classic japanese movies

21 Classic Japanese Movie Masterpieces for the Serious Cinephile

For over 100 years, Japanese cinema has been growing, evolving and spreading its influence to the rest of the world. 

Japanese films have gone through many phases, from the Golden Age of the 1950s, through heavily war-influenced flicks and all the way up to anime—and beyond. 

Take a seat and enjoy as I take us through some of the most influential and important classic Japanese movies, from the 1920s all the way to the 21st century.

Contents

 

1. “A Page of Madness” (1926) 

Genre: Drama, Suspense

The low-budget silent film “A Page of Madness,” takes an uncomfortably close look at madness.

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Teinosuke Kinugasa

Find it on: Amazon DVD/Blu-ray, Amazon Prime

When his wife is imprisoned in a mental institution, a man takes a job as a janitor at her asylum with the hopes of breaking her out. But his every attempt to “free” her from her confinement is thwarted, eventually leading him down his own path to insanity. 

This surreal, experimental film marks the true start of the age of movies in Japan. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Japanese films really took off, and “A Page of Madness,” is an excellent example of this experimental stage in Japanese film history.

The result is unsettling and haunting, exploring the fine line between madness and sanity.

2. “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums” (1939)

Genre: Drama, Romance

“The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums,” is film a about forbidden love, that takes a critical look at the way women in Japanese society were expected to sacrifice their own lives and ambitions for men. 

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi

Find it on: Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Criterion, Google Play Movies, YouTube

In this film, we watch the adopted son of a famous Kabuki actor try to make a name for himself. As he struggles with his acting and home life, the actor turns to his brother’s nurse for comfort. Their affair leads to the nurse losing her job and her standing in society, but she seems happy to support her lover as he continues on his path to stardom.

The movie heavily features a theme that was very important for the director, Kenji Mizoguchi: the role of women in society. When Mizoguchi was a child, his teenage sister was forced to become a geisha, an experience that influenced many of his works.

The “Story of the Last Chrysanthemums,” marks the beginning of his rise to mastery, and beautifully represents movies of that time period. 

3. “Late Spring” (1949)

Genre: Drama

“Late Spring,” shines a spotlight on women and their place in Japanese society as caretakers and wives.

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Yasujiro Ozu

Find it on: Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Criterion, HBO Max, Tubi

“Late Spring,” tells the story of a 27-year-old daughter of an elderly man, torn between her familial duties to take care of her father, and his (and society’s) pressure for her to marry. It’s a melancholy story of love, family and searching for a balance between personal desire and society’s expectations.

The movie completely omits crucial moments, leaving the viewer to fill in the gaps, while placing a huge importance on seemingly insignificant events. This gives the movie a dreamy quality, like you’re floating through the characters’ lives, rather than watching a story. 

The legendary Yasujiro Ozu was one of Japan’s most beloved directors, and his works lifted movies from the realm of realism and sculpted them smoothly into a form of art.

4. “Rashomon” (1950)

Genre: Drama, Psychological Thriller

“Rashomon,” is a riveting psychological thriller that investigates the nature of truth and the meaning of justice.

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Akira Kurosawa

Find it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Criterion, HBO Max

“Rashomon,” loosely draws inspiration (and its name) from two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. The movie opens with a crime in a forest: A female noble is assaulted and her samurai husband is murdered. From there, we see the events of the crime as they happened from the point of view of the violated woman, a woodcutter, a bandit and even the ghost of the samurai. 

Yet, even though all four characters witnessed the crime, none of their stories match up. On top of that, each claims responsibility for the crimes. “Rashomon” shows how fallible our memories are and how personal biases cloud our experiences. 

This movie certainly put Akira Kurosawa on the map as a director, but it also introduced the West to Japanese films in earnest, becoming the first Japanese movie to be picked up by a major studio for release in North America. To this day, it’s considered by many critics to be one of the best movies ever made.

5.”Tokyo Story” (1953)

Genre: Drama

The film, “Tokyo Story,” follows an aging couple’s journey to visit their grown children in postwar Tokyo.

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Yasujiro Ozu

Find it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Criterion, Google Play Movies, HBO Max

“Tokyo Story,” introduces two elderly parents who decide to pay their adult children a visit. As they travel from offspring to offspring, they’re met with reluctance, instead of the love and deference they expected. Their hosts—with the exception of one daughter—are just too busy to entertain these geezers who suddenly appeared in their lives! 

