My top five, anyway. I’m not a professional film critic, just someone who loves cinema.
5. Ju-On (呪怨, The Grudge): 2003, Takashi Shimizu. This is actually the third film in the series, but the first to get a theatrical release. I love Japanese ghost stories and Ju-On, which is composed of six interconnected vignettes following the typical trope of the vengeful dead, is my favorite.
4. Ran (乱): 1985, Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s final epic, and at 160 minutes it deserves that label. It’s a jidaigeki (period drama) about a Sengoku Era warlord who decides to abdicate in favor of his three sons. It’s a mix of King Lear and the legends of Mori Motonari. Long, but brilliant.
3. Tokyo Story (東京物語): 1953, Yasujiro Ozu. Tokyo Story is a slow, simple film about an elderly couple who visit their grown children in Tokyo. It contrasts their indifferent biological children with the kindness of their daughter-in-law, and it’s still a beautiful piece of cinema 60 years later.
2. Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫): 1997, Hayao Miyazaki. An animated jidaigeki, set during the Muromachi Period, with a healthy dose of fantasy. It’s about the struggle between the spirit guardians of the forest and the humans of Iron Town who are destroying it. It’s gorgeous.
1. Rashomon (羅生門): 1950, Akira Kurosawa. The film that put Japanese cinema on the map. A samurai has been murdered and four people tell their versions of what happened. The film lent its name to the Rashomon Effect, which refers to the effect of perception and subjectivity on memory. Not only one of Japan’s best films, but one of the best films ever made period.
And there you have it, my top five favorite Japanese films! I tried to keep it varied, but Kurosawa crept in twice. I went back and forth for a while on whether number four was going to be Seven Samurai or Ran and went with Ran because it’s less famous. I’m pretty sure all these films can be found outside of Japan, so check them out!