12 Best Movies From Japan On Kanopy

Staff & contributors
Koreeda's troubled childhood often serves as the inspiration for his poignant Japanese dramas that deal with loss, the meaning of being a child, and of being parent. In Like Father, Like Son, Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama), a hard-working architect, who is married to his work, comes home from work. He receives a call from the hospital where his son Keita was born and learns that he was switched at birth with their biological son Ryūsei. His wife and him are not only faced with the prospect of having to switch the two six-year-olds back, but also with the rickety family his 'real' son grew up in—and his aversion to what they stand for. But who is real and who isn't? Must they be switched back? The age-old question of nature vs. nurture and the relationship of love and biology is at the heart of the parent's struggle. As always with Koreeda's works, the result is soft-spoken, sensitive, and symphonically directed. Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes.

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.

Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s feature debut is nothing short of a masterpiece, his style of serenity apparent from the get-go. With Kore-eda’s still frames and touching, relatable stories, it’s almost impossible not to find yourself caring for his characters like they are your own family. 

In Maborosi, Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) is haunted by one loss after another and struggles to accept these tragedies and move on with her life. Her story is probably the toughest Kore-eda has had to tell, yet there is still a certain beauty to it, especially in its quietness and moody atmosphere. Not forcing any of his characters’ feelings on the audience, Kore-eda manages to tell a harrowing tale in the gentlest of ways.

This surprising documentary follows Jiro, an 85 year old Japanese chef, his Michelin-starred restaurant in the Tokyo underground, and his eager sons. While ostensibly about sushi – and believe me, you’ll learn about sushi and see absolutely gorgeous images of the raw-fish creations – the film’s dramatic impetus is carried by the weight of tradition, the beauty of a labor of love, obsession, and the relationship between father and son. Truly a must-watch.

“It is better to live miserable than to die happy,” or so says one of the characters in Jia Zhangke’s anthology film A Touch of Sin. On its surface, the “sin” referenced in the title might pertain to the acts of murder that the four protagonists commit, but in the context of China’s rapidly changing capitalist landscape (a theme explored in the director’s other pictures), it reveals itself as a malady shared by Chinese laborers treated as dispensable resources by the powers-that-be. Murder, then, is explored as an extremity, the effectual breaking point of people no longer able to contain the injustice within themselves. Beneath the splatters of blood is a plea for empathy and understanding, at once remorseful and full of conviction.

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.

 

Like Someone in Love is a Japanese drama about identity and finding comfort. It tells the story of a young woman, Akiko, who leads two different lives, one she shares with her family and another which few know about. The movie opens in a restaurant where Akiko is hanging out with her friend, just as a man is trying to get her to leave, insisting that there is a really important “customer” she has to meet. Long taxi rides and Tokyo neon lights will accompany you as the story unfolds. One of the movie’s most evocative sequences involves Akiko seated in the backseat of a cab, listening to her grandmother's voicemails. Using very little dialogue, Like Someone in Love is a simple movie that captures loneliness, regret, and sorrow brilliantly as it depicts a woman and a man who are only trying to give and receive comfort from each other.

At the height of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, a small Singaporean family scrambles to keep their middle-class status afloat. The parents shave their expenses and work extra-long hours, but their busyness causes them to neglect their misbehaved son. When his misdemeanors prove to be too much, the mother is forced to hire a stay-at-home nanny, and her presence (along with other external pressures) brings about a change in the house. Suddenly, everyone becomes a bit more aware of their limitations and potential, and from this, a shared empathy grows. In other hands, this story might come off as bare and forgettable, but under first-time-feature director Anthony Chen’s helm, Ilo Ilo comes to life in rich detail, thoughtful shots, and captivatingly natural performances. Despite its many heartbreaking scenes, the film rarely dwells in sentiment, and it's this restraint that makes Ilo Ilo all the more gripping to watch. 

Vague statement alert: Burning is not a movie that you “get”; it’s a movie you experience. Based on a short story by Murakami, it’s dark and bleak in a way that comes out more in the atmosphere of the movie rather than what happens in the story. Working in the capital Seoul, a young guy from a poor town near the North Korean border runs into a girl from his village. As he starts falling for her, she makes an unlikely acquaintance with one of Seoul’s wealthy youth (played by Korean-American actor Steven Yeun, pictured above.) This new character is mysterious in a way that’s all-too-common in South Korea: young people who have access to money no one knows where it came from, and who are difficult to predict or go against. Two worlds clash, poor and rich, in a movie that’s really three movies combined into one - a character-study, a romance, and a revenge thriller.

Jia Zhangke (who NPR critic John Powers once called “perhaps the most important filmmaker working in the world today"), directed this movie based on the story of a gangster he knew while growing up.

And he is far from being the only noticeable talent here. Actress Tao Zhao shines as a character called Qiao, a dancer who infiltrates the crime scene in Northern China by way of her boyfriend (the gangster). When a boss leader is assassinated, Qiao finds herself in jail after she refuses to incriminate her boyfriend. 

This is a gangster movie but it’s also about how Qiao processes her time in jail and what she does once she gets out. It serves more as a character study and a picture of modern-day China.

In this raw, psychedelic drama, an American drug dealer living in Tokyo with his sister is killed at a night club. His spirit continues to float above the city and past, present, and future are woven together to complete the tale of his life. Taking a page from the Tibetan book of the dead, the film aims to explore one answer to life's most epic question: What happens when we die? Definitely not for the faint of heart, there is drug use, gore, and challenging themes throughout the movie. Its unique cinematography also captures Tokyo quite well.

You know Anthony Hopkins as the evil Hannibal Lecter, but in this film he gives a warm and heartfelt performance portraying real life New Zealand motorcycle legend Burt Munro who set a land speed record in 1967 on a hand-built 1920 Indian. It's a story of never giving up on your dream even in the face of ridicule and opposition. Hopkins' performance turns what could have been just another schmaltzy formulaic story line into true gold. You'll be cheering for Burt/Anthony by the end!