Japanese cinema is a fascinating realm with a long, rich history that spans several decades. From their early contributions to silent films to the thriving anime industry we see today, Japanese filmmakers have always been at the forefront of innovative storytelling and artistic expression.
Since the earliest days, the best Japanese movies have shocked and delighted audiences of all ages and interests. The diverse repertoire of filmmaking excellence exported from the Land of the Rising Sun includes everything from dramatic masterpieces to action-packed adventures and imaginative animation.
In this blog post, we’ll dive into the world of Japanese cinema by covering its four time periods and highlighting twenty of the best Japanese movies considered the epitome of excellence in the industry. Whether you’re a drama lover or looking for something more lighthearted, we’ve included a bit of everything for everyone.
Let’s dive in!
History of Filmmaking in Japan
Early Period (1890-1930)
Japanese cinema had its roots in 1886 when Edison’s Kinetoscope was first presented to the public. The following year, the French Lumiere brothers’ Cinematograph was introduced to Japan. In 1898, two cinematographers from the company of the same name traveled to Japan to capture footage in various locations.
In the early years of Japanese filmmaking, motion pictures were primarily used as a form of entertainment and a tool for nationalist propaganda. Film screenings were held in temporary venues, such as traveling tent shows and amusement parks, and the majority of films produced were short and silent.
Documentary-style works, newsreels, and travelogues were popular during this time, as they offered a glimpse into the world beyond Japan’s borders. Despite the limited technology available at the time, early Japanese filmmakers were able to experiment with camera techniques and editing styles to create captivating and innovative works.
Golden Age (1930-1950s)
During the Golden Age, the Japanese film industry experienced significant growth and investment, and the major studios established their dominance over the industry. This era saw the emergence of some of Japan’s most iconic and influential filmmakers, including Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Akira Kurosawa.
The Golden Age also marked the development of various film genres, including chambara (sword-fighting) films, melodramas, and war films—of which some would become the bread and butter of Japanese cinema over time. These films often explored themes of nationalism, social justice, and the changing role of women in Japanese society.
The Golden Age saw the production of some of the best Japanese movies, including Rashomon (1950), which challenged conventional storytelling methods and won international acclaim, and Seven Samurai (1954), which is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time.
New Wave (1960-the 1970s)
The New Wave was a rebellion against the traditional studio system and a movement towards more personal and experimental filmmaking. Directors of the New Wave, such as Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura, often used new film techniques and styles to challenge traditional Japanese cinema conventions and address contemporary social and political issues.
The New Wave was characterized by its critical and artistic independence, and its films often explored motifs such as sexuality, violence, and the aftermath of World War II. Some of the best Japanese movies of the New Wave include Tokyo Twilight (1957), which depicted the struggle of a working-class family in post-war Japan, and Yojimbo (1961), which told the story of a wandering samurai in a corrupt town.
Anime as a distinct animation style was introduced and popularized in Japan during the 1960s. The first television anime series, Astro Boy, was broadcast in 1963 and quickly gained a large, cultlike fanbase, leading to an unprecedented growth of the anime industry in Japan.
In the following decades, anime became increasingly popular in Japan and internationally. To the present day, anime has gained a substantial global following and has become a major cultural export for Japan, with titles such as Attack On Titan (2013), Death Note (2006), and Demon Slayer (2019) captivating viewers around the world.
Post-New Wave (1980s-today)
In the Post-New Wave era, the Japanese film industry has continued to diversify, and filmmakers have embraced new technologies and styles to tell their stories. Independent and digital filmmaking has risen in popularity, allowing filmmakers to express their creativity and reach wider audiences.
The Post-New Wave has also seen a renewed interest in traditional Japanese film forms, such as the samurai film, and the incorporation of elements from other world cinemas into Japanese films. Some of the best Japanese movies in the Post-New Wave include Departures (2008), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and Your Name (2016), which became the highest-grossing anime film of all time.
Best Japanese Movies of All Time
Get ready to be transported to the Land of the Rising Sun with this curated list of twenty of the best Japanese movies of all time. From classic samurai tales to heart-wrenching dramas, these films showcase the brilliance of Japanese cinema and its ability to captivate audiences with its unique storytelling techniques and powerful performances.
