For over a century now, Japanese cinema has mesmerized the audience by delivering some of the most impactful, distinguished and perceptive films. Behind them are acclaimed directors like Akira Kurosawa, Hayao Miyazaki and Yasujirō Ozu as well as modern masters like Hirokazu Koreeda and Takashi Miike. There is truly no shortage of Japanese directors and to their clever minds’ capacities to push cinematic storytelling in bold new directions.
From action-packed samurai epics to heart-rending human dramas, from mind-bending thrillers to sprawling animated adventures, Japanese movies have a magic that is all their own. They are known for creating visually immersive worlds with the kind of production values that simply do not exist anywhere else in the world. But that does not make their stories far-fetched at all. In fact, Japanese filmmakers spew takes that are original but universally relatable.
That said, these movies are set throughout the history of the country. There’s contemporary Tokyo and feudal Japan, and their stories still make the familiar feel fresh and allow the audience to find beauty in the simplest of things. As we count down the best Japanese movies of all time on this list, be warned, because you may discover an explosion of creative range of these filmmakers and the pure cinematic joy from a film industry that continues to endlessly surprise and innovate after all these years.
20 Our Little Sister (2015)
Based on a beautiful manga written by Akimi Yoshida throughout a decade from 2006, Our Little Sister is a contemporary family drama that revolves around the lives of three Kouda sisters Sachi, Yoshino, and Chika, as they reluctantly welcome their long-lost little sibling into their lives after their father passes away. The girls struggle to adapt to their new family dynamic and balance their responsibilities. They move to a traditional seaside town Kamakura and eventually grow closer through everyday moments of joy, wistfulness, sorrow, and hope.
Director Hirokazu Koreeda is known to imbue the simplest scenes with so many emotions, it is impossible not to feel your heart sink. From routine tasks like making miso soup to hanging laundry, every frame holds a deeper meaning about the healing power of forgiveness and how family isn’t necessarily defined by blood.
19 High and Low (1963)
Akira Kurosawa’s suspenseful, high-stakes, riveting police thriller follows a wealthy businessman, Gondo, trying to stage a massive shoe company buyout, when his house is invaded by kidnappers demanding a ransom. But the kidnappers accidentally abduct the wrong child (Gondo’s driver’s son) and what follows is a desperate hunt for the perpetrator as the gears of law and justice slowly grind into motion.
The movie begins as a thriller and eases into a procedural drama, and it happens effortlessly enough to get you acquainted with Japan’s grievances that were long-forgotten. As for Kurosawa, he masterfully layers social commentary on class and morality in between a plot so tightly woven, you don’t even see a double-cross staring right at you. Toshiro Mifune brings intensity as Gondo, and High and Low becomes one of the greatest thrillers of all time.
18 Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
No surprise, we have a film by Hayao Miyazaki! Howl’s Moving Castle is an animated fantasy that follows Sophie, a young woman who is turned into an old woman by a witch’s spell. Sophie seeks to reverse the spell, and in her search for a cure, she enters the magical moving castle inhabited by a wizard named Howl. She does not just find refuge in the titular castle but also befriends Howl, his kind-hearted apprentice, and living scarecrow. The Studio Ghibli film is a dazzling feast for the senses. It features Miyazaki’s hand-drawn visuals, charming characters, and graceful flight sequences. Miyazaki has often expressed his absolute affection towards Howl’s because of its intoxicating sense of wonder, making it a timeless classic.
17 Battle Royale (2000)
Remember how The Hunger Games painted a dystopian world where children were sent to an isolated desert to fend for themselves, hunt, prey, and kill to come out victorious? Well, Battle Royale did it first. And in spectacular fashion. Kinji Fukasaku’s auditory classic throws a chilling twist on the same trope by pitting 42 junior high students against each other in a fight to the death.
Set in a futuristic Japan, the BR Act selects a random class to compete on an island with only one student surviving. They’re monitored with an explosive collar, which can blow off if they break a rule. Needless to say, the violence in the film goes to shocking extremes, but it serves to highlight the deeper questions about the role of authority and morality. Moreover, Battle Royale is fueled by a distinct youthful intensity and thrilling action sequences fighting in a society that is willing to sacrifice its own children for ‘the greater good.’
