Essential World Cinema: 5 Best Japanese Films

I’ve been dreading this one.

It’s been really interesting doing all the necessary research in order to turn these out every couple of weeks, but with Japan I found myself facing a whole new approach: figuring out how the hell I could ever pick just 5 goddamn films. See I’ve been fascinated by (and borderline obsessed with) Japanese cinema for years, from rubber-suited monsters to anime to Kurosawa. I almost wrote my dissertation on it. So rather than putting it off any longer I figured I’d just get the fucker over with, here goes…

Cinematic ideas were almost inherent in Japanese culture even before film equipment first arrived there in the late 19th century. Kabuki theater, Noh theater,  the utterly terrifying Bunraku puppet shows, it all fed into cinema and some of the first ever horror films were Japanese (although ‘ghost films’ would be the more appropriate term). Further down the line Japanese cinema really set the standard for historical fiction, building up a rich catalog of period films set during the feudal era. This continued after the war and some of the greatest directors of all time became prominent in the golden age of the 50s, most notably Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. In the 60s the Kaiju genre rose to prominence, followed shortly by a spate of tense, sexually charged thrillers like Manji and In the Realm of the Senses. Anime first started gaining ground in the 80s, as did a series of contemporary crime dramas, mainly concerning themselves with the Yakuza and more often than not starring ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, the Takeshi in Takeshi’s Castle.

Now Japan’s movie scene is absolutely massive. It has one of the largest cinematic outputs in the world and has influenced filmmakers the world over. Horror films have been forever changed thanks to the stylistic influence of the ‘Kwaidan’ inspired J-horror phenomenon. Anime has heralded a time when animation isn’t restricted to a youth audience, every monster movie made since 1954 owes a debt to Godzilla and the slow, contemplative cinematic style laid down by Kurosawa and his contemporaries has been copied, parodied and etched into the most fundamental framework of film culture. So, once again, how the hell am I going to pick only 5 films to characterize as ‘essential’? Well, I could ramp it up to 10, 20, hell even 50, but it wouldn’t be fair, so here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to pick 5 Japanese films that are indeed essential but are perhaps less well-known, even obscure. So what I’m going to do first of all is run down a last of Japanese classics that I highly recommend:

Tokyo Story, Seven Samurai, Onibaba, Kwaidan, Ikiru, Rashamon, Throne of Blood, Manji, Godzilla, Equinox Flower, Rodan, Lady Snowblood, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Mothra vs. Godzilla, Zatoichi, Invasion of Astro Monster, Ring, Ichi The Killer, Violent Cop, Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind, Ghost in the Shell, Sonatine, My Neighbor Totoro, The Bird People in China, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Princess Mononoke, Grave of the Fireflies, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Paprika, Spirited Away, Barefoot Gen, Metropolis, Evangelion 1.0/2.0/3.0, Pulse, 13 Assassins, Departures, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Ninja Scroll, Arrietty, Norwegian Wood, Howl’s Moving Castle, Summer Wars, Gozu, The 47 Ronin, Garden of Words, Memories, Millennium Actress, Battle Royale

…I think that’ll about cover it. I could go into detail about all of those but there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. Take my word for it, they’re all excellent. Now, here’s a list of personal favorites, not necessarily renowned classics but definitely essential watching:

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