10 great Japanese teen films

Puberty, rebellion and attitude... Japan has a long tradition of youth movies tackling the trials and tribulations of adolescence.

19 November 2020

By Jasper Sharp

Cruel Story of Youth (1960)

Japanese cinema boasts a sizeable number of films about young people. We can link the origins of this popular field of seishun eiga (literally ‘youth films’) back to its industry’s own coming of age, as it moved beyond its near exclusive fixation on jidai-geki period dramas across the 1920s to tell stories set in the modern day that were more reflective of the everyday reality experienced by contemporary audiences.

It was Shochiku studios that forged the way with such gendai-geki, a field too broad to be considered a genre as such and which encompassed both melodramatic and comedic styles and subjects. 

Tales of rites of passage into adulthood naturally played a part in all this. We might situate Yasujiro Ozu’s college comedies like Days of Youth (1929) and I Flunked, But… (1930) as early works in a nascent youth genre, but also more serious titles like Heinosuke Gosho’s literary adaptation of Yasunari Kawabata’s The Izu Dancer (1933), in which a vacationing student on his summer break finds his head turned by the titular member of the itinerant theatrical troupe he hooks up with while travelling the country.

In the postwar explosion of cinema-going, when a massive increase in screens and releases gave way to a fragmentation of audiences and a targeted specialisation in products for specific viewing sectors, it was Japan’s oldest studio, Nikkatsu, that ironically proved its youngest at heart. After a 12-year dormancy due to the war, it sprang back into action and rapidly found its feet, with its double whammy of Season of the Sun and Crazed Fruit in 1956 kicking off the short-lived ‘Sun Tribe’ (taiyozoku) wave of films aimed for and about a new postwar generation of unruly baby-boomers. 

It’s through this taiyozoku prism that we look at a selection of the country’s greatest works capturing those thrilling days of innocence and experience across different generations of teens.

Japanese Girls at the Harbour (1933)

Director: Hiroshi Shimizu

Japanese Girls at the Harbour (1933)

All the girls love Henry (Ureo Egawa), with his sharp suit, fast bike and equally fast company, and none less than Sunako (Michiko Oikawa) and Dora (Yukiko Inoue), 2 schoolgirls whose lives take radically different turns after he rides roughshod into it. Transitions lie at the thematic heart of Hiroshi Shimizu’s meaty modernist melodrama, which looks at what it means to be a young Japanese woman at a time when east and west were on a cultural collision course. 

The girls’ initially carefree curiosity about the outside world and the opposite sex is put into context by its cosmopolitan port-city setting of Yokohama, the harbour of the title crammed with ocean liners that hint at opportunities that may or may not be open to them. Their own attitudes about their future in Japan is summed up in their choice of traditional or modern western dress and their respective life choices. The conspicuous absence of the influence of an older generation also prefigures the themes of an individual’s place in a culturally dynamic and rapidly internationalising Japan, which would lie at the heart of many of the taiyozoku films and their ilk.

Season of the Sun (1956)

Director: Takumi Furukawa 

Season of the Sun (1956)

This watershed title set the taiyozoku template with its belligerent blend of sibling rivalry against a seaside setting, a censor-baitingly frank approach to premarital sex and a focus on headstrong rebels without a clue when it comes to women. Goaded by the peer pressure of the fellow members of his college boxing team, its prickly antihero takes the treat-them-mean-and-keep-them-keen approach to the more sophisticated rich girl he meets while cruising with his friends in Tokyo’s fashionable Ginza district.

Season of the Sun has been rather left in the shadows by its better-known successor, Crazed Fruit, the title seen as marking the Sun Tribe movie’s ascendancy when it hit domestic screens less than 2 months later. It nevertheless marked the first screen credits of the 2 Ishihara brothers central to this subgenre: Shintaro, the writer and later politician who penned the source novel, subsequently got to adapt his own material in Crazed Fruit; and Yujiro, his charismatic real-life younger brother moved from the ringside as one of the supporting boxers to the more central role in this next film. He retained his spell in the spotlight in Nikkatsu’s subsequent youth-oriented material across the following decade.

