Japanese cinema: essential guide to movies to watch

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Japanese cinema is among the most important cultural industries; it is the fourth largest market in terms of the number of films produced. Tokyo Story (1953) ranked third in the most important films of all time. The largest Japanese film studio is called Toho. The annual Japan Academy Film Prize hosted by the Nippon Academy is considered the Japanese equivalent of the Academy Awards.

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History of Japanese cinema


The history of Japanese cinema begins with the kinethoscope, marketed by Thomas Edison in the United States in 1894. It was first brought to Japan in November 1896. Lumière’s cameramen were the very first to make films in Japan. The very first Japanese film was shot in late 1897 in Tokyo. In 1898 some ghost shorts were made. Tsunekichi Shibata made a series of films with 2 famous stars playing a scene from a popular kabuki comedy.

At the birth of cinemas in Japan, there were the benshi, writers who sat next to the screen and told in words the silent moving images. The Benshi could be accompanied by music like the mythical films in Western cinemas. In 1908, Shōzō Makino, the pioneering director of Japanese cinema, began his important profession with Honnōji gassen, produced for Yokota Shōkai. 

Onoe became the first Japanese film star, appearing in over 1,000 films, mainly short films, between 1909 and 1926. The first Japanese film production studio was created in 1909 by the Yoshizawa Shōten company in Tokyo. Many early film critics had negative judgments on the work of studios like Nikkatsu and Tenkatsu, judging their films too theatrical. not to use what were thought to be more cinematic methods of telling stories, relying rather on the benshi. 

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Japanese films from the 1920s


Japanese films were more successful in Japan in the mid-1920s than foreign films, in part buoyed by the appeal of movie stars. Directors like Daisuke Itō and Masahiro Makino have made samurai films such as A Diary of Chuji’s Travels and Roningai which included provocative anti-heroes in fast-paced battle scenes that were both industrial hits and seriously notorious. Some stars, such as Tsumasaburo Bando, Kanjūrō ​​Arashi, Chiezō Kataoka, Takako Irie and Utaemon Ichikawa, have been motivated by Makino Film Productions and have formed their own independent production in businesses of which directors such as Hiroshi Inagaki, Mansaku Itami and Sadao Yamanaka have developed their skills.

With the rise of left-wing political movements and trade unions in the late 1920s,were so-called left-wing filmsborn. In contrast to commercial products. The Marxist Proletarian Film League of Japan (Prokino) made works in smaller sizes (such as 9.5mm and 16mm), with more extreme intent. Left-wing propaganda films underwent serious censorship in the 1930s, and Prokino members were jailed and the movement crushed.

A later variation of The Captain’s Daughter was among the very first sound films. He used the Mina Talkie System. The Japanese film market split into 2 groups; one kept the Mina Talkie System, while the other used the Eastphone Talkie System used to make Tojo Masaki’s films. The 1923 earthquake, the Battle of Tokyo during World War II, and the natural results of Japan’s weather and humidity on unstable, combustible nitrate films actually led to a terrible lack of lasting films from this period.

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Japanese films from the 1930s


Unlike the West, silent films were still produced in Japan until the 1930s; as late as 1938, a third of Japanese films were silent. An Inn in Tokyo by Yasujirō Ozu (1935), a precursor of neorealism, was a silent film, and was one of the very first Japanese films to hit theaters in the United States; Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Sisters of the Gion (Gion no shimai, 1936); Elegy of Osaka (1936); and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939); and Humanity and Paper Balloons by Sadao Yamanaka (1937).

Film critics have shared this vigor, with many film magazines such as Kinema Junpo and newspapers publishing in-depth conversations. A cultured “impressionist” critique pursued by critics like Tadashi Iijima, Fuyuhiko Kitagawa and Matsuo Kishi was dominant, yet opposed by left-wing critics like Akira Iwasaki and Genjū Sasa who sought an ideological revision of the films.

The 1930s saw a greater participation of the federal government in cinema which took greater authority on the film market, in 1939. The government motivated certain types of cinema, producing propaganda films and promoting documentaries, cultural films, made by directors like Fumio Kamei. Theorists of cinema as Taihei Imamura and Heiichi Sugiyama promoted the documentary and realistic drama, while directors such as Hiroshi Shimizu and Tomotaka Tasaka produced fiction films.

