15 Movies to Get You Versed on Japan’s Legendary Film History

Article written by Brenden Gallagher

Japanese cinema is among the richest in the world. A list of the best Japanese movies could stand alongside of a list of the greatest films from any country. Over the years, Japan has produced a handful of filmmakers who stand among the greatest directors of all time.

Americans might only be familiar with period pieces about the era of the samurai and the whimsical animated films that have captured the popular imagination in the US. While these are wonderful genres that have produced some of the best in Japanese film, you will find that Japan has just as many varied genres as American cinema. Some of the best Japanese movies are quiet independent films, brutal horror flicks, and earnest, thoughtful melodramas.

A warning: as you start to sample some of the best Japanese movies, you might quickly find yourself overwhelmed by the depth and beauty of the filmmaking coming from the island nation. Some of the filmmakers on this list could populate a top 10 list all on their own. Let’s take a brief dive into Japanese cinema with the understanding that these are just a small sample of the best Japanese movies ever made.

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Director: Akira Kurosawa
Year: 1985

While there is plenty of debate over what are the best Japanese movies, there is one name that always appears at the top of any list: Akira Kurosawa.

Kurosawa is one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. His film, The Seven Samurai, was turned into an American Western called The Magnificent Seven. Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro were translated to American audiences as the Clint Eastwood classics, A Fistful of Dollars, and, For A Few Dollars MoreStar Wars is said to be largely based on his film, The Hidden Fortress. The unreliable narration of Rashomon changed cinema all over the world: any film that employs multiple narrators owes the film a debt. You could make the argument that any of these films is Kurosawa’s masterpiece, but we will choose one of his later works: Ran.

A loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s King LearRan tells the story of a king accepting the twilight of his reign, and the fact that he may die with his kingdom in turmoil. The themes of mortality and the ultimate insignificance of material wealth and status resonated in Shakespeare’s time, meant something to Kurosawa in the ’80s, and are still relevant today.

While some adaptations and period pieces can feel antiquated, Ran feels intensely modern despite its medieval setting. Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film:

Ran is set in medieval times, but it is a 20th century film, in which an old man can arrive at the end of his life having won all his battles, and foolishly think he still has the power to settle things for a new generation. But life hurries ahead without any respect for historical continuity; his children have their own lusts and furies. His will is irrelevant, and they will divide his spoils like dogs tearing at a carcass.”

Ebert also notes that Ran was a comeback film of sorts for Kurosawa. At 75 years old, the filmmaker was 20 years past the end of his prime, and what once was a steady stream of output slowed to a trickle as financing became rare and audiences began to leave him behind. It took years just to get the film financed. What makes the film among Kurosawa’s greatest, and as such, among the greatest of all time, is how clearly we can see the director’s own struggles in the story he chooses to tell.

To pick the greatest Kurosawa film is an exercise in subjectivity. His feudal period dramas are brilliant and every one of them offers a unique exploration of a timeless theme. Throne of Blood is about revenge. Rashomon is about truth. Seven Samurai is about duty. Ran is about mortality. Your favorite of his films will likely depend on your personal point of view, but it is objectively true that the work of Kurosawa comprises one of the greatest filmographies a filmmaker has ever given to the world.

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