So far, the 2023 awards season has been kind to Japanese cinema – especially that of the animated variety. Miyazaki Hayao’s vaunted (potential) swan song, The Boy and the Heron (「君たちはどう生きるか」), took home Best Animated Film at the Golden Globes. It accomplished this amidst stiff competition, especially from the popular and well-regarded second Spider-Verse film. In doing so, it became the first anime film to ever win a Golden Globe. But for many, the true prize is an Oscar – and now we know which Japanese films have a chance to take home one of those famed statuettes.
This morning, US-time, stars Zazie Beetz and Jack Quaid officiated a live ceremony announcing the nominations. Amongst the major Hollywood films (Oppenheimer, Barbie, Killers of the Flower Moon, Poor Things), nominated for numerous categories, were the names of three Japanese films (although none were in direct competition with the aforementioned, nor with each other).
Two were potential surprises. Godzilla Minus One, a breakout financial and critical hit, managed to make its way to the Oscars with a nomination in the Visual Effects category. More unknown is Perfect Days. A quiet drama starring Koji Yakusho (Shall We Dance?, 13 Assassins), and directed by filmmaker Wim Wenders, the film has been nominated for Best International Feature Film. A Japanese-German co-production, it was put forward as Japan’s entry for the award.
The least surprising nomination is, of course, for Studio Ghibli’s The Boy and the Heron. The Oscars have a long history of respecting and courting director Miyazaki Hayao. Now, the question will be, which of these can win?
Heron Flies High
The Boy and the Heron finds itself in a Best Animated category unusually stacked with quality films. While popular opinion sees the award as dominated by big-named Disney features, Walt Disney Animation Studios actually failed to have its most recent release, Wish, nominated. (Nor was Illumination’s blockbuster fan-pleaser The Super Mario Bros. Movie nominated, which similarly failed to wow critics.) Instead, Heron is up against some critically lauded competition.
Heron, winner of numerous regional critics’ awards and a Golden Globe, has a fairly high chance of victory come March. Its assumed biggest competition is Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the visually and aurally stunning follow-up to 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse. Also in competition is Nimona, a fan-favorite Netflix refugee from Disney’s buy-out of Fox’s now-defunct Blue Sky Studio. Animation giant Pixar has their usual nomination with Elemental, which has had a relatively lukewarm reception. Rounding out the category is the dialogue-less Spanish-French coproduction Robot Dreams, which has charmed many a reviewer.
Miyazaki and the animation studio he co-founded, Ghibli, have a strong history of nominations at the Oscars. The Boy and the Heron marks the sixth Ghibli film to make its way to the Academy’s ballots. (Seventh, if we include the Ghibli-distributed The Red Turtle, by Dutch director Michaël Dudok de Wit.) If it finds victory, it will be the studio’s second win (following Spirited Away‘s shock success in 2002, which paved the way for Ghibli’s critical rise in North America).
Godzilla Raids at Last, amidst Perfect Days
For many moviegoers, Godzilla Minus One‘s Visual Effects nomination will be a reason to cheer. The Occupation-era set monster film has been a major critical and financial success, and a dark horse favorite movie of the year for many a viewer. This is also the first time a Godzilla film has ever achieved a nomination in the franchise’s massive 70-year history. (And it did so on a budget of reportedly less than $10 million – against fellow nominee Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3‘s $250 million.)
Even more of a dark horse is Perfect Days, a quiet German-Japanese coproduction that’s so far received sparse fanfare. (Still, far from bad for a movie that originated from the Tokyo Toilet Project!) Its director, Wim Wenders, emerged from the New German Cinema era. He’s no stranger to the Oscars; Wenders has three other nominations under his belt, all for documentaries: Buena Vista Social Club (1999), Pina (2011), and The Salt of the Earth (2014). Perfect Days has been well-received at various film festivals, with special praise given to veteran actor Kōji Yakusho, who plays a toilet cleaner.
Godzilla may have a fighting chance, especially given the movie’s popular buzz. Perfect Days, sadly, will likely have a harder time of it; it’s up against the German Holocaust film The Zone of Interest, which is itself up for overall Best Picture. In past years, foreign-language films that managed to break into both categories have been easy bets for at least winning in the international group. (In 2022, Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s Drive My Car did exactly that.)
Three Japanese Films Off to Primetime
Overall, a strong batch of nominees for the Japanese film industry. Ever since emerging onto the world stage in the 1950s, Japanese cinema has been a favorite of film critics and professionals in the English-speaking world; even so, there have been years when no Japanese films have been nominated at all. Three is a good get for the industry, which has been somewhat overshadowed by highly acclaimed films from neighboring South Korea in recent years.
Some will bemoan the lack of a nomination for Shinkai Makoto’s Suzume in the animation category. (It was nice to see it make the grade at the Golden Globes, at least.) And, personally, I wish composer Hisaishi Joe had managed to repeat his Golden Globes nomination success with a corresponding nom at the Oscars. Beloved for his numerous scores for Ghibli and director Takeshi Kitano, Hisaishi is one of the world’s great film composers; he deserved to finally have a moment in the Oscar limelight.
The 96th Academy Awards will be held on March 10th in Los Angeles, California.