Our Favorite Japanese Films of 2018


To be continuously updated with more films and blurbs. Here is a rundown of what we consider to be the standout Japanese films from last year.

Ways to watch these films not included. Favoritism might vary.

Before We Vanish//Kiyoshi Kurosawa

I didn’t get a chance to see the mini-series companion piece to this, Kurosawa’s alien invasion flick, but I imagine it furthers the resemblance to Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Based on a stage play, Before We Vanish is a mixture of slow-burn deconstruction of such decidedly “human” concepts as home and family and more bombastic moments of gun-play and explosions. It’s a mixture familiar to his work but here his purposeful disjointedness of tone works the whole way through. -Sandra Courtland

Blank 13//Takumi Saitoh

The directorial feature from actor Takumi Saitoh is able to summon almost Shoplifters level tears as well as Gaki no Tsukai laughs. Two brothers, now grown, make arrangements for the funeral of their father. When they were kids he left their mother with two boys and his gambling debt to take care of. Only one these three is able to visit him when they find out he’s in the hospital on his deathbed. Blank 13 demands you divide the movie into two: the funeral and everything else. An over-the-top group of their father’s eccentric friends each get their turn to reminisce about the man - and thus providing a more conflicting portrait of the shit father - help make the divide so easy but throughout the film expertly weaves in flashbacks. Shot on a tight schedule but given a healthy amount of time to construct the film in the editing, Saitoh expertly refuses to resort to black-and-white morality, its all the more affecting for its level of grayness. Sidenote: on the formal side, its way of signifying a flashback is something I’ve never seen before. -Jason Suzuki

Born Bone Born.jpg

Born, Bone, Born//Toshiyuki Teruya

Dear Etranger//Yukiko Mishima

Divorced parents, getting remarried, alternating weekends, all fairly common occurrences but Dear Etranger explores these sort of family dynamics so deeply that it finds a tender web of emotional intricacies. The interactions depicted are delicate but incredibly complex. It’s both heartbreaking and beautiful how characters try to divide their time and their love. A daughter struggles with navigating how two fathers fit into her life, one her biological father she only sees once a month and the other her step-father. The film reminded me of Toni Erdmann in how it seamlessly touches on a multitude of complex topics while sticking to its main concerns on how one traverses their home life while still finding time for self-love. -Sandra Courtland

Dream of Illumination//Thunder Sawada

A story of a father whose work has made him a hated figure in town and his daughter nearing the end of her senior year, who wishes to stay in the same town. Working as a realtor, the father sells off rural property from their owners to foreign buyers, looking to use the cheap land for development. The black and white and the score give off a certain moodiness as we discover more to the daughter’s view on her future and the father’s cut-throat business tactics. The focus on real-estate and the reveals of past incidents that haunt the characters recall noir but without the histrionics. -Jason Suzuki

Eriko, Pretended//Akiyo Fujimura

A failed actress returns home for her sister’s funeral. While there she finds out that her sister worked as a nakiya, a professional mourner. Eventually Eriko takes over her sister’s position, trying her hand at grief for hire. Along with these “acting gigs” she halfheartedly offers to take care of her sister’s son as an act of twenty-something crisis. This debut film is modest, sparingly melodramatic. To be honest, I wasn’t impressed at first since the film is so unassuming on the surface but once I had time for the film to sit with me it revealed itself as a thoughtful take on millennial ennui and malaise. -Sandra Courtland

Killing//Shinya Tsukamoto

Tsukamoto’s jidai-geki. It follows his in front of camera work in Scorsleazy’s period piece Silence. Hard to tell if the setting of feudal Japan provides a novelty to familiar Tsukamoto themes or if there is a no-nonsense refinement happening which the brisk running time suggests. Nonetheless, it has a lasting power. As a master independent filmmaker, Tsukamoto’s used to working with the basics of means of production. Thematically, he does the same with the samurai: his connection to his sword and the nerves he has when it comes to its function to fell. He does visceral better than most, shooting and editing while handling writer/director/actor chores. Like previous work, it’s a chamber piece that boils and eventually erupts. Here the eruption is some amazing swordplay. The gruesome bits are left in, just one facet of the montage that recalls the masters of the silent era. He depicts rage in a way that skips watering it down, putting a pause on exhales. -Jason Suzuki

Mori, the Artist’s Habitat//Shuichi Okita

Each film from Okita is unique, you can’t pigeonhole him into a certain type of story. He works in the unexpected, usually of the pathos variety. Here, he takes a fictional day in the life of real-life artist Morikazu Kumagai and gives it multiple moments of unexpected comedy. There is a lighthearted physical comedy to Mori on the ground, closely observing the legwork of ants, and the young documentarians who try to see what he sees. But as the film goes on there are moments of outré humor that give it its charm. -Jason Suzuki