1. Godzilla (1954)
Director: Ishirō Honda
When you think of the best Japanese movies, the odds are that Godzilla is one of the first that comes to mind. Despite being over 60 years old, the film remains visually stunning. Its iconic design of the giant Godzilla and imaginative special effects make the Japanese classic seem like it was produced only ten years ago. It’s a genuine film classic that set the bar for monster movies—and the subsequent thirty-or-so entries in the Godzilla franchise—for generations to come.
The film’s themes of nuclear destruction and humanity’s relationship with technology add a weighty subtext to the thrilling destruction on display. This makes the original Godzilla a must-see for fans of the genre (or if you’re into depressing monster movies) and a cornerstone of Japanese cinema that continues to inspire filmmakers today.
2. Spirited Away (2001)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
The first anime entry on the list, Spirited Away, is a masterfully animated film by the legendary Studio Ghibli. Directed by the brilliant visionary Hayao Miyazaki, it’s a visual feast for the eyes, with imaginative character designs and breathtaking landscapes that transport viewers to a fantastical world. The story follows a young girl named Chihiro as she navigates a spirit world filled with danger and wonders, and her journey of self-discovery is both heartwarming and thrilling.
With motifs of environmentalism, family, and the power of determination, Spirited Away appeals to audiences of all ages and is a timeless classic that continues to captivate viewers. As the birthplace of all things anime, if you’re a fan of the wide world of Manga television shows or are just looking for a truly magical film, Spirited Away is undoubtedly one of the best Japanese movies of all time.
3. Harakiri (1962)
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Harakiri is a thrilling and emotionally charged film that explores the code of honor among samurai in feudal Japan. The story follows a samurai who arrives at a clan’s headquarters, claiming he wants to commit ritual suicide, but what unfolds is a tale of revenge, justice, and the consequences of one’s actions. It’s directed with mastery by the legendary Masaki Kobayashi, who creates a tense and suspenseful atmosphere throughout the film.
The film’s timeless themes still resonate today, making Harakiri a must-watch for those interested in samurai culture or those looking for the best Japanese movies. The performances are top-notch, particularly by the lead actor Tatsuya Nakadai, who gives a powerful and nuanced portrayal of a man on a final mission.
4. Tokyo Drifter (1966)
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Tokyo Drifter is a wild ride of a film, a stylish and entertaining entry, and one of the best Japanese movies in the yakuza genre. Directed by Seijun Suzuki, the film is a visual feast, with bold and colorful cinematography that elevates the action and overall mood.
The story follows a former yakuza member who is forced to go on the run after his boss decides to go straight. The film is packed with twists, turns, and explosive shootouts bound to have you on the edge of your seat.
The film’s blending of genre elements and playful, almost absurd, sense of humor make it a unique and memorable experience. If you’re a fan of crime thrillers and mafia movies such as the world-famous Godfather trilogy, Scarface, or Goodfellas, Tokyo Drifter has to be on your watch list—albeit this entry is far more lighthearted and action-stuffed.
5. Akira (1988)
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Akira is a seminal piece of anime film history that continues to captivate audiences with its thought-provoking story, stunning animation, and an unforgettable soundtrack. Set in 2019 (thirty years in the future) in a dystopian Neo-Tokyo, the film follows the journey of Shotaro Kaneda as he navigates a post-World War III Tokyo plagued by political unrest and the sudden emergence of supernatural powers.
Following its release, the film gained a cultlike following worldwide and set the stage for anime to rise as a mainstream genre.
The film’s intricate world-building, fluid animation, and pulse-pounding action set a new standard for anime. Whereas the genre used to be thought of as something purely watched by young children, Akira broke the mold and made an animated film that catered to more mature audiences as well. Its impact can still be felt in modern anime releases today.
Whether you’re a fan of sci-fi, cyberpunk, or just great storytelling, Akira is a must-watch for anyone looking to delve into the world of anime.
6. Ikiru (1952)
Director: Akira Kurowasa
Ikiru is a masterpiece of Japanese cinema, widely regarded as one of the best Japanese movies ever made. The legendary Akira Kurosawa directs it with stunning black-and-white cinematography and a moving musical score.
