Kusama: Infinity1/3
Photo: fb.com/KusamaMovieKusama: Infinity
From Emptiness to Infinity 2/3
Photo: Vimeo On Demand From Emptiness to Infinity
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda 3/3
Photo: Amazon Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda

6 best documentaries about Japanese artists

Go behind the scenes with talented visual artists, architects and musicians from Yayoi Kusama to Hayao Miyazaki

By Jessica Thompson
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Art has long been held as sacred in Japan, from elegant silk-screen painting to intricate traditional woodblock prints. So it’s no surprise the country is home to more than its fair share of contemporary artists, spanning the disciplines of architecture, animation, visual art and classical music.

The visionaries in these documentaries all helped transform their chosen fields, leaving legacies that intrigue, delight and inspire. These films go beyond the work itself, giving you a fascinating look into the mind of each artist.

Best of all, these documentaries are available to stream online. So settle in and watch as these Japanese artists create their masterpieces.

RECOMMENDED: Check out the best Japanese shows with English subtitles on Netflix

A cultural canon

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

Studio Ghibli’s anime films captivate viewers around the world with their enchanting characters and poetic storylines we all have our favourite, whether it’s Tororo, 'Howl’s Moving Castle' or 'Spirited Away'. In ‘The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness’, filmmaker Mami Sunada follows a year inside the studio, offering a rare, behind-the-scenes look into the quirky world of Studio Ghibli. 

During the documentary, the studio is preparing to release two films and, unexpectedly, its esteemed co-founder Hayao Miyazaki announces his retirement. You’ll hear Miyazaki’s philosophies on life and art, and meet the rest of the team, including producer Toshio Suzuki and the late director Isao Takahata, in what unfolds as a fascinating, moving look at the creative process.

Kusama: Infinity

‘I convert the energy of life into dots of the universe,’ says artist Yayoi Kusama in this biopic, ‘Kusama: Infinity’. The artist’s polka-dot-covered canvases, sculptures and installations have mesmerised audiences around the world. But life was not always smooth-sailing for the artist, as director Heather Lenz outlines. Kusama, born into a conservative family in rural Japan, suffered childhood trauma and hallucinations of dots in her vision. 

Art became her way of coping. Dismissed by her family, she escaped to New York in the 1960s to pursue a career in art, only to find a new set of challenges: prevalent sexism and racism in the art scene of the day. ‘Kusama: Infinity’ is a powerful, moving portrayal of how Kusama kept fighting and eventually became the world's top-selling living female artist.

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Above Us Only Sky

If you hear John Lennon's 1971 album ‘Imagine’, no doubt you'll start humming the title track. After all, it was the best-selling song of his solo career. ‘Above Us Only Sky’ looks at the making of the album, and in doing so, the film also explores the depth of the romantic and artistic relationship between John Lennon and Yoko Ono. 

The documentary, directed by Michael Epstein and originally released in 2018, shares the untold story behind the production of the album, with interviews and never-before-seen footage – including the first demo of ‘Imagine’, the couple working together in the studio, and cameos from Phil Spector, George Harrison, and a young Julian Lennon.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda

Lingering and pensive, ‘Coda’ is a portrait of revered pianist and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. The documentary, directed by Stephen Schible, looks at key chapters in Sakamoto’s life: his personal battle with cancer, as an activist against nuclear energy, his creative process making scores for films like The Last Emperor, and as a member of psychedelic band Yellow Magic Orchestra. 

Woven together with this are glimpses of Sakamoto producing work and reflecting on his craft, together revealing his reverence for nature, his obsession with unique sounds, and his musical genius.

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From Emptiness to Infinity

Tadao Ando, the subject of this 2013 documentary, is the Japanese architect behind the elegant concrete edifices – yes, he makes concrete elegant – that have become a cornerstone of modern Japanese architecture. Directed by German filmmaker Mathias Frick, ‘From Emptiness to Infinity’ casts an eye over Ando’s 40-year career, offering an exclusive look into his work, creative process, and sources of inspiration. 

Ando is the only architect in the world to receive four of the discipline’s most prestigious accolades: the Pritzker Prize, the Carlsberg Architectural Prize, the Praemium Imperiale and the Kyoto Prize. Ando’s style, as we see though the film, is characterised by its clean lines, harmony with surrounding landscapes, use of natural light, and a seamless blend of traditional Japanese aesthetics and contemporary modernism.

Cutie and the Boxer

Zachary Heinzerling’s Oscar-nominated 2013 documentary focuses on the chaotic marriage of two artists, the boxing painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko. While Ushio earns a reputation for painting canvases by punching them, Noriko, 20 years his junior, sacrifices her career as an artist to become an assistant to her overbearing husband. 

The movie follows the couple later in life as Ushio prepares for a solo exhibition and Noriko, after decades of existing in her husband’s shadow, seeks to reclaim her own individual artistic identity. It’s an intimate portrait showing the struggles of art as a career, and the ways it can both enrich and dominate a relationship.

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