10 great Japanese family dramas

The tie that binds our September releases of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Koji Fukada’s Love Life: the great tradition of the Japanese domestic drama.

Love Life (2022)

You only have to take a glance at the filmography of Japan’s most hallowed filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu to get an idea of the centrality of family life within the nation’s cinema. Ozu’s own adoption of such close-to-home subject matter, along with fellow directors such as Hiroshi Shimizu, Mikio Naruse and Hideo Gosha, came from his early engagement at Shochiku’s Kamata studio in the suburbs of Tokyo.

In the face of a domestic cinema primarily consisting of jidai-geki (period dramas), Shochiku made a policy of focusing on modern-day melodramas, romances and comedies, collectively known as shomin-geki (‘common people’s dramas’) and with a not insignificant influence from American filmmakers such as Ernst Lubitsch and Charlie Chaplin.

Such films depicted, and indeed were aimed at, the emergent lower-middle classes, often dwelling on the conflicts and absurdities of modern life during the period of rapid modernisation, urbanisation and globalisation of the late 1920s and early 30s.

As critic Donald Richie often stated, Ozu’s concern was more about the dissolution of the family rather than the idealised domestic portraits that dominated the national discourse. His eye was on how the family unit reacted to historical, social, economic and global pressures from outside.

Ozu’s films such as Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953) provide a strong starting point to look at how the family has been used in Japanese cinema. They provide a snapshot of specific historical periods, in which the domestic sphere serves as a microcosm for national life as a whole. But there have been no shortage of other filmmakers over the years following his lead.

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Seven Seas: Virginity Chapter (1931) / Seven Seas: Chastity Chapter (1932)

Director: Hiroshi Shimizu

Seven Seas: Virginity Chapter (1931)

The theme of the schism between old and new ways of life is writ large in Hiroshi Shimizu’s monumental modernist silent masterpiece Seven Seas. Released in two parts, it’s a tale of two contrasting family fortunes set in motion when foppish playboy Takahiko cajoles the more traditionally minded Yumie into spending the night with him at a garden party held by his parents to mark his return from travelling in Europe. It’s enough to finish off Yumie’s poor bedridden dad. With her family facing destitution, Yumie cunningly manoeuvres Takahiko into a marriage which she teasingly refuses to consummate.

Kogo Noda’s script is far more melodramatic than his work for Ozu, and indeed much of Shimizu’s work. Shimizu’s career paralleled that of Ozu. Both were born in 1903 and joined Kamata as assistants in the early 1920s. Ozu described Shimizu as the far better director, although he is curiously overlooked outside of Japan. Look out for a young Hideko Takamine, one of Japan’s most regarded performers of the postwar era, playing Yumie’s seven-year-old sister Momoko.

A Hole of My Own Making (1955)

Director: Tomu Uchida

A Hole of My Own Making (1955)

The aristocratic Shiga family has been debilitated by the war. The father is dead and eldest son Junjiro is permanently confined to the sickbed, from which he dabbles in buying and selling oil stocks in a desperate attempt to keep their dwindling fortunes functioning. It is up to the women of the household to keep things afloat.

The smooth but shrewd family doctor Ihara is but one of the potential suitors for daughter Tamiko. With a good future ahead of him but a failed marriage behind him, he would make quite a catch, only he doesn’t want to be caught. Meanwhile, the late father’s second wife Nobuko still cuts an alluring figure, and Ihara takes great delight in playing off the attractive widow and her stepdaughter against one another.

Made just three years after the US occupation, Tomu Uchida’s depiction of a family ravaged by death and sickness – tearing itself apart from within as it is beset from outside by seductive but self-interested forces – presents an allegory that isn’t hard to discern.

Good Morning (1959)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Good Morning (1959)

Ozu’s 1932 comedy I Was Born, But… concluded with the humiliation of two young brothers in front of a cocky classmate after their father has been made to look an imbecile in a home movie made by his boss, the father of their schoolyard rival. His 1959 film Good Morning is a loose reworking, which also focuses on how a new audio-visual technology indirectly opens two young siblings’ eyes to their place in the pecking order.

