10 great Japanese winter films

From Kwaidan to Lady Snowblood... Japanese cinema offers many of film history’s most memorably snowy movies.

Samurai Assassin (1965)

As apocryphal festive stories go, the one about the crucified Santa Claus in the window of a Japanese department store is a doozy. Urban legend has it that in the years following the American occupation of Japan, an eager window-dresser got his cultural wires crossed and mounted a life-size effigy of Father Kurisumasu (or santa-san) on a wooden crucifix in a bid to import some western seasonal flavour to the ailing store.

The commercialised Christmas as it’s known in the west is a relatively recent import to Japan, a country in which the religious connotations of the season hold little cultural value, with festivities usually saved for the busy 3-day period of new year (Oshogatsu) celebrations.

So if you’re looking for a Japanese Christmas movie at this time of year, you’ll find your options are pretty limited. What the country doesn’t want for in the winter months, however, is snow, especially on the northern island of Hokkaido and the Alpine ranges of Nagano Prefecture, which are home to numerous ski resorts and those red-faced macaques found bathing in the hot springs of Jigokudani. Then there’s Mount Fuji, that cultural icon towering over Tokyo and Shochiku studios; the latter’s films begin with an inimitable logo featuring the snow-capped peak.

For a country so distinctly seasonal, it’s little surprise that its national cinema would take on such specific flavours depending on the time of year its films are set. As the films below attest, the snow blanket of a Japanese winter lends a singular beauty – not for nothing are all but the earliest films below shot with a widescreen frame vast enough to capture the majesty of the landscape.

So don your gloves and scarf for this selection of classic films set during a snowbound Japanese winter.

Snow Trail (1947)

Director: Senkichi Taniguchi

Snow Trail (1947)

“Twice a day, in the morning and evening, you get to see the colour of the snow turn rosy. That’s the most beautiful sight in the mountains.” The quilted peaks in question are the Alps of Nagano Prefecture, hideout for a trio of bank robbers on the lam. One is swiftly taken out by an avalanche, the others – ringleader Takashi Shimura and hotheaded rogue Toshiro Mifune, in his first screen role – seek shelter in the home of an unwitting old man, his granddaughter and a mountain guide.

Working from a script by his old pal Akira Kurosawa, director Senkichi Taniguchi charts the Treasure of the Sierra Madre-style fallout between the stranded criminals, beginning in the isolated cabin before taking to the soaring range for an impossible escape attempt. The action set-pieces among the sheer-faced cliffs are thrillingly staged, but it’s the shift to moral enquiry for the final third – as Shimura proves his own essential goodness when faced with the ‘code’ of his guide – that elevates Snow Trail beyond its generic set-up. “The mighty mountain will punish the bad,” says the old man, and while Shimura’s capture proves inevitable come the close, the welcome of a warm hearth and a gramophone playing ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ is recompense enough for finding a code of his own to abide by.

The Idiot (1951)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

The Idiot (1951)

Masayuki Mori, Setsuko Hara, Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Chieko Higashiyama – the golden-age gang’s all here for Akira Kurosawa’s snow-kissed adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novel. Of course, we can fantasise over might-have-beens all day, but watching The Idiot it’s impossible not to think that Kurosawa’s original 4½-hour cut could have stood among his greatest achievements. What we have was ordered by his studio Shochiku, a 166-minute version that bears the brunt of its befiddlement in the opening act, where an awkward marriage of hard cuts and explanatory intertitles set the stage for the exquisite melodrama to come.

Hokkaido in the dead of winter is said stage, which Kurosawa captures with a documentarian’s eye for quotidian detail. A frozen, snow-swept urban landscape is the exterior the film’s characters huddle against, packed into busy interior frames as if to ward off – or fight against – any physical or psychological chill. And yet the cold still intrudes, as when Mori and Mifune’s respective Myshkin and Rogozhin proxies visit the house overtaken by winter’s hand, later the site of a climactic emotional confrontation. If only Kurosawa had been able to steel himself against the icy imperatives of Shochiku’s financial model.

The Ballad of Narayama (1958)

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita

The Ballad of Narayama (1958)

“It would be best to go when it seems there will be snowfall, but before the snow covers everything… I’m sure the snow will wait for me to get to Narayama.” So says ‘Orin of the Tree Stump’, the old lady awaiting her trip up the nearby mountain, where tradition dictates her life will end. Orin is looking forward to her trip, but is ashamed of her full set of teeth, which she believes indicate to others that she’s led a greedy life. Nothing that the edge of a stone bowl won’t fix, even if actor Kinuyo Tanaka doesn’t go as far as Sumiko Sakamoto, the actor playing the same role in Shohei Imamura’s 1983 remake, who had her teeth surgically removed especially for the film.