Japanese films from the 1940s


Since the Second World War and the economic crisis, unemployment has come to be prevalent in Japan and the film market has suffered. Throughout this period, when Japan was expanding its empire, the Japanese federal government saw cinema as a propaganda tool to reveal the splendor and invincibility of the Empire of Japan. Therefore, many films from this period portray militaristic and patriotic styles. 

In 1942, Kajiro Yamamoto’s film War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaysia represented the attack on Pearl Harbor; the film used unique results directed by Eiji Tsuburaya, consisting of a miniature design of Pearl Harbor itself. Akira Kurosawa made his first action film with Sugata Sanshiro in 1943.

The first film released after the war was Yasushi Sasaki’s Soyokaze from 1945. Onlist of production restrictions the CIE’s David Condein 1945, nationalism, massacre, patriotism and suicide, violent and merciless films, and so on, ended up being banned products, making historical dramas substantially difficult to produce. As a result, the stars who actually used historical drama have shifted to modern drama: Chiezō Kataoka’s “Bannai Tarao” (1946), Tsumasaburō Bandō’s “Torn Drum (1949), Hiroshi Inagaki’s” The Child Holding Hands and ” King) by Daisuke Itō. 

The duration after the American occupation caused an increase in variety in the cinematic circulation thanks to the increased production and appeal of the film studios of Toho, Daiei, Shochiku, Nikkatsu and Toei. the 4 excellent artists of Japanese cinema: Masaki Kobayashi, Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujirō Ozu. The very first collaborations between Akira Kurosawa and star Toshiro Mifune were Drunken Angel in 1948 and Stray Dog in 1949. Yasujirō Ozu directed the successful film Late Spring in 1949.

Japanese films from the 1950s


The 1950s began with Akira Kurosawa’s cult movie Rashomon (1950), Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 and Oscar for best strange film I was in 1952, and they mark the entry of Japanese cinema on the world stage. Famous star Toshiro Mifune also appears. In 1953 Entotsu no mieru basho by Heinosuke Gosho entered competition at the 3rd Berlin International Film Festival.

The 1950s are commonly thought of as the golden age of Japanese cinema. 3 Japanese films of these years (Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Tokyo Story) appeared in the top 10 polls of critics and directors of Sight & Sound for the best films of all time in 2002. They also appeared in the polls of 2012, with Tokyo Story ( 1953) which surpasses Citizen Kane at the top of the rankings.

War films then began to be produced. “Listen to the Voices of the Sea” by Hideo Sekigawa (1950), “Himeyuri no Tô – Tower of the Lilies” by Tadashi Imai (1953), “Twenty-Four Eyes” by Keisuke Kinoshita (1954), ” ” The Burmese Harp “by Kon Ichikawa (1956), and other works destined for the terrible experience of war, one after another, ended up having a great social impact. Other nostalgic films such as Battleship Yamato (1953) and Eagle of the Pacific (1953) they were produced in the same way mass.

Rentaro Mikuni, a Japanese movie star has appeared in over 150 films since it launched on the big screen in 1951, and has won 3 Academy Awards for Best Actor and more than 7 nominations. The first Japanese film in color was Carmen Comes Home directed by Keisuke Kinoshita and launched in 1951. Gate of Hell, a 1953 cult film by Teinosuke Kinugasa, was the very first film to use Eastmancolor film.

In 1952, during the post-war period, when the pain of the war was still strong, Kaneto Shindō made a cult film of Japanese cinema, full of dark and realistic atmospheres. This is Children of Hiroshima. Takako Ishikawa is a teacher off the coast of Hiroshima and has not returned to his city hit by the atomic bomb in 4 years. His trip to Hiroshima becomes a journey to his destroyed homeland, in search of surviving old friends.

Teinosuke Kinugasa has made avant-garde masterpieces of Japanese silent cinema years before such as A page of madness. Gate of Hell was the first color film and the first Japanese film to be dist awarded outside Japan, earning an Academy Award in 1954 for Best Sanzo Wada Costumes and an Honorary Award for Best Foreign Language Film. And it also won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the first Japanese film to win the award.

In 1954, another Kurosawa film, Ikiru, was in competition at the 4th Berlin International Film Festival. The protagonist, Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), works as an accountant in a Tokyo office. He discovers he has stomach cancer that has metastasized to the liver. After the diagnosis, Watanabe decides to abandon his life of mediocre contentment and focus on living his last days with dignity and meaning.

