12 of the Most Underrated Japanese Films of All Time

Isao Takahatas The Tale of The Princess Kaguya I Courtesy of Studio Canal
Isao Takahata's 'The Tale of The Princess Kaguya' I Courtesy of Studio Canal
James Gates

Fancy a trip to Japan without leaving the comfort of your couch? Then get the popcorn out and your remote at the ready – whether they tanked at the box office, deserve a wider audience or simply need a little more love, these are some of the best gems that Japanese cinema has to offer.

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (2013)

What it’s about: A Studio Ghibli film which people don’t rave about nearly as much as they should, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is based on an ancient Japanese legend. A kindly couple discover a baby wood nymph in a bamboo stalk and decide to raise her as their own. She passes through childhood and adolescence while coming to terms with her place in the world, but can she ever truly escape her otherworldly origins?

It’s underrated because: It’s a Japanese watercolour brought to life, complete with an ending that manages to be utterly sublime yet emotionally devastating.


Brother (2001)

What it’s about: It flopped on its initial release and and discouraged Takesho Kitano from ever directing outside his home country ever again, which is a shame, as this crime drama set in Los Angeles is among his best works. The stone-faced grump plays a Yakuza (what a surprise) who flees Japan and attempts to muscle in on the underworld of America’s west coast. Funnily enough, things don’t go according to plan.

It’s underrated because: The clash of Eastern and Western criminal mindsets works brilliantly as the subject for a film, and there’s a fantastic score from Studio Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi. The sight of Kitano flashing his wonky smile before shooting up a room full of bad guys simply never gets old.

Tokyo Fist (1995)

What it’s about: A visceral, uncompromising mix of body horror and psychological drama, Tokyo Fist is a classic of extreme movie-making. Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man) directs this tale of a bitter rivalry between two former high school friends, set around the world of amateur boxing. Thrown in for good measure is a twisted love triangle and a look at what happens when physical and emotional masochism is taken a step too far.

It’s underrated because: Tsukamoto’s earlier work seems to get more adoration from the fanboys, though Tokyo Fist is every bit as brutal and unforgettable. Strong stomachs only need apply, but this is a cinematic tornado that will leave you bruised and breathless.

The Emperor In August (2015)

What it’s about: The Emperor In August takes a sombre look at the tumultuous events of summer 1945, with Japan facing defeat at the end of World War II. Millions of lives hang in the balance as Emperor Hirohito must choose between outright surrender or a bloody last stand, all the while dealing with the horrors of Allied bombing, hard-liners determined to fight until the bitter end, and the nightmare of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It’s underrated because: The cream of Japanese acting talent gathers for a measured but gripping look at one of the most important moments of the 20th century.

Redline (2009)

What it’s about: There’s insane, and then there’s Redline. A white-knuckle animated rollercoaster of sound and colour, Redline is set in a faraway future where high-speed racing on distant planets is all the rage. Pretty boy daredevil Sweet JP is about to enter a race which only occurs every five years but matters are complicated by a pretty girl, fascist aliens and competitors determined to put him out of action for good.

It’s underrated because: It’s Looney Tunes meets The Cannonball Run-on-acid, with an art style that pays homage to European comic book artists like Moebius. Visually exhilarating to the point of near-exhaustion, your mind will be blown to smithereens. An absolute must.

A Taxing Woman (1988)

What it’s about: A charming screwball comedy from Tampopo director Juzo Itami, all about a female tax inspector determined to bring evaders to justice. Refusing to give up in the face of Yakuza thugs and the demands of family life, Ryoko Itakura has a big fish in her sights and will stop at nothing to bring him down. Itami’s trademark snappy wit and saucy mischief are in full effect.

It’s underrated because: Nobuko Miyamoto is a sheer delight and worth the asking price alone, bringing oodles of charm (and her trademark freckles) to the title role.

Summer Wars (2009)

What it’s about: Summer Wars is well-known to anime nerds but is as cross-generational as anything Pixar has come up with, and thus should be loved by audiences around the world. An all-in-one online social network, depended on by everyone from hospitals to video gamers, is sabotaged by an evil hacker. A bickering family and their teenage computing genius must band together in order to prevent a global catastrophe.

It’s underrated because: A true original, Summer Wars mixes elements of The Matrix with a dysfunctional family comedy and astonishing visuals. It also makes this list thanks to one of the top lines of dialogue of all time: “We can’t just fight because we think we’re going to win, and run away because we think we’re going to lose”.

Dear Pyongyang (2005)

What it’s about: A touching but melancholic documentary from acclaimed film-maker Yang Yong-hi, Dear Pyongyang chronicles Yang’s relationship with her father, a committed Korean communist and supporter of the regime in the North. While Yang was repatriated to Japan as a little girl, her brothers eventually returned to their homeland and an ever-more perilous existence. In the present day, she returns to the North Korean capital and attempts to understand her father better.

It’s underrated because: A timely reminder that no matter what we believe, however illogical those beliefs may be, we are all human beings. Yang’s peak behind the curtain into everyday life in North Korea is fascinating and thought-provoking.

Shangri-La (2002)

What it’s about: One of the lesser-known nuggets by the great Takashi Miike, all about a group of homeless people who save a man from committing suicide and decide to help him out of financial strife by devising an ingenious heist. Think Ealing comedies by way of Miike’s specialised out-there brand of eclecticism.

It’s underrated because: Miike’s non-horror work doesn’t always get the spotlight that it should, and this is one of his most charming efforts, taking the side of the underdog and reaffirming the belief that people can come together and achieve incredible things for the greater good.

Eureka (2000)

What it’s about: Don’t be fooled by the enthusiastic title. Eureka is an unflinching look at the impact that trauma, be it physical or emotional, can have on people’s lives. Set in rural Kyushu, the film examines the lives of three people as they attempt to cope in the aftermath of a bus hijacking. While the incident is never shown in detail, the fallout is.

It’s underrated because: An ingenious visual device conveys the emotional weight that the film’s characters carry at all times. While the subject matter may seem off-putting, Eureka isn’t without a sense of hope, even though, as in life, that hope can be difficult to come by sometimes.


2LDK (2003)

What it’s about: A mixture of extreme domestic drama and jet black comedy, as two young actresses who share an apartment discover they are both in the running for a coveted role. The tension between the two boils over as sharp tongues are soon replaced by even sharper objects.

It’s underrated because: Clocking in at a tidy 70 minutes, 2LDK wastes no time in getting under the viewer’s skin and is a razor-sharp commentary on the nature of fame, ego and competitiveness. A Western remake is reportedly on the cards – here’s hoping they don’t fuck it up.


Still Walking (2011)

What it’s about: A beautiful, life-affirming film about the transmutation of grief. Every year a family gathers to commemorate the son they lost 15 years previously in a drowning accident. Over the course of 24 hours, we watch the family as they process their memories and share joy, laughter and sadness while realising that life, at all times, must go on.

It’s underrated because: The celluloid equivalent of a great big hug. Still Walking recognises that while death is inevitable and can seem senseless, celebrating life is a beautiful thing in and of itself.

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