2021 saw revolutionary film talents emerge from the shadows

This year, the second in the COVID-19 pandemic, was also the second in a row in which Japanese films routed Hollywood competition. The official figures, compiled annually by Eiren (Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan), won’t be available until next month, but according to entertainment data site Entame Seikatsu Private Life, nine of the top 10 box office earners for the year to date have been national releases.

The # 1 movie, at 10.2 billion yen, is “Evangelion: 3.0 + 1.0 Once Upon a Time,” the long-awaited fourth and final installment in the sci-fi / fantasy animated series. Hideaki Anno’s “Rebuild of Evangelion”, while the only non-Japanese film, at No. 9 and 3.6 billion yen, is the latest addition to the “Fast and Furious” franchise, “F9: The Fast Saga”. In contrast, three non-Japanese films were in the top 10 in 2020: “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (7.3 billion yen), “Parasite” (4.7 billion yen) and “Tenet” (2 , 7 billion yen).

Will the box office total exceed the 143 billion yen earned in 2020, down sharply from the 261 billion yen recorded in 2019? According to Entame Seikatsu, 35 Japanese films have grossed 1 billion yen or more this year, the traditional marker of commercial success. That number was only 25 in 2020, but one of those films was the animated mega-bit “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train”, which set an all-time box office record. Japanese with 36.5 billion yen. As a result, the revenues of the 10 best films of 2020 totaled 62.3 billion yen compared to 51.3 billion yen for 2021. This suggests a less than banner box office year, although the market share of local films can exceed 76.3% of 2020.

Meanwhile, director Ryusuke Hamaguchi had a fantastic year with his three-part anthology ‘Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’, which won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival in this year, and “Drive My Car”, his adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami which won the award for best screenplay, as well as two other awards, at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It was also recently named Best Picture of the Year by the New York Film Critics Circle.

Hamaguchi was considered a rising star in the world of Japanese cinema since the release in 2015 of his popular ensemble drama “Happy Hour”, whose four protagonists won the collective award for best actress at the Locarno Film Festival. in Swiss. Nonetheless, he worked in the shadow of the so-called 4K directors – Naomi Kawase, Takeshi Kitano, Hirokazu Kore-eda, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa – who dominated the international critical discussion of serious contemporary Japanese cinema for more than two decades.

Today it is Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” that attracts attention and accolades at home and abroad. This slow-burning drama about a widowed director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) dealing with his feelings for his late wife as he confides in his reluctant driver (Toko Miura) was selected as a nominee by Japan for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars next year. But “Drive My Car” earned only a modest 30 million yen after its national release on August 20. and box office weight are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

This year, however, multiplexes were mostly filled with adaptations of live-action anime and manga rather than 4K authored films, while mid-budget films based on original scripts were pushed to the commercial margins. In response, more and more filmmakers have partnered with Netflix and other streaming services to make content for international audiences with the kind of creative freedom harder to find in a domestic industry obsessed with profitable franchises.

Some have had smash hits, like action specialist Sato Shinsuke with “Alice in Borderland,” a turbocharged sci-fi series with a twisty “game of death” premise that hit Netflix in December 2020 and ranked in the “top” of the streaming service. List of the 10 most watched shows in almost 40 territories. Then, about nine months after its initial launch, the monster success of the South Korean series on the same theme “Squid Game” propelled “Alice in Borderland” to the top 10 charts in more than 50 countries around the world. A second season is currently in preparation.

Other directors took their Netflix projects in bolder directions than their usual production, like Ryuichi Hiroki with “Ride or Die,” which was more sexually explicit than anything the former director of “pinku eiga” (softcore movies for adults) had been doing for decades. . The road movie centers on two women (Kiko Mizuhara and Honami Sato) who run away and find freedom and passionate love after one murders the other’s abusive husband. Additionally, veteran provocateur Sion Sono made his first full-fledged adventure in Hollywood with his Netflix movie “Prisoners of Phantom Land”. Nicolas Cage stars as a failed bank robber who is strapped to explosive devices and sent on a rescue mission to an alternate world, from a town that is a bizarre mix of the Old West and the Meiji era. from Japan (1868-1912) – and could have originated only in Sono’s unique imagination.

The sexually explicit drama “Ride or Die” is director Ryuichi Hiroki’s debut project with Netflix and stars Kiko Mizuhara (right) and Honami Sato (left) as runaway lovers. | AIKO NAKANO / NETFLIX © 2021

Young filmmakers have also opened up new avenues this year, albeit with fewer resources than Netflix has lavished on Sato, Hiroki and Sono. One of them was Akio Fujimoto, 33, with “Along the Sea”, an independent drama about three Vietnamese women working as technical interns in the icy north of Japan that delivered austere realism and a sharp punch. . With its non-native protagonists played by non-Japanese actors, Fujimoto’s film stands out in an industry almost exclusively focused on Japanese stories, despite the country’s increasingly diverse society.

Another was actor-director Sara Ogawa, 25, who filmed “The Goldfish: Dreaming of the Sea,” based on its original screenplay about an orphan teenage girl (Miyu Ogawa) befriending a young newcomer. struggling in his group home, with lyricism, insight and strong narrative bones.

Yugo Sakamoto, also 25, directed “Yellow Dragon’s Village,” an action-horror film about young day trippers battling mad mountain villagers bent on turning them into human sacrifices, which entertained audiences with his energy. disjointed, her fresh take on horror and hardcore martial arts scenes.

Finally, 46-year-old director Keisuke Yoshida revitalized his career this year with the boxing flick “Blue,” a bluntly inside look at the lower parts of the sport, and “Intolerance,” an eviscerating drama of revenge and redemption. These films and his 2016 thriller “Himeanole” were screened at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, where the filmmaker was honored with a special Director in Focus section.

After a long period of struggle in the area between art and entertainment, which brought him little festival recognition or financial rewards, Yoshida had finally arrived. But for him and other Japanese directors who have made great films this year and yet are still little known to the world, a breakthrough like Hamaguchi’s must seem like a distant dream. Invitations to major festivals are rare and the competition is fierce. And Netflix, which tends to prefer big-name talent and proven properties, may not be the gateway they’re looking for. Their battle for festival invitations and box office success will continue into 2022 – and beyond.

In accordance with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is urging residents and visitors to exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, concert halls and other public spaces.

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