by Martin Hafer
This list of great Japanese films is based on my years of watching and enjoying films from this country. You may find that the selection of Japanese films where you live to be different and you should also note that I could not possibly see and review every film from Japan!
As I made up this list I noticed several things. There were a lot of films by a few directors, such as Kurosawa and Ozu. Kurosawa’s films are varied and all of them are terrific–and I probably could have listed a few more of his films as ‘must see’ movies. Ozu’s are an odd lot, as there is a certain sameness about them. The stories are usually very similar (and hence it’s easy to mix up which ones you’ve seen and haven’t seen) and the camerawork is effective but very old fashioned. They are still wonderful but you might want to stop after you see a few of them because of this sameness. Also, I noticed that there are a lot of films either about the samurai or the awfulness of World War II. Both are huge events in Japanese history, so this isn’t surprising.
My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988): Two little girls move to a house in the country. There they meet some amazing magical creatures that change their lives.
Why you should watch: This might just be the cutest cartoon ever made. Yet, despite this, it’s never cloying or sappy. A truly wonderful cartoon that always makes me smile.
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001): A very strange cartoon where a little girl’s parents are somehow turned into pigs and she enters an odd world full of witches, gods and monsters.
Why you should watch: It’s simply like no other cartoon you’ve ever seen before and it’s a wonderful adventure. Strange…but wonderful.
Happiness of the Katakuris (Takashi Miike, 2001): This musical comedy is about a sweet family who build a hotel in the middle of nowhere and their guests have an annoying habit of dying.
Why you should watch: The film never attempts to be normal, incorporating stop-motion, live action, zombies, song and dance numbers and the appearance of Queen Elizabeth’s illegitimate son and spy! Hilarious and a huge improvement over the original Korean film on which it’s based.
Burmese Harp (Kon Ichikawa, 1956): This anti-war film is set in the closing days of the war. A group of Japanese soldiers won’t believe that the war has ended and it’s up to one of the men to convince them to put down their arms.
Why you should watch: The film manages to be anti-war yet do it in a thoroughly unique way. An oddly lyrical sort of film.
Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa, 1959): Another anti-war film from Ichikawa. However, this one is much more grim than Burmese Harp and explores the awfulness and savagery of war that few films before or since have come close to equaling.
Why you should watch: Its depiction of soldiers struggling with starvation and madness is unrelenting and grim–and war SHOULD be depicted just as it is…awful.
The Bad Sleep Well (Akira Kurosawa, 1960): This is a reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet which is set in corporate Japan!
Why you should watch: The opening scene with the party and the cake is amazing and sets the stage for this great film.
Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957): Kurosawa’s take on MacBeth is set in feudal Japan!
Why you should watch: The final death scene is certainly over the top–and incredibly memorable. It manages to breathe life into Shakespeare and makes it very watchable…even if you don’t like Shakespeare!
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano, 2003): This is a reboot of the old Zatoichi films. It’s the story of a blind man who wanders the land in the guise of a masseur. His real purpose is to right wrongs and help the poor people of feudal Japan.
Why you should watch: I love the original Zatoichi series but this new version that stars the director is just a bit better. Too bad they only made one of these films.
The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954): This film was later remade in the States as The Magnificent Seven. It’s the story of a group of powerful out of work samurai who decide to help a small town being terrorized by a gang leader and his wicked men.
Why you should watch: Well made in every way, it’s the first and best of these sorts of films. Kurosawa’s most famous film.
High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963): One of the director’s most underrated films yet it’s one of his best. An executive in a shoe company is being extorted by a gang of thugs. They’ve kidnapped the chauffeur’s son and threaten to kill him unless the executive meets their demands.
Why you should watch: Toshiro Mifune was a frequent star in Kurosawa’s films–and here he’s at his best.
Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961): Mifune plays a ronin, a wandering samurai. When he comes into a new town, he finds two evil rival gangs are vying for control. He cleverly pits the gangs against each other and manages to trick them both repeatedly.
Why you should watch: This is a wonderful samurai film that actually manages to deliver a few laughs along the way.
Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950): This film presents a story from three different viewpoints and the viewer has to determine what REALLY happened. This idea has been copied many times since.
Why you should watch: The Academy didn’t have an Oscar for Best Foreign Language at the time, so they created a special award just for this movie! A great story.
Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952): A minor public official is dying and realizes that his life really hasn’t amounted to much. Before he dies, he’s determined to leave his mark.
