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5 Japanese Films You MUST Know!

Once, a certain critic said that there are three types of films: good films, bad films, and Japanese films.

Mariusz Czernic

11 August 2023

5 Japanese Films You MUST Know audition

There’s something to it – the cinema of the Land of the Rising Sun has a particular specificity that might not appeal to everyone. Japan was a powerhouse when it came to film production – more films were made there than in any other country. On February 15, 1934, in Film News: An Illustrated Magazine, a statistic prepared by the American publication Film Daily appeared, indicating that in 1933, 750 films were produced in Japan (with the USA in second place with 510 titles). Over time, production declined, but this country still remains at the forefront, competing for third place with China (India and the USA seem out of reach).

However, quantity is not what matters, but rather quality, and in this regard, the Land of the Rising Sun is in no way inferior to the best cinematographies. Japan has given birth to many talented filmmakers, and numerous films are widely recognized as masterpieces. Choosing the top five is an impossible task. In preparing this compilation, I decided to span various periods of cinema, from the 1930s to the present day. I selected films by five masters whom I deemed most representative. However, these are not necessarily their best works (for instance, I omitted Seven Samurai to make room for another film by Akira Kurosawa that holds greater significance in the history of Japanese cinema).

Sazen Tange and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo (1935), dir. Sadao Yamanaka

Sazen Tange and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo Denjirô Ôkôchi Sazen Tange

One of the most outstanding pre-war Japanese directors was Sadao Yamanaka, who, before his untimely death at the age of just under 29, directed over 20 films. He made significant contributions to the jidai-geki genre (Japanese historical dramas), but only three of his films survived the war: Sazen Tange and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo (1935), Kochiyama Soshun (1936), and Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937). The first of these belongs to a popular series featuring the crippled ronin Tange Sazen, distinguished by having one hand and one functional eye. The character was created by Kaitarō Hasegawa (pseudonym Fubô Hayashi), and the most famous actor to portray the role was Denjirô Ôkôchi, who also appeared in the discussed production. The titular pot appears to be a cheap, seemingly worthless clay vessel for tea, but it holds a secret known to only a few. It bears a map leading to a treasure, a million ryo in gold, hidden long ago by a ruler of a great province.

Sadao Yamanaka infused the story with humor while not shying away from a critical view of a selfish, greedy society. People set themselves improper goals and, in pursuing them, forget about what truly matters. The screenwriter Shintarô Mimura pushes the situation to absurdity, making the valuable artifact closer than anyone suspects. What the characters desire is within arm’s reach, yet no one realizes it. The essence of life is to notice what is close rather than chase mythical treasures. The plot served Yamanaka as a canvas to present a multi-layered society and bring forth a message of humanism. A modernly staged blend of situational comedy and costume drama designed to evoke not only laughter but also contemplation.

Rashomon (1950), dir. Akira Kurosawa


From Akira Kurosawa’s filmography, many exceptional works can be extracted: Drunken Angel (1948), Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961), Red Beard (1965), Dersu Uzala (1975), Ran (1985). However, in this compilation, it makes the most sense to highlight Rashomon, as it is a groundbreaking work for Japanese cinema. Well received abroad, it was honored with the Golden Lion in Venice, a special Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction in Black and White. The eyes of the world turned to Japanese cinema, which had previously remained in the shadows and only achieved success domestically. Kurosawa became even more esteemed as a filmmaker, especially outside of Japan (particularly in France and the USA).

Rashomon is an adaptation of two stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa: Rashōmon – In the Grove (1915) and Yabu no Naka – The Grove (1921), inspired by Tales of Times Now Past (Konjaku Monogatari) from the 12th century, blending realism with fantasy. Similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1950), Kurosawa employs flashbacks to confound the viewer. Set in medieval Japan, the screenplay by Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto presents a story of double crime – rape and murder – committed within a triangle of three individuals. At first, everything seems clear – the murder victim is known, as is the rape victim, and even a bandit has been captured, confessing to both crimes. However, a series of flashbacks unveils varying circumstances, leaving the audience unable to unequivocally judge any of the characters.

