Thursday, March 17, 2016

"Utsu Eiga" - Japan's depressing movies of doom


The US may have a virtual monopoly on the post-apocalyptic genre, which often stands in as an allegory for real-world fears - fears of loneliness, sudden poverty, and lost hope.

Japan has its own dark "genre" - really more of a movement - and it's a lot more direct. These films are all about the lurid underbelly of modern Japanese society - subjects that everybody knows but nobody talks about. Things like bullying, rape, suicide, prostitution and murder.

Japan has a long history of dark family melodramas, which explored the strained dynamics of families during wartime or under new western influences. But these modern films have some unique traits - they're more often about loners or young people, to start. Oddly enough, the first unifying trait I noticed in these films was that many of them star the same actors, almost like there's a specific troupe making them. You'll be seeing a lot of Rinko Kikuchi, Ayumi Ito and Yu Aoi if you watch all of these!

My wife and I have searched for whether there's a universally accepted term for this movement yet, and the closest we've found is "utsu eiga", which loosely translates as "depressing movies". (But yes, people in Japan talk about these films as a distinct movement too.)

You might ask "why?" Why does happy, goofy Japan - land of life-size Gundams and J-pop and robotic butts - make movies that are really dark and sad? Well, in Japan there is a saying that "the tallest blade of grass gets cut down". Conform, or else. These movies are about the tallest blades of grass.

My wife and I have watched a bunch of these (and I've even written about a few before), and many of them are beautiful, unique and inventive. They tell dark but universal stories from a distinctly Japanese point of view - not completely unfamiliar, but you might see some things in a new way.

They're also very slow, but the best are hypnotic. Don't let the pacing scare you - just go with it, and eventually you'll feel like you're riding a raft down a calm river - one with a giant waterfall at the end of it.

Without further ado, here's a list of some utsu eiga that are worth checking out - all of these are available on DVD or Blu-Ray in the US (and some on Netflix streaming):

1. All About Lily Chou-Chou
A high school student runs an online fan forum dedicated to an ethereal pop singer. Her music lets him temporarily escape his reality of bullying and petty crime. It's almost impossible to say more without giving away spoilers, since the entire film is one slow and depressing surprise after another, culminating in a fateful concert that provides a cathartic yet ambiguous ending. A word of warning: several scenes will make you really uncomfortable, assuming you're a normal human being. But the film's also ethereal and beautiful, like the songs of Lily Chou-Chou herself. I thought about this one for days after seeing it; it's probably the deepest, most complex film here.


2. Suicide Club/Noriko's Dinner Table
You know a film that begins with the simultaneous suicide of 54 schoolgirls in front of a rush hour train is going to be dark. That sets off a chain of copycat suicides nationwide, with a pop group seemingly somehow behind it. Suicide Club focuses on the police investigation into what's causing these suicides, while Noriko's Dinner Table, its companion film, goes deeper into the psyche of the individuals involved in the supposed "club". The latter film isn't a true sequel or prequel but takes place before, during and after the events of Suicide Club (in Japan, it's known as "Suicide Club 0").


3. Adrift in Tokyo
An aimless and indebted college student meets up with a loan shark who promises to wipe out his debts if he just accompanies him on a walk across Tokyo. Not knowing why but having no real choice in the matter, he agrees. They walk. Secrets are revealed. A fateful decision is made. A kind of forced but real friendship develops. This is a dark buddy movie.


4. Norwegian Wood
I'm cheating a little with this one since it's written and directed by a French Vietnamese, but it's adapted from a Japanese novel, stars Japanese actors and was released first in Japan. Some have criticized the film for cutting a lot of the 1960's radical politics out of the plot and instead focusing on the love story, but it is a tragic love story that's filled with death and loss. (It's actually kind of a "bizarre love quadrangle".) The film still touches on many different issues, including how Japan deals with mental illness (hint: not well).


5. Swallowtail Butterfly
Written and directed by the same guy behind All About Lily Chou-Chou (Shunji Iwai), Swallowtail Butterfly is about the closest Japan generally comes to a serious post-apocalyptic film. Set in an unspecified dystopian future, Japan now has a large and growing underclass, fueled by unemployed immigrants from China and elsewhere who speak a mixture of Japanese, Chinese and English. These immigrants have formed their own shantytowns, one of which is called "Yen Town" because they'll make money any way they can, including theft, prostitution, and any scam they can think up. When the citizens of Yen Town decide to go legit, though, they find it's not that easy.


6. Nobody Knows
Four siblings are left at home alone by their mother for weeks at a time, and eventually forever. They learn to fend for themselves, scraping by through begging and eventually other means. But when the oldest and most responsible sibling begins to drift away from the rest, things really take a turn. You'll think it can't get any worse for them, but it does. You'll also think "no way this could happen in Japan"... but this is the only true story on this list.


7. Battle Royale
Lots of people have compared this to the Hunger Games, but they are very different movies. Battle Royale is an allegory for high school itself, with adults in the film forcing students to literally kill each other. The implication is that adults not only turn a blind eye to high school bullying, but are in fact complicit in it. The survivors don't make it out because of the system, but in spite of it.

This is a film by Takeshi Kitano, who could actually appear several times on this list. His films often explore themes of alienation and tell stories of societal outcasts. But, well, this is probably his most famous in the west, so it's my pick here. (Also, I couldn't remember the names of any of the others I've seen!)


8. The Taste of Tea
Admittedly it's been a while since I watched this one and I don't remember it too well. But I do know that it's probably the closest film on this list to one of Japan's earlier family melodramas, in the vein of Tokyo Story or other Ozu films. Each member of the Haruno clan has his or her own eccentricities, and they're all celebrated here in a series of vignettes that adds up to a film that seems to say "we're all weirdos - deal with it."

This is technically a comedy, though I remember it as a drama and Amazon's quotes from Trinie Dalton note that it revels in "odd, awkward moments of reflection or confusion." My memory is that it's like a much slower Wes Anderson film.


9. Linda Linda Linda
I hesitated to include this on the list because in the end it is an uplifting film, but it still has many of the hallmarks of an utsu eiga. A group of high school girls forms a punk cover band, and when their singer quits, she's replaced with a Korean exchange student who barely speaks Japanese. Among the themes in the film is the difficulty foreigners have fitting in to Japanese society, especially teenagers who might not be emotionally equipped to handle it. So it's got a lot in common with some of the other entries here.

Incidentally, western directors have tried to make their own utsu eiga, set in Japan with Japanese actors, but with the exception noted above, these have generally not been very good.

This is by no means an exhaustive list - just some of the films I've seen. I'd love to hear your recommendations!

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This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.

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I'm married. I like to travel. I have no kids. I have a house... that I'm bad at maintaining. I used to collect classic video games. I own a lot of musical equipment that far outstrips my ability to use it. When I was younger, I was in a band. I like gadgets, and I'm an Android guy. Someday, I would like to live on a different planet.

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