• Kerry Chambers

Recommends: Top 50 Japanese Films (PART 1)

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

It has been a year. Ahh, to think how naïve I was when first assembling a list of top Japanese films. Fifteen was all I managed. FIFTEEN? And after a year of bingeing DVD’s, crying, reading a little bit and bingeing again, I simply can’t settle for that anymore. I would love nothing more than to compile a top fifty and be done with it. Alas, how can one manage this? By assembling a Top fifty list using this nifty blog of mine.

Late Spring (BFI, 1949)

Japan is one of the reigning cinematic figures. Still one of my favourite international cinemas, it is off-beat, poignant and worldly inventive. There is very little to be put-off by when weaving your way through the imaginative labyrinth of their work. Around as long as cinema in the west, Japanese films have found ways to be ground-breaking, beautiful and powerful. Sometimes outrageously funny, sometimes epic action films of old, still as riveting to watch as they were sixty years ago, sometimes true tear-jerkers, these storytellers have mastered something many have not. In animation and live-action, the worlds they create are some of the most astounding out there.

The Human Condition (Arrow Academy, 1959-1961)

Revisiting and recycling my old list (find the original here) where necessary, I have made some adjustments to include them here. But with so much more to explore, I had to reject a ranking system. All of the films I have chosen today have struck me as brilliant examples of the great cinema leaving Japan; from the Golden Age to New Wave, from the J-horror to the modern works of the last twenty years, this is evidence of the amazing cinema leaving Japan and the extreme diversity of its storytelling.

Eros+Massacre (Arrow Academy, 1969)

No more than three films per director... I may recommend some cheeky, cheeky nods, but still. Three... ‘Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three.’ What you will also not find here are Anime or the works of Sion Sono (Top 15 Sion Sono Films), Akira Kurosawa (Top 15 Akira Kurosawa Films) or Hirokazu Koreeda (Top 10 Hirokazu Koreeda Films). If they were to make any appearance on this list it would hardly be fair to all of the other entries. Besides, they have their own little hobbit holes designated to them. As you can see via the links. Check them out if you’re hungry for something Director specific. For Anime, check out my Top 20 Anime Films That have Influenced Me, Top 15 Studio Ghibli films and Top 20 Anime Series.

Hara-kiri (Eureka, 1962)
 

(1949-1970)


1. Late Spring (Dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)

My second Ozu in my lifetime; shock horror. Well, it became a fast loved classic following the tender relationship between its father and daughter played by the icon Setsuko Hara. The two 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.

Late Spring (BFI, 1949)

[Abridged from my previous article, Top 15 Japanese Films - 2020]


2. Ugetsu (Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

Mizoguchi captured woman’s plight on film, and for the time, that was something pretty astounding. The best of all these depictions comes in the form of Ugetsu, a haunting ghost story amidst an anti-war classic. In sixteenth century japan, two peasants struggle to survive and provide for their families as civil war ravages the land. The greed and pride of these men leads to the suffering of the women who love them dearly, as the draw of wealth and success lead them into down paths of no return.

Ugetsu (Criterion, 1953)

I remember being rather conscious of Mizoguchi place in the academic realm of film studies. It made for a rather intimidating landscape. Worse of all, I began to think that the stuffy critics would only like a stuffy film. So they could just stuff it. Until one afternoon, I found a spot of time for it and became so enraptured its storytelling, its set pieces, it’s writing, that god forbid I ever say anything against the film master again. Ugetsu is his most beautiful. It captures a realm far beyond our understanding and tells its tragic tale with cynicism and caution

Ugetsu (Criterion, 1953)
- The Life of Oharu (1952) is another amazing piece by Mizoguchi, centered in reality following the devastating fate of a love-sick, jilted woman’s fall from nobility.

3. Tokyo Story (Dir. 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.

Tokyo Story (BFI, 1953)

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 it’s simply heart-breaking 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.

Tokyo Story (BFI, 1953)

[Abridged from my previous article, Top 15 Japanese Films - 2020]


4. Godzilla (Dir. 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.

Godzilla (BFI, 1954)

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.