Night is Short, Walk on Girl//Masaaki Yuasa

Of Love & Law//Hikaru Toda

I want a serial about this film’s subject: Japan’s first openly gay law firm. Following their work life, which includes clientele that represent overlooked fringes of Japanese society; and their home life: desire to become parents, volunteer work, and a loving relationship. Toda’s film has this mix but you can tell that there is more. From their legal work we get excerpts from cases like an artist accused of violating obscenity laws, a teacher who did not stand for the national anthem, and those denied legal status. One imagines there is more to be delved into within these three cases, and it has you wondering what other causes this couple have since dedicated themselves to. -Jason Suzuki

One Cut of the Dead//Shinichiro Ueda

The first volume of Batsu Film Festival was an outstanding selection of rich and nuanced cinema, with crushing and novel examples like 0.5mm or Happiness. And while dramatic works that curator Jason Suzuki presented with depth and subtlety were deserving of the showcase treatment, the faux mockumentary and low budget zombie family film One Cut of the Dead was ultimately one of the most affecting. A hybrid B movie that will leave you wondering why this is being played at an appreciation of Japanese film transforms into a heartwarming work of collaboration and family, any further explanation would ruin the surprise. A torturing first half hour ironically pays off the next two acts in ways that will have you wanting to re-watch the beginning repeatedly. One Cut of the Dead might not have been a contemplative study of the human condition like some choice cuts in BFF, but 2018 would have been poorer and less joyous without it. - Nathan Ellis

The Scythian Lamb//Daihachi Yoshida

Sennan Asbestos Disaster//Kazuo Hara

What if the boulder was slowly killing Sisyphus? Kazuo Hara spends a decade - condensed into a 3 and a half hour run-time - documenting the legal proceedings of those affected by their exposure to asbestos products, their hometown being a production center for the material decades before the asbestos ban in the 90s. Attracted to uncompromising subjects, the group here however rarely let their anger show but have a certain diligence towards putting as much pressure as they can on the Japanese government they’re seeking compensation from. He finds the absurd in the likely place of Japanese bureaucracy. Spouses and children get pulled into the cause as plaintiffs get sicker. At a geometric rate the frame freezes. DOB and DOD appear on the screen. The effect recalls Battles without Honor and Humanity whenever a character is slain. -Jason Suzuki

Shoplifters//Hirokazu Kore-eda

A heist film. A ragtag gang is assembled to carry out a mission. It’s not until they get hit with that dose of fatalism does it recall those moments when the vault alarm was triggered or the briefcase of money busts open during the getaway. Surrounded by darkness, this crew did whatever it took to get hold of a sliver of light. Their means of acquisition doomed them from ever being able to keep that warmth. Some knew it couldn’t last and others return to the scene of the crime, in disbelief that what they had was an illusion, heartbreaking nonetheless. A good heist is thoroughly planned, here there is a similar obsession with unspoken details of these people and how they came to be who they are without ever speaking directly about these sort of details. Almost haunting how emotionally affecting this is. I continue to unpack the film in my head and it’s still as vivid as if it were playing in front of me. In short, it lives up to the hype. -Jason Suzuki

Side Job//Ryuichi Hiroki

A fascinating mosaic of post 3/11 life. I could watch Kumi Takiuchi for the duration of the run time, finding worlds in her eyes as she stares out the window on her bus commute to Tokyo where she works as a prostitute. While that would be great, thankfully we get windows into other lives who have been wading through the wake of the Fukushima disaster, all of them trying to forge on, so caught up in the day to day of survival that the concept of a bright side is a joke. -Sandra Courtland

Swaying Mariko//Koji Segawa

Director Koji Segawa was our guest of honor at the first BFF. An interesting discussion was had in regard to the difference between indie filmmakers in Japan and those in the states. In the US you see filmmakers using the short film as a proof of concept for the feature they want to do. A way to shop it around. Whereas in Japan they’ll just make the film despite having only 10k and a week to shoot (even a star like Takumi Saitoh had limited time to film Blank 13). Segawa’s film retains this energy of the indie filmmaker working with extremely limited resources. It has one of my favorite scenes from last year when Mariko snaps. It’s chaotic, transcendent, and funny. Actress Chise Ushio does a full dive into the role. It was a pleasure to showcase this film in the states ahead of its Japanese release. -Jason Suzuki

The Third Murder//Hirokazu Kore-eda

Sure Shoplifters is amazing, a true masterpiece from Kore-eda. If we hold him to the highest standards he hasn’t been this good since the back-to-back of Still Walking and Air Doll. My only problem with his Cannes darling is how it has eclipsed The Third Murder, his other masterpiece of the year. Despite a miniature sweep at the Japanese Academy Awards, consensus abroad was that Kore-eda should stick to the family drama. Even though familial themes play a strong role in the film, the criminal element is elevated. Works like Nobody Knows and After the Storm incorporate crime but here is a full blown murder investigation and courtroom drama. It’s a descent into the inability to understand another soul and there is a cool bleakness to it all. He is a master of subtext and the unspoken, important to mystery fiction, a genre where it’s too easy to explain everything. The interrogation scenes are pure doses of Koji Yakusho. -Jason Suzuki

Violence Voyager//Ujicha