In 1955, Hiroshi Inagaki won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for Part I of his Samurai trilogy and in 1958 he won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for Rickshaw Man. Kon Ichikawa directed 2 dramas antiwar: The Burmese Harp (1956), which was chosen for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, and Fires On The Plain (1959), along with Enjo (1958).

Mizoguchi won the Silver Bear at the Venice Film Festival for Ugetsu. Mizoguchi’s films mainly deal with the disasters caused to women by Japanese society. Ugetsu tells the story of a samurai who leaves his family to seek wealth and is seduced by a woman from an ancient noble family, neglects his wife and falls prey to greed and power. Ugetsu is a Japanese word meaning “illusion” or “deceptive image”

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Modified for its Western release, Godzilla ended up being a worldwide icon of Japan and spawned a whole sub-genre of kaiju movies, as well as the longest-running film franchise. of history. Godzilla is a Japanese monster known for its destructive power. Godzilla’s name comes from the Japanese words “gojira” which translates to “whale” and “gorilla”. Godzilla is a giant monster that first appeared in the 1954 film that emits powerful radioactive emissions and has the ability to emit atomic breath from its mouth. The first Godzilla film was created as a scare tactic for people living near the French Communist nuclear test site in the Pacific Ocean. This giant monster became popular with Japanese audiences and was soon featured in 28 Japanese films produced between 1954 and 1975.

Japanese films from the 1960s


Toshiro Mifune was at the center of many of Kurosawa’s films. The number of films produced peaked in the 1960s. Yasujirō Ozu made his last film, An Autumn Afternoon, in 1962. Mikio Naruse directed When a Woman Climb the Stairs in 1960; his latest film was 1967 Scattered Clouds.

Kon Ichikawa recounted the watershed of the 1964 Olympics in his three-hour documentary Tokyo Olympiad (1965). Director Seijun Suzuki was fired from production company Nikkatsu for “makingmake films thatno sense and make no money” after his surrealist yakuza underworld film Branded to Kill (1967).

The 1960s were the peak years of the Japanese New Wave movement , which began in the 1950s and continued into the early 1970s. Cruel Story of Youth, Night and Fog in Japan and Oshima’s Death By Hanging, along with Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba, Hani’s Kanojo to kare and Imamura’s The Insect Woman, ended up being some of the best-known examples of Japanese New Wave cinema. . 

Documentary has played an essential function in the New Wave, as directors such as Hani, Kazuo Kuroki, Toshio Matsumoto and Hiroshi Teshigahara have gone from documentary to fiction, while directors such as Oshima and Imamura have also made documentaries.

Teshigahara won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Woman in the Dunes (1964) and was chosen for the Oscar for Best Director and Best Foreign Film. Masaki Kobayashi with Kwaidan (1965) was also selected for the special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. 

Japanese films from the 1970s

The film industry has made films in many ways, such as Kadokawa Pictures’ larger budget films, or made up of violent or explicitly sexual material and language that could not be programmed on TV. The result was that the pink cinema market ended up being the springboard for numerous young independent directors.

Toshiya Fujita realized the revenge film Lady Snowblood in 1973. In that year, Yoshishige Yoshida made the film Coup, a portrait of Kita Ikki, the leader of the coup Japanese state in 1936. The film had a great critical response in Japan.

Kinji Fukasaku finished the impressive yakuza series Battles Without Honor and Humanity film. Yoji Yamada presented the Tora-San commercial series, directing other films as well, including the popular The Yellow Handkerchief, which won the very first Japan Academy Prize for Best Picture in 1978. 

Japanese films from the 1980s

Japan’s film industry was successful in the 80s. The decade saw many high-budget action films that became popular with audiences around the world. Several Japanese directors have become famous for their work. One of them was Kinji Fukasaku, director of Battle Royale and Battle Royale II: Requiem, two hilarious and utterly engaging manga-style films about the battle for survival. Another was Nagisa Oshima, who directed Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and In the Realm of the Senses. Oshima was known for using his films to criticize society, politics and culture. He spent six years as an assistant director at Shochiku studios, working with directors including Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse.

