As the British Film Institute have recently presented a season of Japanese classics on their BFI Player streaming service, we thought we’d get involved. We asked our film writers for some of their favourite movies from Japan, tallied up the results, and allowed them to gush about each one for a couple of paragraphs. The results were surprising. Missing, for example, is Yazujirô Ozu‘s Tokyo Story, regularly regarded as one of the best films ever made. Surprising too that Akira Kurosawa only gets a sole mention, and it’s for Rashomon, the film which made his reputation in world cinema, rather than his most famous, Seven Samurai. What comes across in the responses is our writers’ love for genre films, but such iconic pictures as Ringu and Battle Royale are also notable by their absence. The big winner is Studio Ghibli, with no less than four entries – three from the great Hayao Miyazaki alone. But the number one spot is indicative either of a fondness for uncompromising independence or of a sadistic streak a mile long. Read on to find out.
Hiroshi Teshigahara/ Japan/ 1964/ 147 mins
In 1946, Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist novel Nausea entered the top ten best-seller list in Japan. So it’s no surprise that when Hiroshi Teshigahara – an art student in his formative years at the time – went on to make his first narrative feature in 1964, it read as a potent metaphor for one of the French philosophy’s seminal concepts: Bad Faith.
The existentialists implored people to seek their inner essence elsewhere than in their work if collective change was to come; something of which the new wave of filmmakers fielt post-war Japan was deeply in need. The plot of Oscar-nominated Woman of the Dunes may be a little on the nose, but its clarity of message makes for a harrowing watch.
Lured by a stranger into an inescapable sand dune, the protagonist (Eiji Okada) has one task: dig, or be encased in sand. So clear becomes his purpose that when finally presented with the chance to escape, he hesitates. Suddenly, his world before digging seems complex; uncertain. Whether he makes it out should go unspoiled, but each agonising close-up of parched lips and dry, cracking skin serves to make one thing glaringly evident: to stay in the dune is to waste away.
Hayao Miyazaki/ Japan/ 1988/ 86 mins
As pure a depiction of childhood as has ever been produced, My Neighbour Totoro captures a universal experience through its unique specificity. When two young girls move house to the Japanese countryside to be closer to the hospital in which their mother is convalescing, they’re enchanted by the new house and expanses of greenery. Their wonder grows greater still when they discover Totoro, the king of the forest. A huge, furry and completely adorable beast, he’s the embodiment of nature and childhood and is a source of comfort for the girls as they try and comprehend their mother’s illness.
Totoro is so iconic that he’s become the logo for the peerless Studio Ghibli animation house. Perhaps it’s because the film can speak to everyone. The very young will simply be enthralled by the colourful characters, and adults can get all gooey-eyed with nostalgia about simpler times. It’s cute without being irritating, and sentimental without being saccharine. There are so many great moments, like little Mei’s first encounter with a snoring Totoro, and the ride on the Catbus. But it’s the umbrella scene, a delicate little moment of visual comedy as Totoro finds delight in falling water drops, that sums up just why My Neighbour Totoro works so beautifully. It’s perhaps the most joyous scene in all of cinema. Pure perfection.
5=: Love Exposure
Sion Sono/ Japan/ 2008/ 237 mins
Nothing can quite prepare you for this four-hour odyssey of religion, lust and violence. Sion Sono’s twisted fever dream almost immediately became the subject of notoriety upon its premiere, for everything from lewd subject matters to an apparent parallel between pornography and religion. The film centres on three main characters – Yū, Yōko and Aya – whose fates collide against a backdrop of a cult rapidly growing in popularity. Sono gets sensational performances from all of the cast, in particular from Hikari Mitsushima as Yōko and Sakura Andô as Aya. Their ferocity, obvious passion and incredible range help to ensure that this is not a gratuitous tale of adolescent growth, but a thought-provoking look at what makes love a unique sense of being.
Love Exposure is one of those glorious films that leaves you completely dizzy. You won’t remember which way is up; you will simply be trying to process everything that you have seen. Sono’s direction is delirious, taking the film in all different directions and yet somehow keeping the entire story semi-coherent. The end result is a beautifully shot, moving, funny and shocking story for the ages.
