Cinemas have cautiously started to reopen in parts of Japan, but many of us are still having to sit tight and do all our movie-viewing at home. If, by now, you’re feeling like you’ve reached the bottom of the streaming barrel, fret not: There are still choice morsels of domestic and overseas offerings to be found on all the major services, tucked away in corners where the algorithms fail to reach.
Even before many theaters closed for the state of emergency, many films that had found critical acclaim overseas struggled to secure distribution here. It’s too bad that audiences in Japan were able to watch Spike Lee’s (admittedly great) “BlacKkKlansman” but not Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You,” a caustic satire on race and power that offered a more malevolent counterpoint. Fortunately, the latter is now available on Amazon Prime Video, though you’ll have to search for it by its Japanese title, “White Voice.”
Confused? That’s typical of Amazon Prime’s service here, where many films are almost impossible to find if you don’t know their Japanese titles. Dig deep enough and you’ll find VHS-quality editions of classics such as “Citizen Kane” (“Shimin Ken”) and “An American in Paris” (“Pari no Amerikajin”), as well as world cinema staples including Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” (“Kamen/Perusona”), Tran Anh Hung’s “The Scent of Green Papaya” (“Aoi Papaiya no Kaori”) and Patrice Leconte’s “Monsieur Hire” (“Shitateya no Koi”), all with Japanese subtitles only.
Another film worth seeking out is Giorgi Ovashvili’s “Corn Island,” a luminous parable about war and humanity’s relationship with nature, told with almost no dialogue. It’s listed under its Japanese title, “Tomorokoshi no Shima,” though you can find it by searching for “Georgia” in English.
Amazon’s line-up of Japanese cinema leans heavily on recent fare (and yakuza B-movies, for some reason). It has most of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s films, from 1995’s “Maborosi” (“Maboroshi no Hikari”) to his 2018 Palme d’Or winner, “Shoplifters” (“Manbiki Kazoku”). You can also find some worthwhile indie dramas from the past decade, among them Yuki Tanada’s “The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky” (“Fugainai Boku wa Sora o Mita”), Ryota Nakano’s “Capturing Dad” (“Chichi o Tori ni”) and Takumi Saitoh’s “Blank 13.”
Nine times out of 10, films bearing the Netflix logo are the kind of indistinguishable genre fare that would have gone straight to DVD in the past. The remainder range from interesting to downright essential, and the highlights aren’t limited to Academy Award winners like “Roma” and “American Factory.”
Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’ “My Happy Family,” a cannily observed human drama with some barnstorming musical scenes, is a film I’d recommend to anyone. And if you haven’t yet seen Jeremy Clapin’s macabre, unexpectedly poignant “I Lost My Body,” Mati Diop’s stunning “Atlantics” or Sandi Tan’s bittersweet docudrama, “Shirkers,” you’re missing out.
Also worth checking out is “Results,” a deliciously skewed romantic comedy by mumblecore director Andrew Bujalski, and Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider,” a low-key but extraordinarily powerful drama that could teach Clint Eastwood a thing or two about working with nonprofessional actors.
While Netflix isn’t so strong for Japanese films, language learners should note that many of the movies have multilingual subtitles available. Try Nagisa Oshima’s controversial “In the Realm of the Senses” or Fumihiko Sori’s “Ping Pong,” one of the all-time great manga adaptations.
Hulu Japan boasts a much more comprehensive library of Japanese cinema, stretching back to Yasujiro Ozu’s 1932 silent comedy, “I Was Born, But…” The lack of English subtitles will be a deal breaker for many, but if your language chops are up to it then there are rich pickings to be had, with classic films by directors such as Oshima (“Night and Fog in Japan”), Masahiro Shinoda (“Pale Flower”) and Kenji Mizoguchi (“The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums”).
One particularly weighty offering is Masaki Kobayashi’s humanist epic, “The Human Condition.” Originally released in three parts between 1959 and 1961, the film runs close to 10 hours in total, making it one of the longest narrative movies ever made, though modern viewers are likely to see it as a forerunner of the miniseries.
As for domestic options on Hulu Japan, few films from the 2010s were as singular as “Anomalisa,” Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion animation about a motivational speaker engulfed in a midlife crisis. Rufus Norris’ “London Road,” an implausible blend of true-crime documentary and musical, is also a must-see.
Of course, all of these recommendations are specifically for streaming services in Japan and may not be available in other regions. However, readers in the U.K. are strongly encouraged to investigate the Japan 2020 season currently on BFI Player. You won’t find a stronger selection of Japanese movies anywhere else online. Even in Japan.