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The 20 Best Japanese Movies of The 21st Century

27 December 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Vinnoth Krish

Battle Royale (2000)

Rashomon, Akira, Tokyo Story, Ikiru, Ugetsu, Late Spring, Seven Samurai, Harakiri, Twenty-Four Eyes and Yojimbo. The list can go on and on forever, but today we will be focusing on the modern Japanese films that derive from the year 2000 and onwards. This list is not disregarding other movies, but giving breathing room for movies that we had never bumped into before.

Now let’s dive into the list. Behold, cinephiles, filmgoers and filmmakers! Please note that all animated features are excluded from this list as we will make a separate list for Japanese anime fans.


20. Beyond Outrage (2012) by Takeshi Kitano

Beyond Outrage (2012)

Beyond Outrage plays exactly like an additional two hours of Takeshi Kitano’s 2010 film Outrage. When the Yakuza family grows larger from the control of the corporate ventures, a tension splits the new and traditional Yakuza values. Katoako is a self-satisfied manipulator and a corrupt police officer who uses this opportunity to bring down the whole organization by releasing Kitano from prison so he can kill off everyone that betrays him.

The world Kitano paints here is brutal. When codes of honor are challenged by a new set of rules, both Yakuza groups and the forces of authority get involved. If you have watched Outrage then you will like Beyond Outrage.


19. Still the Water (2014) by Naomi Kawase

Still the Water (2014)

One of the most visually stunning films on this list is Still the Water, a tale of two youths growing up and falling in love on a tiny island off the mainland of Japan.

The movie follows Kaito, a boy who lives with his mom. Meanwhile, the girl, Kyoko, lives with her dad and mom, the latter of which is fighting a serious illness. On this tropical island, almost all the families have lived here for generations. Kaito, also known as “Tokyo Boy”, discovers a floating body in the sea, which triggers his fear to run home. Meanwhile, Kyoko is coming to terms with her mother’s fate.

Naomi Kawase paints this film in metaphorical imagery, about two youths who struggle and fall in love while going through sophisticated life events. Kawase somehow manages to ask his audience, “Is there a way one can live and die in a good manner?” His answer through this metaphorical film is yes.


18. Strawberry Shortcakes (2006) by Hitoshi Yazaki

Strawberry Shortcakes (2006)

Strawberry Shortcakes is a movie based off a manga series. It portrays a story of two women, Akiyo and Satoko. Akiyo works as an escort and Satoko as a receptionist at Akiyo’s escort agency. We then have Toko, who is angry when she finds out her ex is going to be married to another woman, and Chihiro is suffering solitude even when she is around people.

Akiyo, Satoko, Toko and Chihiro strive to find happiness within their lives while attempting to deal with their insecurities in this midst of a hectic city. Akiyo attempts to commit suicide because the man she loves isn’t interested in her, and Satoko is bothered by her creepy boss.

As the film gets deeper, we see both pairs of women became close friends, both Akiyo and Satoko and Toko and Chihiro, and their desires of getting married or finding love become less important. This film shows how isolation can be a big issue among city people, and important relationships can be tough and confusing.


17. R100 (2013) by Hitoshi Matsumoto

R100 (2013)

Japan’s cult director comes out with something strange and quirky about a man obsessed with bondage who gets more than what he bargained for. Takafumi Katayama spends his life at a meaningless office job while at night he takes cares of his young son.

The basic premise of this movie is it follows a man who signs a contract with an S&M company called Bondage. The contract specifically states that their dominatrixes will make appearances at any moment at any given time to beat him at the places he is spotted. Somehow it gives him elation to be getting beaten. The reason behind this is to take his troubled mind off of his obstacles.

This film is dark and gets deeper when it starts involving his young son in his insane contract. Director Hitoshi Matsumoto unleashes imaginative plot twists, absurd and wildly over-the-top events, and intense sexual comedy into one of the strangest movies ever to be made.


16. Linda Linda Linda (2005) by Nobuhiro Yamashita

Linda, Linda, Linda (2005)

Three days before their high school festival, Kei, Kyoko and Nozumi are forced to recruit a new lead vocalist for their band. In desperation, they choose a Korean exchange student name Son, though her understanding and knowledge of Japanese music is a bit rocky.

This film is a race against time as the group struggles to make it through. All the girls give themselves the goal to play the Japanese pop song “Linda, Linda, Linda.” The style of this film is very calm and casual, which also makes it realistic.


15. The Great Passage (2013) by Yuya Ishii

The Great Passage

This film revolves around Mitsuya Majime, who is socially clumsy and lives a solitary life. He becomes a chief editor due to his concentration on his work and struggles to be a salesman even though he has a graduate degree in linguistics. This tells the audience that sometimes life can be unjust. The arrival of the landlord’s granddaughter, Kaguya Hayashi, made Mitsuya’s world stop and focus on her and her obsession with cooking.

The unorthodox Mitsuya eventually figures out that he has found a new bond with his co-workers and also gets to know more about his crush, Kaguya. Eventually he succeeds by helping compile the most successful and acclaimed dictionary and wins the woman he loves.

Yuya Ishii takes us on a journey to pay homage to an old fashioned type of book, the dictionary. He also points out that a slow-paced romantic commitment would be a great step for a couple and invokes us to remember that sometimes we need to be aware of our selves and of our surroundings.



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  • Dimitrije Stojanovic

    Nice list. Only there is no The Twilight Samurai.

  • Robbin Drent

    I think United Red Army should be in there.

