The three years spent in high school — and for some late bloomers, universities — is a rite of passage for Japanese youth. During this time, teens learn the key tenets fundamental to the life that is expected of them as adults in Japan: teamwork, competition, and the culturally-valued “never giving up” spirit. It is also the first time for many of them to fall in love and get burnt by it. Simultaneously, it is also the last time they can be children, and dream big, before starting on the path of a standardized adulthood that begins when they join the corporate world.
This explains why Japan dedicates much of its film narrative to youth: It is a nostalgic time filled with glory. This glory does not come from academic highlights, but from achievements at club activities (or “circles” at universities), the after-school groups most Japanese youngsters join from junior high school. These clubs are epitomized in Japanese culture as sources of learning, long-lasting friendship, bonding, achievements and pride, setbacks, recoveries, love — and an endless well of youth power.
The following six movies, though each themed around a different activity, represent those pure values established during a Japanese youth, illustrating what it means to “live one’s life to the fullest” when you’re growing up in Japan.
1.Let’s Go, JETS! From Small Town Girls to U.S.Champions?! /チア☆ダン
Based on a true success story of a high school in Fukui Prefecture, Cheer Dance (2017) shows us that nothing is impossible when you work together and dare to dream big. When Hikaru joins her high school cheerleading team to impress the boy she likes, she isn’t ready for the spartan training, nor the series of setbacks she and her teammates are about to go through. But she has big dreams (and a big mouth) and promises to not only compete against the best of the best at the U.S. Championship, but also win.
The origins of Japanese cheerleading go back to the late 1980s when the predecessor of the current Japan Cheerleading Association was formed in 1987, leading to the opening of the first national competition the following year. The sport became hugely popular in the 2000s with the launch of a series of competitions, with the most popular, Japan Cup, opening in 2001. Nowadays, cheerleading is considered one of the most prestigious and challenging sports among Japanese club activities. Cheer Dance illustrates common struggles cheerleading teams go through in Japan, while also showing that strong team bonds and persistency can take a small team to the top. Somewhat influenced by a sense of inferiority (given that the USA is among the strongest cheerleading competitor in the world), these Japanese girls show that when no one believes in you, you can believe in yourself and your team members. And that is a game changer.
Main Cast: Suzu Hirose, Yuki Amami Director: Hayato Kawai
The movie adaptation of Mitsuru Adachi’s popular comic series, Tacchi (2005) follows the lives of twins Kazuya and Tatsuya, and their best friend Minami, a girl living next door. The three grow up together dreaming of going to the Japanese National High School Baseball Championship Tournament, known as Koshien. But faith gets in the way, twisting love, loss, and rivalry, all in search for hope, once again.
Baseball is one of the most popular sports in Japan, with most schools having a dedicated team. Koshien, the biannual all-Japan highschool championship, is a highly competitive game that selects the strongest team in the country. It is a dream for every Japanese baseball youth, not only because it’s a shortcut to getting drafted, but also because it’s every team’s one and only chance to shine before graduation. Tacchi follows the story of a team heading to the championship, illustrating common key values shared by all clubs heading there: dedication, struggles, team play, devotion, and profound love for the game. In Japan, it is said that boys attending baseball teams share the strongest moral values — respect, mindfulness, concern for others, and ability to unite within a team, an ability the Japanese rely on to construct a harmonious society.
Main Cast: Masami Nagasawa, Shota Saito, Keita Saito. Director: Isshin Inudo
3.Shiko Funjatta, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t /シコふんじゃった。
Shuhei’s future is pretty much decided. After he graduates from college, he will be joining a company, which relatives helped him get a job at, and now all he needs to do is wait until he graduates. But things take an unexpected turn when his supervisor gives him an ultimatum to join the sumo club in order to graduate. Shuhei joins a team of another heavily unmotivated team members, without any desire, but learns along the way that he can discover something new about himself — only if he plays the game well. All he needs is to develop a feeling for it.
Shiko Funjatta describes the lives of aspiring sumo wrestlers, the nation’s traditional sport. In recent years Japanese youth tends to favor more “western” sports, such as baseball and soccer, and sumo is largely considered to be “old-school,” heavily restricted by social rules and severe regulations. The movie shows many of these rules in a humorous manner, while managing to portray that the sport can be just as fun as any other modern hobby. Approached by a variety of angles, including that of a foreigner (one of the team members is a Caucasian teen who thinks that showing your naked hips isn’t culturally important as long as you play well), the art of sumo in this movie is revisited as never before. Focusing on the last “youth days” before one enters corporate adulthood, this movie is about personal growth, believing in the absurd, and the ability to laugh at oneself — all values one must possess to survive a competitive adulthood.
