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The Ballad of Narayama
Photograph: Toei Co. Ltd.

The 55 best Japanese movies of all time

Samurai spectaculars, period epics, terrifying horrors and glorious animes

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There’s more to Japanese movies than Kurosawa, Ozu and Miyazaki. That’s not to downplay their contributions to the country’s cinematic history – or cinema in general. All three are potential GOATs. It’s just that there’s much, much more where that exalted triumvirate came from. 

Like the trailblazing silent works of Kenji Mizoguchi. Or the off-kilter pop-art crime thrillers of Seijun Suzuki. Or the bizarrely horrifying visions of Takashi Miike. On this list of the greatest Japanese movies of all time, you’ll find them all, alongside, of course, Kurosawa’s feudal epics, Miyazaki’s deeply soulful animations and Ozu’s quietly powerful domestic dramas – oh, and Godzilla too. Reading through, you can trace Japan’s unique filmmaking history, moving from the silent era to its post-war golden age to the 1960s New Wave to the anime explosion of the ’80s, all the way up to the current renaissance spearheaded by Hirokazu Kore-eda, Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Mamoru Hosoda.

It’s a lot to take in, so consider this list your travel guide to one of the world’s most creative movie cultures. 

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The greatest Japanese movies, ranked

Seven Samurai (1954)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Akira Kurosawa

If you’re looking for an entry point to Japanese cinema, or world cinema – or, shoot, just cinema in general – consider this your diving board. For experts, it probably seems a bit remedial at this point, but the most masterful of Akira Kurosawa’s many masterpieces has served as a gateway for generations of filmgoers precisely because of its simplicity. An impoverished Japanese village is besieged by bandits, so the townspeople pool their resources to hire a ragtag group of samurai to protect them. From that basic foundation, Kurosawa spins an epic that is, at turns, exhilarating, funny and emotionally resonant, not to mention highly influential – Hollywood has lifted the plot for everything from The Magnificent Seven to A Bug’s Life. Its 207 minute runtime might seem daunting, but trust us: you’ve never felt two and a half hours whizz by so quickly.—Matt Singer

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)
  • Film

DirectorKenji Mizoguchi

Japanese cinema tells a great ghost story – Kwaidan, Onibaba, The Ring et al – and there are few better than Kenji Mizoguchi’s spooky jidaigeki film. Ugetsu (‘Monogatari’ means story) was a breakthrough hit at European festivals, a gateway drug for western cinephiles beginning to discover the power and craft of Japan moviemaking. And it has both in spades, as its long sweeping camera moves follow a humble potter as he swipes right on a mysterious temptress (dude, she’s a ghost!), while his wife and child suffer back home. Backdropped by civil war, its deep humanity and sympathy for women in violent times still hit hard 70 years on.—Phil de Semlyen

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  • Film
  • Drama

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Ozu made movies that drive a stake through your heart so softly and slowly you don’t even know how deeply they’ve pierced you until it’s too late. With this family drama, the director achieved the apogee of his unique quiet brand of devastation. On the surface, it’s the simple story of two grandparents visiting their adult children in Tokyo – not exactly riveting stuff. But what transpires is a rather brutal examination of ageing, parenting and flawed humanity in modern Japan. It’ll leave anyone with a parent in a state of contemplative silence afterward – or racing to the phone to give them a call.—Matt Singer

Rashomon (1949)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

DirectorAkira Kurosawa

One of the most influential films in all of cinema, the legacy of Rashomon’s multi-perspective storytelling can be felt in everything from The Usual Suspects to Gone Girl. And there’s not too many Japanese movies that get namechecked on The Simpsons (‘Come on, Homer, Japan will be fun! You liked Rashomon.’ ‘That’s not how I remember it’). Kurosawa shows us the same incident – the murder of a samurai in the Kyoto countryside – from four perspectives (one from beyond the grave) and leads us down a rabbit warren of conflicting tales and shaky evidence. What really happened? Well, don’t trust our version.—Phil de Semlyen

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5. Late Spring (1949)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Like a cinematic Tardis, Yasujiro Ozu’s melancholy dad-and-daughter drama looks small from the outside while containing multitudes within. A widowed professor (Chishu Ryu) wants to see his 27-year-old daughter (Setsuko Hara) married, even at the cost of his own happiness. She’s appalled by the idea, happily continuing to tend to him, so he decides to feigns a remarriage of his own. Nothing in Ozu’s famously quiet, still films is accidental and here he finds a myriad of ways to chart that place where noble and murky intentions bleed into one another. It’s one of the greatest weepies of world cinema – even Ryu’s wistful sighs are enough to break your heart.—Phil de Semlyen

