As teeming with creativity as it was during the 1960s new wave, contemporary Japanese cinema continues its decadeslong status as a garden of earthly and deliciously ungodly delights. Unlike the old days, Japanese filmmakers today know they’re not just making films for Japanese audiences anymore, and that — thanks largely to the international success of Takeshi Kitano — they won’t have to wait 20 years for the rest of the world to catch up. Here’s our at-a-glance (and far from exhaustive) checklist of five to watch:
Takashi Miike. Miike (pronounced “Mee-kay”) churns out gleefully sadistic crime films at a rate of two or three a year. San Francisco–based Viz Communications opened Dead or Alive in New York last month, with additional engagements and a DVD release to follow. In this cop-vs.-yakuza caper, the world’s longest line of cocaine leads to a stripper drowning in her own feces and a pair of bad guys who make Godzilla’s wrath look like the splashings of a tadpole. Audition (which opens in New York in August, sans distributor) — a thoughtful film about courting, never mind the piano wire sawing through someone’s leg — is Miike’s best.
Rokuro Mochizuki. Unknown to all but the most thorough-minded American film-fest honchos, Mochizuki is philosopher king of the contemporary yakuza film, Kitano notwithstanding. Onibi: The Fire Within (1997) is perhaps the most beautiful portrait of hit-man ennui ever made, not to mention a furious renunciation of yakuza glamour, while Gedo: The Outer Way (1999) fuses sex, politics and religion in ways that even Imamura never imagined.
Junji Sakamoto. A veteran of Japan’s independent-film scene, Sakamoto has 10 films to his credit, but it’s his masterpiece, Face (2000), that finally put him on the map. Both a tenderhearted portrait of a truck-shaped seamstress named Masako — victim, murderess, lummox, goddess — and a tough-minded survey of the geographical and emotional limits of Japanese life, Face is some sort of miracle: funny, devastating and uplifting in its ferocious desperation to claw away society’s disfiguring masks.
Sogo Ishii. Ishii’s been making films since the ’70s, but his double return to form last year — with the big-budgeted epic Gojoe and the frenetic garage flick Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts — hot-wired this ingenious trashologist’s career. A tumult of samurai scruff and Buddhist babble, Gojoe’s 12th-century storyline has something to do with clan warfare and a haunted bridge; half as long but twice as loud, Electric Dragon’s battle between opposing guitar-osaurs suggests that sticking your head inside an overdriven amplifier is as good a way as any to glimpse the face of God.
Kaze Shindo. Granddaughter of veteran director Kaneto Shindo, Kaze Shindo’s made but a single feature so far: Love/Juice, a fish-out-of-water love story between two late-teenage girls. In a cinema whose creative forces have long remained almost entirely estrogen-free, Shindo’s is a breath of fresh air, even as her black-hearted humor suggests a promising affinity with the supersatirist Roman Polanski. A food film for those who found Tampopo closer to an emetic than an appetizer, the cannibalistically inclined Love/Juice gives new meaning to the notion of eating your lover out.