National Institute of Japanese Studies Japanese Film: 15 Recommended Movies

Japanese Film: 15 Recommended Movies

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Dr Mika Ko selects fifteen films that every student of Japanese film should have in their collection.

Dr Mika Ko is a lecturer in the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield. Her research interests are in the fields of Film, Media and Cultural Studies and she is particularly interested in the development of transnational East-Asian cinema and its potential to challenge traditional forms of national production. Below is a list of the 15 'must-see' Japanese films she recommends. Narrowing the selection down to just 15 was a painstaking effort for her because she could recommend so many more!

Page of Madness (dir. Kinugasa Teinosuke, 1926)

Acted by an avant-garde theatre group, conceived and directed by one-time kabuki female impersonator Kinugasa, A Page of Madness remains one of the most radical and challenging Japanese movies ever seen here. An old sailor works as a janitor in an asylum to stay close to his insane wife and to help her to escape, except that she doesn't want to go... Kinugasa deploys a battery of expressionist distortions and otherwise stylised images to plunge his audience into 'irrational' experience, always withdrawing to a 'saner' perspective, and then undercutting that with another visual or dramatic shock. This version has music added by Kinugasa when he rediscovered the print in 1970. (Synopsis from Time Out Film Guide.)

DVD will be released in 2009.


Ikiru (dir. Kurosawa Akira, 1952)

Considered by some to be Akira Kurosawa's greatest achievement, Ikiru presents the director at his most compassionate; affirming life through an exploration of a man's death. Takashi Shimura portrays Kanji Watanabe, an aging bureaucrat with stomach cancer forced to strip the veneer off his existence and find meaning in his final days. Told in two parts, Ikiru offers Watanabe's quest in the present, and then through a series of flashbacks. The result is a multifaceted look at a life through a prism of perspectives, resulting in a full portrait of a man who lacked understanding from others in life. (Synopsis from Criterion Collection.)

DVD is available from Criterion and Amazon.


Tokyo Story (dir. Ozu Yasujiro, 1953)

Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari) follows an aging couple, Tomi and Sukichi, on their journey from their rural village to visit their two married children in bustling, post-war Tokyo. Their reception is disappointing: too busy to entertain them, their children send them off to a health spa. After Tomi falls ill, she and Sukichi return home, while the children, grief-stricken, hasten to be with her. From a simple tale unfolds one of the greatest of all Japanese films. Starring Ozu regulars Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara, the film reprises one of the director's favorite themes of 'generational conflict' in a way that is quintessentially Japanese and yet so universal in its appeal that it continues to resonate as one of cinema's greatest masterpieces. (Synopsis from Criterion Collection.)

DVD is available from Criterion.


Chikamatsu Monogatari (dir. Mizoguchi Kenji, 1954)

In Chikamatsu Monogatari director Kenji Mizoguchi again employs the repertoire of bunraku in this tale of lovers thwarted by the constricting feudal hierarchy of 17th-century Japan. Kyoko Kagawa and Kazuo Hasegawa star as, respectively, the wife, Osan, and clerk, Mohei, of Ishun, a wealthy and corrupt scrollmaker. When Osan's brother asks her for help in paying a debt, she turns to Mohei, who agrees to use his master's seal to dispense the money she needs. Although he refuses to implicate Osan, Mohei is forced to confess his actions to Ishun, who publicly humiliates the clerk and locks him in a storeroom. Through a series of complications, Ishun arrives at the mistaken belief that Osan and Mohei are lovers. Mohei is instantly dismissed and forced into exile. But when Ishun offers a seppuku knife to Osan, she refuses ritual suicide, knowing that she's committed no crime, and escapes from her husband's house. The director counter-poses the high-angle shots, vertical architecture, and entrapping shadows of Ishun's establishment--visual metaphors for the rigidity of this feudal society--with the simple grandeur of nature--a visual metaphor for love--in a compelling denunciation of destructive social mores. (Synopsis from

DVD is available from Amazon.