Godzilla (BFI, 1954)

[Abridged from my previous article, Top 15 Japanese Films - 2020]


5. The Samurai Trilogy (Dir. 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, 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 breath-taking. 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.

Duel on Ganryu Island (Criterion, 1956)

[Abridged from my previous article, Top 15 Japanese Films - 2020]


6. The Human Condition Trilogy (Dir. 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. It's perhaps my favourite from the director and the one that requires most time running at nearly ten hours long. It still sends shivers down my spine and I can only imagine what it would have been like for audiences upon the time of release, controversial though it was, with images that will longer in one's memory.

The Human Condition (Arrow Academy, 1959-1961)

Following the life of a pacifist during WW2-era Japan, his love and loss, of both hope and sanity as he endures the torturous destruction of his world around him. It does not hold back in its depictions of the horrors of war, 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.

The Human Condition (Arrow Academy, 1959-1961)

[Abridged from my previous article, Top 15 Japanese Films - 2020]


7. Good Morning (Dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1959)

Oh, Ozu. You know me so well. How could I not fall for such a sweet tale? Bets of all, there’s no underlying melancholy to haunt me for a week as I contemplate my own relevance in this life… A story of two young boys desperate for a television set just like their neighbours, make a vow of silence until their parents decide to buy them one. A commentary on the intergenerational relationships, a common theme amongst director’s work, it’s also light-hearted and funny. Cute even. It displays the best of his scripts, with some wonderful child acting, the combination is simply divine.

Good Morning (BFI, 1959)
Before we leave the 1950’s behind, here are some others I can’t fit:
- Hiroshima (Dir. Hideo Sekigawa, 1953) is the harrowing docudrama that cast alongside popular actors of the time in roles of the victims. It's 'hellscape' was recreated through real life accounts, it was one of the first of it's kinds following the conclusion of the American Occupation post-war.
- Giants and Toys (Dir. Yasuzo Masumura, 1958) is Wall Street but with confectionary companies, this satire is an amazing concoction of visual delight and biting snark all wrapped into one fabulous commentary.

8. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Dir. Mikio Naruse, 1960)

Naruse needs some representation. When’s the UK going to re-release some of his work? BFI, I’m looking at you... one simply cannot justify stooping to the OOP prices. His best known work is another amazing study on women and their place in modern day society. A social commentary, Naruse tells the story of a widow who makes ends meet as a bar hostess. She is well-liked and kind, but taken advantage of by greedy relatives whilst finding herself duped by her affairs with men. Leaving her financially unstable and lonely, she must decide her fate as she pines for a married man, whilst entertaining the idea of marriage to another in order to save her from the likely reality of a cruel future once she out-ages her line of work. Heart-aching performances and quietly nuanced storytelling, it’s mastered with grace, striking a chord for many years after its release.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Criterion, 1960)

9. Hara-kiri (Dir. Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)

Kobayashi 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. Perfect example: this 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 picturesque composition brings class into a genre often bloated with that. 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. This is Kobayashi exploring the brutal hypocrisy of samurai culture, robbing it of it's glory and reinforcing it's horrifying humanism.

Hara-kiri (Eureka, 1962)
Other worthy watches I couldn’t fit on this list:
- Samurai Rebellion (1967) starring the great Toshiro Mifune. 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 honour over soul.
- Kwaidan (1964) is an amazing horror anthology in full colour. It’s mind-blowing in the imagery and atmosphere, beautiful and unsettling. It’s further proof that Kobayashi really was a force to be reckoned with.

[Abridged from my previous article, Top 15 Japanese Films - 2020]


10. An Actor’s Revenge (Dir. Kon Ichikawa, 1963)

Some of the greatest cinema has taken place on the stage. But none has been quite so funky, so bold and experimental whilst encapsulating an exciting tale of revenge quite like Kon Ichikawa’s 1963 classic. Criminally underrated, the cinema of this director has been slipping under the radar far too long. His vision is sleek, wildly modern and powerful. His visual treats feed into his character psychological nightmare, and no film has he does this best. A Kabuki female-impersonator seeks to avenge the deaths of his parents, driven to insanity and suicide by corrupt men. However, things grow ever complicated as his reality slowly becomes fractured by his turmoil and the illusion of his art. A remake of the 1935 film of the same-name (with the same lead Kazuo Hasegawa, reprising the role and marking his 300th role in screen), what Ichikawa achieves is something wholly original. With widescreen shots, beautiful sequences of the stage performances and choreography, that creep into the realm of the surreal, it’s one of the best studies of the actor, encapsulating, living and losing themselves in their art, in cinema.

