Japanese film grew out of a fine tradition of theater and stage acting, unlike any seen elsewhere in the world. The style and proficiency of the Japanese tradition translated to a grandiosity and beauty unlike anything the world would see from another culture. The aesthetic mastery of film space by auteurs the likes of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, or Ozu and the ability to turn animation even into masterpiece have made Japanese film one of the greatest national entries into the pantheon of world cinema. The list below is not the ten most intriguing, or ten most interesting, or ten most popular Japanese films ever made, but the ten Japanese films that I believe represent the most important aspects of the cultures contributions to film.
Chushingura – The 47 Ronin is a classic Japanese tale, originally Kabuki that found its way into a slew of film adaptations in the 20th century. While not the first, nor necessarily the best, this version captures the tale the most fully and displays the action on a grander scale than any of its predecessors. Hiroshi Inagaki directed and starring Toshiro Mifune, the star of Japanese cinema at the time, it told the tale as well as any other film of the times.
Grave of the Fireflies – One of the saddest movies ever made, directed by Isao Takahata, one of Miyazaki’s few peers, also a director for Studio Ghibli. It tells the tragic tale of a young boy and his younger sister trying to survive during World War II Japan. The sheer force of this film, actually enhanced by its animation, has brought the toughest of friends to tears. Brutally touching.
Hana-bi – Beat Takeshi is a highly regarded modern Japanese director who has managed to show up just about everywhere as a director, an actor, an author, a television host. His name is so common that he changed it to be more dynamic, but the cultural aspects of his importance aside, he’s one hell of a good director, and probably helped form the modern definition of the Japanese crime drama/thriller genre. His work in Hana-bi displays this best.
Crazed Fruit – Nakahira Ko’s classic is one of the enduring film works of the fifties, culturally. It captured the post war flaming youth genre wonderfully while showing the world what Japan was doing as it rediscovered itself. It catapulted a new genre forward and today is still considered one of the greatest modern productions from Japan (non-historical).
Early Summer – Yasujiro Ozu’s works spanned an epic career of development in both thought and vision, but this is considered by many his greatest, as the self destruction of a Japanese family, one of his most common themes.
The Life of Oharu – The classic Japanese novel of a court lady devolved to a common whore, Kenji Mizoguchi’s grandiose affair is a beautifully shot, wonderfully scored masterpiece that outlines the greatest of the many Japanese specific flairs for the aesthetic in film.
Tokyo Olympiad – The only documentary on the list, Tokyo Olympiad is the product of Kon Ichikawa’s reconstruction of documentary footage from the 1964 Olympics, the first ever held in Asia, then in Tokyo. His tale focuses on the human, the spectators and the preparations rather than the superhuman feats of the athletes, showing the entire process, not merely the adrenal pumping climax. One of the greatest sports films ever made.
Ikiru – While Seven Samurai is his most favorite, many will agree that Ikiru is his greatest film. Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru tells the tale of a Japanese business man with little time to live and a life he wants to take the time to live. It’s Kurosawas sharp indictment of beaurocratic living and the necessity to find a purpose in life, not to waste it.
Spirited Away – Hayo Miyazaki is considered by most to be Japan’s most prolific living film director. And he creates animation. Such as it is that his work speaks to the import of animation in the Japanese cultural consciousness. His work is some of the best animation in the world, beautiful fairy tales told of various cultures and tales, and this is the best of them all. Spirited Away is a film any child or adult should see in their life time.
Seven Samurai – Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai epic founded and set the pace for the modern samurai film, and the spaghetti western, and a half dozen other films and genres the world over. Of every film on this list, this is the one you’re most likely to have seen and enjoyed. It opened the West to the films of the East and made Kurosawa a name to be remembered. Kurosawa’s scope and film mastery as seen in Seven Samurai make this one of the greatest films ever made, anywhere. The classic tale as he wrote it of seven ronin (unemployed samurai) going to the rescue of a small village being pillaged by bandits is as classic as its stars and director.