Japan is a nation with a thriving movie scene, one that’s not only managed to carve out an identity in an increasingly homogenized film world but that has also become incredibly influential elsewhere. While there are hundreds (if not thousands) of Japanese films that are worth watching, a handful of them have transcended the reputation for being good films and have instead become some of the most famous pieces of art exported from Japan.
1954’s Seven Samurai is the first film on this list by Akira Kurosawa, but not the last. Like many of Kurosawa’s other films, this one is hugely popular outside of Japan and has influenced countless other forms of media. The basic premise of the plot – a group of seven samurai are hired to defend villagers from the bandits who prey on them – has been adapted, homaged, and outright copied numerous times. Considered not only one of the best pieces of Japanese cinema but indeed one of the best-made films of all time, Seven Samurai is an amazing introductory piece to post-WWII Japanese film as well as a good entry point into the works of Kurosawa.
Released in the same year as Seven Samurai, Godzilla (styled Gojira in Japanese) is one of Japan’s most famous artistic exports. The original film is significantly more meditative than most of its progeny, with a strong focus on the legacy of atomic war and a much more serious tone than would be common in many of the later films. The original 1954 film was recut and released in 1956 as Godzilla, King of the Monsters and has gone on to grab the Guinness World Record for longest continuously running film franchise.
Though it might be best known for giving birth to the kaiju monster genre, the original film really does stand on its own merits. Though the special effects are primitive by today’s standards, they still show an amazing attention to detail and have gone to be quite influential in the cinematic world. For many, Godzilla remains the quintessentially Japanese film.
Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film was something of a bust in Japan on its initial release, but the film has gone on to become one of the country’s most prized cinematic exports. A movie that’s so famous that its title has become a shorthand for a very specific kind of storytelling, Rashomon is an interesting study in how perception shapes reality and how the nature of truth is mutable depending on the teller of a story.
Perhaps as famous for its cinematic legacy as it is for the actual content of the movie, Rashomon is a fairly simple tale told from multiple perspectives. The movie features a typically strong cast as well as some incredible camera work, allowing viewers to fall into each story and believe them fully despite seeing the differences in each telling. Rashomon is one of those works that transcends its own run time but that still manages to be worth a viewing on its own.
If a single one of Kurosawa’s films rivals Seven Samurai for the number of times it has been homaged, it has to be Yojimbo. A movie about a wandering samurai who finds himself in a small town ruled by rival crime lords, many fans in the west know the movie best for being the basis of movies like A Fistful of Dollars and Django.
Taken on its own merits, though, Yojimbo remains a film that earns its fame. With an incredible lead performance by Toshiro Mifune and a fantastic score, it’s an amazingly easy movie to watch whether you’re viewing it in the original Japanese, dubbed, or with subtitles. Though it might not be quite as beloved as Seven Samurai or Rashomon, this film rightfully deserves its place as one of the most famous Japanese films.
If you’re a fan of anime, you have probably heard of Akira. While a live-action remake has been talked about for over a decade, the truth is that the original animated film is legendary enough that might not need a Western adaptation. Perhaps the film that is most responsible for the eventual explosion of anime into the Western market, it’s also a movie that has been an incredible influence in its native Japan.
This film, set in a nebulous near future, combines cutting-edge (for the time) animation with a deep story and some amazing concepts. Though it has been homaged countless times, there’s something about the sheer style of the film that makes it worth watching for most of those who love Japanese cinema. Whether you’re a fan of anime or just a fan of stylish near-future films, this one is worth a watch.
Grave of the Fireflies
Every nation’s cinema is influenced by its past. One of the most beautiful – and depressing – films to ever grapple with the legacy of World War II is Grave of the Fireflies, an animated film that gives a unique look into the lives of Japanese orphans during the aftermath of the countless bombing raids on Japan during the second world war.
Though the film is depressing, it’s certainly beautiful in its despair. There is rarely a question in the film that things will come to a bitter end, but the rare spots of hope and beauty throughout the movie give viewers enough hope that they’ll be crushed by the end. This movie is an absolute treasure, though perhaps one best watched with a box of tissue nearby.
My Neighbor Totoro
In all honesty, all of Studio Ghibli’s wonderful animated films probably deserve a spot on this list, but My Neighbor Totoro takes it both for being a lovely film in its own right and being a huge influence on what would come later. Hayao Miyazaki’s tale is often listed as one of the greatest animated films of all time and tends to be one of the higher-ranked animated movies on all-time movies lists, both due to its wonderful character design and to the story of the movie itself.
A charming film about family and nature, it’s best known for the designs of its forest spirits. Still widely seen in both Japanese and America animation today, it’s a forerunner of a number of design trends. This is a truly fantastic animated film that more than deserves a place of pride when discussing any of Japan’s greatest films.
While perhaps not one of Japan’s finest artistic exports, Hideo Nakata’s 1991 film is absolutely responsible for the recognition and growth of the Japanese horror industry. Though it’s perhaps better known among English-speaking audiences for the American remake, the original film is a deeply disturbing piece of work that helped to redefine what horror would look like moving into the 21st Century.
In many ways the originator of the entire J-Horror genre, a great deal of what makes this movie special might seem a bit mundane at times. A great deal of fun can be had by tracing how many other films deliberately lift imagery from this one, though, and the movie does quite well on its own as a horror movie.
If Ring was the forerunner of J-Horror, Audition is perhaps the best expression of modern Japanese Horror. An incredibly atmospheric film that trades as hard on body horror as it does deeply disturbing imagery, it’s a major hit in the horror world and a fantastic example of what modern Japanese filmmaking looks like when it makes a break from tradition.
Takashi Mike’s 1999 film was perhaps even more influential in the West, helping to give rise to torture-heavy movies like Saw and Hostel. Though not necessarily a movie for the faint of heart, Audition is a movie that more than deserves its reputation as one of Japan’s most famous exports.
Battle Royale is a film that’s perhaps more famous for the media that it has influenced than for the film itself. A fairly schlocky action/psychological horror film, the movie’s premise is that of class of school children forced to murder one another until only one remains standing. An obvious inspiration for books like The Hunger Games as well as the Battle Royale genre of video games, the movie has a much farther reach than its initially modest book office take would suggest.
The movie has, however, gotten a great deal of attention in more recent years. With a truly unique cast of characters and a willingness to go much farther than much of the media that it inspired, Battle Royale is a movie that’s laid the foundation for a number of concepts that are now very familiar to Western audiences.