The 8 Best Films I Saw in Japanuary

Ranking the 8 best films I saw while participating in the Japanuary challenge.

by Jack Gross

In December 2021, I was made aware of a film challenge on Letterboxd, a social media platform for films. The challenge, simply titled Japanuary Challenge 2022, presented a series of prompts aimed at introducing users to more eclectic and underrated Japanese films and filmmakers. There were 31 categories, all titled after well-known Japanese directors. The challenge? Watch one Japanese film from every director every day through January. Those that had already seen a large sum of films from one of the directors were granted bonus categories that they could substitute for any day. These bonus topics included “Pink Film,” “Samurai Film,” “J-Horror Film,” and more.

I consider myself a huge fan of Japanese films, ranging from the world-renowned visionary Akira Kurosawa, to the rebellious “Godard of the East” Nagisa Ōshima. So, as soon as I laid eyes on this holy grail of filmmakers and film recommendations, I knew I had to attempt the challenge. Unfortunately, as life became increasingly hectic, I was only able to get to 21 out of 31 films, but I was still introduced to a number of truly masterful works from Japanese auteurs that I’d love to share. So, without further ado, allow me to list the Top 8 Films I watched during Japanuary.

#8: Youth of Beast (Directed by Seijun Suzuki) 

The Japanese yakuza film, like the American gangster film, was popular in Japan in the 60s and 70s. Arguably the most influential figure in this genre was Seijun Suzuki, who made genre-defining films such as Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter. However, I do think Youth of Beast deserves to be in the conversation as one of the most significant early yakuza films. Mirroring a similar structure to Yojimbo, Youth of Beast is a tense, exciting, and entertaining action film.

While maybe not leaning on the cynical levity that pushed Branded to Kill in the upper-echelon of yakuza film, Youth of Beast presents a stellar performance from Joe Shishido with some expertly crafted set pieces and visuals. From glass wall nightclubs, masochistic beatings in tall swaying grass, electrifying escapes while dangling upside down, and more than enough exciting gunfights, Youth of Beast is an incredibly self-aware and self-contained action film with enough refreshing ideas executed perfectly making it well worth the praise.

#7: Floating Weeds (Directed by Yasujiro Ozu)

Coming into Japanuary, I was very familiar with Ozu’s patient and potent style of filmmaking, yet what surprised me is how well it all came together in Floating Weeds. While a film such as Tokyo Story revels in its silent heartbreaks and stoic depictions of familial estrangement, Floating Weeds may be Ozu at his most modern. A story of abandonment, regret, youthful struggles of the soul, and ultimately, forgiveness.

I felt that Ozu’s composition, framing, and eye for frames within frames suited his work for color, especially after I watched Good Morning and An Autumn Afternoon. Floating Weeds further exemplifies this sentiment with its gorgeous scenery and pristine landscapes, leading me to believe many shots in this film could easily be classified as paintings. Additionally, while I feel as though some of Ozu’s characters are too passive with little to no agency, every character in Floating Weeds has a designated desire, and they each go about achieving their goals in incredibly nuanced and interesting ways. Besides maybe Good Morning, Floating Weeds may be the perfect place to start for those looking to get into Ozu’s extensive oeuvre, and it’s proven to be one of my favorites from the great Japanese filmmaker.

#6: Love & Pop (Directed by Hideaki Anno)

Hideaki Anno, a huge figure in Japanese culture thanks in no small part to his directorial efforts on the extremely popular anime series Neon Genesis: Evangelion, broke into the live action scene with his non-animated directorial debut Love & Pop. While Anno’s work (both anime and live action) all seem to familiarize themselves with similar themes, Love & Pop does so with a completely original and purposefully uncomfortable style. Shot almost exclusively on handheld digital cameras, Love & Pop proudly dates itself, unabashedly remaining locked in its time and place, which works perfectly as a self-contained glimpse into the fleeting youth of a high school girl desperately attempting to attain some form of material catharsis.

At the heart of Love & Pop is a central question: how far are you willing to go to achieve the tantalizing feeling of self-worth? What Anno masterfully reveals to us is that self-worth is not something that exists externally, rather it must be something that comes from within, and it must be found while maintaining respect for yourself. With brilliantly nauseating camera work, memorably sleazy side characters, and a noteworthy conclusion as impactful as one could hope, Love & Pop proved Anno’s storytelling and directorial prowess could extend far beyond the world of animation.

#5: To the Ends of the Earth (Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Chances are, if you’ve heard of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, it’s because of his horror films, whether it be the hypnotic thriller Cure, or the terrifyingly subtle Pulse. While I loved those two films, To the Ends of the Earth presents a different, and far more authentic form of dread. You can label it an unsettling fish out of water narrative, but at the heart of Kurosawa’s film, the true terror comes from the innate foreignness of the world. We watch as the central character struggles to find her way in the world as she’s both alienated from the people of Uzbekistan, a country she’s woefully unfamiliar with, and from her own Japanese coworkers that view her as an actress and performer above anything else.

