When it comes to learning a language, the best way is to immerse yourself in it. Now for me I live in America and while there are plenty of Japanese, Korean, and otherwise Asian families living here, it’s really difficult to immerse myself in the Japanese language when there a very few people who speak it. That being said, I had to find another way to be able to get my daily dosage of Japanese. Radio and TV are a great way to really surround yourself in a culture that you can not directly interact with. In a very awkward, but interesting, turn of events I found a very interesting blog post by a gentleman who speaks multiple languages. He talks about that very topic, and focuses on the use of film as a way of immersing yourself in a culture, and names his top 10 Japanese films. He does an excellent job of explaining the concept of the films and I have decided to take them up on my “watch list” which I will be posting within the next week. That being said, below is a copy of his post, as I cannot directly share it due to the nature of how his website is being hosted and lack of WordPress share option. Enjoy!
Film is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in a foreign language from afar, giving you valuable cultural and linguistic insights from the comfort of your couch. Below you will find my top ten favorite Japanese movies of all time, divided into three categories: 1) “Samurai & Fighting Flicks” for those who enjoy epic hero tales and aren’t squeamish of violence, 2) “Windows Into Japanese Culture” for those want to see different facets of life in modern Japan (some good, some sad), and 3) “Lighthearted & Humorous Films” for days when you need a good laugh. Limiting my list to ten movies was no easy task as Japan is home to prolific filmmakers and some of the best directors in the world.
Samurai & Fighting Flicks
1) Seven Samurai
Seven Samurai, or Shichi-nin no Samurai (七人の侍・しちにんのさむらい) as it is called in Japanese, represents the late KUROSAWA Akira’s (黒澤明・くろさわあきら) best known film, and was the first Japanese movie to gain international acclaim. The film stars a number of leading stars of the day, including SHIMURA Takashi (志村喬・しむらたかし) as SHIMADA Kanbei (島田勘兵衛・しまだかんべい), the leader of the samurai group, and MIFUNE Toshirou (三船敏郎・みふねとしろう) as Kikuchiyo (菊千代・きくちよ), an unpredictable wannabe-samurai who ends up being the real hero of the film.
Youjinbou (用心棒・ようじんぼう), which literally means “Bodyguard” in Japanese, stars MIFUNE Toshirou (三船敏郎・みふねとしろう) of Seven Samurai fame as a “masterless samurai”, or rounin (浪人・ろうにん), who uses his cunning mind and warrior arts to help a town riddled with the violence and corruption of two warring clans. The heads of both clans end up hiring him for protection, unaware he is playing both sides.
3) Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman
Representing KITANO Takeshi’s (北野武・きたのたけし) largest commercial success to date, Zatouichi (座頭市・ざとういち) portrays KITANO as a blind masseuse roaming town to town. Not to spoil the story, but he is in secret a Robin Hood-esque hero with serious sword skills. When he comes across a town being bullied and extorted by powerful yakuza gangs, he shows that he doesn’t need the power of sight to bust heads. Despite the film’s blood and guts, it won the prestigious “Silver Lion for Best Director” award at the 2003 Venice Film Festival.
Literally meaning “Fireworks”, Hanabi (花火・はなび) is held by many as director-actor-comedian KITANO Takeshi’s (北野武・きたのたけし) masterpiece. Like most of his films, Hanabi portrays KITANO—who is also known quite aptly as “Beat Takeshi” (ビートたけし)—as a violent tough guy. In this case, he plays a former police detective who borrows money from the yakuza to help pay for his wife’s leukemia treatments. The film bears many similarities to his earlier (and also well-regarded) film Sonatine.
5) The Twilight Samurai
Tasogare seibei (黄昏清兵衛・たそがれせいべい, lit. “Twilight Seibei”) is set in 19th century Japan, just prior to the Meiji Ishin (明治維新・めいじいしん, “Meiji Restoration”). The movie centers around IGUCHI Seibei (井口清兵衛・いぐちせいべい), played by SANADA Hiroyuki (真田 広之・さなだひろゆき), a frugal accountant who forgoes luxuries like bathing and presentable clothes to help care for his senile mother and daughters after his wife died of tuberculosis. But what he lacks in grooming, he makes up for in bad-ass katana skills!
Windows Into Japanese Culture
Meaning “to Live” in Japanese, Ikiru (生きる・いきる) is a touching KUROSAWA classic about death, living for a purpose, and the absurdities of Japanese bureaucracy. Having worked for the Japanese government, I assure you the portrayal is spot on! The film stars SHIMURA Takashi (志村喬・しむらたかし), of Seven Samurai fame, this time portraying a stoic bureaucrat instead of a stoic warrior.
Departures is known as Okuribito (送り人・おくりびと) in Japanese, a word which usually refers to someone who sends someone else off (e.g. at the airport). The story centers around a young cellist in Tokyo who moves back to his rural hometown with his wife after his symphony is shut down. Taking a complete change of course in his life, he takes a job at a sougiya (葬儀屋・そうぎや, “funeral parlor”) and finds himself handling dead bodies instead of expensive cellos. The movie won “Best Foreign Language Film” at the 2009 Oscars, and “Picture of the Year” at the 32nd Japan Academy Awards. The film is directed by TAKITA Youjirou (滝田洋二郎・たきたようじろう) and stars YAMAZAKI Tsutomu (山崎努・やまざきつとむ), HIROSUE Ryouko (広末涼子・ひろすえりょうこ), and MOTOKI Masahiro (本木雅弘・もときまさひろ).
8) Nobody Knows
Though it’s one of the sadder films I have ever seen, I highly recommend KORE’EDA Hirokazu’s (是枝裕和・これえだひろかず) 2004 film Daremo Shiranai (誰も知らない・だれもしらない, “Nobody Knows”). The movie follows the daily trials of four children left alone in a Tokyo apartment for months (and eventually years) by their less-than-motherly mother. Sadly, the film is based on actual events.
Lighthearted & Humorous Films
I love this movie. A tour de force of Japanese cuisine, this Japanese comedy ties multiple story lines together in an almost Tarantino-esque style, with every sub-story involving the love of food. The movie is claimed to be the first “Noodle Western” (a play on the term “Spaghetti Western”).
Though Kikujiro (菊次郎の夏・きくじろうのなつ, “Kikujiro’s Summer”) may be light on character or plot depth, the film more than makes up for it with beautiful views of Japan, amazing piano music by FUJISAWA Mamoru (藤澤守・ふじさわまもる, a.k.a. “Joe Hisaishi”), and plenty of Takeshi-style comedy.
If you’ve already started using films as a way to help yourself learn Japanese, you’ve probably found that they are extremely difficult to use as a learning tool. The language and the speed make it difficult to understand and learn from. Without backup (transcripts, questions, explanations, etc.) a commercial film is difficult to easily use for learning purposes. My suggestion here would be to watch films subtitled in Japanese (or English if you are a beginner and can’t understand what is going on) and enjoy them first as a film. Try and get a feel for the overall rhythms and speed of dialogue. Then return to scenes and try them without subtitles. For words you don’t understand, use context clues to help fill in the blanks.
I’d also recommend TV series and more everyday themed films as the dialogue has more of a chance of being natural. Don’t try to understand everything if you’re not at that level yet. A very useful skill is being able to figure out what is going on when you don’t know everything that is being said.