Playing Catchup: The Japanese Edition


A few more films I’ve (to my shame) only seen for the first time recently. This time, I’ve headed to the Land of the Rising Sun, and come back better for it.


Akira Kurosawa’s seminal epic was earth-shattering on a technical level in the 50s, and remains an impressive and hugely enjoyable viewing experience today for a number of often unexpected reasons. Yes, every critic can talk endlessly about Kurosawa’s mastery of visuals, action and editing, but SEVEN SAMURAI is also surprisingly funny, with Toshirô Mifune’s Ronin Kikuchiyo making for one of the all time great poignant comic relief characters. Kurosawa also has a lot to say both about Japan of the past and Japan of the time of its making. He mercilessly attacks the caste system of Medieval Japan, and symbolically comments on Japan’s mistakes of the more recent past. There’s a lot to process, but you’re given plenty of time to indulge in the characters and setting, and the tense buildup to the final battle wouldn’t be equaled until ZULU.


SPIRITED AWAY might be Hayao Miyazaki’s most accessible film, HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE remains my weird and wonderful favourite, but PRINCESS MONONOKE is his crowning achievement. It’s got great depth, a radical feminist/environmentalist message, incredible beauty and extreme darkness. Not in every family animated film do you see body horror, arrow-decapitations and wolves savaging people in the first hour. Miyazaki perfectly balances quiet moments that take in the serenity of nature with the abject horror of warfare and the destruction of the natural world. Like all of Miyazaki’s films, it’s the women that hold the power, while the men are there in support (though one of them isn’t entirely useless this time). Not since THE WIZARD OF OZ have we had such a memorable conflict between a female protagonist and antagonist.


Certainly Miyazaki’s sweetest, most cartoony film (I know all animation is technically cartoony, but this one is even more so). Just because it’s child-friendly and endearing doesn’t mean it doesn’t have darkness and challenging subject matter to it. MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO is deceptively simple. Two sisters move to a new house with their dad, and their imagination takes hold in their new country surroundings as they try and not worry about their mother in hospital. They have adventures, and take in bizarre wonders before being brought crashing down to reality at the end. It’s a lovely, affecting fable for kids and adults alike, plus it’s got a ridiculously catchy opening credits theme.

Most pleased I’ve now seen: Princess Mononoke (because it’s a beautiful, intelligent and emotion-fuelled manifesto by a master auteur). SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

Writer and film fanatic fond of black comedies, sci-fi, animation and films about dysfunctional families.
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