Up in the north and along Japan’s seas, the winter is cold and severe. But while the world outside is whitened before our eyes, the stories in the following movies set in wintertime Japan speak of love, family ties, the fall and rise once again from life struggles — until the winter is over and the spring flowers start blooming once again.
These films take viewers not only through the harsh— yet stunningly beautiful — Japanese winter sights, but also deliver messages that will keep your heart warm and cozy under the blanket as you watch romantic kisses in the snow, heartwarming family events, and the human drama of returning from rock-bottom in hopes of a second chance.
1.Love Letter, 1995
Manufactured by: Fuji Television / King Records
Distributed by: King Records
DVD: JPY3,800 (exclusive of consumption tax) / Blu-Ray: JPY4,800 (exclusive of consumption tax)
©Fuji Television Network, Inc. All rights reserved.
Love Letter tells the story of Hiroko, a mourning woman unable to fully cope with her fiance’s accidental death. In the aftermath of the three-year anniversary of his passing, Hiroko finds herself intertwined with a woman who has exactly the same name as her deceased love, was one of his high school classmates, and who also bears a striking resemblance to Hiroko herself (in fact, played by the same actress, Miho Nakayama). Despite its premise and an emotional story that unfolds via letter writing, flashbacks to high school years, and a curious yet solemn visit to wintery Otaru, Love Letter ultimately delivers a hopeful statement about the acceptance of tragedy and perseverance of the human spirit. Otaru, a city located in the northernmost island of Hokkaido that is famous as one of the most romantic destinations in Japan, provides the ideal setting for this film’s starkly beautiful and highly emotional cinematography.
Main cast: Miho Nakayama, Etsushi Toyokawa, Takashi Kashiwabara Director: Shunji Iwai
2.Sketches of Kaitan City (海炭市叙景), 2010
Although the film’s setting is fictional, the real-life city of Hakodate, Hokkaido’s southernmost port city, is the perfect backdrop for Sketches of Kaitan City. Amidst a particularly cold winter in the city, the film introduces an ensemble of working-class characters and unfolds their struggles through financial hardships, family difficulties, and the emotional ups and downs of everyday life. The film also delivers a measure of commentary on a local economy in recession and the often difficult, ever-evolving social structure of modern life. With somewhat dreary yet subtly artful cinematography, Sketches of Kaitan City is light on hopeful messages and uplifting narratives, but in the end the film does make an important point — life always goes on and it does so through the support of those who never give up on us.
Main cast: Mitsuki Tanimura, Kaho Minami, Kaoru Kobayashi Director: Kazuyoshi Kumakiri
3.Take Me Out to the Snowland (私をスキーに連れてって), 1987
In contrast to our first two entries, the next film on our list is a classically Japanese-style romantic comedy that should lift our spirits! Take Me Out to the Snowland’s protagonist, Fumio, is a businessman and a near-pro-level skier. On a skiing trip to Nagano Prefecture’s popular Okushiga Heights winter resort, he encounters Yu, a young secretary with whom — for him at least — it’s love at first sight. Though somewhat shy and awkward in his attempts, Fumio manages to express his feelings for Yu, and over a series of coincidences and chance encounters, eventually learns that Yu is also interested. Set in and around the popular ski resorts of Nagano and Gunma prefectures, Take Me Out to the Snowland showcases some of Japan’s most beautiful and easily accessible winter wonderlands, perfect for a winter romance.
Main cast: Hiroshi Mikami, Tomoyo Harada Director: Yasuo Baba
4.What the Snow Brings (雪に願うこと), 2005
Having long ago abandoned his family and the snowy, relatively remote city of Obihiro in Hokkaido, Manabu learns that life in Tokyo was not what he had hoped for. Finding himself divorced, unhappy, and in serious financial trouble, he returns to his hometown — but, as he proceeds to lose the last of his money on a horse race, we learn that his problems are mostly his own fault. Out of desperation, Manabu takes a job working in the stables for his brother, while also getting to know Haruko, his brother’s assistant, and Makie, a struggling jockey. Humbled by his failures, Manabu eventually finds a new start and greater sense of meaning among family and friends. Set amid endless snow covering the city, this film addresses several serious issues and the way they are commonly handled in Japan: shame, self-destruction, loss, and then regain of self through rediscovering the simple things in life we often take for granted — family, nature, and willingness to keep going.
Main cast: Yusuke Iseya, Koichi Sato, Kyoko Koizumi Director: Kichitaro Negishi
5.Oshin (おしん), 2013
Based in part on the beloved (and one of the most all-time popular) early-1980s serial drama of the same name, Oshin tells the story of its namesake protagonist, Oshin, a young girl who, due to extreme poverty, is sent by her father to work as a housekeeper for another family. Faced with cruel abuse at the hands of the family’s matriarch, Oshin soon runs away, eventually becoming a kind of babysitter and maid for yet another wealthy family.
Oshin is set in Yamagata Prefecture in 1907, where the snowy winter environment affects almost all aspects of life and indeed plays a significant role in our main character’s struggles. Considered part of Japan’s popular “period drama” genre, Oshin is unique in that if focuses primarily on the female characters and their special role in Japanese society. Delivering a message of perseverance, patience, and dedication to family — all values important to the Japanese culture — Oshin is an uplifting movie which will give you hope even at times when not everything is going well in your life.
Main cast: Kokone Hamada, Aya Ueto, Goro Inagaki, Pinko Izumi Director: Shin Togashi
Although to a different level of duration and characteristics, Japan is a land of four distinct, uniquely enjoyable seasons. It is also commonly said in Japan that each season has its certain atmosphere or feeling — something almost like a personality. Whereas spring signifies new beginnings, summer, new adventures, and autumn, new harvests; winter, as we see in our movies, signifies patience; a long and admittedly struggling await for better days. But winter — like so many things in the human life — is, after all, an impermanent condition: nothing stays the same forever, spring will always follow winter, and life will always go on. If there is a message that all these movies send us, it is exactly this.