10 great Japanese summer films

Films for soaring temperatures from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Still Walking (2008)

Across the summer months, the sun bears down heavily on the land where it rises. Not for nothing is Amaterasu – the Shinto sun divinity – considered the goddess of the universe, the foremost deity in Japanese mythology.

While her British equivalent, the Celtic deity Sulis, was presumably – if she deigned to show up to her trial – finally shunned for her indecisiveness, the Japanese can count on Amaterasu’s three-month residency with seasonal regularity.

Not that it’s all fun and games. Amaterasu has more trying aspects to her personality too, with tropical typhoons also attributed to her mercurial mood swings.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that there’s plenty of room for cinematic variety within the remit of the Japanese summertime film – from the sticky humidity of Yasujiro Ozu’s The End of Summer (1961) to the impenetrable downpours of Hirokazu Koreeda’s After the Storm (2016) and Shinji Somai’s Typhoon Club (1985), via the intense heatwave of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949).

So if you’re shutting the windows to keep out the rain or throwing on a jumper as we grumble our way towards a British August, here are 10 Japanese sunshine movies to brighten your mood.

Early Summer (1951)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Early Summer (1951)

Late Spring (1949), Early Spring (1956), Late Autumn (1960)… Ozu’s fondness for a seasonal title speaks to his career-long interest in the transience of things. In fact, the seasons have little direct bearing on the stories of these films, instead playing a mundane scene-setting role that the master filmmaker then gradually imbues with the transcendental.

Take Early Summer, the second in Ozu’s so-called Noriko trilogy, whose Japanese title (Bakushu) literally translates as ‘Barley Harvesting Season’. More so than the arbitrary western translation, it speaks at once to death and rebirth, inferring the cyclical nature of existence; in this case the dissolution of the family unit, precipitated by Noriko’s (Setsuko Hara) acceptance of a marriage that takes her away from the modern city and into the domain of rural conservatism.

This isn’t to say that Early Summer isn’t a fitting title too. With the open doors of the family home, washing gently swaying on the line, the carp flags of Boys’ Day flying high and lunchtime strolls through the Kita-Kamakura suburbs, Ozu captures the burgeoning season with his singular bittersweetness. While things are just as they should be, they also inevitably have to change.

Crazed Fruit (1956)

Director: Ko Nakahira

Crazed Fruit (1956)

Adapted for Nikkatsu Studios by Shintaro Ishihara from one of his own series of juvenile delinquent novels, Crazed Fruit was a huge hit with the mid-1950s youth market, helping to inaugurate a wave of so-called ‘Sun Tribe’ (taiyozoku) films. This was a term coined by the media to describe a postwar generation of monied teenagers who spent their days hanging out at the beaches of Hayama, a getaway spot for Tokyo’s well-to-do.

“The sound of the new Japanese film is heard in the roar of the motorboat and in the ripping of a woman’s skirt,” said Nagisa Oshima of the film, which is a virtuosic tour de force of naturalistic performances, formal impressionism and experimentation. The plot centres straightforwardly on a tragic love triangle, but it’s the frank depiction of sexual attitudes among its decadent young rebels that made Crazed Fruit so influential among the young filmmakers breaking through. A tentative courtship scene made up of micro-movements and gestural inserts on the rocks under a full summer sun remains a peak of the genre’s sensual suggestiveness.

Stakeout (1958)

Director: Yoshitaro Nomura

Stakeout (1958)

A world away from the gentle breeze of Early Summer and the oceanic respite of Crazed Fruit, Stakeout gives Kurosawa’s Stray Dog a run for its money in its depiction of a Japanese summer at its most oppressively sweltering. A pair of detectives take a cross-country train journey from Yokohama to Saga prefecture to watch over the home of a married woman believed to be the mistress of a suspect wanted for a pawnshop murder. Disguised as a pair of salesmen, the sweat-soaked detectives install themselves at an inn overlooking the marital home, spying on the woman as she goes about her endless chores day after day.

Adapting, as he often did, a novel by crime writer Seicho Matsumoto, and accompanied by a Bernard Herrmann-esque score by Toshiro Mayuzumi, director Yoshitaro Nomura doffs his cap early to Hitchcock and Rear Window (1954). The woman in question is largely seen only from the perspective of her voyeurs, often in anonymising long-shots, and with barely a line of dialogue for the first 90 minutes.

