Which Japanese Films Are A Must See?
Today Japanverse is going to list 10 absolutely must see Japanese films that were made within the last 10 years.
Why the last 10 years? Well, lists like these are somewhat common and unfortunately, many appear to be facsimiles of one another. A lack of variety and a sense of staleness compelled us to create something new, something more modern.
“We wanted to step away from the safe bet recommendations like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Kitano“
We wanted to step away from the safe bet recommendations like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Kitano, and introduce readers to the likes of Sono, Nakashima and Takita. There are some absolutely fantastic Japanese films out there going largely unnoticed by western audiences and we wanted to shine a spotlight on them.
Best In Asia?
While Japan’s movie industry is smaller than Hollywood’s, it’s still the 4th largest film industry in the world – releasing 411 feature films and earning $2.3 billion USD domestically in 2011. In a ranking of the best Asian films by Sight & Sound magazine (published by the British Film Institute), Japan secured 8 of the top 12 spots. It’s a remarkable achievement when you take into account that both China and India have much larger film industries. It’s testament to the quality of Japan’s films.
For a film to qualify to be on this list, it must meet one important requirement; we must have seen the movie. There are quite a few movies that likely should be on this list, however, there isn’t enough time in the day for us to see them all. We make this disclaimer because we’re bound to get some emails wondering why we didn’t include specific movies. Instead of sending us an email, leave a comment below and let us know. Tell us, and the other readers why we should go out and see your suggested movie.
Also keep in mind that this isn’t a listing of the “best” Japanese films; this is simply a list of films that should be seen if you have even a slight interest in Asian cinema, Japanese culture or are simply bored with what Hollywood has been putting out. It’s series of recommendations we have created as an alternative to the cookie-cutter movie listings and suggestions which permeate through the internet. So without further ado, lets get to it.
Kisaragi – 2007
Miki Kisaragi was well on her way to becoming a successful, recognizable Japanese Idol. That is, until the day she committed suicide. Brought together by the suicide, 5 dedicated members of the Miki Kisaragi fan club website meet for the first time to share a solemn evening of mourning. Things start to take a turn for the bizarre when one member announces that the suicide was actually a murder.
Without spoiling too much, this movie is the Japanese version of the movie “Clue”. If you’re a fan of plot twists, then rejoice – Kisaragi makes M.Night Shyamalan’s flicks look mundane by comparison. While the twists are numerous, it does nothing to harm the quality of the film. A few of the twists will have you grabbing your sides in laughter. This is one of the few comedies on the list and deserves a spot for its exceptional unique & creative writing. This film won the critic’s Blue Ribbon Award in 2007.
Confessions – 2010
Yoko Moriguchi is a typical, mild-mannered middle school teacher. One day, her life is flipped upside down after the death of her 4 year old daughter. Yoko doesn’t think her daughter’s death was an accident however, she believes that her own delinquent students are responsible. Yoko decides that, as final lesson, her students will have a crash course in revenge.
This movie is perhaps one of the best psychological revenge movies ever made. It’s critically acclaimed and those acclaims are well deserved. The cinematography is beautiful, the acting is top notch, and the story unique. The somewhat lengthy classroom scene at the beginning of the film is worth the watch alone. At first, the movie feels a bit disjointed, but by the 20 minute mark, you’re totally immersed and riveted by the events unfolding.
Goemon – 2009
Goemon is loosely based on the life of Goemon Ishikawa, a legendary 16th century ninja and bandit who stole from corrupt, rich politicians and gave to the poor. A Japanese robin-hood with more than his share of vices. This movie is a fictional account of Goemon’s actions during the tail-end of the Sengoku period, focusing on events which occurred just before the Battle of Sekigahara. Because there is very little historical information on Goemon’s life, he has become a folk hero in Japan.
This film is best described as a “live-action anime”. The CGI work in this movie is amazing and its combination of dazzling action sequences and gorgeous imaginative visuals leaves you wanting more. While it’s easy to brush a film like this off as a mindless action flick (think 300), the story has a surprising amount of drama and depth. Even if you’re not a fan of the action genre, or of films which use CG liberally, this movie is still a must see.
The Witch of the West Is Dead – 2008
Troubled 13-year-old Mai gets sent to the countryside to live with her eccentric British grandmother for the summer after refusing to go to school. The grandmother, who oddly calls herself the “Witch of the West”, decides to teach Mai witchcraft. Her lessons include a variety of things, like how to make jelly, how to grow plants, and the most important skill, how to make decisions. What starts as a simple summer ends as a bittersweet memory.
This movie is a coming of age movie meant for mothers and young daughters. We are neither, yet we loved this movie. It stirred emotions within that may have needed some dusting off. If you have a close relationship with your grandmother or grandfather, this movie will tug at your heart strings – keep a tissue box handy. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Nagasaki Shunichi, this film is a must see.
Detroit Metal City – 2008
Kind and courteous Negishi Soichi moves from his small farming town to Tokyo in hopes of becoming a folk singer. To pay the bills, he takes up an unusual job – becoming the lead singer of the extreme death metal band “Detroit Metal City”. Reserved, polite and dorky by day, at night, Soichi transforms into his extremely vulgar alter-ego “Johannes Krauser II”. He takes to the stage in his face paint and a goth costume and fights (stumbles) his way to the top of the Japanese rock scene. Worshiped and loved by his hardcore fans, Soichi himself is too embarrassed to admit he’s even in the band. Adding to his already strange life is the girl of his dreams, who happens to despise DMC.