It’s only after the elderly couple head home that their children realize how important it is to spend more time with your family. But at that point, it may just be too little, too late.

Ozu’s opinions on familial duties are pretty clear from this film. He, himself, never married and spent his whole life caring for his mother. “Tokyo Story” will remind you that, no matter how swamped with work and life you might be, you should never be too busy for your family.

6. “Godzilla” (1954)

Genre:  Horror, Sci-Fi

In the original 1954 film “Godzilla,” titled “Gojira” in Japanese – nuclear weapons testing awakens a radio-active, giant, dinosaur-like monster from his slumber in the sea, wreaking havoc on Japan.

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Ishiro Honda

Find it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Criterion, HBO Max

For obvious reasons, post-WWII Japanese media is heavily influenced by the devastating dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And one of the most famous examples of this influence can be found in a title that’s become known the world over: “Godzilla.”

As the Japanese military and navy try to figure out how to kill “Godzilla,” one man wants to study it, to avoid the same kind of mistake in the future. Will science or violence win? Let’s face it, you probably already know the answer.

The movie is a cautionary tale, which ends with a warning: that if we continue to make and use nuclear weapons, we may awaken another “Godzilla.” Though the titular monster serves as an allegory, it has transcended its origins. Something about the character makes him irresistible. 

7. “The Hidden Fortress” (1958)

Genre:  Adventure, Drama

“The Hidden Fortress,” is an action-filled, adventurous film featuring one of the strongest female characters of its time.

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Akira Kurosawa

Find it on: Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Criterion, HBO Max

The movie begins with two companions traveling through a desert, constantly bickering. The two are captured and split up, then eventually reunited and placed in charge of the main plot point: escort a princess and her older male companion back to her home. Along the way, they encounter many perils, including a ruthless slave trader. At the end of their journey, the group faces off against a villain with a scarred face. 

Sound familiar? Of course, you read the heading of this section, so you know that I’m talking about Kurosawa’s, “The Hidden Fortress.” But if it sounds like I’m describing the first “Star Wars film,” you’re not too far off: George Lucas has cited “The Hidden Fortress” as an inspiration for the sci-fi movie, especially in the way both stories are told from the point of view of the lowest people in the social ladder.

The movie’s influence is pretty clear in “Star Wars,” even in the film techniques he used, though Lucas obviously made some changes. At the end of the day, though, there’s no denying that without “The Hidden Fortress,” the “Star Wars” franchise might not exist.

8. “Harakiri” (1962)

Genre:  Action, Drama

“Harakiri,” shines a light on how a symbol of honor and bravery can be twisted by corrupt authority figures.

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Masaki Kobayashi

Find it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Criterion

“Harakiri,” follows a ronin (wandering samurai with no master) in the 17th century, after fighting has ceased. The ronin travels to a feudal lord to request the only honorable way to end his career as a samurai, with the ceremony of harakiri, also known as seppuku—disemboweling himself before other samurai, then having his lifeless body beheaded.

However, the ronin learns that, shortly before he arrived, his son-in-law had been forced to take his own life via harakiri with a dull bamboo sword, just to amp up the agony a notch. This, understandably, upsets the ronin and instead of ending his life, he instead turns his sword against opponents once again.

In many ways, the themes of this movie ring true even today, and many believe that “Harakiri” is one of the best samurai movies of all time.

9. “The 13 Assassins” (1963)

Genre: Action, Drama 

“The 13 Assassins,” is a classic chanbara (Samurai sword-fighting) movie about corruption and honor, and where the two diverge.

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Eiichi Kudo

Find it on: Amazon DVD/Blu-ray

“13 Assassins” begins, fittingly, with a death. When a lord of high standing commits a terrible crime, it’s immediately hushed up to protect his good name. After all, he’s about to be appointed to a position of political power, and he doesn’t need that kind of smear on his reputation. But there are some who want to stop this man from ascending in the ranks. 

A plot to assassinate the lord is created, and the conflict begins in earnest. On one side, a brilliant man is appointed to protect the lord—despite hating him. On the other side, a skilled assassin is tasked with the suicidal mission of killing the lord—and then himself. The assassin recruits 12 others to help him, and together, the “13 assassins” go up against the lord’s small army using only their wits, skills and a couple of strategically laid traps.

