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5 Japanese Films to Put You in the Oscars Mood

Have a personal Academy screening at home with these awards-worthy drama features from Japan.

By 9 min read

Japan has two major motion pictures nominated for Academy Awards in 2019. When the Oscars ceremony broadcasts live in the U.S. on Sunday, February 26, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters and Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai will be competing for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Animated Feature Film, respectively.

Both movies will face some stiff competition in their categories. Shoplifters is going up against Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, which is nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film and is currently streaming on Netflix Japan. Mirai is going up against the widely acclaimed Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which finally hits theaters in Japan on Friday, March 8.

Being a movie lover in Japan sometimes means waiting many extra months to see Hollywood films. Conversely, if you’re a cinephile, this is the time of year when you might be shifting into drama mode, looking to catch up on buzzed-about films as they gain recognition on the awards circuit. Prized trophy ceremonies like the Oscars do tend to favor more straight-laced dramas over genre films.

With this list, we’ll take a look at five Japanese movies (including the two already mentioned) that have received awards recognition or other important distinctions internationally. Unless otherwise noted, all of these films should be available via one or more home media outlets like Tsutaya, Amazon, or iTunes.

1. Shoplifters (2018)

Shoplifters ©2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/GAGA CORPORATION/AOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Even before Shoplifters received its Oscar nomination, it had already garnered significant accolades abroad. The movie’s long awards march began when it premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it took home its highest honor — the Palme d’Or, or Golden Palm, trophy. In the 2019 Japan Academy Prize competition (or Japanese Academy Awards), the film is also nominated for Picture of the Year. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s previous film, The Third Murder, won the same award in 2018.

Like many homegrown Japanese dramas, Shoplifters plays into the importance of family in Japanese culture, but it does so in a unique way, upending the foundations of the traditional and making us empathize with a different kind of family on the fringe of society. Lily Franky and Sakura Ando play Osamu and Nobuyo Shibata, the surrogate father and mother of a family of outcasts drawn together into a life of poverty and petty crime.

A sort of modern-day Fagin and Oliver Twist, Osamu and his would-be son, Shota, conduct their two-man shoplifting operation by means of strategic body-blocking and hand signals. Soon they recruit Yuri, an abused and neglected little girl, into the fold. The conventional wisdom is that you can’t choose your family; Shoplifters is predicated on the idea that even under abhorrent circumstances, some ties run deeper than blood.

This was one of the last films Kiki Kirin (who plays the grandmother) made before she passed away in 2018. Shoplifters is already available on Amazon Prime here in Japan and will hit Tsutaya for rental on April 3. Weirdly enough (or perhaps because of the Oscar nomination), it will be available on the U.S. iTunes Store sooner. So if you have access to that store, you can get it there starting Feb. 12, 2019.

2. Mirai (2018)

Mirai produced by Studio Chizu, distributed Toho Co., Ltd.

Together with Makoto Shinkai — the director of romance anime blockbuster Your Name — Mamoru Hosoda is one of those Japanese filmmakers that the Western media often likens to “the next Hayao Miyazaki.” While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences snubbed Your Name for an Oscar nomination in 2018, it has at least done right by Hosoda and his new film in 2019. Mirai holds the distinction of being the first movie not produced by Studio Ghibli to come away with a Best Animated Feature Film nomination.

The movie centers on a four-year-old boy named Kun who becomes jealous of all the attention his parents lavish on his new little sister. Mirai takes its title from the Japanese word for “future” and the name Kun’s parents choose for their baby girl. The setting is the city of Yokohama, which is famous for its “port of the future,” Minato Mirai.

Prone to throwing temper tantrums, Kun frequently runs off to his house’s garden, which happens to function as a gateway for time travel. Glimpsing the past and future, he encounters a series of revelations about his own family, which serve to enlighten how his selfish life in the present factors into a greater overarching history. Along the way, Mirai manages to work in oddities like a pet dog that can transform into a man and an old Japanese superstition regarding the need to put away dolls after Hinamatsuri, the Girls’ Doll Festival.

Hosoda’s previous film, The Boy and the Beast, brought a new level of global awareness to his directorial work in the anime genre. In the midst of an anthropomorphic fantasy where the busy back alleys of Shibuya led to a beast world called Jutengai, that movie succeeded in making a moving statement about a father becoming “the sword” in his son’s heart. Pulling back the veil on moments in time we can’t normally see, Mirai, too, is concerned with how family legacy deeply informs one generation to the next.

3. Departures (2008)

Departures image courtesy of Regent Releasing / Here Media.