The forested grove symbolizes man’s lost state within the labyrinth of lies and intricacies of human nature. In many mystery films, the solution to the puzzle is typically revealed at the climax. However, for the director of Rashomon, there isn’t a single concrete solution. When asked about the truth, he often responded that the film’s purpose is not to reveal the truth but to explore multiple realities. The narrative framework centers around three people meeting at the Rashōmon gate during the rain, where clouds metaphorically obscure the sun, creating a gloomy, pessimistic atmosphere conducive to recounting dark tales.

Onibaba (1964), dir. Kaneto Shindô

Onibaba Nobuko Otowa

Japan has a fascinating history, but it also possesses mythology in which important motifs include female entities, such as the theme explored in Kaneto Shindō’s masterpiece, Onibaba, depicting an older woman transformed into a demon. However, the discussed film is not a supernatural horror. Here, the terror stems from the real world, arising from ongoing armed conflict. The battlefield isn’t shown on screen, but the tragic consequences of war are unmistakably apparent. Two women, left without men to stave off starvation, kill fleeing samurai from the battlefield and then sell their armor and weaponry in exchange for necessities. It’s humanity that becomes the demon, virtually everyone, placing the viewer in an uncomfortable position, as there’s no one to sympathize with.

Although the action is set in the 14th century, during the Battle of Minato River (1336), the director aimed to portray the traumatic impact of World War II on Japanese society. The devilish mask worn by one of the heroines symbolizes the victims of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When the mask is removed, it unveils the face of a human demon – distorted, horrifying, and evoking repulsion. The female demon proves to be a deeply poignant psychological drama, a disquieting horror film, but also a work that conceals contemporary issues beneath the attire of an ancient era.

Audition (1999), dir. Takashi Miike


Takashi Miike’s filmography comprises over a hundred works. A pivotal piece in his career, particularly recommended for those unfamiliar with his work, is Audition. Despite being labeled as Japanese horror, the film shares more with psychological thriller. At the heart of the screenplay, based on a novel by Ryū Murakami, is an audition for a film role. However, this is merely a pretext – the true purpose of the casting is to select a partner for a lonely widower. There’s something immoral about it, as it involves deceiving numerous women. Although the men’s intentions aren’t unequivocally evil, their audacious plan has serious consequences. One of them will feel these consequences firsthand.

The film’s pacing is deliberate, yet tension is masterfully built. Even knowing the premise, you can often be surprised due to the director’s manipulation of editing. There’s no certainty whether the protagonist’s mind is playing tricks on him, tossing him sometimes into brutal reality, other times into terrifying nightmares. What’s true and what’s not becomes inconsequential, as both inflict pain. Reality inflicts physical pain, nightmares inflict psychological pain, as upon awakening, it’s revealed that there’s no trustworthy person by one’s side. Despite Miike later directing many extremely brutal and eccentric works, Audition still remains his most sophisticated production. The scenes of violence are preceded by a realistic depiction of an ordinary man’s life, attempting to fill the void left by a dear person’s absence.

The Outrage (2010), dir. Takeshi Kitano

the outrage

After a long hiatus from gangster dramas, Takeshi Kitano returns in grand style to the yakuza theme with The Outrage. This film marks the beginning of a mafia trilogy, a brutally violent spectacle tackling the familiar theme of power struggles within the mafia. The movie is brimming with antiheroes, trust is a rare commodity, and the concept of honor has lost its significance. In reality, it doesn’t take much to spark a war – a hateful glance, audacious action, or ill-advised word directed at the wrong person is enough. Even the act of cutting off a finger as a sign of apology might fall short. In such a world, one must be cautious, prepared for unpleasant surprises, and above all, tough and uncompromising.

The film portrays deteriorating family relationships – even a strong organization like the yakuza gradually crumbles due to interpersonal conflicts. As one boss steps down, another takes his place, but conflicts keep resurfacing, and lives can be lost as quickly as money in a gambling game. The gangster profession, while profitable, comes with immense risk – the possibility of losing is colossal. The director doesn’t hold back with the characters or the audience, offering a vivid depiction of individuals doomed to failure. The Outrage is cinema executed with a sharp edge – intense, well-acted, providing a potent experience, and characterized by its raw atmosphere. There’s nothing romanticized about the gangster myth here – blood has an unpleasant, grim taste.

Mariusz Czernic

Mariusz Czernic

Tries to popularize old, forgotten cinema. A lover of black crime stories, westerns, historical and samurai dramas, gothic horror movies as well as Italian and French genre cinema.

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