100 Best Japanese Movies of All Time

First off, I’d like to devote some time to honourable mentions and near misses: The unappealing Miko Naruse’s laborious Floating Clouds, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Yearning and the more forgivable Sound of the Mountain did not make it. I’ve tried left plenty of time to warm to his work but it continually fails to interest me, sad to say. Tampopo, Castle of Sand, the Man Behind the Sun, Angel’s Egg, Belladonna of Sadness and The Taste of Tea also sadly didn’t suit my cinematic pallet. To cut tidal flow on an over-abundance of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu I did not include their superb Stray Dog, Scandal or Kagemusha; nor the demonstrably prolific Ozu’s I was Born But…, Early Summer, Late Autumn, The Only Son, The End of Summer, The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice and A Hen in the Wind respectively.

Keep in mind that this list is for the best films: So none of these movies actually quite pipped it to the no.100 spot regardless. I just wanted to acknowledge their quality amidst so many other gems. So too are Shohei Imamura’s solid but ultimately unsatisfactory Pigs & Battleships, The Pornographers and A Man Vanishes absent, along with Yoshishige Yoshida’s beautiful Coup D’état and Wuthering Heights, Kon Ichikawa’s humble Conflagration, The Heart and Ten Black Women as well as Hirokazu Koreeda’s touching After Life, Like Father Like Son and Nobody Knows… all of which have made me excited to seek out After the Storm when this is over. Finally, I’d like to take a moment to speak about the work of Sion Sono: Despite frustrated perseverance and desperate hope- I can’t say a single piece of his I tried was worth the effort. Cold Fish, Tokyo Tribe, Guilty of Romance and the execrably poor Love Exposure are all duds, not least of all the latter- which was the very worst film I saw on this journey through Japanese cinema. Unbearable.

With that out of the way: Let’s begin. Here is the list of top 100 Japanese movies ever made.

100. Gate of Hell (1953)

A luxuriously outfitted period venture, Gate of Hell’s appeal lies in its gorgeous palette of designs. Directed by Teinsuke Kinugasa, most famous for his 1926 landmark A Page of Madness, it’s a tightly wound tale that takes about two tries to fully appreciate, especially for Western reviews unfamiliar with the honour-bound code of Feudal Japan- but rewards with a richly crafted twist and sinister hints at the supernatural menace to which it’s title alludes.

99. Lone Wolf and Cub Series (1972…74)

An odd contender for the king of comic-book franchises, Lone Wolf and Cub tracks an exiled executioner and his young son through a seven-part series of flicks all of which make up this spot on the list. Part III: Baby Cart to Hades and Part VI: White Heaven in Hell are the strongest in my mind- though each are worthy of a watch and newly available from the Criterion Collection as of this year. It’s a selection of warm character pieces with tantalizing action and humor to eclipse any formalities in narrative- all worth a watch and more than worthy of forging their own space here.

98. Ichi the Killer (2001)

Outrageous beyond outrageous, Miike’s fearless flurry of style undermines any need for substance, centralising a focus on depravity and excess from the word go and fulfilling its promise of pain and bloodshed to an extent few films on the legal side of the line can even comprehend. It’s gloriously goofy fun with a lick of darkness so extreme you have to take it seriously. I can’t help but respect Ichi the Killer for being so comfortable in its own absurdity- and whilst the titular character proves to be a clichéd bore, Miike finds enough momentum in the early stages to push through to the finish with me confused, perplexed and utterly fascinated by the experience every time.

