I think it’s around 2010 when I started to seek out more global films beyond what I’ve usually consumed, and having been exposed to Japanese culture since childhood, it didn’t take long for me to hit up on the country’s output. Japan obviously has one of the finest cinematic pedigree in the world, with the likes of Ozu and Kurosawa frequently mentioned in the discussion of greatest filmmakers ever, and the country along with Iran has been my co-favorites as far as Asian filmmaking nation goes. The quality goes along with a relatively high level of accessibility, as you don’t need to be a film school student or an old cinema buff to appreciate the best of Japanese films; just a taste for powerfully melancholic media, perhaps.
With the caveats of my relatively brief experience and the many classics I haven’t seen yet (it’s a bit heavy on the more recent stuff as you could see), here are the stuff that resonated with me the most in chronological order. For variety’s sake, I decided to cap things at two films at most per director. It would’ve been very easy for Kurosawa, Ozu, and Kore-eda to completely dominate the list otherwise; therefore, consider my personal picks for those names as endorsements for their respective ouvre rather than just the particular film being mentioned. I also chose to include animated films here instead of the favorite anime list, because why not.
LATE SPRING (Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)
Despite, and because of, his self-imposed formal limitations, most of Ozu’s films has transcended its humble roots as contemporary domestic drama and become timeless masterwork that revel in their elegant beauty and delightful focus on humane interaction. Late Spring, the first in three stand-alone films that featured a young woman named Noriko, is just one example of such works, a bittersweet piece about an old man and his soon to be married daughter. Anchored by Kishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara, two of the finest performers to have ever graced the wide screen, this film simultaneously warmed and pained my heart in a way that only Ozu could.
RASHOMON (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
“Humans lie because they simply can’t tell the truth, even to themselves.” Akira Kurosawa’s famous statement came through in the most brilliant way through this adaptation of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s story of an incident told from multiple contrasting perspectives. A combination of indescribably stunning black and white cinematography, multi-layered performance to match the staggeringly fluid story and characterization, and the use of a certain codifying technique that would eventually become my favorite narrative device ever, Rashomon completely blew my mind when I watched it for the first time. It is probably the most complete film I’ve ever seen; an open-ended morality play and an excellent stimulation for the eyes, brain, and soul.
IKIRU (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)
A story about a man discovering he got a terminal cancer and only less than a year to live could’ve easily become cliche-ridden melodrama that aggressively demand for your tears, but in Kurosawa’s hands, what we got is a powerfully authentic piece on loneliness, familial detachment, and the postwar reconstruction of Japan. Starring the director’s stalwart collaborator Takashi Shimura in the leading role of bureaucratic drone in desperate need of a wake-up call, the movie provided genuine inspiration as well as the kind of imagery that tends to stick with you for life. The late critic Roger Ebert probably said it best, “…this is one of the few movies that might actually be able to inspire someone to lead their life a little differently.”
TOKYO STORY (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
Well, that didn’t take long at all to used up my Kurosawa/Ozu quota. Anyway, family has always been a dominant theme in Ozu’s ouvre, but this where he presented his most brutally honest depiction through an aging couple’s unwanted visit to their kids. Ozu doesn’t need a big conflict or emotional grandstand to communicate how fragile human bond is, and despite the very Japanese setting and social mores, the eventual resonance is undeniably universal whether you’re a kid who doesn’t bother to respond to your folks’ phone call or a parent who suddenly discovered that your kid has grown into a stranger. The one who you love the most will inevitably be the one who let you down the most.
TWENTY FOUR EYES (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1954)
Focusing on a modern woman teaching a bunch of rural kids in the dawn of World War II, this eventually become a difficult watch, perhaps the most depressing in this list (and that’s really saying something). Still, the brutal latter half of the movie, which dives deep into the ‘nobody can catch a damn break’ motif, wouldn’t work as effectively without the sunny innocence and warmth that permeated the first half, with so many beautiful moments that will yield incredible amount of extra significance if you ever had the responsibility of educating a group of little human beings. There’s nothing quite like the feeling when the superficially similar faces stopped blending into each other and became distinctly recognizable individuals with wildly varying quirks, talents, and aspiration, and the movie understood that kind of moment so damn well it broke my heart.
HARAKIRI (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)
There were enough choices of superb jidaigeki samurai flicks to last for one’s lifetime, with the cream of the crop included the likes of a blind samurai, a samurai in the middle of warring crime gangs, a samurai traveling with his infant, and samurai teaming up as a septet. And yet, my easy favorite is this, which is less a story about stoic bad-ass and mythical figure and more a scathing evisceration of the samurai culture. Revolving around the ‘suicide bluff’ (a stunt where one asked to commit a harakiri in front of a wealthy clan, hoping to be sympathized and given compensation instead), the cunning script twisted and turned before climaxing in a shocking, angry, howl against the Bushido Code and the hypocritical, self-satisfied, people upholding them.