16 Gate of Hell (1953)
There have been many films about the madness associated with unrequited love, but none are as jarring and gorgeous as Gate of Hell. To name its accolades first, the movie received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Costume Design back in 1955. Also, this masterpiece created by Teinosuke Kinugasa, was the first Japanese film in color. It follows a doomed love triangle set against the aesthetic lavishness of Heian-era Japan where a samurai, Moritoh Enda, heroically rescues Lady Kesa, a very beautiful woman who he ends up falling in love with.
However, Moritoh later realizes that Kesa is already married to Wataru Watanabe. He descends into sheer lunacy in the process of pursuing her. Gate of Hell has some of the most stunning sword fights, staged battle scenes, palaces, gardens, and elaborate kimonos shown in technicolor. Clearly, Japanese cinema has always had the tools to transform a tale of love into a work of haunting beauty.
15 Ran (1985)
Filmed during the aging days of his long career, Ran has that subtle undertone of a dying spirit as Kurosawa reimagines William Shakespeare’s King Lear in this bloody samurai epic made of betrayal, madness, and war. At seventy, Great Lord Hidetora Ichimonji divides his kingdom among his three sons. Being the eldest, Taro will rule; Jiro and Saburo, the younger ones, will take charge of Second and Third Castles. But greed and ambition turns them against their father and each other.
The whole drama around ruling is enhanced with grand battle scenes shot in lush and sweeping landscapes that transform the screen into a beautiful vista. Tatsuya Nakadai plays the troubled patriarch with power and despair, watching his castle crumble in front of his eyes. Perhaps Kurosawa’s greatest achievement was to win a nomination for Best Director.
14 Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013)
This one is different from other films on the list because it works as a behind-the-scenes documentary. But the reason it earns a place here is because of its fantastic depiction of Japanese culture. Kingdom of Dreams and Madness follows, quite intimately, Studio Ghibli during the arduous production of The Wind Rises and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. We witness the genius, hard work, and gracious idiosyncrasies of the iconic animators Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata as they are drowned in their own vision while completing these ambitious films.
But the heart of the documentary lies in the lively and bustling studio itself. We watch as the group of wildly talented animators work alongside the legend himself and breathe life into his stories. Other honorable appearances are made by Toshio Suzuki, Hayao’s son Goro Miyazaki and Hideaki Anno, creator of the Evangelion franchise.
13 Tampopo (1985)
Japanese culture has the most mouthwatering food. So it is apparent that a classic comedy centered around food and, well, sex, in a way that is heartwarming but also ridiculous would be considered apt for the list. Juzo Itami’s whimsical Western, Tampopo, follows a group of men who help a widow revive her struggling ramen shop. The movie blends hilarious humor, meaningful drama, and erotic tension while making fun of American film tropes throughout and creating sequences around sexual taboos. At its heart, it may be an ode to the pleasures of simple things in life – food, friendship, and love. But with Itami’s direction, the result is a wildly imaginative story shot in sudden scenes that celebrate Japanese cuisine and the communal joy that comes from sharing a bowl of noodles.
12 Your Name (2016)
Makoto Shinkai’s blockbuster anime, Kimi no Na Wa, or Your Name, is a dramatic and compelling story of two teenagers who mysteriously wake up and realize their bodies have been swapped. Taki Tachibana is a city boy thriving in his mundane life and Mitsuha Miyamizu is a country girl content with her humble routine. Their different worlds collide when they are forced to live the other’s life for a period of time, being inexplicably connected in a love story beyond the understanding of time and space, the only way for Taki and Mitsuha to stop this is to meet for the first time. Your Name has gorgeous visuals and a soaring soundtrack to support the magical story about how destiny binds two souls and they find each other against all odds.
11 Harakiri (1962)
If you’re a fan of Quentin Tarantino’s movies where he uses a signature brand of violence and stylish action sequences (Read: Kill Bill), then you’re about to have your mind blown because Harakiri has better things in store. Kobayashi’s award-winning samurai drama centers around a ronin (a wandering, elder samurai) named Hanshiro, who petitions a feudal lord for permission to commit ritual suicide in his courtyard.
