10 Best Japanese Movies That Changed World Cinema Forever
Even without knowing the specific titles, audiences around the world have seen decades of international films built on the foundations of Japanese cinema. In the aftermath of World War II, cinema became a cathartic outlet for Japanese filmmakers to express their honest opinions and expand their horizons beyond government-sanctioned propaganda films.
In the years since, Japan has remained an important and distinct voice in cinema, providing a unique perspective on familiar genres. From early samurai epics to groundbreaking animations, the following is a timeline of the many moments in history when Japan changed the cinematic landscape forever.
10/10 ‘Rachomon’ (1950)
When a man is found murdered and a woman assaulted, four people involved are brought to justice to uncover the truth behind the incident. As each individual reveals their story in court, more questions begin to arise than answers.
Neglected on its original Japanese release, it is only Akira KurosawaThe first masterpiece from was awarded at the Venice Film Festival that its nuanced storytelling and visual artistry would be truly appreciated. From then on, critics began to recognize prominent Japanese filmmakers, including Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchiintroducing the rest of the world to the country’s diverse and rapidly growing film landscape. Rashomon would also inspire dozens of films, such as The usual suspects, heroand The last duelwhich utilized its uniquely structured plot and unreliable storytelling, forever becoming part of cinematic history.
9/10 “History of Tokyo” (1953)
An elderly couple travel from their small village to the bustling city of Tokyo to visit their adult children. When their family seems too busy to spend time with them, they start spending more time with their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko (Setsuko Hara).
Yasujiro Ozu’s understated classic is the culmination of the author’s endless fascination with complex family relationships and generational divides. As with much of Ozu’s work, flashy cinematography is eschewed in favor of realistic static shots of daily life, interspersed with director’s signature close-ups. This visual approach allows the viewer to directly feel the shifting dynamics and internal struggles of the family, as the film subtly builds to its emotionally gripping climax.
8/10 “Seven Samurai” (1954)
When a village runs out of food and supplies due to frequent raids by a bandit clan, it recruits a few samurai who are willing to help without payment. They gather seven ronins, each from different backgrounds, who must unite and outwit the horde of ruthless bandits.
Often considered one of cinema’s greatest achievements, Seven Samurai is a three-plus-hour epic that moves like a modern superhero movie, but with the character development and precise direction of a prestigious period piece. It set a precedent for unlikely team dynamics in film with an iconic performance set, including Kurosawa regulars. Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura. From the Western reinvention of The Magnificent Seven at Pixar The life of an insectthe movie plan was reused for decades, however, Seven Samurai endures as the masterclass of its own formula.
7/10 “Godzilla” (1954)
In the aftermath of the atomic bomb, a giant lizard-like creature rises from the depths of the ocean and wreaks havoc in Tokyo. Amidst the chaos, a select group of scientists must find a way to stop the beast, before more casualties are suffered.
Godzilla acts as a haunting allegory of the fear that hung over Japan after the nuclear attacks and remains as emotionally resonant and poignant as it was when released. The fact that it’s all told with a man in a rubber and latex suit and can be taken seriously speaks to the skill and seriousness with which the material is handled. While it would go on to spawn one of cinema’s longest-running franchises, the original film stands as big as its titular monster as the gold standard of the kaiju genre.
6/10 “The Hidden Fortress” (1958)
Two scheming peasants meet a mysterious man and woman. Unbeknownst to them, the strangers are a princess and a general, respectively, who offer to give the peasants gold in exchange for their company to escort them to safety.
Well known to moviegoers as George Lucas’ primary influence on star wars, The hidden fortress is a sprawling adventure way ahead of its time upon release. Although thematically lighter compared to the rest of Kurosawa’s filmography, the film more than makes up for it with brilliantly done action set pieces and a strong sense of scope and spectacle.
5/10 ‘Yojimbo’ (1961)
A wandering ronin arrives in a town overrun by two warring criminal factions. Over the next few days, he sets up a plan, pitting the two gangs against each other, to free the city from tyranny.
Kurosawa’s series of 1950s samurai classics continued into the next decade with this classic ideal of the “wandering samurai” trope. The premise would later be riffed on by the Italian director Sergio Leone for his classic spaghetti western a handful of dollars, essentially spawning a whole new subgenre. Kurosawa’s muse, Toshiro Mifune, once again uses his unbalanced charisma in an otherwise understated role, creating one of the genre’s most iconic samurai heroes.
4/10 “Akira” (1988)
Years after an experiment gone wrong led to the bombing of Tokyo by the Japanese government, the newly rebuilt city is plagued by crime. When a street gang gets involved in a plot involving another set of experiments, it becomes a race against time to save Tokyo from being destroyed again.
Like in 1954 Godzilla, Akira brilliantly comments on the cyclical nature of humanity’s destruction in a serious and heartbreaking way. The film’s vision of a rebuilt metropolis bridges the gap between blade runner and almost every dark sci-fi vision of the future that would follow. The kinetically thrilling, and often graphic, action and violence against a backdrop of heavy themes showed the world what the medium was capable of, as well as its ability to tell more than just children’s stories.
3/10 ‘Ring’ (1998)
After her niece is found dead while watching a supposedly cursed video, journalist Reiko (Nanako Mastushima) embarks on a search for the truth. While watching the tape herself, she receives a call telling her that she will die in seven days. Reiko and her ex-husband continue to search for answers, as well as the origin of the haunted tape.
While the notoriety of this chilling cult classic reached its peak with the release of the American remake of the ring in 2002, Ring stands on its own as an arguably grittier, more disturbing version of the book on which both films are based. The story is told with a straightforward approach, adding visceral realism to each terrifying setting. It would go on to inform much of the international horror scene for the next decade, proving that haunting imagery beats cheap fear every day.
2/10 ‘Hearing’ (1999)
Widowed Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) decides he’s ready to get back on the dating scene. His friend in the movie industry holds a fake audition to help Aoyama find the perfect match. After falling in love with the beautiful Asami (Eihi Shiina), Aoyama begins a relationship with her, eventually learning his own, more sinister motives.
One of Japan’s most prolific and hardworking directors, Takashi Miike delivers what many consider his magnum opus with this modern horror classic. Much of the film’s first half is treated with a light tone, which makes it all the more shocking (and horrifying) when it takes a dark, twisted turn in its second half. The film’s horror elements would later serve as a model for the “torture porn” boom of the early 2000s, though neither film quite matched the shock and terror of the masterpiece. Mike’s work.
1/10 “Spirited Away” (2001)
While taking a shortcut to their new home, 10-year-old Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) and her parents discover an abandoned amusement park. When the sun goes down before they can leave, Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs and she finds herself trapped in what now appears to be a bathhouse, as well as a safe haven for the spirits.
Many beloved animators by Hiyao Miyazaki films could be considered masterpieces, but none had the universal appeal and adoration that Taken away as if by magic. For many American moviegoers, it was an introduction to the coveted tradition of Japanese animation and wowed audiences with its detailed world, quirky characters, and endless well of imagination. From the mysterious No-Face apparition to the mystical dragon Haku, the film is packed with wildly inventive imagery that defined an era of animated cinema, retaining its awe-inspiring magic today.
NEXT: Underrated Japanese Horror Movies