The 25 Best Japanese Movies of All Time

Japanese movies have gone through many phases throughout history.

Embark on a journey of the best Japanese movies of all time, 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 we go through some of the most influential and important classic Japanese movies, from the 1920s all the way to the 21st century.


1. “Shin Ultraman” (2022)

Genre: Horror, sci-fi

Summary: In this reboot of the famous 1960s franchise, an alien named Ultraman joins forces with earthlings to battle against giant monsters

Directed by: Shinji Higuchi

Find it on: Not available for streaming yet—catch it in theaters!

Shinji Higuchi is the emerging leader of kaiju—films categorized by huge monsters—and tokusatsu—films that use heavy special effects. Higuchi is at the helm of a trilogy of retellings: “Shin Godzilla,” (2016), “Shin Ultraman” (2022) and “Shin Kamen Rider” (scheduled for release in 2023).

In “Shin Ultraman,” an alien comes to Earth to help Earthlings fight against impending doom in the form of kaiju and cosmic horrors. Together with a special force (the SSSP), humans and alien band together to protect the Earth and everything on it!

2. “Your Name” (2016)

Genre: Anime, fantasy

Summary: A boy attending high school in Tokyo and a girl living in the countryside suddenly switch bodies, in this poignant animated film

Directed by: Makoto Shinkai

Find it on: Crunchyroll, Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu

Shinkai is quickly becoming a household name around the world. The director’s beautiful animations are known for being poignant and touching movies that explore emotions and humanity with a side of fantasy.

“Your Name” introduced the director to the world with the story of a boy and a girl who suddenly switch bodies. The film explores themes of belonging and finding your place, as well as the importance of meaningful connections.

If you’re learning Japanese, this is a great movie for learning natural, modern Japanese, as the characters are mostly school-aged. Even the trailer can be a source of learning, especially when you watch it on FluentU.

FluentU is a website and iOS and Android app that takes hundreds of authentic Japanese videos—like trailers, clips, commercials, music videos and more—and turns them into self-contained language lessons.

Videos have subtitles available in Japanese, furigana and English, all of which can be toggled on or off as needed. As you watch the videos, you can hover over any word to see an in-depth meaning, along with example sentences and video clips.

3. “Sweet Bean” (2015)

Genre: Drama

Summary: A burned out dorayaki seller slowly warms up to life and his career when he hires an older lady with deformed hands to teach him how to make homemade sweet bean paste

Directed by: Naomi Kawase

Find it on: Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Vudu

Based on the book by Durian Sukegawa, “Sweet Bean” follows the story of a man who makes dorayaki—sweet buns filled with red bean paste. He’s struggling to find meaning in his life and work, which he doesn’t particularly enjoy, when an old lady appears to give him a new red bean recipe… and a new outlook on life.

Director Naomi Kawase had her start in family documentaries, and this is evident in her work, which humanizes her characters in a realistic way. Note that, sadly, Kawase is the only female director mentioned in our list. For a more in-depth look at the women disrupting the mostly male landscape of Japanese cinema, have a read through this Hollywood Reporter article.

4. “Tag” (2015)

Genre: Action, horror

Summary: “Tag” is a splatterfest of increasingly absurd deaths and gore that center around one school girl as she finds her place in a strange world

Directed by: Sion Sono

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

Sion Sono’s works are known for being bizarre and surreal with a heaping serving of violence and eroticism. His movies often focus on outcasts and odd characters, and usually leave you thinking “what the heck did I just watch!?”

“Tag” is no different. It’s a trippy, hyper-violent movie that starts with a school field trip that goes terribly awry when a freak accident beheads everyone on the bus except the main character. It’s equal parts horrendous and hilarious—and things only escalate from there.

5. “Millennium Actress” (2001)

Genre: Anime, fantasy

Summary: A beautiful anime based on the past, present and future of a retired actress—intertwining reality with fiction

Directed by: Satoshi Kon

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

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.

“Millenium Actress” features director and mangaka Satoshi Kon’s signature blending of reality with fiction and dreams until you’re not sure where one ends and the other begins.

6. “Spirited Away” (2001)

Genre: Anime, children’s fantasy

Summary: This critically-acclaimed film is an adventurous, animated film filled with bravery, mythology and lore that fulfills your imagination

Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki

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

“Spirited Away” follows a young girl whose parents are inexplicably turned into pigs in a little abandoned village on the way to a new house. To get them back, she begins 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 Hayao Miyazaki’s own childhood experiences. 

7. “Battle Royale” (2000)

Genre: Drama, horror

Summary: 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

Directed by: Kinji Fukasaku

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

In this gorefest of a film, 42 high-school students are brought to an island, armed with weapons and told that only one of them can survive. If anyone breaks a rule, their special 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.

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. 

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.”

8. “Ringu/Ring” (1998)

Genre: Horror, psychological thriller

Summary: “Ringu” is a horrifying psychological thriller that will creep under your skin and into the recesses of your mind—leaving you shaken and stirred indefinitely

Directed by: Hideo Nakata

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

Based on a book by Koji Suzuki, “Ringu” (Ring) popularized Japanese horror around the world and led to countless remakes and spinoffs. The movie fuses horror with technology—you’re probably familiar with its famous scene of a creepy girl crawling out of a TV set.

