Japan, a forerunner in world cinema, has one of the most acclaimed film industries in the world. Their contribution to world cinema has not gone unnoticed with Japan winning—not once, but four times—the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (the record high for any Asian nation).
This list will chronicle some of the greatest movies to come from the land of the rising sun.
Of course, a list like this is in no way definitive, so I have specifically tried to pick movies from a range of genres and time periods to hopefully broaden your perspective of Japanese cinema. Hopefully, there will be some entrants here that surprise you.
Without further ado, let’s begin.
1. Ichi the Killer (2001)
Starting off this list is the hyper-violent crime-horror film from director Takashi Miike (who will feature again later in this list). The film was regarded as so violent that it was outright banned in Norway, Germany, and Malaysia upon its release, and only a heavily edited version was released in the US.
Due to the intense gore and graphic images shown in the movie, sick bags were handed out during initial screenings at movie festivals.
Ichi the Killer follows the story of Ichi, a psychotic and incredibly violent man who is manipulated into hurting or even killing members of feuding Yakuza gangs.
The film has generally been well-received from critics, and due to its intense and unique depictions of violence has, to no surprise, built a cult following.
For those with a strong enough resolve for violence, Ichi the Killer is an entertaining—if often shocking—piece of cinema.
Get the DVD from Amazon here: Ichi the Killer [Blu-ray]
2. Battle Royale (2000)
The early 2000s seemed to be a heyday for experimentation within Japanese cinema and, much like the first entry in this list, Battle Royale is a rip-roaring violent affair.
Adapted from Koushin Takami’s 1999 novel of the same name, Battle Royale follows a group of teenagers forced to fight to the death until only one remains.
Set in a dystopian alternate universe, the Japanese government, fearful of its youth (indicative of the real Japan, a nation with an increasingly aging population), creates the BR law. This law pits 9th graders in a battle to the death on a remote Japanese Island.
The movie received a splattering of praise upon its release and currently sits on a respectable score of 87% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Famed director Quentin Tarantino has even said, in relation Battle Royale, “If there’s any movie that’s been made since I’ve been making movies that I wish I had made, it’s that one.”
Find the DVD on Amazon: Battle Royale (Director's Cut Collector's Edition)
3. Godzilla (1954)
Often, in cinema, it can be seen that movies are a way to indirectly deal with the problems facing society. It could be said that the previous entry, Battle Royale, was an attempt to subconsciously deal with the problems of an aging population in Japan.
Well, the all-time classic of the original Godzilla movie was a clear attempt for Japan to reconcile with the threat of further nuclear attacks, having the unique perspective of being the only nation on earth to have had nuclear bombs used against it.
Images of nuclear weapons would have been too ‘on the nose’ for the people of Japan, but a gigantic building-sized reptile, born from nuclear experimentation, destroying Tokyo is the perfect allegory for the fear of nuclear attack.
Godzilla birthed an entire Kaiju genre and is now recognised as the longest-running film franchise of all time.
Take a step back in time and enjoy a classic piece of cinema history that deals with possible fears we might still feel today. Make sure to watch the original Japanese version, and not the heavily edited American dub.
Get the DVD from Amazon here: Gojira / Godzilla, King of the Monsters
4. Tokyo Story (1953)
Staying in the 1950s where, in many ways, Japanese cinema experienced a sort of golden age, we have the movie Tokyo Story. Regarded as esteemed director Yasujirō Ozu’s masterpiece, it follows the story of various members of the Hiriyama family, with a focus on the retired couple of Shūkichi and Tomi who arrive in Tokyo to visit their adult children.
Unlike the entrants so far, this story is not about violence or surreal situations, but is rather a sensitive, realistic story that deals with the universal problem of old age and the issues and disillusionment that comes with this progression.
Get the DVD from Amazon here: Criterion Collection: Tokyo Story
5. Seven Samurai (1956)
It would be possible to make a whole list comprised solely of the work of Akira Kurosawa, who is quite possibly the most famous director ever to come out of Japan.
