1) Bakumatsu Taiyoden / 幕末太陽傳 (1957) – by Yuzo Kawashima / 川島雄三
In spite of its relative obscurity in the West, domestically this film is classed as a masterpiece no less important than, say, Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, and it has remained my No.1 film over many years. The title of the film has also been translated as Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate and A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era. This film is a Fellini-esque tragicomic drama set in a brothel in Shinagawa in the last days of the Edo era. The main character is an anti-hero who sponges on the brothel. It is impossible to sum up the story in a sentence. Nothing much seems to have happened and yet a lot has happened – it is like a intriguing dream. Just about every frame in the film is poster quality – you can take a screencapture, enlarge it, print it out, hang it on a wall and it would make an unforgettable picture as it is.
2) Gion Bayashi / 祇園囃子 (1953) – by Kenji Mizoguchi / 溝口健二
Out of Kenji Mizoguchi’s entire repertoire, this is my personal favorite (Uwasa no Onna is a close second). Gion Bayashi gains extra points in my book for dealing with a theme that is dear to me personally – how to uphold ideals of beauty and dignity in a sordid world. The story is set in the 1950s and follows the lives of two women – one an accomplished geisha, the other her trainee – as they struggle to keep their heads above water. The musical aspect of this film is interesting – there is often faintly heard traditional music playing in the background – possibly other geisha in the neighbourhood practicing their arts. In that sense, music faintly heard forms the soundtrack of this film.
3) With Beauty and Sorrow / 美しさと哀しみと (1965) – by Masahiro Shinoda / 篠田正浩
Based on a novel of the same name by Yasunari Kawabata [川端康成]. It is a powerful drama of lost love, past scars, deceits and revenge told with masterly constraint. A middle-aged man of letters travels to Kyoto to meet an old flame who, in spite of having been abandoned by him as a ruined young woman in a madhouse, has reinvented herself as a renowned painter. He also meets her disciple and lesbian lover, who is jealous about the past they shared. To me, there are two things worth highlighting: i) The challenge of showing on screen how two people who function on the same wavelength of perceiving beauty are, even after years apart, profoundly connected to each other in spite of perfunctory civility and coldness on the surface; and ii) The paradox of women with classically elegant appearances and refined mannerisms producing works of work screaming loudly and violently of Modern Angst.
4) Basara – The Princess of Goh / 豪姫 (1992) by Hiroshi Teshigahara / 勅使河原宏
The film is divided into two parts. The first half was about the Princess of Goh being raised like a boy by the military general Hideyoshi Toyotomi; the second half was about her as a middle-aged courtly woman having fallen politically. In the first half, she was carefree as the wind; 20 years later, she became an entirely different person – well-versed in power struggles, sophisticated in tastes and emitting an aura of gravitas. The actress Rie Miyazawa [宮沢りえ], who played both parts, was a wonder to behold. It is a solid political drama that demands much of its audience in terms of background knowledge. I even venture to think that only people above a certain age and possessing a certain level of life experience in power struggles would get it.
5) The Twilight Samurai / たそがれ清兵衛 (2002) by Yoji Yamada / 山田洋次
It is a most difficult choice to single out any particular film by the master Yoji Yamada for my top 10 list; I like them all equally – from his earlier works such as the Tora-san series to his more recent works such as Ototo (2010), Tokyo Kazoku (2013), The Little House (2014). I suppose The Twilight Samurai has a special place just because it was my gateway drug to the world of Yoji Yamada. Moreover, it deals with themes that I often contemplate on – things like whether an individual within a vast organization can be said to have free will. The main character, Iguchi Seibei, is the quintessential Japanese tragic hero, in that he is a pawn in organizational power struggles over which he has no control. The novels of Shuhei Fujisawa [藤沢周平] (on which this film is also based) are full of similar tragic heroes powerless in the face of an imposing, impersonal organization; it is no accident that most of his readers are salarymen.
6) Night and Fog in Japan / 日本の夜と霧 (1960) – by Nagisa Oshima / 大島渚
A tightly packed drama without a moment of dullness from beginning to end. There is something about the screenwriting of this film that reminds me of the plays of Henrik Ibsen – pitilessly realist and penetratingly observant. Nagisa Oshima is better known in the world for his more sensational titles such as In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Taboo (1999), but I think his personal best was actually none other than Night and Fog in Japan. I wonder if any Japanese film has taken as serious a look into the nature of politics, its ideals and disillusionments, as much as this film. Politics is a topic that producers of TV drama and movies alike in Japan seem to tiptoe around – the result is that you only get to see papier-mâché representations of politics on screen if ever.
7) Kikujiro / 菊次郎の夏 (1999) – Takeshi Kitano / 北野武
A road-trip movie about a young boy’s search for his estranged mother and accompanied by a bizarre character played by Takeshi Kitano (who also directs this film). Between their starting point and their destination, their time together is filled with largely sad, episodic events, which are told in a light-hearted manner that is just short of being comedy. The resultant effect is quite indescribable with words – I suppose it is either like a gag show being filmed through a melancholic filter, or like a nostalgic, dolorous tune being played in an upbeat tempo. Being not quite comedy and not quite tragedy is the governing note of the film.
8) The Munetaka Sisters / 宗方姉妹 (1950) – by Yasujiro Ozu / 小津安二郎
Like Yoji Yamada, it has also been difficult to pick out my favorite title out of Ozu’s gigantic repertoire. I chose The Munetaka Sisters in the end because it depicts an attitude to happiness that I seldom see anywhere else. The story is about a woman who is married to an alcoholic, abusive and unemployed husband; an old flame of hers – an antique dealer – returned to Japan after many years abroad and sought to resume the relationship. Her husband died a fortuitous death by accident, leaving her free to marry someone else. To everyone’s surprise, she turned down her old flame and chose to be alone instead. She gave a speech towards the end explaining why she chose to embrace sadness instead of happiness – and she did so in the most beautiful, gracious, accepting smile. Ozu’s world is not America, where happiness is seen as the default mode and any deviation from it is seen as abnormal. Ozu’s mode of perceiving and embracing life is different from Instagram’s this-is-my-perfect-life-and-aren’t-you-jealous kind of attitude. It has room for shadows, sadness and sorrows.
9) Sorekara / それから (1980) by Yoshimitsu Morita / 森田芳光
If I had to choose my favorite still shot in all Japanese films I have seen, I would choose the scene where the four main characters of Sorekara stand on a bridge, each gazing ahead to contemplate their pasts and futures – on a beautiful day in the middle of the campus of Tokyo University, a beautiful day never to return. Adapted from a novel of the same name by Soseki Natsume [夏目漱石], the film has surrealist touches in places and a beautiful music score. I have to admit that the film tells the story in a more melodramatic note than I would have liked – I prefer the sardonic wit of Soseki Natsume. But I like the bridge scene so much that this title ends up on my top 10 list.
10) Sakuran / さくらん (2006) by Mika Ninagawa / 蜷川実花
A nearly perfect balance between aesthetics and drama (I have always thought it a pity that Seijun Suzuki had the former but not the latter). Based on a novel of the same name, it follows the life of a young woman raised in Edo’s red-light district who, among other things, overcame a bad boyfriend, became a successful oiran courtesan and strove for personal freedom. It is not free of cliches and I personally think of this film as a bridge to imagining what Yuzo Kawashima would have done if Bakumatsu Taiyoden (see No 1 above) had been produced with this sort of budget and with modern filming equipment.