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  • Writer's picturegordonjcampbell

DEPARTURES, SHOPLIFTERS, and ONE CUT OF THE DEAD (Three Japanese films you might not want to miss)

After years of living in Tokyo, I found it ironic to be surprised by the available stockpile of excellent Japanese films.

I’m not talking about the classics by Kurosawa Akira (Seven Samurai) or Juzo Itami (Tampopo), but more recent options I’d wager are well worth your recreational time.

Let’s start with the 2008 production of DEPARTURES, which was titled Okuribito in Japanese. It was the first Japanese movie to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (Another surprise; why weren’t the classics mentioned above recognized?)

I’ve been told that music is half the value of film production. This would make the discovery of Joe Hisaishi’s Okuribito soundtrack worth the price of admission.

It is essential not only to the movie's mood but to the plotline. The DEPARTURES’ protagonist Daigo Kobayashi (played by Masahiro Motoki), loses his job as a cellist when his employer folds his symphony orchestra.

Imagine a young man and his wife returning out of necessity to a small town where his parent’s home awaits empty for him. He applies for a job assumed to be in the travel industry and is hired to apprentice as a specialist in preparing bodies for encoffinment to “assist departures.”

The movie runs you through a gauntlet of emotions. Daigo is harshly judged by the local community, and his wife leaves him for accepting a job less than respectable within the Buddhist culture.

He rediscovers his family, music, rekindles a loving marriage, and passion for life while working with the dead.

DEPARTURES is humorous, heartbreaking, and ultimately satisfying. It will perpetually remain on my top ten list.


Do you need to laugh and enjoy something a little bit on the lighter side?

After googling the "best comedies of 2019" and discovering several recommendations for ONE CUT OF THE DEAD, we fired up Netflix.

The first 20-minutes of the movie is a low budget zombie flick containing various peculiarities. The irregularities cause us to question some of the online reviews of the film. (Violent action occurs off-camera without explanation. Long bursts of unconvincing screaming by the lead actors seem out of place, and some of the strangest acting zombies ever witnessed fill the screen.)

The second and final acts are captivating.

The project progresses from the initial offer to a film workshop, and finally, a "one cut production" shot at an abandoned water plant. The insider's look at the behind the scenes drama involved with the live broadcast on a cable horror movie network is a blast.

One Cut of the Dead is well written, carefully paced, and hilarious.

It's also a critical and financial success as the cast of unknowns, and a budget of $25,000 has grossed over $30 million worldwide.

I think we’ll be seeing more work by Director Shin Ichiro Ueda in the years to come.


SHOPLIFTERS: There’s an underclass of people in Japan who struggle daily to exist by working as day laborers, in laundrymats, at hostess clubs, and on meager pensions.

Director Hirokazu Kore-Eda brings together a group of people to form a non-biological family of four generations.

We watch the tribe supplement their lifestyles by shoplifting and witness the development of a family bond by love, mutual support, and the essential joie de vivre.

There’s laughter at the beach, fun slurping noodles, and drama in shops where “it’s fine to steal things which have not been sold.”

SHOPLIFTERS is not a "feel-good" movie.

The story shines a light on forces of society which combine with fate to pull people apart.

We witness a matriarch's death, betrayal, distrust, forced return to an abusive home, sacrifice, and imprisonment.

Some movies are simply entertainment, but the Shoplifting Family causes reflection and a not so subtle reality check.

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