When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (dir. Naruse Mikio, 1960)

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs might be Japanese filmmaker Mikio Naruse's finest hour--a delicate, devastating study of a woman, Keiko (played heartbreakingly by Hideko Takamine), who works as a bar hostess in Tokyo's very modern postwar Ginza district, entertaining businessmen after work. Sly, resourceful, but trapped, Keiko comes to embody the conflicts and struggles of a woman trying to establish her independence in a male-dominated society. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs shows the largely unsung yet widely beloved master Naruse at his most socially exacting and profoundly emotional. (Synopsis from Criterion Collection.)

DVD is available from the BFI.


The Actor's Revenge (dir. Ichikawa Kon, 1963)

This wildly melodramatic tale of a kabuki female impersonator who exacts a long-delayed revenge on the men who drove his parents to suicide is played out against a backdrop of comic rivalries between thieves in the Tokyo underworld. Kazuo Hasegawa plays the dual role of the actor and the thief in a film which celebrates his 300th screen appearance. A heady mixture of swooning romanticism and stylised action, with a soundtrack that ranges from traditional Japanese music to lush Hollywood strings and cocktail jazz, An Actor's Revenge is a cinematic tour de force. (Synopsis from BFI.)

DVD is available from the BFI.


A Woman of the Dune (dir. Teshigahara Hiroshi, 1964)

One of the sixties' great international art-house sensations, Woman in the Dunes was for many the grand unveiling of the surreal, idiosyncratic worldview of Hiroshi Teshigahara. Eija Okada plays an amateur entomologist who has left Tokyo to study an unclassified species of beetle that resides in a remote, vast desert; when he misses his bus back to civilization, he is persuaded to spend the night in the home of a young widow (Kiyoko Kishida) who lives in a hut at the bottom of a sand dune. What results is one of cinema's most bristling, unnerving, and palpably erotic battles of the sexes, as well as a nightmarish depiction of everyday Sisyphean struggle, for which Teshigahara received an Academy Award nomination for best director. (Synopsis from Criterion Collection.)

DVD is available from the BFI and Amazon.


Tokyo Drifter (dir. Suzuki Seijun, 1966)

In this free-jazz gangster film, reformed killer "Phoenix" Tetsu drifts around Japan, awaiting his own execution until he's called back to Tokyo to help battle a rival gang. Seijun Suzuki's "barrage of aestheticised violence, visual gags, [and] mind-warping color effects" got him in more trouble with Nikkatsu studio heads, who had ordered him to "play it straight this time." Instead he gave them equal parts Russ Meyer, Samuel Fuller, and Nagisa Oshima. (Synopsis from Criterion Collection.)

DVD is available from Amazon.


A Diary of Shinjuku Thief (dir Oshima Nagisa, 1968)

Using a gripping storyline involving a violent, moody drop-out and a disaffected young woman, director Nagisa Oshima crafts a powerful exploration into the world of the young Japanese radicals of 1968. Drawing a parallel with the student riots of Paris and New York, Oshima's world is punctuated by cultural icons such as Henry Miller and Muhammad Ali and stylized with hand-held camera-work. The title character, played by Tadanori Yokoo, takes the first step on the road to ruin when he steals an inconsequential item from a bookstore. Caught in the act by the shopgirl (Rie Yokoyama), the shoplifter becomes the girl's sexual partner and virtual slave. The film is rife with erotic symbolism that will be lost on no one.This striking experimental film exemplifies Oshima's audacious, dynamic style--a style that mixes violence, eroticism, politics, and self-reflexivity to explore the link between modernism and non-Western modes of perception. (Synopsis from Earlham Film Series.)

DVD is currently unavailable.


The Funeral Parade of Roses (dir. Matsumoto Toshio, 1969)

A feverish collision of avant-garde aesthetics and grind-house shocks (not to mention a direct influence on Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange), Funeral Parade of Roses, a twisted and modern version of Oedipus Rex, takes us on an electrifying journey into the nether-regions of the late-'60s Tokyo underworld. In Toshio Matsumoto's controversial debut feature, seemingly nothing is taboo: neither the incorporation of visual flourishes straight from the worlds of contemporary graphic-design, painting, comic-books, and animation; nor the unflinching depiction of nudity, sex, drug-use, and public-toilets. But of all the "transgressions" here on display, perhaps one in particular stands out the most: the film's groundbreaking and unapologetic portrayal of Japanese gay subculture. (Synopsis from

DVD is available from Amazon.


Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (dir. Kazuo Hara, 1974)

In this autobiographical work, Hara turns the camera on his ex-wife Takeda Miyuki, a bisexual feminist activist who has relocated to Okinawa. She gets pregnant following a tryst with an African-American GI and proceeds to eviscerate Hara in a private conversation with his girlfriend, Sachiko. Miyuki proves to be the perfect cinematic device for Hara to reveal the most intimate details of his fascinating life. (Synopsis from Harvard Film Archive.)

DVD is available from Amazon.


Sonatine (dir. Kitano Takeshi, 1993)

In Takeshi Kitano's Sonatine, a Tokyo-based yakuza boss sends Murakawa (Kitano), one of his top men, on a peacekeeping mission to Okinawa, where two rival factions are coming to blows. Murakawa is naturally suspicious of the volatile situation and decides to lay low for a few days on a secluded beach. Slowly Murakawa and his men begin to let their guard down, battling boredom with various games and antics. However, harsh reality finds them sooner than they would have expected--leading to a bloody conclusion. A stunning combination of abrupt violence and quiet meditation, Kitano's film is widely considered a classic. (Synopsis from

DVD is available from Amazon.


Bird People in China (dir. Miike Takashi, 1998)

After his boss falls ill, the Japanese salaryman Wada is assigned to go to remote Yunnan Province in China to assess the value of a load of jade there. He is abruptly joined by Ujiie, a violent and uncouth yakuza enforcer, who has come to collect on unpaid debts owed by the company. As they set out, the two of them are bewildered by the journey they face: their vehicle falling apart, roads washed out, having to journey by turtle-drawn raft, their guide/interpreter developing amnesia after being hit by a branch. Eventually they reach the remote village and find a simple people who live around myths of their bird people ancestors. Listening to a local girl singing, Wada realizes that her song is a traditional Scottish love ballad. The discovery of a crashed plane makes him realize that their myth of bird people comes from her grandfather, a British flyer who crashed there and settled amongst the people. At the same time, Ujiie comes to love life there and realizes that their development of the jade mine will corrupt the Bird People's simple culture and so takes ruthless steps to stop them ever going back. (Synopsis from The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review.)

DVD is available from Amazon.


Nightmare Detective (dir. Tsukamoto Shinya, 2006)

A competent detective, Keiko Kirishima, encounters two mysterious suicides. Somehow the two incidents seem to be connected since the victims both dialled the same number--a sequence ending with '0' that is not registered anywhere in the country--just before their death. The wife of one of the victims, who was sleeping next to him, testifies that it looked like someone was attacking him in a dream. After some investigation, Keiko and her colleagues are directed to the so-called 'Nightmare Detective' who has the power to enter other people's dreams. Keiko asks him to cooperate with their sting operation but is bluntly refused. Knowing there is no other way, Keiko herself decides to dial the deadly number... (Synopsis from the Nightmare Detective's official website.)

DVD is available from Amazon.


The Mourning Forest (dir. Kawase Naomi, 2007)

No longer clear of mind in the senior years of his life, Shigeki (Shigeki Uda) lives in a rural nursing home, holding on to what memory he has left of his late wife Mako. Unpredictable and at times rough and feisty, Shigeki takes an interest in new caretaker Machiko (Ono Machiko, Moe no Suzaku, Eureka), a young woman still coping with the recent death of her son. The two develop a close friendship, finding in each other an inexplicable source of warmth and healing as they quarrel, giggle, and embark on minor adventures. During a car trip, Shigeki wanders off on his own into the forest and Machiko follows, unable to stop him on his quest to find Mako. Faced with cold temperatures and untrodden paths, the two journey through the night and day to a destination that beckons from their minds. A remarkable achievement in humanistic cinema, Kawase Naomi's The Mourning Forest (Mogari no Mori) won the Grand Prix at the 30th Cannes Film Festival. The Mourning Forest moves at a ponderous pace through strikingly beautiful natural environments to create a quiet hymn of warmth, tragedy, and poetic beauty. (Synopsis from

DVD is available from YesAsia.

The list above is given in chronological order.


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