6. Woman in the Dunes (1964) 

Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara

An amateur entomologist goes out on a beach expedition and ends up trapped in a deep dune, unable to climb back out and stuck with a nameless woman who lives there, tasked with the Sisyphean task of shovelling sand in buckets sent off to the villagers. Trapped, they live in a little hut at the bottom of the dune. Woman in the Dunes is a spellbinding and surreal film on the everyday malaise of domesticity that draws you into a dream-like state.—Anna Bogutskaya

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  • Film
  • Animation

Director: Hayao Miyazaki 

The spellbinding world depicted in Spirited Away is a place that only exists in the brilliant imagination of Hayao Miyazaki, but fans still travel far and wide to hunt down real-life locations that either resemble or inspired the film’s peculiar bathhouse. Rich in symbolism and full of captivating characters, including a spirit with a voracious appetite and a six-legged boilerman, this stunning Oscar-winner is a testament to the value of hand-drawing anime in an increasingly digitised world (even if it’s at a rate of one minute of animation per month).Emma Steen 

Akira (1988)
  • Film
  • Animation

Director: Katsuhiro Otomo

Based on director Katsuhiro Otomo’s own sci-fi manga epic, Akira’s vision of the future (now in our past, being set in 2019) is vastly influential. You can see traces of it in everything that calls itself ‘cyberpunk’ – not to mention its iconic bike slide sequence that’s been homaged in animations ever since. Its visuals are staggering, with gaudy capitalist wastelands depicted in eye-popping colours, and the animation, which injects some gross body horror into the mix, is endlessly inventive. It all elevates a rather simple emotional story of disaffected youth, as biker gang leader Kaneda’s rivalry with childhood friend Tetsuo explodes outward to a level of cosmic consequence.—Kambole Campbell

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9. Harakiri (1962)

Director: Masaki Kobayashi

Culminating in an orgy of against-the-odds violence that makes Kill Bill look like Bambi, Masaki Kobayashi’s masterpiece bows to absolutely nothing in the field of chambara (‘sword fighting’) movies – not even Seven Samurai. Its genius is structural: it opens with a ronin requesting permission to commit seppuku – ritual suicide – on the estate of a powerful clan, before flashing back to the agonising, humiliating fate of another ronin who made the same request. Are the two connected? And will there be hell to pay? Youbetcha.—Phil de Semlyen 

10. Cure (1997) 

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa 

A series of murders baffles police detectives. The victims are found with an ‘X’ carved on their bodies, the murderers nearby and happy to confess, but completely unaware of how or why they committed their crimes. Kiyoshi Kurosawa loved American horror movies, and conceived Cure as a homage to them. Although somewhat shadowed by supernatural fare like Ringu or The Grudge, Cure is a powerful precursor to the J-horror mania that would sweep the world in the late ’90s.—Anna Bogutskaya

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Ran (1985)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Raging against the dying of the light in the spirit of its protagonist, an ageing Kurosawa translated King Lear into a sprawling, muscular epic set in feudal Japan. Ran has the 75-year-old at the absolute peak of his powers. It’s missing his old muse Mifune – the pair had fallen out by this point – but Tatsuya Nakadai makes a fearsome but increasingly demented warlord, whose empire crumbles after he divides it between his sons. With its vast landscapes, brutal wide-angle battles and magnificent blaze of primary colours, Shakespeare has rarely been rendered with so much grandiosity and splendour.—Ed Cunningham

The Human Condition (1959-1961)
  • Film

Director: Masaki Kobayashi

Though released as a trilogy (with each film split into two chapters), it’s impossible to argue for any one segment of this phenomenal ten-hour war epic over any other. It tells the story of pacifist soldier Kaji (the superlative Tatsuya Nakadai, in his first leading role), who tries valiantly to protect the lives and dignity of his comrades as he trains, fights and suffers as a Japanese conscript during World War 2. With feature-length sections that anticipate future Western classics like The Great Escape and Full Metal Jacket, it’s hard to deny the titanic scope of its influence. 

