More than 200 movies were screened at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF). Unfortunately, we didn’t get close to seeing them all and even missed out on Pema Tseden’s Chinese Tibetan-language drama Snow Leopard, which won the Grand Prix. We did, though, manage to take in quite a few. Here are our top picks from the films we saw at TIFF 2023.

Koji Yakusho and Arisa Nakano

Perfect Days (Wim Wenders) 

The opening film of TIFF 2023 was unquestionably one of the highlights of the festival. Perfect Days is a heartwarming, meditative tale about a toilet cleaner who is contented with his unexceptional life. Koji Yakusho is superb as the quiet and understated Hirayama and it’s easy to see why he picked up the Best Actor gong at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. While Perfect Days does move at an incredibly slow pace and certainly won’t be for everyone, it’s an engaging story about finding joy in those little things in life. The soundtrack is also impressive, featuring the likes of The Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, The Animals, Otis Redding and Lou Reed. One of Wim Wenders’ best movies in a long time. 

Hana Sugisaki

Ichiko (Akihiko Toda) 

Based on Akihiko Toda’s award-winning stage play of the same name, Ichiko is a slow-burning, dark mystery about a young woman caught in a web of secrecy. Hana Sugisaki, one of the rising stars in Japan, puts in a stellar performance playing the titular role of Ichiko. She’s an enigmatic femme fatale who suddenly disappears the day after her boyfriend, Hasegawa (Ryuya Wakaba), proposes to her. Attempting to track her down, he gradually uncovers the truth about her tragic history. A story of violence and murder, it’s also one that highlights the plight faced by mukosekisha (unregistered citizens), who face an almost impossible task finding jobs or renting apartments in Japan. A cryptic and at times moving tale, this is a film that keeps the audience guessing until the end. 

Arienne Mandi

Tatami (Guy Nattiv and Zar Amir Ebrahimi) 

A gripping watch, Tatami is a powerful political thriller and sports drama about Iranian judoka, Leila (Arienne Mandi), who’s determined to win her country’s first gold medal at the World Championships. However, the prospect of her competing against and potentially losing to Shani Levi (Lirr Katz) from Israel — a country Iran doesn’t recognize — is a situation the Iranian government can’t accept. Leila, though, defies orders to feign injury, putting herself, her coach and their families’ lives in danger. The story is loosely based on an incident at the 2019 World Championships in Tokyo, when male judoka Saeid Mollaei was ordered to intentionally lose his semi-final bout. To prevent potential interference from Tehran, Tatami was shot surreptitiously in Georgia. It‘s the first ever production co-directed by Iranian and Israeli filmmakers. Winner of the Special Jury Prize, it was our favorite film at TIFF 2023. 

Kazuya Kamenashi

Lumberjack the Monster (Takashi Miike)  

Fans of Takashi Miike’s slasher films such as Audition and Ichi the Killer may find his latest offering slightly more restrained than what they are used to. That’s not to say Lumberjack the Monster isn’t violent. There’s still quite a bit of blood, it just isn’t as extreme as some of his past movies. This one is more of a psychological thriller than a gore fest. It stars KAT-TUN singer Kazuya Kamenashi as the remorseless lawyer Akira Ninomiya, who manages to survive an attack by someone wearing a lumberjack mask. Two others, though, aren’t so fortunate. The killer — seemingly influenced by a violent picture book called Lumberjack the Monster — removes their brains after striking them with an axe. The story develops like a puzzle as the police try to uncover what links the victims. 

From left to right: Nao Omori, Takeshi Kitano and Tadanobu Asano

Kubi (Takeshi Kitano) 

A movie 30 years in the making. Takeshi Kitano came up with the idea for Kubi in 1993, the year Sonatine was released. The great Akira Kurosawa, who was still alive then, was very excited about it. “When Kitano directs this film, it will surely rival my own Seven Samurai,” he said. Unfortunately, Kubi doesn’t get close to that kind of level of cinematic greatness. However, it is a fun and, at times, exhilarating ride mixed in with some dark humor. Set during the Sengoku period (1467-1567), Japanese history buffs will enjoy this one, which features all three of the country’s great unifiers: Oda Nobunaga (Ryo Kase), Hideyoshi Hashiba — later known as Toyotomi (Kitano) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (Kaoru Kobayashi). A star-studded cast, it also features Hidetoshi Nishijima as Akechi Mitsuhide and Tadanobu Asano as Kuroda Kanbei.  

From left to right: Mark Stanley, Camilo Arancibia and Benjamin Westfall

The Settlers (Felipe Gálvez)

A brutal and harrowing Western set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, The Settlers explores the genocide of the Selk’nam people, a now extinct indigenous group in the Patagonian region of Argentina and Chile whose population reduced from 4,000 in the 1880s to 500 in the early 1900s. It stars Game of Thrones actor Mark Stanley as British army captain MacLennan, who, along with American mercenary Bill (Benjamin Westfall) and, reluctantly, a young mixed-raced skilled marksman named Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), set off to delimit the vast lands of Tierra Del Fuego that have been acquired by ruthless Spanish landowner José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro). Indigenous people are barbarically slaughtered on the way. Filmed on location, the beauty of the backdrop contrasts with the chilling acts of depravity carried out by the horsemen.

All images courtesy of TIFF 2023.