The Japanese film industry has a long and illustrious history, with dozens of films that have had impacts outside of Japan on international filmmaking, and many hundreds more that have touched the Japanese. Classic directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Masaki Kobayashi, and Kenji Mizoguchi made films that have not just been popular outside of Japan, but have influenced many crucial Western filmmakers.
Among the titles most familiar to many are classics such as The Seven Samurai, Tokyo Story, Rashomon, The Woman in the Dunes and many, many more. Anyone who has taken a good film class outside of Japan is familiar with these classics. And then, of course, there’s Godzilla.
Japan’s film industry has had its ups and downs since it’s 1950’s Golden Era, but it saw a resurgence in the late 1990’s that continues to this day. As elsewhere, most Japanese films are people-pleasing crime dramas, tear jerkers, anime or martial arts extravaganzas aimed at the mass audience. But the finest Japanese films address contemporary issues with the veracity, craft and heart of timeless cinema.
Just as one might read a guidebook or a novel before visiting the country, watching some of Japan’s best recent films can give visitors insightful glimpses into lives and ideas in contemporary Japan. Here are eight films of recent vintage that are widely considered to be worth seeing. This list is just a starting point to get you started. (All eight are available on Netflix and other services.)
Okuribito (Departures) (2008) – Japan’s first Academy Award winner in 50 years, Departures is a gorgeous film about a man whose dreams of being a concert cellist are shattered, and ends up taking a job as a mortician to survive. Shot over a 10 year period, the film is remarkably realistic and deeply moving, with light comic touches that ease the darkness, and its themes cross cultural borders with ease.
Tokyo Sonata (2008) – The same year, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa shifted from making horror films to this realistic domestic story of unemployment and its impacts on a Japanese family, as the effects ripple through each familial relationship, leading to horrors more terrifying than buckets of blood. Employment is fundamental to the Japanese character, and its loss is here clearly equated with death.
Nobody Knows (2004) – Inspired by a true story, this tale of four children living in a small apartment with an absent mother and four long-gone fathers. Hiding from school and even their landlord, the four children live lives filled with danger in a small apartment. Must be seen to be understood. Yuya Yagira was just 14 years old when he walked away from the Cannes Film Festival with the Best Actor award for his work.
The Taste of Tea (2004) – This quirky, surprising and visually riveting ensemble piece follows numerous intersecting lives and tangential plot lines in a small town outside of Tokyo. The thoughts and feelings of the characters appear onscreen in various forms, making the film a visual delight, expanding its emotional palate, and making it the recipient of numerous international film awards.
Battle Royale (2000) – Directed by Kitano Takeshi, an enormously popular and influential director, actor and all-around performer, this controversial film about high school children turned loose as competitors in a life-or-death punishment is said by some to have inspired The Hunger Games. Melodramatic though it may be – and certainly entertaining, despite its surfeit of blood – the film’s uniquely Japanese perspective on social relations, and dark-humored comment on government manipulation, is fascinating.
All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) – Based on an interactive Internet novel, animated by on-screen Internet posts that are sometimes difficult to follow, and climaxing in a rock concert, this tale of two middle school boys unfolds in different surprising ways, with character development that builds slowly through the film, as the friends go through some dramatic changes that keep the viewer guessing throughout. Utterly unique filmmaking.
Still Walking (2008) – If you are looking for action, keep walking past Hirokazu Koreeda’s family drama. But if you are a student of domestic relationships, this tale of a family reunited to honor a dead brother is almost painfully subtle and understated. But the emotions ring perfectly true, thanks to a remarkable cast that takes a minimal script and squeezes every bit of emotion out of the situations with few words spoken – making it quintessentially Japanese.
Spirited Away (2002) – Japan’s highest grossing movie of all time is not about contemporary life, per se, but this animated deep dive into the Shinto spirit world is a breathtaking cinematic experience that captures the Japanese soul as well as any socially realistic drama. Director Hayao Miyazaki’s animation manages to look utterly modern and yet evoke an most ancient of Japan’s many spirits. Not to be missed.