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Perfect Blue (1997)
  • Film
  • Animation

Director: Satoshi Kon

The idea of the internet as a dream space is something that Satoshi Kon would explore through to his final feature Paprika, but his debut feature offers the most terrifying realisation of that theme. Its subjective imagery makes the audience experience idol-turned-actress Mima’s loosening grip on reality as she’s stalked by an obsessive fan, with Kon’s tight editing and concise storytelling making every image untrustworthy. Perfect Blue is both disturbing and eerily prophetic in its depiction of online harassment, and the dark side of digital interconnectivity.—Kambole Campbell

Ringu (1997)
  • Film

Director: Hideo Nakata

After multiple remakes, sequels, parodies and crossovers, you’ll know the drill: if you receive a cursed videotape and play it, you’ll be dead in seven days via the hand of long-haired ghost girl Sadako. The original film was a smash hit at festivals and sparked a worldwide obsession with Japanese horror. The original remains terrifying in its simple details: the pale whites of Sadako’s eye, her torn off fingernails and clipped movements.—Anna Bogutskaya

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  • Film
  • Documentaries

Director: Kon Ichikawa

The official documentary of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics isn’t just a celebration of godlike athleticism. Instead, Kon Ichikawa (The Burmese Harp) presents the sporting event through a humanist lens, searching for the accumulative effort and personal struggle. Even when shot with a striking, impressionistic style these acts are never isolated from their context or apolitical. As African nations making their Olympic debuts, the anti-colonialist struggle is never far from Ichikawa’s mind. The result is a beautiful, hypnotic work that raises the bar for sports documentaries.—Kambole Campbell

Ikiru (1952)
  • Film

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa’s quietest film is also his most emotionally devastating. After being diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, a low-level bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura) quits his job to spend the last year of life searching for meaning – first in the bars and dancehalls of Tokyo, then in a more lasting final project. Few films cut so directly to the core of human existence and what it truly means to leave a legacy. A fine English remake starring Bill Nighy came out in 2022, but the original has a dreamily soulful quality that can’t fully be replicated.—Matt Singer

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17. Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Kenji Mizoguchi’s period piece is set in the 11th century and has you praying for the sweet embrace of the 12th century, which surely couldn’t have been as bad as this morass of corruption, oppression and general bastardry. Filmed by his regular cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, with gliding pans and long takes, its central treatise – ‘a man is not a human being without mercy’ – underpins the epic arc of its central character, the orphaned son of a righteous governor who learns goodness only after getting pretty deep into villainy. A lot of shit goes down along the way, though, and as Mizoguchi is at pains to point out, much of it happens to women.—Phil de Semlyen

18. Floating Weeds (1959)

Director: Yasujirō Ozu

Legendary US critic Roger Ebert once described Yasujirō Ozu as a director who ‘places composition above everything else’. And when the master filmmaker moved to colour filmmaking in the late ’50s, his meticulous visual style arguably reached perfection. The third of his six colour films, Floating Weeds tells the story of a sleepy seaside town that is visited by a travelling kabuki theatre troupe. It’s full of fleeting passions and quotidian encounters, backdropped by azure skies, colourful banners, red popsicles and green trees. That vibrant canvas only enriches the irresistible atmosphere of Ozu’s gentle, contemplative storytelling.—James Balmont

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  • Film
  • Animation

Director: Hayao Miyazaki 

Though the Ghibli universe is teeming with plucky heroines and fantastical creatures, none quite possess the same degree of celebrity as My Neighbor Totoro’s eponymous forest spirit, otherwise known as the face of the anime studio’s official logo. In this charming story set in post-war Japan, two sisters move into a new house in a rural town, where they encounter a friendly clan of mystic beings in the nearby forest. There aren’t any dastardly witches or epic battles between good and evil here, as there are in some of Ghibli’s more recent films inspired by western fairy tales, but there’s enough of Miyazaki’s magic in this beloved classic to last several lifetimes.Emma Steen

Yojimbo (1961)
  • Film

Director: Akira Kurosawa

In the mid-’60s, Sergio Leone popularised the spaghetti western with a film about a cunning gunslinger who rolls into town and plays two outlaw gangs off against each other for little more than his own profit and amusement. A Fistful of Dollars made Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name into a timeless antihero. What few western fans realised was that Dollars was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s propulsive samurai classic, Yojimbo. Swap six-shooters for swords and the old west for the late Edo period in Japan, and you have one of the best samurai flicks of Japan’s golden age. And Toshiro Mifune is so iconic as its samurai hero, they brought him back for a sequel, Sanjuro, a year later.—James Balmont

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21. Hana-bi (1997)

