The audience amasses for SHIN GODZILLA at the Village East Cinema on October 11.
2016 was my first full year of retirement. I made 33 trips to movie theaters, the most trips I’ve made in a single year in over two decades, and I saw 34 movies there. Ten were Hollywood films, 19 were foreign films, mostly from Japan, and the rest were indies. Five were documentaries and eight were animated.
I picked 15 films to highlight from the year, eight new films seen in New York theaters, three revivals, two films seen in theaters in Japan, and two more recent Japanese films seen on the airplane flight to Japan. One of the revivals is generally considered to be a masterpiece, while the film at the top of the list may one day be considered one. As for the others, their virtues outweighed their flaws enough to put them on such a list. Nine of the fifteen are Japanese. Four of the fifteen are documentaries. I only saw ten current Hollywood studio releases in theaters this year and only one is on this list. When the final tally for the U.S. boxoffice is announced, there’ll be very few films in the top ten—or the top 100—that I’ve seen. Since I’m no longer at the office discussing superhero and comic book movies with my younger co-workers, I no longer feel the need to rush out to see these films. My two favorites of the year are at the top of the list. The rest are grouped this way: films I saw in theaters in New York; revivals; films seen in Japan and on the flight to Japan. Most of these descriptions are taken from the notes I composed for my daily film log after seeing the films. Where applicable, I’ve included links to complete reviews I did, including blog entries and IMDB reviews.
One of the absolute highlights of my trip to Japan was the visit to Toei Kyoto Studio Park, in Kyoto, on Wed. March 30, 2016. This is a combination theme park, museum, and studio run by the Toei Company, one of the leading film, TV and animation studios in Japan. Since 1950, Toei has been turning out a steady array of Japanese pop culture staples, including samurai and yakuza movies, martial arts films, superhero TV shows, animated sci-fi and all sorts of other time-honored Japanese genres. The Toei Kyoto Studio Park offers a samurai village backlot that visitors can explore to their heart’s desire, as well as a visitors center filled with galleries devoted to Toei’s 60-year animation output, live-action tokusatsu and sentai TV series, Japanese film history in general, and the singer Hibari Misora. The backlot is in active use as a set for Toei TV shows, plenty of which I’ve seen, and I will share images from shows that were filmed there. It was an immersion in Japanese pop culture history like I’ve never experienced anywhere else.
Two of my last three entries were devoted to classic American TV shows, which means I’ve been neglecting one of my main interests—classic Japanese TV shows! There has been so much good stuff coming out on DVD in the last few years, both animated and live-action, that I’ve been building up an impossible backlog of shows. The big difference between my interests in classic American TV and Japanese TV is that the Japanese continue to turn out shows that engage me, so that the backlog includes shows from the 1960s to the 2010s! (My most recent American TV box set is probably “Police Story” Season One, from 1973!) The earliest Japanese TV show I have is the animated “Astro Boy,” which began its run in 1963, and the earliest live-action Japanese TV show I have is “Ultra Q,” which began its run in 1966. The latest in my collection is Volume 1 of “Ressha Sentai ToQger,” the latest sentai show in Japan, which began its run on Feb. 16 of this year, a month ago today! (More on sentai in a moment.) In between, I have dozens of shows, some complete and some in only a single volume of episodes, some on VHS, many on DVD, mostly animated, but many live-action as well. Most of the live-action shows in my collection fall into the tokusatsu category, a term for live-action special effects shows in the vein of “Ultraman” and “Kamen Rider.”