You only need to see a handful of Japanese movies before you'll start to notice some trends, such as the bat-shit craziness that makes its way into so many respectable, widely-distributed films. Now, we’re not talking about stately classics here (Tokyo Story and The Life of Oharu conduct themselves with quiet dignity and restraint). Rather, we are talking of the zaniness that causes a devout Christian to become a master of up-skirt photography (Love Exposure) or that causes an entire film to revolve around a disgruntled office worker who just happens to be a koala (Executive Koala, the greatest work of koala cinema to date).
If you are new to this distinctly Japanese brand of wackiness, here are five movies that should provide an excellent introduction to this strange new world.
Title: Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968)
Plot: At first glance, the plot of this film may sound like a Beatles movie (you know, one where there’s not much of a plot). Three young rascals (Japanese pop band the Folk Crusaders) head to the beach for a little skinny dipping. But when they return to shore — get this! — their clothes are gone. Which is conventional enough. However, their clothes were stolen by three defecting South Korean soldiers who have left their Korean army uniforms behind for the Folk Crusaders to wear (that's less conventional!). As the uniformed Dylan-aficionados make their way into town, all the bigotry and xenophobia that lurks beneath the surface of placid post-war Japan will come to the surface, and the Folk Crusaders will have to avoid the lynch mob while trying to get their clothes back. Also, half-way through the story the movie basically starts again, and we replay what’s happened thus far, with slight variations, in a Brechtian what-the-fuck? that would make Jean-Luc Godard proud.
What kind of person makes a movie like this: None other than a man often referred to as the Japanese Godard, Nagisa Oshima. Most famous in the West for the sexually explicit In the Realm of the Senses (1975) and the David Bowie-starring war drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), Oshima shook up Japanese cinema in the '60s with a prolific output of subversive, experimental, and at times baffling films, all in the service of the left-wing radicalism that was central to his aesthetic and to the broader Japanese New Wave movement.
In his interrogations of Japanese national culture (his films are awash with Japanese flags; in the movie Boy (1969) they appear in virtually every scene), Oshima would return time and again to the situation of Japan’s Korean minority and the decades of nativist racism they’ve had to face. If Three Resurrected Drunkards was farcical, Oshima’s companion film from the same year, Death by Hanging, with its story of an amnesiac Korean convict who must have his memory restored before he can be hanged, is deadly serious (well, deadly serious coupled with the weirdness that pervades Oshima’s cinema, anyway).
Where it’s streaming: Hulu.
Title: House (1977)
Plot: When you hear the words “horror movie parody,” the first thing you probably think of is Scary Movie VIII: The Crappening. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Take, for instance, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 House, a gaudy, surreal, completely nonsensical story of seven teenage girls (named Gorgeous, Kung Fu, Melody, Sweet, Prof, Mac, and Fantasy) and their misadventures in Gorgeous’s aunt’s haunted house. Price of admission? Well, they gift the aunt with a watermelon for some reason.
Once inside the house, a whole inventory of the cheesiest of special effects (of the sort one used to find in Vincent Price’s Gothic Hammer horror films) begin to pick off the girls one-by-one. Some are attacked by mattresses, some are sucked into grandfather clocks. Their only hope of escape may lie in deciphering the aunt’s diary and the complicated gothic backstory that House does so much to parody.
What kind of person makes a movie like this? Nobuhiko Obayashi’s insistence on directing decidedly strange, often self-aware art-house films all but guaranteed that he’d never be corrupted by mainstream success. Although he’s been making avant-garde films since the '60s, only two of them are available on DVD in the US: House (released in a beautifully restored Criterion package in 2010) and Sada (1998), which tells the same story of murderous prostitute Sada Abe that Oshima approached with In the Realm of the Senses, but with a sense of humor distinctly lacking in Oshima’s sex epic. The House DVD also comes with a 40-minute short called Emotion (1966), a silent and surrealist dream which seems to be representative of the more rigorously experimental work with which Obayashi launched his career.
Where it’s streaming: Hulu (where you can also find Sada and Emotion).
Title: Sonatine (1993)
Plot: When fatalistic yakuza Murakawa (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano) and a small group of followers are sent by their boss to Okinawa to prevent a dispute between two of their allies from escalating into warfare, Murakawa suspects his boss is trying to get rid of him. And sure enough, almost immediately upon arrival, his team is ambushed and several of his men are killed. The survivors retreat to a beach house to plan their next move, and this is the heart of the movie: yakuza at play. And so we see them flirting with local women, playing increasingly insane games of Russian roulette (film yakuza are rarely known for their intelligence), and playing Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots with live people (a whimsical set-piece emblematic of the many ways in which Sonatine diverges from conventional yakuza films). It’s only the stone-faced Murakawa who seems to remember that they’ve been sent here to die. This combination of play and melancholy make Sonatine one of the strangest and simultaneously most moving yakuza films in the tradition.