This time, it’s a television set, or rather the lack thereof, that prompts Minoru and Isamu to refuse to utter so much as a word to anyone until their demands for their parents to buy them one are met. Their father claims they would gawp at it all day in a silent stupor, but the boys rationalise that many of the verbal interactions of the adults within their community are themselves platitudinous, circumspect or downright pointless.

Good Morning is often dismissed as one of Ozu’s breeziest works, but the lower-class setting of cramped wooden houses in suburban Tokyo and a substory about a shortfall in the accounts of the neighbourhood community club suggest a far more pessimistic reality for its happy-go-lucky characters than first appears. Ozu’s film is about the effects of wider economic circumstances on community and family life as much as an encroaching media culture.

Elegant Beast (1962)

Director: Yuzo Kawashima

Elegant Beast (1962)

“I wanted to do a drama where every single person has turned his or her back on morality. I wanted to develop that into a family drama”, screenwriter Kaneto Shindo (later the director of Onibaba, 1964, and Kuroneko, 1968) said of his script for Yuzo Kawashima’s darkly cynical subversion of the wholesome Shochiku family formula.

The Maeda family at the heart of Elegant Beast, also known as The Graceful Brute, are a despicable bunch of conniving ne’er-do-wells riding on the coattails of Japan’s post-war economic miracle. Events unfold almost in real-time, like a theatre piece, in the single location of a third-floor apartment in a tenement block. Eldest son Minoru hides out in a back room, having embezzled a considerable sum of money from the music agency where he works. His sister Tomoko is having an affair with a bestselling novelist, and her parents are not shy in asking for handouts from this wealthy benefactor.

What impresses is the way in which Kawashima manages to keep the drama so spontaneous and compelling within this cramped interior, which we get to know intimately as the camera breaks up its space into single shots, never from the same angle.

The Family Game (1983)

Director: Yoshimitsu Morita

The Family Game (1983)

This anarchic send-up of the idealised middle-class family unit promoted in the economic boom years of the 1980s struck quite a chord with contemporary audiences. It centres on a family with two teenage sons, in which the salaryman father abdicates his familial responsibilities for long hours outside the house – few of which seem to be spent at the office. Meanwhile, the mother’s role as housewife restricts her to performative domestic chores punctuated by long stretches of boredom. Outside help is called for. Son number one, Shinichi, seems on track with his high-school grades gearing him up for university and a lifetime of white-collar conformity; it’s junior high schooler Shigeyuki that’s the worry.

Morita’s direction of this comedy of embarrassment is deliciously deadpan. The cast-against-type action star Yusaku Matsuda steals the show as Mr Yoshimoto, the home tutor invited into the household and essentially given free rein in Shigeyuki’s preparation for adult life. He brings new meaning to the phrase ‘tough love’ as he guides the troubled teen through the hormonal fug of early adolescence.

Tomorrow – Ashita (1988)

Director: Kazuo Karoki

Tomorrow - ashita (1988)

The late-80s saw two high-profile releases dealing with the impact of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain portrayed a middle-aged couple’s attempts to find a suitable marriage match for their adopted niece across the years following their flight from the site of the bomb blast, their efforts frustrated by her status as a ‘hibakusha’ survivor and consequent ill-health. It’s the most ironically Ozu-esque work from a filmmaker who began his career as an assistant under the director, of whom Imamura once said: “I wouldn’t just say I wasn’t influenced by Ozu; I would say I didn’t want to be influenced by him.”

Kazuo Karoki’s Tomorrow – Ashita has been unjustly overshadowed by Black Rain, but Kuroki’s film arguably leaves a longer and deeper impression in its lowkey depiction of the dramas and incidents of everyday home-front life for an ordinary Nagasaki family across the 24 hours leading up to 8:16 am on 8 August 1945. Love, marriage and childbirth are among the subjects under discussion as they prepare for a future they will never have.

