Japanese cinema is not, to Western audiences, necessarily well-understood. Although the rise of the internet helped bring international films new audiences, there is still much bias among western audiences against foreign language films. This is a tragedy since some of the greatest films of all time have come from Japan, representing a wide range of genres and styles.
It would be hard, I think, to find two Japanese directors more influential, or internationally respected, than Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki. Vastly different in tone - Kurosawa often focusing on the worst aspects of human society, Miyazaki revelling in the quiet joys of the world - both are alike in inspiring generations of filmmakers.
Presented here is an unordered list of the top five Japanese films, based partly on each pieces’ popularity within Japan, as well their critical responses. It has to be said that this list is in no way definitive; there are a huge amount of truly brilliant Japanese films, and narrowing the list down to just five was no easy feat.
Spirited Away (2001)
When it comes to Japanese cinema, one would be remiss to not include Spirited Away. Perhaps the best-known work of Studio Ghibli, who brought such gems as Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle, it’s this film that embodies best the beauty and awe conjured by animation mastermind Hayao Miyazaki.
The film follows the nightmarish journey of ten-year-old Chihiro, who becomes trapped in the spirit world after she and her parents happen upon some ruins whilst moving house. Her mother and father turned into pigs, and alone in a terrifying realm she does not understand, Chihiro signs a work contract at the villainous Yubaba’s bathhouse, embarking upon a moving journey of self-discovery.
The art style, as with all Ghibli films, is jaw-dropping; from glittering night time streets to breathtaking ocean vistas, Miyazaki’s enticing world is rendered in stunning fashion. Joe Hisaishi’s score also does wonders - having scored every Miyazaki film, his soundtrack betrays a profound understanding of the director, working in tandem with already breathtaking sequences to ascend them even higher.
The popularity of the film, especially in Japan, is hard to overstate. Still the highest grossing domestic film in Japanese box office history, it’s also the only foreign language film to ever win Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards. It is considered one of the finest animated films ever made.
Timeless, gorgeous and moving, it’s hard to find a film with more heart and quiet reverence than Spirited Away - it’s a film for everyone, of any age or nationality, yet is still so wonderfully, unashamedly Japanese.
Your Name (2016)
Released in the summer of 2016, Your Name quickly generated buzz amongst Japanese critics. Holding the number one spot in the Japanese box office for 9 consecutive weeks, by the time it reached the overseas markets it was already well on its way to becoming one of the most successful Japanese films of all time.
The film centres around two teens who, for mysterious reasons, begin to swap bodies each night. This brings a certain level of humour with it - there are plenty of Freaky Friday-esque jokes, particularly with protagonist Taki’s reaction to having breasts whilst inhabiting the body of Mitsuha. Quickly, however, cheap jokes are set aside for a startlingly moving plot, our two main characters’ stories intertwining brilliantly around a subplot concerning a celestial event. As the film progresses, it’s hard not to find yourself won over by the film’s charm, and what could have been a cliched affair is instead realised as a gripping, heartrending coming-of-age story with bold sci-fi elements.
It’s telling that Your Name is the only film not directed by Hayao Miyazaki to make over $100 million at the Japanese box office - director Makoto Shinkai is already being tipped as a possible successor to the revered Ghibli founder, and the film is sure to go down as one of the all-time anime greats.
Seven Samurai (1954)
Always high on critics’ ‘best films of all time’ lists, and undoubtedly the masterpiece of legendary director Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai is a triumph of filmmaking that is required watching for anyone with an interest in world cinema.
In style typical of the samurai and western genre, the film follows a small town’s bringing together of seven ronin - masterless samurai for hire - to protect their small town from a scourge of bandits, each a little different and none above bickering. Over the hefty runtime of the film - nearly three and a half hours - each character is explored in detail, a testament to Kurosawa’s reserved Japanese pacing. The cast is full of well-known Japanese actors, most notably Toshiro Mifune, who starred in another fourteen of Kurosawa’s films, and was a firm favourite of the director’s. On-screen, the cast bounce off one another perfectly, providing just the right mix of humour and drama to make the film such a treat to watch.
Its legacy is clear to see, with films such as Star Wars and A Bugs’ Life (no, really) having been inspired in part by the film. Most notably, John Sturges’ 1960 gunslinging hit The Magnificent Seven is a direct copy, whole swathes of the plot mirroring Kurosawa’s work exactly.
Seven Samurai is held in such high regard for a reason. Funny, captivating and important as an early international Japanese success, it will always be remembered as one of Japan’s greatest gifts to cinema.
With the rising popularity of the ‘cyberpunk’ genre, Blade Runner 2049 a recent example in film as well as the hype for CD Projekt Red’s upcoming roleplaying game Cyberpunk 2077, there’s never been a better time to revisit Akira. Set in the dystopian ‘Neo-Tokyo’, thirty years after a nuclear attack that destroyed much of the original Tokyo, the film follows gang biker Kaneda, and his close friend Shima, as the latter begins to develop fantastic - and terribly destructive - powers.
A must for any fan of sci-fi or anime, the film couples a brilliant, gripping story with electrifying visuals and thrilling soundtrack to deliver an apocalyptic masterpiece. Neo-Tokyo proves an amazing setting for the film, at once otherworldly and yet strangely familiar, a dark vision of the cities of the future akin to Blade Runner’s L.A. Its bold, violent strokes set the bar high not just for anime but all animated film; rarely has a film been so visually exciting, each chase sequence or fight buzzing with a powerful energy.
Best of all, Akira’s story is never put aside in favour of action - the plot is genuinely intriguing and well thought out, full of philosophical notions one might not expect to find in an 80s action film. But it’s just this that makes it so unique; whilst taking inspiration from Blade Runner and being in many ways similar to ‘standard’ sci-fi action, director Katsuhiro Otomo never loses sight of the film’s strong Japanese voice. The result is a badass, hugely enjoyable film that sticks with you for life.
Battle Royale (2000)
The premise is simple - in the wake of a terrible recession, and facing growing unrest from youths, the Japanese government passes the ‘Battle Royale Act’. Each year, a class of unruly students are selected and dropped on a remote island, to partake in a grisly game of survival - supplied with weapons and basic supplies, the students are given three days to fight to the death, the sole survivor ‘winning’ the right to live. Failure to produce a winner in the given time results in the death of everyone by explosive charge.
As one might expect, the result on screen is nothing short of carnage. Gruesome fight scenes abound, and gallons of stage blood await any eager viewer. Despite this, Battle Royale does not fall into the trap of presenting mindless violence for the sake of it. The film has a strange, rebellious core, and touches upon themes of loneliness, modern identity and
Paramount to all of this is Takeshi Kitano in his role as the class’ teacher (and gamesmaster of the challenge) ‘Kitano’. Unnervingly subdued, he calmly watches the chaotic murder unfold, the main representation of adulthood in a film filled with young adults.
The impact the film has had on pop-culture in general is vast; films such as The Hunger Games and Kill Bill emulate and incorporate its themes to varying degrees, whilst the recent influx of ‘Battle Royale’ games such as Fortnite: Battle Royale owe much of their existence to it.
Whatever the case, Battle Royale is not only an important piece of Japanese film canon, but a triumph of cinema, a punkish, unconventional commentary on the pressures of society on young adults, and the placid nature of Japanese society.