No list of the best Japanese movies ever made can accurately cover the history of Japanese cinema. Japan has been making and releasing movies since approximately 1897. Like any other country that produces and distributes its own movies, a look through the history of Japanese film reveals some of the most influential films of all time. Every country contributes to global cinema. Japan has cultivated its own artists and creations, while simultaneously embracing characters and stories from other parts of the world. There is no question that western filmmaking alone has impacted the way Japan tells and even markets their stories.
At the same time, Japanese filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, Hayao Miyazaki, and Takeshi Kitano have crafted films whose importance to audiences went far beyond native shores. Kurosawa alone, who will certainly loom large over this list, was a director of note to such icons as George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg. Writer and director Yasujirō Ozu is another name whose regard goes far beyond what they achieved in Japan. There is no question that when we look to the best Japanese movies, we have at least several hundred choices to consider. This is the country that gave us Ugetsu, Battle Royale, and Gojira. These are all hallmark examples of Japan’s film industry, which have also found popularity throughout other parts of the world.
Yet any list of the best Japanese films can’t simply focus on movies that were also popular here. Regardless of how audiences outside of Japan respond to these stories, you can’t forget that Japanese writers, directors, actors, and others are telling Japanese stories for Japanese audiences. A look through Japan’s film history can also give you plenty of insight into the history and culture of the country itself.
We can’t include every stellar example from that history. What we can do is come up with 15 Japanese films, presented in chronological order, that stand among the finest examples.
In other words, if you are new to Japanese movies, this list can get you started on a film festival of heavyweights.
The Best Japanese Movies Ever Made
1. Late Spring (1949)
Director: Yasujirō Ozu
There is a slew of beautiful, moving films about families coming to terms with Japan after World War II. Late Spring, featuring one of legendary actress Setsuko Hara’s finest performances, is one of the best examples.
It is the story of a young woman (Hara), eventually put in a position of being compelled to choose between remaining unmarried, living with her father (Chishû Ryû, another giant of Japanese cinema), or getting married, and moving on to a new phase in her life. You don’t really need a background in Japanese familial relations and relationships to appreciate the themes explored here.
Among other things, Late Spring is a story of tradition trying to find a place amidst rapidly changing times. This is also one of the most minimalist films you’ve ever seen. It is riveting simply for its story, dialog, and performances.
Watch if: You want to see one of the best family dramas to ever come out of Japan. Avoid if: You have a hard time sitting still for dialog-heavy movies.
2. Ikiru (1952)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Two years removed from the groundbreaking 1950 film Rashomon, Kurosawa was officially on a creative roll by this point. Ikiru is quite possibly his most emotionally ambitious film to date, featuring quite possibly Takashi Shimura’s finest performance. Considering he appeared in 21 of Kurosawa’s 30 films, that is saying something.
The basic premise of Ikiru is simple. Again, while the film has plenty of post-WW2 commentary, the core story concerns an aging bureaucrat, who undergoes a dramatic personal journey in the wake of terminal medical news. There is a coldness that sometimes comes across in Kurosawa’s extraordinary body of work. You see that coldness in the world around Shimura’s meek, sorrowful pencil-pusher.
Then something changes. The world around him changes. It is one of film’s most satisfying, heartbreaking, and essential emotional journeys.
Watch if: You’re in the mood for a good cry. Avoid if: You’re not.
3. Ugetsu (1953)
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
The consequences of ambition, which can include love, shows up in a lot of the best Japanese movies. That theme isn’t exclusive to the country, but filmmakers like Kenji Mizoguchi have nonetheless directed films that explores the subject in decidedly singular ways. Ugetsu is perhaps Mizoguchi’s most dramatic, poetic exploration of what happens to those who move carelessly through an uncertain world.
One way in which Ugetsu still stands out, and still influences, is in its depiction of the supernatural. It is as natural as the war raging on around this story. As you can imagine, the subject of loss comes into contact with the supernatural in a big way.
Watch if: You want to say you’ve seen one of the most haunting endings in movie history. Avoid if: Morally ambiguous romantic ghost stories aren’t your thing.
Six samurai, and then one lunatic with something to prove. These are the men who must defend a small village from a gang of bandits, who promise to destroy the village if the village doesn’t produce a certain amount of food for them.
Director Akira Kurosawa arguably changed film forever with Seven Samurai. Still widely regarded as the best samurai movie ever made, it is also a story that has been remade and retold numerous times. Its regard has only grown. Yet it is every bit as thrilling, engaging, and entertaining as anything being made today.
Seven Samurai truly has it all. There is a grand story of heroism set against a very bleak, human backdrop. There are flawless performances from Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Shinpei Takagi, and Yukiko Shimazaki. There are sorrowful scenes of humanity. There are some moments that are genuinely hilarious.
