While manga-to-film adaptations have steadily grown in popularity, acclaimed Japanese literature has long been and remains now an unsurprisingly rich source of narratives for filmed entertainment. As is the case anywhere, long-form writing allows authors to tell detailed stories of the human condition and/or carefully examine and dissect complicated societal issues. However, in adapting these particularly Japanese works, the filmmakers’ challenge is markedly amplified by the undeniable preponderance of contextuality in Japanese language and culture. Can the nuance of Japanese literary expression be effectively translated into film? By all means.
1. The Great Passage/舟を編む
Based on Shion Miura’s 2011 bestselling novel of the same name, The Great Passage is simultaneously a love letter to the complexity and richness of language and a celebration of human perseverance; study of the former and a nurturing of the latter are generally regarded as fundamental to Japanese culture. These essential concepts are brought to life through the story of publishing salesman-turned dictionary editor Mitsuya Majime. In his 15-year quest to create a magnificent dictionary of 240,000 unique entries, Mitsuya finds support in friends and co-workers, a meaning in life, and maybe, just maybe, a touch of romance. Miura’s novel became enormously popular in Japan after its release, selling over 1,200,000 copies to date and winning the 2012 Honya Taisho, a competition choosing the best of the best from all national bookstores. It was also turned into an animated film series in 2016.
Main Cast: Ryuhei Matsuda, Aoi Miyazaki. Director: Yuya Ishii
A comprehensive, careful treatment of crime, shame, guilt, loneliness, forgiveness and familial resilience is a lot to fit into any novel or film. However, the very accessible Tegami, based on a book of the same name by popular mystery writer Keigo Higashino and helmed by first-time director Jiro Shono, actually manages the task quite well. Elder brother Tsuyoshi and younger brother, Naoki were quite close and mutually supportive after the loss of their parents, but it just couldn’t last. When one brother makes a bad decision for the right reasons, fate intervenes and punishes them both; one imprisoned for life and the other struggling to distance himself and loved ones from the legacy of his brother’s mistakes. The novel, released by Mainichi Shimbunsha in 2003, sold over a million copies in one month, becoming the company’s fastest ever million seller.
Main Cast: Tetsuji Tamayama, Takayuki Yamada. Director: Jiro Shono
3. Norwegian Wood/ノルウェーの森
And now, our list’s first proper literary celebrity: it can be comfortably, confidently stated that the author, Haruki Murakami, and his novel, 1987’s Norwegian Wood, are both domestically beloved and internationally celebrated. Remaining as true as possible to Murakami’s layered, nuanced narrative, Tran Anh Hung’s visual retelling carefully unfolds protagonist Watanabe’s nostalgic narrative of loss to suicide, uncomfortable attraction, burgeoning sexuality, and human psychological frailty. The story unfolds against the backdrop of 1960s-era anti-establishment movements, which in some cases were as active in Japan as they were in the Western world.
Main Cast: Kenichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi Director: Tran Anh Hung
Perhaps the most complicated and convoluted narrative in our list thus far, Rebirth (2011) tells the story of Kiwako, a childless woman who eventually abducts the infant daughter of man with whom she’s having an affair. The story moves on to the struggles of that young woman, Erina, after she’s reunited with her biological parents, grows into adulthood, and, disturbingly, also finds herself in a relationship with a married man. This film addresses some very serious and manifest social issues in Japan, including childlessness, the adulation of motherhood, infidelity in marriage, and the undeniable forces in Japanese culture that celebrate and glorify the beauty, energy, and hopefulness of youth. Rebirth is based on Mitsuyo Kakuta’s suspense novel of the same name, which was released in 2007.
Main Cast: Hiromi Nagasaku, Mao Inoue. Director: Izuru Narushima
5. Train Man/電車男
Due to its source material, an actual internet discussion board that gained immense popularity in Japan, Train Man (2005) stands out as a very modern, perhaps more relatable narrative — specifically for younger generations growing up on the forefront of digital communication. Our protagonist, played by Takayuki Yamada, is known simply as “Train Man.” The story is a first-person narrative of his feelings of inadequacy, even after he saves the object of his love from assault at the hands of a lecherous old man…on a train. Train Man pours his heart out online, laments having never had a girlfriend, and worries that he’ll be judged as an anime otaku by the woman he saved, known simply as “Hermes” His readers eventually begin interacting, offering advice and encouragement, and Train Man gradually gains the confidence to follow his heart and pursue Hermes. The book the movie is based on is a collection of all related online interactions posts and was compiled in 2004. Tremendously popular, it was also translated into English with the tagline “The Internet-generation love story from Japan.” The book was a multimedia sensation, also generating TV series, and multiple manga series, in addition to the film. The book’s author, Hitori Nakano, is a play on words, which means “one of them.”
Main Cast: Takayuki Yamada, Miki Nakatani. Director: Shosuke Murakami
6. SIX FOUR/64 ロクヨン
An award-winning two-part crime drama adapted from a novel by Hideo Yokoyama, SIX FOUR focuses on the investigative work of lead Yoshinobu Mikami, a PR worker who gradually becomes more of a detective. In the story, “64” is a famously unsolved kidnapping and murder that occurred in the Japanese imperial calendar year of Showa 64 (1989). When a new, similar kidnapping occurs just as the 64 cold case approaches the statute of limitations, Mikami rushes to action to solve both. While it is the only story on our list that could be considered a procedural crime drama, it bears mentioning that this genre has gained massive popularity in contemporary Japan. While their popularity can arguably be attributed to a simple fad, there’s also something to be said for how these works of fiction celebrate the highly valued Japanese cultural tenets of perseverance and meticulous attention to detail.
Main Cast: Koichi Sato, Go Ayano. Director: Takahiza Zeze
Condensing Japanese literary source material into a cohesive visual narrative is no doubt challenging, but the results can be very rewarding. The movies on the above list provides several important examples that do so with a skill and artistry befitting the original works, while also offering poignant insight into Japanese culture.