Almost as old as Hollywood itself, Japanese cinema has been around for more than 100 years. Movies directed and produced in Japan have been integral parts of film history, with some of the country’s classics inspiring the best moviemakers of mainstream Hollywood, including Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, and Roman Polanski. Japan has a treasure trove of excellent films, often underappreciated but deserving of recognition and glory. If you are new to Japanese movies, here are five must-watch Japanese films you should add to your list.
Tokyo Story is considered one of the greatest films ever made in Japan. In fact, it has, on occasion, beaten Citizen Kane in lists of the greatest films ever made. A Sight & Sound survey of film directors (via Entertainment Weekly) ranked Tokyo Story as the best film in history, placing over Citizen Kane, which ranked at No. 3. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu and featured Japanese actors Setsuko Hara, Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Kyoko Kagawa, and many others, Tokyo Story tells the story of two grandparents who visit their children and grandchildren in Tokyo but are largely ignored by them upon their arrival. Esteemed director Martin Scorsese has included Tokyo Story in his list of 39 foreign films that every young filmmaker should watch. A review by Roger Ebert in 2003 took note of Ozu’s ability to produce deep emotions from such a simple storyline: “From these few elements Yasujiro Ozu made one of the greatest films of all time. “Tokyo Story” (1953) lacks sentimental triggers and contrived emotion; it looks away from moments a lesser movie would have exploited. It doesn’t want to force our emotions, but to share its understanding. It does this so well that I am near tears in the last 30 minutes. It ennobles the cinema. It says, yes, a movie can help us make small steps against our imperfections.”
Younger people don’t realize that Godzilla was actually a Japanese creation. Before the Hollywood remakes, Godzilla had been terrorizing the streets of Tokyo since 1954. The monster and the film, created by Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya, spawned the longest-running film franchise in history, according to the Guinness World Records. 1954’s Godzilla was an experiment in cinematic special effects, some of which are still in use today. While the movie didn’t exactly feature superb acting from its cast, its action-packed sequences makes the original Godzilla a must-watch movie for anyone just starting out with Japanese movie appreciation. A review of the movie for Salon wrote: “While the acting is hit-and-miss and the story jumps around somewhat confusingly, Honda’s film is a one-of-a-kind experience all the way through, one that stands the test of time better than I had expected.” Honoring the legacy of the movie, Film School Rejects emphasized the purposely blurred image of Godzilla in the original film, leaving the actual look of the monster to the viewer’s imagination. “Godzilla is shot like a film noir, with a heavy focus on shadows. The monster is a very dark grey, almost black, and when he hits Tokyo at night, only the city lights and military floodlights illuminate him in any detail. This is not only unsettling and a device that allows you to create your own image of Godzilla from pieces but also works around the limitations of the suit. The documentary feel of the film’s visual style comes from the cinematographer, Masao Tamai, who shot many films for Mikio Naruse, director of many acclaimed dramatic films such as Late Chrysanthemums and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.”
From the genius of Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai is another film that anyone interested in Japanese film should watch. The story revolves around a farmer who hires seven samurai to fight off bandits who threaten his harvest. Seven Samurai is perhaps the most recognizable Japanese classic film. A BBC poll of international critics ranked Seven Samurai as the greatest foreign-language film of all time. According to IndieWire, Seven Samurai has influenced some of the most successful filmmakers today, from Quentin Tarantino to George Lucas. Film School Rejects emphasized the legacy of the film in their article: “If you don’t think Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is the greatest action film ever made, then I humbly suggest you leave here now and go watch it again, because it is. It combines cinematic artistry with narrative proficiency, rich characters with graceful technique, and drama with adrenaline. It is a template not only for quality action films but quality films in general, and in the 63 years since its release its esteem has only amplified.”
An Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, Departures was directed by Yojiro Takita and starred Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, and Tsutomu Yamazaki. Departures tells the story of an unemployed cellist who takes on a job preparing dead bodies for funerals. In a review by RogerEbert.com, they emphasized how well-delivered the story of Departures is. “This film is not a stylistic breakthrough or a bold artistic statement. But it is rare because it is so well-made. The universal reason people attend movies is in the hopes of being told an absorbing story that will move them. They would rather be touched emotionally, I believe, than thrilled, frightened, or made to laugh. Yet there are few things more deadening than manipulative sentimental melodramas — what Variety likes to call “weepers.”
The Japanese horror film Ringu, or Ring, should be familiar to even casual moviegoers, who might have been disappointed by its American remake The Ring, starring Naomi Watts, as well as the series of commercially unsuccessful movies that followed it. Regardless of how its remakes turned out, Ringu, directed by Hideo Nakata, remains to be one of the most gripping horror movies ever made. Ringu‘s movie monster Sadako Yamamura still conjures nightmarish images to people who watched the movie more than 20 years ago. Ringu was well-received during its release, with Rotten Tomatoes holding a 97 percent fresh rating for the movie. Its official synopsis is as follows: “When her niece is found dead along with three friends after viewing a supposedly cursed videotape, reporter Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) sets out to investigate. Along with her ex-husband, Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada), Reiko finds the tape, watches it — and promptly receives a phone call informing her that she’ll die in a week. Determined to get to the bottom of the curse, Reiko and Ryuji discover the video’s origin and attempt to solve an old murder that could break the spell.”