Those with an interest in Japanese cinema will know that the repertoire is vast and that one can easily get lost with so many titles to choose from. There are of course classic films that stood the test of time, both among Japanese and foreign cinephiles: Battle Royale, Departures and Spirited Away all represent the variety and ability of Japanese storytelling. Inevitably though, great contenders get lost in the waves. Here are five Japanese films that deserve more recognition.
In This Corner of the World
Released in 2016, In This Corner of the World is a film about the way of life that was lost when the first nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. This 2-hour movie directed by Sunao Katabuchi tells the story of Suzu, a newlywed young woman who lives in a small town near Hiroshima during World War II. The horrific events are contrasted by the softness of watercolor animation. From her struggles as a modern woman in Japan to her memories from events prior to the bombing, this story is one that applies to every resident in Japan; the potential, hope and liveliness that was left behind in 1945.
Brought to the big screen by Hideaki Anno, the mind behind Neon Genesis Evangelion and Shin Godzilla, the 2000 art-house film Shiki-jitsu is the live-action adaptation of Ayako Fujitani’s debut novel. Fujitani plays the main character, a young woman with an urge for suicide who becomes the love interest of a movie director in search for inspiration. It’s a story about mental health in the darkest but beautiful way, blurring the lines between reality and delusion. Fans of Anno’s animation works will notice his signature techniques. The lighting, color stories and composition are those typically seen in anime, giving this movie an eerie feel with stunning visuals in addition to a great soundtrack.
While Mirai no Mirai stole the hearts of the Academy Award judges if only for a nomination, Penguin Highway stole ours with a pure and wholesome coming-of-age story. Follow the summer adventure of Aoyama, a curious 10-year-old boy counting his days to adulthood. When a herd of penguins appear suddenly on a hot, summer morning, he sets off on a quest to discover and understand where they come from. This science-fiction/magic realist film released in 2018 is entertaining until the last scene. While the story does focus on finding the mysterious origin of the penguins, it’s more about these children going above and beyond to understand the curious phenomenon.
100 Yen Love
Shoplifters actress Sakura Ando stars in this 2014 film as Ichiko Saito, an unemployed 32-year-old woman living with her parents. Her life changes when her divorced sister moves in with her son and Ichiko is forced to move out and find a job at a 100-yen store nearby. She meets and falls in love with boxer Yuju Kano, who occasionally stops by the shop to buy bananas. While her relationship will bring her more pain than happiness, Ichiko finds a new lease on life through boxing. This movie will leave you inspired and ready to conquer anything.
Refugee in Tokyo
Refugee in Tokyo sheds a light on the capital’s darkest sides: the struggle for financial security and the endless strive for a comfortable life. In this 2014 film Osamu Tokieda loses touch with his father and is unable to pay his college tuition or living expenses. He is forced to live among the yakuza and the homeless. The twist: Osamu isn’t as innocent as you might think. The film doesn’t explore how he learns to improve his lot in life, but rather how he learns to survive in the Tokyo underworld.