Japanese movies offer invaluable insight into life in Japan, be it through historical context, cultural tastes or insights into daily life. If you’re travelling Japan by train and have plenty of time to pass onboard, consider watching these illuminating works of Japanese cinema.
Love the idea of whizzing around Japan on high-speed train networks? You’ll adore our Japan by Train: The Grand Tour itinerary, which takes you from Osaka to Tokyo via Hiroshima, Kyoto and Hakone, plus detours to Miyajima Island, Lake Ashi and Arashiyama bamboo forest. That’s plenty of time onboard the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to watch a good film or two across our 12 days in Japan.
Bullet Train (2022)
Let’s start with the obvious. In many ways this is the least Japanese film on this list. It was made by an American filmmaker (David Leitch) and an American studio (Sony), not to mention an ensemble cast mostly made up of US and UK actors. It is based on a Japanese novel though – Kōtarō Isaka’s Maria Beetle (2010) – and is built upon the concept of taking the world’s coolest train and making it the setting for a pulpy, vibrant action thriller. The film celebrates Japan’s rich heritage in action cinema, particularly samurai movies, and the plot is heavily driven by the quintessential Japanese action theme – revenge. It certainly isn’t the best film on this list, and there are some valid criticisms of whitewashing, but if you’re going to spend time on the Bullet Train, then this feels like a no brainer. Action set-pieces have a lot of fun with the trappings of the high-tech locomotive, while the chance of seeing the same sights flash by your window and your device simultaneously is too unique a scenario to turn down. Just don’t be disappointed that Brad Pitt isn’t onboard when you join our 12-day Japan Rail Trip.
Tokyo Story (1953)
Let’s roll it back to something a little more authentic. Yasujirō Ozu is one of Japan’s most revered film directors and his masterpiece is without a doubt Tokyo Story. If there’s one thing you watch to give you greater insights into the life of the Japanese family, then this is it. It’s a gentle, moving film about generational dynamics and and the cultural nuances that influence interpersonal relationships. It’s set around an elderly couple, living rurally, and their adult children in Tokyo. While not always depicted on screen, the idea of train travel is used by Ozu as a structural tool to separate rural life to the big city, as well the 20th century’s ever-increasing generational divide, symbolised by the modernity of Japanese rail travel. This speaks to wider symbolism of trains in Japan, more reminiscent to cars in the US, which represent change, the space between people and two different ways of living – the childlike innocence of the countryside, versus the endless opportunity and adult dangers of the big city. Spend a couple of hours on the Shinkansen watching this and you’ll alight the train with a brand new understanding of the cornerstones of modern Japanese life.
Spirited Away (2001)
If there’s one facet of Japanese movies that has pierced its way through to the mainstream consciousness in the West, it’s animation. Studio Ghibli has always been the backbone of that, and the works of Hayao Miyazaki in particular have left an indelible mark on modern cinema. His most famous work, Spirited Away, is the only non-English language film to win Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, as well as being the only hand-drawn animation to do so. This painstakingly time-consuming style pays off with one of the most awe-inspiringly beautiful animations the world has ever seen, but its the contents of Spirited Away that has won hearts and minds the world over. It’s a powerful depiction of the uncertainty of childhood, the beauty of growth and the importance of compassion and courage. It’s also a great film to immerse you in Japanese culture when exploring the country by train. It brilliantly captures the essence of Japanese folklore – the creativity, the whimsy, the soulfulness – and in many ways the story itself is a journey. Perhaps the most striking and important sequence in the entire film takes place across an almost hauntingly melancholic train ride, which lead character Chihiro takes with a carriage full of spirits. This is the perfect movie to watch in Japan, just make sure you have some tissues at the ready.
Seven Samurai (1954)
Another icon of Japanese cinema is Akira Kurosawa, and perhaps his most famous work (it’s a long list) is this truly epic tale of a rag-tag assembly of samurai who help a village defends its crops from bandits during Japan’s tumultuous Sengoku period. It is without doubt one of the most influential films of all time, inspiring everything from direct remakes like The Magnificent Seven (1960) to countless Westerns and even much of George Lucas’ work with Star Wars. Again, it offers a great insight into the narrative concepts that define a lot of Japanese art – honour, heroism and sacrifice. There’s also social class, the complexity of humanity and the moral ambiguity of violence. It truly is a masterpiece and a glimpse into just one of the many fascinating time periods in Japanese history. Watch Seven Samurai and you’ll gain a greater understanding of Japanese history, societal principles, artistic tendencies and cinema itself. You’ll also have a great time with an emotional, action-packed epic. Just be sure to save it for your longest trip on the Bullet Train, since this one clocks in at a whopping three-and-a-half hours. Worth it though, we promise.
If one half of Japanese animation is the deftness and gentle beauty of Studio Ghibli, the other half is taken up by the vibrant world of manga-inspired anime, brimming with detail, high drama and endless possibilities. If there’s one film to introduce you to this world, or get you in the mindset of a classic Japanese sub-culture, it has to be Akira. This cyber-punk epic, set in post-apocalyptic ‘Neo-Tokyo’, is the perfect film to watch en route to the capital, as your excitement builds towards the ultra cool, hyper modern cityscape that awaits. Like most Japanese animation there’s a lot bubbling under the surface, but quite simply this is one of the coolest, most dynamic works of cinema to come out of this country. That alone makes it the perfect viewing choice for your trip to Tokyo on the Shinkansen.
Don’t forget to check out our Japan Rail Trip which, much like Japanese cinema, immerses you in centuries of riveting history and culture, as well as inspiring you with the thrilling wonders of a nation obsessed with modernity. Read the full itinerary and book your spot today.
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