Japanese movies are WEIRD. A cultural scholar could doubtless tell you why, but something about modern Japanese culture is really conducive to sheer outright WTF-ery. Not just movies, but TV, cartoons (oh GOD the cartoons), comics, games, it’s all full of nuggets of pure strangeness. Some of it is the result of simple culture shock. Something about Japanese sensibilities when it comes to sex, violence, etc – or even (as we will see) parts of their folklore – just seem strange to our North American point of view. Other times (as we will also see) the explanation is probably closer to “the director is some kind of deranged whackadoo”. Now, it COULD be that the nuggets of weird that we see are just the rare cases that are given special attention and for every one insanely strange film made in Japan, there are about two hundred utterly boring, totally normal ones. But I’m a dreamer, and tend to prefer the idea that Japan is some bastion of insanity and wonder, like wonderland but with more schoolgirls in miniskirts.
No matter what the reason is for this phenomenon, I love it. As long as it doesn’t involve the inappropriate application of tentacles to those schoolgirls I was talking about, count me the hell in. Watching any good foreign movie is fun for me because their sensibilities are so foreign from ours we see less of the dreary formulas and tired cliches you see in so many American movies these days, and Japan pretty much has the market cornered on this. So join me, dear readers, in taking a look at some particularly strange examples of Japanese cinema.
Pom Poko (1994)
The Tanuki or Japanese Raccoon-Dog is an animal native to Japan that plays a fairly important role in Japanese folklore. Similar in appearance to Raccoons, Tanuki are playful forest spirits that use magical powers to play tricks on us silly humans. Pom Poko, produced by the legendary Studio Ghibli, stars a community of Tanuki in modern-day Japan who have to rediscover their somewhat forgotten skills at shape shifting and other trickery to defend their forest against urban expansion.
What’s so weird? Their main weapon in this battle: testicles. Big giant testicles. Tanukis have disproportionately large testicles that, in the folklore, have magical properties. In this movie, you will see cuddly, family-friendly (and this is a family movie, no mistake) forest animals use their shape shifting family jewels as parachutes and even clubbing weapons. One poor construction worker is gets taken down by a big giant Tanuki scrote that drops from the sky and smothers him like the freakin’ Blob. The weirdest moment comes when an elder Tanuki turns his grapes into an elegant boat so he and some friends can ride off into the sunset. Like the elves at the end of Return of the King, but the boat is made of balls. I swear to God, I am not making this up.
Executive Koala (2005)
This one is a favorite of mine. The main character, Tamura, is your prototypical Japanese middle-management type. He works hard to climb the corporate ladder at his job at a pickle company, he has a cute girlfriend and the sky seems to be the limit for him. But things take a dark turn when his girlfriend is found murdered. Tamura immediately becomes the primary suspect as his wife went missing three years ago and was never found. Tamura bravely tries to soldier on, but the strain of the scandal and constant scrutiny begin to take their toll on his sanity and soon he begins a Hitchcockian descent into madness, uncovering things about himself and his past that were perhaps best left buried. Also, he’s a Koala.
Yep, you heard right. For no real reason, the protagonist is a walking, talking, business suit-wearing Koala bear. It doesn’t really factor into the story in any huge way and is never explained and barely remarked upon. He’s just a Koala. Also, his boss is a bunny and the guy at his local convenience store is a frog.
Big Man Japan (2007)
Japan has a proud tradition of giant monster or “Kaiju” movies. Big Man Japan is one with even more weirdness than usual. Masaru, the main character, is the latest in a lineage of men who transform into Big Man Japan, a tattooed giant with Troll Doll hair who beats down invading monsters with a stick. But his life is far from glamorous. He lives in a dingy apartment, is kind of quiet and introverted and struggles to make ends meet, even renting out ad space on his torso when transformed. The movie is incredibly silent and moody during the non-monster scenes, with Masaru going about his daily life in a quiet malaise.
As for the monster scenes themselves….they’re kinda creepy. The monsters are all so bizarre looking and rendered in such detail that they make you more uncomfortable than anything else. One is basically just a head glued to a single leg The film’s ending is particularly odd, being either a tribute to traditional cheesy looking Kaiju action or a sign that the money behind the movie suddenly dried up. We can only guess which.
The Great Yokai War (2005)
I would probably lose my movie nerd licence (we actually do get licenses. They have a little hologram of Bob Chipman on them) if I didn’t mention one movie by the insanely prolific Takashi Miike. Let me just sum up this movie in one scene, the opener to be specific. A Japanese farmer is delivering a calf but what comes out is a distorted foetus with a human face, which says in a raspy voice that a great turmoil is coming before dying in his arms. I could describe the plot, but I think describing that first scene is all that’s needed. Oh no, I’m wrong. There is one more thing. This is a family movie. GOD, I love this country.