When making any Top 5, there’s an obvious caveat that it represents choices from my limited movie-viewing history. This is definitely true with this list. I wouldn’t call myself a Japanese film expert, but I’ve seen some classics. Instead of considering this a ranking of the best movies from Japan, I prefer to think of it as a spotlight on five directors that deserve your attention. Although it was tempting to drop several films by Akira Kurosawa into this group, that was too easy. Instead, I’ve picked five representative choices from some top Japanese filmmakers. This list should offer a starting point if you’re just beginning to explore this country’s diverse movie history. Let’s check out the picks!
5. Woman in the Dunes (Teshigahara, 1964)
This clever black-and-white picture from avant-garde filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara is a stunning creation that defies an easy explanation. The basic story involves an entomologist searching for insects who's tricked into spending a night in a house in a sand pit. The next day, the local villagers leave him stranded with a strange woman with no means of escape. Employing an eerie score and striking footage of the nasty sand, Teshigahara crafts a haunting story that remains unpredictable until the end. It's not for everyone's tastes, but it provides a remarkable experience if you're willing to take the ride.
4. Fireworks (Kitano, 1997)
There were several excellent candidates from Takeshi Kitano, who's built a strong career by combining scenes of quiet beauty with bursts of serious bloodshed. Along with the mournful Sonatine, Kitano's finest work is Fireworks (Hana-bi), a tragic story of a former cop who's willing to do anything to help his wife and friend. It offers a perfect example of his style, which employs a deliberate pace but never feels boring. Even the graphic violence can be beautiful, especially in this movie. Kitano has made bloody epics since this film, including his excellent 2011 release Outrage, but he's never quite equaled this level of creative success.
3. Spirited Away (Miyazaki, 2001)
When I prepared my Top 5 Anime Movies (Novice Edition) last September, I placed Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle just ahead of this movie. In this case, I changed my approach because Spirited Away is the best example of Miyazaki's work for new viewers. It's the most accessible option and incorporates the key themes from the director's career, including the destruction of the environment. The story follows a 10-year-old girl who enters a spirit world to try and save her parents, who've been turned into pigs. The result is a compelling movie that works for both kids and adults because of Miyazaki's masterful storytelling.
2. Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
I just watched this remarkable family drama last week for my Sight and Sound Poll marathon, and it lived up to its iconic status. Yasujirô Ozu's unique style can be off-putting at first and may lose a few viewers because of the slow pace. It's definitely worth sticking out, however. By the midway point of Tokyo Story, I was totally hooked with this subdued tale of parents visiting their grown-up kids in Tokyo. They quickly realize that their children are indifferent about their arrival and may even want them to leave. Ozu's intimate approach brings us right into everyone's homes and connects us emotionally to the family's plight.
1. The Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954)
When choosing the most fitting Kurosawa film, I considered High and Low, Rashomon, and Ran, and each is a worthy choice. However, The Seven Samurai stands out as his quintessential movie that deserves to be on this list. This grand story of a small group of warriors who defend a village from marauding bandits is one of the all-time great movies. Its epic length can be daunting, but it's definitely a must-see film. Kurosawa uses the time to clearly present each character. This approach raises the stakes for the final battle and keeps us engaged right until the end. Your Kurosawa exploration begins right here.