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  • Writer's pictureKerry Chambers

Recommends: Top 15 of Japanese Cinema

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Of the vast international cinemas out there, Japan is my favourite. Off-beat storytelling, rich culture and history and an eye for gentle details makes the viewing of Japanese cinema an experience in every sense. So I wanted to assemble a list of my recommends. My rules for this list: no more than three films per director, no Akira Kurosawa, no Hirokazu Kore-eda and no anime – they are all getting their own list. Even Ghibli shall get a list of its own eventually. I wanted to choose the films that I liked, that moved me or enthralled. But I also wanted to explore outside the realms of the obvious when it came to certain directors. I'm aware there are many not on this list and this is through fault of my own, there are directors I'm yet to discover such as Naomi Kawase and I feel I am only just touching the surface. Much of this list is made up of films I still think about often and it’s not always a case of technical brilliance but excellent storytelling. In no particular order, here we go.

15. Lesson of Evil (Takashi Miike, 2012)

The director who never stops, with over 100 films under his belt in a career spanning thirty years and still going; Takashi Miike. I could have chosen a few of his films. But I wanted to be a little less obvious with this entry. Therefore, I’ve chosen to avoid the absolutely brilliant, unsettling masterpiece Audition due to its constant use in the ‘Best of Japanese Cinema’ rankings. By no means is this undermining that work. But after watching a few of his shockers, following Audition, the one that sticks with me in a different way is Lesson of Evil.

A black comedy, the plot follows handsome high school teacher, Mr. Hasumi, who has led an on-off life of homicidal tendencies. Over time, watching his students and the behaviors going on in the school, those urges resurface. Flawed without a doubt, it’s a film that stuck with me better than the Happiness of the Katakuri's or Ichi the killer, although intriguing in their own rights. It leaves many a Miike fan divided, running a little too long and losing sight of its original goal. Instead of being a commentary on pop-culture and the glorification of violence, it enters the realm of gratuitous – nothing unusual for its director – it’s a film that I still think is worthwhile.

Screencap: Lesson of Evil (Miike, 2012)

14. Love Exposure (Sion Sono, 2008)

Approaching four hours, this chaotic cult classic is next to impossible to describe. Its fast-paced, it’s epic in scope and weird as hell. It won’t be for everyone but it could be for someone. It was definitely for me. There’s not much more I can say about it, but we spring-board when bizarre love triangle forms between a young Catholic upskirt photographer, a misandric girl and a manipulative cultist. Then the madness ensues from there with mistaken identity, love, lust and coming-of-age.

Screencap: Love Exposure (Sono, 2008)

13. The Twilight Samurai (Yoji Yamada, 2002)

This I had on my list for a long time before getting around to watching it and I regretted that decision. A tender but powerful story of a widowed samurai and his two young daughters trying to make ends meet is unable to marry the woman he loves. Furthermore, he is once again called out for his profession. It’s an angle we rarely see in the Jidaigeki (period) films about samurai, replacing the honorable samurai or the rebellious ronin with a hard-working and doting father. The film chooses to be quiet and gentle, although it carries some excellent scenes of intensity and violence which are all the more striking in contrast. Overall the film critiques duty over emotions and carries great scenes of intimacy between the family. Samurai have never been more vulnerable.

Screencap: The Twilight Samurai (Yamada, 2002)

12. Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954)

I-CON-IC. Godzilla is where it is at. And not the American heavily edited version, nor the lame remakes. We’re talking, pure, unadulterated, politically and socially sound Kaiju class. You have to go back to 1954, witness that bloke in the costume – leading the way of Suitmation - emerge from the sea to really appreciate why Japanese Cinema reigns in the monster movie department.

Lacking in scares but incredibly thought-provoking, Godzilla is the story of a fire-breathing monster that is created through the result of American nuclear weapons. The government must seek the help of a scientist to defeat the creature that was a result of man’s mistake. Political/Social commentary or what? One of the first major films following the American occupation of Japan and just nine years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Atomic bombings, this film explored the terror of the bomb in the most striking way. Until this point, the Americans had control over the output of Japan and anything romanticising its past or alluding to anything with regard to the occupation (Note you will never see an American soldier in a film from 1945-1952), but as soon as this was lifted, filmmakers let loose what they really thought about it. Godzilla is iconic in the monster universe but also in history and it marked the first significant statement made by the Japanese arts following WW2.

Screencap: Godzilla (Honda, 1954)

11. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

I admit I’ve been poor with my Ozu exposure although well-equipped to be getting on with his filmography. But with most Japanese cinema, it’s not really something one can put on in the background and I would never want to waste an opportunity. Ozu requires a lot of attention from me. So I put it off quite a bit. Tokyo Story was one such and my first.

