Rotterdance! Premiered at Cannes 2018, showed up at Rotterdam at the end of its festival run, opened in NYC in May then slid onto video in November.

Cute girl Asako meets shaggy guy Baku. He’s a bit quiet and mysterious, and she hardly says anything, just looks curious. They hang out together with her friend Haruyo and his friend Okazaki. They are sweet and young and that’s all there is. “Six months later, Baku said he was going to buy shoes and never came back”

Two years later Asako works at a coffee place and spots Salaryman Ryohei, who looks just like Baku, but is no Baku, neither quiet not mysterious. They hang out with her actress roommate Maya and his amateur acting critic friend Kushihashi, who just tears her apart after they watch one of her performances. Asako is drawn to this fake Baku but torn about the whole thing, runs away, comes back the night of the March 2011 earthquake. I’ve got nothing but plot description, but it’s unusually gripping for this sort of dramatic film – every scene is good. It’s no wonder Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour popped up on decade-best lists.

Five years later, he’s moved up at work, she’s still at the coffee shop, and they’ve been together since the quake, when Haruyo shows up, and the movie takes a flying leap into melodrama (my notes during this section just say “holy shit this can’t be happening”). Baku comes back for her, the night before she and Ryohei are moving into a house together, in the middle of a farewell dinner, and she goes with him – then changes her mind along the way, but Ryohei might never trust her again. “I always had a feeling this would happen. That guy with the same face keeps haunting me.”

Baku I & II:

Would watch Asako III & IV. Cowritten with one of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s regular screenwriters, and Baku/Ryohei Masahiro Higashide starred in his Creepy (as the detective’s ex-partner) and Foreboding. Haruyo was in Lesson of Evil, and Kushihashi was in some Ju-on and Ring sequels. In competition at Cannes the year of Shoplifters and Burning and Ash Is Purest White – tough crowd.

Hamaguchi summarizes his career to date in a Filmmaker interview.

Lawrence Garcia: (I thought the autotune song was horrendous, but this is still good)

Like Karata’s unexpected performance, the film is opaque in ways both confounding and thrilling, as if internalizing one character’s advice not to over-interpret. Equally adept with subtle, naturalistic sketches (a visit to a seafood festival in a far-flung town) and well-timed bursts of emotion (an offered hand and a rising auto-tuned anthem to stop your heart)…

Josh Cabrita, who compares it to Rohmer’s Winter’s Tale:

Asako I & II sets up and throws out stylistic paradigms faster than you can grab hold of them. As if to maximize the frustration of viewers who prefer to distinguish the fantastic from the “real,” Hamaguchi’s amorphous aesthetic — blending naturalistic and affected performances, unobtrusive and flashy editing — renders inseparable inner and outer and public and private forms of experience.

Hamaguchi, who adds that Baku/Ryohei’s accents were different:

Employing [genre] conventions allowed the film to move a lot faster than usual without losing the audience. Those who don’t really understand those conventions might feel what is happening to be a little strange or even grotesque — or maybe a better expression is absurd, surrealist, or illogical. But one of the things I wanted to do was to have realism and surrealism coexisting: allowing something real to come out of this absurd situation, or to have some absurd quality rooted in the reality that we crafted.

Another supernatural teenage love story from the Your Name creator, this time involving weather-control instead of time/body-swapping. Shinkai is terrific with light and cloud and sky, so this was lovely on the big screen – we watched one of the few subtitled screenings before the GKids dub opened wide.

In a future Tokyo where it rains constantly, Hina is the sunshine girl who can clear the clouds with a prayer, but every time she uses her powers she gets closer to losing herself forever to the skies, a human sacrifice who will fix the weather imbalance, the countdown marked on her body like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. The boy who likes her, Hodaka, works with a couple of gruff-but-generous reporters (Crows Zero star Shun Oguri, and The Mole Song 2‘s Tsubasa Honda), and would rescue her from the clouds even if it meant dooming the city to an existence of small cubes. Too much side-plot involving cops and guns and gangsters, but I forget all that stuff when staring at the pretty clouds on the poster hanging next to my laptop.

Japanese gang-war rap musical, opens with an epic long take, then blonde gang boss Mera (Ryôhei Suzuki of Kurosawa’s Seventh Code) explains the local gangs and neighborhoods to a noob cop he has stripped and threatened with a knife, and we already know what the movie is like: it’s gross and loud and sexist, and kinda fun as hell.

Mera ambushes his hated rivals, the peaceful gang Musashino led by Kai, and kills a guy, and his body is wheeled back home with a new girl in tow (Nana Seino). Meanwhile, Mera ally Lord Buppa (played by a pop-eyed Riki Takeuchi, a classic Miike star I haven’t seen since Battle Royale 2) is sent two elite fighters by the High Priest to recover HP’s missing daughter Erika (the new girl, obvs), and previously unknown gang the Waru is activated.

