My Top 6 Documentaries About Japan

There should be very little ambiguity as to what this blog post might have in store. It’s exactly what it says on the tin. By no means is this an exhaustive list and the whole point is to hopefully encourage others to share the titles of similar documentaries the rest of us may not have heard about. All the docos mentioned have been made fairly recently and perhaps mercifully, none of them include Tom Green (as mentioned in a previous post). And no, The Ramen Girl (2008) is not a documentary!

So, without further ado…

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)


This seemed like the logical place to start. In fact, I’m guessing that anyone with even a slight-to-moderate interest in Japanese culture probably already knows all about Jiro, but it’s not like I’m simply going to leave it out based on that – it would create an unsatisfyingly imperfect list.

The film is all about Jiro Ono; a renowned sushi chef on a seemingly endless journey for perfection within the walls of his famous Ginza restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro. Well in to his 80s, Jiro’s shoes are not likely to be easy ones to fill for his son Yoshikazu, should he ever actually retire, that is.

There’s no real “plot” and very little in terms of angle or deliberate intrigue. It’s a documentary that claims victory in the same way as Jiro’s sushi; by keeping it very simple but doing it very well. Jiro doesn’t seem to have any interests outside making sushi and this film doesn’t appear to be interested in doing much other than giving us an insight in to Jiro’s world. Like Jiro’s sushi, it does what it does with perfection.

If you’re hoping for an edge-of-your seat thrill, then you’re probably going to want to go re-watch Making a Murderer. But if you’re after a behind-the-scenes look at how a sushi master operates (and the effect that has on Jiro’s two middle-aged sons) then grab the popcorn …or, you know, sushi (It’s on Netflix).

Japan’s Tsunami: Caught on Camera (2011)


There’s other good documentaries which cover the exact same subject and one or two of them are similar, however, I chose this account of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami arbitrarily – it was probably the first I watched on the subject and it works.

The film makes use of amateur footage and images taken by a handful of folks caught up in one of the country’s absolute worst natural disasters. It’s equal parts distressing and awesome. In the face of monumental catastrophe, people are often amazing.

The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief (2006)


It may sound strange to some but I never really associated Japan with escorts, prostitution and all the generally perceived seediness that accompanies such things. I mean sure, I saw Tom Green (yeah, he gets another mention) go see a used panty dealer, but perhaps I told myself that wasn’t a fair representation of Japanese culture, even if it’s one of the things that tends to stick in the mind of Westerners who want Japan to remain this crazy, exotic land of weirdness.

Anyway, back to this doco…. It tells the story of 22-year-old Issei, who runs Rakkyo Café – a club where about twenty young men learn how to fake relationships with women who pay for the privilege.  Many of the women who can afford it appear to get their income from prostitution and so, it makes for a bit of a heart wrenching watch at times. I don’t think I’m imagining or embellishing when I suggest that many of the young ladies wish they could do away with their current lives and run away with Issei, the somewhat tragic king of underground love.

It would be totally unfair to judge the lives of those involved too harshly but this doco serves to make the viewer feel bad for, feel envious of, and occasionally want to punch, Issei, all within the space of 76 minutes.

Zero Hour: Terror in Tokyo (2015)


Another subject I never really associated with Japan; terrorism. Of course, stumbling upon this documentary, I then remembered hearing about this when I was younger (I might be old as hell but I was still in high school, I can assure you).

As it turns out, this was episode 4 of the Discovery Channel’s Zero Hour series. Sure, it employs all the tricks, from suspenseful soundtrack and the ticking of the clock, to David Morrisey’s ominous narration, but dammit, I was hooked from the start.

During Tokyo rush hour of Monday 20th March 1995, members of the organisation known as Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth), carry out a sarin gas attack on the subway. Of course, not everything goes 100% according to plan but 12 lives are lost as a direct result, while more than 5,000 more are injured. The viewer soon learns the wider truth about the terrorist group and their ambitious plans.

Perhaps most people reading this have already heard plenty about the Tokyo sarin attacks, but what made me want to watch this documentary more than once was trying to understand the motivations of the people involved in carrying out the plans. While many terrorist organisations appear to garner support from those who are poor or feel they have nothing, Aum Shinrikyo was different entirely; a doomsday cult led by a mostly blind yoga guru with Christ delusions, who managed to enlist the services of a doctor and physicists to carry out the horrific attacks. Chilling stuff.

Joanna Lumley’s Japan (2016)


Perhaps this one appeals to the tour guide in me. There’s no hint of controversy or suspense of any kind. It’s just a simple 3-part travel documentary.

What made me enjoy it so much was the respect and dignity the host approaches it with. There’s no over-the-top references to Japan’s supposed weirdness and it’s not oversold (I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s not the work of a self-important YouTube vlogger).

It’s also beautifully shot. An example of where Lumely’s professionalism and charm gels perfectly with both subject and cinematography, is a sunrise viewing of the super-rare, red-crowned cranes in Hokkaido. Absolutely beautiful.

Ryan Gander: The Idea of Japan (2016)


Part of BBC’s Japan Season, this truly is a great little insight in to Japanese culture. The host, visual artist, Ryan Gander, tells of his thoughts regarding Japan’s “super developed visual culture”. He claims the country is one which always seems to “get” his work and he often visits Japan for inspiration.

Gander then goes about interviewing people who offer insights in to how imagery can both complement and contradict popular perception of what Japan is about.  The doco focuses more acutely on subjects ranging from tattoo philosophy and attitudes, to the symbolism in sakura and the changing of the seasons.

Absorbing and interesting if you’re up for it.

Please let me know of any others worth watching!



4 thoughts on “My Top 6 Documentaries About Japan

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