An Actor's Revenge (BFI, 1963)
Other amazing work of Kon Ichikawa that I urge anyone to seek out:
- Fires on the Plain (1959) is the story of sickly soldier in the latter half of World War II doing all he can to survive, desperation proving to allow humanity to stoop to its lowest. It was remade in 2014 by Shinya Tsukamoto.
- The Inugami Family (1976) is incredibly influential but relatively unheard of outside of Japan. Based on the works and life of crime author Kosuke Kindaichi, it’s a film that establishes itself as a bog standard murder mystery surround a noble family that soon descends into a psychedelic nightmare, with visuals still skin-crawling to this day.

11. Onibaba (Dir. Kaneto Shindo, 1964)

Never has grass felt so ominous. In feudal Japan, a mother and daughter-in-law kill wandering soldiers, stealing their belongings to sell off in order to survive. When an old acquaintance returns, revealing that the young woman’s husband has passed away, she begins an illicit affair with him. When the mother learns of this, she dons a demonic mask she finds to scare her daughter into sating with her. Another influential entry, it’s also surprisingly fresh. Having watched it in the past few months, I found it surprisingly watchable, beautifully unsettling and shocking. Japanese fables on screen are often eerie and other-worldly, but this film enters a brutal realm unexpected of sixties cinema. It’s brave and oozing sexual tension, all the while haunting; Onibaba is a still amazing viewing.

Onibaba (Eureka, 1964)
Some horror recommends of the decade include:
- Kuroneko (1968) is Shindo’s other feudal horror exploring misogyny, a story of two women who are raped by samurai whose spirits return to exact revenge on the men who bought about their suffering.
- Horrors of Malformed Men (Dir. Teruo Ishii, 1969) – Gross and weird, I could not say that it’s a brilliant film. But it’s wildly entertaining, a strange take on The Island of Dr. Moreau only far creepier and a bit more salacious.
- Blind Beast (1969) is Salvador Dali meets Pinku Eiga as a blind artist with a co-dependency on his mother kidnaps a model to create a sculpture of. It’s not great, but those sets are something else let alone the perversity that could match ever Hitchcock.

12. Gate of Flesh (Dir. Seijun Suzuki, 1964)

Suzuki is always a visual treat. And nothing is quite as rebellious and fun as his sixties contributions. The most shocking of all? That it was exactly what got him sacked by the major studios of the time. Yet after years, critics and film lovers are beginning to rediscover his brilliant oeuvre. Colourful noir, pop-art tendencies, cooler than cool sequences, roguish anti-hero’s, his work is the most original of the filmmakers of the era. There are so many to choose from when it comes to the filmmaker, and I had to ponder for a long time before I settled on a favourite of mine. That would be Gate of Flesh.

Gate of Flesh (HB Films, 1964)

A group of prostitutes in post-war Japan, rule the streets as hardened women turning tricks. But their solidarity is threatened when an ex-soldier, hunted by the police for the assault of an American soldier, seeks refuge in the deserted building they reside in. As time passes, the women become besotted with him, but deny their true feelings for the ruthless rules they have enforced that rejects sentimentality. Suzuki regular, the ‘cheeky’ star Joe Shishido, oozes sexy menace like no other, wrapping the women around his little finger. With each woman representing a vibrant colour, set pieces purposely over-the-top, bordering on Oliver-esque as the cast weave their way through the war-torn slums, it’s lively and sultry.

