While the worldwide pandemic and its attendant lockdowns have changed the ways in which cinephiles are confronted with our own media consumption, Japan Society and the Agency For Cultural Affaris’ “21st Century Japan: Films from 2001-2020” proposes a 30-film lineup that showcases, according to their own description, “some of the most remarkable narrative fiction films and filmmakers that define the era.” Naomi Kawase and Hirokazu Kore-eda share the spotlight alongside younger filmmakers to forward a particular snapshot of the past two decades of Japanese filmmaking, one that favors the deep cut and lesser-known works over the sure hit and known masterpieces. This particular decision serves as a way to think beyond the films presented here, and to go back through the past two decades and remind ourselves how we came to know about these directors and their work in the first place.
In many ways, the lineup seems to encourage an omnivorous approach, ranging from the big festival winners to the craziest genre fare. The films mix and match with each other, much in the same way that a younger generation of film buffs came to know about Japanese cinema, especially during the first half of those years. Online forums, torrent sites, bootleg DVDs and streaming sites riddled with malware were the norm for these blooming cinema-dwellers, while websites dedicated to reviewing and sharing their love (and files) for contemporary Asian cinema, like Midnight Eye and Asiatorrents, were crazes in their own right.
Among the most alluring subjects for those whose first fascinations were the “weird and wacky” Japanese cinema, was the seemingly all-encompassing career of Takashi Miike. Mythical for his near-constant output of films (over 60 features completed since 1995), he was one of the most studied and talked about in the online communities. While one can’t really pinpoint any particular film as the strangest, weirdest or even best in Miike’s career, he is represented here by The Great Yokai War (2005), a constant point of contention at that time for its wild aesthetic and shifting genres and moods. And even today this two-hour fantasy-horror-adventure film can provoke strong reactions, particularly out of the whiplash which it induces within its first few minutes. The film opens with voiceover narration by a kid talking about his family life and a nightmare he had, before cutting to a farmer entering his barn to discover a bloody, fetus-like humanoid-rat creature that wails into the night. Then it cuts again to a decidedly mid-2000s CGI hellscape with demons preparing for a big battle, a booming, ominous speech ringing out. Then the film returns to the kid and his family’s problems, to then cut again to a local temple soon entered by a bunch of furry CGI creatures, who are then chased by a CGI dumpster whose mouth opens to reveal thousands of teeth, swallowing the creatures whole.
Overall, the film functions something like a haunted house-themed rollercoaster: visually all over the place, brashly mixing practical and digital effects, stylized sets with beautifully detailed details, impressive miniature work, alongside monster costumes that seem to be a bit more improvised than fitting. Its tone is also deliberately, brain-meltingly inconsistent, seemingly insistent upon being a child-centric adventure while simultaneously containing some of Miike’s most horrific imagery (in a career filled with them). In the end, this is a tribute to manga (particularly GeGeGe No Kitaro and its author, Shigeru Mizuki, whose museum is featured in the film) and the “yokai,” classic monsters from Japanese folklore… a tribute that also prominently features murderous robots.
Speaking of abrupt changes, Hush! (2001), directed by Ryosuke Hashiguchi, is one of the highlights of the series, probing the tricky subject of the place of Japan’s LGBTQ+ community amid a famously inhospitable social environment (it’s only in the past two years that some representation can be found in local governmental positions, for example). And yet, independent filmmakers haven’t shied away from the nuances and vagaries of the prejudice that Japanese society holds against LGBTQ+ individuals, about how they lived and sometimes still live. Partners Naoya (Kazuya Takahashi) and Katsuhiro (Seiichi Tanabe) try to explore their feelings while living in silence mandated by society and those who surround them. The film doesn’t settle into becoming a chronicle of their romance, from its cold start to their warm embrace, and it puts roadblocks in front of them that don’t necessarily have to do with prejudice and bigotry. Even if one of the most excruciating and emotional sequences has to do with how they ultimately confront their families, the film’s biggest conflict manifests itself when a woman named Asako (Reiko Kataoka) chooses Katsuhiro to be the father of the child she wants, bringing new tension to the relationship. Issues of mental health, adoption, modern parenting and acceptance commingle with the incredible work by all the performers, as well as the purposefully cool cinematography, which confers a sense of mundane normalcy to all of the plot’s events as if it were the dilemma of any other heterosexual couple—a particular feat at this point in time in Japan and even in other parts of the world, where cinema seems far more keen on trying to bring attention to difference.
The Twilight Samurai (2002), directed by Yôji Yamada, represents precisely the kind of film that would classically have been of interest to the occidental mainstream. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, it follows the story of a low-end samurai named Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada), who has recently been widowed and is enduring economic hardship trying to take care of his two daughters. Following a legible arc of redemption and recovery, Yamada constantly pays homage to the old masters like Akira Kurosawa and Hiroshi Inagaki. Mostly known in Japan for his work as the main director of the Tora-san series of films, Yamada has dedicated most of his work in the past two decades to crafting tributes to the history of cinema of Japan, starting with his samurai trilogy at the start of the 2000s, continuing on to straight-up remakes of Ozu films, like his 2013 film Tokyo Family, to classic family comedies that mostly reference his own work from the 70s and 80s.
But perhaps the most emblematic filmmaker in this context is director Sion Sono, whose recent film Red Post on Escher Street (2020) has its US online premiere in “21st Century Japan” (co-presented with Grasshopper Film). From his experimental roots, to his big independent breakout (Suicide Club ), to his big budget studio-financed action spectacles (Shinjuku Swan  and Tokyo Tribe ), Sono has, in a sense, done it all. Whether fashioning an overtly personal film or an impersonal film-for-hire, Sono defines the myriad of ways in which Japanese cinema has expressed itself in this era. And he closes it all out with another love-letter to cinema itself, its makers and, more than anything else, its performers.
Red Post on Escher Street follows a river-like structure, starting with different people as they audition for the latest film of a somewhat famous young filmmaker. We are presented with various stories from different actors’ point of view, and while we go from one to the next rapidly, we get to know them personally, from their quirks to their passions. We see them react to success and failure, and how important this acting opportunity is to them. These narrative threads snowball into a big finish—almost a Sono staple at this point—a heartfelt emotional and personal statement regarding what we talk about when we talk about filmmaking and acting: communion and expression. May these films remind us of the time we spent in those niche communities, educating ourselves, finding out what we loved, not really caring about consistency, just looking forward to the next film in our journey.