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: 1) “Samurai & Fighting Flicks” for those who enjoy epic hero tales and aren’t squeamish of violence, 2) “Windows Into Japanese Culture” for those want to see different facets of life in modern Japan (some good, some sad), and 3) “Lighthearted & Humorous Films” for days when you need a good laugh. Limiting my list to ten movies was no easy task as Japan is home to prolific filmmakers and some of the best directors in the world.
For more information about where to watch Japanese movies online, check out my post Top 10 Tools for Watching Japanese Videos Online.
And for more movies and heaps of other immersion resources, check out my comprehensive language learning guide, Master Japanese: The Beginner’s Step-by-Step Guide to Learning Nihongo the Fun Way.
Samurai & Fighting Flicks
1) Seven Samurai
Seven Samurai, or Shichi-nin no Samurai (七人の侍・しちにんのさむらい) as it is called in Japanese, represents the late KUROSAWA Akira’s (黒澤明・くろさわあきら) best known film, and was the first Japanese movie to gain international acclaim. The film stars a number of leading stars of the day, including SHIMURA Takashi (志村喬・しむらたかし) as SHIMADA Kanbei (島田勘兵衛・しまだかんべい), the leader of the samurai group, and MIFUNE Toshirou (三船敏郎・みふねとしろう) as Kikuchiyo (菊千代・きくちよ), an unpredictable wannabe-samurai who ends up being the real hero of the film.
Youjinbou (用心棒・ようじんぼう), which literally means “Bodyguard” in Japanese, stars MIFUNE Toshirou (三船敏郎・みふねとしろう) of Seven Samurai fame as a “masterless samurai”, or rounin (浪人・ろうにん), 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.
3) Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman
Representing KITANO Takeshi’s (北野武・きたのたけし) largest commercial success to date, Zatouichi (座頭市・ざとういち) portrays KITANO as a blind masseuse roaming town to town. Not to spoil the story, but he is in secret a Robin Hood-esque hero with serious sword skills. When he comes across a town being bullied and extorted by powerful yakuza gangs, he shows that he doesn’t need the power of sight to bust heads. Despite the film’s blood and guts, it won the prestigious “Silver Lion for Best Director” award at the 2003 Venice Film Festival.
4) The Twilight Samurai
Tasogare seibei (黄昏清兵衛・たそがれせいべい, lit. “Twilight Seibei”) is set in 19th century Japan, just prior to the Meiji Ishin (明治維新・めいじいしん, “Meiji Restoration”). The movie centers around IGUCHI Seibei (井口清兵衛・いぐちせいべい), played by SANADA Hiroyuki (真田 広之・さなだひろゆき), a frugal accountant who forgoes luxuries like bathing and presentable clothes to help care for his senile mother and daughters after his wife died of tuberculosis. But what he lacks in grooming, he makes up for in bad-ass katana skills!
5) 13 Assassins
Tired of seeing the senseless rape and murder of their fellow countrymen, thirteen samurai join forces to assassinate Lord MATSUDAIRA Naritsugu (松平斉承・まつだいらなりつぐ), the Shogun’s younger brother. Hence the film’s name juu-san-nin-no shikaku (十三人の刺客・じゅうさんにんのしかく, “13 Assassins”). The film stars YAKUSHO Kouji (役所広司・やくしょこうじ) of sharu ui dansu (シャルウィダンス・しゃるうぃだんす, “Shall We Dance”) fame. The best description I’ve seen for the film can be found in the reviews on Netflix:
“If Quentin Tarantino and Akira Kurosawa had a baby, that baby would make this movie.”
Windows Into Japanese Culture
Meaning “to Live” in Japanese, Ikiru (生きる・いきる) is a touching KUROSAWA classic about death, living for a purpose, and the absurdities of Japanese bureaucracy. Having worked for the Japanese government, I assure you the portrayal is spot on! The film stars SHIMURA Takashi (志村喬・しむらたかし), of Seven Samurai fame, this time portraying a stoic bureaucrat instead of a stoic warrior.
Departures is known as Okuribito (送り人・おくりびと) in Japanese, a word which usually refers to someone who sends someone else off (e.g. at the airport). The story centers around a 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・そうぎや, “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. The film is directed by TAKITA Youjirou (滝田洋二郎・たきたようじろう) and stars YAMAZAKI Tsutomu (山崎努・やまざきつとむ), HIROSUE Ryouko (広末涼子・ひろすえりょうこ), and MOTOKI Masahiro (本木雅弘・もときまさひろ).
8) Nobody Knows
Though it’s one of the sadder films I have ever seen, I highly recommend KORE’EDA Hirokazu’s (是枝裕和・これえだひろかず) 2004 film Daremo Shiranai (誰も知らない・だれもしらない, “Nobody Knows”). The movie follows the daily trials of four children left alone in a Tokyo apartment for months (and eventually years) by their less-than-motherly mother. Sadly, the film is based on actual events.
Lighthearted & Humorous Films
I love this movie. A tour de force of Japanese cuisine, this Japanese comedy ties multiple story lines together in an almost Tarantino-esque style, with every sub-story involving the love of food. The movie is claimed to be the first “Noodle Western” (a play on the term “Spaghetti Western”).
Though Kikujiro (菊次郎の夏・きくじろうのなつ, “Kikujiro’s Summer”) may be light on character or plot depth, the film more than makes up for it with beautiful views of Japan, amazing piano music by FUJISAWA Mamoru (藤澤守・ふじさわまもる, a.k.a. “Joe Hisaishi”), and plenty of Takeshi-style comedy.
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