WOMAN IN THE DUNES (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)
Best depiction of sand I’ve ever seen in a film. That sounded like a backhanded compliment, but this is one film that totally revolves around the object, as they parched, suffocated, and completely engulfed the main human characters. The story, adapted from Kobo Abe’s novel, sounds like horror material with a journeying entomologist finding himself in the bottom of literal pit trap with a local woman, but there are all sorts of nuances and layers in the scenario as the film sunk its allegorical fangs deep into me through the clashing portrayal of intense desperation and deep-rooted resignation, jarring and deeply unsettling soundscape, and of course, the sand. All those bloody sand.
THE INUGAMI CLAN (Kon Ichikawa, 1976)
Here’s one for the classic murder mystery fan! I first learned of Seishi Yokomizu’s Kosuke Kindaichi mystery series through the manga adventure of Kosuke’s non-canonical grandson Hajime, and considering how difficult and unlikely for me to ever access the original works in English, the many screen adaptations are acceptable compromise. Kon Ichikawa’s first adaptation of the series is pure comfort food in the vein of old-school locked room mystery: the death of a patriarch sparked a ridiculously complicated inheritance dispute, leading to a chain of gruesome murders waiting to be solved by the intrepid journeying detective. Instantly likable with his pair of bright friendly eyes, hobo attire, and a razor sharp mind beneath the dandruff-infested head, Kindaichi’s character as bolstered by Koji Ishizaka’s portrayal is key to the experience.
GRAVE OF FIREFLIES (Isao Takahata, 1990)
Animated works in general has always been ghettoized as lesser entertainment for children (and ‘weird adults’), but if there’s one work that completely shattered that preconception and deserves to be regarded as one of the most important films ever made, this is it. Studio Ghibli’s most uncompromising and soul-crushing production ever, it doesn’t mince words from the very beginning; straight up telling the audience that the two kids you’re going to spend the whole film with aren’t going to survive the ordeal. Instead of a cheap misery porn, it becomes an astoundingly effective anti-war film, condemning the reality in which a sense of misguided pride eventually led to a complete failure in protecting those whom one holds dear.
AFTER LIFE (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1998)
As I eventually noticed, a vast amount of Japanese canon is engrossed with the idea of mortality— and in a more abstract sense, the very ephemeral nature of human life and relationships. Kore-eda also primarily dealt with this issue, and with this particular film, came up with a fantastical concept that completely won me the moment I heard it: it’s about the on-goings of an administrative limbo station where souls of the recently deceased are processed and asked to pick their one (yes, just one) memory from their lifetime to be kept along as they move on to the heaven. Despite the inherently morbid nature, After Life is chock full of good-natured humor, warm character moments, and indescribable amount of humanity bursting through its ingenious ideas, conversations, and mise en scenes, by the end making it impossible not to fall hard for the gentle mind behind it all.
WHISPER OF THE HEART (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1998)
It’s a bloody shame that Yoshifumi Kondo, once groomed to be Ghibli’s leading figure and eventual successor to Hayao Miyazaki, had to untimely pass at the age of 47. His sole directorial work, adapted from Aoi Hiiragi’s manga by the same name, is actually the first Ghibli film I watched that left a profound impact despite its relatively modest nature; both childlike and mature at the same time, there’s something I found remarkably poignant about the main character’s journey from a directionless teenager into someone discovering her dreams and what she wants to do in life. Shizuku might be the least flashy and heroic among the Ghibli heroines, but she’s a great main character and someone a lot of kids her age (as well as adults) could really relate with.
AUDITION (Takashi Miike, 1999)
One of the first films that earned the ridiculously prolific Takashi Miike international recognition, and for good reason. Miike likes to deploy a recurring feature where he started with a slow burn character-driven drama that eventually explode into frenzy of stomach-churning ultraviolence, but from all the movies of his I’ve seen, this here is where it worked most effectively by far. It’s near impossible not to watch Audition without knowing beforehand about its eventual morphing into a savage psychological (and physical) horror, as every key promotional image already spoiled that fact, but I’d wager it’s worth a try to drag a clueless pal to watch along and tell them that it’s purely a heart-warming drama about a widower holding a (literal) audition to find a new wife.
