Moving to Tokyo, the big city many living in Japan’s rural areas oftentimes naively dream of, is a rite of passage many young Japanese people take. Whether it’s to enter university, take a career leap, follow their heart or just to escape from one’s past and try something new, the experience is one so defining that the concept has spawned countless manga, films and TV programs in Japan. A huge contrast to the Japanese countryside, both physically and socially, the switch brings with it a multitude of experiences, many of which have been explored in depth through the following four films.
1.Jokyo Monogatari (上京ものがたり), 2013
Based on a manga of the same name written by Rieko Saibara, Jokyo Monogatari is partially based on Saibara’s own story of coming to Tokyo to pursue her dreams. The word “jokyo” in the title is a reference to the act of moving to Tokyo, a verb developed to depict the now so common act of leaving one’s birthplace to come to the capital.
The movie follows the story of Natsumi Takahara, an aspiring manga artist who moves from her countryside home to enter an art university in Tokyo. Along the way she makes new friends and picks up a job at a local izakaya, a Japanese style-restaurant/bar. Although she’s at first overjoyed to receive her first paycheck, she soon realizes that she’ll have to try something else in order to properly fund her artistic ambitions. Before long Natsumi finds herself working late nights in a hostess club, getting pawed and prodded by elder salarymen (businessmen), and with a boyfriend who’s nothing more than a burden.
In an unlikely but lucky turn of events, the still feisty protagonist lands herself a job illustrating for an erotica publisher, ironically catering to similar men she had met in her hosting gig. As she tries to find her way transitioning from the slow country upbringing to the fast-paced, gritty city live, Natsumi learns a lot about growing up, juggling life and following her passion, as well as the sometimes harsh realities modern society and city life can throw at you. The movie was a coming of age hit in Japan, one worth catching if you, too, are looking at the big city through pink glasses.
Main cast: Kii Kitano, Sosuke Ikematsu, Rieko Saibara Director: Toshiyuki Morioka
2.Tokyo Tower: Mom And Me, and Sometimes Dad (東京タワー 〜オカンとボクと、時々、オトン〜), 2007
Another book turned into a film, Tokyo Tower: Mom And Me, and Sometimes Dad is an adaptation of the autobiographical book by Lily Franky, a renowned illustrator, writer, designer, musician, photographer, and actor from Fukuoka Prefecture. The book became a major hit when it was released in 2005, selling two million copies by October 2006. The story follows Masaya (i.e. Franky) as he grows up with his mother and hopelessly alcoholic father in 1960s Japan. After leaving his father behind, Masaya and his mom set off on a life of their own.
The movie later follows the protagonist as a grown up, having moved to college in Tokyo and joining the workforce while spending most of his time hanging out with friends and being less than responsible. Until one day he receives an eye-opening phone call in which he is informed that his mother has been diagnosed with cancer. Unable to care for herself, Masaya’s mother moves in with him in Tokyo, where the two begin anew together.
Using Tokyo Tower as a symbol of the city, but also something much deeper — a symbol of isolation and strange optimism standing tall above the city skyline — the movie shines a light on the sometimes less than conventional reasons why people make the move to the city to survive. This heartwarming and rather melancholic movie was a major success, winning a total of eight awards at the 2008 Japan Academy Prizes including Best Film, Best Director, Screenplay of the Year, Best Actress and Best Actor in a Leading Role.
Main cast: Joe Odagiri, Kiki Kirin Director: Joji Matsuoka
3.Afro Tanaka (アフロ田中), 2012
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Something a little on the lighter side, Afro Tanaka is a goofy coming-of-age comedy about a young man with an incredible head of hair. Based on popular manga series written and illustrated by Masaharu Noritsuke, Afro Tanaka follows the story of Hiroshi Tanaka, a 24-year-old who makes the move to Tokyo in search of freedom, independence and something more than what the life currently has on offer for him in his hometown. Always on the lookout for a girlfriend, things start to change when Hiroshi learns that one of his best childhood friends is happily tying the knot and Hiroshi is invited to the wedding. As he remembers an important promise he and his friends made in regards to weddings and relationships, our protagonist suddenly remembers that his search of a significant other is more time-sensitive than ever. And when the perfect woman moves in next door, Hiroshi’s life is bound to change forever.
As the story traces Tanaka’s journey navigating young adulthood, figuring out romance, and generally making a bit of a fool of himself more often than not, it touches on some pertinent experiences most young people face when making the big leap to city life. Identity crises, making a fool out of yourself and desperately trying to figure out what life should look like, are explored through the film’s all too real reflections of modern-day Tokyo life.
Main cast: Shota Matsuda, Nozomi Sasaki Director: Daigo Matsui
The final film on this list is unsurprisingly another adaptation of a widely successful and popular manga. The film is the story of Nana (Aoi Miyazaki), a cheerful, fashionable and somewhat inexperienced young woman who moves to Tokyo to follow her boyfriend. While on the train en-route to the city she meets another young woman, around her age also called Nana (Mika Nakashima) who is in the midst of following her dreams to become a rock singer. While the second Nana — wearing black clothes and makeup, looking mysterious and aloof — is the complete opposite of the first Nana we see, the two somewhat click from the start. In a serendipitous chain of events, the two Nanas bump into each other once again when house hunting in the city, and they end up moving in together.
Although at first, it seems like the only thing these two girls have in common is their names and age, Nana is a film that shows that a true friendship has no social barriers. Through shared experiences, the two protagonists overcome all the battles that contemporary life throws their way and manage to find peace, dreams and independence together at their small apartment in Tokyo.
Main cast: Mika Nakashima, Aoi Miyazaki Director: Kentaro Ohtani
While we see four very different characters, four very different reasons for making the leap, and four very different stories, the movies on this list reflect on some very universal topics that many youngsters all over the world face once they go out from their nest in a bid to become independent. The ability to overcome adversity, the bravery to chase one’s ambitions and the acceptance to be able to leave the past behind, are some of the key qualities all protagonists in these films possess. As we watch, we get the sense that these are qualities we can all strive to have when making the decision to drop everything and start anew in Tokyo (or any other big city).
Text by Lucy Dayman