Cruel Story of Youth (1960)

Director: Nagisa Oshima

Cruel Story of Youth (1960)

Nagisa Oshima was one of the young filmmakers branded as the ‘New Wave’ who were launched to the director’s chair before they had hit 30 as part of the Shochiku studio’s strategy to appeal to a younger demographic. He celebrated the new Sun Tribe movies’ rupture with Japanese cinema’s classical past while remaining cynical about their ends.

While everyone else was celebrating the springtime of life in an altogether sunnier fashion, Oshima adds a nihilistic dimension to his tale of boy meets girls, which unfolds against the backdrop of the student protests surrounding the renewal of the Japan-US Security Treaty. The older generation characters who crowd the frames of this politicised portrait of young love are predatory and oppressive, although the more youthful characters are no less repellent. The rough-handling the main female character receives at the hands of our delinquent antihero, as he rages against the unjust power structures of Japan and the wider world, ironically make this one of the least progressive of the films discussed here in terms of sexual politics.

Foundry Town (1962)

Director: Kirio Urayama

Foundry Town (1962)

Nikkatsu’s social-realist drama, starring its top screen sweetheart of the era, Sayuri Yoshinaga, is a welcome antidote to the testosterone-charged antiheroics of its earlier taiyozoku films. The focus is an aspirational young woman who lives with her family in the industrial city of Kawaguchi just outside Tokyo, a landscape dominated by the cupola iron-smelting furnaces referenced in its original Japanese title (which translates as ‘The Town with Cupolas’) and populated by a mixture of Japanese and Zainichi Korean labourers.  

The lapse into obscurity of a film that is cast in a similar mould to British works of the time like Room at the Top (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) is bewildering considering it played in competition at Cannes in 1962. It was co-scripted by Shohei Imamura, and bears many of the hallmarks of his directing work, with its celebration of the lives of lower-class characters marginalised from mainstream discourse.

The Incorrigible (1963)

Director: Seijun Suzuki

The Incorrigible (1963)

Set during the Taisho period (1912-26), The Incorrigible centres on a delinquent youth with a reputation for fisticuffs and dreams of bigger things who arrives in the claustrophobic all-male environment of his new middle school out in the rural sticks, having been expelled from his old one. Here he immediately finds himself putting the noses of his peers and teachers out of joint after flouting small-town convention with his romantic dalliances with the daughter of a respected pillar of the community.

The basic template of Seijun Suzuki’s jeering anti-fascist parable Fighting Elegy (1966) had already been given its dry run in this first entry of the director’s impromptu trilogy of prewar-set coming-of-age dramas. Like its immediate successor, Born under Crossed Stars (1965), it’s based on the memoirs of the eccentric real-life author and Buddhist monk Toko Kon. The romantic aspects get more emphasis in this nostalgic first film about first love, as its feisty hero Togo Konno (Ken Yamauchi) locks eyes with local doctor’s daughter Emiko (Masako Izumi) over a copy of Strindberg’s The Red Room. The couple find their cover blown by a jealous fellow student rival policing the former’s extracurricular activities.

Live Today, Die Tomorrow! (1970)

Director: Kaneto Shindo

Live Today, Die Tomorrow! (1970)

The swinging 60s may have been a period of vast social change, political empowerment and countercultural hedonism for some, but not all were invited to the party. Live Today, Die Tomorrow is a fictional reconstruction of the real-life events leading up to the arrest of Norio Nagayama, dubbed the “Serial Gun Killer” by the media for 4 seemingly motiveless slayings committed across the country with a pistol stolen from a US military base. 