97. Battle Royale (2000)

Kinji Fukasaku, the man behind the crime anthology Battles Without Honour or Humanity, is an artist who here expresses a pervading quality so wonderful about wider Japanese cinema: Being unafraid of embracing genre film-making. Battle Royale is singularly designed as an uber-silly satirical comedy and whilst it hits humanist marks along the way, the rivers of splatter and impeccable comedic timing Fukasaku attaches to even the most morbid of situations make the flick an absolute blast. Takeshi Kitano’s turn is particularly notable, scrapping all notions of respectability for an all-out assault on wit and taste. Battle Royale is messy, that much is true, but the way it so tirelessly regroups time and time again for yet another attack on the sceptical is glorious. Without hesitation, Fukasaku understands the blunt weapon he holds in his hands and swings it at full force. The fact it was his final film lends a certain dignity to the man’s endeavours- a suicide mission striking at a funny bone you’d have to be comatose not to feel prickle at least once or twice throughout. Essential entertainment.

96. Godzilla (1954)

A classic monster film to rival the likes of King Kong and any one of Universal’s sterling original lineup, in scale at least. Godzilla doesn’t quite have the humanity and wit of The Invisible Man or the ferocious longing of The Creature from the Black Lagoon- but it is fun. Watching a big man in a deathly difficult suit traverse urban Japan is an engaging experience to this day, primarily for its inescapably humble charm. It feels in the moment and despite its rapidly dating effects it’s more than welcome to stay there as the relic of an era long since lost- and now is a better time than any to hope it’s masked lead Haruo Nakajima rests in peace.

95. Crazed Fruit (1956)

A fore-running founder of the Japanese New Wave, Crazed Fruit’s focus on the flame of youth finds its feet with a simple story that extends far beyond its humble parameters: Jumping the fence of two men in love with the same woman to reflect an impression of the post-war generation as a whole. These people are fierce, independent and desperate to prove themselves- scarred by the repeated desecration of their nation’s values. It finds a niche of storytelling that ricochets through social and political contexts- and represents the broad first steps of the New Wave. As this list continues, we will see that the long-lived movement forever ventured inward- either fascinated or frightened and in doing so finding a narrative not of nations- but of sexuality, perversion, violence, greed, supernaturality and psychosis. The Second World War may still lurk in these stories- but I find it intriguing that tackling it as openly as Crazed Fruit did was eventually met with focus, rather than explosion of theme.

94. The Life of Oharu (1952)

Our first flick by Kenji Mizoguchi, The Life of Oharu proves a classically moving character study that makes its protagonist reflective of the situation for women in post-war Japan, something Mizoguchi did admirably throughout his career. An expansive, complex dramatic piece that uses time to highlight the plight that quickly becomes its focus, Mizoguchi produces one of his finest works purely for the way he so humanistically buckles and breaks along with Oharu herself- the director moved by the adversity she faces. It is this relationship that bleeds straight through the screen that allows the film to elevate its drama beyond credibility.

93. Dreams (1990)

Written off the back of his own subconscious, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams is a painterly portrayal of the inside of one man’s mind: Loosely comparable to Pastoral except lacking its New Wave sensibilities in favor of a more measured, calm exploration into Kurosawa’s nighttime wanderings. The resultant collection of vignettes reveal something raw and unique about the way life is filtered through the lens of our subconscious- and in this might just be the most honest film Akira Kurosawa ever made. A lucid, lovely little gem.

92. Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

Director Toshio Matsumoto’s wide-open take on Oedipus Rex (perhaps the finest cinema has to offer), Funeral Parade of Roses marks a crucial watershed for alternative sexuality and gender-challenging imagery in Japanese cinema- and markets itself without the boundaries that have transformed the movement today. It is both a celebration and a criticism of human expression, understanding the confusion its characters face as well as embracing their own decisions with humility and joy. This critical conjecture of confliction is what defines Funeral Parade of Roses’ success and whilst I don’t think it’s the dearly departed Matsumoto’s crowning achievement, the way it championed its subjects in such an honestly flawed way is something we could all learn from today.

