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Shall we Dance?

This story of an ordinary “salaryman” who takes up ballroom dancing for a host of reasons, which he is at first unwilling to share with his wife, apparently touched off a huge ballroom dancing movement in Japan…when I saw it for the first time, I understood why! The superb cast is led by Koji Yakusho, whose repressed emotions bubble to the surface only on the dance floor. The energy of the other cast members is irrepressible, and the ballroom dancing itself is very well shot. This is a film about breaking one’s mold in ways big and small, and it should bring a smile to even the most staid worker-bees. The Richard Gere version is well done, but I’d personally skip it and see the real thing.


This is one of those near-future, grittily epic movies like “Children of Men” that feel neither epic nor futuristic–it just throws you into the deep-end of its world and expects you to figure things out. In the “Swallowtail” universe, the Japanese yen has become the world’s strongest currency; this naturally attracts immigrants, each with his or her own dreams and aspirations. The movie asks big questions, such as what would happen to the fabric of Japanese society in that case, by tracing the path of a Japanese girl and the strange people around her in so-called “Yen Town.” The premise is daft and the casting is wonky and diverse. A must-see for lovers of quirky, parallel-universe narratives.

Nobody Knows

This film, shot in quasi-documentary style and based on true events, chronicles the heart-wrenching story of a family of children who are suddenly abandoned by their mother and forced to live on their own. The premise is sad enough by itself, but even worse is the fact that the children lived in an apartment in central Tokyo; how could everyone have missed the gravity of what happened to them as they went about their lives, barely holding on? The obliviousness of the adults here is scary. Apparently the children were not actors, which makes their performances all the more raw and compelling. Comedy actress Yu also makes a decidedly unfunny and brilliant appearance as their mother. “Nobody Knows” turns the notion of Japan as a peaceful country on its head, quietly asking whether too much compliance with norms causes people to completely miss what is not.

the Ring

This story, about a dead girl who comes alive via a VHS videotape and haunts/kills teenagers, is certainly a bit old-fashioned. That said, it is based on a popular novel of the same name that spawned at least 2 sequels and stars the lovely Nanako Matsushima, whom I have already heaped with praise in another post. I mean to say that, with that much fanfare around it, I think people are onto something! While scaring you silly, “Ring” will certainly give you insight into the kinds of ghosts that haunt Japan as opposed to Western countries. With “Ring” under your belt, you can dive into less mainstream Japanese horror tales–and live to tell about it.

I Live in Fear (Record of a Living Being)

This is one of Akira Kurosawa’s lesser-known films, but for my money it’s one of his best. It follows the trials and tribulations of a 63 year-old man (the fabulous Toshiro Mifune, then only 35) in postwar Japan who is paralyzed by his fears of oncoming nuclear disaster. It’s worth it not only for Mifune’s superb acting but for the precious mirror that it holds up to the time. It’s one of many marvels created during the Golden Age of Japanese cinema, one that I’m hoping comes around again.

Ghost in the Shell

This “Matrix” precursor asks many of the same questions those films later did in an animated format. The difference is that while “Matrix” was about trying to fit humanity back into a universal equation that had been taken over by machines, “Shell” is more about the potential for synergy between machine and man. It’s got guns, violence, intrigue, and and of course, tech-noirish cityscapes galore. As in most Japanese takes on robots and cyborgs, “Shell” doesn’t bother to draw the line between good and evil vis-a-vis technology. If you can live with this ambiguity and like “Matrix” and “Bladerunner,” then you’re in for a treat.

Train Man

This story of a hopeless “otaku” (super-nerd) who can’t get a date and the woman whom he eventually goes out with is literally the stuff of legend in Japan. It’s a cinderella story for boys in which the titular “Train Man” (Takayuki Yamada) winds up helping out “Hermes” (Miki Nakatani) completely by accident on a train. The nerd’s cadre of online friends act as his Fairy Godmother, telling him to “Go for it!” with the woman and offering him fashion advice, etc. Suddenly cleaned up pretty-boy style, Train Man starts his quest to win Hermes…but will his true colors ruin his chances? “Train Man” isn’t itself a classic film, but it’s important because you can see the start of Japan’s online culture and experience some of the great “otaku” hotspots, especially Akihabara’s Electric Town District. Miki Nakatani is lovely as the strange beauty, and the end is sweet. If you love improbable romances, give this one a try.

Hanabi (Fireworks)

Beat Takeshi, who wrote and directed “Hanabi” (Fireworks), might simply be described as Japan’s answer to Robert DeNiro (OK, when Mr. DeNiro cared about the films he was doing). Perhaps more generously, though, he’s not only an actor and writer/director but also a funnyman, social critic and artist who may or may not have a serious mean streak–“Hanabi” is every bit as complex! It’s a meditation about a former cop (Takeshi) who is losing everything by degrees; his daughter passes away, his partner suffers a crippling accident, and his wife is slowly dying of leukemia. Like the flower paintings that the partner creates during his convalescence, the film is serene, strange and punctuated by acts of violence. Before filming, Takeshi had a motorcycle accident during which his face was partially paralyzed–is the film his angry commentary on life, or his acceptance of it’s weirdness? I don’t know, but I love this film. See it, along with “Sonatine,” and you’re sure to become a huge Beat Takeshi fan!

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