How did I come to love Japanese cinema?

September 23, 2021

In the last year of elementary school, me and some of my friends got very much obsessed with watching horror movies. Despite our young age, the goal was always to watch the scariest thing we could possibly think of. In a previous episode of Celebrating Cinema I already talked in depth about my experience of seeing The Exorcist around that time. But now I’d like to take you back to the first time I saw Ringu, Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Japanese horror film that became somewhat of a viral hit in and outside of Japan.

I was over at a friend’s house for the first time ever. And was very much impressed by the relative loose parenting going on, resulting in a thick stack of rented horror dvd’s. I also remember listening to Queens of the Stone Age for the first time ever there, and being totally creeped out by the creaking violin that opens the album. Then my friend’s sister came in with a Cradle of Filth band shirt and blonde hair and black nails. I was already totally overwhelmed — and maybe a little bit in love…

Anyway, we started off with a very bad alligator slasher film and then we commenced with The Ring, a film that made a lasting impression on me. Of course, partially due to the supremely scary visuals of a young girl crawling out of a well and through the television screen into your own living room. Making it one of the first horror films that gave me the impression that I too, could be harmed by the evil depicted on screen.

But something else also lingered after watching the ring, a new region of cinema that I never encountered before in my life. Luckily this was the time of a serious Japanese Horror craze in the Netherlands. MTV broadcasted J-horror on their Asia Mania and Asian Screen late night series and later released some of these genre gems on DVD. Video rental stores were stocked with Japanese horror and American studio’s were eager to remake and rip off some of the most well-known titles for a local market. It was a great time to become acquainted with a subset of Japanese cinema.

Then, as a young, teenage cinephile, I started going to International Film Festival Rotterdam, where Asian cinema is often properly represented and Japanese directors like Takeshi Kitano and Takeshi Miike have a returning spot in the programming. With every new festival edition, films from Japan in my mind became more diverse, more expensive, more wild, but also less often tied to genre expectations.

It’s this getting rid of a specific notion of what Japanese cinema is or should be that opened me up to even more directors, films and periods of Japanese cinema. I remember fondly my first time watching an Akira Kurosawa film, Seven Samurai, on a way too small television set in my teenage bedroom. I also remember seeing films by Ozu in the local arthouse theatre as a tribute to one of my film professors at uni who tragically passed away on a way to early age. He always cried his eyes out during Late Spring, so we did too when we screened it in his remembrance. And then Miziguchi came after, and then Oshima, and most recently I’m obsessed with Ryusuke Hamaguchi, whose latest film Drive My Car, an almost transcendent adaptation of a Murakami short story, I was able to award with my film critic jury during the previous edition of the Cannes Film Festival.

Camera Japan, a small but dedicated festival for contemporary Japanese cinema, will soon grace the silver screen here in LAB111 but also in Rotterdam, to offer a selection of the latest Japanese films. Looking through the program I found another director that manages to somehow deliver on all of the things I’ve learned to appreciate about Japanese film. Kiyoshi Kurasawa, a wildly prolific auteur, who has made some of the finest genre films, next to some of the most piercing family drama’s you can imagine. The first film of Kurosawa that I saw was Pulse, in my opinion the film that Ringu could never be: a deeply disturbing look at growing solitude in a more “connected” world in which the ghosts of dead, lonely people are forever stuck on the internet. It eerily anticipates the Facebook memorial pages and online suicide note’s that have become a more macabre part of our social media networks. It also addresses how new media creeps into your life and alters your perception, sense of self and sense of reality.

It’s one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. Not only for it’s visual thrills but especially because of it’s melancholic and contemplative outlook on life. It’s a triumph of a very diverse director who started out as a soft-core porn director of Pink Eiga films, climbed a bit up the ladder of prestige with detective/thriller/horror crossovers and eventually broke through with the more conceptual scares of Pulse. Tokyo Sonata is his Ozu for the modern age: a piercing and painful social drama about poverty, shame and depression, a film that plays everything very straight but has an undercurrent darker than most horror films could even fathom.

Soon to be screened during Camera Japan is his WWII intrigue drama Wife of a Spy, a high budget-ish historical thriller with some fascinating twists in a dense and layered plot. It’s another showcase for Kurosawa as one of the most interesting working Japanese directors right now. It was a deserving win of the Best Directing Prize at 2020s Venice Film Festival. 

The fun thing about returning to the same festivals, like IFFR, is discovering even more about the boundless possibilities of cinema. I remember one year in Rotterdam where in WORM, one of my favourite venues ever, there was a night of Japanese Expanded cinema, an experimental and creative approach to film projection where the projector and screen are not unconditionally bound to each other. When you open up the possibilities of what projects and what receives the projections, you suddenly can create audiovisual experiences in seemingly endless possibilities. I remember a night of simultaneous, overlapping projecting, the use of laser lights, the use of Fans to rhythmically block and allow parts of film to reach the screen. I remember a lot of fun and surprise and shock in the audience that was in real time trying to figure out the inner mechanics of the form of projection they were witnessing. It all amounted to a sense of radical playfulness that transcends the need for linear stories or spectatorship often associated with the medium that we all love so dearly: film literally can become liberated.

I realise that with this Cold Open I’ve made a broad overview of what we could talk about, but that’s also because I don’t dare to try to limit or box in what film in general — and Japanese cinema in particular — is or should be. Instead I’d like to opt to go on a similar tour of discovery together, trying to find some of our own personal connections with the subject and try to inspire each other to discover more in the process.



Comments are closed.