Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost, second-largest island and the nation’s largest prefecture, contrasts considerably with Okinawa, the southernmost, fourth-smallest prefecture, itself comprised of more than 150 individual islands. With over 3,000km separating these two regions, it’s no surprise that there are marked differences in environment, culture and climate. What these locations have in common, however, are reputations for friendly, welcoming people, unique and delicious culinary traditions and some of Japan’s most beautiful and popular travel destinations.
Through universal stories of human relationships, the struggles and milestones of life, and a bit of lighthearted adventure, the following films will give you a pleasant and heartwarming introduction to two very different yet equally wondrous regions of Japan.
1.Bread of Happiness (しあわせのパン), 2012
A popular trope in Japanese drama is the notion of leaving the big city to find happiness in a smaller town, often through pursuing a simpler, purer life — and our first film, the heartwarming Bread of Happiness, is a perfect example of this theme. Our main characters, baker Nao and chef Rie, have left Tokyo behind to start a bakery and restaurant in Hokkaido. The narrative unfolds around the generally happy and positive couple gradually befriending a host of characters from the community, welcoming them into their restaurant and lives. The film’s setting, the picturesque shores of beautiful Lake Toya, is situated within the boundaries of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park, and the director skillfully manages to feature the four distinct seasons of this relatively temperate region of northern Japan. The movie’s famous copy, “Wakeau tabi ni wakariaeru ki ga suru” (わけあうたびに わかりあえる気がする), a phrase that roughly translates into “The more we share, the more we understand each other,” perfectly captures the movie theme and the essence of human-to-human interactions in rural Japan.
Although the two leading actors in this movie, Harada and Oizumi, are two of Japan’s most popular entertainers, it is fair to argue that this film’s biggest star is the natural beauty of Hokkaido — and you’ll see much of it at the backdrop of this beautiful and peaceful story of the rites of passages we go through in our lives.
Main cast: Tomoyo Harada, Yo Oizumi Director: Yukiko Mishima
2.A Drop of the Grapevine (ぶどうのなみだ), 2014
Our next entry is another film from director Yukiko Mishima, also set amidst Hokkaido’s natural beauty. Starring Yo Oizumi (from Bread of Happiness) who portrays Ao, a former musician and aspiring winemaker who, after his music career in Europe falters, returns to his family farm in rural Hokkaido. While struggling to raise grapes and create the perfect pinot noir, Ao also operates the family wheat farm with his younger brother, Roku. The film focuses on the ongoing, palpable tension between the temperamental Ao and the more easygoing Roku, while the arrival of itinerant traveler Erika (Yuko Ando), who sets up camp nearby the brothers’ farm, provides a layer of complexity and liveliness. The tone of A Drop of the Grapevine varies from playful and humorous to melancholy and mournful, but common throughout the film is the scenic backdrop of central Hokkaido’s Sorachi region.
Main cast: Yo Oizumi, Shota Sometani, Yuko Ando Director: Yukiko Mishima
3.Hotel Hibiscus (ホテルハイビスカス), 2002
Hotel Hibiscus, our first film from the southernmost island of Okinawa reaches of Japan and a pronounced departure from the melodrama of our first two entries, would best be described as a comedy adventure. The film focuses primarily on the energetic and precocious Mieko, a 9-year-old Okinawan girl whose eclectic yet welcoming family operates the titular one-room guesthouse. Among a handful of humorous adventures, the film takes us along on Mieko’s determined mission to find and capture one of the mythical kijimuna, a mischievous forest spirit native to Okinawan folklore. Director Yuji Nakae’s films are known to prominently feature customs and culture unique to Okinawa, and Hotel Hibiscus does just that. In addition to the kijimuna, we’re introduced to tebichi the regional specialty of pig’s feet soup, the ongoing presence of the U.S. military and its effects on the locals’ lives, and the generally more laid-back lifestyle of the Okinawan people. The film isn’t without the vein of sentimentality common even in Japanese comedies, but for the most part, Hotel Hibiscus is a lighthearted slice of life that will leave you longing to learn more about the Okinawan people and the island’s stunning scenery.
Main cast: Honami Kurashita, Kimiko Yo Director: Yuji Nakae
4.Breathe In, Breathe Out (深呼吸の必要), 2004
Sugarcane is one of Okinawa’s most important agricultural products, so the primary setting for Breathe In, Breathe Out, a sugarcane farm at the height of the spring harvest, is ideal for this subtle, understated tale of the Okinawan life. The film’s narrative is driven by an ensemble of seven characters who converge on a kind of working vacation in the cane fields. Although each of them come from different backgrounds and walks of life, they unite as a group and find a measure of commonality through the rigorous, tiresome work. In parallel, as the deadline for completing the harvest approaches, it is also revealed that they all share something much more profound — although distinct individuals with their own backstory and motivations, each character seems to be running away from or avoiding challenges in their lives. Rather than direct exposition, what makes this film special is how so much of the story is revealed by what goes unspoken amongst the group as they toil away on the Okinawan island.
Main cast: Karina, Shosuke Tanihara, Hiroki Narimiya, Masami Nagasawa Director: Tetsuo Shinohara
Japan is often considered a monocultural society, one dominated by large, modern cities populated by swarms of office workers doing high-tech work for huge international companies. While that characterization is partially accurate and deserved, Japan is also internally quite diverse, and in terms of specific environments, economies, and cultures, it’s hard to find two places more different than Hokkaido and Okinawa. Despite their real differences, however, these two regions share much in principle, and exploring them through film gives us genuine insight into two of Japan’s heartlands.
Text by Reno J. Tibke