Finding the ten best movies about Japan isn’t as easy as it seems. While the country has produced hundreds of great films, not many are about Japan. With much consideration, we’ve compiled the following list:
- Ugetsu. Kenji Mizoguchi’s surreal, allegorical nightmare is one of the best films about Japan. Based on a folktale, it’s the story of a man who falls in love with a ghost. “Ugetsu” uses its supernatural tale to tell the history of Japan through spirits and conflict, from the fall of its great Emperors to the confusion and turmoil of the Shogun-era. The violence of the film’s medieval setting echoes World War II and it’s aftermath.
- Rashomon. Akira Kursawa’s “Rashomon” tells the story of a murder from three perspectives, each with a distinct account. The film begins with a medieval priest sitting under a ruined gate in pouring rain. Here, the priest tells a traveler of the murder and confusion which is what this film is centered around. The crime is used to parallel the varying cultural-historical interpretations of WWII and the ultimate futility in searching for truth. “Rashomon” advances a very Japanese idea: objective truth is irrelevant.
- Princess Mononoke. Master animator Hayao Miyazaki has directed many great films, though none deal with Japan more than “Princess Monoke”, which pits forest spirits against societal industrialization. “Mononoke” could have easily been about humanity’s malevolence, but is instead multifaceted. While humans do wrong by the forest, the film acknowledges that some of it is necessary. A prismatic examination Japan from the 1800’s onward, “Mononoke” searches for harmony between the progressive and traditional.
- Gojira. “Gojira” launched 1000 corny, low budget creatures, but this 1954 film is more than a monster movie. It’s a portrait of fear and paranoia, centered on the unknown effects of radiation fallout from the atomic bomb. “Gojira” addresses Japan’s age-old fascination with and its empathy towards monsters. You can read this empathy as feelings of global vilification. However you want to see it, “Gojira” is one of the best films about Japan.
- Stray Dog. In “Stray Dog”, Kurosawa takes to the streets of Tokyo in the aftermath of WWII. Ostensibly a noir about a detective whose pistol is stolen, “Stray Dog” is a striking portrait of a city finding itself again after catastrophe. The bombed-out locations and teaming black markets give the film a palpable, labyrinthine ambiance that speaks volumes of modern Japan’s identity crisis.
- Tora-san. Though unknown beyond Japan, traveling salesman Tora-san is the star of more films than any other character, including James Bond. Watching the series, you find an unassuming portrait of post-World War II Japan's economic growing pains and the shift away from traditional life. Tora-san films are genial, popular entertainment, and some of the best movies about Japan.
- Battle Royale. Few words describe “Battle Royale” better than ridiculous. “Lord of the Flies” with ginormous guns, “Battle Royal” gives middle school kids weapons and forces them into competition. “Battle Royal” addresses contemporary Japan, a country of overpopulation and cutthroat corporations where the young are pitted against one another in the battle for success. It’s bloody great exploitation, and one of the best movies about Japan.
- Mind Game. “Mind Game” is an anime about…we’re not really sure. What makes it one of the best movies about Japan is its embracement of the conflicting tendencies of the country: esoteric, difficult, and strange, and joyous, colorful and exuberant. “Mind Game” shows the extremes of the Japanese imagination, from the penchant for brutal violence to gleeful, mischievous wonderment.
- Black Rain. Black Rain is a melodrama about the bombing of Hiroshima. Unlike “Gojira’s” allegory or “Stray Dog’s” feverish trip through post-war Tokyo, “Black Rain” focuses on the bomb’s victims. While the film is tragic and harsh, it has the advantage of perspective. Released in 1989, it is as much about recovery and progress as it is about victimhood and destruction.
Yasukuni. “Yasukuni” is the only documentary here. The film, about master swordsmith Naoji Kariya, contrasts the ritualistic solemnity of sword making with the violence and brutality of the final product. Juxtaposing the serene and sadistic aspects of Japanese culture and history, “Yasukuni” is one of the best films about Japan because of its modesty and complexity.