As 2019 comes to an end, Japanese Film Festival Magazine’s editors look back at the movies that stood out this year for their inspiring storytelling, creative cinematography, and impeccable acting. It was a year full of great stories about love, loss, weather changes, corporate secrets, life crossroads, and life choices, but it was also a year of stunning visuals, costumes, action, and cinematography that, we can proudly say, exceeded our expectations. The following movies are the titles that are closing off the second decade of the 21st century with a big, massive, bang in the history of Japanese cinema, and as we’re about to enter the “roaring ‘20s,” we can only hope that Japan’s on-screen inspiration will continue to evolve and make us as devoted as we can be to Japanese cinema. Without further ado, here are 10 of the most memorable Japanese releases of 2019.
1. Weathering with You (天気の子)
With this animated fantasy film, director Makoto Shinkai seems to have taken the best elements from his previous works and refined them into pure magic. Weathering with You is a story about a teen romance set against the backdrop of a localized semi-apocalyptic event, following high school freshman Hodaka Morishima and the orphan Hina Amano, who has the ability to control the weather. The movie soundtrack, composed by the Japanese rock band Radwimps, brings the movie’s complicated themes of global weather changes, loss, and hope together, elevating Weathering with You into something greater than the sum of its parts. Weathering with You was the highest-grossing Japanese movie of 2019.
Cast: Kotaro Daigo, Nana Mori
Director: Makoto Shinkai
2. Kingdom (キングダム)
Based on a manga of the same name by Yasuhisa Hara, Kingdom takes place during the Warring States period in China（B.C.245）. Although it’s inspired by the true story of general Li Xin assisting the future Qin emperor in his conquest of ancient China, the story ends up taking a lot of liberties with the historical source material. Director Shinsuke Sato, who’s also a video game designer, is known primarily for fantastical action/adventure movies like Gantz (2011) or Bleach (2018), and with Kingdom, he doesn’t stray from his comfort zone. Instead of a faithful historical biopic, the movie is a breathtaking showcase of characters in colorful, fantasy costumes performing exciting action sequences in front of some beautiful and very inventive sets. It does it so well that it more than earns Kingdom the title of one of the best Japanese films of 2019.
Cast: Kento Yamazaki, Ryo Yoshizawa
Director: Shinsuke Sato
After a series of appalling killings in the capital, detective Kosuke Nitta learns that the next murder is bound to take place at the upscale Hotel Cortesia Tokyo. He takes an undercover job at the hotel’s front desk, where he immediately starts butting heads with his supervisor Naomi Yamagishi and hotel guests because of his gruff personality. As Naomi trains Kosuke to round out his rough edges, however, what started out as a murder mystery quickly turns into a lesson in the art of omotenashi, the unique Japanese art of hospitality that became a buzzword around the time Tokyo was chosen as the next venue for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Combined with a supporting cast of fun and colorful side characters, and based on the bestselling novel by mystery master Keigo Higashino, Masquerade Hotel is one of the few movies of 2019 that can brag about being suspenseful, funny, and enlightening all at the same time.
Cast: Takuya Kimura, Masami Nagasawa
Director: Masayuki Suzuki
4. Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉)
It would’ve been so easy for Fly Me to the Saitama to be a movie made primarily for Japanese audiences, with cultural in-jokes that many foreigners can’t get. But the film’s main theme of how Tokyoites tend to look down on people from the neighboring Saitama Prefecture ends up having a universal quality thanks to a few smart choices. For one, the story is completely removed from reality, being presented as an over-the-top radio drama set in an alternate Japan where people wear outrageous kabuki/opera-esque costumes and where the downtrodden residents from Saitama need special visas to enter the capital. In a world as ludicrous as that, Tokyo-Saitama issues become detached from their Japanese origins and are free to ring true to anyone who has ever felt patronized for coming from a quiet or more rural area. As expected from coming from the director of Thermae Romae, Hideki Takeuchi, Fly Me to the Saitama is a high-tempo entertaining action that keeps its viewers glued to the screen from the start till end.
Cast: Fumi Nikaido, Gackt
Director: Hideki Takeuchi
5. The Confidence Man JP (コンフィデンスマンJP –ロマンス編–)
Based on the hit TV show of the same name about a group of daring con artists lead by the brilliant Dako, played by Masami Nagasawa, The Confidence Man JP sees the gangs in Hong Kong trying to steal a diamond from a triad boss. Everything that made the series work is found here and amplified for the big screen. The stakes are bigger, the action is more intense, and the cons are more brilliantly convoluted than ever. Best of all, the film is completely accessible to newcomers to Dako’s world, with the entire premise of the franchise, as well as the personalities of the main cast, being all laid out in the first few minutes. For a female-lead, exciting, and smart heist movie, look no further than The Confidence Man JP.