This movie shines a light on Japanese humor in all its forms; vulgar, obscene, dry, slapstick, bathroom and cultural. There is literally something for everyone here. Rock legend Gene Simmons also makes an appearance in this film, and provides a bit of humor himself. DMC is based on the anime by the same name, which is based on the manga series. Several Hollywood studios have approached the Japanese distributor TOHO with offers to remake the film. Stay tuned. In the meantime, “go to DMC”.
Departures – 2008
Unemployed and no place to go, cellist Kobayashi Daigo and his wife leave Tokyo and move back to his rural hometown. Daigo answers a help-wanted ad for what he believes to be a travel agency. The job turns out to be as an undertaker for a funeral parlor. Desperate for a job, he takes it anyway and begins a his career. Despite his initial apprehension and misgivings about the unusual job, Daigo accepts his position and comes to realize that the job and the town suit him well. Meticulously preparing the recently deceased for their final journey with a musician’s precision, he discovers a greater understanding and appreciation for life. Unfortunately, Daigo’s wife isn’t as understanding, and the stigma of the profession takes its toll on the marriage.
This movie is a fantastic film that has garnered a whole slew of awards, including the Academy award for Best Foreign Film and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. It will bring about an awareness, an awareness that every moment is precious and not to take life for granted. If we were ranking these movies, departures would be near the top. See this movie. You won’t regret it.
Cold Fish – 2011
Shamoto is an typical guy with a passion for fish and runs a small tropical fish store. His second wife, Taeko, does not get along with her stepdaughter, Mitsuko. One night, Mitsuko gets busted for shoplifting at a grocery store. While attempting to smooth things over with the store manager, they meet a nice man named Murata who eventually settles things for them. Since Murata also runs a tropical fish shop, they quickly become fast friends; his daughter even begins working at Murata’s shop and living at his house. However, Murata isn’t what he appears to be. He sells cheap fish to his customers for high prices and is a scam artist. When someone discovers his frauds, or refuses him, they’re viciously murdered by Murata and his wife. By the time Shamato realizes that Murata is a serial killer with over 50 deaths attributed to him, he is powerless to do anything about it. Mitsuko is a hostage at Murata’s home, and Shamoto himself becomes an unwilling accomplice. Everything comes to ahead as Murata’s actions finally drive Shamoto to the edge of the abyss.
This is a dark and twisted movie directed by award winning director Shion Sono. Those who are faint of heart should steer clear of this film. Fans of black comedy will absolutely love this movie as it pushes the limits. Adding to its darkness is the fact that the film is also based on a true story. Life is stranger than fiction they say, and this movie certainly proves it. If you like a movie that doesn’t fizzle out at the end, put this one on your watch list.
Gantz – 2011
College student Kei Kurono notices a former childhood friend helping a drunk man who fell from a subway platform. Kei decides to jump down to help his childhood friend. After a few moments, both look up to see the subway train rapidly approaching. They are helpless as their life is about to come to an end. The two wake up to find themselves in a strange apartment with a mysterious giant black sphere with a few other people who have recently died. The black sphere in the center of the living room is known as “Gantz”. The sphere gives those gathered in the room missions, missions to exterminate aliens. There is a time limit to the missions, but if they are successful, they will win points. After reaching 100 points, they are allowed come back to life, or bring someone else back to life. If they lose, they are gone forever.
We don’t have very many science-fiction films on this list, but Gantz definitely deserves a spot. It’s a trilogy that is based on an anime, which is based on a manga novel. Live action adaptations normally don’t play out that well, but Gantz breaks that mold. The story is unique and the special effects are well done considering the budget of most Japanese movies. Regardless of your feelings towards Japanese films, if you’re a fan of science fiction, don’t miss this film.
Shinobi: Heart Under Blade – 2006
It’s 1614 and Japan is finally a unified country under the first shogun, Tokugawa. Gennosuke of Kohga clan and Oboro of Iga clan are the last hope of two remote ninja villages wracked by endless wars and a cycle of tragedy. The love for one another should have brought peace to the suffering villages. However, a conspiracy brought by Tokugawa once again tears the two villages apart. Gennosuke relentlessly pushes for peace, while Oboro chooses to fight to end the conflict. With each Ninja having deadly super human powers, a contest is set for the clans to choose five of their best warriors to participate in a battle to the death. Lovers now destined to meet as enemies, can Gennosuke and Oboro’s love withstand the ultimate test?
Fans of the anime Ninja Scroll and Basilisk will notice a lot of similarities in this live-action martial arts movie. All three were loosely based on the novel titled, “The Kouga Ninja Scrolls”. The story isn’t unique, but it’s an interesting mix of several clichés. Imagine a cross between Romeo & Juliet and X-Men. It’s a strange cross, but pulls it off nicely. It’s a change of pace from the normal, and we welcome it.
The Incite Mill – 2010
After reading about a short term job offer which will pay $1,200 USD an hour, ten people gather at a complex called “Ankikan”. The ten are told that they are part of a psychological experiment which will require them to be monitored 24 hours a day, for a week straight. They are sent to their own individual rooms, each containing a different weapon. Once the doors are locked and the ten individuals sealed in, they finally learn the rules of the psychological experiment. Rule 1: Each person must be in their room by 10 PM. Rule 2: The experiment is over after 7 days has passed, or when there are only only 2 members left alive. The members are surprised at hearing the unusual rules, but eventually go to sleep. In the morning, one of the group members is found shot to death. Now, what looked like a dream job will turn into a nightmare.
The Incite Mill is based on the 2007 novel by the same name. The film’s story is almost exactly as it sounds, a whodunit with a healthy dose of survival horror/thriller. While the plot sounds a bit cliché, well-timed and unpredictable twists thrown into the mix makes this an entertaining film. We felt this list was lacking a horror element and The Incite Mill fits that need perfectly.