Approaching an entire nation’s cinema can be a daunting challenge. Especially when that nation’s movie history is a hodgepodge of genres and styles like Japan’s is. In the last 100 years or so, Japanese cinema has produced works of great beauty, greater weirdness, and in the process has influenced scores of filmmakers around the world. Any list of ten Japanese films will be by definition, incomplete, but these ten films will give anyone curious about Japanese movies a sampling of what makes its films so well-respected and loved around the world.
10. Nobody Knows
When most of us think about Japanese cinema, it’s hard-boiled yakuza, freaky monsters, and homicidal schoolgirls that spring to mind. While those things exist (and appear elsewhere in this list), Japanese filmmakers are also capable of making some incredibly dramas that don’t involve vengeful ghosts or women with swords instead of hands. One of the most moving- seriously, don’t watch this film without a full box of Kleenex, is Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2004 film Nobody Knows. Based on actual events, it tells the story of four children who are left to fend for themselves by their mother in a Tokyo apartment. As the oldest son sets out to keep his brother and sisters alive while making sure no one finds out that they are all alone, events slowly spiral towards a terrible conclusion. The film is anchored by four truly stunning performances by the child actors who play the family and captures not only the bleak horror of their lives, but also the deep bond they feel for each other. It is a very special film and it truly earns every tear it gets.
In 1964, Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics. As much an excuse to showcase Japan’s rapid postwar reconstruction as sporting event, the Japanese government wanted a documentary made to capture the historical moment when Japan retook its place on the world stage as a prosperous, peaceful nation. Initially, they hired Akira Kurosawa to direct it, but when he demanded control over the actual opening and closing ceremonies as well, director Kon Ichikawa was brought in to salvage the project, and give the government the glowing historical document they wanted. Instead, he used the vast resources and unfettered access to create arguably the greatest sports documentary ever filmed. Entirely uninterested in the pomp or ceremony of the games, Ichikawa chose to focus on atmosphere of the games and especially the experiences of the athletes. His camera follows them as they prepare, wait, compete, and enjoy the games. The film is rarely concerned with the results of the events and spends equal amounts of time with the losers as it does the winners. Tokyo Olympiad cares more about the journeys of the people involved than the final medal tally. Tokyo Olympiad was supposed to be a celebration of the Tokyo Olympics. Instead, it is a celebration of human endeavour and sport itself. It’s not the easiest film to get your hands on, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
No serious examination of Japanese cinema could ignore the giant, laser-breathing mutant dinosaur Godzilla. There have been many, many films made since the towering lizard made his first appearance in 1954’s Godzilla (Gojira in Japanese), but the first film is still the best. Forget the American release- which heavily edited the film and added Raymond Burr for some reason, and go straight to the original version. Despite being a cheesy good time, Gojira started an important trend that has continued to this day in Japanese films: that of using shlocky genre movies to comment on the latent fears and worries of the culture. In Gojira, it’s the fear of nuclear weapons. The only country to have ever suffered a nuclear attack, it’s not by accident that the great, city-destroying beast is awakened by the Japanese government’s testing of an h-bomb. The subtext is plain, but is mostly underplayed. The whole movie is actually quite mournful and unflinching in its depictions of the destruction Godzilla wreaks. Well, it’s as moving as a film that features a man wearing a rubber costume and stepping on models can be. Still, it captures an important part of Japanese culture and gave the world one of its iconic monsters, so it definitely deserves to be seen.
7. Hana-bi (Fireworks)
There’s no one else in the world quite like Takeshi Kitano. His main gig for the last forty years or so is hosting goofy comedy TV programs in Japan. Insanely prolific, at one time he was on TV every night of the week. But when he takes off the funny wigs and bizarre costumes, Kitano is also one of the most respected Japanese film directors of his generation. Unlike his TV work, which is all sight gags and silly weirdness, Kitano’s films are stunning works of seriousness and violence. He has made many excellent films over his career, but none perhaps as amazing as Hana-bi. Meaning “fireworks” in Japanese (which was also its international title), the film tells the story of a two former cops, one who adapts to new his life in a wheelchair by painting surreal paintings (which were all painted by Kitano), and another who robs a bank to take his dying wife on one last trip. The plot is slim, but the colors, images, and transitions between violence and silence are stunningly poetic. Hana-bi is a very rare and special thing: a gangster movie infused with the soul of a painter.