In the movie, a reporter investigates some mysterious deaths and finds a strange VHS recording associated with the deaths. After watching the tape, a phone call informs her that she has seven days to break the curse, or she’ll die, too.

9. “Akira” (1988)

Genre: Anime, cyberpunk

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

Directed by: Katsuhiro Otomo

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

When a member of a biker gang in post-apocalyptic Tokyo 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.

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 anime like “Pokémon” and “Dragon Ball Z” to become childhood classics outside of Japan.

10. “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988)

Genre: Anime, children’s film

Summary: “Grave of the Fireflies” tells the heartbreaking story of two young siblings in World War II-era Japan

Directed by: Isao Takahata

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

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

The movie follows a young boy and his little sister caught in the middle of World War II. Their father is deployed in the war, their mother is dead from a bombing and their aunt doesn’t want them. Alone in an abandoned bomb shelter, the girl becomes sick from malnutrition.

The opening scenes make it clear that this movie doesn’t have a happy ending, yet it’s still heart-wrenching to watch.

11. “Tampopo” (1985)

Genre: Comedy, western

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

Directed by: Juzo Itami

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

In “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. 

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

Genre: Crime, drama

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

Directed by: Kinji Fukasaku

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

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. 

In “Battles Without Honor and Humanity,” an ex-soldier is placed in the middle of shifting powers and evolving conflicts, 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. 

13. “Death by Hanging” (1968)

Genre: Crime, drama

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

Directed by: Nagisa Oshima

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

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? 

In a satirical mockumentary style of presentation, 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.

14. “Kimba, the White Lion” (1966)

Genre: Animation, family

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

Directed by: Eiichi Yamamoto

Find it on: Funimation, Pluto TV

This movie is about an orphaned white lion cub who 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 because of its original series creator, the one and only “father of anime” and “Disney of Japan,” Osamu Tezuka.

15. “Woman in the Dunes” (1964)

Genre: Drama, suspense

Summary: This erotic nightmare portrays a surprising and unnerving connection between an amateur entomologist and a young widow

Directed by: Hiroshi Teshigahara

Find it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Criterion

A bug-loving man visits the middle of a desert to study a new kind of beetle, but he misses the bus home. He agrees to spend the night with a woman who lives at the bottom of a giant sand pit, providing sand to the villagers above (because, clearly, they don’t have enough of it).

The man 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.

Based on the novel by Kobo Abe (and using a script also written by the author), “Woman  in the Dunes” has strong psychological and erotic threads running throughout it. 

16. “An Actor’s Revenge” (1963)

Genre: Drama

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

Directed by: Kon Ichikawa

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

In “An Actor’s Revenge,” a Kabuki actor with a specialty in portraying women encounters the three people who caused his parents’ death. Naturally, he begins to plot his revenge.

While the movie 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.

17. “13 Assassins” (1963)

Genre: Action, drama 

Summary: A classic chanbara (Samurai sword-fighting) movie about corruption and honor, and where the two diverge

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. A plot to assassinate the lord is hatched, 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 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.

18. “Harakiri” (1962)

Genre: Action, drama

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

Directed by: Masaki Kobayashi

Find it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Criterion

“Harakiri”—touted as one of the best samurai films of all time—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. This, understandably, upsets the ronin and instead of ending his life, he turns his sword against opponents once again.

19. “The Hidden Fortress” (1958)

Genre: Adventure, drama

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

Directed by: Akira Kurosawa

Find it on: Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Criterion

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? 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.

20. “Godzilla” (1954)

Genre: Horror, sci-fi

Summary: Nuclear weapons testing awakens a radio-active, giant, dinosaur-like monster from his slumber in the sea, wreaking havoc on Japan

Directed by: Ishiro Honda

Find it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Criterion

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.

21. “Tokyo Story” (1953)

Genre: Drama

Summary: “Tokyo Story” follows an aging couple’s journey to visit their grown children in postwar Tokyo

Directed by: Yasujiro Ozu

Find it on: Apple TV, Criterion, Google Play Movies

“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.

“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.

22. “Rashomon” (1950)

Genre: Drama, psychological thriller

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

Directed by: Akira Kurosawa

Find it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Criterion

“Rashomon” loosely draws inspiration (and its name) from two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa and is the movie that put Akira Kurosawa on the map as a director. 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

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—and each claims responsibility for the crimes.

23. “Late Spring” (1949)

Genre: Drama

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

Directed by: Yasujiro Ozu

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

“Late Spring” tells the story of the 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 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. The movie completely omits crucial moments, leaving the viewer to fill in the gaps, while placing a huge importance on seemingly insignificant events, giving it a dreamy quality.

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

Genre: Drama, romance

Summary: This is a film 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

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.

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. 

25. “A Page of Madness” (1926) 

Genre: Drama, suspense

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

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. Japanese films really took off in the 1920s 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.


Thus ends our journey through the years with classic Japanese movies. These 25 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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