Almost since its beginning, Japanese cinema entailed themes, characters and motifs that occasionally surpassed even the borders of the surreal. Moreover, even if the rest of the world usually disdains them as bizarre and incoherent, local filmmakers have continued shooting them, chiefly because they appeal to the character and idiosyncrasy of the Japanese people.
However, a number of them have reached audiences outside the country, largely due to the enlargement of cult audiences in recent decades, thus resulting in a large number of similar releases in the west.
The following list contains 20 of them, in random order.
1. Survival Style 5+ (Gen Sekiguchi, 2004)
The utterly absurd script consists of five stories that intermingle. Aman repeatedly kills his wife and buries her in the woods. However, each time he returns to his house he finds her there, attacking him with kung fu techniques.
Yoko, an advertising executive, perpetually records her ideas on a tape recorder; nevertheless, the ideas do not seem to impress her clients nor her lover, Aoyama, who is a hypnotist. An international assassin-for-hire who’s fixed on asking “what’s your purpose in life” gets commissioned by an office to kill Aoyama, after a request made by Yoko.
Kobayashi, a white-collar employee, attends Aoyama’s show along with his family. He gets hypnotized voluntarily, posing as a bird; however, the assassin kills Aoyama before he wakes him up and Kobayasi continues acting as if he was an actual bird. A gang of three crooks roams the city stealing, and it seems that a peculiar relationship brews between two of them.
Both the director, Gen Sekiguchi and the scriptwriter, Taku Tada, made their debut with this particular film, since their previous works were almost exclusively music videos. The fact mirrors in the aesthetics of “Survival Style 5+” that sometimes are similar to a music video and sometimes to an anime; the pace is rather fast, the colors are particularly vivid, the humor abysmal, and the absurdity omnipresent.
Furthermore, the script is quite incoherent; however, it is well structured and one of the advantages of the film along with the direction.
The cast stars Tadanobu Asano, Ittoku Kishibe and Vinnie Jones, all of whom perform wonderfully in a slapstick fashion.
2. Yakuza Apocalypse (Takashi Miike, 2015)
Takashi Miike could not be missed from this list and this film may be his weirdest yet, a fact that definitely says a lot, considering the filmography of the prolific director.
What is about to follow is evident even from the initial description of the film, which amounts to a fantasy action vampire Yakuza film. Kageyama is a low level Yakuza that follows around Kamiura, his notorious boss, who is considered invincible.
Eventually a team of assassins attacks Kamiura, who turns out to be a vampire. Nevertheless, they manage to kill him, but before he dies, he bites Kageyama turning him into a vampire. Afterwards, he swears to avenge his boss.
The film has a number of preposterous characters and themes, including a goblin-kappa that smells horribly, the final boss, a peculiar martial arts master in a frog costume, and a team of Yakuza that are forced to knit in the basement of a sake parlor while the proprietor tortures them for the stance of their feet.
The film occasionally looks like more like a slide of the absurd notions both the director and the scriptwriter had, rather than an actual movie. However, due to a number of elaborately choreographed action scenes and the parody of the themes that appear in exploitation movies, it amounts to a highly entertaining, though irrational, production.
3. The Calamari Wrestler (Minoru Kawasaki, 2005)
Taguchi is the biggest star of Japanese wrestling. However, during his moment of triumph when he wins the championship match, an uncanny half calamari-half human creature appears and defeats him.
Later on, the creature proves to be an ex-champion named Kanichi Iwata, who had retired from the sport due to a terminal illness. Nevertheless, he eventually managed to get over it by transforming into a calamari.
Even in a cinema where incoherence is regularly the rule, Kawasaki definitely stands out due to his preposterous themes.
In this particular film, he used professional wrestlers as his protagonists and pitted the calamari against a similar octopus and a Norwegian lobster. Even more absurd is his effort to include in this madness a number of social messages and a romance.
4. Big Man Japan (Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2007)
Daisato Masaru is a lonely middle-aged man who lives alone with his cat, forgotten by everybody. However, like his ancestors, he is also Big Man Japan, a super hero who reaches 30 meters by using high voltage electricity. In this capacity, he fights equally humongous monsters that attack Japan.
Nevertheless, in contrast to the fame and acceptance his father and his grandfather received, he is mocked and even cursed upon, due to the large quantities of electricity he uses and the garbage he leaves behind after each fight.
The film could be characterized as a mockumentary of the everyday life of Japanese working class. Nevertheless, the outrageous notions included, as the sexually voracious monsters and the general appearance of the superhero, dismantle every notion of seriousness and coherence, thus resulting in an utterly uncategorized film.
5. Happiness of the Katakuris (Takashi Miike, 2002)
This particular film is another crazy production by Takashi Miike that, by including themes of a zombie movie, musical, comedy, and social allegory, ends up as utterly unclassifiable.
Mr. and Mrs. Katakuri, along with the former’s father, their son, their daughter and their grandson purchase an old home in the country, near Mount Fuji, in order to convert it into a bed and breakfast. However, their customers are very few and furthermore, all of them end up dead.
In order to avoid bad publicity, they bury them in the back of the establishment. Eventually, a nearby volcano erupts, and fraudsters, criminals and zombies enter into their life.
The film is once a more a collage of the preposterous notions lurking in Miike’s mind, which ends up as a farcical parody. The script loosely makes fun of “The Quiet Family”, there is clear mocking of “The Sound of Music”, there are ridiculous scenes of dancing and karaoke, and an obviously Japanese individual wears a uniform of the Royal British Navy and claims to be the nephew of Queen Elizabeth II. Furthermore, the zombie concept is portrayed in an unprecedented way, in a movie that could be perceived both as hilarious and offensive.
6. Executive Koala (Minoru Kawasaki, 2006)
“Executive Koala” is another preposterous film by a director who seems to cherish having half human-half animal protagonists in his films.
Keichi Tamura is a koala that works as an executive at a company that specializes in pickles. He is a model employee whose boss, a rabbit, seems to respect and appreciate him. However, memory loss torments him since the mysterious disappearance of his wife.
Eventually, his current girlfriend also disappears, resulting in the police beginning to suspect him, while his forgotten past gradually resurfaces.
If “The Calamari Wrestler” was not enough, “Executive Koala” definitely finished the job, with Kawasaki shooting a satire regarding the Japanese corporate world by using a number of absurd characters and notions. Furthermore, the film incorporates elements of a thriller, comedy, mystery, with dancing and martial arts in a nonsensical fashion.