Japan has hundreds of unique traditions that have captured filmmakers and the general population across the world for decades. While movies are, of course, not a true-to-life adaptation, nor can they give a comprehensive idea of what a country is like - they're still one of the closest things we have to experience life in another dimension. If you are planning on visiting Japan anytime soon, here's a list of movies covering different aspects of the country that might help you understand them better.
My Neighbour Totoro, 1988
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki and released under Studio Ghibli, My Neighbor Totoro scarcely needs any introduction. It is the tale of two girls, living with their father in a rural home. Among their many adventures, they meet the King of the Forest - a giant, fuzzy creature named Totoro. The movie has so many elements in every scene, it is virtually impossible to look away! It has great depictions of the Japanese countryside, their traditional homes, and also whimsical elements like the Catbus. The movie went on to become a cultural icon and received worldwide recognition. If you are looking for a fast-paced film or something with an intricate plot - this is the wrong place. However, My Neighbor, Totoro is a wonderful film for those looking to relax, unwind and explore a quiet story without anxiety-invoking elements.
Tokyo Idols, 1997
The idol industry in Japan is worth billions. The glamourous videos and idols have attracted following all across the globe. While many might enjoy watching AKB48 perform, everything from their selection to training to their public image is highly curated and monitored. Tokyo Idols explores the cultural phenomenon of J-Pop. It is in documentary format and follows the story of Rio, a 19-year-old trying to gain footing in the industry. At 19, she is already a few years too old! Japan currently has over 10,000 idols and Rio is just one among them. Director Kyoko Miyake explores everything - from obsessive fans to over-sexualisation, totalitarian regime-like monitoring to the extreme difference between fascination and reality. Tokyo Idols is only of my absolute favourite movies since it explores that bubblegum pop may not be bright on the other side. The industry has found a way to capitalise on music, and it does not look like it will stop anytime soon.
Japanese society is hard on those who fail to succeed. Shoplifters is the tale of a family that struggles to survive in a tiny house that barely has enough space to move around. Of course, the family occasionally engages in shoplifting to make ends meet, but that does not mean they are bad people. They take in a girl who is abandoned and shows signs of abuse. They don't rat out on one another when arrests happen. Shoplifters is an extremely slow, but engaging tale. Actual plot movement does not happen until almost halfway through and running at 121 minutes, it is a tad too long to watch if you are not in the right mood. But it is a great exploration of how underneath the glittering lights of Tokyo are entire families who survive on a day-to-day basis.
Your Name, 2016
Directed by Makoto Shinkai, who also directed 5 Centimeters per Second and more recently, Weathering With You, Your Name is an animated film that transcends time. The movie deals with two teenagers, living in rural Japan and in Tokyo respectively. Due to some strange twist of fate, the two occasionally end up switching bodies. But Your Name has several other cards up its sleeve and the brilliant animation alone should be enough to convince you to watch this film. The film was hugely successful in the domestic and foreign theatres and is certainly a must-watch for anyone who wants to explore the Japanese countryside someday. The best part is almost all locales in the movie are modelled after real-life places in Japan, including the huge meteor crater and the staircase where the characters brush past.
Seven Samurai, 1954
With movies like Rashomon and Red Beard under his belt, Akira Kurosawa is no new name to a movie buff. If there is one thing that everyone associates with Japan, it is samurais. And Akira Kurosawa was a master of their movies! The story deals with a village that hires samurai to save them from the impending attack of bandits. Over time, the samurais and the farmers form a bond with the former teaching the latter how to defend their homes. At the time of its making, Seven Samurai was the most expensive film made in Japan and Kurosawa faced various difficulties in its completion. The delayed-release generated a lot of discussions which helped with the initial reception as well. In several ways, Seven Samurai is also a complex study of sixteenth-century Japan and the power dynamics that existed between farmers and bandits who often pillaged their villages. This caused the farmers to develop violent tendencies as well to be able to fend for themselves. Thus, one situation created another and the end result was the loss of lives.
Know more movies that should be on the list? Let us know in the comments!