Whether you’re living in Japan, are interested in Japanese culture – or even if you’ve no interest in Japan at all – there are some incredible Japanese movies you need to watch.
What are the best Japanese movies?
Many Western people’s thoughts on Japanese movies will have one idea in their mind: ANIME. Yes, Japan is the home of Anime and there are more Japanese films in the Anime style coming out every year than you could ever imagine.
However, Japanese movies are not all anime. In fact, Japan has a long history of cinema that predates the style completely.
There is the golden age of Japanese films with Japanese directors still revered today. Have you ever heard of Akira Kurosawa? How about Yasujirō Ozu? Masaki Kobayashi? These Japanese directors are considered all-time greats, and not only in Japan! These are the best of the best worldwide.
Classic Japanese films
1. SEVEN SAMURAI
Where better to start than with the films of Akira Kurosawa?
When Kurosawa’s Rashomon won the Golden Lion award at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, Japanese cinema was finally recognized worldwide. Kurosawa, perhaps the most famous of all Japanese directors, had brought attention to an art form that had been quietly flourishing in Japan.
Most would consider Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI as his masterpiece. Set in feudal Japan, the film features seven aging warriors who are tasked with stopping bandits from plundering a village’s crops. The film is full of codes of honor, tradition, coupled with masterful fight scenes.
This Japanese film inspired countless other western classics. Most notably: Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. If you are interested in traditional Japanese culture, then this film is for you.
2. TOKYO STORY
Another legendary Japanese director is Yasujirō Ozu. His masterpiece follows the lives of husband and wife Shukichi and Tomi as they visit their children’s families. As is typical for Japanese movies, the film tackles spiritual and sentimental themes. Whilst SEVEN SAMURAI discussed honor, Tokyo Story discusses aging and the inevitable passing of time. Themes of family, loss, and loneliness dominate the film.
Once again, if you are interested in Japanese culture then this film is for you. Ozu masterfully pits pre and post-war perspectives against each other and explores how family values can drift apart. This is a beautifully haunting Japanese film.
The best Japanese movies of the 21st century.
Japanese film had a golden age in the 1950s. However, some of the best Japanese movies are still being made today! The benefit of these modern films is that they showcase modern Japanese culture. For anyone thinking of living in Japan, then these films might gift you great insight!
With the films Maborosi (1995), After Life (1998) Nobody Knows (2004), and Like Father, Like Son (2013), Hirokazu Koreeda is one of the most influential Japanese directors working today. He is one of few Japanese directors whose films have crossed over to Western audiences. For this reason alone, he will be remembered as a legend in years to come.
SHOPLIFTERS is a story about a poor family living in squalid conditions. Three generations are packed inside an old Japanese house. Things take a turn when the family kidnapped a young girl, deciding to raise her themselves.
The film has themes of family, loss and abuse. Although, there are many lighthearted moments throughout. Hirokazu Koreeda is a master of capturing real life and the highs and lows of living.
This film is recommended to those interested in Japanese culture beyond the glitz and glamour that is normally shown in the media.
4. LINDA LINDA LINDA
The first female Japanese director on this list, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s film is a joy to watch. Follow the lives of four school girls as they form a punk band to play for the school’s end-of-year festival.
Lighthearted and fun, this is a great insight into living in Japan. Alongside themes of companionship, the film also explores the difficulties of life for immigrants in Japan through the band’s lead singer.
Often overlooked, we think this is one of the best Japanese movies.
Anime is a staple of Japanese culture, and AKIRA is one of the best.
While most will flock to watch the classic Japanese movies made by Studio Ghibli (Totoro, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle are all great examples) we’ve gone for more of a niche anime pick.
Set in a dystopian future Neo-Tokyo, AKIRA follows the lives of boys in a biker gang, one of which gains strange telekinetic abilities. Without giving the plot away, expect some out-of-this-world action.
Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, this is one of our favorite anime movies and one of the best Japanese movies ever!
It wouldn’t be a ‘best Japanese movies’ list without a movie from the genre of Horror. Horror is very popular in Japan. Known as ‘J-Horror’, the Japanese take on scary films is unique. Yes, like western horror movies, these films are full of ghouls and murderers – but Japanese horror simply offers something … more. It is something unique to Japanese culture.
RINGU is a classic and one that caused a stir internationally. RINGU is about a cursed videotape that kills whoever watches it, featuring a terrifying girl who climbs out of a well, then through the television in order to kill her victims. The film is steeped in mystery, intrigue, and plenty of gore.
Somewhat unsuccessfully adapted as an American film, the original RINGU is one of our favorite Japanese movies. However, beware! After watching RINGU living in Japan might not feel the same again … not with RINGU haunting you!
What are the best Japanese movies?
There are six fantastic Japanese movies for you to watch. But don’t just take our word for it, go and watch them! Enjoy!