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4 of the most successful low-budget Japanese movies (after ‘One Cut of the Dead’)

Long gone are the days when low budget meant low quality.

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The modern film technology has exceeded our wildest dreams. We watch movies on giant (and tiny) screens; we’re thunderstruck by displays that breathe life into every color and shape; we watch characters emerge from screens in ways we can feel their breath, sweat, and motion. Simultaneously, the advancement of technology has also made it possible to create movies without the help of giant film corporations. And what great news this is for emerging filmmakers and independent films! There is a distinct charm in independent works, which are typically created, produced, and distributed with modest budgets without the support of large-scale film studios or sponsors. It lies in the freedom to explore their creators’ artistic vision, exceed conventional boundaries, and focus on fearless or unthinkable plots. Such low-budget indie works have surprised us before on more than one occasion — think of “One Cut of the Dead” in 2017 with its ¥3 million budget, unknown cast, and eight days of filming that turned into ¥3.12 billion domestic and $30.5 million worldwide box office revenue. But there is more to see and here are four films to start with.

1.Siblings of the Cape (岬の兄妹), 2018

Physically disabled Yoshio and severely autistic Mariko are siblings whose life is secluded to a small, filthy room away from the eyes of the society. But when one day Mariko returns home with a bill in her hands and signs of intercourse, recently unemployed Yoshio’s sensibility gets tested: could he take advantage of his sister’s recent encounter? As he makes his choice, Mariko begins to develop into a new character, one whose emotions come to life, even if those can be uncomfortable for the audience. With a budget of ¥3 million, “Siblings of the Cape” is director Shinzo Katayama’s debut film, which he also edited, produced, and wrote the screenplay for. While initially scheduled for screening at only six theaters in Japan, within a month from its release, the movie had earned over 15 million in box office revenue. Praised by South Korea’s Oscar-winning “Parasite” director Bong Joon-ho (for whom Katayama worked as an assistant director twice, on “Tokyo!” in 2008 and “Mother” in 2009) as a “masterpiece,” the film breathes air into the difficult to explore themes of sexuality, crime, violence, and disabilities.

Cast: Yuya Matsuura, Misa Wada
Director: Shinzo Katayama

2.Jesus (僕はイエス様が嫌い), 2018

Filmed in eight days with a modest budget by then-22-year-old first-time director Hiroshi Okuyama (who also wrote the script, edited, and filmed the movie), Jesus tells the story of Yura, an elementary school student who moves to the countryside to live with his grandmother. He transfers to a missionary school where daily prayers are the norm, despite being something unknown to Yura. Just as he begins to question the existence of God, a tiny Jesus appears in front of him to answer his prayers. While Yura certainly enjoys having all his wishes come true, the magic has to stop eventually, and he is soon once again poised to ask this difficult question: does God exist? Filmed while Okuyama was still in college, “Jesus” was praised at multiple international film festivals, including the 66th San Sebastian International Film Festival, where it won the New Directors Award.

Cast: Yura Sato, Riki Okuma, Chad Mullane
Director: Hiroshi Okuyama

3.It Feels So Good, (火口のふたり), 2019

Veteran screenwriter Haruhiko Arai takes the director’s seat for the first time to bring Kazufumi Shiraishi’s 2012 award-winning novel of the same name to live. Written in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the novel poses the question of what one would do in the face of an apocalypse — or, rather, who would they spend their last days with. The film adaptation follows Naoko, a soon-bride-to-be who reunites with her former sweetheart, Kenji, several days before her wedding. As the two look back to the past nostalgically, Naoko invites Kenji to break all ethical norms and restore what they had lost for just one last night. What begins from there, however, is a realization that one night is not enough and that at times when “the end” is near, humans’ basic instincts speak louder than ever. With only two actors as the entire cast, “It Feels So Good” is a low-budget high-profile erotic saga that makes us rethink what “living freely” means in terms of happiness.

Cast: Kumi Takiuchi, Tasuku Emoto
Director: Haruhiko Arai

4.Melancholic (メランコリック), 2018

The debut long feature of director Seiji Tanaka, “Melancholic,” is a cross-genre sensation that was filmed with a budget of just ¥3 million and limited time while Tanaka was working full time to make ends meet. But once screened at the Tokyo Film Festival in 2018, it immediately hit the success button winning Tanaka the Festival’s Best Director Prize and a ticket to a number of other international film festivals. The story follows Kazuhiko, a graduate from the University of Tokyo, Japan’s top academic institution, who is unemployed, socially awkward, and still living with his parents. With no plans ahead, he takes on a part-time job at the local public bath, where he attends to customers and scrubs the tiles. But when one night he discovers that the bath becomes an execution site after business hours and his new mission is to clean up the dead bodies, his life is bound to change for good. With its dark plot and skillful storytelling, this movie put together by only three young talents (Tanaka, protagonist and co-producer Yoji Minagawa, and actor Yoshitomo Isozaki) is one of the most watch-worthy titles from Japan in recent years.

Cast: Yoji Minagawa, Yoshitomo Isozaki
Director: Seiji Tanaka

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* Siblings of the Cape: Screened at the Japanese Film Festival Australia in 2019.
* Jesus: Screened at the Japanese Film Festival Singapore in 2019.
* Melancholic:Screened at the Japanese Film Festival Australia in 2019.

Text by Rose Haneda