Kaneto Shindo’s film focuses on the marginalisation and lack of agency and opportunities of a faceless underclass left behind by Japan’s dramatic postwar growth. Its original title translating as ‘Naked 19-year-old’, it provides an outsider’s view of the comedown from this turbulent decade through the eyes of its protagonist (a figure rendered completely invisible in Masao Adachi’s experimental documentary AKA Serial Killer made the same year about the same subject). Raised in poverty as one of 7 siblings in the wintry wilds of Abashiri, Hokkaido, after his gambling drunkard father vanishes during his childhood, he clearly has the odds stacked against him long before he makes his way to the fleshpots of Tokyo.

Typhoon Club (1985)

Director: Shinji Somai

Typhoon Club (1985)

Shinji Somai’s depiction of a group of middle-school students stranded at night in their school building by a violent summer squall is considered a landmark of 1980s Japanese cinema, but remains little seen outside its own country. It explores themes such as social awkwardness, individual identity, infatuation and the exploration of sexual boundaries in the run up to the deluge that gives vent to its class of mid-teens’ various hormonal urges. 

Typhoon Club proceeds at an assured pace, captured with a detached objectivity by a moving camera that remains distinctly third person, refusing to privilege any moral viewpoint or identify with the gaze of any one character. Somai is less concerned with rites of passage and lessons learned than in conveying the overwhelming emotional experiences of the moment. These are relayed with a naturalistic candour all but denied in western films of this nature, but in keeping the ages of the youthful characters it portrays.

Tokyo Trash Baby (2000)

Director: Ryuichi Hiroki

Tokyo Trash Baby (2000)

Tokyo Trash Baby is a subtle but intelligent portrait of a lonely coffee-shop waitress who becomes so besotted with the grimy wannabe rock star in the apartment above that she takes to rifling through his bin bags in an attempt to piece together his lifestyle through the discarded by-products of his day-to-day existence. It was one of the first digitally-shot features released theatrically in Japan (as part of a series that included Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q). 

Ryuichi Hiroki’s film is notable for the mobility of the camerawork, the canny use of everyday locations (including the regenerated Tokyo Bay area literally constructed on landfill) and the vacuous banter of the waitress’s colleague (an early role for Ko Shibasaki of Battle Royale fame). All of which serve to highlight the rootless, second-hand existence of a new generation of part-time workers who missed out on the rampant consumerism of Japan’s economic miracle to be afforded with little else than the chance to dream.

Blue Spring (2001)

Director: Toshiaki Toyoda

Blue Spring (2001)

The title of Toyoda’s punchy adaptation of Taiyo Matsumoto’s manga of the same name derives from a literal reading of the 2 characters comprising the Japanese word for youth, ‘seishun’, and can also be read as having the double meaning of ‘fresh start’. 

The film focuses on the power structures and aggressive peer rivalry among the disaffected gangs serving out their time with little hope or prospects at a dilapidated boys high school in a rundown part of Tokyo. It’s the students who rule the roost here, with the teachers given constant reminders of their place within the violent pecking order, while the constant presence of the yakuza loitering outside the school gates suggests the future that this rude education is preparing them for.

Ain’t No Tomorrows (2008)

Director: Yuki Tanada

Ain’t No Tomorrows (2009)

Yuki Tanada brings an insightful gendered slant to her sassy coming-of-age drama focusing on the awkward interactions between 3 girls and 3 boys in a provincial high school. For all their braggadocio, the closest high-school tough guys Akihiro and Mikio have come to a real flesh sensation is fondling the man-boobs of their flabby classmate Anpai, who they rename Oppai (meaning ‘tits’). 

Despite a lack of confidence over his weight, Anpai still manages to catch the eye of buxom class vamp Akie, leaving Mikio to gawp on the sidelines at his object of desire. Meanwhile the wistful Natsuko is understandably more interested in flitting around their nerdy teacher than in anyone her own age, while Chizu, an only child living alone with her father, seems curiously ill-informed about sexual matters and her own physical and emotional maturation. The results are a vivid, often toe-curling invocation of the heady days of sexual awakening, which will have viewers, particularly male ones, reeling with embarrassed recollection of their own teenage experiences.

Originally published: 19 November 2020