With all of the streaming options we have now, the choices can become overwhelming. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve scrolled through my Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, or YouTube queue, unable to choose what I’m in the mood to watch. I scroll until my eyes go cross-eyed and I toss my phone onto the couch in aggravation, genuinely frustrated with the number of things I want to watch and my inability to consume them all at once (#firstworldproblems).
I’m like the modern day version of Sylvia Plath’s character who is starving and looking at the green fig tree in “The Bell Jar”, examining each gorgeous fig, never knowing which to choose, and then, ultimately, choosing none, they each start to wither and die, falling to the ground at her feet.
Which, okay, choosing what to watch online isn’t quite as serious as choosing a fig/the path you want to take in life (gorgeous metaphor by Sylvia, by the way—that girl could write). But time is precious! Who wants to waste it on bad figs/unfulfilling content?
If you’re interested in documentaries on Japan or the lives lived by people there, I’ve compiled a short list of those I’ve sifted through and have deemed worthy of your time, that priceless commodity. And trust me, I’ve seen some bad ones (a general search for “Japanese documentary” on YouTube, for instance, will produce some interesting gems).
Continue on for my personal recommendations—from one overloaded consumer to another.
NHK’s A Tale of Love and Honor: Life in Gion (2017)
This documentary allows for a glimpse of the very intimate, unique world of maiko, geiko, and the women that oversee them in the historical district of Gion in Kyoto.
It’s like the film adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha, except with actual Japanese people playing the geisha (yeah, Rob Marshall, I see you).
What I loved about this documentary was the depth of humanity it gave to the women inside this world that’s often deemed exotic and mysterious—a world where the true artistry the women hone (whether it’s flattering men or performing a traditional dance) can go underappreciated.
We meet the charming but deservedly tired 77-year-old teahouse proprietress Kimi Ota, who took over the role from her mother. Throughout the teahouse’s 200-year-old history, the owner has always been a female (either a daughter inherits the job, or a daughter is adopted to keep the tradition going). The documentary follows Kimi as she nears the end of her time as proprietress and hopes to pass the baton to her daughter, 45-year-old Naomi, who may have other plans for herself.
We not only get a glimpse into the life that rarely opens its doors to the public, but we also gain an understanding of the values that are held inside that world, and the sacrifices that are made to hold them sturdily in place. Whether you agree with those values or not, you can’t help but admire the strong, indomitable women that do not waiver, even in the face of heartache.
CBC’S Japan’s Tsunami: Caught on Camera
This is a simply-formatted documentary—seated interviews with survivors of Japan’s devastating 2011 tsunami with cuts to the raw footage they managed to take during it—but it’s one of the most effecting.
I’ve watched it myself several times now, and the surreal, horrifying sight of the muddy sea barreling towards towns and the people in them, trees and houses being demolished in its approach, sirens blaring, the stunned silence of the person behind the camera watching, helpless to save those closer to the approaching water…its grip on me never lessens.
The film interviews survivors from six different towns where the tsunami hit after being triggered by an earthquake off the northeastern coast of Japan. While they tell their personal stories, each incredible on their own, the footage they captured of their experiences is shown. Each one tells their tale of survival, still grappling with what happened, each coming away with their own conclusions.
Towards the end, you get a glimpse into the immediate aftermath, as well as how people, even just shortly after the devastating events, begin to rebuild. One survivor makes a poignant statement: “Humans are strong. The instinct to live is strong. I think the city will undoubtedly recover. Everyone is doing their best daily. I have no doubt it will be an even better town than it was before.”
As we now know, years later, he was right.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013) – Amazon
This movie almost acts as an answer to that—for Miyazaki, a fascinating but slightly elusive figure for many around the world, is surely a common answer.
Directed by Mami Sunada, we get a precious peak into the animation wonderland Studio Ghibli and its workers, including directors Miyazaki and (sometimes-rival) Isao Takahata, as they rush to complete and release two movies simultaneously (two gorgeous, gorgeous movies), The Wind Rises and Princess Kaguya.
There are moments where the atmosphere of the studio seems to reflect the idyllic magic that Miyazaki’s films exude—the office cat quietly bathes in sunlight, Miyazaki leads his artists in endearing, camaraderie-building calisthenics exercises, charming décor is dotted around the building.
But, in the fashion of a good documentary, there are also revealing moments where a surprisingly negative but honest Miyazaki laments on The Wind Rises’ theme and the state of the world:
“People who design airplanes and machines, no matter how much they believe what they do is good, the winds of time eventually turn them into tools of industrial civilization. They’re cursed dreams. Animation, too.”
