30 Essential Japanese Coming-of-Age Movies (Part 1)

Inspired by the recent Cannes Film Festival win of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Like Father, Like Son”, we are compiling 30 of the best Japanese movies dealing with the coming-of-age theme! Think Billy Elliot, Pretty in Pink, Stand by MeStrayed, Dead Poets’ Society and Good Will Hunting in different lights, settings, and circumstances and with English subtitles!

In a country where family dramas rule TV and plenty of exciting young talents, movies about the joy of growing up are meant to be celebrated. But some of the movies also deal with the dark side of society and of the family – bullying, incest, suicide, abandonment, and separation.

The aim is to compile a diverse list of not only critically acclaimed titles but also ordinary moviegoers’ favorites. Part 1 after the jump!

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01. All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001)

An obvious choice for the list, All About Lily Chou-Chou chronicles the lives of a group of Japanese high school students during the time of early MTV  and the effect the enigmatic singer Lily Chou-Chou‘s music has on some of them.

Two main characters are explored – Shunsuke Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari) and Yuichi Hasumi (Hayato Ichihara), who started as friends until one of them turned into a bully.

Life isn’t easy for a group of high school kids growing up absurd in Japan’s pervasive pop/cyber culture. As they negotiate teen badlands- school bullies, parents from another planet, lurid snapshots of sex and death- these everyday rebels without a cause seek sanctuary, even salvation, through pop star savior Lily Chou-Chou, embracing her sad, dreamy songs and sharing their fears and secrets in Lilyholic chat rooms. Immersed in the speed of everyday troubles, their lives inevitably climax in a fatal collision between real and virtual identities, a final logging-off from innocence. [ Sujit R. Varma @IMDb ]

Growing up Issues: Bullying, alienation, music, fan site, chatrooms, school associations, rape, suicide

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The Buzz: A hazy, dreamlike atmosphere permeates throughout the movie, which somehow insulates the viewers from the harsh realities it is trying to tackle. The musical score is very much an integral part of the film, highlighting both the violence and angst. Shugo Oshinari and Hayata Ichihara did well playing their roles, and a young Yu Aoi was playing one tragic character.

You may want to read the Production Notes at the official site where Shunji Iwai, the filmmaker revealed his feelings while making the film, as well as, topics ranging from the music and the cast.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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02. A Gentle Breeze in the Village (Tennen kokekko) – 2007

The exact opposite of Lily Chou-Chou, A Gentle Breeze in the Village is relaxing, peaceful, slow-paced entertaining piece of Japanese cinema from director Nobuhiro Yamashita. 

The acclaimed filmmaker also made Linda, Linda, Linda, My Back Page and The Drudgery Train among others.

In a tiny rural village in Japan, a group of young students welcomes the arrival of a handsome young boy from Tokyo, Hiromi Osawa (Masaki Okada). Led by Soyo Migata (Kaho), and her five friends they view him as a celebrity of sorts. Hiromi later became Soyo’s boyfriend.

Nishikata Film Review:

Films about young love often come off too stagy because the actors lack the maturity to pull off romantic scenes convincingly. At other times, comedy is used to distract from the awkwardness of young love. In A Gentle Breeze in the Village, Yamashita leaves the awkwardness in and allows the two young actors to fumble their way through the early stages of teen romance with charm, tenderness, and the real discomfiture that attends such moments. The resulting film is a real pleasure to watch. [ source ]

Growing up Issues: Young love, rural setting, serene country living

The Buzz: The movie is based on the Japanese manga written by Fusako Kuramochi, serialized in the magazine Chorus from 1994 to 2000. Kaho and Masaki Okada had such great on-screen chemistry that made this movie a must-see!

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You may also want to read some reviews @AsianWiki highlighting some of the special aspects of this movie.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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03. Nobody Knows (Dare mo Shirana) – 2004

Featuring the award-winning performance of the young Yuya Yagira and from acclaimed filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda. Nobody Knows tells the story of a group of young siblings who desperately tried to survive after their mother abandons them.

The Buzz: Based on the true event know as the “Affair of the four abandoned children of Sugamo” – which occurred over a nine month period in 1988 in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward.

Yagira won the Best Actor trophy at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, the first movie of Koreeda to participate in the festival’s Main competition.

Hirokazu Koreeda wrote the first draft of the screenplay fifteen years before the film was made. At that point it was titled “Wonderful Sunday” and unfolded from Akira’s subjective point of view, ending with a fantasy sequence in which the entire family (the children, the mother, and the various fathers) are reunited for a Sunday outing.