But as the story unfolds, through several flashbacks, we learn the disturbing truth behind Hanshiro’s quest for vengeance, and Chijiiwa, a young samurai who once visited the feudal lord. While traditional samurai movies focus on the art itself and the honor it demands, Harakiri exposes a moral rot at the heart of feudal Japan. Tatsuya Nakadai delivers a towering performance as the broken ronin, elevating the movie from a subtle drama to a captivating incision.
10 Shoplifters (2018)
Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, this Palme d’Or winner charts the life of an impoverished yet loving makeshift family who make ends meet through petty crime. On one of his regular shoplifting sprees, Osamu finds Yuri, a little girl, freezing in the cold. He takes her home and learns the truth about her family, following which, he decides to make her a part of his own family. Shoplifters has a different setting than Koreeda’s former films like Our Little Sister, Maborosi, and Like Father, Like Son, but the central message is too gripping to ignore. It holds your heart in its hand and shows what it feels like to be tender and compassionate toward one another. Through quiet moments of joy and daily routines in a family living on the edge of society’s wealth margins, the movie keeps a light touch but delivers immense lessons.
9 Akira (1988)
Katsuhiro Otomo adapts his own sci-fi manga and transforms it into a groundbreaking cyberpunk anime movie that naturally became one of the most popular Japanese animation movies ever created. Akira follows teenager Tetsuo whose telekinetic powers begin to awaken and threaten Tokyo with chaos and destruction. On the other side is biker gang leader Kaneda, who is not only Tetsuo’s childhood friend but also someone with an alpha male complex who simply cannot stand being outsmarted or excelled by.
Tetsuo and Kaneda’s gory clash involves frenetic action and subversive political themes. Akira’s animation pushed every boundary ever drawn in the genre and created a new art form that depicts Neo-Tokyo, awash in neon signs and towering skyscrapers with a timeless aesthetic. From an examination of how power corrupts the mind to the fear of what unrestrained technology could turn into, the movie is a power-packed ride.
8 Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Fun Fact: Grave of the Fireflies released on the same day as My Neighbour Totoro. And even though Isao Takahata is not as phenomenally acclaimed as Hayao Miyazaki, this emotional masterpiece speaks for itself. Chronicling the final days of World War II through the eyes of two siblings, Seita a teenager, and Setsuko, his younger sister, the film showcases the struggles of surviving in a country that was still reeling from the consequences of the biggest event in history. The siblings forage for food, seek shelter, and do their best to take care of each other after their home is destroyed in the firebombing of Kobe. The simple yet profound story is a testament to Takahata’s ability to inject every significant moment and gesture with towering emotion. Grave of the Fireflies honors the innocence of being a child and how it is easily shattered by the horrors of war.
7 Rashomon (1950)
Another classic by director Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon became the landmark for future psychological crime thrillers, and few have been able to meet the mark since. The premise is very exact: four people give contradictory accounts of a man’s murder and the rape of his wife. But the story, told through direct camera work and flashbacks is as frenetic as it is appalling.
Kurosawa deftly uses the method of nonlinear storytelling and shifting perspectives and brings forward the truth about human nature and their reliability on memory. With dramatic performances from Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyo, the movie has a plot filled with surprising twists and turns. But it’s true breakthrough lies in the fact that objective truth may not exist at all. Only subjective versions shaped by bias and self-interest make it out and about.
6 Tokyo Story (1953)
Steering the list to a rather dramatic direction by mentioning Tokyo Story is truly a relief. Directed by Yasujirō Ozu, the film tells the story of an aging couple who travel all the way from Onomichi to Tokyo to visit their grown children. Koichi, their eldest, is an accomplished doctor, and Shige, a thriving hairdresser, both of whom are too busy to spend time with their parents. So it falls to Noriko, her youngest son’s widow, to care for them.
The composition is subtle, the dialogue sparse, and the lates long and ordinary, but Ozu manages to depict the widening generational gap and changes that altered the shape of postwar Japan with the kind of jarring emotions that leave you numb and you don’t even realize it. With tenderness and warmth, we witness the scenes play out like poetry and the melancholia of families drifting apart adds and understated value to the whole premise.
