Merry Christmas! Welcome to a festive edition of Your Japanese Film Insight, centered on Japanese Christmas movies!
I’ve covered some heavy topics in recent entries of my Japanese film column. I’ve discussed the hard-hitting and morally ambiguous documentaries from talented documentarian Kazuo Hara, I’ve talked about the powerful-yet-harsh anti-war masterpiece The Human Condition, and even the films of Meiko Kaji are violent in a way that can make many feel a little squeamish. They aren’t light films, and they don’t make for light reading, either.
But it’s Christmas! Even if it’s a little different this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s still the season of giving, and a generally positive time celebrated with the people you love and care for, whether they be family, found family, friends, or otherwise. I want my column this week to reflect that, even if Christmas this year is relegated to Zoom meetings for most people.
This week’s column is on Japanese Christmas movies. I want to discuss Christmas movies produced in Japan and the appeal of these films to a Japanese audience while discussing Japanese Christmas films to mix into your movie-watching traditions. Let’s get into it!
The Appeal of Japanese Christmas Movies
It’s easy to notice the distinct tonal differences between the bombastic, celebratory flare of even the most toned-down of Christmas films produced by Hollywood, and the films produced in Japan that place Christmas as the focus. Typically, the differences come from how the commercialization of the season has influenced the American and Japanese appeal of Christmas as a holiday.
My own experiences of Christmas in the UK make clear how the family-focused core of the season of giving is being eroded amidst its growing commercialization. Having always spent Christmas with family and those I care about, my traditions for the season have always valued this side of the holiday above all else.
Every Christmas Eve, we’d make a full English breakfast, while the night before Christmas would be spent watching a movie, festive or otherwise, before an early night’s sleep. On Christmas Day, opening presents would happen first thing in the morning, and I’d always wake up hours before everyone else to have a peek in the stocking. A large Christmas meal in the afternoon would be shared, and we’d play games together until long into Boxing Day. For all Christmas can be known as the season for fraying tensions due to the stress of cooking and entertaining family at a hectic time of year, it would be the opposite for me; Christmas would be the one time of year devoid of petty arguments. It’s why I enjoyed the season so much.
It’s a time of year to listen to too much Christmas music and eat too much food, and yet this side of Christmas is often overshadowed by an insincere veneer. The religious side of Christmas was never something I could attach myself to, and the celebrations, while enjoyable, were always held with a grandeur that wouldn’t be found during other times of the year. Christmas, in every sense, is as much about the appearance of a perfect family gathering and perfect Christmas to impress others as it is about spending genuine time with the people you care about. The commercialization of the season attaches itself to a culture surrounding it that elevates grand celebrations of love, lending even private moments of the season a celebratory, gloating edge.
It’s a tone shared by the films of Hollywood on the Christmas season. And this isn’t an attempt to delegitimize these movies or suggest they aren’t enjoyable, but they are emblematic of the showy nature of the Western relationship with the holiday season.
I don’t want to pretend Japan is free from such commercial trappings, but these often stop short of diluting or impacting the relationship between people and the meaning of the season. A KFC meal or obscene amounts of Christmas lights isn’t necessarily an over-commercialization that only entered Japan as a commercial proposition in the post-war era and is more widely viewed as a romantic night for couples on Christmas Eve and for gift-giving for children on the day itself, coupled with time alongside the people you love.
This is matched in the (admittedly smaller) selection of Japanese films about Christmas. If Western films like Home Alone, The Grinch, and Nightmare Before Christmas center the holiday and the celebratory nature of the season above all else, Japanese films on the Christmas season often center a family-focused or romantic story that happens to tie into the themes of the season, as opposed to the other way round. These films often use the cultural acceptance of the holiday as a time for love to blossom to heighten the emotions of a romantic drama, for example.
A good example of this can be found in It All Began When I Met You, a 2013 film directed by Katsuhide Motoki. While comparisons to Love Actually are easy to make thanks to its large cast of characters with interlocking stories, other than actually being a good film, what sets this film apart is its tone.
This interlocking series of stories on love and life that come together on Christmas Eve are more personal: a man with terminal cancer celebrating a final Christmas with their son while telling them the truth of their diagnosis, a long-term relationship that enters rocky terrain as stress takes its toll. These are low-key stories, and stories that can be told away from the Christmas season just as effectively. They’re elevated by their relationship to the festive season in this movie, as the season’s message of love is a driving force in their plotlines and an effective background element that elevates their emotional resonance.
To use Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers as an example, a film many readers to this site will be more familiar with than this one, that movie’s story of three homeless people finding an abandoned baby and attempting to reunite it with its family could easily be told at any time of year. And yet, it reads more emotionally powerful because it takes advantage of the season in which it is set to enhance the story being told, rather than telling a story about the season that inevitably acts as a promotion for the festive season no matter how personal the tale.
This is the core appeal of this Japanese brand of Christmas film. The differing importance of the season in Japan inevitably leads to a different brand of Christmas movie being produced within it. Being a part of a performative and commercial Christmas culture in the UK can leave the season feeling inauthentic even when celebrating it with those you care about, and Japanese films capture the joy of Christmas together with less performative that creates a more authentic tale.