Hayao Miyazaki/ Japan/ 1989/ 103 mins
Released in 1989, Kiki’s Delivery Service represented Studio Ghibli’s fourth feature film. It follows young witch Kiki as she moves to a new town with her cat and uses her broomstick to open a flying delivery service. It’s a simple plot and the stakes are small, but that’s fine as they’re deeply emotional and are all in service to Kiki’s growth and development throughout the narrative.
The film is incredibly charming with a sweet premise that makes it an instant hit with children. Aided by both Joe Hisaishi’s gorgeous soundtrack and the beautiful art style one would expect from any Ghibli film, it’s understandable why it is regarded as one of the company’s best works. Beneath all of these elements however is something much deeper. Kiki’s Delivery Service is fundamentally a coming of age story, but one that also explores themes of loneliness, impostor-syndrome, and vulnerability. Kiki’s struggle with her powers, and to find a place in the world, is one to which so many can relate, regardless of age. We’ve all, at some point, been just like Kiki and the strength she displays and hope promised by the film’s conclusion is one that continues to resonate on repeat viewings.
Yôjirô Takita/ Japan/ 2008/ 130 mins
Japanese cinema holds a special place for death, where there is tremendous mourning and respect, but often grief is sidelined. Departures focuses on the life worth living, enabling a personal connection with a culture unlike Western beliefs, offering a glimpse into the preparations and customs surrounding burial in Japan.
Following a tragedy, Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) sells his prize cello and moves back to his hometown with his wife, taking up a job in what he suspects is a travel agent. There is indeed travel involved – to the afterlife. The peculiar stigma attached with undertaking is similar in Japan, though the culture and customs certainly differ. Engaging, Motoki is adorable in his characterisation, thoroughly likeable as a frequent folly to his clumsiness, ideals, and wide-eyed view of the world.
The mechanics of the film flow unnoticed, it’s a unique piece of cinema which doesn’t feel like a manufactured film, rather like the preparations for the departed. Departures is precise and graceful, unafraid to lean into humane humour to offset distressing moments. It seeks no flourishes or thrills, instead, the movie opts for a gentile approach, all orchestrated to the illustrious sounds of subtle string composition.
Ishiro Honda/ Japan/ 1954/ 96 mins
The kaiju genre, featuring giant monsters (usually actors in cumbersome suits) laying waste to cities and battling each other, has been a staple of Japanese cinema for almost sixty years. However, its beginnings have a more sombre tone. While the plot is ostensibly similar to later films, with the titular beast being awakened by H-bomb testing and wreaking havoc across Tokyo, the tone is strikingly different. Filmed less than ten years after the devastating atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the massive creature has clear parallels to the atom bombs and Japan’s defeat in the second world war. This can be seen in one notable scene where a mother protecting her children during Godzilla’s rampage mentions that they will join their deceased father, presumed to have died in the war.
On a more technical note, the special effects mostly hold up, with impressive miniature work and costume design by Eiji Tsuburaya making Godzilla and his destruction seem as powerful as it would have been to 1950s audiences, with the exception of the creature’s awkward first appearance. While the film was released in an edited form for its worldwide release with Raymond Burr of Perry Mason fame added in as a reporter, it’s the original Japanese-language version of you should watch.
Hirokazu Kore-eda/Japan/2018/121 mins
When shoplifter Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) and his young son Shota (Kairi Jo) discover Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a young girl locked out of her family’s apartment, they decide to adopt her into their eccentric family. However, after Yuri’s abduction is reported in the news, the family’s existence slowly begins to spiral out of control, revealing the true nature of their relationships to each other.
Director Kore-eda specialises in gently staged character studies, and this film is no exception. Its examination of the dynamics between the various family members as well as their motivations eschews opportunities for melodrama and instead maintains a naturalistic tone that makes the main characters and their situation seem incredibly believable, despite the slowly unfolding strangeness of their situation. The performances from the main cast helps to support this commitment to realism, with Franky in particular capturing Osamu’s frantic attempts to maintain his paternal facade.
Winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2018, Shoplifters is a compelling study of an unusual family that gradually reveals its secrets over the course of the film’s running time, thereby placing a unique spin on what could have been a cliched melodrama.
Akira Kurosawa/ Japan/ 1950/ 88 mins
Not only the film that made Kurosawa’s reputation in the West, but the film that went a long way to popularising Japanese cinema. Critics in his homeland were baffled by the success after it won the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival and an honorary Academy Award. They claimed a certain fetishisation of the “Orient” was at work; and that may be true. What is certain however, is that Rashomon is a masterfully composed psychological thriller that has become a shorthand for stories in which the viewer is shown differing perspectives of the same event.
In Rashomon, the rape of a woman and the murder of her samurai husband is recounted by a woodcutter who witnessed part of the crime, the accused bandit (a manic Toshirô Mifune), the female victim, and – weirdly – the deceased man speaking through a medium. It’s sharply-written, tight as a drum, and ambiguous to a fault. None of the actors knew what the correct version was, and Kurosawa himself never told them.
Isao Takahata/ Japan/ 1988/ 89 mins
Grave of the Fireflies was the piece of animation which forced many to reconsider the genre’s impact outside of ‘Mickey-Mouse’ entertainment. Carrying weight to rival any significant motion drama, it is the most honestly cruel depiction of humanity and distress in the animated index. While others in the Studio Ghibli library inspire, evoking tears of joy or sorrow in magical realms, Grave of the Fireflies offers little safe space in its confrontation of history.
Survival is the narrative, that’s all. Following the American firebombing of Japanese villages during WWII, Seita (Tatsumi Tsutomu) kneels by his mother’s burning body, tasked with caring for his younger sister. Following the opening shots, we know how this all turns out – it’s just a question of how we arrive at the destination. There’s repulsive beauty in the animation, the flickering embers and smouldering ‘fireflies’. Make no judgements, Isao Takahata’s film is a powerful adaptation, but this isn’t cheap melodrama. Grief and pain are not the primary tools to the realist storytelling. The focus is on the siblings’ struggle in keeping their lives together as reality scratches away at them, which emphasises the brief glimpses of child-like innocence and playfulness all the more.
Hiyao Miyazaki/ Japan/ 2001/ 125 mins
Without question one of the finest animations ever produced, Spirited Away is a staggeringly beautiful fantasy tale of childhood, family and history. Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are behind a slew of iconic movies but this is arguably the feather in their cap. The story of 10-year-old Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) sweeps from deeply moving to funny and bizarre without missing a beat. It is the only hand-drawn animation to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature (and the only non-English language film to do so too), with artistry so refined that you effortlessly sink into the rich texture of Miyazaki’s world.
It is one of the most important films any child can see, and continues to reward the viewer regardless of their age. The abundance of imagination is like nothing else, embedded in very real questions about Japanese identity and the direction being taken by society in the new century. Studio Ghibli has continued to produce some phenomenal films, but nothing like Spirited Away has ever been made since and we are unlikely to see anything like it again.
Miike Takashi/ Japan/ 1999/ 115 mins
Even 20 years following its release, to describe the plot of Audition to the uninitiated would likely find you on the receiving end of confused glares and mocking gasps of disbelief. Such scepticism would only deepen further as the audience finds itself victim to a slow-burning, monotonous wander through an off-kilter, romantic relationship – free from all the Takashi Miike hallmarks which have cemented his place as a cinematic great. Fear not! This is an art piece brimming with anger, disgust and humiliation, so much so that one will find it hard to not wade into the discourse when all is said and done. Noting that the film experiences a tonal shift is a Herculean understatement, one which – as the cliche tells us – must be seen to be believed.
As Lynchian surrealism is cooked together with proto-torture porn, Miike forceably compels each and every audience member to have a reaction; a reaction which will forever proudly live in their “the first time I saw…” memory palace. That all this is in service of a violent feminist horror might sound absurd and yet Audition is arguably the greatest pre-MeToo genre film for a post-MeToo world. Bold, disturbing and unforgettable, Audition doesn’t play nice or play fair, but its victory lap is well deserved: a Japanese cinematic aptitude test for those willing to push their boundaries and find the unimaginable rewards that await.