The movie is a feast for the eyes, with carefully choreographed sword fight scenes. The “13 Assassins” uses samurai as an allegory for the cultural turmoil of the 60s, when Japanese people started to question the concepts of blindly following tradition and cultural norms. More than that, it’s a cry for action against the tight-fisted ruling of both government and society. 

10. “An Actor’s Revenge” (1963)

Genre:  Drama

“An Actor’s Revenge,” follows the story of a Kabuki actor’s determination to avenge the deaths of his beloved parents.

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Kon Ichikawa

Find it on: Amazon DVD/Blu-ray, Amazon Prime, Criterion

In the movie, “An Actor’s Revenge,” we return to the kabuki theater of the 19th century, where a kabuki actor with a specialty in portraying women encounters the three people who caused his parents’ death –  thereby naturally seeking revenge.

And, while it mostly follows a traditional style of filmmaking, it has hints of the more experimental and avant-garde nature of the New Wave cinema that was starting to emerge in the 60s. It makes some unconventional choices, chief among them being the use of colors in a bold, new way that makes actors and certain background elements pop.

Overall, “An Actor’s Revenge” is a feast for the eyes, and another kabuki-themed movie that dissects gender roles in society. 

11. “Woman in the Dunes” (1964)

Genre: Drama, Suspense

In this erotic nightmare, “Woman in the Dunes” portrays a surprising and unnerving connection between an amateur entomologist and a young widow.

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Hiroshi Teshigahara

Find it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Criterion

Based on the novel by Kobo Abe (and using a script also written by the author), “Woman  in the Dunes,” is about a bug-loving man who leaves Tokyo to study a new kind of beetle in the middle of a desert. When he misses his bus home, some villagers suggest that he stays with a woman who lives in a house at the bottom of a giant sand pit. Upon agreeing, he climbs down a ladder to join her… and the next day, wakes up to find the ladder gone.

This marks the beginning of his new life, completing the daily Sisyphean task of shoveling sand with the woman in their sandy pit of despair. The woman provides sand to the villagers above (because, clearly, they don’t have enough of it), and clearing the sand away keeps her house from getting buried. 

The movie has strong psychological and erotic threads running throughout it. Hiroshi Teshigahara is known for pushing the boundaries of what films can and can’t do and “Woman in the Dunes” is just the right kind of oddity.

12. “Kimba, the White Lion” (1966)

Genre:  Animation, Family

“Kimba, the White Lion” depicts the age-old struggle between humans and the animals whose territory they encroach on. 

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Eiichi Yamamoto

Find it on: While the movie is hard to get a hold of, you can look for a DVD box set of the show.

“Kimba, the White Lion,” is the theatrical release of Osamu Tezuka’s TV series, which is also based on his manga. The movie is about a white lion cub who’s orphaned and survives against all odds with the help of other animals. He’s taken in by some humans, who take care of him and teach him about human culture.

But, unlike many other films on the topic which take the stance that “man bad, animal good,” Kimba realizes that humans aren’t all evil, and comes to understand that the only way to achieve peace is to promote cooperation between humans and animals.

Beyond the environmental themes and Disney parallels, this movie is important to note on this list because of its original series creator, the one and only Osamu Tezuka – best known for his work on the manga and anime “Astro Boy”and is commonly referred to as the “father of anime” and the “Disney of Japan.”

13. “Death by Hanging” (1968)

Genre:  Crime, Drama

A young Korean man is sentenced to “Death by Hanging” after committing the violent rape and murder of two girls.

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Nagisa Oshima

Find it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Criterion, Google Play Movies, YouTube

In “Death by Hanging,” a Korean man is sentenced to, you guessed it, death by hanging. But—surprise!—the hanging doesn’t go as expected and the man doesn’t actually die. Instead, he only loses his memory. This poses a huge problem for his would-be executioners. After all, you can’t kill a man for his crime if he has no memory of committing the crime, can you? 

The officials charged with his execution proceed to try different ways to get the Korean to remember his crimes, including a reenactment that gets just a bit too real. Using a satirical mockumentary style of presentation, the events are shown to be incredibly serious but also silly, in a dark and grim kind of way.

Beyond being a clear outcry against the death penalty, “Death by Hanging” criticizes the hypocrisy present in our world, as well as Japanese treatment of Koreans in their country. 

14. “Battles Without Honor and Humanity” (1973)

Genre:  Crime, Drama

A former Japanese soldier, falls into a life of crime and ends up in prison, where he befriends an inmate.

