For many of us round-eyes, Christmas time is the time to curl up on the couch with your family and enjoy a more or less cheesy festive movie together. If you’re spending Christmas in Japan, looking for an alternative type of Christmas movie, or if you live in a blended Japanese family like mine, then you might want to check out the Japanese Christmas movies below.
Japanese Christmas movies show a very different side of the holiday, one that contrasts with what we typically see in American films.
The differences between Japanese Christmas movies and Western Christmas movies
In the West, the consensus is generally that Christmas is a time for families. But in Japan, it’s more about couples. And KFC. And love hotels.
Over the last few decades, it has become an increasingly common practice to spend an evening with your significant other for Christmas. As such, many popular Japanese Christmas movies are focused on romantic love. Indeed, movies such as Take me out to the snowland (私をスキーに連れてって) and it’s accompanying song Your lover is your santa claus “恋人がサンタクロース” are often credited as cementing Christmas as a time for lurv, with a rolled “R”, in Japan.
I’ve got a list of Japan’s most influential Christmas songs here.
Many Japanese Christmas films typically revolve around the story of a male protagonist who is looking for affection.
This usually happens on what to Japanese people is the most important day in the Christmas Calendar…
Christmas Eve: The most celebrated Christmas day of the year in Japan
The holidays of Christmas and New Year’s Eve are both celebrated in Japan, but Christmas Eve is more popular than Christmas Day.
As such, Japan’s Christmas flicks tend to be more about Christmas Eve than Christmas day. This is reflected not only in the variety of Christmas-themed entertainment that airs on December 24th, but also in the holiday season blockbuster releases.
Does Japan have a lot of Christmas movies?
Well Japan doesn’t have “a lot” of Christmas films by Western standards, but it does have perhaps a dozen or so Christmas movies that are commonly known and that explicitly reference Christmas in the themes, titles or settings.
Although Christmas in Japan has a long history going back to 1552, the Japanese Christmas today does not represent a national holiday. As such, movie studios have been slow to explore the market that the time of Noel could potentially provide.
However, from the 1950s century, post-war Japan started to produce Christmas movies. The mid 20th century marked a time of unprecedented growth for Japan. Many Japanese citizens started to have a materialistic lifestyle, which changed the way they viewed the world and how they conducted their daily lives.
This has been gradually reflected in Japan’s film culture so that we can now see the films listed below. There does seem to be a new Christmas influenced film that comes out every couple of years now to help fill the space under the Japanese Christmas Tree.
How have we chosen the order of these Japanese Christmas Films?
We have basically listed these in order of what are the most “Christmassy” or “influential” films. They are not necessarily the most “artistic” or “innovative”. If it was, Sion Sono’s “Love & Peace” would be at the top, probably followed by “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”.
#1) Take me out to the snowland 私をスキーに連れてって (watashi wo suki ni tsuretette)
|Cast||Tomoyo Harada, Hiroshi Mikami, Kiwako Harada, Hiroyuki Okita, Hitomi Takahashi, Hiroshi Fuse|
This movie tops our list because it has been so influential on the Japanese experience of Christmas in the modern age. Take Me Out To The Snowland was a phenomenon that launched what is perhaps the most ubiquitously heard song in shopping malls, supermarkets and restaurants throughout Japan at Christmas time: Yumi Matsutoya’s earworm “Koibito ga Santa Claus” (Your lover is your santa claus).
The song and the film were so influential in Japanese culture at the time that they have been credited in fully instilling the idea of Japanese Christmas as being primarily about romance, as opposed to family as it is generally seen in Western cultures. The film also caused a ski boom after it was released in 1987.
Viewed today, the film is tremendously cheesy, but offers an intriguing insight into 1980’s Japan and offers a similar sense of nostalgia to films like The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the West.
The film also lets you look back in time to a Japanese society of salarymen and 1980’s pre-bubble excess.
The film is the story of Fumio, who is an everyday office company man working at a trading company, but who has professional skiing skills. Fumiko and his friend rescue a woman, Yu, buried beneath the snow out on the ski slopes on Christmas day. Fumio falls in love at first sight. With the help of his friends, he sets out to woo his new found love.
