Japanese cinema is among the richest in the world. A list of the best Japanese movies could stand alongside of a list of the greatest films from any country. Over the years, Japan has produced a handful of filmmakers who stand among the greatest directors of all time.
Americans might only be familiar with period pieces about the era of the samurai and the whimsical animated films that have captured the popular imagination in the US. While these are wonderful genres that have produced some of the best in Japanese film, you will find that Japan has just as many varied genres as American cinema. Some of the best Japanese movies are quiet independent films, brutal horror flicks, and earnest, thoughtful melodramas.
A warning: as you start to sample some of the best Japanese movies, you might quickly find yourself overwhelmed by the depth and beauty of the filmmaking coming from the island nation. Some of the filmmakers on this list could populate a top 10 list all on their own. Let’s take a brief dive into Japanese cinema with the understanding that these are just a small sample of the best Japanese movies ever made.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
While there is plenty of debate over what are the best Japanese movies, there is one name that always appears at the top of any list: Akira Kurosawa.
Kurosawa is one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. His film, The Seven Samurai, was turned into an American Western called The Magnificent Seven. Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro were translated to American audiences as the Clint Eastwood classics, A Fistful of Dollars, and, For A Few Dollars More. Star Wars is said to be largely based on his film, The Hidden Fortress. The unreliable narration of Rashomon changed cinema all over the world: any film that employs multiple narrators owes the film a debt. You could make the argument that any of these films is Kurosawa’s masterpiece, but we will choose one of his later works: Ran.
A loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ran tells the story of a king accepting the twilight of his reign, and the fact that he may die with his kingdom in turmoil. The themes of mortality and the ultimate insignificance of material wealth and status resonated in Shakespeare’s time, meant something to Kurosawa in the ’80s, and are still relevant today.
While some adaptations and period pieces can feel antiquated, Ran feels intensely modern despite its medieval setting. Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film:
“Ran is set in medieval times, but it is a 20th century film, in which an old man can arrive at the end of his life having won all his battles, and foolishly think he still has the power to settle things for a new generation. But life hurries ahead without any respect for historical continuity; his children have their own lusts and furies. His will is irrelevant, and they will divide his spoils like dogs tearing at a carcass.”
Ebert also notes that Ran was a comeback film of sorts for Kurosawa. At 75 years old, the filmmaker was 20 years past the end of his prime, and what once was a steady stream of output slowed to a trickle as financing became rare and audiences began to leave him behind. It took years just to get the film financed. What makes the film among Kurosawa’s greatest, and as such, among the greatest of all time, is how clearly we can see the director’s own struggles in the story he chooses to tell.
To pick the greatest Kurosawa film is an exercise in subjectivity. His feudal period dramas are brilliant and every one of them offers a unique exploration of a timeless theme. Throne of Blood is about revenge. Rashomon is about truth. Seven Samurai is about duty. Ran is about mortality. Your favorite of his films will likely depend on your personal point of view, but it is objectively true that the work of Kurosawa comprises one of the greatest filmographies a filmmaker has ever given to the world.
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
If Kurosawa is considered the greatest Japanese filmmaker of all time, then Ozu must be considered a close second. While tales of feudal Japan were Kurosawa’s calling card, the stories of everyday people going about their lives in post-war Japan was Ozu’s preferred mode.
The absolutely prolific filmmaker is perhaps best known for his late period films titled after times of year like An Autumn Afternoon, The End of Summer, Late Autumn, Early Summer, Early Spring, and our choice, Late Spring.
Like Kurosawa, there are arguments to be made in support of many of Ozu’s films — Tokyo Story is probably his film that is most familiar to American audiences and film students – and your final opinion on which of them is greatest will come down to a matter of taste.
Superficially, the plot of Late Spring is familiar: an aging widower decides that his daughter should be married before she becomes an “old maid.” We’ve seen this before in romcoms and musicals, but Ozu sees this story as an indictment of culture: why should this family do something they don’t want to do?
This approach makes for a compelling, and at times, heartbreaking film that explores feelings and dynamics you don’t often see onscreen. Ozu’s unique style: carefully composed, static, almost always framed from the height of the human eye, and almost always shot on a 50mm lens, offers an unflinching exploration of themes that transcend penetrating discomfort.
