Kids are weird and so are the Japanese. Japanese kids, though, are surprisingly relatable. Below is a list of five wonderful coming-of-age films from Japan that will make you smile — or wince — in recognition of the strange but necessary business of growing up.
Grave of the Fireflies. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel, this Japanimated film about two orphaned children takes place near the end of World War II. After their mother’s death from an air raid, preadolescent Seita resolves to take care of his younger sister, Setsuko, failing to realize how rapidly their chances for survival are diminishing by the day in the shell-shocked and desperate countryside.
I Was Born, But… An undisputed masterpiece by the legendary director Yasujiro Ozu, this gentle but deeply affecting coming-of-age comedy suggests that growing up and figuring out how the world works inevitably means being disappointed by your parents. After brothers Keiji and Ryoichi move to a new town, they rely on their stern father to protect them from the aggressive neighborhood bullies, but the boys’ confidence in their steely father is lost when they see him clowning around for his boss’ amusement.
Kamikaze Girls. Adapted from a young adult novel turned manga comic, this sweetly punk film is about two teens, a girly-girl with a passion for Lolita fashions and a biker chick in a girl gang, who become friends despite having little in common except their desire to escape their nowhere town and their abiding hatred of boys. Much of the film’s considerable visual charm comes from its explorations of Japanese youth subcultures and its borrowings from comic and video game graphics — years before Scott Pilgrim.
Love Exposure. A major pop sensation in Japan, this four-hour coming-of-age epic centers on Yu, the teenage son of a Catholic priest who first becomes an up-skirt photographer, then the lesbian lover of the girl of his dreams (Yoko), and finally an infiltrator into the cult that keeps Yoko (now ex-girlfriend) hostage. Love Exposure is a hilarious, disturbing, and ultimately pretty sweet tale about how important love, family, and religion are — and how they can really mess you up.
Nobody Knows. Sometimes growing up simply means learning that life sucks more than you could have ever imagined, and you can’t do much to make it better. This somber arthouse film, based on actual events, features a group of four young siblings in Tokyo who are abandoned by their mother and left to fend for themselves. Given the children’s harrowing circumstances, the film is appropriately terrifying, but the terror is tempered with a fairy-tale quality derived from the children’s blithely naive point-of-view.