Main Cast: Masahiro Motoki, Naoto Takenaka Director: Masayuki Suo
Hitori Suzuki is a swimmer who is the head of a high school swimming team that consists only of himself. With no ideas of how to make things better, he is saved by a beautiful swimming teacher who manages to attract a whole new group to the team — until she says they will be going after the “ladies sport” synchronized swimming. Now with only five members left, these boys start from scratch, only to end up making a high school miracle, and learning a few new things about themselves.
A major hit in the Japanese movie scene, Waterboys (2001), became the trigger for a synchronized swimming fad in early 2000s Japan, leading to a new TV series on the subject and the introduction of “synchro” swimming clubs. Based on a documentary of a high school which performed the sport for a cultural festival in Saitama prefecture, the movie shows yet again that you can fall in love with a subject you devote your time and efforts to, even when it looks absurd. The movie is the perfect illustration of the popular Japanese saying,“Oshtemo dame nara, hiite miyo,” (If you can’t push it, pull it), used to show that when things are not working, you need to take a new approach. One of the most legendary movies on Japanese youth culture, Waterboys guides viewers through the story of how one absurd challenge can change a high school experience — and influence dozens of people, when you just never give up and keep working, a core value of the Japanese culture, known as “ganbaru,” or doing one’s best.
Main Cast: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Hiroshi Tamaki Director: Shinobu Yaguchi
A former ping pong prodigy, Tamako is now working for a Japanese company, leading a regular life. She is dating a member of her company’s ping pong team, but when he leaves her for another rival, her life is turned upside down. Alone and back to her hometown, she decides to start over and rediscover a passion she has long lost — that of ping pong, and love.
Though always present on the Japanese sport scene, table tennis was massively popularized in Japan in the early 2000s by Ai Fukuhara, a child prodigy who turned professional at the age of 10 and won people’s hearts due to her immense efforts to better herself. Following her success (including becoming a two-time Olympics medalist), a series of young Japanese players surfaced, including Miu Hirano, who became the youngest and first female to win the singles at the 2017 Asian Championships. Today, a key sport and a common entertainment at Japanese game center archades, in Mix, ping pong is the link between the movie heroine and her lost self, a trigger for her regaining of self-respect and dignity. This is achieved by team play, determination and return to the basics — the times when she was young and passionate. The movie makes a profound comparison of the life as an adult at the corporate world, and that of a liberated mind, when one is free to return to the past and rebuild what’s left.
Main Cast: Yui Aragaki, Eita Director: Junichi Ishikawa
The movie adaptation of Yuki Suetsugu’s manga series, Chiyafuru (2016), shown in two parts, is the story of three friends united by their love of karuta — a traditional Japanese card game. Connected by heart but separated by distance, the three dedicate their high school youth life to the game in belief that it will reunite them.
Karuta, originally introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in the 16th century, is a game which relies on speedy decision to determine which karuta out of an array of cards is required, and then grab it before the opponent does. Like other traditional arts, karuta is a slowly dying entertainment in popular Japanese culture, though it is still played by families and friends usually on New Year’s and at cultural events. Chihayafuru introduces the key concepts of the game, while also displaying the intense competition at karuta championships, which in real life are organized by the Japan Karuta Association. Just as competitive as any other sport, it takes strong determination, learning, and teamwork to win the top. A spectacular illustration of traditional Japan as shown at the backdrop of youth culture, passion, and friendship, the movie is one of a kind for all cultural enthusiasts. A famous line in the movie says “Dedicate all of your youth (to the game) (to challenge it) — the attitude Japanese youth approach the game they love.
Main Cast: Suzu Hirose, Shuhei Nomura, Mackenyu Director: Norihiro Koizumi
As seen, there are several main concepts prevailing in those youth movies: determination, passion, persistency, and bonding with others on the same boat. This is not a coincidence. In harmonious Japan, one needs those values to keep going. It is also the founding element one goes back to for a boost of power — when adulthood just doesn’t go well as planned.