My Top Ten – An Author's Favourites by John Berra

John Berra is the editor of the recently published Directory of World Cinema: Japan (2010), the inaugural volume in Intellect’s Directory of World Cinema series which examines all aspects of Japanese Cinema from atomic monsters, to samurai warriors and yakuza enforcers. He is also the author of Declarations of Independence: American Cinema and the Partiality of Independent Production (2008) and the editor of the forthcoming Directory of World Cinema: American Independent (2010). When not working on his own publishing projects and speaking at academic events and film festivals, John also contributes to Electric Sheep, Film International, The Big Picture and Scope. To coincide with the publication of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan, John picks his Top Ten Japanese Films.

(Hirozaku Kore-eda, 1998)
After they have died, but before they reach Heaven, the recently-deceased find themselves in a spiritual limbo where perceptive and patient case workers help them to select a single memory to take to the afterlife. Filmed in a simple manner on pared-down sets and locations, Hirozaku Kore-eda’s contemplative and deeply affecting film serves as a celebration of human experience, while its sense of ‘realism’ within a speculative framework is enhanced by the director’s rigorous research process and low-key aesthetic; 500 people were interviewed with regards to their favourite memory, and the ensemble cast balances non-actors with professionals in order to achieve a reflective quality which is perfectly pitched somewhere between magical-realism and documentary.
Available on DVD in the UK from Soda.

Blackmail is my Life (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)
Arriving at the tail-end of the New Wave era, Blackmail is my Life is a terrific thriller which owes as much to the freewheeling yakuza films of Seijun Suzuki as it does to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). However, director Kinji Fukasaku imbues his tale of small-time crooks who find themselves out of their depth when they take on both the mob and the government with social-political topicality by referencing the real-estate swindles that reportedly involved the Finance Minister of Japan. Episodically structured, Blackmail is my Life exhibits a great sense of amoral fun but, as with the hustlers at its centre, develops a genuine conscience in the final reel. Fukasaku is best known in the West for his controversial swansong Battle Royale (2000), but much of his oeuvre is ripe for rediscovery.
Available on DVD in the UK as part of The Fukasaku Trilogy (also including Black Rose Mansion and If You Were Young: Rage) from Tartan.

Extreme Private Eros
(Kazuo Hara, 1974)
Arguably the documentary that invented the ‘first person’ film movement in Japan, Kazuo Hara’s Extreme Private Eros is a socially revealing insight into the difficulties facing the ‘modern woman’ in an economically resurgent but culturally inward Asia. Hara followed his former girlfriend Miyuki Takeda over a period of several years, chronicling her experiment with bisexuality, her profession as a bar hostess in Okinawa, and her fling with an African-American soldier which led her to become the single mother of a black child. Poignant and unflinchingly honest, Hara’s landmark film is an intimate portrait of a self-consciously revolutionary, if at times self-contradictory, woman seeking liberation at the expense of her own safety, personal relationships, and social identity.
Currently unavailable on DVD in the UK.

Naked Youth
(Nagisa Ôshima, 1960)
When asked how he felt about being, ‘the Japanese Godard’, Nagisa Ôshima replied that Godard was actually, ‘the French Ôshima.’ This brash sense of talent and purpose is evident in every frame of Naked Youth, which courted controversy upon release with its cautionary tale of a schoolgirl who drops out of education to blackmail middle-aged men in partnership with a volatile hoodlum. Although inspired by such Sun Tribe films as Crazed Fruit (1956), Ôshima is less enamoured by the glamour of youth than his genre templates, and uses his wayward teenagers to comment on the social-political climate of post-occupation Japanese society; early scenes incorporate newsreel footage of student uprisings in Korea in 1960, but Ôshima’s alienated adolescents are more interested in nihilism than activism.
Currently available on DVD in the UK from Yume.