What kind of person makes a movie like this? Takeshi Kitano started out as standup comic Beat Takeshi (a name he still uses for his acting roles). He has subsequently become a director, editor, screenwriter, actor, game-show host, talk show host, novelist, painter, and video-game designer. His style of standup is known as manzai; it features a duo making jokes about all the things you shouldn’t joke about: handicapped people, minorities, the elderly. Imagine the surprise of the Japanese movie-going public when he started making respectable art-house movies and became one of Japan’s most esteemed international directors. As an actor, he’s known for his dead-pan style (when the French actor Alain Delon saw Sonatine, having been told that Kitano was influenced by his acting style, he famously responded, “This guy’s not an actor! He’s got two expressions!”). In recent years Kitano’s returned to the stripped down yakuza films that made his fame with the insanely bloody Outrage (2010) and Beyond Outrage (2012).
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: Tokyo Tribe (2014)
Plot: In this, Japan’s first rap musical, the neighborhoods of near-future Tokyo are the hotly contested territories of rival gangs (all of them composed of rappers): the Shinjuku Hands, the GiraGira Girls, the Musashino Saru, and the Bukuro Wu-Ronz, the last of whom are intent on taking over the city. Also there are magical girls from “Wong Kong” (har har), guys in samurai suits, and one of the gangs has a tank. Can the Bukuro Wu-Ronz be stopped? Only if the other tribes of Tokyo can put aside their differences and unify for the common good. There will be blood. And breakdancing. Realistic this is not, but it might be one of the most energetic and relentlessly inventive films to come out of a national cinema that’s already well-known for these qualities. The cast, which mixes mainstream actors like Ryohei Suzuki with Japanese rappers like Mega-G and DJ Ken Watanabe (har har), may not have the tightest flow, but they play their parts with gusto, which is probably the only way to not fade into the background in this sometimes perplexing but always delightful candy-colored hallucination of a film.
What kind of person makes a movie like this? Prolific provocateur Sion Sono first appeared on the international scene with the notorious Suicide Circle (2005), a grisly, darkly comic nightmare that would set the tone for much of what was to follow. With no concept of over-the-top or bad taste, Sono has made Grand Guignol nightmares like Strange Circus (also 2005, he’s a busy man), explorations of family life (Cold Fish, 2010), and surprisingly sensitive and affecting takes on the 2011 earthquake-tsunami-nuclear meltdown (Himizu, 2011, and Land of Hope, 2012, possibly his best movies). In recent years he’s taken on a series of manga adaptations (which is where Tokyo Tribe has its origins), as well as the delightful Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013), which is kind of like Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) if more of the characters killed each other.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: Yakuza Apocalypse (2015)
Plot: Well, plot might not be the right word. But here are some of the things that happen: a yakuza leader turns out to also be a vampire. And when an English-speaker in Mayflower pilgrim garb decapitates him, he uses his last breath to bite his closest follower, Kageyama, who promptly bites a lot of other people. But this isn’t normal vampirism, this is yakuza-vampirism. Which means that those bitten, whether schoolteacher or schoolgirl, don’t just become vampires, they also become yakuza. Which raises some really interesting questions about the economics and epidemiology of yakuza-vampirism. Like, if too many civilians become yakuza, who can the yakuza hit up for protection money? If this is starting to sound a little academic for you, don’t worry: a master martial artist in a frog costume is on his way to restore order, because of course he is; it’s that kind of movie.
What kind of person makes a movie like this?: Good ol’ Takashi Miike, who averages about four films a year in genres ranging from insane yakuza bloodbaths (Ichi the Killer) to businessman bloodbaths (Audition) to samurai bloodbaths (13 Assassins) to… video-game adaptations, apparently (Ace Attorney), and a really sensitive and thoughtful exploration of Japan’s troubled relations with China and the weight of history (The Bird People in China). But this is only a small sample of the 90-plus movies he’s made since he arrived on the scene in 1991. Now, with such an enormous output, is there a consistent level of quality? Oh, goodness no. But when Miike is in full command of his powers (which is definitely the case with Yakuza Apocalypse), there are few Japanese directors capable of delivering a better WTF?! movie.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.