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
2. Suicide Club/Noriko's Dinner Table
3. Adrift in Tokyo
4. Norwegian Wood
5. Swallowtail Butterfly
6. Nobody Knows
7. Battle Royale
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
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
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!