Japanese films from the 1990s


Japanese films of the 90s introduced new concepts to the world such as anime and manga. The anime has become popular in the West and has appeal to a broad demographic. Japanese films of the 1990s saw an increase in public spending and emerging sectors such as computer games and animation. These two movements have led to films focusing more on the sci-fi and fantasy genre than before.

During the same period, Japanese cinema also experienced a resurgence of new genres and styles. Audiences got a breath of fresh air when new movies were released that weren’t just a retelling of Hollywood movies. Audiences now had to be ready to see films that combined horror with comedy, family drama with science fiction. 

Led by directors such as Takashi Miike, Hideo Nakata and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the 1990s saw an increase in the amount of Asian horror films. The 1990s also saw an increase in the number of independent Japanese directors who took risks with their films. Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Kurosawa is known for his dark humor and his style in both directing and writing. Masayuki Suo: Suo is known for his stylistic storytelling which is often reflected in people’s memories of their childhood. Tetsuya Nakashima: Nakashima is known for its suspenseful storytelling, which often involves children. 

Japanese films from the 2000’s


In recent years, there has been a revival of Japanese cinema led by Hayao Miyazaki, considered one of the most successful directors in history. The number of films made in Japan has increased since 2000 and this trend seems to continue even today with famous directors such as Naomi Kawase and Hirokazu Koreeda winning awards at festivals such as Cannes or the Venice Film Festival respectively.

A recent example of Hollywood’s involvement in Japan is “The Wolverine,” which was filmed in Tokyo and starred Hugh Jackman. Since the release of “The Wolverine” in 2013, Hollywood has steadily increased its investments in Japan. This includes films shot in Tokyo, which support Japanese actors or actresses and collaborate with Japanese studios.

Japanese directors

in addition to the great masters of Japanese cinema already mentioned such as Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi there are many Japanese directors who have contributed to making the history of cinema in their country great. Some names: Hayao Miyazaki, Takashi Miike, Nagisa Oshima, Kaneto Shindo, Kinji Fukasaku, Masaki Kobayashi, Shiro Honda, Shinya Sukamoto . Some of the most famous Japanese contemporary directors still in business are Takeshi Kitano, Hayao Miyazaki, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Takashi shimizu, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hideo Nakata.

Must-see Japanese films

A list of Japanese films that have marked the history of cinema. Immortal and timeless masterpieces. From the classics of Ozu and Mizoguchi to hidden and rare pearls you have probably never heard of. The list is continually updated.

Tokyo Story

Shukichi and Tomi, now in their seventies, take a trip to Tokyo to visit their children before it’s too late. When they arrive in the city, however, the welcome is not what they expected: the eldest son Koichi and his sister Shige have too many work commitments and seem to experience the visit of the elderly parents more as a nuisance than a joy. One of the most important films in the history of cinema, it opens with a departure and ends with a farewell, like many other films of Ozu’s maturity. The Japanese director tells a simple story with the main themes of his filmography.


Japan, late 16th century: the potter Genjurō and his brother Tobei live with their wives Miyagi and Ohama in a village in the Omi region; Genjurō, convinced that he can earn a lot of money by selling his goods in the nearby city, goes to Omizo county with Tobei, who joins him with the sole purpose of becoming a samurai. Legend and innovation of cinematic language, a wonderful world next to a brutal and cruel world. Mystery film that opens a discourse with the invisible planes of existence, ghosts and forays into the fantastic, made by Kenji Mizoguchi in a Japan still frozen by the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Early Summer

Noriko, a secretary from Tokyo, resides in Kamakura with her family along with her parents Shūkichi and Shige, her older brother Kōichi, a doctor, his wife Fumiko and their 2 boys Minoru and Isamu. Noriko’s friends are divided into 2 groups, the married and single, who constantly tease each other, with Aya Tamura being her close ally in the single group. Gorgeous drama about family unity that is part of Ozu’s thematic trilogy called The Noriko Trilogy: Late Spring, Time to Harvest Wheat and Journey to Tokyo.

Crazed Fruit

The sweet life of the rich young Japanese of the Sun Tribe subculture that was inspired by the Western lifestyle in the late 1950s, between lust and violence, water skiing and speedboats. A story of love, passion and betrayal. Almost unknown masterpiece in the West, it caused a scandal at the time of its release. It is the film that paves the way and inspires the Japanese New Wave.

