Japan's Must-Read Magazine

Top 5 Japanese Films About Death

Japanese cinema is widely regarded the world over; the humanism of Kurosawa, the patience of Mizuguchi, the beauty of Miyazaki… it’s all good. But there is a darker side even before you dig down to the illegal stuff. Here, then, is a shortlist of recommendations of films that tackle the only fear (except for a common dread of NHK’s fee collectors) which we all share but can’t escape: DEATH!

The first nominee is Battle Royale, an inspired movie about a near-future Japan addicted to a reality TV show that follows a group of teenage delinquents who are kidnapped, fitted with electric dog collars, given random weapons, and told they have 24 hours to kill everyone else before those collars explode. The film mixes grind-house appeal with an engaging story – especially when director Kinji Fukasaku takes the adaptation to heart, comparing the movie to his experience of working in a factory as a child during WW2. The legend goes that a bomb hit his factory and Fukasaku had to crawl over the bodies of his friends in order to survive. Fukasaku died before the sequel was made, so if you haven’t seen Battle Royale 2… don’t!

There are two awesome anime about the Big D. First up, Grave of the Fireflies (originally the main feature to accompany My Neighbour Totoro), a tragic story of two orphaned children trying to survive a war-torn Japan as the nation loses its battle against the allied forces. The second is Barefoot Gen, a grimly accurate depiction of the atomic bombings and how they directly and indirectly destroyed countless lives. Both movies are pretty long and offer little else besides death, destruction and disappointment. War’s a bitch and few other films really show how innocent people suffer as comprehensively as these two masterpieces do. Not for the squeamish!

For a different view on death, see Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa. This classic movie follows an everyday salary man (brilliantly played by Takashi Shimura) as he is diagnosed with cancer and tries to find some sort of meaning to life. He hangs around with a male novelist one night and a young woman the next, but still he finds nothing to relate to. His family seem distant and the only motivation he seems to have is trying to use his position at work to get a city park built. As you’d expect from Kurosawa, the film is touching and sucks you deep into a storyline that seems simple but is laced with the kind of everyday complications we all have to deal with.

A lighter depiction of death is the main theme to The Funeral (Japanese title: Ososhiki), by Itami Juzo (who, rumor has it, was bumped off by the yakuza after making one too many exposés). This is the blackest of black comedies; it follows a family preparing for the funeral of 69-year-old dad/granddad Shokichi Amamiya. In the three days leading up to the funeral the family have to pick out a coffin and a priest, learn formal and confusing funeral etiquette and – toughest of all – survive each other’s company. Rumors and hearsay float around the family unit, as affairs and money disputes are nearly brought out into the open. It’s far from a laugh-a-minute slapstick, but if subtle comedy is your thing, you’ll love this.

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