Throughout the winter and into the early spring, Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox will be focusing quite a great deal of attention on the wildly varied and rich history of cinema in Japan. With the ongoing series Tokyo Drifters (taking a look at the 100 year history of Nikkatsu, the longest standing and most influential movie studio in the country, running to April 6th), Japanese Divas (focusing on famous leading ladies in national cinema, running to March 31st), and the upcoming The Catch: Masterworks of Eighties Japanese Cinema (March 5th to April 6th), there’s plenty of options to chose from for great cinema. Here from across the already stacked programmes are ten films yet to come that you shouldn’t miss (ordered by screening date).
1. Tokyo Story (Japanese Divas, Saturday, February 2nd, 7:00pm) – While somewhat out of place in the diva’s category despite an excellent performance from Setsuko Hara, Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 tale of an elderly couple visiting their aloof, distant children before getting shipped off because the youngsters are selfish and sick of dealing with them is one of the best films ever made by anyone from any country. Never before and never since has the gap between youth and old age felt so sprawling in scale and claustrophobic in reality.
2. Retaliation (Tokyo Drifters, Saturday, February 2nd, 10:00pm) – Yakuza films have been staples of the Japanese culture almost as long as the medium and the mob have existed, but instead of crafting a slightly left-of-centr noir thriller, Yasuharu Hasebe’s 1968 thriller takes a more down and dirty approach, crafting a realistic and almost completely unsympathetic portrait of a recently released thug (Akira Kobayashi) looking to claw his way back into the underworld with violent consequences.
3. Tokyo Drifter (Tokyo Drifters, Saturday, March 2nd, 10:00pm) – On the complete opposite side of that mob equation is beloved Japanese auteur Seijun Suzuki’s freaky deaky musical, romance, action, comedy, drama, art film about a hitman drawn back into the fray he once sought to leave behind by an angry former boss. It’s kitchen sink filmmaking a its finest, and a true blast to watch, especially with a crowd who will most likely be in awe of what they’re seeing the first time around.
4. Violent Cop (The Catch, Tuesday, March 5th, 8:30pm) – While still drawing a considerable amount of acclaim today, Takeshi Kitano’s early 1989 thriller is a piece of refined nastiness and brutality that would in many way define the career that was yet to come. Hating pretty much everyone but his sister, a thuggish cop that makes Dirty Harry seem by-the-book shakes down and threatens anyone in his way while investigating a mob hit. It’s a wildly dark movie that acts as an interesting counterpoint to its obviously American contemporaries.
5. I Are You, You Am Me (The Catch, Tuesday, March 12th, 8:30pm) – 80s American movie conventions were alive and well in Japan throughout the decade, and sometimes were ahead of the curve. Hausu director Nobuhiko Obayashi directed this nifty and amusing riff on the classic body swapping comedy as a young teenage boy and girl are forced to live in each other’s bodies. It’s classical 80s whimsy in the best of ways, and far better and more genuinely emotional than a lot of the North American garbage that would come in its wake.
6. Ten Dark Women (Japanese Divas, Friday, March 15th, 6:30pm) – While Japanese cinema arguably refined and reinvented the revenge narrative, this darkly comedic 1961 film from Kon Ichikawa watches as a scorned wife and her husband’s nine (!) mistresses agree to team up to kill the unfaithful man while constantly lording their very plans over his head, driving him essentially to unadulterated madness. It’s quite possibly the most underrated and subtle black comedy to come out of Japan from any director, and it’s almost surprising no one has thought to revisit this one more often or remake it.
7. A Colt is My Passport (Tokyo Drifters, Saturday, March 16th, 10:00pm) – Possibly one of the best examples of what Nikkatsu typically put out in terms of crime thrillers, this story of a hitman (noticing a general theme yet?) trying to get away from a botched job takes a classical western story and turns it into a modern crime thriller. There’s plenty of action, and while there’s a certain familiarity to the material, that doesn’t make it any less fun to watch. Better still, the screening is free as part of the third annual Bell Free Weekend.
8. Throne of Blood (Japanese Divas, Saturday, March 23rd, 7:15pm) - Akira Kurosawa doing Shakespeare’s MacBeth in sixteenth century Japan. If you haven’t seen it or don’t know why that statement is awesome, then I really don’t have anything else to say to you until you rush out and catch one of the best films from one of the best filmmakers of all time.
9. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Japanese Divas, Sunday, March 24th, 7:00pm) – Hideko Takamine gives a heartbreaking performance as a widowed waitress caught up in Ginza’s dingy, sleazy, and sexist bar scene. Director Mikio Naruse does a great job of making the audience feel like they are really there and that they’re powerless like flies on the wall to help this poor woman who simply lives just to get up and go to work the next day. It’s relateable on many humanist levels even if the viewer hasn’t lived through this themselves/
10. The Man Who Stole the Sun (The Catch, Saturday, March 30th, 3:45pm) – While not even technically a “good” movie overall and ungodly long and nearly two and a half hours, this over the top nuclear threat comedy stands as an excellent example of some of the stranger, boundary pushing fare that came out of Japan in the 80s as a high school teacher flips out and decides to build an atomic bomb to take Tokyo hostage. With pop references to everything from Taxi Driver to The Rolling Stones, Kazuhiko Hasegawa’s film is so wildly all over the map that it’s impossible to hate… with the exception of the film’s controversial ending which still needs to be seen to be believed, and which ultimately makes the film worth talking about and makes the memory of it stick long after it has ended.