This film tells the story of a middle-aged, low-level government bureaucrat, Watanabe, who discovers he has terminal cancer and sets out to find meaning in his life before it’s too late. The film is a touching character study and a commentary on the human condition, and the stunning performance of lead actor Takashi Shimura elevates it.
What truly sets Ikiru apart as one of the best Japanese movies is its compassionate and nuanced portrayal of its lead character. Watanabe’s transformation from a disillusioned, bureaucratic drone to a man determined to make a difference in the lives of those around him is one of the most powerful character arcs in cinema history. His journey will move you to tears and leave you with a newfound appreciation for the preciousness of life.
7. Seven Samurai (1954)
Director: Akira Kurowasa
Seven Samurai is a true classic of Japanese cinema, directed by—once again—Akira Kurosawa (his name will appear on this list a couple more times). This film tells the story of seven samurai who come together to defend a small village from a band of marauders.
Seven Samurai, which would later receive an anime remake, is a masterclass in action, drama, and character development. Along with being one of the best Japanese movies, it’s considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time.
The greatest movies are those in which each one of the cast members is exceptionally memorable, and Seven Samurai is no exception. Each of the seven is unique and well-developed, and the relationships between them are touching and heart-wrenching. The film’s action sequences are thrilling, but the quiet moments between the characters make the film shine.
Lasting a shade under three-and-a-half hours, this epic is one to take in from the comfort of your couch.
8. Woman in the Dunes (1964)
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Woman in the Dunes is a powerful and thought-provoking film by Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara. It tells the story of an entomologist trapped in a sand pit with a young woman who lives there and the relationship that develops between them.
The film’s cinematography is striking, with breathtaking shots of the sand pit and its surrounding landscape. The use of sound, especially the relentless sound of shifting sand, creates a haunting and oppressive atmosphere that is both mesmerizing and suffocating.
The movie’s central relationship is complex and emotionally charged, with both characters struggling to maintain their individuality and dignity in the face of isolation. This exploration of power dynamics and the human experience is both poignant and timeless, making Woman in the Dunes a film that continues to resonate with audiences today.
9. Dead or Alive (1999)
Director: Takashi Miike
Dead or Alive is a highly entertaining crime drama that follows the lives of two yakuza bosses as they navigate the dangerous and unpredictable world of organized crime. The film’s cinematography is slick and stylish, capturing the frenetic energy of Tokyo’s underworld, and the action scenes are well-choreographed and adrenaline-fueled, providing a thrilling experience for audiences.
The Takashi Miike-directed production’s characters are incredibly well-thought-out, each with a unique personality and backstory. The performances are superb, especially from the film’s two leads, who bring depth and nuance to their characters. It’s a must-see for fans of Japanese gangster films, with stylish action sequences and intense performances.
Its energetic direction, engaging characters, and fast-paced action make Dead or Alive a standout film that keeps you rooted in your seat.
10. Paprika (2006)
Director: Satoshi Kon
Another anime entry on the list, Paprika, is a visually stunning film by Satoshi Kon. The movie is set in a future world where technology has advanced to the point where people can enter and explore their dreams. It’s a true feast for the eyes, with vibrant colors, imaginative dreamscapes, and imaginative character designs.
The central character, Paprika, is a fascinating and well-realized hero who is both easy to relate to and aspirational. Paprika’s fast-paced and fluid storytelling is a joy to watch, with plot twists and surprises that keep audiences on the edge of their seats. The film’s themes of identity, reality and the power of the imagination provide food for thought long after the movie has ended.
Paprika‘s imaginative vision, beautiful animation, and deep motifs make it a classic film that captivates and inspires audiences of all ages.
11. Ran (1985)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Ran is another masterful entry by highly-regarded Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. This historical epic retells William Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in medieval Japan during one of the country’s most tumultuous eras, the Sengoku period (1467-1615). For those of you who are fans of classic Shakespearean tales, this is undoubtedly the one for you.