Ultimately, Ozu’s work offers the kind of deep exploration of character that few filmmakers have ever achieved.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
If there is another candidate for the greatest voice in the history of Japanese movies, it is Hayao Miyazaki. To get a sense of just how prolific Miyazaki has been throughout his career, you could call him the Japanese Walt Disney. While Disney generally worked with anthropomorphized animals or household objects, Miyazaki created one fantasy world after another in his many Studio Ghibli films, populating them with some of the most original and stunning images ever animated.
Though every animated feature from Miyazaki is worth watching, critics generally place Spirited Away as his greatest achievement – and as one of the greatest Japanese movies ever made.
Part of the reason Spirited Away is regarded as the foremost among Miyazaki’s films is that it is the most popular. It is the highest grossing film in Japanese history, and was an international phenomenon. Though popular acclaim isn’t always a testament to quality, in the case of Spirited Away, the accolades and the cash are well deserved.
We could attempt to describe the plot to you. There are shapeshifters that turn people into pigs and faceless creatures with insatiable appetites, but attempting to describe a Miyazaki film is such a poor substitute for the sumptuous visual beauty of his work that we’ll stop at saying that his work is unlike anything you’ve ever seen and is essential viewing.
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Film buffs in the US and abroad helped make Battle Royale a cult classic shortly after its release in 2000, but the film received wider recognition in recent years when people realized that the plot of Hunger Games was…very similar.
Battle Royale marked a career capstone for Fukasaku, a prolific talent in Japanese cinema, who passed away in 2003. The film follows a class of ninth graders who, thanks to the government’s Battle Royale Millennium Act, are forced to journey to an island and fight to the death.
As you can imagine, there are plenty of gruesome action sequences, and these are what give the film its punchy over-the-top appeal. But there is also a level of emotional depth that you may not expect from a film like this. The gruesome beauty to the action, a kind of choreography that takes years to master, makes the viewer understand how much meaning an action film can have in the hands of a veteran director.
Not only is Battle Royale worth watching for its clear influence on so many films (Japanese movies and American alike) that have come after it, the movie holds up on its own merits. If you can stomach the grotesque, hyper-satirical premise, you will be rewarded with a cinematic achievement that is radically violent and oddly beautiful.
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Kurasawa wasn’t the only director to create a cinematic masterpiece out of the samurai film genre that dominated postwar Japanese movies. While there are many great samurai films from the era, if there’s one must-watch entrant into the genre outside of Kurasawa’s work, it is Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri.
Harakiri takes place in the age of the ronin, when formerly gainully employed samurai have fought themselves out of a job. Peace has come to 1630s Japan, and, as such, masters no longer need to keep their warriors on retainer. Once proud warriors wander the countryside, aimless and hopeless.
The film begins as our hero Tsugumo Hanshirō (Tatsuya Nakadai) declares he wants to kill himself. As many warriors without master concluded at this time, only seppuku (ritual suicide) is left as an honorable option for a swordsman without anything left to fight for. Obviously, if he were to go through with it then and there, this would be a short movie. Instead, this is the inciting incident for a number of twists and turns that examine the broader political realities of samurai culture.
The seppuku request leads to the larger point of the film, to explore the limits of honor and tradition, and criticize the codes of conduct that sometimes become more important than actual humanity. While many in Japan revered the Bushido Code well after the fall of the samurai, and historians see the influence of the code in the country’s 20th-century militarism, Kobayashi was critical of the code, and any rigid, militaristic rules for life.
To say too much about how Hanshiro challenges the code would ruin the amazing, complex plotting of the film, but suffice it to say that his conception of honor clashes with the harsh, inflexible views of shogun in charge of the estate. This conflict leads to some of the most creative and intense scenes in the history of Japanese film.
Director: Yōjirō Takita
A down-on-his-luck cellist is forced to move home after financial realities disrupt his big dreams. We’ve heard a premise start like that a thousand times. But it is where the premise goes from there that makes Departures such a fascinating film. To make ends meet, our hero takes a job at a funeral home.
There is a distinct difference in the way that the Japanese – and by extension Japanese movies – approach death as compared to in the West, and this difference is deeply felt in the funeral home setting of Departures. We watch Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) prepare bodies for burial in front of mourners, as opposed to an off-stage embalming. We see the dead buried in simple wooden coffin, with elegance and grace. In short, we see an alternative vision of death as delivered through Takita’s expert cinematic eye. Death here is more personal, more present, and, oddly, more beautiful.