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YNOTswim wrote this review, which sums up my feelings for the movie:

Director Koreeda allows the camera to take the time to shoot, and he never rushes from one scene to the next. He let me observe, let me feel, let me be as close to these children as I possibly can until I can no longer take it and until I am drowned by the frustration and sadness. I become as helpless as those children because I simply can not resist the urge to help them. That makes me cry. Through out the film, Koreeda masterfully positioned his lenses to ordinary objects around these children, such as simply a finger, hand, a stain, foot, or four empty glasses. But through these zoomed in images, I have no trouble to “see” and “feel” what’s going on in the whole picture. And it tells the story in a more profound fashion and more personal way, a story you will never forget, along with those images, sometimes, even the music. The 12 years old boy is played by Yuya Yagira, who has a haircut like the Japanese animation character. Yagira’s outstanding performance is original and remarkable, and simply unforgettable.[ source ]

Growing up Issues: Survival, parental abandonment, urban jungle

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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04. Blue Spring (Aoi haru) – 2001

At Asashi High, a run-down senior high school for boys, Kujo (Ryuhei Matsuda), Aoki (Hirofumi Arai), Yukio (Sousuke Takaoka), Yoshimura (Shugo Oshinari) and Ota (Yuta Yamazaki) are a gang of school friends lost in apathy and dissatisfaction. They are aware their future offers limited options. Even most teachers have already written them off as a lost cause.

Kujo’s gang is part of the school’s illegal society, which is controlled by a rooftop game: the Clapping Game, which is a test of courage. Who wins the game gets to be the society’s leader and rules all gangs throughout Asashi High.

The Buzz: Featuring one of the early, but most notable performances of Ryuhei Matsuda as the gang leader, from filmmaker Toshiaki Toyoda, who also happens to cast Matsuda in Nine Souls and will be directing the new Crows Zero movie, Crows Explode this 2014.

The film title Aoi Haru is “blue spring” in English, which can be understood as “inexperienced years” or teenage years, but it also can be understood as “fresh start.” According to manga artist Taiyō Matsumoto, the title is intended as a play on irony.

Remarked Midnight Eye:

Blue Spring is in some ways a follow-up to his debut film. Whereas Pornostar was criticized by some for relying too much on posture and coolness, Blue Spring adds more dimension to its portrayal of a generation of ‘don’t-fuck-with-me’ kids, both in terms of surface style and of characterisation. There is posturing here, certainly, but this film has attitude. Director Toyoda uses familiar methods like slow motion and a blazing rock score to reinforce the nature of his characters, yet Blue Spring’s is not the artificially imposed wannabe-toughness of a hiphop video, nor does it depend on the manga excess of Miike’s Fudoh. Toyoda understands that he is using tools, means to get to an end. In Blue Spring’s guitar-driven slow motion sequences stories are told, characters are established, and relationships are made clear. This certainly isn’t a case of style over substance, this is a case of a filmmaker knowing his craft. [ read more ]

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Growing up Issues: Gang violence, apathy, disillusionment

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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05. Canary (Kanaria) – 2005

Directed by Akihiko Shiota, Canary is the story of a young boy Koichi Iwase (Hoshi Ishida) who lives with the religious cult called Nirvana, together with his mother and sister. The movie takes inspiration from the Aum Shinrikyo cult which was responsible for the deadly Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

Midnight Eye reviewed the film:

By tackling the topical subject of the reconfiguration of the family unit and the growing schism between the worlds of adults and children (cf. Antenna, Battle Royale), Shiota once again proves himself to be one of a rare handful of directors who have something crucial to say about contemporary Japanese society. It is clear that Canary’s references to Aum cult are only a starting point to raise more general questions about the socialization of the next generation. Shiota’s strengths as a director lie within his ability to construct such a frank filmic allegory within a rigorously depicted and highly believable cinematic setting, drawing out the realistic aspects of his world in lengthy unbroken handheld takes with the aid of cameraman Yutaka Yamazaki, who also lensed Hirokazu Kore’eda’s After Life and the not dissimilarly-themed Distance.

For various reasons aside from its shared cinematographer, the work of Kore’eda springs to mind at numerous points when watching Canary, particularly his highly-regarded Nobody Knows, which competed at Cannes in 2004. Comparing the two works is a rather telling exercise, giving a good indication of the mechanism by which the internationalisation of Japanese cinema (indeed, that of any country) takes place, and prompting the question of whether, for all the advances in distribution technologies and the diversification of public tastes, we are really in a much better situation now than we were in the 1950s or 60s, when only a handful of directors were internationally visible. [ read more ]

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Growing up Issues: growing up pains, abandonment, runway, young love

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Have you seen these films? Which are your favorites? Let us know what you think!


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