5 Awesome (live action) Japanese Movies

Lately, I have been watching my share of Japanese cinema. These are 5 of my favorites. Of course, I felt I needed to say that anime films are excluded from this list.

5. I am Waiting (1957)
Director: Kurahara Koreyoshi
Starring: Ishihara Yujiro, Kitahara Mie

Washed-up boxer Joji (Ishihara) strolls out of his cafe one night only to meet the possibly suicidal Saeko (Kitahara), a singer who lost her voice. Little does Joji know there exists a connection between Saeko and his missing brother. I am Waiting (俺は待ってるぜ,Ore wa Matteru ze) is one of the noir films released by Nikkatsu (see Take Aim at the Police Van), though I am Waiting wasn’t as much of a whodunit in the classical sense. Overall, the story was just a tad on the slow side and the main plot twist seemed a little too coincidental. Despite some technical shortcomings, I am Waiting deserves a shot purely for its fun factor. This film was one of about a dozen Kitahara collaborated with Ishihara on before their marriage in 1960. I think I should also just put it out there that I think Kitahara is one of the most beautiful women to have ever graced the Japanese silver screen.

4. Good Morning (1959)
Director: Ozu Yasujiro
Starring: Sada Keiji, Kuga Yoshiko

One of Ozu’s last films, Good Morning (お早よう, Ohayou!) takes place in the suburbs of Tokyo. It doesn’t really have a plot as much as a collection of subplots, very much within Ozu tradition. Among other things, housewives are trying to figure out what happened when one of them didn’t turn in dues to their club. At the same time, two boys take an oath of silence to pressure their parents into buying them a television set. As with everything in this movie, relatively innocuous problems eventually snowball. In general, what I always liked about Ozu films was how relatable they are. While Kurosawa movies are often about Mifune Toshirou the badass samurai, Ozu films are more about everyday Japanese people. What’s interesting in Good Morning is how the movie takes place in suburban households while the husbands are away at work, and thus the big thing is how the housewives relate to each other. Ozu, at least from what I’ve seen, makes very feel-good movies, and Good Morning works well as a postwar comedy.

3. Maboroshi no Hikari (幻の光, 1995)
Director: Koreeda Hirokazu
Starring: Esumi Makiko, Naito Takashi

Released in the US as Maborosi, it is the story of a woman (Esumi) in the aftermath of her husband’s apparent suicide. I’ll admit this: I needed to watch this movie a second time before I really “got” it. Like Good Morning, Maborosi did not really have a plot per se. Koreeda simply showed events happening while the main character coped with the loss of her husband. All of it was done with some of the most beautiful cinematography I have ever seen, echoing Ozu’s preference for leaving a stationary camera as characters walk on and off the scene. Maborosi ultimately is much more about people experiencing raw emotions. For much of the movie, not a word is said, thus allowing for immersion in the shear ambience of the moment. More than anything else, do not over think this movie; the reason I didn’t quite get it the first time was because I didn’t really appreciate how simple it was in reality. On a semi-unrelated note, I think it’s a shame that the quality of the (alas out-of-print) US DVD was as bad as it was; some of the scenes wound up looking rather washed out thanks to some rather clumsy mastering, and thus spoiling Koreeda’s meticulous camerawork. If you can, try to get your hands on a South Korean or Japanese copy of the movie.

2. Shall We Dance? (1996)
Director: Suo Masayuki
Starring: Yakusho Koji, Kusakari Tamiyo

Not to be confused with the American remake starring Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere. Shall We Dance? (Shall We ダンス) surrounds Shohei (Yakusho), a salaryman with a great accounting job and a loving family. However, he could not help but feel that something was missing from his life. That changed when he decided to take dancing lessons after seeing an instructor’s (Kusakari) face through the school’s window. However, dancing is something Japanese men are expected not to do. Furthermore, Shohei’s wife begins to get suspicious when he is coming home late once every week. Shall We Dance is an amazing feel-good movie, simply put. More than anything else, the important part is seeing Shohei finally realizing what makes him happy. In its own lighthearted way, Shall We Dance also acts as a commentary that despite how idealized the life of a salaryman is, not every one of them find it to be satisfying. I am not really one to be able to critique dancing scenes in movies, but I definitely enjoyed those in Shall We Dance, and let us just say that because of it, I kind of want to jump into ballroom dancing myself.

1. Seven Samurai (1954)
Director: Kurosawa Akira
Starring: Mifune Toshirou, Shimura Takashi

A Japanese village has a long history of being raided by bandits. The villagers finally decide they need samurai to defend the village. Seven Samurai (七人の侍, shichinin no samurai) could be considered to be Kurosawa’s masterwork, and is also agreed to be one of the greatest movies ever made, Japanese or otherwise. Much of the movie involves the relationship between the samurai and the villagers they were hired to protect. A plan is formulated to eradicate the outlaws, and that leads up to one of the most visually epic battle scenes ever filmed. The only word that can be used to describe Seven Samurai is “epic”. As with many Kurosawa films, the story is very character-driven; everyone has their own personal problems and that reflected in how they saw other characters. At times comical, at times thoughtful, always dramatic, Seven Samurai is basically THE Japanese movie that everyone needs to see for an epic done right, where the movie is very much not squarely focused on the battle action.