91. Paprika (2008)

Satoshi Kon’s 2008 flick is oft compared to Chris Nolan’s Inception– both based around concepts of dream invasion and coercion. I think the key difference that leaves fans split across a barricade is the fact that Nolan’s attempt holds greater emotional resonance and character focus- but all this gets bogged down in a tedious structure. Kon writes for 85 minutes and fills each frame with an intoxicating flourish of energy and colour- bridging between layers with such freedom and flexibility in storytelling that Nolan’s denser work simply cannot keep up. In the end both stand as solid examples of craft and ingenuity- but in terms of what I’d rather put on at the end of a rough day there is no contest. And to discover the vast array of creative powers Paprika holds in its arsenal, above just being a fun flavour of Inception- one only needs to grab a blu ray and hit play.

90. Ecstasy of the Angels (1972)

As an industry-wide movement, I feel the prevailing points of the Japanese New Wave revolved on the base of sex and violence. Both are intrinsic to life and art- elements that continue to carpet worldwide cinematic output- but I feel few movies tackle them in an engaged. Ecstasy of the Angels understands it’s own vulgarity. Director Kōji Wakamatsu’s continued dealings with such extreme subject matter afforded him the ability to hone depiction of brutally violent personalities- and the result is a crazed Sid & Nancy-esque exploration in anarchic loss of self, as well as a bitter tinge of romance thrown into the blender. Regardless of your view at the end, it’s a wild ride.

89. Ornamental Hairpin (1941)

Of all the pre-war artists whose memory is being abstracted by time, Hiroshi Shimizu is perhaps chief among those in dire need of rediscovery. Despite a bountiful Eclipse release by the Criterion collection (a pain to get a hold of and play anywhere outside of America), he seems ill-mentioned among the most important directors of the period and I absolutely hold to the belief that he should be championed amongst the best of them. Ornamental Hairpin was released as Japan was dragging America into the Second World War and yet it is laced with a hopefulness and simplicity that harkens to a more civilised age- or at least speaks to the pacifism Shimizu might have lived by from day to day- ignoring a conflict he deems barbaric and defying the outside image of Japan at the time. Without muddying this description in too many politics, Ornamental Hairpin lies among the finest features Shimizu crafted and it is his enduring minimalism that secures its beautifully understated resonance.

88. Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

I don’t doubt being met with widespread vitriol for placing such a universally admired classic so low- but it has to be said that among countless thousands Ugetsu Monogatari still ranks among the 100 finest Japanese films ever made. I have a distinct distaste for Mizoguchi’s professed masterwork: A lingering wound of occasionally over-simple direction that often destroys his so often perfect artifice and ruins any and all of its previous effect.  That being said, I’d be lying if not to mention how singularly fascinating this flick was for me when I was younger and, despite a disappointing series of rewatches in recent times, the magical moments where everything falls into place and Mizoguchi’s miraculously composed, cinematically engrossing and ultimately human attraction crept back into my veins. Ugetsu Monogatari slinks onto the list in part because it’s a seminal work, which is a shame because I pride myself in putting personal preference over status: But the crux of the matter is that I want to love it. Someday soon the affection might resurface and Mizoguchi’s masterwork will rise even higher. Time will tell.

87. Inferno of First Love (1968)

Tracing parallels in its conception squarely back to the likes of Breathless and Eric Rohemer’s meditative companionship in My Night at Maud’s from the ongoing Nouvelle Vague, Inferno of First Love is a quiet, beautifully absorbing observation of a couple taking their first steps together and the inviting, passionate, sullen, cold, often empty air that hangs around them as they attempt to harness the connection that the film’s title so boldly promises its audience. It’s a low-maintenance work of art that rewards patient viewers with moving human interaction.

86. Cure (1997)

The editing in Cure is deadly. It progresses to a point in which you want to look away, Kurosawa filling the audience with an implicit understanding of his movie’s mercilessness in the way it cuts through domestic routine and blood-spattered corpses as naturally as breathing; and it is this exceptionally cold, almost psychotic acceptance of death in life that makes me question its leading officer, Takabe, and just how hellish the situation concerning violence in Japan is to have grown so accustomed to brutal killings. Whilst it moves at a sluggish crawl that begins to undermine the breathless tension Kiyoshi Kurosawa has been able to breathe into the piece, Cure is still a more than worthy addition to his strong cinematic canon.