A film like this could so easily devolve into sentimentality and overwrought melodrama. But just as the undertakers prepare the bodies with grace and dignity, so to does Takita offer them the same treatment. While the film may not be filled with moments that dazzle you, the calm beauty of Departures will stick with you after the characters have left their wakes and you have turned off your television.
Woman in the Dunes
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
The story of Woman in the Dunes will feel similar to fans of Irish novelist/playwright, Samuel Beckett. There is a woman who lives in a pit, forever digging sand. There is a man who is traveling through the town. The villagers trap him in the sand quarry with the woman. At first, he will do anything to escape, but over time, the man and the woman fall in love.
It should come as no surprise that this absurd, surreal premise was adapted for the screen by novelist and playwright, Kobo Abe, who also wrote the novel upon which Woman in the Dunes is based. What makes this film version so successful is that rather than trying to heighten the reality that Abe brings to the page, director Hiroshi Teshigahara, himself a master of numerous trades – including ceramics and flower arranging – lets the words and story speak for itself.
The naturalistic beauty of the film becomes almost meditative, as we focus on the sand as it touches the woman’s skin, and contemplate the strange, erotic circumstances of the story. While the premise on its face is absurd, the earnest care with which it is handled yields a beautifully moving film.
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
12 years ago, the favorite son of the Yokoyama family drowned. Still Walking is about how family trauma never really dies. Every year, the family gathers to remember the dead son, Junpei, at his grave, and every year, family issues are dredged up along with his memory.
This year, one of the surviving sons, Ryota, is so put off by the occasion that he doesn’t even want to stay the night. Though it is never explicitly said, it becomes increasingly clear why Ryota loathes these occasions. As far as his stern father is concerned, the wrong son died.
Death is a familiar theme for Kore-eda, who some critics view as this generation’s heir to Ozu. His films offer the same quiet yet penetrating tone that finds humor and pain in what is left unsaid, lurking beneath the surface. Though the film unfolds over the course of just one day and one night, Still Walking unpacks years of family trauma and unspoken secrets in the course of this lovely, elegiac film.
The Twilight Samurai
Director: Yoji Yamada
If you want to watch a more recent take on the samurai genre, The Twilight Samurai is a great choice. Though the film doesn’t have the same military scope as some of the work by Kurosawa and Kobayashi, The Twilight Samurai is equally interested in the Bushido Code, and the fate of the ronin. Directed by Yoji Yamada, a veteran helmer with over 90 Japanese movies under his belt, The Twilight Samurai not only questions these codes, but it interrogates the samurai genre that Yamada has spent so much time working in.
Our ronin, Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada), isn’t exactly a wandering warrior, but in the absence of war, he has been forced to take up accountancy and farming to make ends meet. In the course of the film, we get to know his family life, and the drudgery of his workaday existence. The film’s main conflict presents itself when Seibei is asked to spring back into action to kill another down and out samurai, Yogo (Min Tanaka).
The reluctant conflict between the two men offers a chance to explore issues of identity, duty, and honor, and asks what a man is to do when the codes he’s been given and the life he’s been handed are irreparably at odds.
Sansho the Bailiff
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Sansho the Bailiff is the rare film named for the villain instead of the film’s hero. It’s easy to see why Mizoguchi opted to title his film after the brutal slave driver instead of the wide-eyed siblings he enslaves: Sansho is one of the most interesting and brutal villains you’ll find in Japanese movies. More importantly, the evil he represents pushes our protagonists to the limit and tests their belief in the idea that all people are created equal.
Our heroes are two siblings sold into slavery under Sansho’s cruel hand. One sibling is able to endure Sansho’s cruelty while maintaining her belief in humanity. Her brother, however, begins to model himself on Sansho and forgets the lessons of human dignity his parents attempted to instill in him. After years of slavery, he becomes an overseer, just like Sansho. Eventually, he starts to see the error of his ways – but is it too late?
Sansho the Bailiff has endured as a cinematic classic because of its exploration of human values. Produced in part to reckon with the moral aftermath of World War 2, the film continues to have a deep impact today.
In 2006, New Yorker film critic, Anthony Lane wrote, “I have seen Sansho only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal.” Many who have seen the film feel the same way.
Funeral Parade of Roses
Director: Toshio Matsumoto
While many of the great Japanese movies of the ’50s and ’60s looked backwards into history for inspiration, Funeral Parade of Roses was very much ahead of its time. In crafting the film, Matsumoto looked to French filmmakers like Godard and Truffaut and created something that would come to be regarded as a part of the “Japanese New Wave.”