His blunt honesty, though, makes the optimism and hope he infuses in his stories even more special and important. That optimism comes possibly from a place of pain, but one also of hope.
Twice (2010) – Netflix
Twice is part interview, part reenactment, with the late activist Tsutomu Yamaguchi at the heart of its story. Tsutomu was a survivor of, amazingly, both the Hiroshima and the Nagasaki atomic bombings (no one else is ever allowed to complain about bad luck ever again).
The documentary begins in 2006, when Tsutomu is in his 90’s, reflecting on what he went through and the horrors he saw.
I have to say that my one critique of this documentary is the use of some seriously silly English dubbing over the Japanese actors’ dialogue during the reenactments. It got Kung Fu-level bad at some points. Why not just continue to use English subtitles like the ones employed during the interviews?
But besides that one point of contention, this was a touching documentary that, if anything, tests the compassion in your heart. If you don’t feel at least a little moved when sweet Tsutomu starts to weep every time he tells his story to different people, or if you don’t feel the strong urge to wrap him up in a big hug, you might be a terrible person.
I recommend this documentary because I don’t think it hurts to have a reminder that nuclear war is terrifying and has ruined and destroyed the lives of thousands in the past. As the old saying goes, “Those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”
Tsutomu had a saying he liked, too, one that was a bit more hopeful: “All for one, and one for all.”
Check out this video about Tsutomu Yamaguchi.
The Birth of Saké (2015) – Netflix
I’ve mentioned this documentary on a list of mine before, and it’s worth mentioning again. If there was ever a documentary that delves into the sacrifices made to execute the making of a single craft, this is it.
The Birth of Saké follows the workers that dwell for six months of the year at the 144-year-old Yoshida Saké Brewery Company in northern Japan. For half of a year, men dedicate their lives completely to making saké, Japan’s national spirit. They leave loved ones and any time for themselves to the wayside in order to produce the best saké possible.
I think the only thing I could ever see myself dedicating six straight months of my life to is getting through my Netflix queue (see how I brought it back? Comedy!).
The simplest explanation as to why someone would dedicate themselves tirelessly to something like this is that they love what they do. And their love for the job shows in this beautifully shot documentary.
I recommend watching this with a glass of, of course, saké, or any preferred spirit.
Satoyama: Japan’s Secret Watergarden (2004)
Sometimes, you just need to relax and watch a good ole’ fashioned nature documentary.
This documentary brought to you by NHK has everything: David Attenborough’s very English voice! Soothing music! Carp drama! What more do you need?
We follow Sangoro Tanaka, an 83-year-old fisherman who shows us how he lives a sustainable life that’s in rhythm with the nature that surrounds him.
He lives in a village near Lake Biwa (my old stomping grounds!), Japan’s largest body of fresh water and one of the oldest lakes in the world. The area near the lake where he lives and fishes is called satoyama, which the documentary describes as “villages where mountains give way to plains” (literally sato(里) means “village” and yama (山) means “mountain”).
We not only follow Sangoro, but the lives of the creatures beneath the surface of the water, witnessing what part they play in satoyama.
If you’re like me and live in an urban setting, this is a luxurious escape into nature and simple living. The music, the scenery—it all filled me with an incredible nostalgia for Japan’s sweeping countryside.
On the other hand, If you already live in the countryside and are getting a little over it, this documentary just might renew your love of nature and your appreciation for being somewhere where the air is breathable, the streams drinkable, and the sky an endless blue.
Children Full of Life
If you’re at all familiar with Japanese school culture, then you’re aware of how tough and unforgiving it can be. As someone who once taught at a middle school there, I can attest to this. I’ll never forget slowly walking up and down the aisles of my classroom, watching the students with their heads bent quietly over their work, and spotting tiny, silvery grey hairs amongst some of those heads.
In Japan, teachers teach, and students listen. They memorize facts for tests, they pass those tests, and hope to get into a good high school. Then, they do it all again and hope to be accepted into a good college. Then, a good job is expected. And lastly, a respectable life.
With this sort of societal pressure, it’s no surprise to see a few grey hairs sprouting amongst the heads of middle schoolers.
That’s why watching this documentary, filmed in 2003, was such a breath of fresh air. 4th-grade teacher Kanamori-sensei focuses on teaching his students not only education, but how to develop empathy and kindness to those around them. He teaches his students, who adore him, the negative effects bullying can have (still a major problem in Japan’s schools today).
In a country where students are often not asked to reflect on their inner feelings, but rather to focus on perfecting their test scores, it’s incredibly moving to watch Kanamori-sensei provide a safe space for these children to express their emotions and learn important life lessons.
Be warned: you may need a tissue or two.
Do you have any favorite Japanese documentaries?
Share your comments with us below.