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Kinji Fukasaku

Find it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play Movies, Tubi

In “Battles Without Honor and Humanity,” an ex-soldier is placed in the middle of shifting powers and evolving conflicts – escaping from post war – taking a very challenging route to the top of power. The film – based in part on real people – takes place over the course of over 10 years following World War II. 

While the West has mobsters and gangsters, Japan’s notorious yakuza are an intimidating combination of both. Yakuza films feature action, honor and bloody deaths, and “Battles Without Honor and Humanity” was one of the first. The movie has been compared to “The Godfather,” which came out a year earlier and similarly influenced the pop culture of the time. 

Director Kinji Fukasaku, who later went on to direct the exploding teens movie “Battle Royale” (more on this in a bit), actually kept the violence to a modest amount—for a yakuza movie, at least. Instead, he infiltrated the world and mind of the yakuza, and created a movie that feels almost like a documentary.

15. “Tampopo” (1985)

Genre:  Comedy, Western

“Tampopo,” throws American Westerns and ramen noodles into a blender and spits out a snarky, hilarious celebration of food.

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Juzo Itami

Find it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Criterion, Google Play Movies, HBO Max, YouTube

In the movie, “Tampopo,” two truck drivers teach a ramen restaurant owner how to actually make good ramen. It’s absurd, ridiculous and absolutely wonderful. It’s actually subtitled A Ramen Western—a silly nod to the “spaghetti western” genre. 

The comedy plays with stereotypes, riffing on both American and Japanese customs and traditions. Beneath a funny exterior, “Tampopo” takes a look at the influence that western culture has had on Japan, and how it’s often met with reluctance. 

But in the end, it’s a reminder that despite all our differences, food brings us together. “Tampopo” will certainly leave you with a smile on your face… and a serious craving for some noodle soup.

16. “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988)

Genre: Anime, Children’s Film

“Grave of the Fireflies” follows two young siblings in World War II-era Japan. 

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Isao Takahata

Find it on: Amazon DVD/Blu-ray, Apple TV

With a father deployed in the war and a mother dead from a bombing, the siblings move in with their aunt. They quickly realize they’re unwanted and relocate to an abandoned bomb shelter. There, the younger sister becomes sick from malnutrition. And the rest, well, you already know where this is going.

Movies like “Godzilla” and “Grave of the Fireflies” reflect the influence that the trauma of the atomic bombings and World War II, in general, had on Japanese psyche, art and film. You see echoes of the tragedy of war, orphans, mutations (often due to radiation) and apocalyptic imagery in anime (and other mediums) even well into the 21st century. 

“Grave of the Fireflies,” directed by the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata – and is based on a semi-autobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka – is certainly not the only anime to tackle the subject, but it does so masterfully. In fact, this movie is often cited as the anime film to show anyone who thinks anime can’t be art. Screen it for a non-believer, dare them not to cry and get those tissues ready. You’re both going to need them.

17. “Akira” (1988)

Genre: Anime, Cyberpunk

A young boy develops harmful and powerful telekinetic powers after being part of a secret government project.

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Katsuhiro Otomo

Find it on: Hulu, Tubi (note that both these options are dubbed, not subbed)

“Akira” takes place in 2019, in a rebuilt, post-apocalyptic Tokyo. When a member of a biker gang is injured in a crash, he’s whisked away by the government to be studied. It turns out, this biker now has telekinetic powers, and he doesn’t plan to use them for good. Now it’s up to a bunch of teens to stop him. Surely, nothing can go wrong.

Ask a sci-fi buff what animations influenced the genre, and he’s sure to list “Akira” as one. The movie sparked a sci-fi and cyberpunk revolution, influencing not just other movies in the genres, but also thoroughly infiltrating the Western world and opening the door for subsequent classic anime like “Pokémon” and “Dragon Ball Z” to become childhood classics outside of Japan.

“Akira” is also known for having the highest budget in an anime film at the time, and for being absolutely masterfully animated. No matter how you feel about anime, “Akira” is a must-watch for its masterful execution and the influence it had on sci-fi and cyberpunk movies that followed it. 

18. “Ringu/Ring” (1998)

Genre: Horror, Psychological Thriller

The original film, “Ringu” (Ring), is a horrifying, psychological thriller that will creep under your skin and into the recesses of your mind – leaving you shaken and stirred indefinitely.

