Kazuyoshi Kumakiri is one of those capable directors who never really managed to escape his own country. Sure enough his film appear on festivals, snatching away an odd prize or two, but his name never lingers. Hardly anybody is ever excited to see the new Kumakiri. Even so, through the years he established a strong oeuvre. And if one of his films fails to truly engage, there's always an interesting angle in there that makes it worth watching anyway.
Kumakiri started his career in 1997 with a false note, though ironically it's probably his most known film to date. Kichiku Dai Enkai is the kind of film you might expect to see from Koji Wakamatsu. It's about a group of leftist radicals who go berserk once their leader dies. It gets pretty gruesome near the end, which is why the film was able to tag along on the Japanese horror wave in vogue at the time, but I always found it severally lacking.
Four years later Kumakiri would reappear with Sora no Ana [Hole in the Sky], a film that dropped the horror influences and started his career for real. Susumu Teraijma and a very young Rinko Kikuchi feature in what is a typical Japanese drama. Non-communicative characters, slow pacing and a plot that is not quite resolved at the end, but fans will recognize this as a treat rather than a shortcoming. Not long after Kumakiri would repeat this success with Antena [Antenna].
After that he started to wander a little. Kihatsusei no Onna [The Volatile Woman] is a Hiroki-like drama, Tadareta Ie - Zoroku no Kibyo Yori [The Ravaged House - Zoroku's Disease] a tepid deformation horror (as part of Hideshi Hino's Theater of Horror series) and Seishun Kinzoku Batto [Green Mind, Metal Bats] a nihilistic urban youth drama. They all have their merits, but none of them reached the heights of Kumakiri's earlier films.
Sticking with the nihilistic vibes, Kumakiri went on to make Furijia [Freesia: Icy Tears], a manga adaptation about a violent, emotionless contract killer. The film was not well received, but it offers a remarkable mix of manga and arthouse elements to create a very uncomfortable yet intriguing experience. After that Kumakiri would return to more classic drama cinema with Kaitanshi Jokei [Sketches of Kaitan City] and Natsu no Owari [The End of Summer]. Good films, but lacking something extra to make them stand out.
Finally he got back on top of his game with Watashi no Otoko [My Man], a film that combines a lot of his earlier themes and qualities. Stark, cold settings, socially inept characters and a dash of surreal horror make this into one of his best movies to date. It's not an easy watch though, so it's probably not the best film to start with when you're planning to work through his oeuvre. Hopefully people pick up on Watashi no Otoko and Kumakiri is launched again, as he's a strong asset to Japanese cinema. The man and his films deserve a loving (international) audience.