Gate of Flesh (HB Films, 1964)
Brilliant Swinging Sixties Suzuki includes:
- Youth of the Beast (1963) was what many considered Suzuki’s climb to stardom. A Yojimbo-esque narrative with a man torn between warring gangs and the authorities, it’s stuffed to the brim with cool scenes that could put James Bond to shame.
- Tokyo Drifter (1966) is smooth. A whistling wanderer eludes the rival yakuza hunting him following a betrayal within the syndicate. The cinematography is iconic, the visuals sumptuous and where one can begin to see what Quentin Tarantino has been reveling in.
- Branded to Kill (1967) is a noir with a twist. A strange, perverse crime story of a failed hitman now being hunted by assassins, its visuals thrive on the bizarre. A room full of butterflies, an obsessive affair with a strange woman is interspersed with intense scenes as the protagonist tries to avoid his fate. I love it. It was almost my choice.

13. Woman in the Dunes (Dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)

My first Japanese New Wave was also an absolute trip. I hadn’t done my research so did not know what I was in for, so upon conclusion I was befuddled. Until I revisited it sometime later, within the context of the movements surrounding it, I became engrossed in its bizarre surrealism. An absurdist work of art based on the book of the same name by the master of the literary genre, Kōbō Abe.

Woman in the Dunes (BFI, 1964)

In the sand dunes, an entomologist searches for insects. He misses the last bus home and the locals persuade him to spend the night in a house at the bottom of a sandpit. A widow lives there. When he cannot leave, he is forced to share her fate digging sand to the villagers to sell, imprisoned in a grainy nightmare whilst a strange, erotic tension blooms between the two. It’s a repetitive torturous affair, sweaty, and grotesque, hyper-focused on textures; of skin, sand and sweat. It’s stifling but enrapturing. Its Kafkaesque ideas of mundanity and hopelessness feed into audience’s anxiety and perhaps it was all of this that went over my head at first. But now, sand will never been the same again.

Woman in the Dunes (BFI, 1964)
- Another cool adaptation of Abe’s work by Teshigahara includes The Face of Another (1966), an Eyes Without a Face (Franju, 1960) affair in which a burn victim discovers a mask that he can wear to cover his wounds only to develop a sinister change in character.

14. Intentions of Murder (Dir. Shōhei Imamura, 1964)

Imamura is another director whose filmography is so filled to the brim with great work that I simply could not decide on what I wanted to include. From this period of his work, some of the best New Wave cinema came to be. In Intentions of Murder, he turns a woman’s fate into something far more ferocious as he explores the plight of a housewife who is assaulted by a home intruder. Following this, she chooses to break away from the chains of her life, her negligent husband and the trauma of her attack, determined to fight back against the patriarchal society that had held her back for so long. Imamura, a filmmaker who often explores framing and cinematography to the best of his advantage, interweaves stunning sequences of dreams and flashbacks, creating a hard-hitting mediation on what it is to be a woman in modern Japan.

Intentions of Murder (Criterion, 1964)
Worthy classic Imamura I couldn’t fit on this list:
- Pigs & Battleships (1961) is the story of a young couple’s survival amongst a desperate power-struggle in the port town of Yokosuka and how their love and futures are challenged.
- The Insect Woman (1963) is a tale of three generations of Japanese women as they move through the early 20th century, weaving their way thought the trials of womanhood.
- The Pornographers (1966) is a Lolita infused black comedy based on the novel of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka, exploring a sleazy adult filmmaker’s world, his illegal pornography ring, his leechy affair with his widowed landlady and his lustful conquests with her teenage daughter, watched by the widows fish who she believes is the reincarnation of her dead husband.

15. Death by Hanging (Dir. Nagisa Ōshima, 1968)

I’m a little bit bias when it comes to Ōshima. He’s a New Wave director that is so outrageous, so taboo, that I simply can’t help but adore his work. And to find that so late in his career he was still titillating, tantalizing and tormenting audiences, critics and film censors alike, there is no way one cannot see the significance and cultural impact of the films he made. He became a nuisance for me to narrow down on this list. He features prominently within this article and with such a consistent output over his career; I had to spread it out a bit. Of his sixties work, I settled for his most creative and ground-breaking.