Gate of Hell

During the Heiji rebellion in Japan in 1159, Lord Kiyomori leaves his castle to go to fight. While he is absent, some local lords attempt a coup to take over Sanjo Castle. Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and Best Costume Design, Grand Prix at Cannes, which later became a lost film for 50 years, Gates of Hell is a figuratively impressive film, perhaps the most dazzling example of color photography Japanese from the 1950s.

A page of madness

In a country asylum, in torrential rain, the caretaker meets patients with mental illness. The next day a young woman arrives who is surprised to find her father there who works as a caretaker. The woman’s mother first went mad because of her husband when she was a sailor. Independent film shot with an almost non-existent budget and then lost for forty-five years. Fortunately, the director rediscovered it in his archive in 1971. It is a film made by a group of Japanese avant-garde artists, the School of new perceptions.

Elegy of Osaka

Ayako Murai is a telephone operator for the pharmaceutical company Asai, in the city of Osaka in 1930. To pay the debts of her father, unemployed and threatened with arrest for not repaying a loan, she agrees to become the lover of the his employer. Film about the condition of women, as a large part of Mizoguchi’s filmography. The protagonist is a victim of a patriarchal and male chauvinist society where money is the dominant value. Masterful film for the realistic description of the city of Osaka, lyrical and lucidity in her social criticism. Mizoguchi referring to this film, said: “Only when I was forty did I find my way”. The simplicity of the story and of the style is exemplary in Elegy of Osaka.

A Geisha

Remake of one of Mizoguchi’s first successful films from 1936. The story takes place in Kyoto and follows Eiko, a young woman who wants to become a geisha and asks the older Miyoharu to teach her the trade. One of her first clients tries to rape her but Eiko violently defends herself and sends him to the hospital. It is a dramatic story, marked by extended times and long sequence shots and with a camera that remains distant and detached from the characters.

The children of Hiroshima

Takako Ishikawa is a teacher off the coast of Hiroshima and hasn’t returned to his atomic bombed city in 4 years. His trip to Hiroshima becomes a journey to his destroyed homeland, in search of surviving old friends. The city has almost been rebuilt, but the tragedy is still very present: the disfigured faces, the shrunken limbs, the sterile women and the handicapped children without joy. Film shot with sobriety, it shows the tragedy of the bomb only in a short flashback from the protagonist in a few seconds of hallucinating images. The short scene, however, always remains present in her mind as in the mind of the spectator. The tone of Kaneto Shindo is not that of a historical account but that of an intense and restrained lyrical emotion, which seeks its essence in the details.

The Naked Island

Husband and wife live with their children on a wild island where survival conditions are very difficult. The hard work in the fields, the monotony of the days and the mourning for the death of one of the children make their life difficult. Every now and then they have to move from their small island to get food and water on the larger islands. Man and woman try to continue to cultivate their land and fight resignation in the face of life’s adversities. 

A courageous film by Kanedo Shindo that relies solely on the storytelling of music and noises. The film won the Grand Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival and enjoyed great success with audiences both in Japan and abroad.

Onibaba – The assassins

The aesthetic component of Kaneto Shindo’s cinema is evident in Onibaba, horror film that tells the story of two women left to fend for themselves who live by robbing and killing stray Samurai. 

Inspired by an ancient Buddhist fairy tale, the film tells the story of two women who live in extreme poverty, in a hut on the bank of a river. They survive by killing and robbing samurai exhausted by combat, with techniques they have refined over time. 

One day a neighbor, Hachi, tells the two women that the son of one of them, who went to war, is dead. The man also proposes to help them in their thefts and murders. But women don’t trust and refuse. But over time one of them will slowly fall in love with Hachi. One night the woman kills a mighty knight in a creepy mask with one of the tested traps. But when he takes off his mask, he discovers that behind it are the non-human traits of a frightening demon.  


Another particularly interesting horror film by Shindo is Kuroneko. In the Japanese Jidai-geki era, which began in the 17th century, a terrible civil war tore apart the villages of the country. Two women living in a bamboo house are raped and killed by a group of unscrupulous samurai. Some time later, in the same area, some samurai are found bled dead. The governor sends a valiant samurai to investigate. 

Kaneto Shindo was a independent filmmaker little inclined to compromise. Shindo perhaps excessively discounts the inability to choose between traditional models and those offered by the wave of New Cinema of the 60s. 

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New movies every week. Watch on any device, without any ads. Cancel at any time.