In a subversive move of which preeminent Hitchcock student Brian De Palma would be proud, said woman – “the epitome of ordinary” – is played by Mikio Naruse regular Hideko Takamine, one of the biggest stars in Japanese cinema at the time. The result is a taut, procedural exercise in watching and waiting, doubling as a meta-study in voyeurism and an audience’s relationship with stardom.

Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

Director: Kon Ichikawa

Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

With the Tokyo 2020 games postponed for a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this is an ideal time to seek out the defining document of the city’s first summer of Olympic excellence. If the idea of a sports documentary with a running time pushing three hours sends you off on your own 500m dash in the opposite direction, you should at least stick around for an opening that elevates the ceremonial grandeur of the running of the flame into the realm of the mytho-poetic.

Kon Ichikawa’s account of the 1964 summer Olympics is, quite simply, pure cinema; a thrillingly modulated rush of movement and inventive technique. It’s a panoramic overview of the endlessly varying events played out as a series of anecdotes, each with their own distinct formal take on the material, and none overstaying their welcome. From the canoe race on a shimmering Lake Sagami via the tracing effects of the Fantasia-like gymnastics to the jauntily-scored comic relief of the 50km walking race, Ichikawa’s images and sonic experiments captivate throughout. Everything feels scorched by a monumental sun, which rises in the film’s opening shot to bear down like an all-surveying god.

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967)

Director: Nagisa Oshima

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967)

A decade after Crazed Fruit, the Sun Tribe genre had already long run its course. A different kind of youth film had emerged, one that replaced the spoiled rebels of the past with a more politicised brand of nihilism. Japanese Summer: Double Suicide is one of the more esoteric films of the time by Japanese New Wave director Nagisa Oshima, wherein its youths’ seasonal listlessness is mapped onto a broader, symbolic key of national disaffection and confusion.

It’s a formally experimental study of what Oshima saw as a generational death-wish, centring on a group of would-be anarchists holed up in a compound awaiting weapons and orders, where they’re joined by a military deserter, a high-school kid with a gun fixation and a sex-obsessed teenage girl. A television ceremonially arrives as they await their fate, plugging the group into reports of a foreigner driving around town, shooting passers-by. What little sympathy Oshima has for his desultory protagonists is saved for the sole female character: in her mandate to get laid, she alone has an uncomplicated sense of purpose.

Profound Desires of the Gods (1968)

Director: Shohei Imamura

Profound Desires of the Gods (1968)

The height of summer sees many a Japanese holidaymaker head south to the archipelago of Okinawa, a region nominally part of the country but with its own distinct language and traditions. The image Okinawa holds in the Japanese consciousness – of sun-kissed getaways in a region of natural beauty – accounts, in some part, for the commercial failure of Shohei Imamura’s magnum opus Profound Desires of the Gods, a film that uses the fictional island of Kurage as the backdrop for a study in man’s inherent primitivism.

Imamura had always considered himself something of an anthropologist, and the unique creation myths of Okinawa offered ripe pickings for a reckoning with humankind’s standing in the natural world. From an opening montage of creatures inhabiting Kurage’s plentiful, glass seas, Imamura establishes the inhabitants’ co-existence with, and reliance on, the lower species, before centring in on the incestuous Futori clan, nominally a brother and sister who serve as a metaphorical reflection of the tale of the island’s creation. Through a lens of tradition, superstition and encroaching modernity, Imamura surveys the animalistic behaviour of the islanders with studious detachment, albeit to epic ends and with a surrealist charge lent by co-writer Keiji Hasebe.

P. P. Rider (1983)

Director: Shinji Somai

P. P. Rider (1983)

One intricately-blocked long take follows another in Shinji Somai’s sensational P. P. Rider, beginning with the seven-minute shot that opens the picture. A gangster in a natty red suit is stretching by the side of the road as the camera moves left, crossing the street to the young kids larking about by the pool at the end of term. We meet Deguchi, the plus-sized bully ragging on his schoolmates before the ear worm of Katsu Hoshi’s banjo theme kicks in and we move further left, into the school yard where older students are running riot on their motorbikes. A squabble breaks out in the adjacent alley until a car pulls up. Deguchi is bundled through the window, kidnapped for ransom as the shot finally cuts, setting off a plot that sees his ‘friends’ head to Yokohama in a bid to rescue him and settle their own personal scores.

