• Robin Syversen


Updated: Sep 1

A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Cinema


The history of Japanese cinema began more than a hundred years ago. Today it is the forth-biggest film industry in the world. Only America, India and China produce more films. Still, there are made more than 600 films in Japan each year. With such a rich history and huge film selection, it is not easy to find a good starting point. JCA to the rescue! Here are five perfect films for beginners.


These five films represent five key genres of Japanese cinema. Each film was carefully selected in line with the following three criteria: The story must be easy to follow. The entertainment level must be high. The film must be a good representation of its genre and Japanese filmmaking in general.

Bear in mind that these films are selected especially for beginners to Japanese cinema. For the more experienced readers, there will be made a list of the Top 5 Hidden Gems in Japanese Cinema. Our mission today is to guide curious newcomers in the right direction. The five genres are Drama, Anime, Comedy, Yakuza and Classic film.


Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Related films: After Life, Tokyo Sonata, Hanging Garden, Still Walking

Strong Points: Accessible story. Great acting. Shows a different side of Japan.

Weak Points: Too slow paced for impatient viewers. Dark atmosphere at times.

Shoplifters might be a somewhat predictable choice, but Kore-eda simply cannot be overlooked when such a list of Japanese films is made. This is a great film for beginners because of its straightforward storytelling and emotional impact. It is heartwarming, gripping, entertaining, humorous and tragic all at once.

Japanese drama has very strong roots. The focus is typically on the journey rather than the end goal, and happy endings are rarely to be found. Shoplifters is unique in the sense that nothing is sugarcoated. It invites you into the home of an outcast family living on the outskirts of Tokyo. In the back-alley of society, they make the best of the hand they are dealt in life.

Shoplifters is both widespread and centered, heavy and light, grim and cheerful. It is a film full of contrast, the least of which are superficial and profound. The story is more transparent than most of Kore-eda’s films. This makes it a nice entryway for newcomers, while the topic at hand will make pretty much anyone consider the state of humanity in this day and age.

If you want to know more, please check out my full review of Shoplifters


Director: Mamoru Hosoda

Related films: The Girl who Leapt through Time, Spirited Away, Summer Wars

Strong Points: Inspiring underdog story. Unique fairytale atmosphere. Fantastic CGI.

Weak Point: Predictable storyline.

The Boy and the Beast is like a mix of a Ghibli fantasy film and sci-fi anime. It takes the best from both worlds and makes an excellent film for anime freshmen. It is accessible, relatable and strikingly beautiful. Ghibli films are sort of a sub-genre on their own. The Boy and the Beast is equally entertaining, but it is also a nice introduction to the world of anime beyond Ghibli.

Chances are that most readers are familiar with Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro anyway. The Boy and the Beast was a global phenomenon in anime circles, but for those who are new to Japanese films and anime it is probably unknown. As such it introduces one of the most exciting anime directors in current time, aside from the filmmakers at Studio Ghibli.

The gripping story and the colorful characters alone will keep audiences of all ages glued to their seats. Let it also be said that the elements of sci-fi are minimal and easy to grasp. This is why the film is such a good place to start your anime adventures. If it makes you curious the next step might be more mature sci-fi. If you found the fantasy aspect more appealing you might want to explore the Ghibli back catalogue. Ether way you are in for a treat.

If you want to know more, please check out my full review of The Boy and the Beast


Director: Hitoshi Matsumoto

Related films: Survive Style 5+, Kamikaze Girls, Taste of Tea

Strong Points: Humor with depth. Creatively unpredictable.

Weak Point: The ending takes it one step too far?

Symbol should be the very symbol of weirdness in Japanese film. Not only is it the craziest film you’ll ever find, it is one of the best quirky movies made in Japan in the late 2000s. It is a perfect film for newcomers to Japanese cinema because it delivers all you could ever want in terms of unusual and outlandish filmmaking.

The story of a man being trapped in a white room, with no explanation as to how he got there or where he is, makes you ponder right from the start. Thousands of small penises decorating the walls of the white room does not make anything clearer. Revealing said penises to be buttons for random stuff to be dropped into the room cranks the weirdness through the roof. And this is just the start…

Symbol stands out from the wave of quirky films of its time by using both non-Japanese actors and settings. This makes it more international in tone and less enforcing of stereotypes about Japan and Japanese filmmaking. Not that a comedy like this should be taken too seriously, but the 2000s wave of quirk made for a tilted view of Japan none the less.

That being said, Symbol also represents its genre perfectly. It was released after the biggest boom of 2000s quirky Japanese cinema, but it was still one of those rare turning-point-films that both perfected and took its own genre to the next level.

If you want to know more, please check out my full review of Symbol

Symbol used to be available on Amazon Prime Video. Unfortunately, it is currently suspended due to licensing issues. Finding it elsewhere can be somewhat of a challenge. There are some second-hand and somewhat obscure DVD-releases to be found online. There is also a Japanese Blu-ray available at CDJapan and YesAsia. It comes without subtitles though, so fingers crossed that Santa will bring an international Blu-ray release of Symbol for our stockings this year.


Director: Takeshi Kitano

Related films: Sonatine, Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Rusty Knife

Strong Point: New take on Japanese mafia action.

Weak Points: Too brutal for some. Slightly confusing storyline.

Yakuza films are an acquired taste. What some call glorification of violence becomes the obsession of others. If you are okay with violence then Outrage is a great introduction to yakuza action. It is a modern take on the genre, which means that the storytelling is rather high paced and easy to understand (for the most part).

In addition to showcasing all the classic elements of modern yakuza films, Outrage also spins the genre in an interesting way. Rather than focusing on revenge or some heist, it gives a look behind the curtain so to speak. The main attraction is the power structure of the yakuza organizations.

The power struggles and strategic moves are fueled by bloodshed, but the tactics themselves are far more interesting than the brutalities. Whether the film is rooted in reality or not can of course be discussed. Nevertheless, the level of excitement provided for both hard-core yakuza fans and Japanese mafia newbs is undeniably high.

If you want to know more, please check out my full review of Outrage


Director: Akira Kurosawa

Related films: Harakiri, Yojimbo, Three Outlaw Samurai

Strong Points: Forever entertaining. Great acting. Creative filmmaking.

Weak Point: Somewhat disturbing storyline.

Rashômon is not only a fantastic entryway into the world of Japanese cinema, but also a superb introduction to classic cinema in general. I can pretty much guarantee that you will be amazed by how well such an old film is able to entertain you more than 60 years after its release.

It is not without reason that Rashômon won the Academy Award for most outstanding foreign language feature. The story is gripping, the comedy is timeless, the cinematography was trendsetting and the acting was above and beyond most filmmaking of its time.

The story concerns the murder of a man and the violation of his wife. A trial of sorts is conducted, in which all of the witnesses present different versions of the story. Director Akira Kurosawa made use of storytelling techniques that would later become industry standards all over the world. Most notable is perhaps Quentin Tarantino’s statement about the connection between his debut film - Reservoir Dogs - and Rashômon.

If you want to know more, please check out my full review of Rashômon

JCA - Robin Syversen
M.Phil: Japanese Culture Studies
Thesis: Rearticulating Japanese Cinematic Style
Guest Lecturer: Japanese film history (UiO)
Film blogger: Z Film Quarterly
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