Japanese Movies: 5 Ways To Escape
Updated: May 2
I've thought more about ways people can get out of their home without really leaving, due to all this Covid-19 business. And I think one excellent way might be to take a small foray into the world of cinema. So I have created a list of 10 movies I feel create the best sensation of travel and where you can find them. And I've provided you with links to take you straight to each of them where possible!
1. Maiko Haaaan!!! (2007)
While I don't know enough to verify whether or not the information this movie offers on the lives of Geisha is accurate, I know enough to say it's much more accurate than Memoirs of a Geisha. The film is a slapstick comedy about the journey of Kumihiko Onizuka who dumps his girlfriend and moves to Kyoto, in pursuit of Maiko or Geisha in training. But without telling him, his girlfriend goes on her own amazing journey. All the while, a scheme against the rules of Kyoto Geisha threatens to destroy their entire occupation. I will let you discover more as you watch it. I watched this film not long after I made my first journey to Japan, and I found that it instantly reminded me of exactly how it felt to be in Kyoto when I watched it. While the protagonist is a little irritating, his ignorance combined with his ardent love of Maiko make him a good vehicle for exploring the world of Geisha. The best/easiest place I could find to source it was on eBay, where it can be bought on DVD for less than $10. It's good for anyone who really loves Geisha and Kyoto, but especially people who love cheesy, over the top comedies.
2. Departures (2008)
This film is a more subtle, warm comedy, about a man with little going for him, who ends up getting a job performing traditional Japanese funerals. With a soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi, and beautiful cinematography, it's a very relaxing, calming film to watch. The reason I decided to include it on this list is because it not only provides the viewer with information about how traditional Japanese funerals work. But the concept of funerals provide insight into what the characters value, and little glimpses of quotidian Japanese life. The scene where the protagonist and his wife try to return the squid to the wild reminded me very much of my wanderings around the Kamo river. This film has won many awards, and with good reason. So, I would actually recommend it to anyone who would ever want to visit Japan. Departures can currently be seen on SBS on Demand for free in Australia for at least another half of a year. Otherwise, it can be rented cheaply through Google Play.
3. Spirited Away (2001)
I'm going to want to write a more detailed review of this film in the future, since I actually got to visit two of the sites that allegedly inspired it on one of my Japan trips. If you haven't seen it yet, and just about every man and his dog has at this point, I think you should. It's available on Netflix right now, along with many other Studio Ghibli films I would recommend for the purposes of escapism. Spirited Away is remarkable in that it gives the viewer a tourist-eye-view of Japanese folklore. But it doesn't bog you down with details about any of it. Instead it leaves it as a mystery. And in doing so it world builds not on the screen, but in your imagination. As you follow Chihiro on her journey, you really do feel you are seeing into a kind of separate dimension populated by vibrant and mysterious creatures with their own lives and secrets. Similar to Departures, this film won an Academy Award and features a soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi. While all the movies on this list are child-friendly, this one is more so than the others, since it was specifically created to delight all ages.
4. Your Name (2016)
I really wanted to be able to recommend Weathering With You (2019) on this list. When I republish my review of that film in the coming weeks, you'll see why. But I couldn't find anywhere where it could be obtained online, aside from spending over $100 for a Special Edition DVD Box set on eBay. And while I love the film enough to see this as a reasonable purchase for someone who can afford it, I would rather suggest people hop onto Netflix and stream Your Name (2016). While it doesn't quite take the viewer on the same journey through Tokyo that Weathering With You (2019) goes on, it still provides a strong sense of travel. From Taki's trek to the Hida mountains, to Mitsuha discovering life as a city-dweller, we get to see new places through their eyes. the films of the director, Makoto Shinkai, tend to present a heightened reality; he never shows you Japan itself. Rather, he shows you Japan through his eyes, and in all of his depictions of it, you get the sense that he is grateful for the the little things of life, and life itself. Note to parents: Some scenes might not be quite right for young children. But you can explain what is going on to them fairly easily.
5. Akira Kurosawa's Dreams
This film makes it on to the list because I see it as the distillation of all that makes Akira Kurosawa's films remarkable. The vibrant period costumes, the experimentation with styles. The elements of fantasy and reality spliced together. This film walks us through various vignettes which are duplicates of dreams Kurosawa actually had. The surrealist nature of some of these stories creates a wonderful sensation of being transported to another world as watch. There is no over-arching story being told. Or if there is, I couldn't tell. Kurosawa, as the video will tell you, is one of the most acclaimed directors in all of film history. His work is considered to be must-view material for all film students. But now, under Covid-19, I somehow feel as though this film takes on a new kind of meaning. We get to walk with Kurosawa as he explores life and the various worlds existing inside his head, and so for a while, we can get outside of our own.
This film can be rented on Google Play for just $4.99.