A holographic message from the wise High Priest:

Kai bands together all the Tokyo tribes, including the Gira Gira Girls and Neri Muthafuckaz and probably a couple more, to fight this new threat. It all looks impressively choreographed and real, neon lights and stunt fights, then a super-fake CG tank comes along and blows it. Still, for a full two hours of rap mayhem, this doesn’t lose steam. I’d been avoiding Sion Sono since Noriko’s Dinner Table, but this and Why Don’t You Play In Hell were fun, so maybe I should watch his four-hour masterpiece Love Exposure sometime.

For a two-hour movie it sure starts fast – there’s a “sea eruption” as the coast guard examines an abandoned craft, and a gushing leak in an undersea traffic tunnel, then a flurry of government workers reacting to the news, each worker rapidly introduced via subtitle, and this is all in the first two minutes. Little did I realize we’d mostly stick with these government workers for the next 118 minutes – this is a Godzilla movie told from the POV of the bureaucrats trying to devise a solution to the kaiju problem. I meant to watch this two years ago as part of a double-feature, but was so disappointed by the American remake, I cancelled. Should have carried on with the plan – despite its insistent focus on meetings, this is unique and excellent.

While the government works on their undersea-volcano theory, Godzilla’s tail shows up on the TV news, then as the PM is assuring the public there’s no danger of it coming onshore, it comes onshore. The fate of humanity may depend on the government’s response, but the higher-ups only listen to high-ranking officials, not anyone with actual knowledge or ideas. A scrappy young voice-of-reason deputy cabinet secretary named Rando (Hiroki Hasegawa, lead Fuck Bomber of Why Don’t You Play In Hell?, also in Before We Vanish) forms an impromptu committee of underrated functionaries to brainstorm solutions the old-guard leadership isn’t coming up with, making this the most Colonel Blimp-like of Godzilla movies.

Back to the giant monster movie at hand, the thing that comes onshore is… not Godzilla? I thought it might be a monster that G ends up fighting, but after struggling through the city and splashing blood everywhere, it collapses then suddenly evolves into the G we all know. Every time it stops and then rises again, it’s more powerful with new abilities – the fin-glowing, fire-breathing, purple-energy-releasing sequence is especially impressive.

When purple energy beams destroy the prime minister’s chopper, a know-nothing with seniority is made PM, and pretty easily convinced by the U.S. to let them nuke Tokyo. Sure he feels awful, but he has no ideas or power of his own, so it’s up to Rando, his team and his negotiations with the talented half-Japanese daughter of a U.S. senator. The movie is obvious about its politics and complaints – and again, it’s mostly meetings – but it’s also excellently paced and has outstanding monster-devastation scenes.

There are a million actors in this, each introduced with onscreen name and title, and I only kept track of a few. The PM is Ren Osugi, who shows up in every other Japanese movie I watch, and died last year. Kayoko is Satomi Ishihara of the Ring sequel Sadako 3D. Rando’s team includes Mikako Ichikawa of Anno’s live-action cartoon Cutie Honey, and Shinya Freakin’ Tsukamoto.

Not really horror, a disaster movie – made in response to the American version, which wasn’t good at all. This got a limited release in the US, where it mostly appealed to nerds on fansites, while in Japan it won best film and best director and was only outsold by Your Name. Hideaki Anno made this as a mental break between Evangelion films, the fourth of which is now five years delayed. Codirector Shinji Higuchi made Attack on Titan with some of the same cast, and directed sfx for the 1990’s Gamera movies. Anno might be following up with an Ultraman movie, and if he never finishes making the theatrical Evangelion series, I’m never gonna start watching it.

After an accident, Hiroshi (Tadanobu Asano of the Thor movies, star of Bright Future and Ichi the Killer) wakes up uncommunicative, barely knowing who he is. He returns to med school and begins a four-month class where he dissects the body of his girlfriend Ryoko who died in the crash, while he experiences lucid dreams (or returning memories, or a split consciousness) in which he spends time with Ryoko.

So it’s another trauma movie from Tsukamoto, about pain and memory and body horror – though this is a quiet and restrained movie, and we hardly see any surgery, so it’s not so much a horror movie as the poster would have us believe. This was made before two of my faves, Haze and Nightmare Detective. Employing crossfades and slow zooms into splotchy patterened walls, it effectively represents Hiroshi’s dark, blurry mindset without going into the usual Tsukamoto shaky-cam histrionics.