I’m not going to pretend this is anything other than my own personal preference. This entire column is more a reflection of a desire to share my own experiences of Christmas and films I enjoy about the season, without any claim of authority on the subject. Nor is it a discredit of the appeal of Western Christmas movies, as someone who loves films like The Snowman and It’s A Wonderful Life.
A person’s relationship to the Christmas season is highly personal and will undoubtedly influence how they view the films made about it and their receptivity to them. Japanese Christmas films hold their own unique appeal, however, and I can’t help but respect and enjoy them.
Future Film Focus: Silent Tokyo (サイレント・トーキョー)
What if you want that high-drama, high-action, showcase Christmas movie? This year’s Silent Tokyo may be the film for you.
Released in Japanese cinemas earlier this month, think of Silent Tokyo as the Die Hard of Japanese Christmas movies. Silent Tokyo proposes the possibility of a society’s worst fears coming true on Christmas Eve night. A non-fatal bomb explodes in a shopping mall and serves as a much bigger warning for the attack planned for that night. A video message from the culprit of this explosion delivers an ultimatum: give me a conversation with the Prime Minister, or a bomb will be detonated in the heart of Shibuya.
The threat leaves a housewife and TV station employee coerced into co-operating with the criminal in this high-stakes thriller that serves as a threat to the Christmas season everyone has come to know and love.
Compared to the more personal stories I’ve already spoken of and am set to recommend, this film is more of a schlock of a production by comparison, but this is not a comparison made to the film’s detriment. This film has its appeal, and it’s hard to doubt how impressive the film looks in terms of scale and budget from the trailer.
A film like this is more about the action and thrill of the event than it is about the story, and the large recreation of Shibuya Scramble used in this film is easily the most impressive element of the movie’s production, featuring prominently in the movie’s promotion. With the crowd foolishly failing to heed warnings to clear the area, Shibuya is packed with thousands of extras simulating the crowds of the area as the time ticks down towards the bomb’s inevitable explosion.
Silent Tokyo is an action film amidst a sea of family and romance Christmas films, giving it a unique place within a library of established Japanese Christmas movies. Whether it has staying power to resonate with audiences for years to come remains to be seen.
Silent Tokyo is now playing in Japanese cinemas.
Film Flashback: Until The Lights Come Back (大停電の夜に, Takashi Minamoto, 2005)
Similar in structure to the aforementioned It All Began When I Met You, Until The Lights Come Back is a movie that I find best captures the appeal of Japanese Christmas movies. Telling the stories of six couples simultaneously may at first glance seem overwhelming, even if all are stories about love at various stages, from love in old age and young, divorce, and self-love. The season captured for each of these people may be different, but their stories embody the love of the season, until the lights come back.
On one fateful Christmas Eve, a sudden power outage hits the city of Tokyo and sends the entire city into a blackout. For a smattering of the city’s multi-million population, this compounds the issues they may be facing on this most festive of nights. One couple is filing for divorce and gets stuck in an elevator with a hotel worker who now can’t fly home to Singapore; for an older couple, one chooses to come clean about their illegitimate love child to their unsuspecting husband of four decades; one man’s release from prison, confronting their former lover in a train station, gets complicated when she goes into labor and the train breaks down.
The film thus tells the story of this smattering of couples as love is born, dies, and is rekindled between them all, centered primarily on a pair of shop owners in a discarded alleyway. One owns a struggling bar and looks set to close on Christmas Eve due to poor business, while the other runs a successful candle shop that does better than normal this Christmas since, you know, there’s a blackout.
It would be easy to cynically dismiss this film as corny, but what Christmas film isn’t to some extent? Every Christmas film relies heavily on the season’s traditions and tone to a major extent to define themselves as a Christmas movie experience, and Until The Lights Come Back is no exception. Yet beyond that, I was genuinely touched and moved by the stories being told.
My favorite is the central story of the neighboring shop owners. The candle store owner has always been curious about the guy who owns the bar, as she notices him cleaning the bass he stores beside the piano and working hard to make it a hospitable place for guests. Their chance to spend the night together, learning about their histories as they light the shop in enough candles to fill ten churches, is a heartwarming storyline.
I found myself thoroughly engaged in what was arguably the most personal story of them all, a young model feeling depressed on the roof of a building on Christmas Day as she prepares for surgery to remove her breasts due to cancer. A young boy stumbles upon her after noticing her through her binoculars, and a story of self-love and accepting the person you are now and the changes you have to overcome to become stronger is a strong interlude to the romance of other areas.
I even like how the pregnancy and the story of the older couple intertwine, since the man in the relationship comes to terms with the news by leaving the house to go for a walk and ends up witnessing the birth of the child after helping the pair out. The story in the hotel elevator feels more like an interlude and disconnected from the rest and could probably have been removed altogether. It is the main downside of the film.
The way that Until The Lights Come Back captures the Christmas season in a less commercial, more communal manner is its strongest asset and the thing I most appreciate about this relaxed, heartwarming film for the season. If you’re looking for something a little different this Christmas, it would be hard to go wrong with a film as inviting and warm as this.
That brings us to the end of the latest ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. For a complete list of films recommended as part of this column, you can find them compiled together in a list, with links to their respective articles, over on Letterboxd.
Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl!