10 Great Japanese Films to Get Immersion On Your Couch!
Film is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in a foreign language from afar, giving you valuable cultural and linguistic insights from the comfort of your couch. Below you will find my top ten favorite Japanese movies of all time, divided into three categories:
- “Samurai & Fighting Flicks” for those who enjoy epic hero tales and aren’t squeamish of violence.
- “Windows Into Japanese Culture” for those want to see different facets of daily life in Japan (some uplifting, some sad).
- “Lighthearted & Humorous Films” for days when you need a good laugh and want to revel in Japan's unique flavor of comedy.
Samurai & Fighting Flicks
1) Seven Samurai
Seven Samurai, or Shichi-nin no Samurai (七人の侍) in Japanese, is the best known movie by legendary Japanese director KUROSAWA Akira (黒澤明) one of the first Japanese film to gain international acclaim. It stars SHIMURA Takashi (志村喬) as SHIMADA Kanbei (島田勘兵衛), the leader of a band of samurai hired to depend a town from bandits, and MIFUNE Toshirou (三船敏郎), as Kikuchiyo (菊千代), a brutish wannabe-samurai.
Another film starring MIFUNE Toshirou (三船敏郎), but this time as a rounin (浪人, “masterless samurai”) who uses his cunning mind and warrior arts to help a town riddled with the violence and corruption of two warring clans. The heads of both clans end up hiring him for protection, unaware he is playing both sides. Note: the word youjinbou (用心棒) means "bodyguard" in Japanese.
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3) 13 Assassins
Tired of enduring the senseless rape and murder of their neighbors, thirteen samurai join forces to assassinate the tyranical Lord MATSUDAIRA Naritsugu (松平斉承), the Shogun’s younger brother. Hence the film’s name juu-san-nin-no shikaku (十三人の刺客, “13 Assassins”). It stars YAKUSHO Kouji (役所広司) of “Shall We Dance” (シャルウィダンス) fame, and was described by one fan as follows: “If Quentin Tarantino and Akira Kurosawa had a baby, that baby would make this movie.”
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4) Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman
This remake of a classic Japanese film represents KITANO Takeshi’s (北野武=) largest commercial success to date. In the movie, KITANO portrays Zatouichi (座頭市), a blind masseuse roaming town to town. It turns out that he is in fact a Robin Hood-esque hero with serious sword skills. When he comes across a town being extorted by powerful yakuza gangs, he shows that he doesn’t need the power of sight to bust heads and save the day. Despite the film’s blood and guts, it won the prestigious “Silver Lion for Best Director” award at the 2003 Venice Film Festival.
5) Princess Mononoke
This animated classic from Studio Ghibli may be less known than more recent hits like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, but I it holds a special place in my heart. The film centers on a young prince named Ashitaka (アシタカ), who gets caught up in an epic struggle between the forest gods and the humans trying to decimate its resources. Note: The word mononoke (物の怪) refers to an evil spirit that possess people and causes disease or death.
Windows into Japanese Culture
Meaning "to live" in Japanese, Ikiru (生きる) is a touching KUROSAWA classic about death, purpose, and the absurdities of bureaucracy. Having worked for the Japanese government, I can assure you that the portrayal is spot on! The film stars SHIMURA Takashi (志村喬) of Seven Samurai fame, this time playing a stoic bureaucrat instead of a a stoic warrior.
The film Departures is called Okuribito (送り人) in Japanese, a word which usually refers to someone who sends someone else off (e.g. at the airport). In this case, the "sending off" refers to preparing bodies for a funeral! The story centers around a young young cellist in Tokyo who moves back to his rural hometown with his wife after his symphony is shut down. Taking a complete change of course in his life, he takes a job at a sougiya (葬儀屋, “funeral parlor”) and finds himself handling dead bodies instead of expensive cellos. The movie won “Best Foreign Language Film” at the 2009 Oscars, and “Picture of the Year” at the 32nd Japan Academy Awards.
8) Nobody Knows
Though it's certainly one of the saddest films I've ever seen, I highly recommend checking out Daremo Shiranai (誰も知らない). Based on a true story, the movie follows the daily trials of four children left alone in a Tokyo apartment for months and years at a time.
Lighthearted & Humorous Japanese Films
Tampopo (タンポポ, literally "dandelion") is a tour de force of Japanese cuisine. The movie ties together numerous food-related vignettes, centered around Tampopo, the widowed owner of a struggling ramen shop.
The movie Kikujiro (菊次郎の夏, "Kikujirou's Summer") may be light on character development and plot depth, but it more than makes up for it with beautiful views of the Japanese countryside, a gorgeous original score by FUJISAWA Mamoru (藤澤守), and plenty of Takeshi-style silliness.