Back when I was in Japanese class in the US, we were allowed to watch movies on Fridays after our oral exams. I discovered some interesting Japanese TV series (Kekkon Dekinai Otoko), a new favorite actor (Abe Hiroshi … be still my heart 😛 ) and it motivated those of us in class to seek out some of the English language offerings set in Japan or focused on Japan. Below are a few of my favorites. What are yours?
1. Lost in Translation (2003) – Who HASN’T seen this brooding, semi-love story about an American businessman and a young American woman staying at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo. The movie is slow, in a way, and short on plot. It’s high on nuance though and the first time I watched it, I remember exclaiming out loud, ‘That’s SO IT!” Sofia Coppola somehow manages to hit the nail squarely on the head with a script that expresses her characters’ boredom, bafflement, confusion and cultural fascination with Japan. The emotions I felt watching this film were EXACTLY how I felt on my first trip to Japan in my teens. It was almost uncomfortable to be transported back to such feelings of uncertainty, trying to “soak up the experience” while simultaneously counting the minutes until I could return to the familiar. And of course, there are some great shots of Tokyo here, like the Shibuya crossing
2. Mr Baseball (1992) – I was totally prepared to write this movie off as the laughable “foreigner goes to Japan and makes all the cultural faux pas he can” film but it turned out to be a step above that. Tom Selleck is a likable leading man, no matter his age, and he plays “fish out of water” quite well but not patronizingly so. It’s a comedy so naturally, you’ll laugh over his misunderstandings, but by the end of the film, you’ll applaud his newly acquired cultural wherewithal and his desire to want to stay in Japan.
3. The Last Samurai (2003) – This is a controversial add to the list. Tom Cruise is not everyone’s favorite actor and it’s hard to tell a historical tale with moral ambiguity, so the filmmaker clearly picks a side. This film focuses on the perspective of the samurai, tending to demonize the Meiji forces who were opposing them in the conflict over Japan’s future in the late 1800s. The truth is more complicated than that, of course. But where this film excels is in its portrayal of the typical life of a samurai in his village. If nothing else, I hope this movie makes you curious about the larger historical context. Saigo Takamori, on whom Ken Watanabe’s character is based, is an intriguing personality in his own right, as are many of the players in the Meiji Restoration. The transition from feudal, shogun-ruled state to modern albeit-Emperor-led nation is a fascinating, if occasionally bloody, period and hopefully this film will make you interested to know more.
4. The Wolverine (2013) – Debate all you want about the plot of one of the most recent films in the X-Men franchise, I myself was thrilled to recognize so many places in the movie where I had personally set foot. Logan (aka Wolverine) visits the Zojoji Temple (with the Tokyo Tower looming in the background), the JR Ueno station where he boards a bullet train and – arguably one of the most unique buildings in Tokyo – the capsule hotel Nakagin in Ginza (though the film pretends it’s in Hiroshima). The fishing village of Tomo-no-ura on the Inland Sea Coast, still high on my list of sites to visit, doubles as a village outside Nagasaki. It’s an action movie, meaning some people will like it and others will bemoan the lack of cultural authenticity. That’s fine. But with so foreign few films actually shot in Japan these days, it was really nice to see all of these familiar sights on the big screen.
5. Shall We Dance (1996) – Alright, I’m stretching it a bit here with a Japanese language addition to the list, but I actually loved this film. It’s the story of a Japanese salaryman who takes the bold step to break out of the rut his life has fallen into by signing for ballroom dancing lessons. In a culture like Japan that has certain expectations of gender roles and work/life balance (or lack thereof, in many cases), it’s not often you find people breaking out of the accepted stereotypes and the actor playing the main role in Shall We Dance gives an excellent, nuanced performance as he struggles to reconcile his new-found passion for ballroom dancing with the expectations of Japanese society. Yes, Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez remade this same story, but the Japanese original is by far the best.