As soon as February kicks in you start noticing the decorations, the cute toys, the roses, the postcards and all that romance floating in the air and you know it: soon it will be Valentine’s Day. But while there are certain commonalities in how the romantic holiday is spent around the world, truth is, many countries hide one or two surprising practices. And when it comes to surprises and original way of doing things, Japan is not an exception: here, women celebrate by giving their significant others — and colleagues, friends and relatives — nothing else but cho-co-la-tes.
The roots of how Japan celebrates Valentine’s Day today began in 1936 when the famous confectionery company Morozoff posted an ad in an English-language newspaper inviting people to buy chocolates for their Valentines. But little happened until much later on. In 1958, a Tokyo-based chocolate company launched a “Valentine’s Sales” campaign, encouraging customers to buy chocolates for the event. The three-day campaign ended up in slim sales: they only sold five chocolate bars and five cards. The following year they opted for revenge, this time with a clear strategy: they would target the ladies (who, at the time, were the main consumers) and encourage them to purchase a sweet gift for their men. The sales this time performed far better and other confectionery companies quickly began embracing the practice, each coming up with their own heart chocolate versions in the next few years.
By the late 1970s, Valentine’s Day was officially linked with chocolates and women were buying massively to show their love and gratitude to the men around them: a honmei choco (real love chocolate) for their significant other and giri choco (chocolate out of obligation) for their colleagues and other men who have supported them in one way or another. In recent days, the trend has further spread to include tomo choco (friend chocolate), where girls typically exchange chocolates with their girlfriends, and even more recently, mai choco (my chocolate), or a gift to oneself. While the giri choco practice is gradually declining in recent days Japan, the country is still overloaded with chocolate on February 14 and people are still practicing this contemporary tradition.
Whether you’re single or not and interested in chocolates or not, here are six all-time favorite Japanese romantic dramas to get you in the full spirit of the best of Valentine’s Day: love and our willingness to embrace, express and share it.
1. I Give My First Love to You, 僕の初恋をキミに捧ぐ, 2009
Based on a popular manga by Kotomi Aoki, this youth romance is a story of love with a time limit. Takuma and Mayu are childhood friends who promise each other that they will get married once they turn 20, a time limit that has been given to Takuma due to a heart disease he is suffering from. But as the two grow up (and increasingly fond of each other), they discover that Takuma may not make it until 20 — his heart is failing, ironically just at the time when he is full of life. Struggling to cope with the truth, Takuma attempts to avoid Mayu, who despite knowing the truth, never gives up on him. A tear-jerking drama played by an excellent crew, this story is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking.
Cast:Mao Inoue, Masaki Okada, Toru Nakamura
2. My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday, ぼくは明日、昨日のきみとデートする, 2016
Another time-limit story with a very unusual twist, this science-fiction drama follows the lives and love of Takatoshi and Emi, two strangers who meet at a train station. Takatoshi falls in love with Emi from first sight and the two begin a relationship, but it’s not long before Takatoshi starts noticing odd things about Emi’s behavior. One day he finds her diary and he is left with even more questions than answers — but certainly not less affection toward Emi. As the tears begin to flow in the end of the movie, we are reminded that while there is such thing as impossible love, nothing — not even time — can prevent us from feeling it.
Cast:Sota Fukushi, Nana Komatsu, Masahiro Higashide
3. Sand Chronicles, 砂時計, 2008
Time, once again is in the center of our plot here, but unlike our two previous films, this time it is all about moving forward, growing up and yet, remaining true to your purest thoughts, dreams and feelings. The plot follows Ann, a 14-year-old girl who moves to countryside Shimane with her mother to live with her relatives. Soon after, however, her mother commits suicide, leaving Ann emotionally all alone, confused and lost. She finds comfort in the kindness of her friends, especially Daigo. The two fall in love but have to undergo many obstacles to stay together — including years of being apart.
Cast:Nao Matsushita, Kaho, Sosuke Ikematsu
4. Train Man, 電車男, 2005
Train Man, or Densha Otoko, as it is known in Japan, is a cult not only in Japanese film history but also in the history of the Internet and social media. It is a successful 21th Century story that showed that online exposure may sometimes change your life — for the better!
Based on a book compiled of a collection of Internet chat messages between a man and a group of users of 2-Channel (a popular chat board back in the days), the story follows “Densha Otoko,” an otaku in his early 20s who protects a beautiful woman from a drunk man on the train. When she later sends him a gift to express her gratitude — two Hermes cups — he finds himself unable to stop thinking about her. Having zero experience with relationships, however, he panics and turns for help online. Hundreds of messages from supporters, known as “the anonymous people,” start flooding, giving him advice on how to approach the lady and ask her out. What follows is a beautiful story of how strangers can encourage each other and become close without having even crossed paths in real life. Written by Nakano Hitori, a pseudonym and a play on words which means “one of them,” this is a happy story that will uplift you and make you believe in love again.
Cast:Takayuki Yamada, Miki Nakatani
5. Be with You, いま、会いにゆきます, 2004
This drama follows the tragic life of a family of three, a young couple and their still very young son. When the mother Mio dies from an illness a year ago, father Takumi and little Yuji are left in sorrow, each trying to cope with their grave loss. One thing that keeps them strong however is Mio’s promise to return to them a year later, “when the rain begins to fall.” Hopes are high but expectations low when one day the two come across Mio in the rain, just as she has promised. The only problem is that she does not remember them. To help her remember, Takumi begins telling her the story of their lives, from the moment he first saw her and instantly fell in love. His only doubt throughout the years — and the answer he had always been looking for — was whether she had lived a happy life with him. To that, she has her own answer — and a story — to tell.
Cast:Yuko Takeuchi, Shido Nakamura
6. Crying Out Love, In the Center of the World, 世界の中心で、愛をさけぶ, 2004
Based on the bestselling book Socrates in Love by Kyoichi Katayama, Crying Out Love, In the Center of the World, popularly known as Sekachu in Japan, became a massive hit in Japan when it was released, leaving thousands of viewers in tears at the theaters. Still today, the movie remains one of the most loved movies of all time, not only for its heartwarming story but also thanks to an impressive cast and crew and musician Ken Hirai’s ballad, Hitomi wo Tojite, the movie’s lead soundtrack.
The story introduces us to the now grown up Saku who despite having seemingly moved on with life, finds himself trapped in the past, still holding on to the memory of his childhood sweetheart Aki. The two attended the same high school, where they fell in love and began a relationship, which gets shaken several years later when Aki discovers she is suffering from leukemia. Unable to attend her school trip to Australia — a place she refers to as the center of the world — Saku decides to take her by himself. The two never end up going there together, but years later, Saku is finally able to fulfill Aki’s dream. A movie that will leave everyone in tears, this is a classic that never gets old.
Cast:Takao Osawa, Masami Nagasawa, Ko Shibasaki, Yuki Amami
Though more often than not Japanese romantic dramas leave us with nothing but heart-wrenching endings — including the majority of our list’s six films — the pure, unconditional love described in them has managed to leave millions glued to the chairs generations after generations. Wherever you are this Valentine’s Day, get some popcorns, a box of tissues and enjoy these films.
Text：Japanese Film Festival Editorial Team