“A tale of the practice of the abandonment of old people, based on the legend of Obasute,” begins the kabuki-style narration to Keisuke Kinoshita’s expressionist masterpiece. With 3 clear acts tied to the changing seasons, it’s not until the end that the “crescent moon rises in the winter sky” and Orin’s journey to Narayama begins, carried on the back of her son. Shot on beautiful handmade sets that fly away for seamless scene transitions, it’s a more artisanal prospect than Imamura’s remarkable, bestial adaptation, with an artificial beauty in its production design that points ahead to the next winter wonder on our list.

Kwaidan (1964)

Director: Masaki Kobayashi

Kwaidan (1964)

Yuki-onna, or the Woman of the Snow, is an iconic figure in Japanese cultural history, with folkloric origins in the 14th century. Her most notable cinematic appearance is in the second segment of Masaki Kobayashi’s epic anthology film Kwaidan, a collection of supernatural tales shot with eye-popping expressionistic vigour on immaculately constructed soundstages.

Two woodcutters caught in a blizzard take shelter in a ferryman’s hut. They’re visited by Yuki-onna, who kills the older of the pair with her icy breath but takes pity on the younger man, sparing his life in exchange for a promise that he’ll never speak of her as long as he lives, on penalty of death. Seasons pass, the man has married a woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Woman of the Snow, who soon comes “looking for blood”.

It may have won the jury prize at Cannes and earned a foreign language Oscar nomination, but the debate over whether Kwaidan ever transcends its fantastical aesthetic schemes continues to rage. Wherever you land with it, the hermetic, snow-globe design of this wintry episode looks like nothing else in cinema.

Samurai Assassin (1965)

Director: Kihachi Okamoto

Samurai Assassin (1965)

Snow falls heavily over Edo Castle, outside which some 30-odd ronin gather, tempers set to boil as a result of a purge that saw the shogun take out all of his adversaries. Or, as Toshiro Mifune’s Niiro Tsuruchiyo – “formerly of the Bishu clan, now a ronin” – would have it, “a lot of political crap”. The end of the Edo era, caught in a ravishing black-and-white widescreen frame. It’s samurai vs shogunate for director Kihachi Okamoto’s apocalyptic jidaigeki epic; 100-something minutes of political intrigue before the bodies begin to fall in the snow.

Okamoto deftly moves from procedural narration to a courtly game of character chess, lining up motives and moves for the Shakespearean wallop of his endgame. Then, 15 minutes before the end, the narration returns, pinpointing the geography of the players on the stage for the final battle. The ferocious editing peaks before the fight even begins, with a series of cuts that throb with tension. And then Mifune charges…

Affair in the Snow (1968)

Director: Yoshishige Yoshida

Affair in the Snow (1968)

Before making his political masterpiece Eros + Massacre (1969), Yoshishige Yoshida – a key, if lesser-known figure of the Japanese New Wave – crafted a series of pictures best described, in his own words, as ‘anti-melodramas’. Stark, modernist studies in psychological alienation, they’ve drawn comparison to those of the maestro of bourgeois ennui, Michelangelo Antonioni.

Affair in the Snow certainly boasts a set-up worthy of a good melodrama, even as Yoshida resists anything approaching emotional catharsis. Yuriko (Yoshida’s wife, Mariko Okada) takes a trip into the mountains with Akira, the possessive boyfriend she wants rid of. A false pregnancy scare drives her into the arms of impotent ex-lover Kazuo, but Akira insists on following her, with the trio soon holed-up in a snowbound hotel to thrash out their respective recriminations.

Yoshida’s breathtaking widescreen compositions, with their hard lines slicing through the frame, shrink the protagonists against an inhospitable landscape. The hotel itself – without enough rooms available yet strangely deserted – proves a liminal psychological space for Yuriko to choose between the physical and platonic compromises embodied in each of her lovers, ultimately left unresolved with a whiteout as she howls into a snow-blind void.

Goyokin (1969)

Director: Hideo Gosha

Goyokin (1969)

Taking his cue from Sergio Corbucci, who had given the western a wintry costume change with The Great Silence (1968) the previous year, genre master Hideo Gosha took to the harsh coast of Japan’s Noto Peninsula for a superior samurai picture with a pronounced elemental charge.