The film’s cinematography is breathtaking, with stunning landscapes and large-scale battle sequences that are both beautiful and brutal simultaneously. Its themes of power, ambition and the consequences of actions are explored in depth, making Ran a thought-provoking and emotionally charged film.
The film’s central character, the aging warlord Hidetora, is a complex and well-realized figure, with a performance by actor Tatsuya Nakadai that is both powerful and moving.
12. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Director: Nagisa Oshima
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a unique piece containing a bombastic score by musician Ryuichi Sakamoto. This World War II drama follows the experiences of a British prisoner of war in a Japanese prison camp. The cinematography is visually stunning, capturing the beauty and harshness of a Japanese prison camp and its surroundings. Fun fact: David Bowie—yes, that David Bowie—happens to star in the film, superbly adding to its beautiful soundtrack.
Motifs of cultural differences, the nature of war, and the human desire for connection are explored thoroughly, making Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, a thought-provoking and emotionally charged movie. The film’s central characters, the British prisoner Jack Celliers and the Japanese camp commander Lawrence, are both complex figures, with solid performances by Bowie and Sakamoto, respectively.
Come for David Bowie, and stay for a gripping, harrowing POW WW2 classic.
13. Departures (2008)
Director: Yojiro Takita
Departures, a film by Japanese director Yojiro Takita, is a moving and beautifully crafted drama that follows a struggling cellist who finds work as an “encoffiner,” preparing the dead for burial. With an aesthetically pleasing backdrop capturing the serene beauty of the Japanese countryside, the film presents deep and nuanced performances from each actor. Loss, redemption, and ritual significance are skillfully laid out for the beholder to interpret as symbols.
Lead actor Masahiro Motoki delivers a compelling portrayal of the film’s central character, Daigo, who makes an astoundingly relatable shift as someone who’s experienced a sudden career change and finds meaning in his new line of work. Departures is a must-see and one of the best Japanese movies in recent times if you appreciate meaningful dramas with gorgeous cinematography and powerful performances.
14. Rashomon (1950)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Another Akira Kurosawa-directed masterpiece, Rashomon, is a classic that launched the Japanese director into the spotlight and revolutionized how stories were told on screen. This film presents multiple perspectives on a rape and murder case, challenging the notion of truth and reality with breathtaking landscapes as a stunning backdrop that transports the audience to feudal Japan. The talented cast delivers captivating performances, bringing their characters to life in an incredibly impactful way.
At its core, the movie delves into the human condition and raises thought-provoking questions about justice and morality. Lead actor Toshiro Mifune’s portrayal of the bandit Tajomaru is a standout performance, adding complexity to the already intriguing story. Overall, its unique approach to narrative and captivating performances make it a timeless masterpiece that remains relevant today.
15. Battle Royale (2000)
Director: Kinju Fukasaku
Battle Royale is a thrilling Japanese film directed by Kinji Fukasaku. This film takes place in a dystopian future where a government program forces students to participate in a deadly survival game on an isolated island. It’s largely credited with inspiring works such as the Hunger Games trilogy and Maze Runner that took the mid-2010s by storm.
The story explores violence, power, and social control themes, adding depth to an already engaging plot. Lead actor Tatsuya Fujiwara delivers a powerful performance as Shuya Nanahara, a student forced to participate in the deadly game.
Battle Royale‘s suspenseful and intense storyline will keep you engaged from start to finish, making it a must-see for fans of insane action sequences and films entirely ahead of their time.
16. Tokyo Twilight (1957)
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Tokyo Twilight is a heart-wrenching Japanese movie that explores the relationships between family members in post-World War II Japan as they navigate the challenges of modernizing society and changing values. The film’s simple yet effective cinematography captures the beauty of Tokyo’s urban landscape. At the same time, its powerful performances from the talented cast bring the film’s themes of love, loss, and family to life.
Tokyo Twilight is a subtle yet powerful film that masterfully analyzes the complexities of human relationships and the struggles of modern life. The film’s quiet and introspective approach to storytelling is a testament to director Yasujiro Ozu’s distinctive style, and its themes of family, love, and loss remain relevant to this day, making it one of the best Japanese movies of all time.
