For a relatively small island-nation, Japan’s impact on the world is impressively oversized. Sushi and sake are popular staples in cities across the globe. Japanese innovation in technology informs the way we communicate, travel, shop, and even chart the stars. And from a cultural standpoint, Japanese influence can be found from fashion to film, and everything in between! Before you head out on your trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, check out these ten films that will not only whet your appetite, but also expand your understanding of this fascinating culture.
Spirited Away (2001)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli
You’ve probably heard of the Academy Award-winning animated film Spirited Away, but did you know that when the film was theatrically released in 2001 it became the most successful film in Japanese history? Anime (Japanese animation) is so prominent in the country that hundreds of thousands of people gather each year for festivals surrounding the characters, art, and stories.
Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl who wanders into a magical world ruled by witches and spirits, and where humans obsessed with worldly greed are transformed into beasts. The film is infused with a variety charming lessons steeped in traditional Japanese folklore. More importantly, Studio Ghibli films are well-known for depicting daily life in Japan in great detail—especially the often overlooked, quiet moments such as pouring tea, making offerings, or lighting incense. In one such moment, Chihiro sheds tears of relief having found joy in a gift of rice balls from a new friend.
If you’re in Tokyo, consider stopping by the Studio Ghibli Museum during some down time to get an insider look at all of the wonderful films made by this award-winning animation studio!
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
Directed by David Gelb
Directed by American documentary filmmaker David Gelb, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is more than just a tale of fish and rice. The short film follows the story of 85-year-old Jiro Ono, considered by his contemporaries to be the world’s greatest sushi chef. In 1965 he opened a small, 10 seat-restaurant called Sukiayabashi Jiro in a Tokyo subway station that has, despite its humble appearance, earned 3 Michelin Stars! Set to a soundtrack of Philip Glass, the film serenely profiles Ono and his two sons who are also sushi chefs.
Today, foodies from all over the globe make pilgrimages to the eatery, reserving months in advance, and paying big bucks for a coveted seat at the famed sushi bar. Guests are served a 20-course omakase (chef’s choice) menu which costs around 30,000 Japanese yen—about $300 USD.
You’re sure to have sushi on any trip to Japan and having watched this thoughtful and contemplative work helps bring the experience to a whole new level as you indulge in this ancient and simple tradition.
The Birth of Sake (2015)
Directed by Erik Shirai
The Birth of Sake explores another quintessential Japanese tradition—the art of making Japanese rice wine, or sake. In today’s modern, automated world this reflective documentary dives deep into the 2000 year-old techniques required to brew the national beverage. The story unfolds at the Yoshida Brewery and follows an eclectic cast of expert brewers who must brave a brutal winter, living and working at the Brewery together for six months at a time in Northern Japan.
Creating the national beverage is an often secretive process. So secretive in fact, that the film’s crew had to undergo an extensive approval process to be permitted to film at the story’s central location!
Today, sake is typically served from a ceramic flask, known as a tokkuri, with smaller drinking cups called ochoko. While it is still associated with formal celebrations, weddings, and ceremonies, it is more popularly enjoyed with izakaya (small plates) and often accompanies full meals in Western restaurants.
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Godzilla (or Gojira in Japanese) may be the country’s most iconic film, and for good reason. Versions of “the giant beast wreaking havoc on the city below” have graced our screens since the original was released in 1954, including 2014’s reincarnation directed by Gareth Edwards.
But a deeper dive makes clear why this film has such lasting power. When it was released in 1954, it was a time of anxiety and uncertainty for the Japanese, who were living with the ramifications of nuclear war. To the original audience the film’s scenes of death, destruction, over-crowded hospitals, and radiation poison seemed all too real as atomic bombs had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than ten years prior.
In the film, Godzilla’s underwater home is impacted by weapons testing which sends the beast on a rampage through the city—fueled by angst and anger. The film is considered a metaphor for a tumultuous and fearful time at the end of World War II.
While the spirit of Godzilla has evolved over time and subsequent versions of the film have changed and morphed, watching the original film before a trip to Japan will give you an opportunity to explore one of the country’s most pivotal and emotional moments in recent history.
Seven Samurai (1954)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
If Godzilla is Japan’s most iconic film, then Akira Kurosawa is the nation’s most iconic filmmaker. Throughout his 57-year career he directed more than 30 films, becoming one of the most influential directors in the entire world. And in 1990 he accepted the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Considered a groundbreaking work, Seven Samurai tells the story of a small farming village that hires seven ronin (masterless samurai) to protect them from bandits who have threatened to steal their crops at harvest. Set in 1586, the film offers a fascinating glimpse of the Sengoku Period of Japanese history from feudal social structures to cultural norms.