JU-ON: THE CURSE (Takashi Shimizu, 2000)
I really had to include a representative from that period of J-Horror boom in early 2000s, if only because the earliest and finest specimen of it had legitimately terrified me in a way no other horror media I’ve experienced prior to it had even come close to. Hideo Nakata’s Ring might be a better film—it certainly possessed a more cohesive narrative—but damn, there’s just something even more special about this particular film’s jumbled structure, its ability to produce moments of pure terror in spite of mostly taking place in broad freaking daylight, and the gleefully evil way it openly taunted you to just look away and spare yourself through some of the most flawless execution of suspenseful build-up I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch.
(just to be clear, since the franchise’s nomenclature and chronological history could be a bit confusing to say the least, this entry referred to the direct-to-video film that’s also the first feature film installment in the series).
SPIRITED AWAY (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
Truth be told, as much as I admire Miyazaki for his visual artistry and intoxicating sense of whimsy, oftentimes I also found the characters and themes in the films he directed didn’t resonate that strongly to me. This one is a delightful exception, though; Chihiro is a great kid heroine, conveying fear, resilience, and compassion in equal measure as we follow her journey into a world populated with spectacularly imaginative character design. Spirited Away is a masterpiece built from moments of brilliance, buoyed further by itsterrific music (Joe Hisaishi delivered yet another typical masterwork, while Youmi Kimura’s credit song Itsumo Nando Demo is in contention for being my favorite Japanese tune ever).
ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU (Shunji Iwai, 2001)
Teenage malcontent is a fertile ground for hard-hitting drama, and this is such example of exceedingly heavy bildungsroman, covering a gamut of issues from bullying and isolation to underaged sex work and suicidal tendency. Revolving around a handful of troubled students not exactly being nice to each other, there were so many questions asked with frustratingly inadequate concrete answers and resolutions by the end—just like how reality tends to work. The main leitmotif—the eponymous fictional band, its unforgettably haunting music, and especially its charismatic frontwoman—served as particularly intriguing examination on the influence of music fandom toward these kids, with their choice of idol elevated into a mythical figure ushering them into a blissful escapade from hellish daily life.
KISARAGI (Yuichi Sato, 2007)
Just like Lily Chou-Chou, Kisaragi also focused on an artist’s profound effect toward a group of people bonded through online fandom, although in this case the ‘artist’ is a late C-list idol, the fan is a (very small) contingent of grown adults, and the overall mood is more light-hearted. Staged like a single-setting chamber play, the film might not have grand artistic ambition or something like that, but man did I have a rollicking time watching it: verbal jousting in the mould of classic whoddunit mystery, good-natured humor played on the endearingly dorky characters, and a clever script utilizing lines, gestures, and even brief changes of facial expression to great effect. A morbid fun and very re-watchable little gem.
STILL WALKING (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2008)
Kore-eda is one of my favorite living film directors, and seeing wonderfully nuanced domestic drama (he made plenty of those) such as Still Walking makes it hard not to see him as the closest spiritual successor to Ozu—although the guy himself prefers to be compared to Mikio Naruse and Brit filmmaker Ken Loach. In any case, this is a superb film about all sorts of gaps; gaps existed due to a loss of family member, gaps filled with addition of new family member, and gaps created between those who had lost touch with each other. Through a family reunion spanning across three generations, Kore-eda told a story with unmistakable gentleness and comfy familiarity, but it’s the eventual doses of anger, selfishness, and wariness that really made it so painfully humane.
CONFESSIONS (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2009)
I’ve seen my fair share of Asian revenge flicks (if you’ve delved into South Korean cinematic output for the last decade, it’s impossible to not stumble into one. Or half a dozen), but Confessions is still one of the most striking and memorable, being sold to me through the description of its opening scene alone. And what a hook it was: a stoic female teacher addressed her unruly class during their lunch break, announcing her resignation before revealing that she had laced the students’ milk with HIV-infested blood. That’s the first of the film’s several titular ‘confessions’, as it unwinds into a gripping exercise in flair and tonal juggling, telling a twisted tale adapted from Kanae Minato’s successful debut novel and punctuated with darkly comical moments.
THE DRUDGERY TRAIN (Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2012)
Once in a while, a film just appeared out of the blue and completely swept you off the feet, instantly earning itself a place in the all-time favorites. It’s impossible to do justice to the film or my feeling upon discovering it through mere synopsis, but I shall try: The Drudgery Train is a black dramedy about a selfish loser who gets plenty of chances to confront themselves and grow to be a better person in the end… and then not ever actually do that. Well, that really doesn’t sound appealing, but man, do I love the film; hilarious, did a spectacular job at making its sadsack of main character remain sympathetic, and full of delightful genre subversion. The kind of work that made you go, “who the hell are the wonderful people who made this, and where can I find their other works!?”