Oi Polloi

Films and Things: Japan

Published: Wed Mar 27 2019

We’ve rattled on about attention to detail a thousand times in regards to our favourite Japanese brands - but this trait isn’t just restricted to fancy clothes - Japanese films follow a similar vein. Seeing as our first Beams Plus delivery of the year has just landed - now seemed like an alright time to take a look at a few.

Here’s some pivotal slices of Nihon cinema courtesy of our resident film critic Harry Longstaff…

Over the course of history, some mint films have come from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Unfortunately, in recent years these cinematic nuggets of gold have been somewhat overlooked in favour of Japan's seemingly-endless stream of daft animated exports adored by the many Doritos-scented basement-dwellers of the West.

So, to balance things out a bit, here's five celluloid-based gems from Japan that should help you swerve all the nonsense out there...


First up, here's Yasujirō Ozu's melancholy masterpiece Tokyo Story.

Tokyo Story is the... er... story of an ageing couple who travel to visit their grown children in bustling, postwar Tokyo. However, their kids seem more preoccupied with themselves and view their parents' visit as a burden, so it falls on their kindly, widowed daughter-in-law to keep the elderly couple company. 

After the American occupation following the Second World War, Japan's film industry flourished thanks to a fresh roster of directors tackling the diverse and difficult issues Japan was facing at the time. One such director was Mr. Ozu, who, while getting his start in the silent-era, really came into his own in the 50s, by directing profound, beautiful and bittersweet Shomin-geki films.

For those without a PhD in film history, Shomin-geki films were realist movies that focussed on the everyday hardships and lives of ordinary people. And while most of these tended toward the melodramatic side of the filmic spectrum, Ozu really hit the nail on the head with Tokyo Story by keenly observing how modernity, brought over by the Americans, was affecting Japan's traditions and attitudes.

For those of you who're into the idea of getting emotional over other people's problems, I'd recommend doing a deep-dive into Ozu’s entire filmography, starting with his 1949 film Late Spring.


We can't have a list about Japanese films without featuring a samurai film, can we? With that in mind, here's Yojimbo, one of Akira Kurosawa's finest films about geezers hacking at each other with swords.

Yojimbo tells the tale of a nameless rōnin who finds a run-down village besieged by two crime lords vying for supremacy. As the baddies each try to hire the master swordsman as a bodyguard, he conspires to bring them both down, and save the hapless townsfolk from certain death.

After the Second World War, samurai movies (or Chanbara films to give them their fancy Japanese title) were Japan's biggest cinematic export. However, these differed massively from the samurai films pre-WWII.

"One of Akira Kurosawa's finest films about geezers hacking at each other with swords"

Rather than focusing on the drama and honour and all that other boring stuff, the later samurai epics (championed by Kurosawa) became far more action-based, and tended to portray psychologically tormented sword-slingers, stylising and exaggerating the brutal death and non-stop violence missing from the earlier, softer samurai films.

If that sounds like your proverbial cup of green tea, it might be worth having a ganders at Kurosawa's Sanjuro (1962), Seven Samurai (1954), and Rashomon (1950), or the Lone Wolf and Cub series.


Next up, we're taking a hard-left turn into the mind-meltingly mad world of Nobuhiko Obayashi's House.

House is the completely bonkers story of schoolgirl Gorgeous, who travels to her aunt's country home with her six schoolmates to spend the summer. However, instead of whittling away the hours relaxing in the sunshine, the girls are tormented by supernatural events and shonky feline spectres, as the house attempts to devour them.

While on paper all this nuttery seems like craziness for craziness' sake, there's actually a dark allegory lying just beneath the candy-coloured surface.

While the studio envisioned House as a naff, Eastern rip-off of Jaws, the director, Nobuhiko Obyashi, who got his start making avant-garde films during the Japanese New Wave, incorporated the atomic bombings of Hiroshima into his script. Obayashi himself was born in Hiroshima, and witnessed the destruction first-hand.

This trauma fed directly into House, most notably the plot element about a woman's ghost (presumably killed in the Hiroshima bombings) turning into an evil spirit after waiting for her lover's return from World War II, and seeking vengeance on all those she thinks got off scot-free.

Those seeking more top-notch J-Horror madness, I recommend watching Audition (1999) and Kwaidan (1965), and for those interested in diving into the wild world of the Japanese New Wave, give Pigs and Battleships (1961) and Branded to Kill (1967) a ganders.


This one needs no introduction. Your weird cousin probably has a poster of this plastered on their wall, and your self-serious 'cinema guy' mate might have yelled at you for mistaking it for a children's film – it's Hayao Miyazaki's animated masterpiece Princess Mononoke.

Set in an fantasy version of Japan's Muromachi period, Princess Mononoke follows a banished prince who becomes involved in a struggle between the gods of a forest and the inhabitants of an industrial town which recklessly consumes the forests' resources.

For categorisation purposes, this is probably best referred to as a 'family film', but it's often credited with showing Western audiences the 'adult' possibilities of animation.

Of course, the West had 'adult' animation before Miyazaki brought over Princess Mononoke, like Heavy Metal (1981) and Fritz the Cat (1972), but, for the most part, this was the first animated film seen by Western audiences which earned its 'adult' kudos by tackling tough subjects like environmentalism, disability and the exploitation of workers, rather than by spending its runtime with a spliff-smoking cartoon cat lusting after other cartoon cats.

Thanks to this wise and mature sensibility, animated cinema finally began to be taken seriously by snooty film critic types, rather than being disregarded as a colourful time-wasting activity for hyperactive children.

For more mature animated films, it's probably worth going on a Studio Ghibli binge, starting with Miyazaki's Spirited Away (2001), and Isao Takahata's WWII weepy Grave of the Fireflies (1988). If you're seeking something even darker, might be worth checking out Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue (1997) as well.


Our final stop on this hastily cobbled-together tour of Japan's cinematic output is Hirokazu Kore-eda's profound, heart-wrenching Shoplifters.

This film concerns itself with a non-biological family that's forced to rely on shoplifting to cope with a life of poverty.

In the opinion of this humble writer, Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of the finest filmmakers working today. His films are what I imagine you'd get if you blended together the socially-conscious preoccupations of someone like Ken Loach with the observant familial sensibilities of Yasujirō Ozu.

On the socially-conscious side of the coin, Shoplifters is a film about people who've been pushed to the edges of society in the wake of the Japanese Recession, and have subsequently been forgotten by their governments. Kore-eda was inspired to make the film after news reports on poor families shoplifting to stay afloat became more and more commonplace on the TV.

 "His films are what I imagine you'd get if you blended together Ken Loach with Yasujirō Ozu"

However, in the vein of Ozu, it's very much a film about what exactly it is that makes a family. Much like his 2013 film Like Father, Like Son, Kore-eda asks to his audiences to ponder whether it's nature or nurture that (for example) makes a father a father. In Shoplifters, the biological parents of the two children are shown as neglectful and abusive, each going as far as abandoning their children, whereas the motley-crew of non-blood relatives are shown to deeply care about the children they've taken under their wings.

Of course, the non-blood relatives teach and encourage the kids how to shoplift, so maybe think twice before you start taking parental advice from this film.

For those thinking about joining my unofficial, unauthorised Hirokazu Kore-eda fan club, I suggest you check out Still Walking (2008), Nobody Knows (2004) and Our Little Sister (2015).

Well, there you have it – an introductory jaunt through the wonderful realm of Japanese cinema. These films are all amazing, and I actively encourage even the most passive of cinema fans to seek them out.

And if you're too busy, at least there's a fresh roster of flicks here you can continually insist you want to see, and never get round to actually watching 'em.