Seven Samurai is, perhaps, his most famous accomplishment. With a current score of a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, it should be of no surprise that Kurosawa’s epic appears on this list.
At just under 3 hours and 30 minutes long, this is definitely a movie you will need to take an afternoon off for. The plot follows a samurai, fallen on hard times, who gathers six other samurai together in order help protect a village from bandits.
A movie well ahead of its time with its use of editing techniques and tracking shots, Seven Samurai should be on the must-watch list of every cinephile.
If you do feel like going down an Akira Kurosawa rabbit hole, you can certainly enjoy the next two movies on this list…
Buy the DVD from Amazon here: The Seven Samurai [Region 2]
6. Rashomon (1950)
One of the four Japanese movies to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Rashomon is best known for its innovative plot device that has since become a staple of cinema—that plot device being different characters delivering subjective and contradictory versions of the same incident.
This movie takes place in 8th century Japan as we are guided through a story about the murder of a man and the rape of his wife as told by of a bandit, a wife, a samurai, and a woodcutter. They each recount the story through their own perspectives, and leaves you wondering who is telling the truth.
Get the DVD from Amazon here: Rashomon (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
7. Ran (1985)
The last movie to appear from Akira Kurosawa in this list, Ran is the seminal director’s (who was 75 years old at the time) interpretation of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Ran was the most expensive Japanese movie to be produced at the time, with a budget of $11 million, and this is made evident in the movie’s intense battle scenes.
Ran tells the story of an aging warlord who decides to split his kingdom equally among his three sons.
Treachery takes place, and soon the three sons battle each other for total control of their father’s empire.
Buy the DVD from Amazon here: Ran
8. Linda Linda Linda (2005)
Traveling 20 years ahead to the year 2005, we have the upbeat comedy Linda Linda Linda. The film follows four teenage girls who form a band to cover the songs of their favourite musical group.
The girls face a steep learning curve in order to be able to play their song in time for the big show. Will they make it in time? Will the show go on?
This movie is an enjoyable insight into high school life and the lengths to which friends will go for each other and to achieve their combined goal.
Check out the DVD at Amazon: Linda Linda Linda
9. Nobody Knows (2004)
From the tale of four teenagers to the tale of four children, Nobody Knows is a drama loosely based on the 1988 Sugamo child abandonment case, a real-world case which saw a mother abandon her children.
The four children, each of whom has a different father, live illegally in an apartment and do not even attend school.
They survive on their own and are forced to rely on each other in order to tackle the problems they face within this uniquely troubling, solitary predicament.
Actor Yūya Yagira, who plays the child Akira, won the award for Best Actor at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. This was the first time a Japanese actor had won the award.
Get the DVD from Amazon here: Nobody Knows
10. Memories of Matsuko (2006)
A young man called Sho, who has recently gone through a tough breakup, comes to learn more about the interesting and troubled story of his recently deceased aunt, Matsuko.
This is a uniquely creative film and so dynamic that you hope it will never end. The acting is top notch, and a must-watch for any fan of character acting.
Buy the DVD from Amazon here: Memories Of Matsuko [DVD]
11. Hana-bi (1997)
Known as Fireworks in the US, Takeshi Kitano plays the character of Yoshitaka Nishi, a violent police detective who veers between serene peace and violent rage.
In order to support his dying wife, he takes out a loan from the Yakuza, and even though he pays it back, the Yakuza still stick around and attempt to extort him for more money.
The film was successful with critics and, in fact, won the Golden Lion at the 54th Venice International Film Festival.
The film is a unique portrayal of fleeting joy, defiance, and anger all rolled into one unmistakably moody drama.
Get the DVD from Amazon here:
Check out the DVD at Amazon: Hana-Bi
12. Kikujiro (1999)
Another film starring, written by, and directed by Takeshi Kitano, Kikujiro explores a theme much different from that of his previous work. The film has a light-hearted feel throughout its road trip adventure story.
