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30 Essential Japanese Films You Need To Watch

01 January 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Brian White

essential japanese films

In order to help our readers discover more important and interesting films around the world, we decide to begin our 2014 with The Essential World Cinema Project, which is a series of lists that recommend films, both classic and contemporary, from countries all over the world.

Today we start our project with a list of essential films from the country of sword and chrysanthemum. It’s not a definitive film list, but should serve as a helpful guide for those who want to approach Japanese cinema or those who like Japanese films. We set the rule that we only pick one film from each director, and will stick to this rule for the rest of the lists in the project.

Not only do we list samurai and J-horror films that are internationally popular, we also include feminism and new wave radical films that are universally acclaimed. Enjoy the list!


30. Tokyo Sonata (2008) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

tokyo sonata

Kiyoshi Kurosawa — the hugely acclaimed Japanese director famous for his groundbreaking, existential horror films such as Cure and Kairo [Pulse] — set Cannes alight in 2008 with this highly topical film: an eerie, poignant reflection on the mass uncertainty sweeping the world. Widely regarded as Kurosawa’s finest achievement, this film wins Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes 2008.


29. Battle Royale (2000) by Kinji Fukasaku


Battle Royale, based on a novel by Koushun Takami and directed by Kinji Fukasaku, a prolific Japanese filmmaker who died in 2003, is shorter, less elaborate and far bloodier than Gary Ross’s adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games, and emphasizes pulp and melodrama over political allegory. American fans of “The Hunger Games” may not embrace — or even be permitted to see — “Battle Royale,” which is too bad. It is in many ways a better movie and in any case a fascinating companion, drawn from a parallel cultural universe. It is a lot uglier and also, perversely, a lot more fun.


28. The Twilight Samurai (2002) by Hiroyuki Sanada

The Twilight Samurai

If Laura Ingalls Wilder could write a samurai movie it might look like this thoroughly delightful and completely absorbing family film from veteran director Yoji Yamada and based on the novels of Shuhei Fujisawa. You will be on the edge of your seat for this showdown, and for the rest of the film. It is terrific, old-fashioned storytelling with a rich sense of time and place.


27. Ringu (1998) by Hideo Nakata


There never seems to be a resolution to Ringu that leaves anyone without suffering, at least of some sort, and in so many ways the classic sense of fear is then a result of prolonged horror. It’s a clever and unique story that is really engaging and dire as you feel time slipping dangerously between Asakawa’s fingers. If you love a good horror film with an interesting mystery/thriller element to it, Hideo Nakata’s Ringu is a great option. And yes, make sure you watch it before the Naomi Watts American version called The Ring!


26. Swallowtail Butterfly (1996) by Shunji Iwai


Is this meant to be self-parody? If so, it backfires; if not, it’s horribly shallow and pretentious. A vaguely futuristic ‘fairy tale’, at times reminiscent of Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den, about a bunch of outsiders trying to make a go of it in ‘Yentown’ (i.e. Tokyo), the film opts for an alarming plethora of clichés, including the old warhorse of puttin’ on a show (here a punk nightclub – cue naff musical numbers) against the wishes of gangsters and establishment alike.


25. Akira (1988) by Katsuhiro Ohtomo


It seems incredible that Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 cyberpunk epic Akira – a landmark not just of anime or cinema, but of cinema – is 25 years old. Its detailed world-building and production design forever in the future, albeit it a future that seems to have grown steadily closer. Akira wallows in its atmosphere of absolute anxiety, still unsafe, uneasy and utterly captivating 25 years on.

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  • Baccar Wozat

    There’s about 5-10 more Kurosawa movies that should be on this list: Rashomon, Kagemusha, Ran, Sanjuro, Hidden Fortress…

    • Life as Fiction

      If you’re limiting yourself to that much Kurosawa, you’re missing out on Naruse, Ozu, Masumura, Kobayashi and others.

      • sricandra

        They should have just had all of Kurosawa in one entry

  • Proprietist

    Other great ones missed here:
    - After Life, Nobody Knows (Kore-eda) [actually any Kore-eda movie is fantastic]
    - Akira (Otomo)
    - The Face of Another (Teshigahara)
    - Just about every Kurosawa movie – Ran, Ikiru, Kagemusha, High and Low…
    - Vengeance is Mine (Imamura)
    - The Burmese Harp, Fire on the Plains (Ichikawa)
    - Fall Guy (Fukasaku)

  • Rick Callahan

    For me no movie compares with Ikiru

  • Tyler Denering

    A little surprised Ozu’s “I Was Born, But…” and Mizoguchi’s “Osaka Elegy” aren’t on the list, though I guess it can’t be 50 films long.

  • Allister Cooper

    I also liked Unagi, Kairo, and Sakebi. Interesting list.

  • skyloaf

    Man, I would have had a lot more Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa here. No Rashoman? Wow

  • Yogomi

    May I suggest “Tampopo” by Juzo Itam? It’s actually one if my top films of all time.