Recommended Films to Better Understand Japanese Cultures and Traditions

One of the best of ways (no, maybe THE BEST way) to immerse yourself into the culture, language, and traditions of a nation is to watch their films....

One of the best of ways (no, maybe THE BEST way) to immerse yourself into the culture, language, and traditions of a nation is to watch their films. Why? It is because for the length of the movie, you get to step into the shoes of the characters and see the world through their eyes. Things like a language course or a travel magazine will never tell you – the local dialects, the ugly truths of the society, the hidden splendour that exists in seemingly mundane daily life, these are the things you can come to know by watching movies about a given culture. Today we bring you 5 such Japanese movies that will help you to have a deep understanding of Japanese cultures and traditions. Also, I am quite sure that a simple web search will suggest you titles like Ran, Seven Samurai, Departures, Rashomon, and so on. While these are some of the greatest classical movies in Japanese film history, today I want to steer clear from them and bring you something a little less known – movies that would be a shame to be missed but would not come up in the first page if you were to google for Japanese movies.

Sweet Bean (An) (2015)

Directed by: Naomi Kawase

It takes time to make a good sweet bean sauce – it’s a slow process, requiring years of experience, passion, a great deal of patience and attention to the smallest details; such is the movie Sweet Bean – it moves at a slow pace but the result is sweet, unforgettably and delectably sweet, reminding you to cherish the simple joys of life.

The story:

Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) runs a small Dorayaki (Japanese pancake with sweet bean filling inside) shop. Wakana (Kyara Uchida) is one of a few high school girls who frequent Sentaro’s shop as customers. One day, an elderly woman, Tokue (Kirin Kiki, fun fact: Kirin Kiki is Kyara Uchida’s real-life grandmother) visits Sentaro’s shop and offers to help him make his bean paste filling better. This is how the lives of these three characters become intertwined through the bean paste filling. As the movie progresses, we start to learn more about each of the character’s past, their personal struggles and how their friendship support them through life’s difficulties.

Why it’s on the list:

This movie is a great way to gain insight on a major Japanese philosophy - ‘Ikigai’ (meaning the reason for one’s being). In Japan, a person’s work is his/her ‘Ikigai’,and transcends being just a means to make a living. It is that person’s life’s work, passion, and a way for that person to connect to the others in the society. In the movie, Sentaro, Wakana, and Tokue bonds through the work of perfecting a small shop’s sweet bean paste. The movie shows a whole sequence of the lengthy process of making the sweet bean paste, with beautiful, mouth-watering close-up shots of the bean paste, and Tokue and Sentaro working silently in a small darkly lit kitchen at dawn. During one of these scenes, Tokue is even speaking to the bean paste, as if it has a soul of its own.

 As the movie’s three major characters are of three different generations, it gives the viewers a chance to have a personal look into what its like to live in Japan as an elderly, a high school girl, and a middle-aged man.

In addition, the movie has many beautifully shot scenes show-casing another feature of Japanese culture – ‘change of seasons’. You can see a snippet of this in the movie’s wallpaper, where Tokue, Wakana, and Sentaro stands under a cherry-blossom tree in full bloom.


Notable awards:

  • Best Performance by an Actress award at the 2015 Asia Pacific Screen Awards
  • Opened Un Certain Regard section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival
  • Screened in the Contemporary World Cinema section of the 2015 Toronto Film festival

Peace Nippon (Pîsu Nippon) (2018)

Directed by: Hiroyuki Nakano

With exemplary works such as Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Tsukiji Wonderland, the powerful storytelling and cinematography of Japanese documentary films are globally recognized. Another masterpiece from the genre of Japanese documentary films is Peace Nippon, a film created to showcase the natural wonders of Japan that have not yet been fully discovered. Narrated by two of the most famous Japanese celebrity actors Kyoko Koizumi, and Masahiro Higashide, this film takes the viewers through a breath-taking journey across Japan.

Why it’s on the list:

Peace Nippon is one of the most comprehensive works of art showcasing the beauty of Japan, but at the same time it remains deeply personal. It was shot around more than 200 locations, from all 47 prefectures of Japan over a time period of 8 years. While it has magnificent vistas of the incredible nature of Japan, it also gives equal weight to the daily sceneries from Japanese life such as the usual train station, an ally that leads to one’s school, local street side eatery, old bookshops and so on. The film director was inspired by the urge to ‘leave something for the next generation’ after the Great Tohoku earthquake in 2011. Hence, this film is like a visual letter to the next generation so that the legacy of Japanese beauty continues to live on.


