I have always been interested in Japan and Japanese culture. I don’t know exactly when or how this originated. It could be from my interest in Zen Buddhism in my late teens. Not sure. I do know that I started to love the sound of the language and still do. For a lot of Europeans, all East Asian languages sound the same or they don’t think they can differentiate between Chinese, Korean, Japanese and so on. The fact is that Japanese sounds SO different to Mandarin Chinese. It is possible, to neatly divide my exposure to Japanese cinema into two groups: Horror, which is often called J-Horror and Manga. The latter refers to Japanese comics and the films derived from there can be anime or real life.
One evening in 2002, while attending the University of York in England, me and my roommate from Cyprus sat down to watch a film called The Ring. A 1998 Japanese horror film directed by Hideo Nakata. The film opens with two girls talking about a cursed videotape. Almost nothing significant happens in the scene and yet… I remember turning to Evis and saying, I am really scared by this. I was and that wasn’t the scariest part of the film either. If one film really sparked a fascination with the horror genre, it is this one. I still rank it as the best horror film of all time that I have seen. There was an American remake and it is not bad but honestly, I find it unwatchable now. The unsettling atmosphere of the original, the very creepy and enigmatic nature of the threat is low key psychological horror at its finest.
A few years passed and I didn’t return to Japanese films as far as I can remember. Not until I was living in Dublin in 2008. In a tiny room I was renting on South Circular Road with a small portable TV and DVD combo, I watched a whole bunch of Japanese films. Particularly horror. I had to buy the DVDs which were often expensive. Back then I had no other way of seeing the films. I discovered The Grudge (Ju On) by Takashi Shimizu and its sequel, which I found more scary. Then there was Dark Water. An excellent film from the same director as The Ring. It seems that I loved the Japanese horror formula which tended to rely more on creepiness and the understated. There have been American remakes of most of these films and I would suggest avoiding all of them. I have no doubt that the foreign nature of the culture contributes a lot to maintaining the mystery. Added to this, a lot of these J-Horror films have a meaningful and peaceful resolution to them. In many cases there is a real catharsis at the end. It is not unusual in fact to feel sad by the end of the film rather than scared when you realise the truth behind the presence of the ghost.
I also need to mention Battle Royale (2000). What a great film again. I think the Hunger Games books owe a lot to this one. It is however far more brutal and exhilarating. It is not right to categorise this as a horror film. I think it is in a world of its own with elements of different genres. I highly recommend this film.
Around the same time, in my hunt for Japanese films on DVD, I came across Azumi. This is a 2003 film directed by Ryûhei Kitamura and based on Yu Koyama’s manga of the same title. This film totally won me over. This was my entry into the world of samurai but actually nothing I have seen since in that genre quite compares with it. I also bought the sequel and I have seen both many times. The battle scenes are so beautifully choreographed. The way the katana is wielded, the stylised held positions after an adversary has been struck. It’s amazing. Plus the music is a very particular mix of styles that is hard to define but is a feature of a lot of Asian cinema. We have got used to hearing the same soundtracks from a lot of American movies. This one has a kind of almost 80’s nostalgia to parts of it. It is sweet and brutal and empowering. I like films where the hero is a woman. There is a battle in a cotton field that is outstanding visually and musically. If there is ever a case that violence can be dealt with beautifully. This is it.
I didn’t follow this film with many more samurai films but Sky High from 2003 by Ryuhei Kitamura was one. Not to be confused with the American Sky High movies! This has a rather over-the-top story-line but is entertaining and again made me want to have my own katana. Actually, I would still like one.
Another DVD I bought during that time in Dublin was of a very different film that perhaps had the deepest impression on me. Honestly, thinking of it now, it almost has mythic status. I haven’t seen it since that time and I don’t know if I will ever watch it again. It’s All About Lily Chou-Chou from 2001. This is a drama that is very moving and deep in its vision. The piano music of Debussy pervades it. I believe that in the opening sequence there is a voice-over where there is an explanation of ”the ether” and how some music comes from that place. Being spiritually-inclined myself, this took hold of me and never let go. I have used the word ”ether” to describe a kind of dream place or state. A place that I have been aware of my whole life. A place that seems somehow more real than reality. At once new and familiar. I won’t or maybe can’t get into more specifics here but let’s just say it spoke to me.
During my time living in Prague, I came across another film which effected me. Again, this one is almost mythic in its status, not least because it is not so easy to find online especially with subtitles. It’s an anime film called Voices of a Distant Star. It’s a short film by Makoto Shinkai. Only 25 minutes long but beautiful and powerful in its sentiment. It mightn’t be good to watch this if you are missing someone or, on the other had, it might be exactly what you need to watch.
I am not a big fan of anime but I have to also now mention Ghost in the Shell from 1995, which I watched the other day. The visuals, the atmosphere and the music of this one are wonderful. It’s understandably a classic and I think required watching for all anime and/or sci-fi fans. There is a Hollywood live action remake with Scarlett Johansson in the cinema at the moment. I don’t expect much but it might be entertaining.
Our final port of call in my current round up of foreign films will be South Korea…