I spent time in Japan about four years ago, and ever since, I have been obsessed with Japan’s culture. Like many people, I knew of things like anime, manga, ramen, and Pokémon, but that was where my knowledge of Japan’s culture stopped. I observed their culture over the two weeks I was there by doing a geisha makeover, participating in a traditional tea ceremony, and visiting the peace museum in Hiroshima (Her-oh-shim-ah phonetics included since we seem to all say it wrong.) By no means, I consider myself an expert in a culture that is not my own, and I am not Japanese (I am a mere 1% according to 23 and Me.) Yet, I have written my undergraduate thesis on Japanese culture and have more knowledge than the average person, and I want to share some of that with you. So to start your journey into Japanese culture, I am giving you a shortlist of Japanese films that are essential viewing spanning the decades if you’re going to call yourself a cinephile (high-class film lover.)
Rashomon (1950), Directed by Akira Kurosawa
This film was the reason for creating the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards. That statement alone proves that this film has stood both the test of time and broke boundaries worldwide. Released just a couple of years after the Second World War ended, the world still did not think highly of Japan. Rashomon’s success of this film in its initial release was incredible. The film’s title is now a dictionary term describing multiple conflicting interpretations, as this is the theme of the film itself. The plot itself is seemingly simple. A newlywed woman is sexually assaulted in the forest, and her husband dies trying to protect her. We hear about the crime from four different perspectives a bandit, the bride, the samurai’s ghost, and a local woodcutter. Rashomon is still continuously ranked among the best films ever made due to its originality, creativity, its lack of a happy ending, and its beautiful direction at the hand of Akira Kurosawa.
Ringu (1998), Directed by Hideo Nakata
Many of you have probably seen the remake of this film starring Naomi Watts called The Ring. The Japanese one released four years earlier is still the superior version by most who have seen both interpretations. No offence to Naomi Watts, who is excellent! Hideo Nakata himself footed the bill for his film and took some serious financial risks. Ringu ended up becoming one of the highest-grossing films in Japan. The concept has been parodied far too many times in popular culture, most notably in Scary Movie 3, yet Ringu was highly original when first released. A cursed videotape gets passed around, and if you happen to watch it, you die in seven days. One woman becomes determined not to die and wants to solve this mystery plaguing Japan. Ringu is loosely based on the 1982 film Poltergeist, yet you can see the Japanese aspects shining throughout. The fact that a movie made for just over 1 million dollars created an international franchise is awe-inspiring. Especially considering Nakata himself still exerts creative control over the franchise.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
If you are unfamiliar with Studio Ghibli, you are truly missing out on some of the best animated films ever made. They are Japan’s answer to Disney. They are genuinely that big and powerful. Led by the creative force that is Hayao Miyazaki, My Neighbor Totoro is very personal to him. It is based on his own experience as a child when his mother suffered from tuberculosis. Most people familiar with Studio Ghibli would argue that the film Spirited Awayis a more critical viewing than Totoro. I strongly disagree as this film has a more childlike innocence and shows how meaningful family connections are. Plus, Totoro’s title character is the best friend a child could have, a big friendly giant furball who lives in a strange fantasy land that wants to sleep all day. We all need a guiding spirit in our lives, and I honestly would love to have someone like Totoro for my neighbour. I also want to give a shout-out to the father character in this film. A single father is taking care of two young girls, fueling their creativity, and continuously visiting his sick wife in the hospital. He is one of the most unproblematic male characters ever to grace the screen.
Audition (1999), Directed by Takashi Miike
One of the best sub-genres of Japanese films is horror. Japan has made some of the most disturbing movies, which is not an insult but rather the highest of compliments. Audition deserves a spot on the list as it is one of the more gruesome films. Quentin Tarantino claims it to be a masterpiece, which says a lot about its horror and violence level. A widowed man works as a film producer. While holding auditions for a specific role, he becomes fascinated with one of the women auditioning. This obsession goes sour very quickly and leads to a horrendously disturbing final 30 minutes. Audition should come with a disclaimer that warns viewers about the level of violence that rivals The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I would argue that this film is worse as lead actress Eihi Shiina is an incredibly thorough method actress doing many of the stunts and scenes herself. I won’t spoil anything, but this woman went to VERY drastic lengths for this role.
Ikiru (1952), Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Honestly, I would recommend to anyone that they should watch every film Akira Kurosawa ever made. He never made a bad film in his 40-year career as a director. I will be honest that I have a soft spot for Ikiru because it is the least violent but most heartbreaking of his films. The film’s title Ikiru translation in English is “To Live.” The film revolves around a middle-aged businessman diagnosed with terminal cancer. He dies halfway through the film (spoiler alert!) The second half of the film takes place after his death and revolves around people trying to figure out his last few months’ strange actions in which he became more charitable and happy. He decides to build a park for children in his neighbourhood as a way of his spirit being remembered. The last scene, which shows the lead character on a swing set dying of cancer on his terms, is incredibly powerful. He feels ultimately at peace with what he has done with his life and knows that he did a good thing for his community. Kurosawa, a director known for his legendary Samurai movies, is multifaceted and created a powerful film speaking to the mortality humans feel near the end of their lives.
All the information from this article comes from myself and IMDB.