classic japanese movies

21 Classic Japanese Movie Masterpieces for the Serious Cinephile

Are you a fan of “Star Wars”? (Who isn’t?)

Then you should thank Japanese cinema.

Did you grow up in 1990s America on “Power Rangers?” 

Yep, Japan again.

And if “The Lion King” was your favorite Disney film, you better believe that was also inspired by Japan.

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

Japanese film has 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.

Basically, these are the kinds of films that would certainly appear on your syllabus if you were taking a college course on classic Japanese film. 

Along the way, you’ll also learn about some of the most important directors in Japanese film history.

And we’ll start by immediately descending into insanity. 

“A Page of Madness” (1926)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Teinosuke Kinugasa

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

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

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. Although cinema was introduced in Japan in 1896, early movies were limited in scope and length and were seen as not much more than a curiosity. 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.

Teinosuke Kinugasa pioneered some early advances in movie storytelling, like showing the events from the point of view of the main character. He uses close, claustrophobic shots of the mental institute (which is really more like a prison) and various film effects to really get you into the man’s head. 

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

“The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums” (1939)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi

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

Once Japan got past its experimental stage, movies turned toward realism. One of the most well-known movies of the era, “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums,” focuses its attention on kabuki, a traditional Japanese form of theater that uses exaggerated dancing, makeup, music and gestures to tell stories.

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 film takes a critical look at the way women in Japanese society were expected to sacrifice their own lives and ambitions for men. 

Although the director is better known for his later films like “Ugetsu” and “Sansho the Bailiff,” “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums” marks the beginning of his rise to mastery, and beautifully represents movies of that time period. 

“Late Spring” (1949)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Yasujiro Ozu

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

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.

“Late Spring” shines a spotlight on women and their place in Japanese society as caretakers and wives. In the movie, the 27-year-old daughter of an old man is 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.

Ozu was an expert at really turning his movies into artworks through careful composition, framing and camera angles. In “Late Spring,” he employs a lot of the stylistic choices that he later becomes known for, including his disjointed method of storytelling. 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. 

“Rashomon” (1950)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Akira Kurosawa

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

The renown director Akira Kurosawa made movies all the way from the 1940s until his final film in 1993. And while many are masterpieces in their own way, any list of classic Japanese cinema would be incomplete without a mention of “Rashomon.”

The movie certainly put 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.

“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. 

What actually happened in that forest? Who’s the real culprit? Someone among the witnesses must be lying… right? After the credits roll you may end up with more questions than answers.

“Tokyo Story” (1953)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Yasujiro Ozu

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

Coming only four years after “Late Spring,” “Tokyo Story” is conventionally held to be Ozu’s best work. Whereas “Late Spring” depicts the love and care of a young woman for her aging father, “Tokyo Story” instead explores the lack of this sense of familial responsibility.

The film 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 style really shines in this movie. He cuts out and rearranges key moments, abruptly switches cameras from the main story to follow character movements through rooms and employs the “tatami-shot,” a low, from-the-floor-up camera angle that literally places the viewer on the floor next to the actors.

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.

So call your grandma. She misses you. 

“Godzilla” (1954)

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.”

In the original 1954 film, titled “Gojira” in Japanese, nuclear weapons testing awakens a giant, dinosaur-like monster from his slumber in the sea. The radioactive monster rises up and wreaks havoc on Japan.

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.

“Godzilla” has led to countless remakes and spinoffs that are still being made today. The monster has fought King Kong, Mothra, a plethora of other sea monsters and even a mecha and “Space” version of itself. In some iterations, it even had a son and in others, it completely took over planet Earth.

The movie spawned the entire giant monster genre, kaiju. It also led to the popularity of tokusatsu, a sub-genre of monster-fighting, superhero shows loaded with over-the-top special effects, like “Power Rangers.”

Though the titular monster serves as an allegory, it has transcended its origins. Something about the character makes him irresistible. Who among us hasn’t played pretend by making a large toy stomp on smaller, more defenseless toys and block houses?

“The Hidden Fortress” (1958)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Akira Kurosawa

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

I could write an entire list full of only Kurosawa films. And while there are arguably more important films in his filmography, “The Hidden Fortress” is worth a mention. The movie is a great example of how, by the 1950s, Japanese films were making a strong mark not just at home, but in the Western world, as well. 

So, let’s play a game: I’ll describe the plot and you try to guess what movie I’m talking about.

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.

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. His droids are motivated by loyalty to the princess, while “The Hidden Fortress” features two dudes who are only in it for the money. Lucas claims his princess is more awesome (though I personally think she’s far less badass than her Japanese counterpart). He also, obviously, set the entire story in space—while the Japanese movie is set in 16th century Japan.