Most countries produced their answer to the kind of work coming out of France during this period, and Funeral Parade of Roses is the Japanese movie that most deeply embodies the avant-garde social and artistic creativity of ’60s cinema. Eddie (Pita), our main character, is a transvestite who revels in taking on and taking off various aspects of his identity. Through the vessel of Eddie, Masumoto explores the LGBTQ culture of that era in Japan and how the relationship between the gay and transgender community and the broader culture of the era unfolded for good and ill.
Though the narrative of the film is relatively straightforward (adapted loosely from Oedipus Rex), the aesthetic of Funeral Parade of Roses, often called “avant-garde,” “punk rock,” and “experimental” needs to be seen to be fully understood. Even when viewed by today’s standards, Funeral Parade for Roses is more daring, brash, and experimental than most anything you’ll see at the multiplex.
Director: Sion Sono
Love Exposure is not your typical teen romantic drama. Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) is a devout Christian who also has a penchant for taking upskirt photos. Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima) is a hardcore feminist who only falls for Yu when she sees him in drag.
Oh, and the film is four hours long.
The film tackles some heavy issues around religion, sexuality, and tolerance, but never loses the shockingly funny tone that keeps the proceedings moving along without ever feeling overlong or overworked. While the film may not be as rebellious as it thinks it is, Love Exposure does provide a rollicking, madcap journey that manages to touch on, and mock, every hot button issue of the day.
If that isn’t enough, this is a four-hour-long film that critics have called a “roller-coaster ride,” and that is an achievement that should be appreciated on its own.
The Ballad of Narayama
Director: Shôhei Imamura
In this small 19th-century Japanese village, it is custom on your 70th birthday to climb a nearby mountain and die of starvation. Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) is about to turn 70. The film follows her and her son as she puts her affairs in order and begins her trek up the mountain.
While many filmmakers would try to find moments of gallows humor in this premise, Imamura focuses on the sheer pain and drudgery of life in that time and place. We feel the sweat as peasants work the fields. We feel the pain of the woman’s journey. We understand that while this is a beautiful country, life here is harsh and cruel. There is an intensity to this film you won’t see in many American or Japanese movies.
Though the tone isn’t always easy to handle, and the images are sometimes hard to watch, the overall experience of viewing The Ballad of Narayama is a deeply rewarding experience.
Fires on the Plain
Director: Kon Ichikawa
So many of the films that came out of what has become known as Japan’s cinematic golden age were about war, but through the distant lens of the feudal era. Ichikawa’s masterpiece, Fires on the Plain, confronts Japan’s role in World War 2, a few years after the fact.
A Japanese soldier with tuberculosis is struggling to survive as American troops close in on victory towards the end of action in the Pacific Theater. He teams up with several other soldiers in hopes of staying alive, and we watch their struggle in all of its unbelievable brutality. We wonder how far our hero will go to survive, and if his reluctance to suspend his humanity in order to endure will cost him his life.
In America, we rarely get to see non-white soldiers having the kind of incredulity towards war. The stereotype of Japanese soldiers of the era and their unwavering loyalty to empire is undermined here, and the humanity of the losing warriors is on full display.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
We were reluctant to put more than one movie by a director on this list, but in the case of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, we had to make an exception. We’ve already discussed how Kurosawa’s samurai epics changed world cinema forever. He also made films set in his time, and while they didn’t necessarily penetrate popular culture in the same way, they are no less masterful. In many ways, Kurosawa’s modern films are just as important Japanese movies as their feudal counterparts.
Kurosawa produced a number of films set in what was roughly his present day, including High and Low, Scandal, and Madadyo, and as with his samurai films, it is hard to pick just one of these films as the most essential.
Ikiru, based on Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich, tells the story of a career bureaucrat who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and must confront the impending end of his life. Having lived a life in the faceless bureaucratic machine, alongside a family he feels a great distance from, it doesn’t seem like he has much to live for. The film strikes a note of hope, however, as we follow the man on his journey to find meaning in life at this late moment.
Ikiru translates to “to live,” and it is Kurosawa’s fascination with the meaning of that phrase that has kept critics and audiences returning to this great Japanese movie. The iconic image from the film, that of an old man swinging alone on a playground swing set, remains one of the great, indelible images of international cinema.
Next up; 20 of the best anime movies of all time.