Director: Takeshi Kitano

Hana-bi – or Fireworks – tells the story of a cop (played by director Takeshi Kitano) with a wife suffering from leukaemia and a partner who gets paralysed in the line of duty.  As the mostly-silent Kitano tangles himself up in yakuza dealings and his ex-partner tries his hand at art, the most serene, contemplative and outright gorgeous gangster film ever made emerges. And all from the mind of the same guy that headed up legendarily bonkers game show Takeshi’s Castle. Which is some flex.Ed Cunningham

Audition (1999) 
  • Film

Director: Takashi Miike

Want to prank an unsuspecting guest who has no familiarity with the deranged oeuvre of Takashi Miike? Invite them over for a viewing of a quiet romantic dramedy called Audition and watch as their expression gradually shifts from patient boredom to nauseated terror. Burning low and slow for its first half, the movie does indeed present itself as a lightweight weepy about a widower who decides to hold a casting call for a fake film in order to find himself a new wife. But just when you think you’re about to nod off, Miike pulls the mask off, revealing an ultraviolent horror show of unimaginable terror. It’s one of the great fake-outs in movie history, but it’s also a piercing critique of masculinity and gender roles in Japan. Once the acupuncture needles come out, the ‘piercing’ becomes literal. —Matthew Singer

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High and Low (1963) 
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Decades before Parasite, Akira Kurosawa snuck a piece of barbed social commentary to the public in the guise of a highly entertaining mixed-genre thriller. A wealthy businessman (the always-awesome Toshiro Mifune) learns his son has been kidnapped, and the ransom will destroy him financially. When he discovers it’s actually his chauffeur’s son who’s been abducted, he must decide what’s more important: his conscience or his bank account. Based on a novel by Ed McBain, High and Low can be enjoyed as pure noir, but the context of the period – Japan’s growing economic disparity and a rash of kidnappings happening across the country at the time – gives it added weight. It’s a multi-layered title, referring both to the haves and have-nots and the literal trajectory of the movie, which travels from the high rises of Yokohama down to the city’s squalid underbelly. In the subgenre of Kurosawa films with modern settings, it’s a clear masterwork – and gives the upcoming Spike Lee remake a lot to live up to. —Matthew Singer

24. Godzilla (1954)

DirectorIshiro Honda

What makes Godzilla so enduring? Is it its baked-in nuclear anxieties – still all too relatable – or the pioneering miniature sets, mostly ransacked as Gojira emerges from the Pacific and sets about squashing large portions of the Japanese mainland beneath its scaly bulk? A bit of both, but the fact that its disaster movie mechanics are so believable, even when you know full well there’s a man inside that heavy monster suit (shout out to Katsumi Tezuka) is down to the stony-faced sincerity with which Ishiro Honda conducts his opera of destruction. He knew that, sometimes, humans need to be reminded of their place – a message that most great monster movies have run with ever since.—Phil de Semlyen

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25. Kwaidan (1964) 

Director: Masaki Kobayashi

An anthology horror based on Japanese folk tales that’s more interested in the uncanny than outright terror, Kwaidan’s four yarns deal with vengeful ghosts, snow spirits, possessed hair and deceitful men. While the stories are labelled as horror, they are heavy in atmosphere and light on scares. The film’s dreamlike cinematography, from the all-seeing eye apparition in the sky to the man with his body covered in incantations, offers some of the most beautiful images committed to film.—Anna Bogutskaya

26. Maborosi (1995)

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Hirokazu Kore-eda announced himself with a drama that journeys through the grief of a widow whose husband has seemingly committed suicide. Sure, it doesn’t sound like one of the most uplifting things you’ll ever see – and, make no mistake, this thing is tundra-bleak. But the After Life and Shoplifters director’s fiction debut is also gorgeous and therapeutic. Without wallowing in its own melancholy, Maborosi is solemn and patient, giving as much time to its lonely widow as it does to dwelling on the contrasts between Osaka’s cold, still streets and the dramatic, weathered Noto Peninsula.—Ed Cunningham

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27. The Burmese Harp (1956)

Director: Kon Ichikawa

A consummate technical filmmaker, Kon Ichikawa gained recognition in the West with a pair of powerful anti-war films in the late ’50s. Fires on the Plain offers a shocking examination of the horrors of World War II. The Oscar-nominated The Burmese Harp, on the other hand, offers a more sentimental skew on life in uniform. It’s a pensive, philosophical drama that follows a sympathetic, musically-minded soldier (Shōji Yasui), struggling to convince a group of Japanese soldiers to surrender to the British. In the aftermath, Mizushima disappears, leaving his former battalion to ponder what happened to him.—James Balmont

