In partnership with JNTO
Japan’s sparsely inhabited northern island of Hokkaido is a land of rugged, majestic landscapes with an icy winter climate. Its frontier status has made it a natural setting for such man-against-the-elements action movies as the Kurosawa Akira-scripted Jakoman and Tetsu (1949), in which a heroic member of a fishing outpost rallies his co-workers against the gang of a one-eyed outlaw.
Fukasaku Kinji remade the film in 1964 with Takakura Ken, the ‘Clint Eastwood of Japan’, replacing Mifune Toshiro as the titular Tetsu. Takakura then starred in the ten-film Abashiri Prison series (1965-1967) as one of a group of yakuza jailbirds who continue their gang rivalries within prison walls while periodically making their escapes across the island’s snowy hinterland.
The island’s historically persecuted Ainu people make Hokkaido a natural setting for Japan to translocate the western genre. Takakura, again, took an early role in The Outsiders (1958) as the horse-riding champion of the rights of the local people against the power of Japanese settlers. In a cartoonish riff on the same set-up, Kobayashi Akira played the titular Rambling Guitarist (1959-62) in Nikkatsu’s series of ‘Sukiyaki westerns’, while Hokkaido provided a logical setting for Lee Sang-il’s 2013 remake of Clint Eastern’s Unforgiven (1992).
The mountainous Tohoku region, which inspired the haiku of Edo-era poet Basho Matsuo, is often represented as offering jaded city dwellers a place to connect with a simpler way of life.
It provides the spectacular backdrop to Takita Yojiro’s Oscar-winning Departures (2008), a moving comedy-drama about the spiritual journey of a cellist retraining as a nokanshi or traditional Buddhist undertaker in his Yamagata prefecture hometown.
Takahata Isao’s poignant Only Yesterday (1991) animated Yamagata in its tale of a young woman overwhelmed with memories of her childhood while revisiting her family home.
And Ogawa Shinsuke’s celebrated documentary collective set up base there to document its local folklore, traditions and rice farming practices, in a series of monumental films culminating in The Sundial Carved with a Thousand Years of Notches: The Magino Village Story (1987).
3. Kanagawa prefecture
Barely an hour south of Tokyo by train, Japan’s one-time capital of Kamakura (1185 to 1333) boasts several must-see historical landmarks, including the legendary Great Buddha (Kamakura Daibutsu), a giant bronze statue constructed in 1243; and, for cinephiles, Ozu’s final resting place. The hallowed director lived and made a number of his works here – Shochiku’s Ofuna studios were nearby – including Early Summer (1951), in which the extended members of a middle-class family scheme to marry off the carefree single daughter of the house.
By contrast, the nearby Shonan beach area set the scene for the new wave of raucous late-50s taiyozoku (‘sun tribe’) youth movies that represented a rupture with the sensibilities of Ozu’s domestic dramas. Season of the Sun (1956), Crazed Fruit (1956, pictured above) and The Warped Ones (1960) make use of Sagami Bay and the city of Fujisawa as a backdrop to their tearaway protagonists’ antics. Kitano Takeshi would also here film A Scene at the Sea (1991), his quiet tale of a deaf trash collector’s slow mastery of surfing, presenting a different portrait of a new generation of Japanese youth.
The largest city in the five prefectures of Japan’s western Chugoku region, Hiroshima arose as a castle town surrounded by shrines and temples, many of which still stand today, often in reconstructed form. For, of course, the city is most known as the target of the atomic bomb drop on 6 August 1945, an event still reflected in the city and on film.
Indeed the city’s name in a film title leaves little doubt as to its subject matter, and not just in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959); Shindo Kaneto’s Children of Hiroshima (1952, pictured above) and Sekigawa Hideo’s Hiroshima (1954) both contrast their chilling testaments to that fateful day with the more quotidian realities of the post-occupation era. Their blasted and flattened backdrops make them time capsules of a city that has rebuilt from catastrophe, though one skeletally surviving landmark connects them to the present: the bare dome of the 1915 Product Exhibition Hall building, now a Unesco World Heritage Site renamed the Genbaku Dome.
The balmy subtropical archipelago of Okinawa that stretches south from Japan’s four main islands only officially became part of the nation in 1879, shortly after the Meiji Restoration; after World War II it remained under US occupation until 1972. As such, boasting its own indigenous culture, language and traditions, it has often been deployed by filmmakers as a backdrop through which to explore the origins, potentials and limitations of Japaneseness, in narratives as wide-ranging as Imamura Shohei’s Profound Desires of the Gods (1968), Oshima Nagisa’s Dear Summer Sister (1972), Kitano Takeshi’s Boiling Point (1990) and Sonatine (1993), and Kawase Naomi’s Still the Water (2014).
Ogigami Naoko’s deadpan but quietly affecting comedy Megane (2007) riffs on Okinawa’s place in the Japanese imagination as a favoured domestic tourist destination offering exoticism, relaxation and a home-from-home familiarity in which to contemplate existence, as an uptight Tokyo career woman is seduced into the rhythms of a small island community around her guest house through the arcane local practice of ‘twilighting’, or a therapeutic evening doing nothing.
About Japan National Tourism Organization
Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) promotes travel to, in and around the country. Check out the JNTO site for bucket list itineraries, the ‘old normal’, travel on a budget and endless ways to escape into rural Japan.
Visit japan.travel and plan your adventure today.
Five rural Japanese films to watch on BFI Player
BFI Player has teamed up with the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) to bring you some of the best of Japanese cinema, and a serious dose of wanderlust. These five gems offer a spectrum of images of rural Japan, from the mountain vistas of Yamagata to the tropical beaches of Okinawa.
Ozu Yasujirō, 1951
Calm beaches form the backdrop for an intergenerational family drama where tradition meets modernity.
Kitano Takeshi, 1991
A deaf couple stumble across a discarded surfboard and dream of surfing stardom.
Takita Jojiro, 2008
A professional cellist loses his job and returns to his rural family home amidst the mountains of Yamagata.
Koreeda Hirokazu, 2011
Two young brothers, living separately, believe that a new bullet train will help grant their wish for family reunification.
Kawase Naomi, 2014
On the island of Amami a young couple grow up, fall in love, and contemplate their futures.
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Originally published: 24 February 2021