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Bumper Year for Japanese Cinema

Diverse Range of Films Wins Film Festival Plaudits

Japan's movies are receiving more than their fair share of the spotlight at the world's international film festivals. Among the Japanese films that have captured audiences' imaginations in 2008 were sophisticated anime features, a depiction of the bond of marriage and the subtleties of family life, and a delicately woven tale of life and loss.


A scene from the movie Okuribito. The protagonist, a mortician, looks at a body. © 2008 Okuribito Production Committee

Japanese Dramas, Anime Praised
Okuribito, directed by Takita Yojiro, portrays the life of a mortician in rural Yamagata Prefecture. His various duties, such as cleaning, clothing, shaving, and applying makeup to corpses before enclosing them in their coffins, provide the subject matter for a moving and beautiful portrayal of traditional Japanese rituals associated with showing respect for the dead. Through their interactions with the families of the deceased, the film's protagonist and his wife are prompted to question the mysteries of life, death, and love.

Okuribito took the Grand Prix at the Montreal World Film Festival and has been selected as Japan's entry for Best Foreign Language Film in the next Academy Awards. The picture also won awards for best film and best director at China's Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers Film Festival, and star Motoki Masahiro took the prize for best actor. Offers to distribute the film abroad have poured in from about 50 countries and regions, including the United States, Britain, France, and Taiwan.

Japanese comedies are also making a strong showing at overseas competitions. Director Lee Toshio's Detroit Metal City, based on the manga of the same name, was entered in the Toronto International Film Festival's Midnight Madness program. A parody of teenage musical aspirations, the manga has sold over 4 million copies to date. Festivalgoers eager for a chance to watch the screen adaptation formed long lines during the daytime and deep into the night. The film is scheduled to open in Hong Kong and South Korea, and further offers have been received from distributors in about 25 other countries and regions including the United States, Britain, France, and Taiwan. Several companies in Hollywood and Hong Kong are already attempting to secure the rights to produce a remake.


Director Miyazaki Hayao's Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea was a huge hit in Japanese cinemas.©2008 Nibariki/GNDHDDT

Japanese Films Attract Fans at Three Major Festivals
The works of three renowned Japanese directors were in competition at the Venice Film Festival. Kitano Takeshi is a familiar figure at Venice. He received the festival's Golden Lion Award for his film HANA-BI in 1997 and the Silver Lion for Zatoichi in 2003. His latest entry is titled Achilles to Kame (Achilles and the Tortoise). The 85 interviews Takeshi gave to showbusiness reporters attest to his stature as an international celebrity.

Director Miyazaki Hayao, whose anime Spirited Away took the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival, submitted his latest animated feature, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. The movie tells the story of the friendship between a young fish named Ponyo and a five-year-old boy named Sosuke. Two aspects of the film are particularly memorable: the warm imagery, which was drawn entirely by hand without benefit of computer-generated effects, and the main theme song, performed by two young girls. Of the 21 works submitted at the festival, Miyazaki's film received the highest ratings from audiences.

Mamoru Oshii, director of such works as 2004's Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, has a reputation for using mysterious imagery in his animated films and for incorporating storylines that pose bold questions about the nature of human identity. His latest submission is Sky Crawlers, an anime based on one of five novels in a series by author Mori Hiroshi. The film's unique visuals - particularly the fight scenes - generated high praise.

At the Cannes Film Festival, meanwhile, director Kurosawa Kiyoshi is best known for his horror movies. In 2008, however, he took the festival's prize in the category of Un Certain Regard for his family drama Tokyo Sonata.

Japanese films have also received their share of accolades at the Berlin International Film Festival. Prizes won by Japanese films and filmmakers include the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema Prize, the International Confederation of Art House Cinemas Award, the Manfred Salzgeber Award and the award for Best First Feature Film. (December 2008)