Seven Samurai deserves its reputation. It is absolutely everything you should demand from a movie, particularly an epic.
Watch if: You want to see one the best movies of all time. Avoid if: You already saw The Magnificent Seven, a remake of Seven Samurai, so you fail to see the point of going backwards.
5. Godzilla (1954)
Director: Ishirō Honda
To hear some critics and scholars, you’d swear there was never another good Godzilla outing after the 1954 original. That’s dumb. Godzilla is one of the longest-running film franchises in history, with more than thirty entries (primarily from Toho). There are a number of exceptional films in the series, as well as other contenders in the genre of Japanese kaiju movies.
Yet the original Godzilla, released in 1954 as Gojira, remains something special. It is still one of the scariest Godzilla movies ever made. The visuals can strike you as a little rough by 2010s standards. Yet they work beautifully well against the movie’s dark backdrop of a world being brought to face the consequences of nuclear activity.
The original Godzilla was not the start of a franchise. It was a brutal horror movie that wanted to leave the earth in ruins. Arguably, it succeeded.
Watch if: You’re in the mood for an enthralling, depressing monster movie. Avoid if: Your overall impression of Godzilla as a character is pretty positive right now. You’d rather not change that.
6. Tokyo Drifter (1966)
Director: Seijun Suzuki
An MPV from a recently shut down Yakuza gang (Tetsuya Watari) is forced to adopt a wanderer lifestyle. What happens from there is nothing short of exhausting in the best way possible.
Tokyo Drifter might be the most exciting movie Seijun Suzuki ever made. That comes from an impressive list of crime thrillers and other low-budget films that showed Japan in an entirely different light from that of Kurosawa or Ozu.
Tokyo Drifter is one of the most exciting noir films ever made. Its solitary figure against a mass of murderous intent is a story concept that still seems to appeal to people. Tokyo Drifter is still one of the best versions of that plot, with a sense of bombast and effortless cool that few can touch.
Watch if: You want to see one of the most exciting movies in Japanese film history. Avoid if: You’re not really into movies where criminals go up against other criminals.
At some point recently, did you say to yourself “I wish there was a Japanese version of Oedipus Rex, but with a gay son killing his mother to get at dad”? You’re in luck.
Funeral Parade of Roses is the kind of movie that tells you what’s going to happen pretty much from the beginning. As the movie starts, we can almost sense that everything is just on the cusp of getting much, much worse. It does.
Funeral Parade of Roses isn’t just of historical value to the history of Japanese film. It is also one of the wildest, darkest family dramas ever made. Funeral Parade of Roses will stun you again and again.
Watch if: You want to see a masterful approach to the art of narrative escalation. Avoid if: You’ve gone your whole happy life without dealing with any version of Oedipus Rex that you’re aware of. Why start now?
8. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Director: Nagisa Oshima
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence uses its World War 2 Japanese POW camp setting to create one of the most multifaceted dramas of the 1980s. You may approach this movie for the chance to see David Bowie give a performance that set him a good deal apart from other rockstars moonlighting as actors. That’s fine. You’re going to stay for the disconcerting blend of eroticism, fear, and warring cultures.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a steady exploration of men trying to make the best of things. Even the most reprehensible characters in the film show the destructive potential of confusion, combined with exhaustion. The film features one of the most gripping scores ever composed for a film, by musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also delivers one of the movie’s best performances.
Look for Takeshi Kitano in an early standout role. By the end of the decade, Kitano would be directing films of his own.
Watch if: You want to see a WW2 POW drama that will be almost impossible to shake afterwards. Avoid if: As far as dramas go, the slower the burn, the harder it is for you to sit still.
9. Tampopo (1985)
Director: Juzo Itami
Tampopo, which might be one of the most delightful movies ever made, is best described as a series of comedic events. Although the story focuses on two men (Ken Watanabe and Tsutomu Yamazaki), and their efforts in the world of making ramen, Tampopo takes a leisurely approach to things.
The smaller stories feed the larger narrative, and we meet more colorful, hilarious characters along the way. This is a wonderful cinematic world to get lost. Director Juzo Itami made many classic films along those lines.
Tampopo is an endlessly appealing, slightly off-center comedy about family, determination, and loyalty. It expresses these sentiments so gently, so perfectly, it’s difficult to imagine a single cynic left standing.
Watch if: You’re always up for an eccentric family comedy. Avoid if: Movies that take their time strike you as meandering, to the point of distraction.
Akira was an evolutionary leap forward for anime as a medium. It was also a leap forward for how people not only perceived anime, outside of its fans, but how they perceived animation in general.
Adapted by Katsuhiro Otomo from his own 1982 manga, Akira is one of the finest marriages of apocalyptic delirium and cyberpunk dystopia ever brought to screen. It also introduces us to some of the most iconic visuals in Anime history.