#2) Tokyo Godfathers 東京ゴッドファーザーズ (Tōkyō Goddofāzāzu)
|Cast||Toru Emori, Yoshiaki Umegaki, Aya Okamoto, Satomi Korogi, Kyoko Terase|
This is perhaps the most well known Japanese Christmas film outside of Japan.
An anime released in Japan in 2003 and in America the following year the film puts a spotlight on homelessness and the underprivileged who huddle in the shadows of Tokyo’s Christmas illumination.
On Christmas Eve, three homeless people living in a park in Shinjuku find an unexpected “gift” on the streets – a swaddled baby in a dumpster. The rough-sleeping group set out to find the child’s, kiyoko’s, parents.
The three homeless people, all from different backgrounds, genders, and ages are touched in different ways by the “Christmas miracle” as they embark on the adventure to find baby Kiyoko’s home.
#3) It All Began When I Met You すべては君に逢えたから
|Cast||Hiroshi Tamaki, Rin Takanashi, Fumino Kimura, Masahiro Higashide, Tsubasa Honda|
This film was inspired by the 2003 British romantic comedy Love Actually and was created to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the opening of Tokyo Station. Indeed, the film is set in Tokyo Station and features six separate stories about ten different characters at Christmas. Stories highlight different characters from different walks of life in Japan. These include a single man starting a web design company, a couple in a long-distance relationship, a female college student who has a crush on a senior at her university and a girl who believes she has genuinely received a letter from Santa Claus.
Overall, the theme is about love, whether it be romantic, or the love between family and friends.
This film is worth watching as much for the wonderful scenery of Tokyo in all it’s Christmas illumination splendor, as it is for it’s mixture of heartwarming, comic and tragic human vignettes.
#4) “Miracle Debikuro’s Love and Magic” Miracle デビクロくんの恋と魔法 (Miracle Debikuro kun no koi to maho)
|Cast||Aiba Masaki, Nana Eikura, Han Hyo-joo, Toma Ikuta|
This album features Japanese teenage idol group member Masaki Aiba, as the film’s lead. The film packs a musical 1-2 double punch by featuring probably Japan’s most popular Christmas song Tatsuro Yamashita’s “Christmas Eve”. Indeed, the film is based on a novel by Ko Nakamura, which was inspired by Yamashita’s mega-hit Christmas song.
Hikaru Yamamoto is a bookstore clerk who dreams of being a manga artist. His main manga character creation is called “Debikuro-kun”. Hikaru falls in love with a woman named Soyoung. Anna Takahashi is a colleague with Soyoung and tries to bring them together. But, Soyoung has someone else in her heart – Ichiro.
This Japanese movie depicts the miracle of Christmas through the prism of a love-triangle. It is a Christmas story about a group of four men and women who through the travails of courtship and the search for affection come to notice once more the love of those that have always been around them.
#5) Until the Lights Come Back 大停電の夜に (daiteden no yoru ni)
|He starred in||Etsushi Toyokawa, Tomorowo Taguchi, Tomoyo Harada, Koji Kikkawa, Shinobu Terajima|
At this stage, this one is pretty much a Japanese Christmas classic.
After a sudden blackout occurs in December 2005, 12 people spend their Christmas Eve together. It presents an example of how humans can support each other during the worst times with companionship and optimism.
It’s got all the sentimentalism and warm feelings that we would generally expect in the West from a Christmas flick.
#6) “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” 戦場のメリークリスマス (Senjyo no merry Christmas)
|He starred in||David Bowie / Ryuichi Sakamoto /Takeshi Kitano|
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a 1983 film directed by Nagisa Oshima and starring, wait for it, David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano and Tom Conti. Really, with a cast like that, it pretty much demands to be seen.
Even though “Merry Christmas” is in the film’s title, it isn’t really what you would class as an out-and-out “Christmas movie”.
It is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Laurens van der Post which tells the story of a British officer who is captured by the Japanese in Burma at the close of World War II and imprisoned in a POW camp.
A British soldier played by David Bowie finds himself captured by the Japanese. His commanding officer is trying to get him released while he clashes with a Japanese army member played by Takeshi Kitano. The prisoners are forced to work on a railroad.