At the end of the day, though, there’s no denying that without “The Hidden Fortress,” the “Star Wars” franchise might not exist. That’s just the power of Kurosawa!

“Harakiri” (1962)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Masaki Kobayashi

Find it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Criterion

Many Japanese samurai films deal with the transitional stage between the samurai’s heyday and the time when his fighting is no longer necessary.

“Harakiri” is no different. It 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. That’s one heck of a resignation party!

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.

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

“The 13 Assassins” (1963)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Eiichi Kudo

Find it on: Amazon DVD/Blu-ray

“The 13 Assassins” is a classic chanbara (sword-fighting) movie about corruption and honor, and where the two diverge. It begins, fittingly, with a death. How did we get to this point?

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. What to do?

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. Many compare it to Kurosawa’s beloved “7 Samurai” from 1954, which uses a similar premise of a group of fighters banding together. 

But “The 13 Assassins” is more than an imitation of Kurosawa’s classic. It 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. 

“An Actor’s Revenge” (1963)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Kon Ichikawa

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

Over the course of his career as a director, Kon Ichikawa had his hand in the creation of nearly 100 films. You’ll understand, then, the difficulty of choosing just one.

“An Actor’s Revenge” serves as a bridge between the golden age of the 50s to the more contemporary 60s. In this movie, 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. He decides, naturally, to get revenge on them. 

This movie has a little bit of everything, from drama and sword fights to romance and loss. 

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. For an interesting experience, try watching this one and “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums” back-to-back!

“Woman in the Dunes” (1964)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Hiroshi Teshigahara

Find it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Criterion

In the 1950s and 60s, a new kind of movie started to emerge: “New Wave,” arthouse films. These movies took apart conventional filmmaking methods and put them back together into something new and different.

The result was often violent and weird, and the Kafka-esque “Woman in the Dunes” is a little of both.

Based on the novel by Kobo Abe (and using a script also written by the author), the movie 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 stay with a woman who lives in a house at the bottom of a giant sand pit. The guy agrees (what choice does he have?), 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 examines the absurdity of the task—it asks, “Do you shovel to survive, or survive to shovel?”—and has strong psychological and erotic threads running throughout it. Hiroshi Teshigahara is known for pushing the boundaries of what film can and can’t do and “Woman in the Dunes” is just the right kind of odd.

“Kimba, the White Lion” (1966)

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

No, not Simba. Kimba. Actually, it’s Leo in Japan—though what prompted the name change seems lost to obscurity (or at least, I can’t find it). And though it obviously sounds like a precursor to Disney’s “The Lion King,” Disney has denied that this was intentional. But watching the two side by side, it’s hard to ignore the similarities.

“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.

The story depicts the age-old struggle between humans and the animals whose territory they encroach on. 

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.

Tezuka is 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.” He mainly worked with series, not movies, and he actually revolutionized the way animations were made for TV serialization. But his impact on Japanese movies, animations and culture is so incredibly important that I’d be remiss not to mention him.

“Death by Hanging” (1968)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Nagisa Oshima

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

Director Nagisa Oshima is notorious for his movie “In the Realm of the Senses” due to its practically pornographic nature. It’s about a couple in 1930s Tokyo, whose love-making escalates exponentially… until they go too far. The movie breaks taboos to such an extent that it was censored in many countries and outright banned in others. 

But I’m going to talk, instead, about Oshima’s “Death by Hanging” because this list needs a bit more humor—even if it’s an incredibly dark type of humor. 

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 (after all, the executioners aren’t that pure-of-heart, themselves), as well as Japanese treatment of Koreans in their country. 

“Battles Without Honor and Humanity” (1973)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Kinji Fukasaku

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

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.

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.

The film, based in part on real people, takes place over the course of over 10 years following World War II. Over that time, the main character, an ex-soldier, is placed in the middle of shifting powers and evolving conflicts. Among liars, cheats and people out to protect their own skin, the former soldier has to take the tough road to the top.

The movie has been compared to “The Godfather,” which came out a year earlier and similarly influenced the pop culture of the time. And if you enjoy “Battles Without Honor and Humanity,” there’s good news: There are five movies in this series, as well as six more films following that. That’ll keep you busy for a while! 

“Tampopo” (1985)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Juzo Itami

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

Let’s take a break from death and destruction—you’ll need a breather before the next item on this list—and get cozy with “Tampopo.” 