An elderly couple, living in a quiet village, travel to Tokyo to visit their adult children, only to find that they are unable to make much time for them. The widow of their youngest son, Japans Sweetheart Setsuko Hara, steps in to keep them company. A tragic scenario in its own right, Tokyo Story explores the youth culture leaving the elderly behind. Not native simply to Japan, it’s a story that resonates still in the West and its simply heartbreaking to watch such a family fail to connect. It took me two viewings to appreciate this masterwork, with its ‘talking head’ style and meandering plot, but when I came around I finally understood why it’s hailed as one of the greatest films of the 20th Century. Just the sequence of the elderly woman with her grandchild on the hillside is enough to invoke a desire to call your own grandmother.

Screencap: Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)

10. Hara-kiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)

Masaki Kobayashi follows here with the great Samurai classic; stylish, violent and unsettling it follows the tale of an elder Samurai who has gone to the home of a feudal lord requesting a place to commit suicide (the ancient samurai practice of ritual disembowelment, Hara-kiri). However, things are not all as they seem. From the first scene we are thrown into a brutal world, full of deceit and foreboding. This melancholy film with its beautiful tracking shots, its picture-esque composition brings class into a genre often bloated with tat. Ahead of its time, this film not only looks sleek but feels modern even in this tale of rebellion against the system. If that’s no selling it, its fight scenes are some of the most wonderfully choreographed displays of prowess caught on film.

Screencap: Hara-kiri (Kobayashi, 1962)

9. Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)

My second Ozu in my lifetime, it became a favourite over Tokyo Story in one sitting. And that is for the tender relationship between its father and daughter played by the icon Setsuko Hara. The story follows the two who live happily together, the father widowed and the daughter content unwed. However, it is an aunt that convinces him that his daughter must marry at her age (27 years old) or she never will. And so we witness the devastating story of two people who want to do what’s best for the other whilst sacrificing their own happiness. It’s moving and sweet without the hint of malice, simply highlighting a culturally relevant fact of the time that society is willing to leave those deemed too old behind. Shot as all Ozu films are, capturing the quiet moments, studying his subjects and overall pondersome. It’s a family tragedy at its heart despite its ordinariness.

Screencap: Late Spring (Ozu, 1949)

8. In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima, 1976)

Wholesome to outrageous, now, I absolutely adore this art film in all its repugnancy. A former prostitute has a violent but passionate, twisted affair with her married employer and soon they are consumed with one another. Things get gruesome after that. Banned from Japan and just about everywhere else, made in France and heavily censored, slapped with an X rating everywhere in the west, In the Realm of the Senses is as notorious an entity as its subject.

Oshima revels in taboo, basing the story on a crime committed in the early 20th century, and choosing to shoot unsimulated sex throughout all the while capturing some absolutely beautiful shots. It’s amazing what these directors can do, even under strain from the powers that be. Its ruthless portrayal of desire-turned-to-madness turns the film into possibly the most unsexy, exhausting and down-right grotesque sex film in all of cinema. All the while, it pushes all of our buttons on the very nature of sex in cinema and our own sexuality.

Screencap: In the Realm of the Senses (Oshima, 1976)

7. Samurai Rebellion (Masaki Kobayashi, 1967)

Kobayashi again! This guy may not be as well-known as Kurosawa and Ozu but he carried the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema alongside them with ease, jumping across genres. I could have chosen Kwaiden for this list, a ghostly anthology, but I went with another of his samurai epics, the awesome Samurai Rebellion starring the great Toshiro Mifune. Mifune plays a samurai who challenges his calm when his son and daughter-in-law, both deeply in love with one another, are about to be torn apart by the ruling lord. In favour of what is right, he’s willing to fight. With a final scene full of so much despair and desperation, in one of Samurai cinemas best fight scenes, it’s another examination of a broken system and the warped view of honor over soul.

Screencap: Samurai Rebellion (Kobayashi, 1967)

6. Shall We Dance? (Masayuki Suo, 1996)

Better and funnier than the remake with Richard Gere, this often forgotten film is possibly the lightest and most accessible on this list in terms of content. It’s also simply delightful. Starring the great Koji Yakusho, it follows an accountant who feels unfulfilled in life despite his loving wife and daughter. One day, on his commute home, he sees a woman dancing in the window of an adjacent building. From here he signs up for ballroom dancing. When I watched it, I didn’t expect to see something so similar to the western comedy and done so much better. Its focus lies in the businessman’s fulfillment rather than a complicated relationship triangle that often Hollywood wants to follow. Its dance sequences are fun, its humour is tip-top. You can see why it was one of the biggest films of the year in Japan.

Screencap: Shall We Dance? (Suo, 1996)

5. Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Shohei Imamura, 2001)

Another freaky film about desire and sexuality, this time from Palm D’or winning director Shohei Imamura. Another Koji Yakusho film, one of the best actors in modern cinema, this one is about a failed businessman who travels to a fishing village after remembering a story he was told about hidden treasure. There he meets a young woman who resides in the house his clues have led him to and so follows an unusual affair. But there’s a twist; every time they make love, fountains of water emerge from her and flow into the river that runs by her home. Strange to say the least. But this film explores female sexuality in a progressive light and their romance is often intriguing to follow. It’s just what we expect from a Japanese romance, based in legend and taking the unusual to the extreme.