Wild Berries (2003)

Director: Miwa Nishikawa

Wild Berries (2003)

It might have been an ordinary Wednesday for the Akechis. The one blip of excitement in the workaday lives of middle-aged salaryman Yoshiro and housewife Akiko is the promise of meeting the colleague and new boyfriend of their school-teacher daughter Tomoko. Any semblance of ceremony at this important introduction is shattered by the unexpected arrival of Tomoko’s older brother Shuji, a good-for-nothing who left the house years before under a dark cloud. But Shuji is not the only dark secret within the superficially normal Akechi household.

With this darkly comic debut, Hirokazu Koreeda protégée Miwa Nishikawa sprang to the forefront of a new wave of female filmmakers that emerged in Japan in the early 2000s. It anticipates such critically lauded later Nishikawa works as Sway (Yureru , 2006) and Dear Doctor (2009).

Hanging Garden (2005)

Director: Toshiaki Toyoda

Hanging Garden (2005)

The fragile facade of domestic stability comes again under scrutiny in Hanging Garden. Director Toshiaki Toyoda tracks the movements of the father, mother and teenage son and daughter of the Kyobashi family, who live in a spacious but sterile high-rise complex in a suburban satellite town. The film’s title alludes to the balcony garden lovingly tended by the preternaturally smiling Eriko, the matriarchal lynchpin of a household guided by principles of direct honesty and no secrets among them.

When daughter Mana bluntly asks over the dinner table where she was conceived, her mother candidly points her towards a downtown love hotel. Mana’s curiosity gets the better of her, and a trip to the hotel hints at the kind of activities her fellow family members get up to outside of the home. Everything comes to a head during a hilarious extended birthday gathering to which her brother’s nubile home teacher is also invited.

Tokyo Sonata (2008)

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Tokyo Sonata (2008)

The fragility of the family unit in the face of economic crisis is the subject of this Ozu-esquely titled drama about Sasaki, a jobbing salaryman who finds himself stripped of pride and means of income when his company’s admin department is outsourced to China. Rather than reveal his redundancy, he says nothing to his wife and adolescent son, continuing over the coming weeks with his usual morning routine of donning his suit, picking up his briefcase and heading out of the door to work.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s stark and detached approach creates an atmosphere of abjection and alienation as chilling as anything to be found in his horror films Pulse (2001) or Creepy (2016). Sasaki’s ignominious loss of status as the family breadwinner due to global forces beyond his control are counterpointed by a substory about his eldest son’s more financially secure prospects after signing up as a foreign volunteer with the US military in the Middle East.

Still Walking (2008)

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda

Still Walking (2008)

For a director often viewed as having inherited the mantle of Ozu, conventional notions of the nuclear family are conspicuously absent from the work of Hirokazu Koreeda. In titles such as Nobody Knows (2004), Our Little Sister (2015) and Shoplifters (2018), domestic setups are characterised by crucial missing members or reformulated from non-biologically or only partially related components. Still Walking’s nuanced portrait of the reunion of three generations of Yokoyamas is perhaps the closest one gets, until a sour note emerges when it’s revealed that the reason for this annual gathering is the commemoration of a favoured son’s accidental death.

Koreeda explores every nook and cranny of the narrative potential of this multi-character, inter-generational setup. The film takes place over the course of 24 hours and is seen largely through the eyes of Ryota, the black sheep of the family, as he returns to the place of his upbringing with his new widowed partner and her young son, whom he treats as his own. The family house is imbued with a persona all of its own, its décor and belongings conveying the habitual presence of either his dour and distant retired doctor father or his superficially cheery mother. Beneath the long engrained patterns and rituals of domestic life lurks the unarticulated senses of obligations, expectations, memories and disappointments associated with blood and home.

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