It’s not your typical Christmas movie. Set in a World War II Japanese prison camp, the film follows the relationship and tensions of an English officer and a Japanese officer as they try to maintain their personal lives and dignity under more than trying conditions. The film is more of a character study than anything else, as the two men come to recognize how much they have in common as people. The film was written with a political intent as well as a cinematic one.
#7) Nutcracker Fantasy (くるみ割り人形 kurumiwari ningyo)
|Cast||Kasumi Arimura, Tori Matsuzaka, Ryoko Hirosue, Takashi Fujii|
There are two versions of this film, a 1979 version and a 2014 remake. Both are loose reinterpretations of the Tchaikovsky classic ballet, which was itself adapted from the original story by E. T. A. Hoffmann.
Foof, that is a lot of reinterpreting!
The original movie is quite a curiosity. It was produced in 1979, by Sanrio, the company that makes all things “kawaii” in the realm of stationary and nic nacks. It was also a joint Japanese – American production, so received releases on both sides of the globe.
It is also quite unusual in that it is animation from Japan that uses stop-motion rather than hand or computer drawn images. The original has a surprisingly dark, European Christmassy feel to it, considering production company Sanrio’s kawaii raison d’etre.
Nutcracker Fantasy was remade in 2014 for the Tokyo International Film Festival and to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Hello Kitty. This interpretation of the Nutcracker was recreated in 3D by Sebastian Masuda, who is a leading figure in Japanese “kawaii” culture.
Starring Kasumi Arimura (in the Japanese voiced version), the film also features a star-studded cast.
The story is about a girl named Clara who comes across a nutcracker doll that is being made by a relative. When Clara falls asleep with the doll she finds herself transported to a mysterious world …
A story about toys, influenced by Russian folklore and put through the lens of “kawaii”? That’s how I want to spend my Japanese Christmas!
#8) Christmas on July 24th 7月24日通りのクリスマス (shichi gatsu nijyuyokka no kurisumasu)
|He starred in||Miki Nakatani, Takao Osawa, Ryuta Sato, Juri Ueno, Tsuyoshi Abe|
Miki Nakatani plays a single, 29-year-old, otaku, manga-loving woman, Sayuri. Sayuri dreams of Lisbon, Portugal, where her favourite comic is set. One day, she meets with her old senpai-crush, Satoshi, and goes on a date. But she finds it hard to reconcile Satoshi’s handsome good looks with her own self-image as a frumpy Plain-Jane. Can the miracle of Christmas help her find love in July?
#9) “Smile – Holy Night Miracle ” スマイル聖夜の奇跡 (smile seiya no kiseki)
Smile Holy Night Miracle
|Cast||Moriyama Future, Rosa Kato, Yoshiko Tanaka, Kei Tani-Kenji Sakaguchi|
Based on a true story and set in Hokkaido in 1987, the film focuses on the character Shuhei Sano, who has given up his dream of becoming a professional tap dancer and returned to his hometown of Hokkaido to marry his girlfriend Shizuka Yamaguchi.
Shizuka’s father makes it a condition of marriage that Shuhei guides the hockey team the “Smilers” to victory. Shuhei, who doesn’t know the first about ice hockey, incorporates tap dance techniques to try and steer the team in the right direction…
It is the story of him trying to turn around the sub-par team, the “Smilers”, into winners, while learning the basics of the game himself.
It’s a heart-warming story that offers up a light-hearted message of hope. Could be worse ways to spend a holy night!
#10) “Negotiator Masayoshi Mashita” 交渉人真下正義 (Koshonin Mashita Masayoshi)
|He starred in||Yusuke Santamaria, Susumu Terajima, Kotaro Koizumi, Koh Takasugi, Yutaka Matsushige|
If you’re looking for a little action this Christmas (now don’t take that the wrong way), you could watch “Negotiator Masayoshi Mashita”. It’s kind of like a “Die Hard” style goodies and baddies film happening in the Christmas period. But it mixes in trains to make it perhaps close to something like “Speed”.
The film is basically a spin-off Japanese drama 踊る大捜査線 which was released in America under the title of The Spirited Criminal Investigative Network. It also spawned a film franchise called “Bayside Shakedown”.
Set on Christmas Eve, the film revolves around Masayoshi, who works as a negotiator at the Metropolitan Police Department. Masayoshi is planning to propose to his girlfriend Yukino Kashiwagi, ring at the ready.