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Kaneto Shindo

Japanese cinema has a rich history of folktales and ghost stories – and Kaneto Shindo’s erotic horror Onibaba is a sublime example of both. Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura star as a woman and her daughter-in-law who, while their men are off at war, survive by killing samurai lost in a marsh. It’s a tale of lust, jealousy, desperation and revenge – with the hellish marsh itself an indelible character in its own right. Shot in chilling monochrome and with marvellously whistling, blustery sound design, there’s so much texture, suspense and beauty in Onibaba’s impenetrable reeds.—Ed Cunningham

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Kinji Fukasaku

For a certain generation, this dystopian thriller served as a gateway into Japanese cinema – and what an intro. Set in a near-future Japan beset by recession, unemployment and rampant juvenile delinquency, Kinji Fukasaku’s film depicts a government-sanctioned population culling event in which a group of teenagers are made to compete in a war game where only one is allowed to escape alive. It’s an obvious touchpoint for The Hunger Games, but Battle Royale doesn’t dilute its violence for YA consumption – nor its satirical bite. Even in a post-Squid Game world, its authoritarian critique still hits hard.—Matt Singer

30. Lady Snowblood (1973)

Director: Toshiya Fujita

As TV sets became increasingly ubiquitous in the late ‘60s, cinema audiences began to dwindle in Japan. In a bid to win them back, the big film studios turned to the throwaway thrills of violent exploitation flicks – the kind that would make a star of actress Meiko Kaji. Her most famous role came in this cult classic, a bloody vengeance thriller about a 19th-century assassin bent on justice for the crimes committed against her parents. The film, which makes memorable use of Kaji’s penetrative glare, is a major influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 – just compare and contrast their snowy courtyard sets.—James Balmont

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31. The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979)

Director: Kazuhiko Hasegawa

Voted the greatest Japanese film of the ’70s in a poll by
Kinema Junpo, The Man Who Stole the Sun is a showcase of snappy editing, dynamic cinematography (courtesy of Funeral Parade of Roses’ Tatsuo Suzuki), and a larger-than-life story co-written by Leonard ‘brother-of-Paul’ Schrader. The film concerns a high-school teacher (rock star Kenji Sawada) who threatens to detonate a homemade A-bomb unless the cops fulfil his wild demands – which include summoning The Rolling Stones. Iconic ’70s hard-man Bunta Sugawara is out to foil him; bus hijackings, flamethrower heists and outrageous car stunts ensue.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
  • Film
  • Animation

Director: Isao Takahata

The life of Japan’s civilian population during the war has never been as hauntingly conveyed as Studio Ghibli’s story of two malnourished children who lose their mother during a bombing raid and take refuge in a firefly-illuminated bomb shelter. Director Isao Takahata may not be as well known as his Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki (who released My Neighbour Totoro on the same day in 1988), but he was arguably the first of the pair to strike a profound emotional chord with Japanese audiences. In this beautifully-animated classic, which also boasts a moving score by Michio Mamiya, childhood whimsy is hauntingly juxtaposed with harrowing destruction. The climax is devastating.—James Balmont

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House (1977)
  • Film
  • Horror

Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi

Imagine Dario Argento directing an episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and you’re at least in the ballpark of describing this totally insane haunted house flick from director Nobuhiko Obayashi – but really, nothing can quite prepare you for the experience. Utterly nutso even by the standards of cult Japanese horror, House takes the pedestrian premise of a schoolgirl and her friends visiting her mysterious aunt’s house in the countryside and flips it into a lysergic nightmare that’s too bizarre to be truly scary but that’s so completely mad, it occupies a genre all its own. Swept under the rug upon release, a remastered version went on a revival tour in North America in 2010, where it was embraced by the midnight movie crowd. Come for the cat that suddenly starts singing the movie’s theme song, stay for the karate fight against a man-eating light fixture. —Matthew Singer

34. In the Realm of the Senses (1976) 

Director: Nagisa Ōshima

One of the most controversial and erotic psychosexual art films out there (and number 5 on our list of cinema’s greatest sex scenes), Nagisa Ōshima’s opus is based on the sensational real-life case of Sada Abe, a former prostitute who murdered her lover, cutting off his penis and carrying it around with her for days. Several films have been made about her, but it’s the Japanese New Wave filmmaker who delivers the most memorable version of the story, in this explicit study of mutual obsession, desire and jealousy.—Anna Bogutskaya  