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Hideo Nakata

Find it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play Movies, Tubi, YouTube

In the movie, a reporter sets out to investigate when her niece and three of her friends die mysteriously a week after watching a weird VHS recording. The reporter finds the video and watches it herself, because horror movie characters apparently never have a sense of self-preservation. As soon as she finishes watching, a phone call informs her that she has seven days to break the curse, or meet the same fate as her niece. 

“Ringu” (Ring), based on a book by Koji Suzuki, popularized Japanese horror around the world and led to countless remakes and spinoffs. It marked a shift in the horror genre, from hacker slashers to a more psychological type of horror. “Ringu” (Ring) doesn’t use violence or blood to spook you—it doesn’t have to. It’s creepy all on its own. 

The movie fuses horror with technology—even if you’ve never seen it, you’re probably familiar with the scene of a creepy girl crawling out of a TV set. The tech might be outdated, but a primal fear of the unknown sure isn’t. And if you haven’t watched it yet, definitely use this chance to do so! (But make sure you watch the Japanese version, and not the American remake, as the remake cut nearly half the original movie’s content.)

19. “Battle Royale” (2000)

Genre: Drama, Horror

A cult classic and highly celebrated Japanese horror film, “Battle Royale” depicts an extremely violent and controversial battle between high-school students that does not bode well.

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Kinji Fukasaku

Find it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play Movies, Pluto TV, Tubi, YouTube

In the gore-fest of a film, “Battle Royale,” 42 high-schoolers are brought to an island, armed with weapons and told that only one of them can survive. Last one standing after three days will be declared the winner, but if there’s more than one survivor, then everyone will die. 

To add to the tension, all the kids are fitted with a collar. If someone breaks a rule, the collar explodes, taking their head with it. Allegiances are forged and broken as the teens tackle the predicament in their own ways, and it’s not long before blood starts spilling.

It might be worth noting that although this kids-against-kids storyline might sound familiar, Suzanne Collins insists that it isn’t an influence for “The Hunger Games.” At its most basic level, “Battle Royale” is an incredibly fun movie to watch. Examining it closer reveals the theme of a stark generational divide, an issue that Japan has struggled with over the years. 

20. “Spirited Away” (2001)

Genre: Anime, Children’s Fantasy

The critically-acclaimed film, “Spirited Away,” is an adventurous, animated film filled with bravery, mythology and lore that fulfills your imagination.

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki

Find it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play Movies, HBO Max

“Spirited Away,” follows a young girl whose family makes a pit stop at a little village on their way to a new house. As they explore the village, the girl’s parents are turned into pigs! To get them back, she embarks on a journey that has her working in a bathhouse that serves monsters and spirits, taking on powerful witches and forming an unlikely bond with a dragon. And, in the process, she might just find herself, too.

Studio Ghibli films are often based on books, but “Spirited Away” is a completely original creation and also my personal favorite. The movie draws inspiration from Japanese mythology and lore, as well as Miyazaki’s own childhood experiences. 

Mizayaki has also said that he was inspired to make the movie after meeting his young niece. He wanted to make something that would appeal to her, and her generation. And in the end, he created a movie that has broad appeal to all ages as it whisks you away on its adventure. 

21. “Millennium Actress” (2001)

Genre: Anime, Fantasy

“Millennium Actress” is a beautiful anime based on the past, present and future of a retired actress – intertwining reality with fiction.

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Satoshi Kon

Find it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play Movies, Tubi

In “Millennium Actress,” when a movie studio shuts down, two documentary makers set out to make a film about the studio’s most well-known actress. After years of retirement both from acting and the public eye, the actress agrees to an interview to tell her life story. 

What follows is a trip through the past, seen through the different roles and genres the actress has starred in since her debut just after WWII. As you watch, you begin to lose track of what happens in the movies and what actually occurs in real life. But why do the documentary makers keep popping up in this woman’s life? And what has the actress been searching for all this time?

Director and mangaka Satoshi Kon specialized in blending reality with fiction and dreams until you’re not sure where one ends and the other begins. While in this film, his blurring of reality is more subtle, and expertly done, his works can best be described as “trippy,” and this sense of shifting seamlessly from reality into dreams is apparent in many of his other works.

 

Thus ends our journey through the years with classic Japanese movies. These 21 picks will serve as a great introduction into the history of Japanese cinema and the path it’s taken to get to where it is today.

Whether you’re into experimental surrealism, extreme realism, social commentary, taboo breaking, emotional poignancy, gorgeous animation or even hyper-violence, you’re sure to find your new favorite among these!

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