Film scholars consider Seven Samurai one of the first films to use a plot device that revolves around a group of heroes assembled to protect innocent people or accomplish a task. In 1960, American director John Sturges remade the film as The Magnificent Seven, set in the Wild West, citing Kurosawa’s masterpiece as his inspiration.
Sit down for an afternoon to watch this classic before you head off on your trip to Japan and walk away with a better understanding of ancient Japanese social structure—and how modern filmmakers influence works for generations that follow!
Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo
The only other animated film to make our list of “must see” films is Akira, a groundbreaking film that has had major influential ripples since its release in 1988. The story, similar to Godzilla, illustrates and explores a world impacted by war. Set in Neo Tokyo (interestingly, the Tokyo of 2019), the film’s protagonists—two teenagers and a group of psychics—band together to save the city from a dangerous biker gang.
Before the release of Akira, anime was a fringe-interest in the English-speaking world—like Japanese food, language, art, and more—that felt particularly foreign. The film is credited with building a bridge to western audiences, forging a mainstream presence for anime films.
When watching Akira pay close attention to the stunning cityscapes. Artists hand drew more than 160,000 cels (and nearly as many backdrops) and much of the film takes place at night (which most animators shy away from due to the difficulty of creating nuance in the darkness). The artists went to great lengths to illustrate the futuristic and neon Tokyo.
Directed by Yōjirō Takita
Japanese culture is one of strong traditions. When professional cellist Daigo abruptly loses his job as his orchestra disbands, he and his wife are forced to move back to their sleepy hometown in Northern Japan. He answers an ad for a job in “departures” and applies, assuming it’s a position in travel. He soon discovers the mistyped ad was in fact a job preparing “the departed” and takes the job as a nokanshi, or someone who prepares the body for the coffin or cremation.
Today, 99.8% of Japan’s deceased are cremated. Logic would dictate then that the process of preparing the dead for their final destination would be minimal. But in fact a nokan ritual involves carefully and reverently preparing the body with loved ones gathered by. Despite the importance of these old and revered ceremonies, those who work with the dead are often looked down upon. In feudal Japan, nokanshi were considered untouchables and forced to live in isolated areas. In the film, Daigo’s wife must overcome her feelings about his new job and what their friends and family will think. Even the film’s director, Yojiro Takita, was concerned about how the film would be received given the taboo topic.
An unexpected winner of “Best Foreign Language Film” at the 81st Academy Awards ceremony, Departures is a fascinating glimpse at the social taboos surrounding death and the dead, juxtaposed with the quiet and peaceful funerary practices in Japan.
Lost in Translation (2003)
Directed by Sofia Coppola
To the Western visitor, the Land of the Rising Sun can be quite the culture shock. In Lost in Translation, this concept is beautifully illustrated as two American visitors (Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson) explore Tokyo. The two, who had never met before, share a series of fascinating experiences as they set off together. Despite being filmed from the perspective of outsiders, it’s a beautiful and silly story about adapting to the unique and sometimes shocking cultural differences when visiting a place where you don’t know the language or customs.
Directed by Sofia Coppola—who won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay—Lost in Translation’s quiet and beautiful cinematography will have you falling in love with the striking setting. And the silly scenarios about mixed up translations are a caution to adventurers to always travel with a sense of humor!
Tokyo Story (1953)
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
Widely considered one of the greatest films ever made, Tokyo Story’s style and minimalist pacing helps to illustrate the traditional Japanese family and how it evolved after World War II. The 1953 film tells the story of retired parents Shukichi and Tomi who travel to the big city to visit their children and are faced with changing times and the inevitability of children who drift away from their parents.
Tokyo Story is considered the quintessential Japanese film. From its subtle cinematic structure to the overarching themes of family and tradition. It is admired for its ability to evoke strong emotions through quiet scenes and scant dialogue and as TIME Magazine wrote, it “patiently, wisely explores the generational and universal tensions between the generations.”
Add this movie to your pre-trip marathon and not only will you get a glimpse at traditional Japanese family values but you might find yourself drawing parallels between the universal themes presented and your very own life and culture.
Directed by Juzo Itami.
A lighthearted story of a national classic, Tampopo will have you laughing AND hungry by the time you finish! The story revolves around Goro, a truck driver who stops at a small ramen shop only to discover the noodles are not that great. He decides to help the proprietor, Tampopo, and her new business by helping her discover the secret to making amazing ramen.
Ramen is considered one of the most iconic Japanese dishes and is made of Chinese-style wheat noodles, meat broth and a variety of toppings including pork, seaweed, onions and more. It is said there is a different variety of ramen for almost every region in Japan! Complete with (seemingly random!) comical vignettes, the film really hammers home the importance of love and food in Japanese culture. After watching Tampopo, if nothing else, you’ll want to eat ramen every day you’re visiting this wonderful country!
Inspired? Plan a movie marathon and then visit this unforgettable country on one of our small group tours to Japan!