Shrinking from ten days to two, eighteen feature films to nine, and migrating east from last year's Santa Monica location to the New Beverly Cinema, the 2010 Japan Film Festival offered large crowds a taste of the past year in Japanese cinema. Many circled for parking to see Brittany Murphy learn the secret to good pork broth, or braved the rain to watch the Merlot-persecuting character once embodied by Paul Giamatti transformed into a Japanese wine-guzzling screenwriter in Cellin Gluck's remake of Sideways. In its 6th year, this annual film festival put together entirely by volunteers juggling full time jobs, took over the small New Beverly — and its surrounding street parking.

Tetsuya Nakashima (Memories of Matsuko, Kamikaze Girls) thrust the audience into the adrenaline-injected world of a Willy-Wonka-type hospital filled with frantic patients that break into song and vampire nurses with generous portions of cleavage in Paco and the Magical Book. With its off beat humor, outrageous costumes and colorful production design, the only thing missing was Johnny Depp in a tutu. Instead, viewers were served Mikawa Kenichi as a paranoid drag queen with a fondness for karaoke. A rock star nurse, an animal loving yakuza member and an out of work actor haunted by his past as an award winning child actor (Satoshi Tsumabaki from Waterboys) share a hospital with a beard-wearing Scrooge (Koji Yakusho from Shall We Dance?) and a fairy tale loving seven year old. Although at times the film can feel like an assault with its frantic pace and exaggerated characters, the story is both entertaining and emotionally appealing. What starts off as a collection of caricatures gradually unravels into stories of sympathetic outcasts misunderstood by society.

The Japanese adaptation of Sideways closed the weekend film festival to an amused audience. Relatively faithful to the original script – including a soft spoken protagonist, a road trip with conquered wine bottles and a sidekick hoping to bed as many women as possible before his upcoming marriage – the film entertained a hooting audience throughout. Displacement is a reigning theme of this remake, which takes place in Napa Valley instead of Santa Barbara; the infamous sex scene and grudge against Merlot were nowhere to be found.

The film is one of the first of its kind in Japan, a deal made between Fox and Fuji Television. Originally, the plan was for the film to take place in Japan following characters on a sake or shochu tasting trip. The team that remade this film decided to stay true to wine tasting in California, which seems to have been the right decision. With the teamwork of an American director with experience in the Japanese market and a Japanese writer who created the Japanese dialogue, the remake of Sideways is a huge hit in Japan, making five times what the original film made in its adopted country.

The most well-attended and talked about L.A. premiere was with no question Ramen Girl , with a noodle cooking Brittany Murphy scrubbing toilets under the stern eye of revered actor Toshiyuki Nishida. Besides the fact that it would be hard for a middle-aged salary man with twenty years of work under his belt to afford the Tokyo apartment Abby (Brittany Murphy) lives in as a beginning copywriter, Ramen Girl is a must see for anyone who fancies a good bowl of piping hot chashu ramen. Nishida's performance as Abby's whiskey-inhaling teacher, Kimiko Yo as his kind-hearted wife and Tsutomu Yamazaki as the bow-inducing godfather of ramen (both from last year's award winning film, Departures) gave exceptional performances supporting Abby's coming of age story as she takes on the art of ramen.

If you missed this past weekend, you can catch many of the same films in Torrance and Irvine in the next two weeks.

LA Weekly