The Best Japanese Movies You Should Watch

'Departures' | © Shochiku
Sophia White

Japanese filmmaking has had a resurgence since the mid 1990s, and many believe that this will lead to another golden age. Here’s a selection of Japanese movies old and new that showcase the best the country has to offer.

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‘Late Spring’ (1949)

Director Yasujirō Ozu’s Late Spring falls into the Shomin-geki genre, a type of Japanese film that realistically depicts the ordinary lives of modern working-class and middle-class people. It was the first movie in Ozu’s acclaimed ‘Noriko Trilogy’, which also includes 1951’s Early Summer and 1953’s Tokyo Story. It was a landmark in Japanese cinema.

‘Rashomon’ (1950)

Rashomon poster (Daiei Film)

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon was one of the most daring films of its era. It recounts how a heinous crime was interpreted from the different perspectives of a bandit, a samurai, the samurai’s wife, and a woodcutter, before ending on a stunning climax that questions the nature of humanity. Few films have terms named after them, so the fact that ‘the Rashomon effect’ is now part of the common vernacular goes to show how great an impact Kurosawa’s multi-witness storytelling technique had.

‘Seven Samurai’ (1954)

Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Toho/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5883849f) Toshiro Mifune Seven Samurai – 1954 Director: Akira Kurosawa Toho JAPAN Scene Still Foreign Shichinin No Samurai Les sept Samouraïs

Seven Samurai, another Kurosawa opus, is one of the most thrilling and emotionally resonant action films of all time, and a work of some philosophical depth. Its camera set-ups, use of telephoto lenses, and editing techniques were incredibly sophisticated for the time. Hugely influential, it popularised the now commonplace plot device of gathering a group of heroes or anti-heroes into a team to accomplish a goal.

‘Harakiri’ (1962)

The action of Harakiri takes place between 1619 and 1630 and follows a ronin (masterless) elder samurai. He arrives at a feudal lord’s home requesting to commit harakiri, a ritualistic 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. A must for those interested in Japan’s medieval past, Masaki Kobayashi’s movie intricately explores the lives led by members of Japan’s fabled officer caste.

‘Fireworks’ (1997)

Fireworks helped kickstart Japanese cinema’s revival. Its unexpected critical and international success made director Takeshi Kitano one of the country’s most popular filmmakers. The story follows hard-boiled cop Nishi, whose daughter has recently died and whose wife is terminally ill. He retires early in the film, which gives Kitano space and time to conduct an in-depth character study of a conflicted individual capable of both great tenderness and great anger.

‘リング Ringu’ (1998)

This is the movie (the inspiration for 2002’s American remake The Ring) that introduced the phrase ‘the Japanese original was better/scarier’ into horror film buffs’ everyday patter. Japanese horror had always been big business, but Ring was the film that captured the world’s attention. A mysterious videotape kills whoever watches it, unless the viewer can solve the mystery behind it. Impressively, Ring makes you both want to watch more films and never want to watch a film again.

‘Battle Royale’ (2000)

Battle Royale is one of Japan’s most infamous and influential cult films. The story Suzanne Collins tells in The Hunger Games is strikingly similar to that of Kinji Fukasaku’s movie, though the author claims she has never seen it. In both narratives, school-age children and young adults fight to the death, leaving only one to be crowned the winner. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese movie is bloodier than the first Hunger Games film. Punctuated with dark humour throughout, it’s also more enjoyable.

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‘Spirited Away’ (2001)

Spirited Away tells the tale of a girl fighting to survive in a spirit world after both her parents are turned into pigs. Both in terms of its visionary animation and unsettling narrative, Hayao Miyazaki’s landmark fable is unsurpassed among the surreal classics produced by Studio Ghibli. Its accolades included the Academy Award for Best Animation and the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear. It is also the most successful domestic release in Japanese history.

‘The Taste of Tea’ (2004)

The Taste of Tea is often described as a surreal version of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982). It’s the story of an extraordinary family living in the ordinary setting of a rural district north of Tokyo, where their talents and eccentricities are given full rein. Katsuhito Ishii’s movie, which won a slew of awards at international film festivals, is an outstanding example of the kind of visually exciting and emotionally affecting films many Japanese filmmakers now aspire to make.

‘Nobody Knows’ (2004)

In Tokyo’s Toshima Ward in the late 1980s, a mother deserted her five underage children. The events of the widely documented Sugamo child abandonment case were dramatized by director Hirokazu Kore-eda in Nobody Knows. The children, aged between 5 and 12 in the film, cannot go outside or be seen by outsiders, so they learn to rely upon each other for their survival. This is one of the most affecting Japanese movies of the century so far.

‘Departures’ (2008)

Yōjirō Takita’s Departures, the first Japanese winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, follows a cellist who takes a job preparing the dead for funerals. Loosely based on Shinmon Aoki’s Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician, the film presents the rituals surrounding death and explores the feelings induced by them. Owing to prejudices against those who handle the dead, it initially struggled to find a Japanese distributor, but eventually won international recognition.

‘Our Little Sister’ (2015)

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s moving family drama captures the interactions between three sisters who slowly welcome an estranged sibling following the death of their father. The bond that is already in place is extended to the new arrival; the tension comes from seeing how far that will go. Our Little Sister has rapidly become a firm favourite among aficionados of Japanese cinema.
Want more? Check out the best Japanese horror films, or read our list of the most underrated Japanese films.
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