Japanese cinema is one of the few non-western film industries to have a huge impact on the world of cinema. Creating its own distinct brand of filmmaking setting it apart from any other genre.
Seven Samurai (Dir. Akira Kurosawa - 1954):
This is Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece and a timeless classic of Japanese cinema. One of the most referenced and copied films of all time, serving as inspiration for countless directors, movies and actors. It tells the story of a rag-tag group of villagers who seek the help of samurai warriors against an army of bandits.
Rashomon (Dir. Akira Kurosawa - 1950):
One of the most commonly debated topics in Japanese cinema is which is the better movie, Rashomon or Seven Samurai? Rashomon tells a non-linear story about a brutal crime that occurs in the woods from four different, fallible perspectives. There is no ultimate resolution, and audiences are left questioning the nature of truth and perception.
Tokyo Story (Dir. Yasujirô Ozu - 1953):
Another masterpiece of Japanese cinema, Tokyo Story tells the emotional tale of an elderly couple taking a trip to Tokyo to visit their children. Only to find that their children have no time for them and a series of heartbreaks ensue. Tokyo Story can be considered a critique on navigating the challenges of Japan’s new fast-paced society after World War II.
Princess Mononoke(Dir. Hayao Miyazaki - 1997)
With its epic war story and breathtaking visuals, Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke is a landmark in the world of animation. Following the titular character, Princess Mononoke finds herself caught in war between gods and men. Princess Mononoke might be the finest expression of Miyazaki’s visual inventiveness.
Spirited Away (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki - 2001):
Animation master Hayao Miyazaki follows up his critically acclaimed Princess Mononoke with this enchanting and gorgeously drawn spectacle in this surreal coming-of-age story. This Alice in Wonderland–like tale tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl who is trapped in a land of spirits.
Gojira (Godzilla) (Dir. Ishirō Honda - 1954):
An ever-looming symbol of nuclear anxiety post World War II, Gojira (Godzilla) is Japan’s most famous kaiju (giant monster). Godzilla has been portrayed a villain, hero, and everything in between. Godzilla is one of Japan’s most recognizable pop culture figures and has since become a worldwide cultural icon.
Tokyo Drifter (Dir. Seijun Suzuki - 1966):
Summed up: a super groovy gangster thriller. Tokyo Drifter is one of the best known and critically acclaimed films of Seijun Suzuki. A colorful action drama, Suzuki transforms a standard yakuza gangster film into a vehicle for his own unique style of filmmaking filled with unconventional storytelling techniques, amazing cinematography, and dark humor.
Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi - 1953):
This eerie supernatural fable is about the folly of men with ambitions and dreams bigger than their abilities and their wives who suffer throughout. This exploration of the hypocrisy of men and the plight of Japanese women has made Mizoguchi one of the most admired Japanese directors.
Grave of the Fireflies (Dir. Isao Takahata - 1988)
Isao Takahata’s animated movie Grave of the Fireflies follows two siblings struggling to survive during World War II Japan. It proved that animated cinema could explore profound, deep human emotions in a moving way. It changed the way audiences viewed the medium and is regarded as one of the most moving works of art about the effects of war.
Yojimbo (Dir. Akira Kurosawa - 1961)
Another Kurosawa classic. This comedy drama mix follows the story of a nameless rogue samurai who takes it upon himself to free the citizens of a town who are in crosshairs of a gang war. Yojimbo serves as the prototype for Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name” character in the Dollars Trilogy.
Harakiri (Dir. Masaki Kobayashi - 1962)
A period drama set in the feudal age about a samurai who arrives at a lord’s home to request an honorable spot to commit ritualistic suicide. Despite being a ronin film Harakiri contains what makes movies worthwhile a moving plot and an understanding of the samurai’s suffering and the code of honor he is bound to follow.
Branded to Kill (Dir. Seijun Suzuki - 1967)
Seijun Suzuki’s brutal, funny and visually striking masterpiece tells the story of a yakuza assassin who ends up botching a hit job and winds up becoming a target himself. This offbeat yakuza film finds Suzuki at his most extreme and has been source of inspiration for renowned directors such as John Woo, Chan-wook Park, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino.
Fireworks (Dir. Takeshi Kitano - 1997)
An unexpected critical and international success it managed to make Takeshi Kitano one of the country's most popular filmmakers. The story follows hard-boiled cop, whose daughter has recently died and whose wife is terminally ill with cancer. He retires early in the film in order to spend time with his wife, which allows Kitano to do in-depth character study of a conflicted individual capable of both great kindness and rage.
Battle Royale (Dir. Kinji Fukasaku - 2000)
Battle Royale might be one Japan’s most infamous and influential cult films. Predating Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games it tells a similar story of school age children and young adults forced to fight to the death leaving one to crowned the winner. The film is bloodier, and filled with darker humor than its American counterpart.
Nobody Knows (Dir. Hirokazu Koreeda - 2004)
Based on the events of the Sugamo child abandonment case, Koreeda’s 2004 film tells the story of four step-siblings left alone in apartment by their mother. Instead of venturing out and seeking help they live in secret under the care of the eldest sibling. Probably one of the most heart recent-wrenching films in Japanese cinema.
Departures (Dir. Yōjirō Takita - 2008)
Yōjirō Takita’s drama tells the story of a cellist who loses his job after his symphony is shut down and applies to a company called Departures assuming it’s travel-related. The out-of-work musician soon realizes that his new-found employment opportunity is that of an undertaker, and the story then quickly dives into a beautiful outlook on death and its impact on those closest to the deceased.
A Taste of Tea (Dir. Katsuhito Ishii - 2004)
Ishii’s film chronicles multiple generations of the eccentric Haruno family, all living under the same roof over one special summer. A simple and charming movie. It is often described as a surreal take of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander.
Like Father, Like Son (Dir. Hirokazu Koreeda - 2013)
This heart-wrenching film is about a father who is thrown into despair after he learns the truth that his biological son was switched at birth with another child. Get ready for an emotional rollercoaster.
The Human Condition (Dir. Masaki Kobayashi - 1951)
The Human Condition trilogy follows Kaji a self-righteous pacifist during WWII, who over the course of the trilogy becomes of the most fully-fledged characters in film, rivaling characters like Charles Foster Kane or Michael Corleone.
Tokyo Sonata (Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa - 2008)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata is a tear-jerking drama about the disintegration of a middle-class family in Tokyo, after the head of the family loses his job to outsourcing. Be sure to have tissues handy for this one.