After its first golden age of cinema from the 1940s to the 1960s, the past decade has seen a resurgence in the production of high quality Japanese film. While Japan is still, in the grand scheme of things, one of the more reclusive countries, the growing popularity of its cinema is slowly but surely opening the doors to the country’s history, values and unique culture. Here are 12 films that best showcase its talents.
The first Japanese film to win the Academy Award for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’. Showing the black heart of Japanese cinema, Departures follows a newly unemployed cellist who takes a job preparing the dead for funerals. Loosely based on Shinmon Aoki’s Coffinman, the film presents the rituals surrounding death and the feelings that go along with it. Due to prejudices against those who handle the dead, Japanese distributors were initially reluctant to release the film, before it then gained international recognition. The film peeks into one of the less discussed Japanese practices which is now gaining more attention.
Battle Royale (2000)
Battle Royale is one of Japan’s most infamous cult films which has had a great impact on cinema worldwide. Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, claims never to have seen Battle Royale, but the similarities between the two are striking. The main premise of both surrounds school-aged children and young adults fighting to the death with only one being crowned the winner. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese film is more bloody and violent than the Hollywood film. Its also more enjoyable, punctuated with dark humor throughout.
Fireworks is one of the films that kick-started Japanese cinema’s increase in popularity over the last 20 years. The unexpected critical and international success of Fireworks —also known by Japanese title Hana-bi — made director Takeshi Kitano one of Japan’s most eminent and respected film-makers. The story follows Nishi, a hard-boiled cop whose daughter has recently died and whose wife is terminally ill. He retires early in the film, and the remainder largely acts as a character study of this conflicted individual, who shows both great tenderness and anger. A fine gangster and family film that makes us all question our choices.
Towards the end of Japanese cinema’s first golden age came Harakiri, one of the finest films to have been produced by the eastern country. The action takes place between 1619 and 1630 and follows an elder ronin samurai who is masterless. He arrives at a feudal lord’s home requesting to commit hara kiri, a type of suicide reserved only for samurai, in the hope of receiving alms from other feudal lords. His plan is complicated by the earlier arrival of a younger samurai, and the film goes on to explore the intricate lives of the samurai. A must for those interested in Japan’s medieval past.
Nobody Knows (2004)
The events of Nobody Knows, which is based on the real-life Sugamo child abandonment case in the late 1980s, were widely documented across the Japanese media. It is a heart-wrenching story about four half-siblings aged between 5 and 12 years old who are abandoned by their mother. The children cannot go outside, do not attend school, and can’t be seen by outsiders, so they have to learn to rely on each other to fend for themselves. Incredibly affecting, and another example of fact being stranger than fiction.
Late Spring (1949)
Late Spring is the oldest of the films on our list and is indispensable viewing for anyone interested in cinema history, having appeared on several ‘Greatest Films’ lists and influencing film-makers across the world. It falls into the shomin-geki genre, a type of Japanese film that deals with the ordinary lives of modern day working and middle class people, with a realist approach. It is the first of director Yasujirô Ozu’s ‘Noriko Trilogy’, one of Japanese cinema’s most important and acclaimed trilogies, which also includes 1951’s Early Summer and 1953’s Tokyo Story. A landmark in Japanese cinema.
For its time and place, Rashomon is one of the most impressive and daring films in cinema history. The film’s plot recounts a heinous crime and its aftermath, being recalled from different points of view by characters including a bandit, a samurai, the samurai’s wife, and a woodcutter, before ending with a stunning climax that questions the very core of humanity. Few films inspire terms to be named after them, but as ‘the Rashomon-effect’ is now part of the common vernacular, it goes to show what a great impact this multi-witness storytelling technique had on the everyday.
The film that made the phrase ‘the Japanese original was better/scarier’ part of the everyday patter of horror buffs. Japanese horror has been big business for a while now, but Ring was arguably the first film that gained such widespread international attention, mostly due to people wanting to see a scarier version of the already terrifying The Ring. A mysterious videotape kills whoever watches it, unless the viewer can solve the mystery behind it. A film that, impressively, makes you want to both watch more films and never watch a film alone again.
Seven Samurai (1954)
Seven Samurai is one of the most thrilling epics of all time. The three hour run time expertly weaves the topics of philosophy, human emotions, and, of course, rip-roaring and entertaining action sequences. Seven Samurai is one of Japan’s highest ever grossing films and features as the top rated Asian film on several ‘Best Of’ lists, including the IMDB list. It was innovative in technical and narrative elements, such as in its use of camera set-ups, telephoto lenses, editing techniques, and the now commonplace plot device of gathering a group of heroes into a team in order to achieve a goal. One of cinema’s most influential films.
A list of the top 12 Japanese films could easily consist solely of Studio Ghibli films. We’ve chosen Spirited Away as the sole Ghibli entry on this list as it has earned an impressive pile of accolades, including the Academy Award for Best Animation and the Golden Bear at Berlin, and it stands as the most successful worldwide and domestic film in Japanese history. It is a remarkable feat of storytelling and animation, enjoyable for all ages, and very much cemented Ghibli’s status as the Disney of the east.
The Taste Of Tea (2004)
The Taste Of Tea is often spoken of as a surreal version of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, and shows that eastern and western film remakes don’t just flow in one direction. The film follows a family living in a rural district north of Tokyo. In this ordinary setting, the extraordinary family are fully showcased, with their talents, eccentricities and, indeed, some more unusual elements being put on display. It won a slew of awards from major international film festivals and is one of the best examples of the steps that Japanese film-makers are taking in order to produce visually exciting and emotionally touching films.
We end our list with Ugetsu, a black and white period drama and ghost story that is widely renowned among critics as being a masterpiece of Japanese cinema. The film is set against the backdrop of the Azuchi-Momoyama Period and the ongoing civil wars. War, love, ambition and family are at the heart of this tale. It is a definitive piece in Japan’s first Golden Age, potentially gaining more success in the west than in the domestic market. Along with Rashomon, it has been largely credited as popularizing Japanese cinema in the west, a trend which has and continues to grow throughout the 21st century.
By Sophia White