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35. Nobody Knows (2004)

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda 

In this drama highlighting social issues in modern Japanese society, 12-year old Akira is left to fend for himself and his three younger siblings when their mother (Keiko Fukushima) abandons them for a new lover. With a dwindling food supply, a near-empty coin purse and no adult to care for the children, the circumstances here are dire, but Kore-eda has a unique way of capturing all the nuanced pain and bitter sorrows of everyday life while maintaining an enduring sense of hope and warmth. That’s just one of many reasons why the auteur is referred to as the heir of Yasujiro Ozu’s humanistic storytelling.Emma Steen 

36. Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

Director: Toshio Matsumoto

This vital queer text of the Japanese New Wave showcases a radical fusion of documentary and narrative fiction. Loosely based on ‘Oedipus Rex’, it also offers a vivid exploration of Tokyo’s newly-thriving gay scene, following a transgender ‘queen’ named Eddie (portrayed by androgynous icon Peter, who later appeared in Kurosawa’s Ran). who gallivants around nocturnal and neon-lit Shinjuku – a playground of psychedelic rock music, marijuana and orgasms. There are countless nods to western upsetters like Warhol and Godard in the film’s eclectic style, with talking head interviews, pop-inspired editing, and giddy handheld camerawork galore.—James Balmont

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Love Exposure (2008)
  • Film
  • Comedy

Director: Sion Sono

You’ll likely come out of Love Exposure with your head in a spin; your brain having been smacked around by all kinds of absurdity to the point of exhaustion for four straight hours. And that’s all part of the charm. Sion Sono’s masterpiece is a provocative, exciting and deeply, deeply strange work that touches on everything from teenage horniness to cultish religions. From its upskirting subplot and sweeping religious metaphors, to its hyperlink flashiness, it remains bizarre, philosophical and incendiary. There’s nothing else even remotely like it.—Ed Cunningham

38. Girls of the Night (1961) 

Director: Kinuyo Tanaka

A deeply patriarchical society, Japan still hasn’t produced more than a clutch of female filmmakers. It took a 1930s starlet, Kinuyo Tanaka, to make the leap to auteur status. She only made six films, combatting sexist accusations of having been westernised and the resistence of her old collaborator Kenji Mizoguchi to her directorial ambitions along the way, and this sensitive social drama is the pick of the bunch. Decades ahead of its time as a compassionate story of young sex workers – how many of those are there? – it’s set in a reformatory in the wake of the Prostitution Prevention Law and follows one woman’s attempts to start a new life. Beautifully acted and strikingly framed, it’s an underseen treasure.—Phil de Semlyen

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39. Tampopo (1985)

Director: Juzo Itami

This so-called ‘ramen western’ from Juzo Itami spins together food and sex into a digressive comedy that remains both sweetly endearing and utterly bonkers decades later. Arranged as a series of intertwined vignettes, it’s something akin to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, with the main narrative involving a Japanese noodle shop and the lives that intersect there. Itami infuses the proceedings with a gonzo sense of humour, goofing on American film tropes throughout, while also playing around sexual taboos – most famously highlighting the erotic uses of a raw egg. It’s a singular joy in the canon of world cinema.—Matt Singer

40. A Fugitive From the Past (1965)

Director: Tomu Uchida

This sprawling crime drama (also known as ‘Straits of Hunger’) follows a trio of robbers whose disappearance coincides with a terrible storm and the capsizing of a passenger ship. A policeman becomes obsessed with the case – and spends a full decade ruminating on the whereabouts of the missing criminal mastermind. Frustratingly under-seen in the West, where it finally got a release in 2022, it marries epic, golden age with the formal experimentation of the Japanese new wave. In Japan, its status is much more secure: the country’s answer to ‘Sight and Sound’, ‘Kinema Junpo’ ranked it third in a poll of the greatest Japanese films in 1999.—James Balmont

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  • Film
  • Drama

Director: Mikio Naruse

Less celebrated outside Japan than contemporaries such as Kurosawa and Ozu, Mikio Naruse’s social melodramas deserve equal attention – and this is masterpiece. The movie follows a young widow named Keiko (Hideko Takamine) and her struggle to find happiness for herself while also honouring her husband’s memory after his death. As was his signature, Naruse handles the surface story with a graceful touch, allowing the ultimately bleak conclusion to sneak in a gut-punch you don’t see coming.—Matt Singer

42. Pulse (2001)

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Saturated with dread, Pulse is one of the most atmospheric Japanese horror films ever made. Inspired by Y2K techno-anxiety and the hikokimori social crisis (the phenomenon of severe social withdrawal among young people), it follows citizens of a lonely metropolis who become increasingly isolated from one another after receiving strange computer transmissions that ask: ‘Would you like to meet a ghost?’ There are nods to Hitchcock and Herrmann everywhere, plus one of the most terrifying spectral encounters in cinema.

