Godzilla might loom over a hotel and cinema complex in Tokyo, and Studio Ghibli might be one of the happiest places in the country; however there's more to Japanese filmmaking than giant lizards and heartwarming animation. To demonstrate that fact, every year the Japanese Film Festival rounds up a diverse array of the nation's latest movies, sends them Australia's way and tours the country.
Running this November and December in Sydney and Melbourne, this year's festival couldn't make that case with a more eclectic range of offerings, with everything from historical martial arts epics to creepy murder mysteries to cats — always cats — on the lineup. Picking just one flick to see from is always a struggle, so we're here to help. Add these six to your must-see list, pair your movie with a bowl of ramen, and you're in for quite the Japanese feast.
Japan might be known for thrilling fare that American filmmakers can't stop remaking, but this interpretation of ghostly folklore isn't your usual J-horror affair. Moody, purposeful and graceful with its deliberate pacing, non-linear narrative and black-and-white imagery, Snow Woman tells of a hunter's altercation with a mysterious spirit, his promise to never breathe a word and the identical-looking beauty who soon arrives in his village. He's entranced, they're entranced — and so will everyone watching director Kiki Sugino's hypnotic film.
From directing Japanese horror effort Pulse, to helming Cannes prize-winning ghostly romance Journey to the Shore, filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa might be drawn to haunting stories — but he never makes the same film twice. After last year's one-two punch of bad neighbour flick Creepy and French-set Gothic tale Daguerrotype, he's tussling with aliens in Before We Vanish. In this invasion-focused movie, no one actually notices the extra-terrestrials gathering information while hiding out among humanity, in a They Live-like concept that speaks to the busy, self-absorbed nature of modern life.
Of the plethora of flicks Japan could've chosen to represent the country at next year's Oscars, it went with Her Love Boils Bathwater. Whether it'll progress in the hotly contested best foreign-language film category is yet to be seen, but it's a moving contender — and a fine example of the nation's dramatic chops. At the centre of the movie sits a dying single mother trying to make sure her bullied adolescent daughter will be able to cope without her, and resurrecting her family's bathhouse in the process. Delicately handled, with both keen insights and warm humour oozing through, this isn't mere movie-of-the-week territory.
How many hours have you spent playing the addictive cat collecting game that is Neko Atsume? There's only two answers: too many to count (for avid fans), or every waking moment from this point forward (for anyone just discovering this time-filler right now). Well, Neko Atsume House turns all that fun into a movie. Enough said, really; however if you want more details, it follows a struggling novelist who gets his groove back after not only encountering a cat, but subsequently transforming his backyard into the kind of space any kitty — plenty of kitties, in fact — would go crazy for.
Dentists by day, pop group by night — it sounds like something straight out of an offbeat, upbeat, larger-than-life movie, doesn't it? While the story of Japanese band GReeeeN has been turned into a flick in Kiseki - Sobito of That Day, it's actually a true story. Yes, really. The chart-toppers formed in dental school a decade ago, sung their way to success and managed to maintain their fame by doing something very dentist-like: not showing their faces in public. They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and this tale definitely proves that statement and then some.
Think Japanese animation, and Studio Ghibli instantly comes to mind thanks to their gorgeous visuals, expert handling of story and emotion, and all-round enchanting vibe. In This Corner of the World isn't a Ghibli film, but saying that it feels like one really is the highest praise we can muster. Indeed, writer/director Sunao Katabuchi was an assistant director on Kiki's Delivery Service, however, his latest effort is all his own. Exploring the life of a teenager wed to a young naval clerk in Hiroshima, the World War II-set movie is as poetic as it is perceptive as it combines a coming-of-age tale with a personal account of times of combat.
The 2017 Japanese Film Festival screens at Sydney's Event Cinemas George Street from November 16 to 26, and Melbourne's Hoyts Melbourne Central from November 23 to December 3. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the festival website.