Screencap: Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Imamura, 2001)

4. Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1997)

The only horror-esque film on this list is not a reflection of J-Horror in any sense as Japan reigns as the masters of the unnerving, often clever and intricate. So my choice is a bit of Hybrid. Moody, atmospheric and unsettling, Cure is often considered Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s crowning achievement. Koji Yakusho rears his head again as the detective tracking identical murders in which victim are marked with a cross, with murderers seemingly unconnected. Psychologically intense and offering little in explanation to the bizarre going on’s, Cure is a crime/horror drama that resembles something of David Finchers Seven but with deeper philosophical contemplation and a more unsatisfying state of play. It’s eerie and intense and will have you pondering it long after the credits roll.

Screencap: Cure (Kurosawa, 1997)

3. The Human Condition Trilogy (Masaki Kobayashi, 1959 -1961)

Kobayashi’s masterwork, his crowning achievement is his series of anti-war films known as the The Human Condition Trilogy. Harrowing and heartfelt, this is the directors plea for peace and humanity in it rawest form. Following the life of a pacifist during WW2-era Japan, the film runs at almost ten hours long. It does not hold back in its depictions of the horrors of war, controversial upon its release, but with the help of Kobayashi’s sweeping style and epic scale, the consuming tragedy of this story reaches overwhelming but beautiful heights. A story of survival during man’s darkest hour.

Screencap: The Human Condition Trilogy (Kobayashi)

2. The Samurai Trilogy (Hiroshi Inagaki, 1954-1956)

Based on the life of the legendary swordsman and duelist Musashi Miyamoto, the film follows him as he grows as a warrior, faces death and love in feudal Japan. This Samurai epic, as with The Human Condition, must be viewed as a whole although this is no task. The films are incredibly intricate, with amazing choreography, realistic character arcs and a heart-wrenching love story intertwined. Toshiro Mifune brings the much loved figure alive, his own skill as an actor and swordsman making every scene breathtaking. Director Inagaki was another significant filmmaker during the Golden Age, taking a powerful story and drawing the iconic from its roots with beautiful cinematography, earthy memorable sets and impressive acting. The final duel on the beach at sunrise is in part three, Duel on Ganryu Island, is exhilarating viewing and a reminder that no one quite does fight scenes like Japan.

Screencap: The Samurai Trilogy (Inagaki)

1. Departures (Yojiro Takita, 2008)

This one is pretty wholesome indeed. A Cellists orchestra disbands and he is forced to move with his wife back to his hometown. In need to a job, he answers an ad thinking it’s for a travel agency only to discover this is at a mortuary. Through this work he finds his true calling. A taboo subject in Japan, a role often reviled in spite of its necessity in ritual funerals often based in Buddhist beliefs, the film exposes the tenderness and intimacies of Japanese burials. It won the 2009 Academy award for best foreign film and although rooted deeply in the culture of Japan and the stigma surrounding death (It is considered unclean to touch the dead and so morticians are considered unclean, an attitude dating back to feudal Japan in which morticians were segregated from society). It’s an engaging and moving film that had a wider impact on its subject matter and with lovable cast it’s hard not to enjoy this delightful film.

Screencap: Departures (Takita, 2008)

Image Credits:

Cure. (1997). Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: Eureka Masters of Cinema Series.

Departures. (2008). Directed by Yojiro Takita. [DVD]. UK: Arrow Academy.

Godzilla. (1954). Directed by Ishiro Honda. [DVD]. UK: BFI.

Hara-kiri. (1962). Directed by Masaki Kobayashi. [DVD]. UK. Eureka Masters of Cinema.

The Human Condition Trilogy. (1959-1961). Directed by Masaki Kobayashi. [DVD]. UK: Arrow Academy.

In the Realm of the Senses. Directed by Nagisa Oshima. [DVD]. UK: Noveau Cinema

Late Spring. (1949). Directed by Yasujiro Ozu. [DVD]. UK: BFI.

Lesson of Evil. (2012). Directed by Takeshi Miike. [DVD]. UK: Third Window Films

Love Exposure. (2008). Directed by Sion Sono. [DVD]. UK: Third Window Films.

Samurai Rebellion. (1967). Directed by Masaki Kobayashi, [DVD]. UK: Warrior Home Entertainment.

The Samurai Trilogy. (1954-1956). Directed by Hiroshi Ingaki. [DVD]. UK: Criterion Collection.

Shall We Dance? (1996). Directed by Masayuki Suo. [DVD]. UK: Miramax

Tokyo Story. (1953). Directed by Yasujiro Ozu. [DVD]. UK: BFI.

The Twilight Samurai. (2002). Directed by Yoji Yamada. [DVD]. UK: Tartan Video.

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge. (2001). Directed by Shohei Imamura. [DVD]. UK: Tartan Video.

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