8. Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Suzuki, 1966)
Tokyo Drifter is a highly stylised, and some would say parodic take on the Yakuza genre. Seijun Suzuki was known for his freewheeling takes on genre movies: keeping much of the action that audiences expected, but also giving free reign to his more experimental leanings. In that sense, he can be seen as a Japanese Sam Fuller.
The film’s plot is rather haphazardly formed, though that seems quite beside the point. For Suzuki, plot was often just an occasion to connect his dynamic and often dream-like imagery.
The film opens with a rapidly compressed mix of images of inner-city Tokyo, which Suzuki had apparently intended to convey a sense of the city in a radically short space of time. Elsewhere, like many of the other films in this list, Tokyo is transformed by Suzuki’s defiantly independent gaze.
7. Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa, 1949)
In a bombed-out post-war Tokyo, homicide detective Murakami has his pistol stolen. Soon the gun is being used in a series of crimes, including a murder. The film follows Murakami’s journey into the Tokyo underworld in an effort to retrieve his gun.
Stray Dog is seen as Kurosawa’s hommage to American cinema in general, and more specifically the Film Noir genre, and it does nothing to dispell his unwanted reputation as Japan’s most “western” director. Added to the influence of Noir is that of detective fiction, primarily that of Belgian author Georges Simenon.
Kurosawa had wanted his script to run just like one of Simenon’s novels. Unsurprisingly, at least for fans of Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune takes the main role as the hard-boiled Murakami, and inhabits that role with all of his usual energy.
The film is often seen as a turning point in Japanese cinema, as it introduced themes that hadn’t been theretofore been explored in much detail.
Much of the location footage details real-life underworld locations. They were filmed with help of Kurosawa’s assistant, Ishiro Honda, who would go on to create the original Godzilla.
6. Tokyo-ga (Wim Wenders, 1985)
Tokya-Ga is Wim Wenders’ personal effort to come to terms with the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu. It is partly a highly informative cinematic about Ozu’s distinctive and influential style: his famously pared down aesthetic. It is also a documentary, though a highly personal one, about 1980s Tokyo.
Wenders wanted to see if he could find anything of Ozu’s aesthetic remaining in modern Tokyo. Needless to say, he doesn’t find much remaining of Ozu’s Tokyo; but that absence is in fact what makes the film interesting. Nineteen-eighties Tokyo rubs itself against an older Tokyo long departed, and the tension is undeniably fascinating.
At one point Wenders ascends a skyscraper to interview his fellow German film-maker, Werner Herzog, who is equally baffled by the Japanese metropolis. Somewhat comically, though maybe not surprising, given Herzog’s love of natural wildernesses, Herzog seems rather unimpressed by the city. the panoramic view of Tokyo inspires Herzog to fulminate on the lack of inspiring images down below, and he concludes that he may need to ascend to Mars to find any inspiration.
Regardless of whether Herzog is just playing the contrarian, it is quite telling that the sight of sprawling Tokyo would cause such a strange outburst, that the urban alienation below would lead to thoughts of alien landscapes.
As with a few other films in this list, Wenders’ film is very much an outsider’s view of the city. So any criticisms of it for being inaccurate or shallow – and there have indeed been such accusations – are unfair and beside the point. Tokyo-Ga offers a unique chance to see a great film-maker’s take on a city that he learned about through the cinema of another great film-maker.
5. Funeral Parade of Roses (Toshio Matsumoto, 1969)
Funeral Parade of Roses remained in relative obscurity until Eureka reissued it on DVD a little while back. It’s now thankfully recognized as a classic of its time. It bears the obvious influence of French New Wave cinema, Alain Resnais in particular, but that’s not to say that the film is derivative.
The narrative style is fractured and polymorphous: documentary footage and photographs mingle with over-exposed film and rapid cross-cuts to create an appropriately heady depiction of Tokyo’s 60’s gay scene. Western viewers will at times be reminded of swinging 60’s London, which is unsurprising given Tokyo’s renowned flare for re-interpreting western trends and making them its own.
4. Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954)
Long disregarded as a mere B-movie, Godzilla has thankfully been given due reconsideration in recent times. The films has come to be seen as a metaphor for the Japanese psyche in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki atrocities. If recent remakes have seemed simply shallow updates with superior special effects, it is due to the absence the original’s historical undercurrent.
Like most of the best “horror” films, Godzilla quietly invokes deep-seated historical traumas, without any preachiness. Of course, the real horror of Godzilla may not register with western audiences as it did (and perhaps still does) with Japanese audiences, but it remains a film that provides significant insight into post-WWII Japan.
It also gives us an indelible sense of Tokyo’s simultaneous fragility and hardiness: a city that carries with it a sense of imminent destruction, but also an indomitable ability to renew and reconstruct.
3. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
Lost in Translation continues to divide audiences between those who find it dull and uneventful, and those who are deeply moved by waht they see as an understated emotional weight below its sleek surface. Regardless of one’s overall judgment, it is undeniably a beautifully shot film that often manages to make Tokyo reflect the psychologies of its generally reticent protagonists.
If some critics see it as an inaccurate portrait of the city, they neglect to understand how every shot can be seen as a subjective illustration or counterpoint to the thoughts and feelings of the main characters who are, after all, foreigners in a strange land.
2. Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988)
Akira has come to be regarded as one of the finest animated films Japan (or indeed the world) has ever produced. The picture it presents of Tokyo is not obviously a realistic one, but it does offer a believable picture of what the city would look like in a dystopian near-future.
Like many Tokyo films, the threat of imminent catastrophe (be it a natural disaster or a nuclear attack) seems to permeate every corner of the city. Indeed, for the sake of accuracy, the film is set in Neo-Tokyo, after the old Tokyo has been destroyed in World War III.
Nevertheless, as we follow the protagonists from district to district of Neo-Tokyo, we get that familiar sense of fragile beauty, dizzying variety, and—indeed—imminent catastrophe that the best Tokyo films never fail to capture.
1. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
Elderly couple Shukicki and Tomi Hirayama go to visit their grown children, Koichi, a paediatrician, and Shige, who runs a hairdressing salon. They stay with Koichi and his family.
The shadow of the second world war is made present with the character of Noriko, Shukichi and Tomi’s widowed daughter in law. Her husband Shoji was killed in the war, eight years prior to when the film takes place. As the film progresses it becomes clear that the elderly couple’s presence is a burden to Koichi and Shige, while their relationship with Noriko only grows stronger.
Such are the seemingly mundane elements of what is in fact one of Japanese cinema’s crowning achievements, and a film that gave Ozu his deserved reputation as a master of achieving profound emotional resonance with the simplest of elements.
Tokyo Story has come to be seen as the quintessential film about the radical upheavals in Japanese culture after the war: the decline of the family and a more skeptical view toward patriotism. Their continues to appear film tributes to Ozu’s film: Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Still Walking and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Cafe Lumiere being the most memorable.
Author Bio: Ciaran is originally from Dublin, Ireland, but currently lives in New York. He has passionate interest in European and Japanese cinema – the old stuff in particular. The directors who have left the deepest impression on him are Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and Marco Ferreri.