Culture Trip has selected these films to help you gain a deeper understanding of Japanese culture.
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A nation of extremes, Japan can appear strange to those who aren’t familiar with the country’s unique culture. The best way to get to know a country is to immerse yourself in its art and literature, and the best way to do so is through the medium of film, which includes everything from postwar world cinema masterpieces to historical epics and modern Japanese stories.
1. The Garden Of Words (2013)
However, despite the fact that anime has become synonymous with Japan, the medium is often eclipsed by more immature, fanciful or sexual offerings. Although Studio Ghibli’s work has been exhaustively discussed elsewhere, it’s still a viable option. If you want something a little different then start with The Garden of Words (2013), a 50-minute romantic drama from director Makoto Shinkai. A unexpected meeting between a high school teenager and an elderly woman in a Tokyo park has life-altering consequences for both of them. The film is a great example of anime’s ability to present mature and captivating stories through its understated and introspective style. In addition to that, the animation is stunning.
2. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
However, it was 1989’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man that became the first Japanese horror film to gain a fanbase outside of Japan because to The Ring’s global fame. It’s an arthouse, cyberpunk, and Cronenbergian body horror mashup that investigates the intersection of sexuality and technology, two hot-button issues in Japanese culture. The film’s main character, a lowly salaryman who goes on to have a terrible day, is as Japanese as you can possible get. It’s obvious from the trailer that this isn’t something you want to watch with your family.
3. The Hidden Fortress (1958)
Akira Kurosawa, Japan’s greatest film director, has so many masterpieces that picking just one is nearly impossible. However, if forced to make a decision by a samurai with a sword, The Hidden Fortress (1958) would be an obvious choice. The story of an exiled princess who must overthrow a vengeful tyrant in order to recover her kingdom is the subject of this Japanese masterpiece, which fuelled the imaginations of some of the most famous Western filmmakers of all time. One of the best Japanese films of its time, it also serves as a showcase for Toshiro Mifune, who is probably the greatest celluloid figure that Japan has ever produced.
4. Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011), a documentary by David Gelb about a sushi chef who has both a passion for food and a talent for hard work, is a fascinating look into the psyche of one such chef. One of Tokyo’s most well-known sushi restaurants, managed by 85-year-old Jiro Ono, is a 10-seat establishment in a subway station that charges at least £250 for a set meal. When it comes to the preparation of rice, Ono goes to great lengths (apprentices must spend ten years perfecting their skills before they are allowed to touch a piece of fish), but the end product is a film that tastes just as good as Ono’s inventions.
5. Tampopo (1985)
One of the finest Japanese comedies, about a couple of truck drivers who assist a single mother become the best ramen chef in Tokyo, is another wonderful food-related film. After a terrible death in 1997, director Juzo Itami left us a fascinating film that explores the ways in which food and cooking are intertwined with our daily lives. Tampopo (1985), a charming and sensual film on Japanese society (with some explicit sex scenes), is a testament to Itami’s talent and one of the funniest films about Japanese culture you’re ever likely to witness.
6. Tokyo Story (1953)
In the developed world, Japan has a well-deserved reputation for civility and politeness. That façade, though, hides a country that is ravaged by isolation. Yasujiro Ono’s Tokyo Story (1953) wonderfully captures this emotional schism, telling the story of an old couple who visit their children in the city, only to receive an emotional brush-off. In this sweet yet profoundly moving tale, big grins and deep bows conceal hatred and anguish. For those who wish to see how Japanese filmmakers have followed the model set by one of the country’s greatest filmmakers, you must see this film, which isn’t quite upbeat.
7. 13 Assassins (2011)
Like Kurosawa, it’s difficult to pick a single Takashi Miike film. This visceral maverick is at his best in 13 Assassins (2011), a secret mission to bring down a vicious war-mongering aristocrat in feudal Japan. He is at the height of his strength in this film. To begin, the film is a somber historical drama before Miike unleashes his full force for a breathtaking, unhinged climax in which armies of hordes wage war and blood pours as freely as sake. Your eyes will droop in awe as the action takes place. One of the best Japanese action films ever made, and a true crowning achievement for director Takashi Miike. Essential.
8. We Are X (2016)
This word, “Gaman,” refers to a Zen-Buddhist term for the concept of enduring the unthinkable. The Japanese regard it as a virtue worthy of cultivation and admiration, similar to Greek Stoicism. X, the heavy metal band with a history that would rival any Greek tragedy, is the best example of gaman in contemporary Japan. Director Stephen Kijak’s award-winning documentary We Are X (2016) examines the band and its enigmatic frontman Yoshiki in great depth. It’s all there, from Yoshiki’s health issues to two of the band’s former members taking their own lives. When everything is said and done, it is a story that celebrates not only human tenacity, but art’s ability to restore hope in the darkest of times.
9. Violent Cop (1989)
Takeshi Kitano, aka Beat Takeshi, must be included on any list of films about Japan. Violent Cop is the debut film by the Japanese filmmaker, comedian, novelist, media personality, and all-around Japanese institution (1989). Brutality, machismo, and isolation are all prominent themes in Kitano’s films, and this gritty criminal drama is a good example of how the director’s characteristic minimalist aesthetic was established early in his career. As Detective Azuma begins to wreak some serious harm on the Japanese underworld, heads are busted, superiors are insulted, and a lot of smokes are smoked.
10. Battle Royale (2000)
Japan’s first and last major film by famed director Kinji Fukasaku, Battle Royale (2000) depicts a gang of junior high school students who are coerced into killing each other. Twenty years after it blew audiences away – and despite inspiring a high-profile movie trilogy that it surely impacted – the picture has lost none of its impact. No longer is it a dystopian fiction to think that a modern authoritarian regime would brutalize and manipulate its own young people.