Why you should watch: The acting and direction are marvelous. A simple story yet it’s told so lovingly and beautifully that it’s unforgettable.
Tokyo Story (Yasujirô Ozu, 1953): An elderly couple travel to Tokyo to visit their children. Sadly, the kids have their own lives and the visit seem like more of a burden than anything else.
Why you should watch: This is an exquisitely acted and lovingly directed film. It is, however, gut-wrenchingly sad.
Sanjuro (Akira , 1962): This is a follow-up to Yojimbo and is even better. This time, the wandering swordsman helps a group of people to expose a corrupt official.
Why you should watch: Once again, the combination of Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa is terrific. Great acting, a great story and a wonderful sense of humor.
Twilight Samurai (Yôji Yamada, 2002): This is a samurai film with little actual fighting. It’s the story about a samurai who is a glorified bureaucrat and his attempt to protect a woman.
Why you should watch: This film had a lot of depth and realism that make it easier to believe than the usual body-strewn samurai picture.
Departures (Yôjirô Takita, 2008): Daigo is a musician out of work. In desperation, he obtains a job preparing the dead for burial.
Why you should watch: Despite the subject matter, this is NOT a depressing film. Amazingly, it’s a rather beautiful film with extremely likable characters.
Shall We Dance (Masayuki Suo, 1996): A Japanese man decides to learn ballroom dancing. Oddly, such behavior just is NOT acceptable and he keeps his love of dance from everyone.
Why you should watch: Despite a simple story about something that sounds like it would be mundane, it’s incredibly charming and hard to resist.
Death Note (Shûsuke Kaneko, 2006): This is the live action version of the very popular anime/manga series. It’s about a young man who has the amazing power to kill anyone just by writing their names in his notebook.
Why you should watch: An exciting story AND you get to see Takeshi Kaga (that’s ‘Chairman Kaga’ from the TV show Iron Chef) playing the young man’s father! Plus, you don’t need to be an anime or manga fan to enjoy this.
Castle in the Sky (Hayao Miyazaki, 1986): Like so many of Miyazaki’s films, it’s set in a weird alternate world. Here, pirates fly about in gigantic flying ships (like the old videogame Skies of Arcadia) and they go in search of a famed floating city.
Why you should watch: Amazing animation and a truly one of a kind story…and it’s fun!
The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, 1958): This story was the inspiration for Star Wars and it has many similarities even though it is set in feudal Japan. It’s the story of a princess who is being sought by a baddie and the men who protect her.
Why you should watch: A must for any Star Wars fan, it’s an exquisitely written, acted and directed film.
Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, 2008): I can’t even describe WHAT this film is about and I’ve seen it twice! It’s a weird story about a little kid and his new friend, a goldfish-like thingie….
Why you should watch: Like any Miyazaki film, the animation is exquisite. Additionally, the story is incredibly charming and ultra-cute.
Sonatine (Takeshi Kitano, 1993): This is the story of a gang war and a of men who lie low–hoping the killing will somehow miss them.
Why you should watch: This is a super-violent film and I don’t like films like this. But, oddly, I did appreciate what the film was able to accomplish. Tough but extremely well done.
The Hidden Blade (Yôji Yamada, 2004): Munezô Katagiri is a very decent and honor-bound samurai. However, his very dishonorable superiors demand he murder his good friend…so what is he to do?
Why you should watch: It’s not just an action film, but it has an exceptional story and has a love story that makes it very enjoyable.
I Was Born But… (Yasujirô Ozu, 1932): This silent film is about a family that moves to a new town. The two boys adore their father and think he’s the greatest. Eventually, however, they realize that he’s a bit of a brown-noser and not the hero they thought he was.
Why you should watch: The Japanese made silents well after the Americans and even the Europeans switched to sound. Despite this, the film is every bit as entertaining as anything else being made at the time.
When the Last Sword is Drawn (Yôjirô Takita, 2003): This is the story of an honorable Samurai who is forced to fend for himself and his family, as the old system of Bushido is disintegrating.
Why you should watch: Exceptional acting, great swordplay, a nice deft direction as well as top-notch writing and sets make this among the best samurai films I have seen.
Japan’s Longest Day (Kihachi Okamoto, 1967): This film takes place on the day before the Japanese surrendered during WWII.
Why you should watch: This film really strives for historical accuracy. The production is first-rate all around. Several big-name Japanese actors star in this film–including Chishû Ryû and Toshirô Mifune.
Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954): This film is about political corruption and a bailiff who is quite evil and eventually gets his due.
Why you should watch: Despite a depressing story, the film offers some excellent twists and the production is quite well made.
Lady Snowblood (Toshiya Fujita, 1973): A young girl is raised from a very young age to be an instrument of revenge.
Why you should watch: Fantastic swordplay and a story that is gripping and darkly satisfying.
Like Father Like Son (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2013): When a family learns that their young son is NOT their biological child but was deliberately switched by a disgruntled hospital employee, the family is thrown into chaos when the father wishes to switch the child for his biological son…even though the boys have lived in their respective homes for years.
Why you should watch: The film investigates the traditional notions of success and shows their dark side. Insightful and a tough film to forget.
Tokyo Chorus (Yasujirô Ozu, 1931): A man is angered when one of his co-workers is fired. He confronts his boss and is fired as well.
Why you should watch: Ozu’s films are almost always deadly serious. Well done but very serious. This silent film, in contrast, is lighthearted and even a bit funny at times.
The Streetfighter (Shigehiro Ozawa, 1974): Sonny Chiba plays a mercenary who breaks a scum-bag out of prison. However, instead of paying him for his services, the mob decides to kill him and send wave after wave of baddies to kill him.
Why you should watch: This film is unabashedly violent and filled with amazing martial arts action. I appreciate how Chiba’s character not only beats up his enemies but takes extra efforts to kill them so that they cannot come back to attack him later…making him a very practical anti-hero.
Karate Bear Fighter, Karate For Life, Karate Bull Fighter (Kazuhikoaguchi, 1977): This trio of films tell the life story of Choi Bae-Dal, the man who not only brought Kyokushin Karate to Japan but who actually fought bears and bulls to the death in several public demonstrations!
Why you should watch: Once again, it’s a great film due to the wonderful martial arts skills of Sonny Chiba. Of the three, Karate For Life is the best in the trilogy.
Samurai I, II and III (Hiroshi Inagaki, 1954-1956): This trilogy of films follow the life of Musashi Miyamoto, one of the greatest and most famous of the samurai who lived over 400 years ago.
Why you should watch: The films are wonderful because Miyamoto’s life is told slowly and lovingly in three separate films. And, considering how amazing his life and exploits were, it’s wonderfully detailed and exquisitely made.
Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962): An older samurai enters a town and requests permission of the local lord to commit ritual suicide instead of wasting away due to poverty and a lack of work!
Why you should watch: The film is exquisitely acted and is a great study about how cruel and awful the Code of Bushido could be. Filled with interesting moral dilemmas.
The Human Condition 1, 2, 3 (Masaki Kobayashi, 1959-61): This trilogy of films is the long saga about the life and experiences in WWII of a pacifist. He at first tries to avoid war and works for peace but eventually enlists in the army and experiences the hellish nature of war.
Why you should watch: Like the other trilogies listed above, this one excels because of its many details and richness of the story. Additionally, it’s anti-war and anti-nationalism storyline is incredibly well told.
Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964): This film consists of four Japanese folk tales about the supernatural.
Why you should watch: The stories are just great. In most anthology films, there are a few klunkers but not this one–all four are fascinating and very creepy.
Samurai Rebellion (Masaki Kobayashi, 1967): Toshiro Mifune stars as a samurai whose son is told to divorce his wife and marry another by their lord. However, despite the samurai code of unquestioning obedience, the young man refuses, as he loves his wife. To refuse, however, means death…and soon both the father AND son are willing to fight for what is right.
Why you should watch: The basic unfairness of Japanese feudal society is the theme and that ANYONE would refuse to obey is completely unheard of and makes the movie unique. It’s also quite touching and exceptionally well made and well acted.
Sword of the Beast (Hideo Gosha, 1965): A fugitive samurai meets a couple. He learns that they are doomed, so he decides to stay and protect these people.
Why you should watch: It’s well done–with excellent swordsmanship, acting and direction.
47 Samurai (Hiroshi Inagaki, 1962): A story about 47 samurai who see the injustice when their master is ordered to commit ritual suicide. While the Code of Bushido demands obedience, these men chose instead to exact revenge in the name of their master…even if it also guarantees their owns deaths.
Why you should watch: I have seen many versions of this classic story. This is probably the best made. Don’t see the new version with Keanu Reeves because it stars Keanu Reeves…a guy who has no reason to be in feudal Japan!
