If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a film, at 20-30 frames per second, must be worth well over 100 million words, right? What is said in jest is often based on a certain logic; our imagination can only take us so far, and whether fiction, nonfiction, or historical documentary, if at all possible, some things just need to be seen. The beauty, uniqueness and rich history of Japan from the ancient to contemporary lends itself quite naturally to this notion, and we’ve assembled here recommendations for some of the best films that teach you a few things about Japan that most textbooks can’t — the feeling of the times they were set in.
1. Always: Sunset on Third Street/ALWAYS 三丁目の夕日
In Japan’s imperial calendar, the Showa period began in 1926 and ended in 1989, corresponding directly to the enthronement and eventual passing of Emperor Hirohito. It also spanned times of immeasurable national upheaval, and Always: Sunset on Third Street (2005) lands right in the middle. Set in 1957/58 Tokyo, when Japan’s economic miracle and national renaissance was really gaining momentum, this nostalgic film gives viewers a glimpse of what it was like to witness the rebirth of a nation in modern times. Appropriately so, the story takes place over the year-long construction of the iconic Tokyo Tower. Throughout the movie we witness the poverty people still lived after World War II, the hopes they had as they waited for Tokyo’s new symbol to be completed, and the human-to-human relationships of the time that with the expanding modern urbanization, have been diminished in the past decades.
Main Cast: Hidetaka Yoshioka, Shinichi Tsutsumi Director: Takashi Yamazaki
2.Abacus and Sword/武士の家計簿
We jump back in time to the final years of the Edo period (generally 1603 to 1868), a time just before Japan’s first prominent pivot toward Western-style modernity. Of course, this didn’t happen at the flip of a switch, and Abacus and Sword explores the ongoing, inevitable transformation through the eyes of a low-ranking samurai and his wife struggling to keep their household together. The film is adapted from Michifumi Isoda’s fictional novel of the same name, but it is a work painstakingly constructed from analysis of the household accounts of an individual who actually lived in that time — a time when big change was coming, was unavoidable, and was increasingly trying for the samurai class.
Main Cast: Masato Sakai , Yukie Nakama Director: Yoshimitsu Moria
Moving even further back in time, MUMON is a historical dramatization of clashes between what could generally be referred to as samurai clans and ninja clans in 16th century Japan. Centered around the titular character, Mumon, a gifted yet terribly lazy warrior, the plot moves from a bounty killing to familial defiance to political intrigue, culminating in a massive battle. The film is naturally a sensationalized action drama, but MUMON also gives us a glimpse into pre-nationalistic, largely isolationist Japan, one dominated by massive, powerful, and most-often warring regional powers.
Main Cast: Satoshi Ono, Satomi Ishihara Director: Yoshihiro Nakamura
4. Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust/バブルへGO!!
With Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust, we now take a huge leap forward to 2007, and from there occasionally jump back to 1990. This time-travel comedy, set only 10 years ago (also the time it was made), finds a cast of characters accidentally discovering time travel, getting stuck in the past, and the subsequent efforts to save them. The timeframes span only a few generations, but the difference between Japan of the late-1980s/early-1990s and 2007 are rather profound, specifically because of the massive bubble inflation of Japan’s economy in the former era. Screenwriter Ryoichi Kimizuka’s comedic hits are provided by the characters’ motivation to avert policies that led to the burst and by the stark differences in technological artifacts between the era of Bubble Economy and the dawn of the smartphone age. No other movie depicts Japan’s “Bubble era” this well — the late disco nights and the predominant feeling that the happy and affluent times will never end — at the time Japan lived as if there was no tomorrow. But it wasn’t long before people realized it was all just an illusion — and this is something the movie manages to portray quite well.
Main Cast: Hiroshi Abe, Ryoko Hirosue Director: Yasuo Baba
5. Yoko The Cherry Blossom/陽光桜
Reaching back once again, our next film is set in the turbulent times of mid-20th century Japan. Yoko the Cherry Blossom dramatizes the real-life story of Masaaki Takaoka, an agricultural instructor from a rural Japanese village in Ehime Prefecture, Shikoku. Weary of sending young Japanese men off to the war and seeing so few return, Takaoka sets out to create a new strain of cherry blossom tree, one that’s resilient, hardy and able to thrive in wildly diverse climates. Focusing on his hope that the new strain of sakura might serve as a statement of peace and understanding among all people, Takaoka’s real life story provides uncommon nuance, layers, and complexity to the thoughts and sentiments of everyday citizens in wartime Japan.
Main Cast: Takashi Sasano, Koji Matoba, Maki Miyamoto Director: Gen Takahashi
6. Honnouji Hotel/本能寺ホテル
Rounding things out is the newest film on the list, taking viewers way back in time once again, as it also does quite literally to the film’s protagonist. Honnouji Hotel centers around a somewhat shiftless young woman in modern Kyoto who’s on the verge of a marriage she maybe doesn’t want. After checking into the titular hotel, she’s suddenly transported back in time to 1582, when Japanese historical figure Nobunaga Oda is struggling to unify Japan…or at least his part of it (spoiler: things didn’t go well for Oda). Though basic and obvious, the most prominent takeaway from this fish-out-of-water story is just how much has changed in 435 years, and given Japan’s longstanding proclivity for paperwork and record keeping, just how much we know about that change.
Main Cast: Haruka Ayase, Shinichi Tsutsumi Director: Masayuki Suzuki
Whether it’s Tokyo without skyscrapers, the day to day life of a gifted but lazy warrior from 450 years ago, or the heartland of Japanese culture in late-16th century Kyoto, when possible, a creative visage of settings and composite characters is much more powerful than the imagination alone. The complex, highly contextual construct that is Japanese culture and society — across epochs, centuries, and even technological eras — sometimes has to be seen to be fully understood and appreciated.