8 Best Movies From Japan On Criterionchannel

Staff & contributors

Edward Yang’s masterful and lush Yi Yi follows the lives of the Jian family and their respective, middle-class worries. The father agonizes over a business deal and, at the back of his mind, an old flame. The mother struggles with emptiness, the daughter with sensuality, and the son with his burgeoning artistry. In the periphery are other family members trying to get by as best they can despite having no certain future to look forward to. The story, which is bookended with life and death, is punctuated with these lingering anxieties but also, crucially, with moments of potent, profound joys. 

The premise seems simple, but Yang weaves a breathtaking epic out of the mundane. The mise-en-scene is immersive, the dialogue delicate, and the direction effectively real. The understated elegance of each piece coming together to build a rich whole is what makes YiYi Yang’s legacy to the world of cinema.

Koreeda is a master of the tender gaze. He deals so softly, elegantly, and emphatically with the characters in his films, it will make you feel like you're watching life itself in all its complex, emotional splendor. Maybe this is particularly true for this movie because it has been inspired by Koreeda's memories of his own childhood and the passing of his mother. Still Walking is a quietly toned movie spanning a period of 24 hours in the life of the Yokoyama family, as they gather to commemorate the passing of their eldest son. At the center of the story is the father, an emotionally distant man who commands respect both from his family and community. Opposite from him sits the other son, the black sheep, who seeks his father's validation. Directed, written, and edited by Koreeda, this dynamic is one of many in this slice-of-life movie about how families deal with loss. And, however distant the culture or setting in Japan may seem to the outsider, you're bound to recognize either yourself or your family among the tender scenes of this masterful drama.

From Drive My Car director Ryusuke Hamaguchi comes another film featuring long drives, thoughtful talks, and unexpected twists. An anthology of three short stories, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy ponders over ideas of love, fate, and the all-too-vexing question, “what if?” 

What if you didn’t run away from the one you love? What if you didn’t give in to lust that fateful day? What if, right then and there, you decide to finally forgive?

Big questions, but without sacrificing depth, Hamaguchi does the incredible task of making every single second feel light and meaningful. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy will leave you with mixed emotions: excited, startled, dejected, hopeful. But one thing you won’t feel is regret over watching this instant classic of a film.

Asako is in love with Baku—deeply and almost delusionally, in a way that can only manifest in young love. But when the freewheeling Baku ghosts Asako for good, she moves from Osaka all the way to Tokyo to start a new life. Years later, she's startled to meet Baku's doppelganger in Ryohei, an office man whose solid dependability and lack of artfulness, while endearing, could not place him any further from Baku. Confused and lonely, Asako tiptoes around her feelings for Ryohei and, in the process, raises thought-provoking questions about the meaning, ethics, and true purpose of love.

 

An absolute delight of a gem starring a young Winona Ryder as well as an amazing cast. Arguably Jim Jarmusch's best film, it tells the story of 5 different places at night from the perspective of cab drivers and their passengers: Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki. It's really hard to pick a favorite among the stories, from a messy tomboy having to deal with a busy businesswoman, to a blind woman in Paris making a frustrated driver from Ivory Coast go insane. But look out for Helmut and Yo-Yo, from the New York story. I've rarely seen anything in film as fun as their story.

While it would be easy to make comparisons to The Good Place and other shows and films dealing with the afterlife, Hirokazu Kore-eda's film is devoted to a single thing: commemorating the ordinary moments that make our life precious. Through little more than workplace banter and documentary-style interviews (with an ensemble delivering uncannily naturalistic performances), After Life reminds us how beautiful the mundane can be and how important it is for us to be present for each other in the everyday. And as the fim's characters prepare to create reenactments of each person's most precious memory, Kore-eda also defines filmmaking itself as an act of comfort and empathy. No existential crises here; an overwhelming sense of peace floods After Life, making it all the more memorable.

Written like a stage play, directed like the viewer is a fly on the wall, and shot with a love for deep shadows and warm candlelight, Flowers of Shanghai is about as immersive a chamber drama as one could ask for. Having most of the "action" take place off screen, director Hou Hsiao-hsien draws our eye instead to how his characters (including one played by an exceptionally stoic Tony Leung) continue to negotiate for their own freedom against patriarchal norms, pushing against cultural notions of proper decorum. It's a film brimming with repressed emotion, but without ever raising its voice. The vibes, as the kids say, are immaculate.

Happy Together is a beautifully devastating tale about a gay couple, portrayed by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Leslie Cheun, who struggle with maintaining romance and fidelity in their relationship. Despite their efforts, they find the emotional distance growing between them, especially as they leave their home of Hong Kong for Buenos Aires.

Filmed and set in the late 1990s, Happy Together explored the depths of queer love in a way most films hadn’t. 

Since its release, it has touched the souls of many and caused tears to be shed. It serves as a reminder that love isn’t perfect, but it’s always worth the effort.