Directed by controversial and breathtakingly original filmmaker Takashi Miike, Audition is one of the most disturbing and captivating films ever made. But you’d never know it from the first forty minutes. Audition starts with a premise straight out of a Jennifer Anniston romcom. Aoyama, a widowed TV producer, decides to hold “auditions” for a new wife, under the guise of casting a role in a TV program. When he sees the young and beautiful Asami, he is instantly smitten by her submissive nature and reserved beauty. Despite some weird discrepancies on her resume, he starts to date her and they fall in love. Then things take a very, very surreal turn. Audition is one of those movies that works best if you don’t know what’s coming, but rest assured that it you can make it through the deliberately slow beginning, you will see things that you have never seen in any other film. Audition is profoundly disturbing (even Rob Zombie admitted to being uncomfortable watching the final scenes) but it is a work of true originality by an uncompromising master of cinema. Just don’t plan on eating any time soon after you watch it.
5. Battle Royale
Even if you don’t know anything about Japan, the 2000 film Battle Royale still delivers as a kickass, bloody cult movie. It’s got plenty of gunplay, lots of gore, and a supremely dark comedic undertone. The movie has earned infamy for its hyper-realistic violence, unrelenting cynicism, and casting of actual teenagers and is a favourite among cult movie fans the world over. But the story of a class of ninth grade students who are forced to murder each other in an alternate reality fascist Japan is actually a cutting satire of Japan’s growing fear that its youth culture was just a step or two away from complete anarchy. The casting of Japanese legend Takeshi Kitano as the students’ psychotic former teacher and overseer of the game is especially fitting given Kitano’s public ambivalence towards Japanese youth and seems to firmly root the film in the anti-youth camp. But Battle Royale’s director Kinji Fukasaku has described it as a “warning” to the country’s youth not to be misled by adults and authority figures. In the end, Battle Royale becomes a hopeful film about the potential of youth masquerading as a cynical anti-youth picture masquerading as an action-packed sci-fi gore fest. It’s deep, shocking, funny, smart, and once you’ve seen it, you’ll never forget it.
In the years since Ring (Ringu) first appeared on American shores, Hollywood has pilfered just about every effect and technique that made it so shockingly original. Kicking off the J-horror explosion, Ring introduced western audiences to the chilly, supremely creepy tradition of the Japanese ghost story. Still, the fact that the long haired, white-clad Japanese girl ghost is now as much a part of the horror pantheon as zombies says something about how original the movie was. Based on a popular novel, Ring tells the story of a vengeful spirit who wreaks havoc on the lives of a Japanese woman and her son. What’s amazing about the film is that it earns most of its scares completely by mood. The ghost doesn’t do anything except walk slowly and demand the characters and the audience acknowledge her, but it is just as scary as the goriest monster. There are a lot of great Japanese horror movies that play from the same script, but Ring did it first, and better than most. Just don’t watch it on a VHS tape.
Any list of Japanese films has to include at least one animated feature. For many non-Japanese, anime (as cartoons are called there) is their first window into the larger world of Japanese culture. An exploration of Japanese anime can start in few better places than the 1988 classic Akira. Based on the sprawling comic of the same name, Akira boils down the essential elements of the book and presents them in a frenetic mix of psychic children, political corruption, teenage motorcycle gangs, and not one, but two full-fledged destructions of Tokyo. The plot of the film suffers from great holes and you’d be forgiven for thinking the second act is missing, but if you can accept that you’re not going to get any easy answers, the film is an amazing visual achievement. And an important cultural document. Akira (like Battle Royale and to a lesser extent Ring), expresses a profound disillusionment with the rapid technological growth of the country and its youth culture while at the same time worshipping them. It’s a strange, exhilarating movie and definitely one any cinephile needs to see.
2. Seven Samurai
If you only ever see one Japanese film, this has got to be it. Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai is the film that not only put Japanese cinema on the map, it also inspired a generation of filmmakers across the globe with its rousing story, incredible action sequences, and outstanding performances. The story of a desperately poor village that hires a rag-tag bunch of samurai to protect itself from bandit raids, Seven Samurai basically created the template that almost every action movie since has followed. Every movie where a reluctant hero gathers a team to accomplish a task owes a structural debt to the film. The story is a natural crowd-pleaser but the innovative use of slow motion, editing, and gorgeous black and white photography make Seven Samurai an arthouse favourite as well. The original cut is almost 4 hours, but every minute is an absolute treasure of cinema.
1. Tokyo Story
Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai may be the most beloved Japanese film of all time, but Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 classic Tokyo Story is regarded by many film scholars as the greatest work of Japanese cinema. Although the entire movie involves little more than an elderly couple’s visit to their grown children in Tokyo, it is one of the most engaging films you will ever see. Ozu, filming from the traditional seiza (or kneeling) position, captures in intricate detail the minor sadness and tiny tragedies of modern life. There are no dramatic conflicts, no major speeches, and the only death occurs quietly and passes quickly. Tokyo Story simply allows its audience a brief look into the lives of one Japanese family at one particular time. The camera barely moves and the actors remain still, but each frame is a work of gentle, melancholy beauty that will stay with you long after the film ends. Tokyo Story is a powerfully human film and a great introduction to the work of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.