For the past 20 years, the Academy Awards for "best foreign language film" have become the baby food shelf of global cinema: It's where you find movies that are bland, safe, and unambitious. Which is why it's downright shocking that this year's shortlist features Confessions by Japan's Tetsuya Nakashima, the darkest and most intense director working today. Imagine Pedro Almodovar raised in isolation and fed nothing but manga, Japanese superhero TV shows, MGM musicals, and amphetamines, then growing up to make candy-colored pop masterpieces about women, and you've got Nakashima.
Starting as a music video and commercial director, Nakashima had two obscure features under his belt before he arrived on the international scene with Kamikaze Girls in 2004. The first 15 minutes of the movie feature a motorbike accident, a defense of 18th-century Rococo art, an advertisement for Jusco department stores, a fart joke, commentary on the life cycle of tracksuits, a vagina-cam, the complete life history of the lead character's parents, a top-to-bottom analysis of the counterfeit fashion economy, and a summary of the main character's entire life all flying off the screen at light speed. The remaining running time was devoted to an uneasy friendship between two teenage girls trapped in a hick town, one of whom belongs to the Lolita subculture (dedicated to all things adorable) and the other duty-bound to live and die as a Yanki (juvenile delinquents obsessed with '50s greaser style).
Kamikaze Girls, a critical and commercial hit, was followed with a seven-minute short, Rolling Bomber Special, starring members of the Japanese pop supergroup SMAP. In the short, a team of Power Rangers-esque superheroes against their greatest villain of all: an aimless, twentysomething slacker. With these two films, Nakashima showed himself to be fluent in the language of pop culture, cutting together movies that were cinematic tornadoes of animation, freaky digital effects, sight gags, radioactive colors, super-stupid hairstyles, and bizarre narrative tangents. But no one was prepared for what came next.
Memories of Matsuko (2006) wasn't just a movie, it was a paradigm shift; and the world is largely divided into those who have seen it and those who haven't. A musical version of Citizen Kane except centered on a dead bag lady instead of a publishing tycoon, it's also the flip side of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie: a fantasia about love that doesn't pander and doesn't pull punches. Matsuko (played by multiaward-winning Miki Nakatani) is a young schoolteacher with a beautiful voice who always dreamed big, just like the movies told her to, but who never caught a break and who finally fell from grace and into squalor. Nakashima follows her all the way down, using the big musical numbers normally reserved for cinema's winners to tell the story of an ordinary woman who followed her heart into a blind alley where life was waiting for her with a lead pipe.
Memories of Matsuko was a huge hit that garnered an avalanche of acclaim. It's around this time that the Japanese press began referring to Nakashima as "a genius." They almost changed their minds with his next film, Paco and the Magical Picture Book (2008), a fairy tale about a young girl with a traumatic brain injury, which featured a cast of Japan's best actors, mugging gruesomely.
Nakashima redeemed his reputation quickly, however, writing and producing Lala Pipo (2009), which was helmed by one of his assistant directors, but clearly bearing his stamp. Another kaleidoscopic "whatzit," the movie interweaves the stories of five people working in Tokyo's porn industry, using puppets, costumed superheroes, dream sequences, and elaborate fantasies to give humanity to the losers who normally serve as motion picture punch lines.
Next, there's Confessions (2010). Just like Kamikaze Girls, Memories of Matsuko, and Lala Pipo, it was based on a best-selling novel, but unlike those movies it exchanged eye-popping color and a manic soundtrack for a restrained gray-and-white color palette, and Radiohead's melancholy "Last Flowers." Casting Matsu Takako (sort of a Japanese Jennifer Anniston) as a schoolteacher named Yuko, the beginning of the movie is a tour de force, in which Yuko gives an unbroken 20-minute monologue to her class on her last day of work. In it she informs them that not only did two of them murder her 4-year-old daughter but that she knows who they are and she's already taken steps to avenge her child. But by the half-hour mark the murderers are revealed, retribution is exacted, and the mystery is solved. That's when Confessions truly takes off.
Nakashima has a lot to say about victims, violence, revenge, living a worthwhile life, parents and their children, and he says it all while never taking sides or pointing fingers. Instead, he wants to illustrate how far we can go, and how much damage we can do, when we're convinced that we're right. Confessions blew the box office wide open in Japan, remaining in the No. 1 spot for three weeks last summer and earning Nakashima comparisons to Kubrick. Watching it feels like being run over by a glacier: monumental, powerful, and extremely painful.
While Kamikaze Girls was picked up by Viz Films, a label specializing in anime, American distributors were too scared to pick up Matsuko, a musical about a woman being beaten up by her abusive boyfriend, and, as for Lala Pipo, which features a chronic masturbator, a mother-daughter porn act, and a talking penis, forget about it. Confessions will probably find a small distributor who'll label it "Asian cult revenge film" and dump it on video-on-demand. And since Japan took home the Oscar in 2008 for Departures, it's unlikely Confessions will win this year. * But there's another reason Nakashima would never win an Oscar: he's a Hollywood heretic.
Nakashima uses the bright lights and big colors of the victory movie to show people in defeat. His underdogs don't get their moment in the sun: They spend their lives in shadow, finding relief only in their delusions and daydreams. There is no last-minute victory, and they're full of hope only because they don't have any other option. And that's why on Feb. 27, someone else will cry and gasp and thank a bunch of people in a foreign language and Nakashima's Confessions will just be another beautiful loser.
Correction, Jan. 25, 2011: This article originally misstated the year that Departures won an Oscar. It was 2008, not 2010. (Return to the corrected sentence.)