A young boy sets out in search of his mother, aided with the help of the titular, quick-witted, tough guy Kikujiro.
This story will tug on your heartstrings and stay with you long after the final credits have rolled.
Buy the DVD from Amazon here: Kikujiro
13. Ringu (1998)
Now we’ll move from the light-hearted to the downright scary.
Ringu was a cultural phenomenon when it was released and is perhaps one of Japan’s most well-known cinema exports.
It is a story of supernatural horror, revolving around a cursed videotape that kills whoever watches it seven days after the viewing.
The film was hugely successful in Japan and created a host of Western remakes, most notably 2002’s The Ring.
This is a twisted movie and not one for the fainthearted. Make sure you have a comfy corner to crawl into if you feel up to watching this one.
Buy the DVD from Amazon here: Ringu [Blu-ray]
14. Cold Fish (2010)
One of the newer entrants into this list, Cold Fish is a brutal drama based on the real-life exploits of two Tokyo serial killers. Cartoonish at times with its black comedy, Cold Fish is certainly a film for those looking for something a little different.
Check out the DVD at Amazon: Japanese Movie - Cold Fish (Tsumetai Nettaigyo) [Japan BD] FBBXN-1047
15. Audition (1999)
Directed by Takashi Miike, the man behind our first entry Ichi the Killer, Audition is another horror movie to make it to this list. The film took just three weeks to shoot, but has received a number of accolades.
Audition tells the story of a widower who begins to return to the world of dating. He becomes interested in the beautiful Asami, but begins to realize that she might not be who she says she is.
For those of you who haven’t heard of it, prepare yourself for the shocking ending.
Check out the DVD at Amazon: Audition [Blu-ray]
16. The Taste of Tea (2004)
This one is certainly a little bit different and, quite possibly because of this, records an impressive 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
This comedy explores the lives of the Haruno family, who live in the countryside of Japan, told in a series of vignettes.
It is a surreal movie, scoured with joyous imagery and imaginative editing. The film ends with a startling conclusion, but you will have to watch it yourself to find out what it is.
Buy the DVD from Amazon here: The Taste of Tea
17. Ikiru (1952)
Sorry, but another Akira Kurosawa movie has managed to creep its way onto this list. I couldn’t stop myself.
Returning to the 1950s, we have Ikiru, another movie with a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
The gripping story follows the life of a terminally ill Tokyo man searching for meaning in his life. He turns his back on his government clerk life so as to pursue the significance of existence.
Check out the DVD on Amazon: Ikiru (The Criterion Collection)
18. Departures (2008)
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Departures tells the story of a failed musician who finds work at a traditional mortician.
In Japan, there are strong taboos associated with those who deal with death, and this movie deals with those struggles and connotations.
Distributors were reluctant to release it due to its subject material, but a number of prize wins turned the hands of these distributors, and the film was released to both critical and financial acclaim.
Departures eventually went on to take in $70 million at the Japanese box office.
Buy the DVD from Amazon here: Departures
19. Harakiri (1962)
Set in 17th century Japan, Harakiri, directed by Masaki Kobayashi, is a critique of the Japanese feudal system’s hypocrisy in its relationship with honor.
Multiple samurai are pitted against each other whilst in the hunt for a master. This movie is a masterclass in drama, suspense, and just plain bad-ass.
It is an emotionally intense movie whose ending will leave you in awe.
Check out the DVD on Amazon: Harakiri (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
20. Our Little Sister (2015)
The most recent entrant on this list tells the story of three sisters who all live in the same house.
A turn of events leads to them meeting their half-sister, and a tale begins of youthful discovery amongst the four girls.
The action unfolds gradually, and you will be happy for it, as you slowly become entangled with the girls’ lives and begin to feel what they feel.
Check out the DVD on Amazon: Our Little Sister
There you have it, twenty of the best movies to come out of Japan.
Are there any you think we missed? What is your favorite Japanese movie? Leave your comments below.