His plans are interrupted when he is told that a train loaded with bombs is out of control in the subway.
This film has action, comedy and romance in equal measure in a film that is so pleasingly hammy that you could put it on your table for Christmas dinner.
#11) Go find a psychic! 曲がれ!スプーン (magare! Spoon)
|Cast||Masami Nagasawa, Hiroki Miyake, Masashi Suwa, Haruki Nakagawa, Osamu Tsuji|
This one scrapes in as a Christmas movie by virtue of the fact that it centers around a group of psychics that gather at a cafe on Christmas Eve. Yone, a young woman who works on the production team of a variety TVshow that features people with “psychic” abilities. After following a series of bum leads, Yone stumbles across the “Cafe de Psychokinesis”.
There she finds a group of people with genuine powers of ESP gathered to celebrate Christmas.
This movie was directed by Katsuyuki Motohiro, who also directed “Negotiator Masayoshi Mashita” from our list. Katsuyuki must have a thing for Christmas. Which is perfect for you if you’ve got a thing for Japanese Christmas.
#12) Blue Christmas ブルークリスマス
Now, there are probably not too many people thinking “I want to spend Christmas watching a cult retro Japanese sci-fi film about aliens infiltrating the human race to make their blood turn blue”, but you never know. And really, no Japanese Christmas film list would be complete without this intriguing little jingle-bell-space-oddity.
“Blue Christmas”, also known in English as “The Blue Stigma” was released in 1978 in the midst of the SFX movie boom brought about by “Star Wars”. The film was produced by Toho, a production known for their special effects. Strangely, Toho chose to make their science fiction extravaganza as “a science fiction movie created without the use of any effects” .
Minami, a member of the national broadcast press, discovers UFOs are frequently appearing all over the world. He also discovers that a certain Dr. Hyodo happens to have disappeared – immediately after appealing for the existence of UFOs at an International Scientist Conference held in Kyoto. Minami goes on the hunt to find him.
Minami tries to report what he has found out but the government acts to silence him (who would have thought?). They also try to keep quiet the news that there are blue-blooded humans spreading rapidly through the world.
#13) Silent Tokyo サイレント・トーキョー
This one is the newest film on the list, produced in 2020.
It very much carries on with the Die Hard style action-at-Christmas genre (can we call it that now). In this way you could say it is similar to the oher action film on this list “Negotiator Masayoshi Mashita” in that both films are about a mysterious assailant threatening to blow up parts of Tokyo on Christmas Eve. This time it is crowded downtown Shibuya that is set to go boom. Yikes.
#14) “Love & Peace” ラブ＆ピース
Sion Sono is an arthouse, somewhat experimental director. To say his film “Love & Peace ” is a Christmas film would be like calling a peanut a Reese’s Pieces candy bar.
Love & Peace presents a challenge to contemporary Japan, saying that the nation is in a state of forgetting about it’s past. It reminds the country that it is not so long ago that it was the subject of an atomic bomb, and uses Christmas as a symbol of Western commercialization at the cost of something intangible.
The film storyline itself is kinda off the page. It revolves around an office worker who discovers a turtle which he names “Pikadon”, which is the onomatopoeic word that people use to describe the sight and sound of the atomic bomb.
Through a convoluted series of strange events, the turtle receives magic powers, including the power to grant Ryo his dream of being a rock star.
What follows is a head-scratching, beguiling but thought provoking look at Japanese history through the cracked prism of Christmas.
Conclusion – Should you watch Japanese Christmas Movies?
Well, whether or not you should watch these films or not is, of course, up to you and your level of tolerance for Christmas cheer.
Personally, I think “Love & Peace” is a pretty amazing, if quite crazy, film. But it is also the least overtly Christmassy on here.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” is pretty much a must-watch mostly just in order to quell the curiosity you should instantaneously feel when you learn that the film has David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Takeshi Kitano as leads. Whether it is actually “successful” as a film or not, I think, is an open question.
And if you want to “understand” Japanese culture, and how Christmas fits into the larger picture in that country, you have to put Take me out to the snowland at the top of the list.
Or you could, of course, watch a rerun of whichever version of A Christmas Carol movie you are most attached to for the 1000th time…