Japanese filmmakers have had a lasting influence on world culture, as demonstrated by the top 10 Japanese movies ever made. The imagery, characters and stories of Japanese cinema have inspired artists and become part of the everyday language around the world. Here are the best of the best films produced by the island nation.
“Rashomon.” Director Akira Kurosawa was unknown outside his native land when he created this influential 1950 film. A simple crime story opens up wide as a murder is retold from four different perspectives, including that of the victim. This innovative story technique, imitated endlessly over the decades, catapulted Kurosawa to international fame and won him an honorary Oscar the following year.
“Godzilla, King of the Monsters.” Director Ishiro Honda, once an assistant to Kurosawa, won a different kind of fame with this 1954 film. A prehistoric reptile awakened by nuclear tests visits destruction on modern-day Japan. It was an obvious metaphor for the atom bomb, but more significantly to generations of fans, it launched the popular genre of Japanese giant-monster movies.
“The Seven Samurai.” Kurosawa returned in 1954 with his epic masterpiece, an indulgence in his perfectionist style of filmmaking. The result was a worldwide smash, making Kurosawa and star Toshiro Mifune household names. A small band of noble warriors defends a village from a bandit army, a story retold in America as “The Magnificent Seven.”
“Yojimbo.” Likewise, Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai adventure has its fans in Japan and around the world. But it’s even more important because the 1964 Italian remake, “A Fistful of Dollars,” launched the film career of Clint Eastwood. Like Mifune in the original, Eastwood’s character had no name, a convention mostly maintained in the 1996 American remake, “Last Man Standing” with Bruce Willis.
“Kwaidan.” Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 collection of ghost stories provides new meaning to the phrase “haunting imagery.” Kobayashi’s brilliant use of color gave the movie the feel of a fairy tale or a classic Japanese painting. The film won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award.
“Ran.” After laboring for years in near-obscurity, Kurosawa was discovered by a new generation of fans in the 1980's. The grand master responded with an epic version of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” set in the samurai era. The brilliant battle scenes helped re-establish Kurosawa’s reputation, he won a Lifetime Achievement Oscar five years later.
“Akira.” Today, every school kid in America knows what “manga” and “anime” are. But these were foreign words before the 1988 international release of this futuristic epic. Katsuhiro Otomo’s animated masterpiece, based on his own comic book, focused worldwide attention on the unique Japanese versions of comics and animation.
“Princess Mononoke.” The newly intense interest in Japanese animation favored director Hayao Miyazaki, already praised for his family films “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “My Neighbor Totoro.” But no one was prepared for 1997’s “Mononoke,” an epic ecological adventure set in medieval Japan. It broke box-office records in Japan and cemented Miyazaki’s reputation as one of the world’s great animators.
“Spirited Away.” Four years later, Miyazaki had secured influential fans such as Pixar’s John Lasseter and an American release deal with Disney Studios. Disney agreed to release his films unchanged except for English dubbing, so 2001’s simple Alice-in-Wonderland story, “Spirited Away,” presented Miyazaki’s vision to a worldwide audience. It also won the Oscar for the Best Animated Feature, and appears on many lists of the greatest animated films ever made.
“Departures.” Despite the presence of several world-class filmmakers, including Kurosawa and Miyazaki, Japan had not won the Best Foreign Film Oscar since 1950’s “Rashomon” took an honorary award. That changed with 2008’s “Departures,” about a man who learns about life by working in a funeral home. Yojiro Takita’s drama won the Academy Award, as well as numerous other awards in and out of Japan.