Now is the time to watch movies at home. If you’re curious about the lives and work of Japanese artists, here some films for you.
Cutie and the Boxer (2013)
This documentary offers an intimate look at the turbulent relationship and professional lives of married artists Ushio (the Boxer) and Noriko (Cutie) Shinohara. The title comes from Ushio’s painting technique of punching the canvas with boxing gloves. Noriko’s struggle to support her husband while expressing herself as an artist makes for a compelling narrative. (In English. Watch on Prime Video or iTunes).
Kusama – Infinity (2018)
An in-depth look at Yayoi Kusama, one of the world’s most popular living artists. It traces her origins as a creator, her fight for recognition, and her rise to superstardom while underscoring what made her work so radical as a woman artist of the 1960s. (In English. Watch on Prime Video or iTunes).
Joe Odagiri stars in this biopic about painter Leonard Foujita (Tsuguharu Fujita), who once thrived as the toast of Paris before returning to Japan to work as as a war painter during WWII. The film tells the story of Foujita’s life in dreamy vignettes. (In Japanese. Available on Netflix).
Taiyo no To (Tower of the Sun) (2018)
A documentary about Osaka’s Tower of the Sun, a 63-meter high work of art and architecture with fin arms and three sun-like faces. Designed by artist Taro Okamoto for the 1970 world’s fair, the tower reflected Okamoto’s doubts about modernity’s progress and his love of prehistoric art. The film presents the structure, whose interior was reopened to the public in 2018, as having “a message from the past for the modern world.” (In Japanese. Buy or rent on YouTube).
The long and eventful life of 17th-century Ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai has been adapted for the screen many times, most recently for the biopic Hokusai coming to theaters in Japan this summer.
In Hokusai (1953), director Hiroshi Teshigahara depicts the life and times of Hokusai through prints by him and other Ukiyo-e artists. The rivalry between the samurai and peasant classes, and Hokusai’s siding with the latter, is portrayed. (YouTube. Japanese with English subtitles.)
Miss Hokusai (2015)
This animation spotlights Katsushika Hokusai’s daughter Oi, who also worked as an Ukiyo-e artist. Directed by Keiichi Hara, the film is a coming-of-age tale about Oi’s life in the shadow of her father. It features charming scenes from the Edo period and is filled with dragons and spirits. (On iTunes. In Japanese with English subtitles).
Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)
This film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi considers the work of another Ukiyo-e artist, Kitagawa Utamaro, who depicted courtesans and beautiful women. Created under U.S. occupation, the film explores the act of artistic creation while critiquing the restricted lives of Japanese women. (On YouTube. In Japanese with English subtitles).
Jo no Mai (1984)
A biopic about Shoen Uemura, a Nihonga painter who in 1948 became the first woman to be awarded Japan’s Order of Culture. The film tells of her origins, her personal struggles, and her determination to live as an artist on her own terms. The title refers to the dance of a young geisha, a subject Uemura depicted in her work. (In Japanese. On Prime Video or to buy or rent on YouTube).
Death of a Tea Master (1989)
The 16th-century tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyu is credited as a forefather of Japanese wabisabi aesthetics. As tea master to daimyos, he also became intricately involved in the politics of his time. The Silver Lion-winning Death of a Tea Master is a biopic about Sen no Rikyu’s art and relationship to those in power, with special consideration given to his ritual suicide. (On YouTube. In Japanese with English subtitles).
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2017)
The creative process and anti-nuclear ideals of Ryuichi Sakamoto, musician of YMO fame, are explored in this documentary following Sakamoto in the wake of the Fukushima disaster and his recovery from cancer. (In English. Available on iTunes).
Daido Moriyama “Near Equal” (2001)
This documentary does a deep dive on Daido Moriyama, one of Japan’s most renowned living photographers. It discusses his poetic style and conceptual approach through interviews with editors, curators, fellow photographers, and friends. (On YouTube. In Japanese with English subtitles).
Children Who Won’t Die, Arakawa (2010)
A look at the philosophy and buildings of architects Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins, designers of the eye-popping, unconventional Reversible Destiny Lofts. Arakawa and Gins have long been interested in “the way the body interacts with architectural space” and believe that if built a certain way, structures can help promote health and long life. This video can be viewed for free through the end of June on the website Arakawa + Gins. (In Japanese with English subtitles).
Wim Wenders took a cinematic interest in Japan. One of his films, Tokyo-Ga, explores the work of director Yasujiro Ozu along with slices of Japanese life. This documentary, one of Wender’s “diaries on film,” features interviews with Ozu’s leading actor Ryu Chishu and others he worked with. (In English. Available on the Criterion Channel).
Notebook On Cities And Clothes (1989)
Another of Wender’s films considers the work of fashion director Yohji Yamamoto while tracking the international fashion scene between Tokyo and Paris. (In English. Available on Prime Video UK).
This is the final chapter in director Seijin Suzuki’s surrealistic trilogy about the early 20th-century Taisho era. Kenji Sawada stars as artist Yumeji Takehisa, celebrated for his stylish modern Nihonga paintings and illustrations.
(In Japanese. Available on Prime Video).