Kuro Chan has compiled a list of films about Japan that you should see to have a better understanding of the country.
Outsiders may find Japan strange since it is a country of contrasts. Spending time absorbing a country’s cultural output is one of the finest ways to comprehend it, and films are by far the best medium for doing so, from postwar global cinema masterpieces to historical epics and modern stories from the Land Of The Rising Sun.
The Garden Of Words (2013)
Although anime is associated with Japan, it is frequently eclipsed by more immature, fanciful, or sexual offerings. Studio Ghibli, for example, is a fascinating option, although their work has already been fully reviewed elsewhere. If you’re looking for something unusual, start with Makoto Shinkai’s The Garden of Words (2013), a 50-minute love drama.
A fortuitous meeting in a Tokyo park between a high school boy and an elderly lady has life-changing consequences for both of them. The picture, which is understated and introspective, exemplifies anime’s capacity to create mature and engaging storylines. And the animation is really stunning.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
Because of the popularity of The Ring in the late 1990s, Japanese horror became a global sensation, although Tetsuo: The Iron Man, released in 1989, was one of the first genre films to gain a following outside of Japan.
The film investigates the ways in which sexuality and technology (two themes that dominate the cultural debate in Japan) might blend in a horrific combination of arthouse, cyperpunk, and Cronenberg-esque body horror.
Plus, its protagonist, a humble salaryman who goes on to have what can only be described as a very bad day, is as Japanese as you can possibly get. As you may gather from the trailer, it is not for family viewing.
The Hidden Fortress (1958)
Choosing just one film by Akira Kurosawa, the grand master of Japanese film, is almost impossible. If you were forced to pick between The Hidden Fortress (1958) and a samurai sword held to your neck, however, The Hidden Fortress (1958) would be a good choice.
This Japanese film depicts the tale of an exiled princess who must overcome a furious warrior in order to recover her country, and the result is an A++ blend of drama, action, and Kurosawa’s excellent cinematic skills. It also works as a great showcase for Toshiro Mifune, arguably the greatest celluloid icon that Japan ever produced, all in all making this one of the best Japanese movies of its time.
Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011)
Food and hard work are two of Japan’s major passions, and David Gelb’s documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) offers an intriguing glimpse into the mind of one guy who excels at both. Jiro Ono, who was 85 at the time of shooting, is the owner of a 10-seat sushi restaurant in a subway station that sells a set meal for roughly £250.
Ono’s zealous pursuit of culinary perfection might be puzzling at times (apprentices must spend ten years entirely making rice before being allowed near a piece of fish), but the ultimate result is a film that is every bit as delectable as his dishes.
Another wonderful culinary film, as well as one of the best Japanese comedy, about two truck drivers who assist a single mother become Tokyo’s best ramen cook. Director Juzo Itami died unexpectedly in 1997, but his signature sense of humour is evident in this fascinating investigation of how we link cooking and eating to daily life.
Tampopo (1985), a charming and sensuous film (with some sex scenes that make it an adults-only event), is an enduring testament to Itami’s talent – and one of the funniest films about Japanese society you’ll ever watch.
Tokyo Story (1953)
Japan is regarded as one of the most civilized and courteous countries in the industrialized world. That façade, though, conceals a nation beset by loneliness. Director Yasujiro Ono wonderfully captures this emotional chasm in his classic movie Tokyo Story (1953), which depicts the story of an old couple who make a visit to their kids in the city only to be ignored emotionally. In this sweet but extremely moving story, big grins and deep bows disguise bitterness and sadness.
It may not be the most upbeat Japanese film you’ll ever watch, but it’s required viewing if you want to witness the work of a master craftsman who established a blueprint that has been followed by Japanese filmmakers ever since.
13 Assassins (2011)
It’s difficult to choose just one Takashi Miike film, as it is with Kurosawa. In 13 Assassins (2011), a clan of ronin launch a secret mission to bring down a ruthless, war-mongering aristocrat in medieval Japan, who is at the pinnacle of his authority.
The first two acts of the movie are a sombre historical drama before Miike pulls out all the stops for a mind-blowing, all-hell-breaks loose climax in which hordes do battle and blood flows like sake. The set pieces that unveil will cause your pupils to dilate. One of the best Japanese action films of all time, and a crowning achievement for Miike. Essential.
We Are X (2016)
The phrase “Gaman” is a Zen-Buddhist term that refers to the notion of enduring the terrible. It is compared to Greek Stoicism and is seen as a virtue to be developed and respected by the Japanese. If there is a current Japanese group that embodies gaman, it is X, a heavy metal band with a backstory that rivals any Greek tragedy.
We Are X (2016), the award-winning documentary by filmmaker Stephen Kijak, examines both the band and its renowned frontman Yoshiki in great depth. From the suicides of two of the band’s former members to Yoshiki’s persistent health difficulties, the band’s successes and misfortunes are laid bare. What emerges is a hopeful story that honors not just human fortitude, but also the restorative power of art and humanity’s capacity to foster hope even in the most dismal of situations.
Violent Cop (1989)
Without Takeshi Kitano, alias Beat Takeshi, no list of Japanese films would be complete. Violent Cop marked the directorial debut of the filmmaker, comedian, novelist, media personality, and all-around Japanese institution (1989).
This tough-as-nails criminal thriller covers all of the primary themes that dominate Kitano’s work – violence, masculinity, and isolation – and it’s noteworthy to observe how Kitano’s characteristic minimalist aesthetic was cemented right from the outset of his filmmaking career. As Detective Azuma begins to wreak real harm on the Japanese mafia, heads are broken, superiors are despised, and a lot of smokes are smoked.
Battle Royale (2000)
Battle Royale (2000) is a game-changer for Japanese cinema and Kinji Fukasaku’s last film. It depicts a group of junior high pupils who are forced to slay one another.
The picture has lost none of its potency over 20 years after it stunned audiences across the globe — and after the huge success of a different high-profile trilogy it surely affected. The concept of a modern-day authoritarian regime brutalizing and exploiting its young people is no longer a dystopian nightmare.