A Colt is My Passport (Takashi Nomura, 1967): Probably Jô Shishido’s best film. He plays a hitman who is ultimately set up by his own client.
Why you should watch: I love Shishido, an oddly exciting actor who starred in many gangster films AND got facial implants to give him a strange look–almost like he was part squirrel! Here, he’s at his toughest!
Youth of the Beast (Seijun Suzuki, 1963): Another excellent Jô Shishido film. Here he plays a violent thug who plays two rival mob bosses against each other–much like what occurs in the great Kurosawa film, Yojimbo.
Why you should watch: A well-crafted gangster film with Shishido at his coolest.
Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards (Seijun Suzuki, 1963): Squirrel man Shishido plays a detective who infiltrates the mob.
Why you should watch: The film has so many wonderful twists and turns that it kept me guessing. Plus, Shishido is hard to dislike and you’ve just got to see a movie with a title like this one!
An Actor’s Revenge (Kon Ichikawa, 1963): Yukinojo is a guy who impersonates women in plays–a common practice back in the day. While touring with his company, he spots the three men who drove his parents to suicide many years ago.
Why you should watch: This film really blurs the line between what is in the play and what is real. This unusual style makes an excellent and compelling story even better.
Zebraman (Takashi Miike, 2004): A very nerdy school teacher loves a short-lived TV series called Zebraman. Out of the blue, he is given the opportunity to be Zebraman!
Why you should watch: Miike is known for his very violent films. He also is knows for super-weird and funny films and this film is definitely funny and incredibly strange.
An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujirô Ozu, 1962): Ozu’s last film, it’s a reworking of his earlier film, Late Spring. An older man lives with his daughter and he’s determined to get her a husband and move her out…even though she feels a strong responsibility to stay and take care of her father.
Why you should watch: Despite being a bit slow, the film is a wonderful and lovingly told story.
Floating Weeds (Yasujirô Ozu, 1959): A traveling actor returns to a small town to see his nephew. The only problem is that it’s really NOT his nephew but his son and the young man doesn’t realize this.
Why you should watch: Exquisitely told, I also appreciate that the film avoids the usual cliches and formulaic ending.
Late Spring (Yasujirô Ozu, 1949): Noriko is in her 20s and living with her father. Everyone thinks she should get married and the film is about their efforts to get her a husband.
Why you should watch: This is simply Ozu’s best film in my opinion. Perfect in every way.
Story of Floating Weeds (Yasujirô Ozu, 1934): The same story as the 1959 version but told as a silent film.
Why you should watch: A terrific story, terrifically told. It’s about as good as the remake and despite being a silent, is very enjoyable.
Woman in the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964): A man is tossed down a gigantic hole where he finds a weary woman who spends all her times shoveling sand out of the pit.
Why you should watch: This is a mega-weird film but it’s also so creative and unusual that it’s well worth seeing.
The Apology King (Nobuo Mizuta, 2013): A man has a service that apologizes for people who have REALLY screwed up!
Why you should watch: This film has such a funny, insane, fresh and odd style that it will make you laugh…I guarantee! A very, very funny film.
Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988): This animated film is about a brother and sister who try to survive amid starvation and chaos in the final days of WWII. Despite being a cartoon, it is NOT for kids and is very depressing. It will make you cry….pretty much guaranteed!
Why you should watch: Depressing or not, it does have an amazingly strong impact. It is exquisitely made as well.
Madadayo (Akira Kurosawa, 1993): One of the great director’s last films, it’s the story about an aging professor who seems to be ready to live forever! Madadayo is roughly translated to “I am not ready yet”…as each year passes.
Why you should watch: This film is obviously very personal and is a statement from the elderly director himself that he is not ready to curl up and die! A life-affirming and totally unique film.
Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (Kinji Fukasaku, 1972): 26 years after the end of WWII, a widow is still working tirelessly to determine exactly what happened to her husband and why he was killed.
Why you should watch: Wonderful acting and a strong anti-war message make this one an exceptional film.
Love and Honor (Yôji Yamada, 2006): A samurai whose job is to be a food taster for his master is nearly killed when he eats some poisoned food. It leaves him blind and the master seems to have no regard for him…allowing the man and his wife to fall into a life of poverty.
Why you should watch: An excellent story and a touching love story, this film defies the often used cliche of the magical blind swordsman who can fight better than anyone!
