10 Best Japanese War Films

Monday, January 31 by William Gish

The 10 best Japanese war films deal mostly with Japan’s period of civil war during the shogun period. These films are stark, violent and can be uniformly read as allegories for Japan’s turbulent history of militarism and nationalism and the nation’s involvement in World War Two.

  1. “Rashomon” – “Rashomon” is cinema’s defining statement on justice, morality, subjectivity and the nature of perspective. The movie examines a murder four different perspectives. A tribunal is faced with determining whether the accused man is guilty or innocent based on these different accounts. “Rashomon” is one of the 10 best Japanese war films and the ultimate statement Japan’s role in the Second World War.
  2. “Seven Samurai” – Kurosawa’s epic “Seven Samurai” is one of the best Japanese movies period, let alone one of the 10 best Japanese war films. It tells the story of a group of kind-hearted ronin hired by a peaceful farming community to protect them from an evil arm during a period of civil war. “Samurai” culminates in a battle scene that is over an hour long and one of cinema’s best.
  3. “Samurai Assassin” – “Samurai Assassin” is filmed in beautiful black and white and it’s culminating battle scenes, which takes places amidst howling winds and blankets of snow, is one of the most brutal and stark showdowns ever put to film. During a period of civil war a mercenary lord hires an army of samurai to assassinate a rival shogun. Melee ensues.
  4. “The Burmese Harp” – “The Burmese Harp” is the rare Japanese war film that is not rife with moral uncertainty, dark predilections and a foreboding portrait of an anarchic state of societal nihilism. The film is the tale of Japanese prisoner of war in Burma who escapes incarceration only to become a penitent monk intent on serving humanity at the sake of his own desires.
  5. “Ran” – “Ran” is a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The title means “chaos,” which couldn’t be more fitting. Warring families, burning castles, generals driven to madness, murderous wives, multiple decapitations and enormous battles fill the frame of one of the 10 best Japanese war films.
  6. “Throne of Blood” – “Throne of Blood” transposes the warring Scottish lords of “Macbeth” to feudal Japan and a battle for supremacy between a pair of Shoguns. The movie is extremely dark and riveting. The treachery doesn’t stop coming in one of the 10 best Japanese war films.
  7. “Letters From Iwo Jima” – This harrowing story of the legions of Japanese soldiers left to die on the god forsaken Pacific island that is little more than volcanic rock humanizes an enemy largely satirized and demonized in American culture. Clint Eastwood’s expert direction and Ken Watanabe’s nuanced performance make this one of the 10 best Japanese war films.
  8. “Fires on the Plain” – “Fires on the Plain” is a film that finds hope in a certainly fatal situation. A group of Japanese soldiers are abandoned by their command on the Filipino island of Leyte at the end of Word War Two and face certain starvation. The film examines their relationships with one another and the universe at large.
  9. “Gojira” – “Gojira,” more commonly known to American audiences as “Godzilla,” is an allegory for the Second World War and, more specifically, the monster that it unleashed and the devastation wrought by the dropping of atomic bombs on the nation’s soil. It’s a fun, silly, exciting movie.
  10. “The Hidden Fortress” – This light hearted adventure was cited by George Lucas as his main inspiration for the “Star Wars” films. A heroic general (Han Solo) takes a persecuted but morally righteous princess (Leia) through the territory of an evil imperial power (The Galactic Empire) with the help of two bumbling assistants (R2D2 and C3PO). It’s a great, rousing film and one of the 10 best Japanese war films.    
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