Perfect Blue (Satoshi Kon, 1998)
Anime is a serious business in Japan, both commercially and artistically, and although Satoshi Kon is perhaps not as well-known in the West as Studio Ghibli head Hayao Miyazaki or Ghost in the Shell guru Mamoru Oshii, his work is as visually distinctive, and perhaps even more philosophically inclined. Perfect Blue actually started out as a live action feature, before a breakdown in funding forced Kon to re-conceive the project as an anime; as such, this is a disturbing and disorientating psychological thriller about a young pop star-turned-actress losing her sense of self whilst shooting a sexually explicit television drama, and also an intense insight into how youthful talent is often manipulated and exploited by the economic machine that is the entertainment industry.
Currently available on DVD in the UK from Manga Entertainment.

Pitfall (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1962)

Hiroshi Teshigahara was a master of metaphorical abstraction, and Pitfall is one of the striking films that he made in close collaboration with the author Kôbô Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu, with Woman of the Dunes (1964) and The Face of Another (1966) being equally notable. Pitfall is both an elemental and existential study of corruption that follows the strange fate of a miner seeking work who is followed from village to village by a stranger in a white suit. It was Teshigahara’s first feature film and combined the stark realism of his earlier documentary work with the subjective reality of Abe’s fiction. Evidently an influence on Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Pitfall is part film noir, part ghost story and part social critique, yet Teshigahara shuffles these elements so skilfully that Pitfall is ultimately unclassifiable.
Currently available on DVD in the UK from Eureka Entertainment.

Red Angel
(Yasuzo Masumura, 1966)
During the Sino-Japanese war, a young nurse (Ayako Wakao) is dispatched to the front line after reporting that she has been assaulted by her patients. After joining a ramshackle unit, she falls in love with a surgeon (Shinsuke Ashida) who has been rendered impotent due to his morphine addiction. An unflinchingly bleak film by Yasuzo Masumura, whose remarkable collaborations with leading lady Wakao also included Manji (1964) and Irezumi (1966), the fiercely anti-war sentiment of Red Angel is emphasised not only by scenes of field hospital surgery being carried out with the benefit of anaesthetic, but also by the self-destructive manner in which the principal protagonists indulge in sexual trysts or drug-induced detachment in order to distract themselves from the horrors of their daily routine.
Currently available on DVD in the UK from Yume.

Silence (Masahiro Shinoda, 1971)
An incredibly ambitious undertaking by Massahiro Shinoda, Silence is based on a novel by Shusaku Endo that Martin Scorsese has been attempting to adapt for decades. The film concerns two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to infiltrate a Christian sect that has been driven underground by a ruthless magistracy, with the aim of enabling the church to regain its spiritual foothold. However, the fact that their predecessor has not been heard of for five years suggests that they are putting themselves in great danger. Set in the early 17th Century, Silence is a bold epic about the battle between religious faith and the forces of oppression, and Shinoda frequently places this conflict into wider context by staging the drama against a backdrop of crashing seas and ancient volcanic rocks.

Currently available on DVD in the UK from Eureka Entertainment.

Tony Takitani (Jun Ichikawa, 2004)

Despite his status as one of the world’s most celebrated contemporary novelists, Haruki Murakami has seen few feature films made from his literary works, although an eagerly anticipated adaptation of his international bestseller Norwegian Wood will be released in 2010. Tony Takitani is based on the author’s short story of the same name, and follows a lonely technical illustrator who enters into a relationship with a woman who has an ultimately fatal weakness for designer clothing. Beautifully filmed by Jun Ichikawa, with a haunting score courtesy of Ryûichi Sakamoto, this is a quietly tragic study of emotional and social detachment with mesmerising performances from Issei Ogata, who portrays both the decent-but-dull Tony and his more bohemian jazz musician father, Shozaburo.
Available on DVD from Axiom.

Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)
19th Century Japan. A wandering ronin (Toshirô Mifune) arrives in a rural town that is being torn apart by two rival lords and devises a plan to free the honest, hard-working people caught in the middle by offering his services as a bodyguard to both sides. Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo was inspired by Dashiell Hammet’s 1929 crime novel Red Harvest, in which a private eye plays two gangs against each other, and Yojimbo would later serve as the template for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), all of which has led to much critical discussion concerning cultural influence and authorship. However, Yojimbo should simply be enjoyed and appreciated as an exciting, expertly staged samurai adventure, with a suitably sly sense of humour and a true movie star at its centre.
Currently available on DVD in the UK from BFI.


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