It’s as impressive an introduction as you’re likely to find to a filmmaker whose work, despite a 2012 retrospective at the Edinburgh Film Festival, remains criminally under-seen in the west. Two snaking travelling-shot marvels follow in the next 15 minutes alone, both vibrantly employed through sun-baked streets. Somai’s terrific later films Typhoon Club (1985) and The Friends (1994) suggest an affinity for summertime vibes – if only they were available on home media in the west.

Heat Wave (1991)

Director: Hideo Gosha

Heat Wave (1991)

A genre specialist best known for his thrilling samurai pictures, Hideo Gosha made a late-career move away from male-centric action to foreground female characters in a handful of pictures indebted to the gnarliness of 70s exploitation. Rin Jojima (Kanako Higuchi), the travelling gambler protagonist of his penultimate film, Heat Wave, is afforded one hell of an introduction, bathing under a smouldering sun in the summer of 1928, her full-body tattoos proudly displayed. She’s “a woman of skill and guts possessed of a wild nature” – her tattoos subversively marking her standing in the male-dominated yakuza fold.

Flashbacks clue us in to Rin and her adopted brother’s past, her father’s death at the hands of one Tsune the Immovable prompting her return to Kumamoto to exact vengeance during a gambling festival at her family’s former stronghold. Gosha instils the slow-build of alliances and double-crosses with decorative, expressionist flair, all in service of an explosive climactic pay-off that sees Rin’s avenging angel armed with dynamite, pistol and sword.

A Scene at the Sea (1991)

Director: Takeshi Kitano

A Scene at the Sea (1991)

With nary a wrong ’un copper or sadistic gangster in sight, Takeshi Kitano’s gentle third feature may seem like quite a pivot from his preceding films, Violent Cop (1989) and Boiling Point (1990). Yet there’s always been a sense of stillness across Kitano’s work, usually tied to his deadpan, taciturn qualities as a performer and often punctuated with sudden outbursts of extreme violence so unpredictable and vicious that a laugh can erupt as involuntarily as a gasp.

Kitano stays behind the camera with A Scene at the Sea, trading brutality for a serenity that laps across the film like the gentle waves of its opening shot. Shigeru (Claude Maki), our garbageman protagonist, shares the same dogged sense of purpose with many a Kitano (anti-)hero. But in place of vengeance or the need to square questions of honour, he insists on learning how to surf when he finds a busted board on his rounds.

It’s light on narrative and – given both Shigeru and his girlfriend Takako (Hiroko Oshima) are hearing-impaired – dialogue (though what need for dialogue given the stunner of a score from Studio Ghibli stalwart Joe Hisaishi?). Yet, by its exquisite final scenes, there’s no doubting this as one of Kitano’s very best.

  • A Scene at the Sea is coming soon to BFI Player

Still Walking (2008)

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda

Still Walking (2008)

“It’s supposed to be another scorcher today,” says grandpa to his neighbour as he sets off on his regular walk, one of four that serve as both structural dividers and opportunities for wistful reflection in Hirokazu Koreeda’s poignant family drama Still Walking. Soon after, we move inside to meet the fussily talkative grandma as she prepares food ahead of the arrival of her son, who is making a rare visit with his new wife, a widow, and her young son.

This is a film of simple pleasures, of sharing food and post-prandial strolls, but one with a family tragedy on a rolling simmer just below the carefully managed calm of its surfaces. Koreeda himself resists the frequent lazy comparisons to Yasujiro Ozu, preferring the touchstone of Mikio Naruse (Narusian financial concerns are readily apparent here). Sure, like many Ozu works, Still Walking is a film centred on a fractured family unit. But here the fatal rupture – the kind Ozu typically built up to – has long since occurred. Koreeda’s eye is trained instead on the family’s inability to heal or find resolution, even in death.