Japan makes some great films, so it figures that Japanese cult movies would be among the greatest cult classics ever. In fact, it could be argued that the international fan base for some Japanese films has grown beyond a mere cult. Here’s a look at some of the Japanese films that have inspired dedicated cult followings over the years.
“Godzilla, King of the Monsters.” For many people, especially kids, Japan’s rubber-suit monster classics were the first “foreign” films they ever saw. 1954’s “King of the Monsters” launched the genre, which was celebrated as camp for the earnestness of its badly-dubbed human actors. The original film was re-released in 2004 in a subtitled version that restored its status as a horror classic.
“The Seven Samurai.” The same year as “Godzilla,” acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa released his masterpiece. Rogue warriors gather to defend a helpless village from an army of bandits. A cult of fans that devotedly followed Kurosawa’s later work included filmmakers like George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.
“The Manster.” Often overlooked amid the giant-monster crowd is the man-sized monster called the “Manster.” A mad scientist causes a hapless reporter to sprout an evil second head. The 1962 international co-production was filmed with Japanese and American cast and crew members, and later nominated for a Golden Turkey Award.
“The Tale of Zatoichi.” Where America had the Western film, Japan had samurai movies. The fierce swordplay of this 1962 film and its sequels made them favorites of international samurai film fans. A legendary blind swordsman battles criminal gangs, armed only with the sword in his cane.
“Attack of the Mushroom People.” A title like that will draw bad-movie fans on general principle, which is how the cult began for this killer-fungus classic. It turned out to actually be the 1963 film “Matango,” by “Godzilla” director Inshiro Honda. These new fans found it to be one of Honda’s darker movies, effectively creepy for its low budget.
“Hausu.” In lieu of giant-monster action or great drama, 1977’s “Hausu” became a cult favorite for its out-and-out strangeness. A surreal plot involving Japanese schoolgirls, an old house, a cat with laser eyes and a carnivorous piano left American viewers in a state of disbelief. The film was rediscovered by a new generation of fans in 2010 when it was re-released to theaters and video.
“Akira.” American anime fandom exploded after the release of Katsuhiro Otomo’s science fiction epic. The action-packed “Akira” was the perfect film to introduce a generation raised on ‘80s adventure movies to the world of anime and manga. The cult became a cultural phenomenon that still fills bookstore and video store shelves on both sides on the Pacific.
“My Neighbor Totoro.” Even apart from anime fandom, Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki has his own devoted following around the world. Many first fell in love with this gentle children’s film when it was released to video in the 1980s. Miyazaki’s legions of fans include American animators such as the Pixar staff, who saluted him with a “Totoro” toy in “Toy Story 3.”
“Ringu.” A new cult developed for Japanese and Asian horror films in the 1990s, driven by movies like 1998’s creepy “Ringu.” The tale of a cursed videotape that kills anyone who watches it was somehow modern and old-school at the same time. The film and its American remake “The Ring” spawned multi-movie series in both countries.
“Battle Royale.” Japan’s role as a leader of film horror continued in the 21st century. This 2000 movie created both controversy and a fan following due to its extreme violence. Delinquent teens are forced to fight each other in a ramped-up version of “The Most Dangerous Game.”