Shubun (Akira Kurosawa, 1950): A painter and a famous actress spend some innocent time together. However, the tabloids learn about this and print stories they know are false in order to sell papers. The artist is determined to sue them and make them retract their lies.
Why you should watch: The story really becomes marvelous when the artist hires a lawyer. See the story and see what I mean.
Red Beard (Akira Kurosawa, 1965): Set in the 19th century, a haughty young rich man comes to a famous doctor to receive training. However, the young man’s beliefs about mankind and especially the poor are challenged by this internship.
Why you should watch: As in all the Kurosawa films, the acting is so good and the story extremely engaging. A long and very rewarding story.
Twenty-Four Eyes (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1954): The film begins with a new school teacher arriving at her first assignment in 1928. She’s given a class of 12 children and the story follows them through the years where Japan becomes militaristic and invades China as well as through World War II.
Why you should watch: The film is lengthy but never seems long. Through these children and their teacher, you see the evolution of Japan and its ultimate destruction. A great piece of historical fiction and one of the best films of the era.
Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006): This is an American-Japanese co-production and all the actors are Japanese. It’s a very sensitive and sad look at the Battle of Iwo Jima from the viewpoint of the Japanese soldiers–particularly the common enlisted man.
Why you should watch: This movie really humanizes the folks who died in the battle. They were the enemy but they were people and the futility of their deaths is touching.
The Eel (Shôhei Imamura, 1997): A man comes home to find his wife in bed with another man. The husband snaps and kills the pair. Eight years later, he’s released from prison along with his odd pet…an eel!
Why you should watch: The acting is excellent and the leading character someone you cannot help but like despite his past. A genuinely strange story.
Three Outlaw Samurai (Hideo Gosha, 1964): A group of peasants take a local magistrate’s daughter hostage. After all, they are being so heavily taxed that they are starving and seem to have no alternative. Three samurai are pulled into this conflict.
Why you should watch: This is much like an American western placed in feudal Japan. It’s simple but very effective.
Cruel Gun Story (Takumi Furukawa, 1964): Jô Shishido kills the man responsible for putting his sister into a wheelchair permanently. Years later, he’s released–and this is due to a guy who is planning a heist. He agrees to help them, as the money will help him get the surgery his sister needs to walk again…but he doesn’t know that there’s far more to the story.
Why you should watch: Once again, the King of Cool, Shishido, is in the film so it’s easy to love. Additionally, the ending is very dark and exciting.
Tampopo (Jûzô Itami, 1985): A woman named Tampopo (‘Dandylion’) runs a terrible ramen shop. However, she’s so nice that a truck driver decides to enlist the help of some friends to make her restaurant the best ramen shop…in the world!
Why you should watch: The story is simple and mundane…yet the characters behave as if it’s a matter of life and death and THE most important thing in the universe! It’s so ridiculously overdone and the tongue-in-cheek style made me smile.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (Kenji Misimi, 1972): This is the second film in the Lone Wolf and Cub series. A group of female assassins are the villains in this one.
Why you should watch: The action and story are great, though I must warn you that the blood, body count and nudity definitely make this an adult film, so don’t show it to your mother!
When the Last Sword is Drawn (Yôjirô Takita, 2003): This film is told in flashbacks about a very chaotic and scary time in Japan–the Meiji era, when the country is being opened up to the outside world and society is in flux.
Why you should watch: Provided you are familiar with Japanese history, this is one of the best samurai films you can find. If you don’t know much about this time period, see it with someone who does.
Onibaba (Kaneto Shindô, 1964): A story about some evil folks who live in the swamps and survive by killing and robbing anyone unfortunate enough to wander into their territory.
Why you should watch: The ending is great and it’s a wonderful example of Karma, as the evil duo really get their just desserts…and the audience is enthralled!
A Letter to Momo (Hiroyuki Okiura, 2011): A strange but thoroughly enjoyable cartoon about a girl who recently lost her father–and three bizarre spirits who come to her aid.
Why you should watch: This is exquisitely animated and very touching.
The Rug Cop (Minoru Kawasaki, 2006): One of the strangest films from the strangest filmmaker in Japan. It’s the adventures of a cop with a hairpiece that helps him fight crime!! To assist is an odd assortment of detectives, including Shorty, Fatty, Handsome and, um,…Big Dick.
Why you should watch: This is not only super-strange but is hilarious. So bizarre that you just need to see it to believe it!!