8 Best Movies From Japan On Kanopy

Staff & contributors
The title of this 2018 Palme D'or winner is not to be taken metaphorically: Shoplifters is about a marginalized family of day workers, crooks, and small-time outlaws, who live on the fringes of Japanese society. Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) both have jobs but spruce up their low-wage income by committing petty crimes. One day in winter, Osamu takes in a bruised girl he finds outside in the cold and introduces her to the family in his ramshackle house. But when the second-youngest member of the family, Shota (Kairi Jyo), finds himself teaching her how to shoplift, he faces a moral dilemma that threatens to unravel the family's fabric. If you were hitherto unfamiliar with the unique storytelling and social realism of Hirokazu Koreeda, we really recommend checking it out—as well as his other movies, namely, Still Walking, Like Father, Like Son, I Wish, and After the Storm. His 2018 outing features the last ever performance of Kirin Kiki, who plays the elderly matriarch and passed away that same year. Like many of Koreeda's works, Shoplifters is an understated, beautiful, and mysterious study of the effects of poverty and trauma and a delicate portrait of a family in Japan's urban underbelly.

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

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!