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43. Sonatine (1993)

Director: Takeshi Kitano

The mercurial talent that is comedian-actor-director Takeshi Kitano – aka ‘Beat Takeshi’ – was once christened the heir to Akira Kurosawa. If that seems hyperbolic in retrospect, he’s made a bruising mark on Japanese cinema with his unsmiling but still often oddly LOL-worthy visions of the criminal underworld. In this, his most ruminative, bleakly funny Yakuza flick, Kitano decamps to the seaside of Okinawa and creates an offbeam spiritual limbo for a cadre of can-kicking gangsters. Needless to say, he then fills it with violent mayhem – much of its originating with the jaded the gangster he himself plays. It’s Samuel Beckett with bullets—Phil de Semlyen

  • Film
  • Drama

Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi

The rising star of Japanese cinema, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s inspired but understated fusion of Chekhov and Haruki Murakami became the country’s first ever Best Picture nominee – and made Saabs cool again in the process. A widowed theatre director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) arrives in Hiroshima to oversee a production of ‘Uncle Vanya’ and for arcane insurance reasons, has a young driver (Toko Miura) foisted on him. The bond that follows would be saccharine and predictable in the wrong (ie Hollywood) hands, but such is Hamaguchi’s ear for human complexity and our contradictory need for solitude and connection, that it swells into a deeply moving story of art, grief and healing.—Phil de Semlyen

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45. Fires on the Plain (1959)

Director: Kon Ichikawa

Japan’s answer to Come and See and Apocalyse Now, Kon Ichikawa’s anti-war movie is spectacularly bleak – even before you get to the cannibalism. It’s a film you limp away from, much in the spirit of its broken-down infantryman (Eiji Funakoshi). He hobbles, hungry and in rags, across a scorched Leyte landscape: a symbol of a defeated army as well as the moral degradation of war. Ichikawa’s rep has always been a notch or two below the likes of Kurosawa and Ozu, but this pitiless yet philosophical adaptation of Shōhei Ōoka’s novel is yet more evidence that he deserves to stand in their company. The studio that greenlit it probably wouldn’t agree: they were expecting an action movie.—Phil de Semlyen

46. The Ballad of Narayama (1983)

Director: Shôhei Imamura

Long before Dignitas, there was ubasute, a ritual that sees the elderly take themselves to the top of a mountaintop once they reach 70 and wait for death to claim them. Social care may have come a long way, but filmmaking rarely slaps as hard as this story of an elderly woman facing up to her mortality, the second of two masterpieces based on the 1958 novel (Keisuke Kinoshita’s sombre, kabuki-inspired version is worth searching out too). It beat Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, Bresson’s L’Argent and Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence to win the Palme d’Or, a mark of its haunting, philosophical payload.—Phil de Semlyen

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  • Film

Director: Kihachi Okamoto

This brutal jidaigeki follows a wandering samurai who surrenders his soul and sanity in a bid to achieve ultimate mastery of the sword. It’s so masterful in its bloody execution that it’s hard to think of a Hollywood equivalent prior to Kill Bill. Even so, it’s not the climactic ten-minute sword fighting siege, nor a snowstorm slash-down from Toshiro Mifune’s serial hand-chopper, that makes The Sword of Doom such a stand out. It’s the otherworldly presence of Tatsuya Nakadai (Ran) as one of the most memorable villains in Japanese cinema. 