17. Your Name (2016)
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Your Name is a visually stunning animated Japanese film directed by Makoto Shinkai. It follows the story of a teenage girl in rural Japan and a teenage boy as they mysteriously switch bodies and navigate the challenges of each other’s lives. The film’s animation is breathtaking, capturing the beauty of the Japanese countryside and the bustling energy of Tokyo’s cityscape with vivid detail.
Your Name‘s memorable soundtrack and dynamic performances from the talented cast further elevate the film’s impact, making it a standout film in the animation genre. Moreover, the film’s touching and heartfelt storyline explores themes of fate, love, and identity, making it relatable and thought-provoking for audiences of all ages. This anime will leave you with a deep appreciation for the beauty of Japanese culture and the power of human connections.
18. Yojimbo (1961)
Yojimbo is a classic samurai drama directed by—you’ll never believe it—Akira Kurosawa! (What can we say; the man is a pioneer of Japanese filmmaking).
This entry follows the story of a nameless samurai who finds himself caught in a power struggle between two rival factions in a small town. The film’s dark humor and stylish action sequences make it a standout in the samurai genre, and lead actor Toshiro Mifune delivers an incredibly charismatic performance as the nameless samurai.
Kurosawa’s work beautifully showcases human greed and corruption, with the nameless samurai serving as a sharp commentary on the state of society. Its themes of power, loyalty, and justice remain relevant to the present day.
19. Sonatine (1993)
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Sonatine is a Japanese mob thriller that follows the story of a Tokyo yakuza boss and his underlings as they retreat to Okinawa to lie low from a gang war, only to find themselves in even more dangerous circumstances. The film’s stylish action sequences and darkly humorous moments are exceptionally balanced by its introspective moments of contemplation and contemplation of life. Kitano delivers a standout performance as the yakuza boss, captivating audiences with his unique blend of humor and intensity.
Although Sonatine curiously performed poorly in Japanese theaters, the movie’s meditative and introspective tone sets it apart from other action films, making it a standout film in the mob genre. While action scenes aren’t exactly littered throughout the film’s duration, it’s an excellent choice if you’re looking for the typical gangster film.
20. The Castle of Sand (1974)
The Castle of Sand is a Japanese crime thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat and slowly burns its way into an emotionally devastating ending. Directed by Yoshitaro Nomura, this film follows two detectives trying to solve a series of mysterious murders from the 1940s. The film’s cinematography, in particular, creates a haunting atmosphere, adding to its genuinely suspenseful moments.
The film goes through themes of justice, truth, and the complexity of good and evil in a unique and captivating manner. The Castle of Sand will leave you guessing until the very end, making this an eerily similar entry in narrative terms to David Fincher’s all-time classic Se7en. Let’s just say that, emotionally speaking, you won’t know how to feel after watching this particular film.
Bonus: Attack on Titan (2013-present)
Director: Tetsurô Araki
No, it’s not a movie—it’s an animated television show based on a famous Manga—but we had to include it as an honorable mention, at least. Arguably the most popular animated export from the Land of the Rising Sun, Attack on Titan is set in a world where humanity lives in fear of Titans, massive humanoid creatures who attack and devour humans without reason.
There’s a reason why anime enthusiasts call this the greatest anime ever made. This masterpiece showcases intense action sequences with insane animation artistry and a storyline filled with twists and turns that keep you hooked in all eighty-seven episodes released to date (the show’s final season is set to roll in April).
If you’re just starting to get into anime, however, it would be wise to begin with, other animes before arriving at this one. Attack on Titan will set the bar way too high!
Get Your Popcorn Ready!
Japanese cinema has a rich and diverse history that has produced some of the greatest films of all time. From the early days of silent cinema to the current era of anime, Japanese filmmakers have pushed the boundaries of storytelling and art, captivating audiences with their unique vision and creative abilities.
From the powerful epics of Akira Kurosawa to the mind-bending animations of Studio Ghibli, Japanese cinema offers a wealth of variety and inspiration. Whether you’re a lifelong fan or just discovering the wonders of cinema and art coming from the Land of The Rising Sun, this list of the best Japanese movies of all time is sure to provide hours of entertainment and cultural enrichment.