I think it is safe to say that in the film world, Japanese Film is highly regarded. If you head over to the Criterion Collection’s “Top 10 Lists” (one of my favorite sites to browse when I’m bored, btw), you’ll see that on many of the greats’ lists are Japanese film directors. Wes Anderson lists three films by Shohei Imamura and Scorsese lists Mizoguchi. Unfortunately, mainstream appreciation of, or interest in, Japanese film is harder to come by.
Films with subtitles are intimidating and a commitment, but I promise you these films are worth the concentration they demand. Foreign films can often feel inaccessible and out of our comfort zone to watch for a movie night. I admit, it’s hard for me to watch these outside of film classes. So, why pick these over something you can get on Netflix and watch as you scroll through Instagram? Obviously I can’t speak to all Japanese cinema, but the films I have come to love are rich with cinematographic beauty, complex composition, and visual and narrative innovation that is hard to come by. Their influence on modern, Western film is palpable. It’s not like these films are good for being Japanese; they are just plain good.
- Tampopo (1985)
Tampopo is a playful, post-modern film that focuses on food. The film begins with two truck drivers who stop to help a young boy being bullied. The boy turns out to be the son of a widow who runs a ramen shop. The primary narrative follows the widow, named Tampopo, and her journey to mastering the art of ramen-making with Goro, one of the truck drivers, as her coach. Tampopo is laced together with other vignettes, also about food and usually playing off of American genre films, from the classic Western, to Charlie Chaplin, to boxing films like Rocky. Tampopo is bizarre at times, but always witty and entertaining.
- Kamikaze Girls (2004)
Another post-modern film, Kamikaze Girls tells the story of an unlikely pair: Momoko and Ichiko. Here’s where things may get a little confusing: Momoko is a ‘Loli’ girl, she dresses up in Victorian clothing and lives a very cute, sweet life, while Ichiko is a ‘yanki’, which is a sort of delinquent US inspired, subculture. As the two become friends, Ichiko’s biker gang finds out and decides to throw her out. Meanwhile, Momoko also tries to embroider a dress for her favorite Lolita fashion store. Weird right? Well, it’s far less weird when I’m not butchering the explanation. Kamikaze Girls is hilarious, and so fun to watch. Nakashima Tetsuya draws on the eclectic styles of Japanese commercials, game shows, and anime to be entertaining and to poke fun at consumerist culture.
- High and Low (1963)
Akira Kurosawa is the most well-known director on my list. Really, he is one of the most well-known Japanese directors ever, and simply one of the most influential directors to date. High and Low takes place in two parts. The film begins with a wealthy businessman, Kingo Gondo, finding out that his son has been kidnapped and is being held at ransom. He soon realizes that his chauffeur’s son was taken by mistake, but is still forced to make the decision to pay almost all of his money to get the boy back. The second part of the film follows two police officers investigating the case and tracking down the kidnapper. The film is a moral dilemma, and a contrast between good and evil. It’s Japanese title translates not to High and Low but to Heaven and Hell. High and Low is full of texture and visual tension. It’s such a great watch!
- Harakiri (1962)
I think this might be the most bad-ass samurai movie ever. Harakiri is about a ‘ronin’ samurai (master-less) named Tsugumo, who goes to a powerful clan to use their facilities to commit ritual suicide, known as Harakiri or Sepukku. This was not uncommon when this film took place (around the 1600’s). As the plot unfolds, we find out that Tsugumo is there to do more than kill himself. Harakiri is filled with tension and withheld information. The story is told in a way that is Tarrantino-esque, like Kill Bill or Pulp Fiction, though it’s likely that he may have drawn on Kobayashi’s techniques to tell those stories. Harakiri has the elements of a traditional samurai film, the battle between family and duty, love and honor, but it goes a step further to criticize the samurai institution and point to the flaws in their way of life. Kobayashi uses the widescreen to show us his meticulous compositions which represent hierarchy and entrapment. Harakiri is long, and slow at times, but seriously so good. I even found a way to write two final papers on it last semester!
My list seems incomplete without other greats like Mizoguchi and Ozu, but I wanted to keep it short and sweet, with just a handful of some of the more accessible and entertaining films that I could think of. I kept it to two more modern films and two older films, all four ones that adore. These four picks don’t even begin to scratch the surface of phenomenal Japanese cinema. If you’re looking for more recommendations please reach out, or check out Criterion Collection!
P.s. shout out to my Japanese film class and Professor Cullen for showing me a few of these !!