Goyokin is the shogun’s gold, stolen by chamberlain Tatewaki (Three Outlaw Samurai’s Tetsuro Tanba), who slaughters an entire village of fishermen to cover up his crime. Magobei – played by the great Harakiri (1962) star Tatsuya Nakadai – was his right hand man, living in shame as a ronin when he hears of his former pal’s plans to repeat the massacre and steal another shipment of gold.

Tatewaki sends an army of minions for a series of set-pieces along the route of his old friend’s vengeful return, setting the stage for the inevitable showdown between the two. The frozen finale is a beauty: a fire-lit nocturnal battle in a blizzard gives way to a one-on-one fight in the settled morning. The 2 men blow into their numb hands as Gosha intercuts masked ‘taiko’ funeral drummers pounding for blood that’s soon cast in the snow.

Sapporo Winter Olympics (1972)

Director: Masahiro Shinoda

Sapporo Winter Olympics (1972)

“White waves across the undulating land. A crisp and glittering whiteness stretching out before human beings, the obscurity falling away before them. People running through the snow which dances down from the sky onto a field of muted colours.” Kon Ichikawa’s blistering summer spectacle Tokyo Olympiad (1965) – his classic record of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics – finds its polar opposite in Masahiro Shinoda’s account of the 1972 Winter Games on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

Where Ichikawa opted for an impressionistic, mythopoetic approach to an event captured under an oppressive sun, Shinoda’s take on the games – heavily narrated with poetic and cultural digressions – proves more formally conventional, if no less vivid.

A slash of white land cuts through an impossibly blue sky, disturbed only by the primary-coloured interruptions of the athletes’ gear. The images are everything: from decadent aerial photography to the blur of spinning figure skaters and airborne ski-jumpers – a rush of colour and movement; bodies in flight, pushed to their physical limits. Like Ichikawa, Shinoda has a keen eye for the eccentric too, as when we’re introduced to Hirokazu Gomi, the man responsible for maintaining the Olympic rink. He’s laid on his belly, checking its temperature and quality, with a cheek pressed against the ice.

Lady Snowblood (1973)

Director: Toshiya Fujita

Lady Snowblood (1973)

On a cold winter’s night in 1874, a baby is born in Tokyo prison, turning the snow that falls outside the window blood red. “You will carry on my vendetta,” says the dying mother to her newborn daughter, “You are an asura [vengeance] demon.”

Some 2 decades later, this ‘demi-god’ has grown, bearing – as her theme song declaims – “the weight of karma as she walks, gazing straight ahead, embracing the darkness with her umbrella.” We meet the older Yuki – the Japanese word for snow – as she confronts a gang, ditching her parasol to hack at limbs, arterial bursts of claret staining the frosted street.

Meiko Kaji forged an icon of Japanese exploitation cinema with her portrayal of Lady Snowblood across 2 films adapted from the popular manga series. The spirit of vengeance personified, “All could see her face as pretty as a flower, but none could know that in her fair and graceful breast there raged a desire to hunt down her enemies.” They proved a major inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films (2003/04), right down to the complex flashback structure and enigmatic chapter headings (“Chapter Three: Blood-Soaked Umbrella, Grief Scattered like Flowers”). Needless to say, Yuki would have the Bride for breakfast.

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (1974)

Director: Yoshiyuki Kuroda

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (1974)

Another manga adaptation, and another exploitation classic – or rather, the final film in a series of 6 exploitation classics. Produced and released in cinemas across less than 2 years (the first 4 in 1972 alone), the Lone Wolf and Cub series remains one of Japanese cinema’s most iconic pop-cultural exports, in no small part down to the 1980 international release of Shogun Assassin – a dubbed remix of the first film and its jewel of a successor, Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972).

Star Tomisaburo Wakayama – brother of that other serial sword-wielder, Zatoichi’s Shintaro Katsu, who also produced the first 5 films here – took over production duties for this final wintry instalment, hiring horror director Yoshiyuki Kuroda to mount the epic snow battle he’d always wanted to stage. Shot over 6 weeks, the final set-piece is a knockout, with Wakayama’s Itto Ogami seeing off a good hundred skiing, somersaulting henchmen with the kitted-out cart that carries his young son Daigoro along the Demon Way in Hell. We may not get the ultimate showdown the series warranted, but the zombie hordes and burrowing ninjas prove ample recompense en route to that batshit finale on the slopes.