Japan Books and Movies


Among the acclaimed novelists at work in Japan today is Haruki Murakami, whose 1Q84, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and numerous short stories are often bizarre and humorous blends of magical realism and science fiction. Banana Yoshimotos's Kitchen and Goodbye Tsugumi are escapist fun. Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter is a compelling novelistic coming to terms with his relationship with his handicapped son. Grotesque, by one of Japan’s leading mystery writers, Natsuo Kirino, is dark and psychologically complex, and is illuminating about Japanese culture. Meanwhile, Western authors Richard Flanagan (The Narrow Road to the Deep North, winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize and not to be confused with Basho's haiku anthology) and David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) are garnering acclaim for their novels based on Japanese history.

Haiku, the 5-7-5 syllable form that the monk Matsuo Basho honed in the 17th century, especially in his The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is perhaps the best known genre of Japanese poetry; two fine small collections of poems by Basho and other haiku masters are the beautifully illustrated Monkey's Raincoat and A Net of Fireflies. One Hundred Leaves by Frank Watsonis is a new annotated translation of the classic anthology Hyakunin Isshu.

History and Society. Andrew Gordon's A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present includes the March 2011 disasters and their political fallout. Oliver Statler's Japanese Inn uses one family enterprise to trace 400 years of social change. Tomiko Higa and Dorothy Britton’s The Girl with the White Flag illustrates war in Okinawa from the perspective of a seven-year-old girl, and is replete with vivid details.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo's Hagakure is an 18th-century guide to the Way of the Samurai. In Confessions of a Yakuza, Dr. Junichi Saga records his conversations with a dying gangster.

A fine study of the Japanese mind is to be found in Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno’s The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture. Karel van Wolferen's The Enigma of Japanese Power, R. Taggart Murphy's Japan and the Shackles of the Past, and Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr, the first foreigner to win the Shincho Gakugei literature prize, shed light on the Japanese sociopolitical system.

Religion. The classic gateways to this subject are Suzuki Daisetsu’s seminal Introduction to Zen Buddhism and Zen and Japanese Culture. Shinto master Yamakage Motohisa introduces Japan's ancient religion to Western readers in The Essence of Shinto.

Art, Architecture, and Crafts. Japanese Art by Joan Stanley-Baker surveys the whole of Japanese art history. Nishi Kazuo and Hozumi Kazuo’s What Is Japanese Architecture? treats the subject historically and has examples of buildings you will actually see on your travels. Philip Jodidio’s Ando: Complete Works 1975–2014, Kenneth Frampton’s Kengo Kuma: Complete Works, Kenzo Tange's Tange by Tange, and Toyo Ito’s Toyo Ito illustrate four postwar Japanese architects’ work.


Western viewers have typically encountered Japanese cinema in the work of directors Mizoguchi Kenji, Ozu Yasujiro, and Kurosawa Akira. Three of Mizoguchi's finest films explore the role of women in feudal Japan: The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954). Ozu’s films—among them Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), and Tokyo Story (1953)—explore traditional Japanese values in the everyday lives and relationships of middle-class families. Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), a 12th-century murder story told by four different narrators, inspired a worldwide interest in Japanese cinema. Among his other classics are period films Seven Samurai (1954), and Ran (1985), but To Live (1952), the story of a bureaucrat trying to make his last days meaningful, is perhaps his most moving film.

The next wave of postwar filmmakers include Ichikawa Kon, who directed two powerful antiwar movies, The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plain (1959), but is probably best known for Tokyo Olympiad (1965); Teshigahara Hiroshi, whose allegorical Woman in the Dunes (1964) is based on the novel by Abe Kobo; and Imamura Shohei, who made The Ballad of Narayama (1983), about life and death in an Edo-period mountain village, and Black Rain (1989), based on a novel by Ibuse Masuji, which deals with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

More recent Japanese filmmakers who have won acclaim abroad include Itami Juzo and Suo Masayuki. Itami’s work includes Tampopo (1985), a highly original comedy about food; and Minbo (1992), which dissects the world of Japanese gangsters. Suo's Shall We Dance? (1996) is a bittersweet comedy about a married businessman who escapes his daily routine by taking ballroom dance lessons. More recent Japanese dramas winning acclaim abroad are Takita Yojiro's Departures (2008), which received an Academy Award for its humorous look at the cultural divide between city and countryside, and Like Father Like Son (2013), directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. Its thoughtful depiction of contemporary Japanese families moves beyond its babies-switched-at-birth trope and won it the prix du jury award at Cannes. Kimizuka Ryoichi's Reunion (2012) takes an oblique look at the human impact of the 2011 tsunami in the story of a volunteer preparing the bodies of victims for burial.

Though Japanese gangster flicks date back to such Kurosawa classics as Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949), an edgy gangster genre emerged in the 1990s led by Takeshi Kitano. His films Fireworks (1997) and Zatoichi (2003) have won awards at the Venice Film Festival. There are many, many Japanese gangster films, including a whole exploitative subset that mixes extreme violence with basically soft-core porn. Like gangsters films, the popularity of the samurai movie is enduring in Japan. Based on best-selling manga, Rurouni-Kenshin (2012), directed by Keishi Ohtomo, is indicative of the new kind of samurai-action movie gaining popularity in recent years.

Those interested in Japanese anime should start with the Academy Award–winning picture Spirited Away (2001) by Hayao Miyazaki. Other modern anime pioneers include Osamu Tezuka, Mamoru Oshii, Satsoshi Kon, Hideki Anno, and Katsuhiro Otomo.

Japanese horror focuses more on psychological terror than on blood-spurting special effects, but some can be quite gruesome, such as the hair-raising Audition (1999), directed by cult favorite Miike Takashi; Infection/Kansen (Ochiai Masayuki, 2004); and Dark Water (Hideo Nakata, 2002). More commonly, films hinge on foreboding and inescapable doom; they typically involve ghosts (usually women in white dresses and long hair) or poltergeists seeking revenge. The horror hits Ringu/Ring ( Hideo Nakata, 1998) and Ju-on: The Grudge (Takashi Shimizu, 2002) are representative of this genre; both have been remade by American directors for wider audiences.

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