Only Yesterday (1991)
Summary: After living her whole life in the city, 27-year-old Taeko decides to visit her relatives in the countryside. As she travels, memories of her youth resurface. And after meeting young farmer Toshio, she wonders if she’s been true to the dreams of her childhood self. What would her life be like if she did exactly what she wanted?
Recommendation: The travels of a modern Japanese woman on her working vacation might not appeal to every kid under 13, but this one can because Taeko brings along her 5th grade self as a guide to what used to be. Part of the caution I offer about Only Yesterday is the broad discussion among 5th graders (and older) about girls getting their periods. Great drama is introduced at school when the boys and girls are separated for health class. Some kids won’t follow what’s going on – just help them out with questions or have a discussion before viewing. And do NOT miss the very last scene during the credits!
Ocean Waves (1993)
Summary: A young man returns home after his first year away at college and recalls his senior year of high school, specifically the iron-willed, big city girl that turned his world upside down. Like the ocean waves, her mood and attitude change with the ebb and flow of whatever’s happening around her. She’s never predictable.
Recommendation: We’re following the lives of teenagers and the attractive qualities of classmates is a huge element for this age (he’s so cool, her boobs are big). Specific discussions (very short) about a young woman’s period occur at least twice. They are not graphic or even important, but there must be something culturally specific about it for the Japanese to place it forward so plainly. The main female character is not always likeable and she manipulates others to her advantage – a very teen thing to do for a girl. Younger children would not understand a few of her instant mood-changes, but her life isn’t perfect and she’ll have to deal better with her circumstances to grow up.
Pom Poko (1994)
Summary: Celebrate the magic of the forest and the beauty of the creatures that live among us. An extraordinary tale of transformation and hope is told as the human world begins to encroach upon the animal world. Farms and forests gave sanctuary to tanuki during the late 60s, a feral canid that can be mistaken by Americans as raccoons. As the need for housing grows, humans steal all the available area that was formerly safe for the tanuki. Eventually (in the 1990s), we see an effort by the tanuki to disable the human real estate growth effort with sabotage and trickery.
Recommendation: This is a fabulous mythical story about animals protecting themselves while also being lazy and easily distracted. However, my content warning for Pom Poko involves the depiction of tanuki male genitalia as a tool or costume or device for transformation. What’s not clearly explained to an American audience is how scrotums are integral to tanuki folklore. As these critters develop their magical illusion ability, they form elaborate methods of convincing the humans to stop encroaching. It is a beautiful movie and the ghost parade should not be missed. Just be prepared for sacks or pouches of fur.