In partnership with JNTO

Japan’s illustrious cinema long ago put the country on the map, both as a cultural powerhouse – we’ve often sung the praises of past masters from Ozu Yasujiro to Kurosawa Akira, Oshima Nagisa to Kitano Takeshi – and as a land of rich and varied landscapes, culture and history. Japan still has the third-largest national industry in the world, and a new generation of Japanese directors is making fascinating films that prove the country’s cinema is as vital as ever. This selection of some of the best new Japanese films to look out for over the coming year offers a window on to the country and its many stories, faces, cultures and ports of call.

1. Hokusai

Director: Hashimoto Hajime

Hokusai (2020)

The influential Edo-era woodblock artist known for the iconic Great Wave off Kanagawa gets the biopic treatment in this colourful new portrait of his life and times.

Yagira Yuya, who made such an impact as the lead child star of Koreeda Hirokazu’s Nobody Knows (2003), plays the struggling artist as a young man, while another Koreeda regular, Abe Hiroshi (Still Walking, 2008; After the Storm, 2016), plays his patron, Tsutaya Juzaburo, persecuted by suspicious authorities due to the populist nature of the marketplace he operates in.

Hashimoto’s film provides equal emphasis on the eponymous artist’s final years of creative endeavour, with Tanaka Min stepping into the old master’s shoes for the final section.

2. Hold Me Back

Watashi wo kuitomete

Director: Ohku Akiko

Hold Me Back (Watashi wo kuitomete, 2020)

Although the chick-flick might not be the most critically fashionable of genres in the world of foreign-language cinema, when it comes to sprightly romcoms dealing with the social realities facing easy-going young Japanese women today, few do it better than director Ohku Akiko, as her previous ventures in the field, such as Tremble All You Want (2017) proved.

Hold Me Back, a portrait of a perky 31-yearold singleton engaged in a perpetual dialogue with herself as she contemplates romance with a younger man, also snapped up the Audience Award after its screening at the Tokyo Film Festival in October 2020 – the festival’s only prize, in fact, after the international jury competition was scrapped due to the pandemic.

3. Aristocrats

Ano ko wa kizoku

Director: Sode Yukiko

Aristocrats (Ano ko wa kizoku, 2020)

More than a decade on from her indie debut with Mime-mime (2008), writer-director Sode Yukiko returns with her third feature, taking a cool look at love and friendship across the class spectrum in its tale of two women from very different social backgrounds who are brought together when they fall for the same man. One, born into a cloister of privilege in Tokyo, is smarting from a recent breakup with her fiancé; the other, born in the sticks and having grafted her way through a prestigious university education, now works as a part-time bar hostess outside of her job in an IT company to support her precarious existence in a heartless metropolis.

4. Under the Open Sky

Subarashiki sekai

Director: Nishikawa Miwa

Under the Open Sky (Subarashiki sekai, 2020)

Critically lauded writer-director Nishikawa Miwa follows up her Dear Doctor (2009) and The Long Excuse (2016) with this account of an ageing mobster’s attempts to go straight after a 13-year stretch for murder, stymied by a society that refuses any possibility of redemption. The first of the director’s films not to be based on her own original story – it’s adapted from a 1993 work by the award-winning novelist Saki Ryuzo, who wrote the source novel for Imamura Shohei’s Vengeance Is Mine – it nevertheless retains the director’s nuanced eye for flawed protagonists and masculine frailty.

The lead casting of Yakusho Koji, one of the most ubiquitous and accomplished actors in Japanese cinema, recalls his not dissimilar roles in Imamura’s The Eel (1996); and The Third Murder (2017) by Koreeda Hirokazu, Nishikawa’s early mentor.

5. Underdog

Director: Take Masaharu

Underdog (2020)

Take Masaharu (The Naked Director) and screenwriter Adachi Shin return to the blood, sweat and tears of the boxing world following their acclaimed 100 Yen Love (2014), which charted the gruelling rise of Ando Sakura’s character from convenience-store worker to prizefighter. Their new film intertwines the journeys of three young hopefuls from the lower echelons of society who are as much underdogs outside the ring as they are within it; it’s a meaty, visceral tale presented in two parts that together clock in at an epic 276 minutes.

6. Wife of a Spy

Supai no tsuma

Director: Kurosawa Kiyoshi

Wife of a Spy (Supai no tsuma, 2020)

Among the most respected filmmakers of his generation, Kurosawa Kiyoshi has in recent years moved increasingly away from the esoteric chillers with which he forged his international reputation, such as Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001). In Wife of a Spy he reteams with Aoi Yu, who played the television reporter adrift in Uzbekistan in his recent enigmatic drama To the Ends of the Earth (2019) and who here, in a twist-laden plot, takes the role of the spouse of the wealthy president of a Kobe trading company who disappears on a business trip to Manchuria at the start of World War II. Kurosawa’s characteristically cool approach to the unfolding drama saw him awarded the Silver Lion for Best Director at last year’s Venice International Film Festival.

7. Evandelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time

(Shin Evangerion Gekijoban)

Director: Anno Hideaki

Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time (2021)

The original Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-96) anime series is rightly considered a landmark, with its tale of a teenage boy recruited by a secret organisation to pilot a giant cyborg to defend a futuristic Tokyo against a series of attacks by extraterrestrial beings known as Angels. The concluding episodes, though, were hampered by tightening deadlines and budgetary shortfalls that resulted in an infamous compromise as inventive as it was controversial. Since 2007 Anno has been rebooting the seminal series across four feature films, each of which has suffered its own share of production and release setbacks; true to form, the premiere of this final instalment was postponed from last June to 2021 because of Covid-19. An avid audience awaits this belated conclusion.

8. Red Post on Escher Street

Eshaa dori no akai posuto

Director: Sono Sion

Red Post on Escher Street (2020)

After Sono Sion’s relatively long absence from the limelight due to health issues, Red Post on Escher Street marks a typically rambunctious return to the fray for the hyper-prolific bad boy of Japanese cult cinema (we’re also awaiting his English-language debut, the Nicolas Cage vehicle Prisoners of the Ghostland). This one – a self-reflective portrait of a director known for pandering to the international circuit as he auditions and directs an expansive cast for a major studio project – is relatively light on sex and violence, but the humour and inventiveness is pure Sono.

Japan National Tourism Organization

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 and plan your adventure today.

Five contemporary 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 viewers a tour of the finest contemporary Japanese films and a chance to sample the country’s breathtaking landscapes.


Kitano Takeshi, 1993

Location: Okinawa

Sonatine (1993)

A masterful gangster film about a yakuza sent to the beautiful beaches of Okinawa where he has time to ruminate on his fate.

Nobody Knows

Koreeda Hirokazu, 2003

Location: Tokyo

Nobody Knows (2003)

A heartbreaking study of neglect about four children left to fend for themselves.

The Mourning Forest

Naomi Kawase, 2007

Location: Nara

The Mourning Forest (Mogari No Mori, 2007)

A haunting tale about an elderly widower and his young nurse who get lost in a forest.

The Woodsman and the Rain

Okita Shûichi, 2011

Location: Nagano

The Woodsman and the Rain (2011)

A lumberjack in the Kiso mountains is roped into the shooting of a zombie film.

Journey to the Shore

Kurosawa Kiyoshi, 2015

Location: Kanagawa

Journey to the Shore (2015)

The living and the dead coexist in this beautiful meditation on love and loss.

Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.