5 Princess Mononoke (1997)
Set in the 14th century, Princess Mononoke is Miyazaki’s eco-fable that follows a young warrior and Emishi prince named Ashitaka as he collides with an industrializing world and the gods and spirits that dwell within the forest. Because the very foundation of their lifestyle is fractured, Ashitaka must broker peace between the human clan that is tirelessly building an iron town and the animal gods, led by Princess Mononoke, who are fighting against them to protect the forest.
Through stunning imagery, Miyazaki creates a riot of visual grandiosity and splendor. We see wonderful creatures like the demonic boar god and giant wolf gods and are transported to a world where they are struggling to live peacefully. But the distinguished part of the movie is the ecological parable he uses to raise questions on progress and preservation. Overall, Princess Mononoke is one of the greatest animated coming-of-age epics ever created.
4 Departures (2008)
In Departures, we follow a cellist named Daigo Kobayashi whose orchestra has recently disbanded and he has returned to his hometown with his wife to start fresh. Taking up a rather ominous job from an ad agency, Daigo begins working as an undertaker, preparing bodies for funeral rites. In the beginning, he faces prejudices for this new job but he soon brings a unique spirit to his role. Set in the countryside in Yamagata Prefecture, the film finds grace in quiet gestures as Daigo cleans and dresses the deceased with quiet tenderness. Director Yōjirō Takita imbues every scene with subtle emotion and transformative themes and extraordinary wit. It is no stunner that the film won an Academy Award Best International Feature Film back in 2009 because it teaches you to truly see one another.
3 Spirited Away (2001)
It would be a crime not to make multiple mentions of Hayao Miyazaki in a list of best Japanese movies because the legendary director has graced us with so many masterpieces. In Spirited Away, we follow Chihiro, a ten-year-old girl who is out with her parents and they end up visiting an abandoned amusement park. There, Chihiro enters the spirit world and finds that her parents have been transformed into pigs.
Trapped as an apprentice to a witch, she must find a way to free her parents and return home to the human world. Miyazaki conjures a fantasy land where spirits amuse themselves in their free time. There are wonders like the bathhouse and the faceless black blob No-Face. But ultimately, the film is about Chihiro and her journey of self-discovery. Even though she doesn’t remember a thing about the spirit world after getting out, Chihiro learns the true meaning of life’s purpose and love through helping others.
2 Seven Samurai (1954)
Seven Samurai is an epic film that centers on a village that hires seven unemployed samurai to defend them and their home against bandits. As the samurai protect and train the people of the village, it is attacked by 40 bandits. If this was a ranking, Akira Kurosawa’s movie probably would take the first place because what follows is not just a story of action and adventure, but an in-depth exploration of the damage caused on human conscience and actions due to power. Kurosawa is a master at weaving complex themes like class and honor and the pressing burden of leadership into an overflowing tapestry of action sequences, vivid characters, and rich visuals. Led by Toshiro Mifune, the ensemble cast of warriors each have their own pasts and desires. Overall, Seven Samurai is one of those movies that despite having a two and a half hour runtime seem breezy and engrossing and worth every minute.
1 Drive My Car (2021)
Winner of the Best International Feature Film and loosely inspired by Haruki Murakami’s collection Men Without Women and his other short stories, Drive My Car is a stunning film that explores themes of loss, infidelity, forgiveness, and the power of human connection. It follows Yusuke Kafuku, a widowed actor-director, arriving at Hiroshima for the production of a play titled ‘Uncle Vanya’ but in the process develops a revealing relationship with his young female chauffeur. As they spend time in his car, traveling between rehearsals, they share stories about their painful pasts.
Now, if the same plot was given to another director, they’d probably turn it into something sweet and formulaic. But Ryusuke Hamaguchi creates a subtle nuance that transcends in the spaces between words, in the long silence, and the close-up shots, and the vivid sensory details. Two personal takeaways? When a movie drops the opening credits after 40 minutes, you know it’s going to be good. And the 2-door red Saab is one of the best movie cars ever seen in cinema.