Ryoko:

Her parents:

Hiroshi’s own parents had apparently given up on his future before the crash and are warily glad that he’s back in med school – dad is Kazuyoshi Kushida of Oshima’s Sing a Song of Sex, and mom is Lily of Oshima’s Dear Summer Sister. Hiroshi makes the odd decision to contact the girlfriend’s parents and let them know that he’s cutting her up. They take this news better than I would’ve figured, and as the mom (the cinematically named Hana Kino of Ôbayashi’s Beijing Watermelon) is dying of cancer, dad (Jun Kunimura: the unlaughing lord in Scabbard Samurai, lead gangster of Why Don’t You Play In Hell?) seems to appreciate Hiroshi’s company. There’s also another emotionally disturbed med student, Ikumi, who blames herself for a professor’s suicide, and seems to exist in the movie mostly as an audience surrogate to stare in disgusted wonder at Hiroshi as the other students slowly abandon him.

Ikumi:

Spends a significant amount of time with a makeshift family who adopt/kidnap a neighbor from an abusive home. Their daily life and care for each other is seen up close for the first hour, until just like in yesterday’s movie Too Many Husbands, the decision of how to arrange their own family is taken out of their hands when the Morality Police show up and straighten it out according to the Law. Suddenly each member of our close movie family is revealed as a low-class criminal, reduced to a mugshot and named by their crime (thief / murderer / kidnapper / fraudster). It’s an extremely effective sympathy tactic – a moving film even though I could see the gears turning.

The first Kore-Eda I’ve watched since Nobody Knows, 15 years ago, even though the eight he made in between were variously acclaimed, making top-ten lists and Criterion blu-rays… I guess the Palme d’Or finally got me. Sakura Andô (Love Exposure) won Japan’s top acting award as the mother. One of the final films by Kirin Kiki (Suzuki’s Zigeunerweisen and Pistol Opera) as the grandma.

Kazuko (Tomoyo Harada, later narrator of the 1997 version) has known flower-obsessed Kazuo (Ryôichi Takayanagi of a couple other Obayashi films) since childhood. They’ve always been close, and once drank each other’s blood after a broken mirror incident. So she confides in him after passing out in a science lab and waking up with the barely-controlled ability to jump back in time, saving people from tragedies she’s seen occur from falling roofs and zooming bikes.

But it turns out these two met just recently, and Kazuo is a time traveler from the year 2660, collecting plants from the past for scientific research since the future world is barren, and he has psychically manipulated people into believing they’re friends with him, stealing Kazuko’s memories of her childhood friend Goro (Toshinori Omi, star of gender-swap comedy I Are You, You Am Me). The movie plays all this straight, just 1980’s teen drama to the point that even 1980’s-teen-drama-loving Katy, who loves the animated version, got bored and wandered off, but there’s some fun crazy stop-motion towards the end as she hurtles through time.

It’s a pretty good animated period drama, but if you watched if before the others, you’d say what’s the big idea with this Ghibli thing, their movies aren’t so hot. At least “pretty good” puts it above what I’ve heard about Tales From Earthsea from the number one Goro hater in my office. But it’s missing something, the smoothness and refinement of motion. When people turn their heads it doesn’t look so much like a person turning their head as it does progressive images of a head turned at different angles – the flow is wrong. Or I dunno, maybe my blu-ray was bad, but this came out after Ponyo, and some of the stuff in Ponyo is leagues beyond. The old timey piano music on the soundtrack was different, anyway.

It’s the ol’ story of kids saving their clubhouse from demolition by fatcats – in this case it’s a creaky old multi-story house on a high school campus where all the boys run their after-school organizations, and the school board is demolishing it to build a nicer one, so the girls pitch in to clean the place up and show off its value. Shun runs the school paper, Umi runs a boarding house, and they think they might be in love, but then see photos of each other’s dead fathers and it’s the same guy so they’re worried they might be siblings, then this gets resolved and it turns out their fathers were just friends so they are free to do whatever.

Maybe the grungiest, most lo-fi, handheld Oshima movie I’ve seen, with some apparently documentary segments. Also maybe more sexual violence than usual. Some nice closeups on hands, like in other thief movies. Whole movie looks dubbed, with some cool troubadour songs (not as funky as the ones in Izo).

Longhaired anarchist book thief Hilltop Birdman (Tadanori Yokoo, a minor role in Mishima) is nabbed by employee Umeko (Rie Yokoyama of Wakamatsu’s Ecstacy of the Angels), to the delightful indifference of her boss, who tries to give the thief more free books. But it’s the late 1960’s and if anyone’s gonna embrace the revolution in the air, it’s Oshima. The movie goes off on tangents about sex and psychology, turns from black-and-white to color, plays with poetry and literature and theater, and makes cool images and tries to freak out the normies. “I do feel something like rage toward nothing in particular.”

It’s all crying out for some explanatory blu-ray features – for instance, it’s been a minute since I watched Death By Hanging, so I didn’t realize that movie’s primary male cast appears in a roundtable discussion as themselves – but I tend to love Oshima films even when I’m confused by them.