  • John Davidsson

    Twilight samurai, Love exposure, Vital, Ichi The killer are all missing from this otherwise excellent list

  • John Davidsson

    I would infact add a whole lot of Miike films =) Ichi The killer, Gozu, Dead or alive 2, Happiness of the Katakuries, Sukiyaki western Django, Shield of straw, Lesson of the evil, Big bang love, Juvenile A, Segment “box”, Deadly outlaw: Rekka, Graveyard of honor, Visitor Q and finally The city of lost souls.
    Then we also have the cinema of Sion Sono: Love exposure, Strange circus and suicide club amongst others.

  • Chris Richards

    I enjoyed this list because it includes a few films I haven’t seen, which I’ve now added to my list of future purchases. So thanks for that. As for the rest of the picks, I agree that they’re all excellent, but if this is really meant to be a list of “the 20 best Japanese films of the 21st century”, there are a few which are glaringly conspicuous in their absence. Love Exposure, in particular. Survive Style 5 as well. A few others which come to mind, and probably a few that will later. But still, I appreciate the article and look forward to checking out the films I haven’t seen yet.

  • genecrazy

    I think you made a mistake on your summary for Sawako Decides. It is completely wrong, and probably for another movie?

  • Christopher

    Some interesting choices, but definitely needs some anime films – Millennium Actress, Spirited Away, Mind Game, etc – along with Twilight Samurai and All About Lily Chou-Chou. Also, Battle Royale is a film from the 20th Century, not the 21st.

  • Maricarmen Cavero Arrivasplata

    I think you are missing Love Exposure, I think it’s delightful

    • Raúl Olivares Santos Castro

      Yeah, I would choose Love Exposure insted of Cold Fish

  • Guest

    Vinnoth Krish, have you seen Sawako Decides? Why did you delete my post?

    Read summary and watch the trailer:

  • matthiasahlswede

    Yeah picking Cold Fish over Love Exposure for a Sono Shion movie is…yeah.

    Also …japanese movies and Like someone in love? i like that movie a lot but the definition to include this is not very clear. neither the director nor the studio are japanese. It’s located in japan but so are Lost in Translation, Wasabi, Hanami. In general nice list eventhough i would have picked another Miike instead of 13 Samurai because i really don’t like it that much. Would have added Versus instead.
    Still overall good list.

  • TheShoeHorn


    As Sight & Sound said, one of the best *films* of the 21st century

    … and I’ll assume the author hasn’t seen All About Lily Chou-Chou because that’s an exceptional piece of cinema

  • Shaun Anderson

    This list has a severe lack of Love Exposure

  • Jason Oldfield

    The entry for Sawako Decides appears to have a description for another film by Yuya Ishii: The Great Passage. Which film did you mean to include in the list?

  • Nill Newt

    Rather good list but… Battle Royale (?) no Yamada?? (Otouto or Kabei or The Twilight Samurai) no Iwai? (Lily Chou Chou) and if “Like someone in Love” is a Japanese movie (?) then why not Cyborg-she (Korean director but everything else is Japanese) a delightful dramedy !

  • Michael Reid

    No When The Last Sword Is Drawn , Yamada’s Samurai trilogy ,Eternal Zero

  • Nakashima

    Lame list.

    Also, Naomi Kawase is a woman, you morons.

    Missing films: The Mourning Forest, A Snake of June, Torso, Noriko’s Dinner Table, Josee The Tiger and The Fish, Visitor Q, Funky Forest, Face.

  • Бате Узи

    Where the fuck is Kenshin!?

  • T Yi Mei

    Kamikaze girls is a good film too.

  • great list,

  • Alejandro Ramírez

    “…has been described as a psychedelic version of the great Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander”, wow, those are some HUGE shoes to fill. Looking forward to watch a few of these movies, specially The Taste of Tea!

  • jeff loggens

    Love Exposure… Strange Circus… very poor list.

  • Adam

    Where would someone living in Canada buy some of these movies? Amazon is missing most of them. (The ones I looked up anyway)

  • Irie

    I enjoyed Little Forest: Summer/Fall and its sequel Winter/Spring too. It is a calming series about rural living and cooking. For an all-time favourite, it has got to be Seven Samurai.

  • W Alex

    Great list. I recently watched ‘Taste of Tea’ thanks to your list (I remember it was from the psychedelic film list) and was deeply moved by it.

  • Cygnifier

    Departures (2008) is a lyrical and lovely film. Part of the tension between the characters is that Daigo is really looked down on for taking a job working with the dead. As he starts to see how he can help families create a bridge from death back to life, he grows in his sense of self and confidence. His final coming to terms with the death of two who are close to him allows him to come to terms with his own life. It received an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture.

  • Hibri Mohd Nor

    Himizu everybody??

  • Suryanih Poenya

    i like confession very much. it is one of smartest movies that ever made. it is out of box, and genius in cinematography. I like slow motion effect in this movie, that brings more colours to anyone who watch it. And of course i like the plot. Genius!!

  • Emma Matsuda

    Not only should Love Exposure be there instead of Cold Fish, there are way more quintessential films by Takeshi Kitano that are simply more powerful/meaningful than ‘Zatoichi’ – Kids Return, Hanabi, Brother, or my personal favourite ‘Dolls’.

  • Erica Nagashima

    Japanese do make quality of movies. They do have better storyline/plot than any other Asian countries. Keep in mind, Japanese film/drama is much earlier than other Asian countries to be broadcast in US and UK.

  • TricksHappen

    Nice website. You can also download HD movies at