Wood Job! (2014)

Directed by: Shinobu Yaguchi 

Wood Job gives us a fresh look at the rural life in Japan through the eyes of a young city boy, Yuki Hirano (Shota Sometani), who enrolls in a year-long forestry training program, and slowly learns to appreciate the hard-working rural lifestyle and nature in Japanese countryside.

Why it’s on the list:

More often than not, Japan is depicted as a country of sprawling metropolis, neon lights, and busy office workers. This is why, movies like this are so essential - to know the real Japan that exists outside its cities. Watching this movie, even a Japanese person who has grown up in a city might be  surprised at the stark contrast between rural and urban Japan, and the differences in the lifestyle and people of the two. Hirano, the main protagonist, used to put on his headphones, munch on McDonalds and ride trains in his usual city life. However, once he moves to the countryside and starts working as a forestry trainee, he is rolling around in rain and mud, getting his blood sucked by leeches from his bare butt, eating road-kill deer Sashimi, and is listening to his fellow foresters sing an unknown folk song on the back of a big truck. Apart from this excellent depiction of Japanese village life, people, and nature, this movie entertains. Wood Job is genuinely funny – it makes you smile and laugh countless times throughout the movie.

Notable Awards:

  • Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (2014), NETPAC Award, Shinobu Yaguchi
  • Mainichi Film Concours (2015), Best Supporting Actor, Hideaki Itô
  • Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (2014),NETPAC Award, Shinobu Yaguchi


Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi ni Naru) (2013)

Director: Kore-eda Hirokazu

A Cannes entry that summoned a ten-minute standing ovation from the audience on its first screening, this movie is a must-watch for anyone who loves a moving family drama. Like Kore-eda’s other critically acclaimed films(Nobody knows, Shoplifters, Still Walking), this film focuses on family relationships, a poetic and close look at each character, and tells a sublimely moving story.

The story involves two families – one rich, and another poor, who has their sons switched at birth, only to find out about it when the sons are 6 years old (the age they start going to elementary school). They are faced with the question of whether to take back their biological son or to keep things as they are, putting everything they hold dear to a test.

Why its on the list:

This movie allows us an incredibly intimate look into two types of families that exist in Japan at large – the rich and the poor. On one hand we have the highly affluent, elite family headed by Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama), who is a successful architect but is detached as a father, paying more attention to his work than to his family. On the other hand, we have a poor, marginalized family, living in a clattered house; the father is Yudai Saiki (Lily Franky), a small store owner, who although does not earn much, spends ample time with his family. One the two families come to know about the switch, they meet each other, and here we get to see many aspects of the family life and its nuances in Japan, such as parent-child interaction, the differences in parenting styles in due to differences in socioeconomic backgrounds, what makes a quality family time, depiction of bath-,bed-,and dinner time in each of the families, and so on. Along with the four parents and the two sons, we also get to reflect and ponder on what it means to be a parent, and what really is the foundation of bonds in a family.


Notable Awards:

  • Jury Prize Winner Cannes Film Festival 2013
  • Best Film and Best Director at Asia Pacific Film Festival 2013
  • NETPAC Best Director Award at Asian Film Critics Association Awards 2014
  • Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress at Awards of the Japanese Academy 2014


The Last Recipe: Memory of Giraffe's Tongue (2017)

Director: Yojiro Takita

It is impossible to understand Japan without understanding its food culture. Hence our last entry on the list is this powerful movie, packed with incredible shots of Japanese food, the way they are cooked, and the emotional connection Japanese people have with cuisine. Although at the heart of this film is Japanese food and cooking, it explores many other themes such as love, friendship, history (Japan occupied Manchurian State), politics, mystery, and so on.

Mitsuru Sasaki (Kazunari Ninomiya) once used to be a world-famous chef, but he goes into debt after losing his restaurant business due to his uncompromising behavior and inability to trust anyone other than himself. He is now repaying his debt by charging obscene fees for cooking the ‘last dish’ for rich people. One day, he receives a mission from a Chinese chef Yoshi Oida (QinMing Yang) who asks him to find a book of recipe called ‘The Last Recipe’ which was created in the Manchurian State during the 1930s by a Japanese legendary chef Naotaro Yamagata (Hidetoshi Nishijima). Sasaki accepts this task for the money, but as he meets different chefs trying to solve the mystery of the last recipe, he starts to reflect on his own behavior and relationships,and what it means to make people smile with one’s cooking.

Why its on the list:

This movie is a buffet of Japanese culinary traditions. It has splendid and elaborate shots of not only modern and everyday Japanese food, but also of the foundations of Japanese cooking – traditional methods of broth making, the attention paid to miniscule details, and use of seasonal ingredients. In addition, it has a good story, powerful emotions, and depiction of what it means to be a serious artisanal craftsman in the Japanese society. One word of advice though, don’t watch this when you’re hungry!