48. Tokyo Drifter (1966)

Director: Seijun Suzuki

A man who made movies like he was joyriding them, Seijun Suzuki’s punk energy jolts through a film that plays like someone took Le Samourai out and got it massively drunk on jägerbombs. It’s a Yakuza flick turned up to 11 that opens, seemingly for no reason, in black and white before toggling through literally all the colours across an array of vibrantly visual, Austin Powers-y nightclubs and crime dens in a blizzard of stupidly cool set pieces. The plot – again, not important – involves an enforcer retiring from gangland, only to be discover that gangland isn’t quite done with him. Filmed in a few weeks with no rehearsals, its scrappy spontaneity makes it what it is: a violent blast of cinematic disorder.—Phil de Semlyen 

 

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49. Gate of Hell (1953)

Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa

Adapted from a 13th-century picture scroll, Gate of Hell is the story of a virtuous warrior who, in the aftermath of a violent attempted coup, becomes obsessed with the woman he was sworn to protect. As the film creeps towards a suspenseful and tragic climax, it fuses Shakespearean drama with rich colour cinematography, lavish costumes and intricate sets – formally anticipating the great Kurosawa masterpiece Ran some 30-odd years later. Veteran director Teinosuke Kinugasa, whose 1926 silent horror film A Page of Madness remains one of the great surviving works of early Japanese cinema, won two Academy Awards for his troubles.—James Balmont

50. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Director: Shinya Tsukamoto

A grizzly, low budget sci-fi horror, Tetsuo is an unholy, psychosexual union of flesh and metal that represents Japanese cyberpunk at its most brutal. An unnamed salaryman is infected by metal that gradually takes over his body, a disturbing transformation that Shinya Tsukamoto captures in stark, high-contrast 16mm black-and-white film. Its sequels never quite lived up to the promise, but the first remains as a jagged landmark of underground creativity.—Kambole Campbell

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51. Crazy Thunder Road (1980)

Director: Sogo Ishii

Considering its influence on both Japan’s underground filmmaking scene and the dystopian cyberpunk genre (see Akira and Tetsuo: The Iron Man), it’s incredible to think that Sogo Ishii’s indie biker gang flick never received proper international distribution until 2022. Filmed for peanuts using equipment borrowed from his uni, and utilising real-life biker gang members among its cast, it’s a kinetic, chaotic Japanese answer to Mad Max. Snapped up by Toei Studios and blown up for a big-screen release in 1980, its unlikely success inspired a whole generation of guerilla filmmakers.—James Balmont

Departures
  • Film

Director: Yojiro Takita 

The premise of
Departures – an Oscar winner for Best International Feature Film  – begins the same way a B-grade horror movie might, with a failed cellist (Masahiro Motoki) reluctantly returning to his quiet hometown to start a new job as an undertaker. Rather than ghoulish corpses and vengeful ghosts, however, the film highlights the profoundly intimate nature of traditional Japanese funeral rituals, like hand-washing bodies for cremation. A thought-provoking and disarmingly moving piece about life, death and intricate familial bonds, it’s hard to come away from this one without tear-stained cheeks.—Emma Steen

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53. Suzaku (1997)

Director: Naomi Kawase

Naomi Kawase has come under fire in recent months, with allegations of on-set bullying and violent conduct hanging over her. But she also remains a singular, inspirational force, and an all-too-rare female filmmaker in an overwhelmingly male-driven film culture. Her breakthrough film is set in a logging village in Nara and brings documentary techniques to bear in its observations of a family’s deterioration in the wake of an aborted industrial development. It made her the youngest ever recipient of Cannes’s Camera d’Or gong for first-time directors.—James Balmont

  • Film

Director: Shunji Iwai

Once derided by Roger Ebert as ‘enigmatic, oblique and meandering’, All About Lily Chou-Chou is now considered a powerful embodiment of the confusing emotions of Y2K teen life. It follows high-school students enamoured with the music of an enigmatic, Björk-like pop singer while enduring physical and psychological abuse in their day-to-day lives and is shot in an experimental style built around handheld cameras, ethereal piano music, and a non-chronological narrative that unfolds via internet messageboards. The film’s potent, dreamlike atmosphere lingers long past the end credits.

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55. One Cut of the Dead (2018)

Director: Shin'ichirō Ueda

Shin'ichirō Ueda’s meta zom-com is a bit like a Japanese Blair Witch Project, a leftfield phenomenon that stands as a monument to low-budget ingenuity. A film crew is assigned to shoot a cheap horror movie for television when, wouldn’t you know it, an actual zombie plague breaks out on set. That makes it sound like a fun novelty rather than a must-see classic, but the movie positively explodes with energy and smart, winking humour on par with Shaun of the Dead. Made for an utterly paltry $25,000, it’s grossed $31 million worldwide – a testament to how far brains, blood and exhilarating creativity can take a movie.—Matt Singer

 

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