Five must-see movies for anyone new to Japanese cinema

Almost as old as Hollywood, Japanese cinema has been around for over 100 years. Films made and produced in Japan are an integral part of cinematic history, with some of the country’s classics inspiring top Hollywood filmmakers including Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski. Japan is full of excellent films, often underrated but deserving of recognition and glory. If you’re new to Japanese movies, here are five must-see Japanese movies you should add to your list.

History of Tokyo

History of Tokyo is considered one of the greatest films ever made in Japan. In fact, he has, on occasion, beaten Citizen Kane in lists of the greatest movies ever made. A Sight and sound survey of directors (via Weekly entertainment) class Tokyo Story as the best film in history, placing more Citizen Kanewhich ranked #3. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu and starring Japanese actors Setsuko Hara, Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Kyoko Kagawa and many more, History of Tokyo tells the story of two grandparents who visit their children and grandchildren in Tokyo but are largely ignored by them upon arrival. Esteemed director Martin Scorsese included History of Tokyo in his list of 39 foreign films every young filmmaker should see. A review by Roger Ebert in 2003 noted Ozu’s ability to produce deep emotions from such a simple script: “From these few elements, Yasujiro Ozu made one of the greatest films of all time. “Tokyo Story” (1953) lacks sentimental triggers and contrived emotion; it looks away from moments that a lesser film would have exploited. He does not want to force our emotions, but to share his understanding. He does it so well that I’m on the verge of tears in the last 30 minutes. It ennobles cinema. That said, yes, a film can help us take small steps against our imperfections.


Young people don’t realize Godzilla was actually a Japanese creation. Before the Hollywood remakes, Godzilla had been terrorizing the streets of Tokyo since 1954. The monster and the movie, created by Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya, spawned the longest-running film franchise in history, according to Guinness World Records. 1954 Godzilla was an experiment in cinematic special effects, some of which are still used today. While the film doesn’t exactly feature superb acting from its cast, its action-packed sequences make the original Godzilla a must-see film for anyone new to the appreciation of Japanese cinema. A film review for Salon wrote, “Although the acting is haphazard and the story jumps around a bit confusingly, Honda’s film is a one-of-a-kind experience throughout, one that better stands the test of the time than I expected. “Honoring the legacy of the film, Film school rejections highlighted the deliberately blurred image of Godzilla in the original film, leaving the monster’s actual appearance to the viewer’s imagination. “Godzilla is shot like film noir, with a heavy focus on shadows. The monster is a very dark grey, almost black, and when it hits Tokyo at night, only city lights and military searchlights illuminate it in great detail. It’s not only unsettling and a device that allows you to create your own image of Godzilla from parts, but also circumvents the limitations of combining. The documentary feel of the film’s visual style comes from cinematographer Masao Tamai, who shot many films for Mikio Naruse, director of many acclaimed drama films such as Late Chrysanthemums and When a woman climbs the stairs.”

Seven Samurai

From the genius of Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai is another film that anyone interested in Japanese cinema should watch. The story revolves around a farmer who hires seven samurai to fight bandits who threaten his crop. Seven Samurai is perhaps the most recognizable classic Japanese film. A BBC ranked international critics poll Seven Samurai as the greatest foreign language film of all time. According to IndieWire, Seven Samurai has influenced some of today’s most famous filmmakers, from Quentin Tarantino to George Lucas. Film school rejections highlighted the film’s legacy in their article: “If you don’t think Akira Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai is the greatest action movie ever made, so I humbly suggest you get out of here now and watch it again, because it is. It combines cinematic artistry with narrative skill, rich characters with graceful technique, and drama with adrenaline. He’s a role model not just for quality action movies, but for quality films in general, and in the 63 years since its release, his esteem has only grown.


Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, departures was directed by Yojiro Takita and starred Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, and Tsutomu Yamazaki. departures tells the story of an unemployed cellist who prepares the corpses for the funeral. In a review of RogerEbert.comthey underlined how much the history of departures East. “This movie isn’t a stylistic breakthrough or a bold artistic statement. But it’s rare because it’s so well done. The universal reason people go to the movies is in hopes of being told a gripping story that will move them. They would rather be emotionally touched, I believe, than thrilled, frightened, or made to laugh. Yet there are few things more deadly than manipulative sentimental melodramas — what Variety likes to call “weepers.”


Japanese horror movie Ringu, Where Ringshould be familiar to even casual moviegoers, who might have been disappointed with its American remake the ring, starring Naomi Watts, and the series of commercially unsuccessful films that followed. Regardless of how his remakes turned out, Ringudirected by Hideo Nakata, remains one of the most gripping horror films ever made. RinguThe movie monster Sadako Yamamura still conjures up nightmarish images for people who watched the movie over 20 years ago. Ringu was well received upon release, with Rotten Tomatoes holding a new 97% rating for the film. Its official synopsis reads: “When her niece is found dead with three friends after viewing a supposedly cursed videotape, journalist Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) sets out to investigate. Along with her ex-husband, Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada), Reiko finds the tape, watches it, and soon receives a phone call informing her that she will be dead in a week. Determined to get to the bottom of the curse, Reiko and Ryuji uncover the origin of the video and try to solve an ancient murder that could break the spell.

Marie A. Evans