In Japanese film, we often find a blurring of the lines between characters’ dialogue and the lyrics of any given theme song — so much so that the narrative thrust of the film is often considerably dependent upon the theme song’s lyrics, and vice-versa. Below are seven examples of Japanese films and theme songs that seem perfectly made for each other, and in some cases actually are — in fact, in two examples, we see how preexisting Japanese pop songs served as the inspiration and source material for full-scale film productions. Raise the volume and push play!
1.“Hitomi o Tojite (Closing Eyes)” by Ken Hirai
Film: Crying Out Love in the Center of the World/世界の中心で、愛をさけぶ
The second-highest grossing Japanese film of 2004 (beaten only by the massive anime hit Howl’s Moving Castle) also delivered that year’s most popular music single in “Hitomi o Tojite (Close Your Eyes).” The story of a marriage-averse young man, Sakutaro, his young love lost to tragedy, and his struggle to accept and move forward with adult love, was an exceedingly fertile narrative for a Japanese love ballad. In tandem, this film and its de-facto theme song are regarded as the starting point for modern Japanese cinema’s “Pure Love” sub-genre. Hitomi o Tojite, Ken Hirai’s 20th single, became his best selling song and a major hit in Japan, crowning domestic charts and becoming an inspiration for multiple covers in Japan and other Asian countries, including Taiwan and South Korea.
Main Cast: Takao Osawa, Ko Shibasaki. Director: Isao Yukisada
2.“One Love” by Arashi
Film: Boys Over Flowers – Final/花より男子 ファイナル
Based on Yoko Kamio’s manga of the same name, Boys Over Flowers – Final was indeed the last statement in a series of filmed works in the Boys Over Flowers canon. The somewhat convoluted narrative, which includes international intrigue and adventure centered around an heirloom tiara, follows the trials and adventures of working class girl Tsukushi’s relationship with and engagement to her upper-class boyfriend. The film’s male lead, Tsukasa, was played by Jun Matsumoto, who is also a member of Japanese pop supergroup Arashi. The group custom-composed “One Love” as the film’s official theme song, and they even performed in accompaniment with a live, in-character performance by the film cast at a promotional press conference.
Main Cast: Mao Inoue, Jun Matsumoto. Director: Yasuharu Ishii
3.“Haruka” by GReeeeN
Film: Rookies Graduation/ROOKIES 卒業
Another manga-based film with an pre-established television legacy, Rookies Graduation tells the underdog, hard-luck redemption story of a group of misfit, ne’er-do-well baseball players and a coach with his own problematic history. The boys eventually pull most of their acts together, coalesce into a proper team, and work toward getting into the high school baseball tournament. Rookies Graduation is textbook Japanese melodrama, which is most effectively delivered with the appropriate J-Pop accompaniment — in this case the very successful yet also critically acclaimed group GReeeeN, along with their theme song “Haruka” and its sibling compositions.
Main Cast: Ryuta Sato, Hayato Ichihara. Director: Yuichiro Hirakawa
4. “Hanamizuki” by Hitoto Yo
Unique thus far on our list, Hanamizuki is actually inspired by its own pre-existing theme song of the same title. “Hanamizuki” the song, first released in 2004, is a widely celebrated ballad of love, loss and longing — all easily lending themselves to the tale of Sae and Kouhei, which begins with young love in Hokkaido, fades somewhat tragically with time and distance, eventually dissolves due to unforeseen tragedy, but is then given a glimmer of hope right at the end. Bluntly, and literally stated, these two pieces of art fit quite perfectly!
Main Cast: Yui Aragaki, Toma Ikuta. Director: Nobuhiro Doi
5.“Rain” by Sekai no Owari
Film: Mary and the Witch’s Flower/メアリと魔女の花
In addition to a soundtrack from highly regarded composer Takatsugu Muramatsu, Mary and the Witch’s Flower features the song “Rain” by Sekai no Owari, a hugely popular rock act famous for the staggering production quality of their live shows. The animated feature, based on Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick, is the simple yet engaging story of a young girl named Mary (voiced by Hana Sugisaki) who finds a mysterious flower that can turn her into a witch, but only for one night. Satoshi Fukase, the lead vocalist and primary artistic force behind Sekai no Owari, was immediately inspired by the film’s imagery and message — the result, a custom-composed anime theme song, remains one of 2017’s top-charting tracks.
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
6.“ZenZenZen-Se” by RADWIMPS
Film: your name./君の名は。
The critically acclaimed your name. also became a huge financial success in 2016/17, earning well over $350 million and quickly ascending to its spot as the number one top-grossing anime of all time. A massive part of the film’s success was the standalone music score and the wildly popular theme song, “ZenZenZen-Se,” composed by rock group RADWIMPS. Amazingly, in just over one year, the song’s official YouTube posting has over 150 million views. RADWIMPS audio stylings turned out to be the perfect soundtrack for this innovative story of friendship, young love, astral projection and body switching, a kind of “spiritual time travel,” and more than anything else, fate.
Director: Makoto Shinkai
7.“Nada Sou Sou(Tears for you)” by Rimi Natsukawa
Film: Tears for You/涙そうそう
Tears for You is another inspired by its own theme song, in this case Rimi Natsukawa’s 2001 hit “Nada Sou Sou.” In the film, an elder brother, Yotaro, and his younger sister, Kaoru, two siblings who actually are not blood related, gradually grow closer and develop a very special familial bond. When tragedy strikes Yotaro after years of supporting Kaoru, she receives a special gift from him and bursts into tears…and fittingly, in Rimi Natsukawa’s native Okinawan dialect, “Nada Sou Sou” means “tears that cannot stop flowing.” The song is still enormously popular in Japan and is one of the most covered tunes of all times.
Main Cast: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Masami Nagasawa. Director: Nobuhiro Doi
It is of course a subjective idea, but some filmmakers say that soundtracks and film sound design are languages in and of themselves, worthy of status nearly equal to that of the words characters actually speak. This seems particularly relevant in the Japanese film industry, and choosing, or, more commonly these days, composing an effective theme song is becoming as important as designing good scenes and writing good dialogue.