Death by Hanging (Criterion, 1968)

The story of a Korean man is sentenced to death for the rape and murder of two young women. When hung, however, he does not die but succumbs to amnesia. Unable to hang him again for he is no longer of sound mind, the warden, chief of guards and the lawmen decide to act out his crimes to help jog his memory. However, they soon begin to enjoy the farce, putting on eccentric productions, proving the buffoons they are. A wildly theatrical satire with a pointed barb for a tongue, its Ōshima’s testament to human rights. Both repulsed by the outrageous racism of the Japanese towards the Koreans Post-war and by the outdated death penalty that is still in practice today, the director is brutal in his mocking of his fellow countrymen and the government the supposedly pacifist country has placed it’s faith in. It’s funny, reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick, 1964) in many ways, and perhaps one of the best political films ever made.

Death by Hanging (Criterion, 1968)
Other astounding Ōshima of the decade I had no room to include on this list:
- Pleasures of the Flesh (1965) is a close second to my selection here, a tale of a man who is entrusted with the embezzled money of another being sent to prison for his crime. Instead of watching over it, he decides to spend it as love, lust and indulgence consume his life.
- Violence at Noon (1966) is the strange tale of two women interlaced in the life of a rapist and unable to face the reality of his crimes, withholding a strange sympathy for him as he grows ever more insatiable.
- Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967) explores the intense relationship of a rebellious woman and a suicidal man during political upheaval and student uprisings in the city streets.

16. Eros + Massacre (Dir. Kijū Yoshida, 1969)

The epic of the Japanese New wave is truly an impressive piece of cinema. Eros + Massacre, the first of a radical trilogy by the brilliant director Yoshida, is an original even amongst such subversive works of the decade. Two interwoven stories of a period decades, it duo-logy of narrative explores the radical feminism blooming in 20th century Japan, with impressive cinematography, psychedelic shots and pure rebellion in every scene. That a film can sustain such power over more than three hours of runtime is truly a feet. But Yoshida, manages it.

Eros+Massacre (Arrow Academy, 1969)

A biography of sorts to the anarchist Sakae Ōsugi, his final years before his assignation in 1923 and the three woman who dominated his life, his wife radical feminist Noe Itō and his two lovers. Combining this with the modern tale of Mako, the daughter of Itō, we are informed of the backstory to the fascinating historical figure whilst also revealing the life of the younger woman and the Free Love she explores. The final scenes are visually exquisite, the performances powerful, helping to make this one of the best representations of New Wave and what it stood for in a time of such political and societal upheaval.

Eros+Massacre (Arrow Academy, 1969)
Others within Yoshida’s trilogy exploring anarchy and radicalism are:
- Heroic Purgatory (1970) is an art-house film about the political unrest of the early seventies, within the lives of an engineer his wife and a lost teenager.
- Coup d’Etat (1973) is the retelling of the failed overthrow of the government in Japan in 1936 by ultranationalist Ikki Kita.

17. Funeral Parade of Roses (Dir. Toshio Matsumoto, 1969)

Funeral Parade of Roses is genius. This Oedipal odyssey is a major must for any interested in some truly experimental art cinema. It’s one of the best LQBTQ+ out there and still manages to shock and awe today. Ahead of its time in so many ways, it still feels fresh, eye-opening and powerful decades on.

Funeral Parade of Roses (BFI, 1969)

In Tokyo’s gay culture, a transgender woman has killed their mother and found their way into the arms of their father. Interlaced with talking heads, non-linear Segway’s, Jean-Luc Godard like sequences and funky psychedelic editing, the film is a pop-art pilgrimage through the streets and underground lives of the radical groups repelling heteronormative stereotypes. It’s unapologetic. Its lead, ‘Eddie’ is a divine heroine for the ages as she leads us through her messy, if not hypnotic, life, her love rivals and day-to-day abuse, whilst being gloriously on top of it all. It was controversial at the time of release, but now it feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s both a tragedy and delight that holds the audience in its spell, encourages you just to give in and revel in all it has to say, do, think and feel. It’s entirely welcome.

Funeral Parade of Roses (BFI, 1969)
 

Well, that’s part one for now. Hope you look forward to my next two instalments and hopefully find a new favourites. Later's, Skaters!

Funeral Parade of Roses (BFI, 1969)

Check out Top 50 Japanese Films: Part 2

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