It seems one of Kurosawa’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker is making the mundane deeply unsettling, and he does that time and time again in To the Ends of the Earth. Whether it be a sudden shift in lighting, an overwhelming feeling of anxiety while a character inadvertently becomes lost, or a simple spinning roller coaster ride in a populated part of town, all these events miraculously present themselves as anxiety-inducing moments that further exemplify the lasting consequences of societal separation. Yet, this film goes even further, exploring what it means to search for meaning and purpose and life, and the many unfortunate detours one can take while on this journey. Deeply poignant, strangely dreadful, and in the end, optimistically moving, To the Ends of the Earth is a true cinematic gem from an impressive filmmaker.

#4: Only Yesterday (Directed by Isao Takahata)

While it seems the works of Miyazaki are often revolving around the escaping of a mundane existence via fantastical landscapes, journeys of grand proportions, and magical set pieces, Takahata’s Only Yesterday attains the same beauty and magnetism without journeying into fantasy. The film works to present two separate time periods in everyone’s life: childhood and burgeoning adulthood. These two distinct phases of development often contradict each other in films, and rarely overlap. In Only Yesterday, hinted at by its revealing title, the past and present are strongly tied together and even work in tangent through memory, nostalgia, and introspection.

Only Yesterday is, before anything else, a commemoration of simpler times in the face of existential ambiguity. Takahata crafts a moving ode to the youthful bliss of growing up, being reckless, and forming memories that will follow you wherever you go. These same memories are the ones that not only make you who you are but will go on to inform your life decisions as an individual. With a wave of optimism, drop of sentimental nostalgia, and sprinkle of melancholy, Only Yesterday is a truly transformative viewing experience that I feel many should experience at least once.

#3: His Motorbike, Her Island (Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi)

While I’d seen several of Obayahi’s work before Japanuary, I had never seen His Motorbike, Her Island, which was a film that had been recommended to me for a while. After watching it, I immediately knew why. Full of so much heart, celebration, and love, His Motorbike, Her Island epitomizes what it means to truly find your counterpart in life. Utilizing a constantly shifting color palette, Obayashi effortlessly glides between the realms of magical realism, dreamy humanism, and breathtakingly wholesome levity.

Emulating the feeling of a heavy warm blanket, His Motorbike, Her Island presents us a comforting world, one that while we are aware anything can happen, we feel immensely safe and secure. Everything is strangely and intimately familiar, and Obayashi’s deeply reassuring His Motorbike, Her Island is yet another film in his extensive filmography that exudes his undying passion and optimism for life.

#2: Demons (Directed by Toshio Matsumoto)

I feel as though Demons may be the most difficult film to talk about. One half surrealist samurai revenge film, another half minimalist melodrama, Matsumoto’s Demons is a darkly troubling and cynical character study into vengeance, honor, and cyclical destruction. The film resides in dense shadows and sparse scenery, instead focusing its energy on characters and emotions. It’s a draining, troubling, brutal, and fascinating viewing that presents an unflinchingly demonic story, one where mortal man is the demon.

Experimental filmmaker Toshio Matsumoto may be better known for his other feature film, Funeral Parade of Roses, or his numerous avant-garde short films, but in my eyes Demons is the crowning achievement in his short filmography. With a masterful eye for detail, whether it be hair strands sticking out of the protagonist, or his use of slow-motion to forcibly situate the viewer in the depraved acts of violence, Matsumoto proved he was a true artist behind the camera.

#1: After Life (Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda)

My favorite film that I saw in Japanuary came as a major surprise, and I’m not sure why. With one of the most innovative and beautiful premises I’ve ever seen in a film, After Life has secured itself as one of my favorite films of all time. With a constantly evolving cinematic style, shifting from dreamy imagery, docufiction, handheld footage, and traditional composition, Kore-eda’s film effortlessly traverses the many possibilities of filmic achievement. Furthermore, the narrative itself explores the importance of film as an art form: as a means of record, a manner in which intangible thoughts can be translated into audiovisual consumables, a form of therapeutic escapism and confrontational introspection, and finally, a cathartic sensation of inner peace and harmony.

After Life is patient, precise, and deeply poignant. It’s crafted with a care and reverence that only a well-seasoned filmmaker such as Kore-eda could truly execute. For those that love film, it’d be impossible to not see the passion and dignity After Life exudes in every frame, every cut, and every line of dialogue. It’s a quiet film, one that doesn’t feel the need to overstate its importance or longevity, ironically making it, at least in my eyes, one of the most memorable films I’ve seen in a long time.


Although I didn’t finish the challenge, Japanuary introduced me to so many great works from excellent filmmakers and I am so happy I participated. Japan has long been my favorite country for films, due to the impressive variety and consistent quality of their films. My involvement in Japanuary only deepened my admiration and appreciation for the country, and for those looking to get into more global cinema, look no further than the extensive works released from Japan.

Follow MovieBabble on Twitter @MovieBabble_ and follow Jack @popcornideology.

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1 comment

Nick Kush February 11, 2022 - 10:14 am

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