Every country has its own unique traditions and practices for celebrating the end of the old year and the beginning of a new one. In Japan, it is the “osechi” New Year dishes, “hatsumode,” the first shrine or temple visit of the year, or watching popular music shows on TV while waiting for the new year to kick off. But while in many other countries New Year’s eve is often spent out in the city, in Japan the holiday is all about the warmth of home and people.
The following movies, all set in Japan during the New Year holiday season, indirectly guide viewers through some of the most unique ways a new year is welcomed here in Japan — amid the backdrop of family relationships, problem solving, tears, and laughter.
1.Rice Cake Rhapsody (もちつきラプソディ), 2015
Rice Cake Rhapsody is an emotional story of a broken young family and the nostalgia one often feels for distant relatives and long-held cultural traditions. The protagonist, Mifuyu, facing a divorce, returns to her hometown to spend time with her family for the New Year’s holidays — an important tradition in Japan — and introduce her daughter to the ancient and important tradition of mochi (rice cake) making. Despite feeling ashamed of upsetting her family with her unsuccessful marriage, returning to her roots helps Mifuyu start anew — just after she releases all the pain she had been holding inside.
Traditionally, mochi is prepared in a lightly ceremonial event known as mochitsuki, wherein rice is repeatedly hammered with large wooden mallets. This process creates a very specific, rhythmic sound, accompanied by the equally rhythmic, enthusiastic chanting of what is usually at least two mochi makers. For us here in the real world, whether it’s decorative kagami mochi, or luck-bringing zoni (soup with mochi), you just can’t miss this food during the Japanese New Year…and if you ever get the chance to participate in a mochitsuki event, don’t hesitate!
Main cast: Mari Hoshino, Masayuki Yui Director: Satoshi Kase
2.Double Trouble (歓喜の歌), 2008
Japanese New Year celebrations are always about bringing people together, which, in most situations is nothing controversial. But what happens in Double Trouble is another story: this is what happens when a rather unlucky civil servant accidentally brings too many people together. Set in small-town Japan on December 30th and 31st, Double Trouble follows the somewhat lazy Iizuka, a manager at a local cultural center, as he attempts to accommodate two all-housewife choir groups he accidentally double-booked to perform on New Year’s Eve. Through quite a bit of professional acumen, Iizuka eventually finds a way to save face, please everyone, and arrange a great performance that accommodates both singing groups in a happy end fit for the holiday season. The movie perfectly summarizes the key concept of the essence of the Japanese New Year: leave everything behind, embrace what you have, and share it with the people around you — preferably in a happy celebration.
Main cast: Kaoru Kobayashi, Atsushi Ito, Saori Yuki, Miyoko Asada Director: Joji Matsuoka
3.Suite Dreams (THE 有頂天ホテル), 2006
A classic story with a classic ensemble cast, Suite Dreams is a wholly entertaining comedy from start to finish. Set in a single location, the fictional Tokyo Avanti Hotel, the film follows the adventures and misadventures of seven primary characters. The story takes place over the last two hours in the countdown to the New Year, as the characters navigate marital infidelity, political corruption, a convention for researchers specializing in deer, and several other equally complicated and highly entertaining storylines. This film is structurally quite similar to Edmund Goulding’s 1932 film Grand Hotel, and as such, Suite Dreams is less of a celebration of traditional Japanese New Year practices and more of an example of how Western-style parties and gatherings have also become tradition, especially in Japan’s larger cities. But hidden behind all that is also the unique Japanese cultural aspect of hospitality —omotenashi — and the belief that customers are always right (even when they aren’t at all). But in the end, all’s well that ends well — especially a complicated New Year’s Eve.
Main cast: Koji Yakusho, Takako Matsu, Koichi Sato, Shingo Katori, Ryoko Shinohara Director: Koki Mitani
4.Sukiyaki (極道めし), 2011
Prison? Food? Comedy?! On the surface, this might not sound like a recipe for success. Against the odds, however, Sukiyaki manages to deliver a poignant comedy/drama that discusses the most important of all the Japanese New Year foods: the osechi. The story focuses on five inmates at a Japanese prison who play a game of stories to win an extra piece of osechi for the New Year holiday. Each one recalls a story of the best food they had ever tasted in their lives and the “game” ends when the person voted as having the best story receives incrementally more of his fellow inmates’ osechi food.
The pinnacle of Japan’s New Year, the osechi ryori is as much about tradition as it is about food. It is comprised of many small dishes, each holding special meaning for the new year: a shrimp signifies longevity, kelp — happiness, Kazunoko, or herring roe — fertility, while black beans (kuromame) is for health. Osechi, usually eaten on New Year’s Day (and the first three days of the new year), is considered as one of the most special dishes throughout the year — not only because of its symbolism of hope and prosperity, but also because it is a dish consumed by the whole family together. The setting of Sukiyaki and the stories each prisoner recalls (of simple dishes such as bread cooked by their families and loved ones) therefore remind viewers of exactly this: the family warmth of the New Year holidays. As people say, the best spice to every dish is the company, and nothing can be truer than this — especially on New Year’s.
Main cast: Tasuku Nagaoka, Masanobu Katsumura, Motoki Ochiai Director: Tetsu Maeda
From the significance of osechi food to rice cake making and everything in between, though quite indirectly, these four movies give viewers a chance to see how the New Year is welcomed in Japan and how it differs from common practices in other countries. This is a wonderful selection of thoughtful, often comedic films that will make your New Year a little more special, introduce cherished cultural traditions, and add to your enjoyment of the holiday — and perhaps, even encourage you to travel to Japan next December!