85. The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

Akira Kurosawa’s weakest Shakespeare adaptation remains one of his strongest films, loosely tracking the tale of Hamlet with a barb of corporate critique waiting in the wings. Held against other versions, despite its tangentially, BSW sits as a weak rendition of the revered play whose dialogue laden composition fails to capture the breadth and weight of Shakespeare’s drama- though it does cultivate a uniquely Kurosawan style of storytelling that adds an extra dimension to the source material and forges a deliciously compelling narrative beat. Altogether more modern and suspenseful than its inspiration, The Bad Sleep Well is a must-see for Kurosawa fans craving the skill and subtlety of his contemporary-set efforts.

84. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Tackling Tetsuo with a weak stomach is like taking a bullet without a vest. Scrambled together with a mess of scrap props, cluttered sets and painful special effects- there is a vivacity to Tetsuo: The Iron Man’s pursuit of the unpleasant that makes it admirable. I have a respect for the cheapness its creators dealt in to achieve the most mortifying experience possible: Shocking with their pounding sound mix and grimy monochromatic visuals that cast what we know into the realm of enigma. Black and white paints even the most recognisable objects that make up Tetsuo’s world as horrific bastions of the unknown, crawling out under crevices and latching themselves onto us in order to begin a metamorphosis of mutation both violent and unavoidably sickening. It’s a piece of work past the point of concern for its audience’s delicate sensibilities- and that’s exactly what good body horror should be. Tetsuo: The Iron Man is without doubt one of the very best.

83. Black Rain (1989)

An oddly timed film considering it co-insided with Isao Takahata’s own treatise on the human toll of the nuclear bombs dropped at the climax of WWII and deals in similar themes, Black Rain’s inferiority to the wonderful Grave of the Fireflies in no way means it is to be disregarded. If anything, the legions of admirers that rightly collect around Takahata’s work should flock here too. Shohei Imamura’s first flick on this list, Black Rain takes a profoundly tragic, painstakingly personal look at the weight of the nuclear blast: Tackling survivor’s guilt, ostracision, grief, loss and acceptance of the event and its grave ramifications in a tactfully straight-forward style characteristic of Imamura that is it its own way just as striking and immediate as Hiroshima mon amour’s dreamlike lucidity.

82. Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937)

A formalist classic in the same realm as Kenji Mizoguchi’s venerable body of work, except that here equally revered director Sadao Yamanaka holds himself with a humility that everyone planning to enter the world of cinema can learn from. His other famous picture, The Million Ryo Pot, is a comparably calm, soberly composed and expertly dramatized tale- though I think the edge hits home for Humanity and Paper Balloons because it manages to make a wider statement about the essence of everyday life. The comfort of its playfully ambitious title echoes in every frame and whilst it’s not a flick I found intensely compelling or even patiently moving- there is something here that demands a watch.

81. Silence (1971)

Adapted from the same novel that was recently tackled by Martin Scorsese, Masahiro Shinoda’s Silence serves as a fascinating spotlight on the differences between Western and Eastern cinematic styles. Scorsese’s outwardly stoic, harsh tone is folded in favor of a far more humble outlook under Shinoda’s studious hand, allowing for a hair of remorse and sentimentality in an otherwise engrossingly naturalistic, stripped-down take on the book. A scene that highlights Shinoda’s prowess in developing a worldly atmosphere for his religious tale without the need for manipulation comes in the form of an old woman singing to a room full of people: Barely a word spoken resonates with the story at hand, nor is any further characterization conveyed- and yet it imbues the rest of the film with an inescapable vitality that so evocatively buckles under the weight of the anguish and desperation the priests and their disciples face. Understated and alluring, its humility tops the legendary Italian-American director’s piece for me any day.

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