Though a number of Japanese movies had secured a nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar prior to 2008, Departures was the first in history to win. This helped the film double its domestic box office intake and find more of an audience in its home country, whereas before some Japanese moviegoers might have been hesitant to embrace it due to cultural taboos.

The subject matter deals with death: specifically, the funeral process. Masahiro Motoki plays Daigo, a cellist who loses his seat in a Tokyo orchestra and has to move back to his hometown of Yamagata. Responding to a vague job ad in the local newspaper, Daigo soon finds himself plunged into the world of the nokanshi, ritual morticians who perform the cleaning and casketing of bodies in rural areas. While no longer common in Japan, this tradition — as depicted in the movie — is often carried out in front of families kneeling in the seiza position on tatami mats in their homes.

Diffusing tension with humor, Departures serves up an unlikely cocktail of corpses, comedy and classical music. It’s the kind of movie that will intersperse sentimental family goodbyes at funerals with a man playing cello on a stool in the grass against a backdrop of snowy mountains. If the music starts to remind you of a Hayao Miyazaki movie, there may be a reason for that: frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi composed the film’s soundtrack.

As Daigo overcomes prejudice from the social stigma surrounding his new profession, he unexpectedly learns the art of living by acting as a gatekeeper for the dead. The encoffinment procedure manifests its own grace and beauty, like a Japanese tea ceremony that just so happens to involve dead people. Think of Departures as an idiosyncratic Japanese version of the HBO series Six Feet Under.

4. Hana-Bi (1997)

Hana-Bi produced by Office Kitano, distributed by Nippon Herald Films.

Hana-Bi was a notable omission from the mentions in the Takeshi Kitano section of our feature on 5 Innovative Genre Filmmakers from Japan. This film won the prestigious Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival (the world’s oldest film festival and one of the “Big Three” along with Cannes and Berlin). In an interview with The A.V. Club, Kitano pointed to that international award as a major turning point in his career. Prior to that, he said that audiences in Japan regarded his feature-film work as “a comedian superstar’s hobby” and not the work of a serious movie director.

Elliptical and languidly paced, what sets Hana-Bi apart from other Kitano crime dramas is its enigmatic structure, which blurs the line between past and present. Here again — as in his first film, Violent Cop — Kitano plays a police detective who goes off the rails and starts taking the law into his own hands. His character, Nishi, is the kind of silent brute who smokes in his wife’s hospital room (even though she has leukemia), wears sunglasses at night, and generally seems borderline catatonic until he comes alive in bursts of violence.

With returning actors and callbacks to baseball and gunshots on the beach, Hana-Bi almost plays like a greatest-hits summation of Kitano’s early ’90s yakuza films. Hanabi, the Japanese word for fireworks, translates more literally as “fire flowers,” and the film does unfold like something of a fiery flashback flower.

Flower imagery also appears in-scene in the form of Kitano’s own pointillist paintings, created after a motorscooter accident in the mid-90s left him partially paralyzed on one side of his face. In the movie, the paintings are the work of Nishi’s wheelchair-bound cop partner, played by the late Ren Osugi.

5. Tokyo Story (1953)

Tokyo Story produced by Shochiku Company Limited, distributed by Janus Films.

Few old movies can claim to be greater than the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Citizen Kane, but Tokyo Story at least has the votes behind it. Every 10 years, the British Film Institute conducts an international poll to determine how the movie canon has shifted in terms of what’s regarded as “best.” It’s often considered the most important poll of its kind. For the most recent edition in 2012, the directors of the world voted Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story the greatest motion picture of all time.

Ozu’s masterpiece came at a time when Japanese cinema had just begun to spread to the West. The legendary Akira Kurosawa had gained early recognition for his film Rashomon in 1950, but Seven Samurai and Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla were still a year off. In the meantime, distributors deemed Tokyo Story “too Japanese.” Only in subsequent decades would it come to be seen more outside Japan and regarded as such a towering cinematic achievement.

Outwardly a simple, slice-of-life family drama, the movie charts the journey of a retired couple to and from Japan’s capital, where they visit their busy children. Often, the camera takes on a first-person perspective so that faces are looking at the lens and almost speaking to the viewer. In this way — even though it’s slow-paced by today’s standards —Tokyo Story manages to be involving, stirring up feelings toward its characters.

The kind grandparents, the bratty grandson, the selfish hairdresser daughter, the widowed but caring daughter-in-law: all of these feel like people you would meet in real life. That’s the film’s enduring power. Observant and human, it elides big theatrical moments in a favor of a quiet, quotidian rhythm that feels truer to life.

What titles have we left out? Are there any awards-friendly Japanese movies that you think deserve more recognition? Share your recommendations in the comments!

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