10 Essential Japanese Films


“Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing,” the great Akira Kurosawa once said. The statement forms the basis for his 1950 movie, Rashômon — a film credited with introducing Japanese cinema to worldwide audiences after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Rashômon tells a non-linear story about a brutal rape and murder in the woods from four different, fallible perspectives. There is no ultimate resolution, and audiences are left questioning the nature of truth and perception. It’s a hypnotic and ambiguous journey. Kurosawa’s existential masterpiece has been given the Criterion Blu-ray treatment, and we thought it would be the perfect time to revisit other essential Japanese films. Head past the break to see what works made the cut. Since this is just the tip of the iceberg, feel free to add to our list in the comments section.

Tokyo Story (Tôkyô monogatari)

An early masterpiece in Japanese cinema, Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story is an emotional, deceptively simple portrait of several ordinary lives as they cope with the fleeting nature of human existence. An elderly couple takes a trip to Tokyo to visit their children, but find that their provincial ways are a burden. The children have little time for them, and when one of the parents falls ill, the younger family members are faced with a new, unavoidable encumbrance. “Isn’t life disappointing?” one of the children asks, but Ozu doesn’t condemn the family’s indifference. Instead, he quietly uncovers and observes, allowing us to absorb the transcendence of it all.

Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai)

Based on a real-life case in Japan that took place during the 1980s, Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2004 film tells he story of four half-siblings left alone in a Tokyo apartment by their mother. Instead of seeking help, they hide from the world, living in secret under the care of the eldest boy, Akira — Yûya Yagira in a stunning performance that won him the Best Actor award at Cannes in 2004. He becomes our eyes as we watch the family’s heartbreaking situation deteriorate. Nobody Knows is a haunting meditation on social indifference and childhood lost with surprising moments of light and happiness, stirred by the bonds of togetherness and innocence.

Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari)

An essential masterwork from Japan’s Golden Age is Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, about two men who leave their wives behind during the 16th-century Civil War in search of greater fortune. Blending a convincing supernatural fable, period drama, and lyrical allegory, Mizoguchi’s gorgeous compositions, signature scroll shots, and flowing camera help set the tone for the atmospheric tale. Mizoguchi’s career-long exploration of the hypocrisy of men and the plight of Japanese women made him one of the most admired directors, and Ugetsu’s subtlety belies the power of its message.

Late Spring (Banshun)

The first film in Yasujirō Ozu’s Noriko trilogy (named for actress Setsuko Hara’s recurring, but completely unrelated character appearing in all three movies) is a rich character study of a doting, unmarried daughter who tends to her widowed father. She refuses to leave his side and travel the path of her own life. Late Spring encapsulates Ozu’s “mono no aware” approach — a sensitivity or empathy to the impermanence of things and the sadness that follows, here explored through the traditional Japanese family structure in a postwar landscape.

Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai)

Set in the turbulent hills of 16th-century Japan, Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic Seven Samurai became the archetypal action film, featuring some of the most economical, powerful scenes and storytelling put to screen. A group of villagers seek the help of samurai warriors against an army of bandits. We are steadily introduced to each character, their motivations for battle, and the dramatic, nearly four-hour-long journey that ensues. The film has been lauded for its technical prowess and impeccable craftsmanship, far-reaching influence, engaging characterizations, and a thrilling blend of samurai storytelling and American western touches. Seven Samurai is widely considered the greatest Japanese movie ever made.

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka)

Anime tends to be an alienating subject amongst American film audiences. There’s no denying that Japan has been a leader in the industry, often unparalleled in its aesthetic detail and grand themes, offering a unique view into the culture. Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies — about two siblings struggling to survive during World War II-era Japan — proved that animated cinema was capable of exploring profound, human emotions in poetic ways. It changed the way many audiences viewed the medium and is considered one of the most moving works about the effects of war.

Fireworks (Hana-bi)

Takeshi Kitano’s melancholy classic Hana-bi proved Japan’s renaissance man still had plenty to offer the world in the wake of his near-fatal 1994 motorcycle accident. Kitano wrote, edited, directed, starred in, and provided the paintings for this meditation on life lived without regret. The stoic Japanese icon featured as a tough cop trying to cope with the near death of his partner in a bust gone bad, a terminally ill wife, and a crushing yakuza debt. Hana-bi features all of the hallmarks of Kitano’s cinema — from the Zen-like scene compositions to the staccato bursts of brutal violence before arriving at an ending that feels hauntingly poignant despite being preordained. Add in Joe Hisaishi’s unforgettable score, and it’s easy to see why Hana-bi won Kitano a Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1997. It’s a masterwork from a filmmaker who may be more loved in the west than in his homeland.

Harakiri (Seppuku)

“In any era, I am critical of authoritarian power,” director Masaki Kobayashi told writer Joan Mellen. “In The Human Condition [1959–61], it took the form of militaristic power; in Harakiri, it was feudalism. They pose the same moral conflict in terms of the struggle of the individual against society.” Indeed Kobayashi’s works have always forced audiences to confront harsh realities, indicting Japanese politics, militaristic logic, and traditionalism. Harakiri’s samurai storyline is an intense and compelling vehicle for Kobayashi’s version of a Greek tragedy — a humanistic, artistic achievement.

Godzilla (Gojira)

A looming symbol of nuclear anxiety, Godzilla (Gojira) is the most famous of Japan’s kaiju (giant monster) creations. The titan has been depicted as a villain, a hero, and everything in between. Most American audiences have pegged the mutant dino-lizard as a campy, crushing beast awoken from his prehistoric slumber by toxic radiation. The grim creature has held a deeper meaning for Japanese audiences, however — sometimes as a metaphor of America itself. Godzilla is one of the most recognizable symbols of Japanese pop culture and changed the face of Japanese genre cinema (tokusatsu) — a market dominated by US filmmakers.

Twenty-Four Eyes (Nijûshi no hitomi)

Hisako Oishi knows most of her students will perish in the war. Her unwavering dedication as she guides them during the country’s increasingly violent, militarist atmosphere is moving. The complex, emotional tale that spans a 20-year period shows the devastating effects of war on a small, rural community. From the Ozu school of restraint, simplicity, and the everyday, Oishi’s film stands heads and shoulders above modern schoolteacher dramas, examining social issues through a historical lens with great heart. Twenty-Four Eyes is a tear-inducing meditation on tragedy and memory.