The film also offers a surprisingly positive portrayal of humanity. Barring that, you can certainly call it relatable.
Watch if: You want to see one of the most spectacular animated films ever made. Avoid if: You have a low threshold for stylized cartoon violence.
11. Fireworks (1997)
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Few Japanese filmmakers have done as much with revenge and violence as Takeshi Kitano. One of the country’s most famous comedic actors, among other gigs, Takeshi Kitano has proven repeatedly that there are still fascinating stories to be told about desperate or angry men. He’s still telling them in the 2010s.
While Fireworks (released in Japan as Hana-bi) is not quite as famous as 1993’s Sonatine, which put him on the map, it is quite possibly Kitano’s best film nonetheless. The idea of an embittered police detective striking back at the system has been explored before. Few have delved as fearlessly into the mindset of a man who will do anything to clear his debts and gain what he desires.
Kitano plays this character without an ounce of romanticism. Everything goes into making us believe in what his character wants. The film itself is one of the most intense cop dramas you’re ever going to see.
Watch if: You want to see a cop go to war with the mob in a truly unique way. Avoid if: You like to have a clear idea of who you should root for.
12. Dead or Alive (1999)
Director: Takaski Miike
No one ups the ante quite like Takashi Miike. The director of some 100 films and TV shows, Miike is particularly known for some of the weirdest and most violent movies in the history of Japanese cinema. That’s not fair. He also ranks high on filmmakers who like to work with fluids.
There are a lot of fluids in Dead or Alive, the story of a detective and a gangster who begin a mutually-beneficial working relationship. There are characters who behave horribly. There are moments of cartoon surrealism with moments of violence that can move even the most jaded gore hound. We start the movie off with these things. It gets worse from there. Everything does. Or better. It depends on your perspective.
Regardless, Dead or Alive is one of the most creative, unforgettable movies to ever come out of Japan.
Watch if: You want to be able to say you’ve seen one of the most disturbing movies ever made. Avoid if: You have a weak stomach for violence. Or on-screen human waste of any kind.
An unhappy young girl, moving to a new town with her parents, is taken from these circumstances to a bathhouse for the spirits. These things can happen, when you stop at an abandoned amusement park.
Whether you watch it in its original Japanese, or choose your native language, the warmth of these characters will resonate. The same goes for the surprises found in the storytelling, and in how that story unfolds.
Spirited Away is also notable for the touching attention to the details found in human courage. It is a benchmark for humor and emotional depth in an animated film that we have rarely seen since.
Watch if: You love stories in which young girls are as brave and heroic as anyone could ever be. Avoid if: You prefer stories with a more traditional antagonist.
14. Departures (2008)
Director: Yōjirō Takita
The story of a musician whose life takes a dramatic turn, Departures almost feels like a piece of music in its own right.
Departures has a melodic pace. We are often left to character surrounded by a quietly stunning atmosphere. Even if there wasn’t a gorgeous score by Joe Hisaishi, we could very easily create our own music to accompany a young man who finally finds his calling. Departures has moments of soft-spoken drama that spring from this calling, that of a traditional ritual mortician, but the movie has a much keener focus on reminding us of death.
Obviously, there are a lot of different ways to make your audience think of death. Director Yōjirō Takita goes for a direct approach. Departures is a contemporary film in many ways. It also uses things like tradition and ritual. For some, and in some situations, there is something meaningful we can find in experiencing it through another culture.
Watch if: You want to see one of the kindest movies about death in recent years. Avoid if: You can only stand so much circumstance.
15. Shoplifters (2018)
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Family stories are becoming increasingly complex in film and television. Shoplifters is a stirring example of that notion. At the same time, it might just be the best film yet from Hirokazu Kore-eda, who also directed the renowned Nobody Knows in 2004.
It is certainly also a good indication that Japan is still producing unique, engaging films on their own soil. As entities like Hollywood aspire to make the world smaller through oversaturation, films like Shoplifters still speak to the notion of a global cinematic community.
If you don’t care about that part, it’s okay. You are still left with the story of a non-biological family that turns to stealing and sharing among one another to survive. Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, and Kairi Jō are among the standouts in a film filled with believable, likable characters.
Shoplifters is also a story a survival on a number of levels. As far as we’re concerned, this film may remind you that such survival often relies on trusting others. Many of us are currently redefining our respective criteria.
Watch if: You want a touching, engaging ensemble drama, with touches of light humor. Avoid if: You’re sick of movies that are optimistic about people.
The films above represent the best of Japanese cinema. Each one is something of a rabbit hole, in terms of other movies, performers, artists, and others to check out. If you’re not quite ready to go for those, here are 5 runners up to follow the 15 above, presented in no particular order:
Woman in the Dunes (1964) Harakiri (1962) Survive Style 5+ (2004) Battle Royale (2000) Ran (1985)