The 10 best Japanese films that changed world cinema forever
Even without knowing specific titles, audiences around the world have seen decades of films internationally built on the foundation of Japanese cinema. After World War II, cinema became a cathartic outlet for Japanese filmmakers to express their honest views and expand their horizons beyond government-sanctioned propaganda films.
In the years since, Japan has remained a prominent and distinctive voice in cinema, offering a unique perspective on familiar genres. From early samurai epics to groundbreaking animation, below is a timeline of many moments in history when Japan changed the cinematic landscape forever.
When a man is found murdered and a woman assaulted, four people involved are put on trial to uncover the truth behind the incident. As each individual reveals their story to the court, more questions than answers begin to arise.
Ignored in its original Japanese release, only when Akira KurosawaThe film’s early masterpiece was awarded at the Venice Film Festival, so its nuanced storytelling and visual craftsmanship will truly be appreciated. Since then, critics have begun to recognize prominent Japanese directors, including Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchiintroducing the rest of the world to the country’s diverse and rapidly growing cinematic landscape. Rashomon it would also inspire dozens of films such as The usual suspects, heroand The last duelwhich uses its uniquely structured plot and unreliable narration, embedding itself forever in film history.
“Tokyo Story” (1953)
An elderly couple travels from their small village to bustling Tokyo to visit their grown children. When their entire family seems too busy to spend time with them, they start spending more time with their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara).
Yasujiro Ozu’s humble classic is the culmination of the author’s endless fascination with complex family relationships and generational divides. As with most of Ozu’s work, flashy cinematography is eschewed in favor of static real-life shots of everyday life interspersed with the director’s signature close-ups. This visual approach allows the viewer to experience the family’s changing dynamics and internal struggles firsthand as the film subtly builds to its emotionally gripping climax.
Seven Samurai (1954)
When a village is short of food and supplies due to frequent raids by a bandit clan, they recruit a few samurai who are willing to help without pay. They gather seven ronin, each from a different background, who must unite and outwit the ruthless bandit horde.
Often considered one of cinema’s greatest achievements, Seven Samurai is a three-plus-hour epic that moves like a modern superhero film, but with the character development and precision direction of a prestigious period piece. It set the precedent for the film’s incredible team dynamic with an ensemble cast of iconic performances, including Kurosawa regulars Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura. From the Western reinterpretation of The magnificent seven of Pixar A bug’s lifehowever, the film’s plot has been repurposed for decades, Seven Samurai it holds up like a masterclass in its own formula.
In the aftermath of the atomic bomb, a giant lizard-like creature rises from the depths of the ocean and wreaks havoc on Tokyo. Amidst the chaos, a select group of scientists must find a way to stop the beast before it claims more victims.
Godzilla acts as a haunting allegory for the fear that has hung over Japan since the nuclear attacks and remains as emotionally resonant and poignant as it was upon its release. The fact that it’s all told with a man in a rubber and latex suit and can be taken seriously is a testament to the skill and seriousness with which the material is handled. Although it would spawn one of cinema’s longest-running franchises, the original film stands as tall as its titular monster as the gold standard of the kaiju genre.
The Hidden Fortress (1958)
Two treacherous villagers meet a mysterious man and woman. Unbeknownst to them, the strangers are a princess and a general, respectively, who offer to give the villagers gold in exchange for their company to escort them to safety.
Widely known by cinephiles as George Lucas major influence on star Wars, The hidden fortress is a sprawling adventure well ahead of its time since its release. While thematically lighter compared to the rest of Kurosawa’s filmography, the film more than makes up for it with brilliantly executed action sequences and a keen eye for scope and spectacle.
A wandering ronin arrives in a city that has been overrun by two warring criminal factions. Over the next few days, he executes a plan, pitting the two gangs against each other to free the city from tyranny.
Kurosawa’s series of samurai classics from the 1950s carry over into the next decade with this classic ideal of the “wandering samurai” trope. The premise would later be broken by the Italian director Sergio Leone for his classic spaghetti western A handful of dollars, essentially creating a whole new subgenre. Kurosawa’s muse, Toshiro Mifune, once again brought his unbridled charisma to bear in an otherwise understated role, creating one of the genre’s most iconic samurai characters.
Years after a failed experiment led to the bombing of Tokyo by the Japanese government, the newly built city is plagued by crime. When a street gang is drawn into a conspiracy involving yet another round of experiments, it becomes a race against time to keep Tokyo from being destroyed again.
Like 1954 Godzilla, Akira brilliantly comments on the cyclical nature of humanity’s destruction in a serious and harrowing way. The film’s vision of a reconstructed metropolis bridges the gap between Blade Runner and pretty much every dark sci-fi vision of the future that would follow. The kinetically exciting and often graphic action and violence set against a backdrop of heavy subject matter showed the world what the medium was capable of, as well as its ability to tell more than children’s stories.
After her niece is found dead watching a supposedly cursed videotape, reporter Reiko (Nanako Mastushima) embarks on a quest for the truth. After watching the tape herself, she receives a call that she will die in seven days. Reiko and her ex-husband continue to search for answers as well as the origin behind the ghost tape.
Although awareness of this creepy cult classic peaked with the release of the American remake of The ring in 2002, A ring stands on its own as perhaps a harsher and more disturbing take on the book on which both films are based. The story is told with a clear approach, adding an intuitive realism to each gruesome setting. It would go on to inform much of the international horror scene for the next decade, proving that haunting imagery beats cheap horror scares any day.
Widower Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) decides he’s ready to get back on the dating scene. His friend in the movie business organizes a fake audition to help Aoyama find the perfect match. After falling in love with the beautiful Asami (Hey Shiina), Aoyama begins a relationship with her, only to eventually learn of her own, more sinister motives.
One of Japan’s most prolific and hardest working directors, Takashi Miike delivers what many consider his magnum opus with this modern horror classic. Much of the first half of the film is treated in a light tone, which makes it all the more jarring (and horrifying) when it turns dark and twisted in the second half. The film’s horror elements would later be used as a template for the “torture porn” boom of the early 2000s, though none of these films would quite match the shock and horror of Miike’s masterpiece.
“Gone with the Spirits” (2001)
As they take a shortcut to their new home, 10-year-old Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) and her parents stumble upon an abandoned amusement park. As the sun sets before they can leave, Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs and she finds herself trapped in what now appears to be a bathhouse as well as a ghost safe haven.
Many favorite animators By Hiyao Miyazaki films could be considered masterpieces, but none won universal appeal and adoration Spirit Away. For many American moviegoers, it was an introduction to the coveted tradition of Japanese animation, and it blew audiences away with its detailed world, quirky characters, and endless source of imagination. From the mysterious apparition No-Face to the mystical dragon Haku, the film is full of wildly inventive imagery that defined an era of animated cinema, retaining its inspiring magic today.
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