“Tampopo” throws American Westerns and ramen noodles into a blender and spits out a snarky, hilarious celebration of food. It’s actually subtitled “A Ramen Western”—a silly nod to the “spaghetti western” genre. 

In the movie, two truck drivers teach a ramen restaurant owner how to actually make good ramen. It’s absurd, ridiculous and absolutely wonderful. 

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.

“Grave of the Fireflies” (1988)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Isao Takahata

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

There are those who scoff at anime as being good for nothing but fan service and absurd plotlines. But, as “Grave of the Fireflies” shows very clearly, anime can be beautiful and devastating when placed in the right hands. 

“Grave of the Fireflies” was directed by the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata, and is based on a semi-autobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka.

It follows two young siblings in World War II-era Japan, both of whom will die by the end of the movie. This isn’t a spoiler—you know within the first few minutes of the film that this will happen. And yet the end of the film will still break your heart utterly and irrevocably. 

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. (All the themes I just mentioned, for instance, are present in the popular show “Attack on Titan,” to name just one example.)

So “Grave of the Fireflies” 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.

“Akira” (1988)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Katsuhiro Otomo

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

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” 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.

Even if you’re not familiar with the plot of “Akira,” you may know its iconic motorcycle. Besides the bike, the movie is also known for having the highest budget in an anime film at the time, and for being absolutely masterfully animated. It used nearly triple the animation frame rate of a typical anime, and is full of unconventional colors like greens, reds and cyans for what’s essentially a nighttime movie.

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. Fun fact: Even Kanye West drew inspiration from the classic.

“Ring” (1998)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Hideo Nakata

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

“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. “Ring” doesn’t use violence or blood to spook you—it doesn’t have to. It’s creepy all on its own. 

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. 

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.)

“Battle Royale” (2000)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Kinji Fukasaku

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

With “Battle Royale,” we continue so far down the horror genre that we emerge on the other side as a comedy! 

Okay, not really. 

But this movie takes gore and violence to the point of absurdity. As dark as it is, it’s hard not to burst out laughing when a kid’s head bursts.

In the gore-fest of a film, 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. 

The movie is also an excellent segue to the more niche but incredibly fun Japanese B-movie horror. These generally low-budget films also focus on high action and comically absurd acts of violence, like “The Machine Girl” (about a girl who attaches a machine gun to her missing arm and uses it to get revenge) and “Zombie A**: Toilet of the Dead” (about… well, the title says it all). 

“Spirited Away” (2001)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki

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

Every list of “greatest Japanese movies” needs at least one Hayao Miyazaki film. I chose “Spirited Away” because it topped box office charts worldwide. And also, honestly, because it’s my personal favorite.

This animated movie 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. 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. 

“Millennium Actress” (2001)

classic japanese movies

Directed by: Satoshi Kon

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

This homage to Japanese cinema is the perfect place to end our own journey into the topic. 

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. 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.

In “Millennium Actress,” this blurring of reality is more subtle, and expertly done. 

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?

“Millenium Actress” celebrates films through references to old movies. Can you spot the nod to “Tokyo Story”? 

Rising Stars of 21st Century Japanese Cinema

The further we get into the 21st century, the harder it becomes to choose “classics.” After all, classics are generally defined as works of art that have stood the test of time, and we’re only 21 years into 2000. Films that we think will be classics might be delegated to obscurity as time goes on, while less significant works might gain relevance in the future and get a seat in the hall of “classics” fame.

So, instead of choosing any specific works of art, I’ll leave you with a handful of directors who are stirring things up at the moment:

  • Sion Sono, known for “Love Exposure,” “Tag”: Sono’s works are bizarre and surreal with a heaping serving of violence and eroticism. His movies often focus on outcasts and odd characters, and generally leave you thinking “what the heck did I just watch!?”
  • Takashi Miike, known for “Audition,” “13 Assassins” (2010 remake): Miike imbues his films with a wonderful mix of psychology, horror and gory violence. He excels at making viewers feel uncomfortable.
  • Makoto Shinkai, known for “Your Name,” 5 Centimeters per Second”: The beating heart of anime movies in the 21st century, Shinkai is becoming a household name around the world. His beautiful animated movies are known for being poignant and touching, and for exploring emotions and humanity with a touch of fantasy.
  • Naomi Kawase, known for “Sweet Bean,” “Still the Water”: Kawase had her start in family documentaries, and this is evident in her work, which humanizes her characters in a realistic way. Her works strongly feature their setting, and are often described as “poetic.” She’s also notable for being one of a number of female directors breaking through in male-dominated Japanese cinema.

I could go on and on but that should be enough to whet your appetite. 

Will these directors create classics? Only time will tell.


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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