Cast: Masami Nagasawa, Masahiro Higashide
Director: Ryo Tanaka
6. Ossan’s Love: Love or Dead (おっさんずラブ LOVE or DEAD)
A direct continuation of the TV series Ossan’s Love, this Toichiro Ruto-directed movie is something we rarely see in Japanese cinema: a tasteful, funny comedy about homosexuality. In Ossan’s Love: Love or Dead, Kei Tanaka plays Haruta, an office worker with little luck in the romance department, who has finally accepted his homosexuality and found happiness with his coworker Maki. Things get complicated, though, when Maki is transferred into the head office and Haruta’s old love interest and boss Kurosawa develops amnesia and falls in love with his young underling all over again. Ossan’s Love is a highly recommended lightning-fast comedy that is a breath of fresh air into Japan’s filmography on homosexuality.
Cast: Kei Tanaka, Kento Hayashi, Kotaro Yoshida
Director: Toichiro Ruto
7. Hit Me Anyone One More Time (記憶にございません！)
After being hit in the head by a flying rock during a political speech, unpopular Japanese prime minister Keisuke Kuroda loses his memory, and it’s now up to his secretaries to keep his condition a secret from the world. But there might be a silver lining to the whole ordeal, as the amnesiac Kuroda suddenly wants to go against his former self and do some good for the country. Politics aside, the real point of the movie is for it to simply be a fun, zany, and at times dark comedy that carries the message that everyone has a second chance in life. Director Koki Mitani skillfully passes this message to his audience while constantly throwing hilarious gag after hilarious gag at them.
Cast: Kiichi Nakai, Dean Fujioka, Yuriko Ishida, Masao Kusakari, Koichi Sato
Director: Koki Mitani
8. Mewtwo Strikes Back: Evolution (ミュウツーの逆襲 EVOLUTION)
“I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.” What sounds like a quote from a charismatic political activist was actually uttered by the Pokémon Mewtwo in the English translation of the franchise’s first 1998 animated movie. With memorable lines like that, it’s really no surprise that this 20-year-old film was remade in 2019 using computer animation. While no real changes have been made to the original plot, the remake thankfully takes full advantage of CGI technology to update a few key scenes (such as the final battle), adding more action, movement, and life into a familiar story. Thanks to that, even old fans can rediscover the movie and fall in love with it all over again.
Cast: Rika Matsumoto, Ikue Otani
Director: Kunihiko Yuyama, Motonori Sakakibara
9. Whistleblower (七つの会議)
Based on a novel by the master of corporate conspiracy writer Jun Ikeido, Whistleblower is a slow-burn intrigue that explores the themes of Japan’s corporate culture. The story revolves around the inner-workings and secrets of a mid-level subsidiary company and all the hidden drama that comes with it. Themes such as bosses loudly berating employees in front of the rest of the staff for not meeting sales goals and people being ostracized for leaving work at the scheduled time are just a few of the many dark sides of the Japanese corporate world the film unveils. There is a cover-up story driving the plot forward, but what makes the movie are all the little insights the audiences get into the corporate world of Japan where the collars might be white but emotions tend to run red hot. Played by an impressive cast that features some of Japan’s most brilliant and legendary actors, this film is one of the most important and painfully real titles of the year.
Cast: Mansai Nomura, Teruyuki Kagawa, Mitsuhiro Oikawa, Ainosuke Kataoka, Takuma Otoo
Director: Katsuo Fukuzawa
10. The Great War of Archimedes (アルキメデスの大戦)
Upon its completion shortly before the start of World War II, the Japanese battleship Yamato was possibly the most powerful vessel ever constructed, and at 72,800 tons, it was certainly the heaviest. The Great War of Archimedes is set around the construction of this naval behemoth, focusing on the scientific side of it through the eyes of the protagonist, a math prodigy played by Masaki Suda. What makes the movie even more captivating is that it plays out like a period suspense thriller about a conspiracy in the military-related to the building costs of the battleship Yamato. By focusing on this fictionalized plot, the movie skillfully leads the audience away from the horrors of wars and instead allows them to enjoy a story about the construction of a real-life Death Star. And that’s more than enough.
Cast: Masaki Suda, Hiroshi Tachi
Director: Takashi Yamazaki
What was your favorite Japanese movie of 2019? Let us know after you’ve seen all of our favorite works on this list. For dates, venues and screening schedules of the next Japan Film Festival in your country, see here.
Text by Cezary Strusiewicz