not only is Imaizumi’s narrative littered with a multitude of beautifully nuanced moments of natural relation poetry, Imaizumi also succeeds to show the spectator that the only kind of romance available for the human subject is one that is problematized (and supported) by the imaginary and perverted by the subjective logic that hides itself behind the fantasmatic image of a perfect romance.

Over The Town (2021) by Rikiya Imaizumi

3) Frantic (2021) by Shugo Fujii

With Frantic, Fujii delivers his best movie yet and, quite possibly, the cult-film of the year. Even though Fujii is not able to fully hide the low-budget nature of his narrative, the marriage of his exquisite narrative structure with his effective dynamic composition engages the spectator from start to finish and delivers a powerful confrontation with the proximity of desiring to be loved and descending into madness.

2) Drive My Car (2021) by Ryusuke Hamaguchi [Review soon to be published.]

Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is, in short, a meditative and intimate masterpiece. It is a narrative unlike any other. With an exquisitely layered but challenging intertextuality, Hamaguchi elegantly underlines the ease by which a subject deceives himself – hides within his safe deceptive ego, how destructive one’s deafness for the other’s subjectivity and desire can be, as well as how addresses one’s speech to the Other is necessary step to force open one’s subjective deadlock. Yet, the true power of Drive My Car does not simply lie in this intertextuality, but in how the pitch-perfect performances of the cast and the meditative visual composition breathe life into this intertextuality. It is the perfect interplay of elements that ensures that Yusuke’s trajectory touches the spectator in profound ways and stirs the inner depths of his subject.

Drive My Car (2021) by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

1) Remain in Twilight (2021) by Daigo Matsui

With Remain in Twilight, Matsui delivers another masterpiece that will long linger in the spectator’s mind. The geniality of Matsui’s narrative lies in his daring choice to infuse some absurd elements into his finale. While such unexpected absurdity would have derailed many narratives by lesser capable directors, Matsui’s masterful handling of this absurdity transforms his story into a highly emotional and moving exploration of the difficulty of accepting loss and the importance of saying goodbye in the symbolic. Matsui might have delivered the best film of the year once again.

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