BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO JAPANESE FILM
Updated: Aug 10, 2021
Best Japanese Movies for Beginners to Japanese Cinema
Japanese Film Industry in a Nutshell
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.
The Japanese film industry have developed a sea of genres, both original to their country and emulated from other film industries. Among the most famous are the so-called Jidaigeki (set before 1867) with its samurai films, Gendaigeki (dramas set after 1867), Yakuza films, Pink films (erotic), J-horror, and Anime, with its own myriad of sub-genres.
Japanese film is a labyrinth, and depending on your entry into it,
you might get hooked for life, or never return again.
– JCA –
The finesse of Japanese film directors is as honored by its peers as it is admired by fans. Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirô Ozu, Shôhei Imamura, Takeshi Kitano, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Shunji Iwai, Sion Sono, Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Hosoda are but a handful of celebrated Japanese filmmakers, and the list goes on.
With such a rich history, plethora of genres, plenitude of talented directors, and huge film selection, it is not easy to find a good starting point. JCA to the rescue! This is our beginner's guide to Japanese film!
Criteria for our selection of Japanese movies
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 film. For the more experienced readers, there will be made a list of the Best Hidden Film Gems from Japan. Our mission today is to guide curious newcomers in the right direction.
Best Japanese Drama Film for Beginners: Shoplifters (2018)
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
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 predictable choice, but Kore-eda can hardly be overlooked when making a «best Japanese movies»-list. Shoplifters 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 films typically focus on the journey rather than the end goal, and happy endings are rarely to be found. Shoplifters takes it one step further, 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
Best Anime Film for Beginners: The Boy and the Beast (2015)
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
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 of 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 catalog. 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
Best Japanese Comedy Film for Beginners: Symbol (2009)
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 movie you’ll ever see, it is one of the best quirky movies made in Japan in the late 2000s. As far as comedies go, it is among the best Japanese movies for newcomers 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 us curious 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 Japanese 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 nonetheless.
That being said, Symbol also represents its genre perfectly. It was released after the biggest boom of 2000s quirky Japanese moviemaking, 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, 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. Fingers crossed that Santa will bring an international Blu-ray release of Symbol for our stockings this year.
Best Japanese Yakuza Film for Beginners: Outrage (2010)
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 storytelling in an interesting way. Rather than focusing on revenge or some heist, it takes a look behind the curtain so to speak. The main attraction is the power structure of the mafia organizations. For this reason, Outrage is not only one of the best Japanese films to get you into the yakuza genre, it introduces some interesting aspects about the yakuza in general.
The power struggles and strategic moves are initiated 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
Best Japanese Classic Film for Beginners: Rashômon (1950)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Strong Points: Forever entertaining. Great acting. Creative filmmaking.
Weak Point: Somewhat disturbing storyline.
Rashomon is not only a fantastic entryway into the world of Japanese film, 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 Rashomon 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. It might very well be the best Japanese film for newcomers to Japanese cinema, it is certainly the most influential movie on our list
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 Rashomon.
If you want to know more, please check out my full review of Rashomon
There you have it! If you want to get into the wonderful world of Japanese movies, these five films are as good a starting point as any. With these Japanese movies under your belt, you will know a lot about five essential Japanese film genres. You will also get a good indication of what you might want to explore further, or not. In sum, and in no particular order:
5 Best Japanese Films for Beginners
Shoplifters (Drama, 2018, Hirokazu Kore-eda)
The Boy and the Beast (Anime, 2015, Mamoru Hosoda)
Symbol (Comedy, 2009, Hitoshi Matsumoto)
Outrage (Yakuza, 2010, Takeshi Kitano)
Rashomon (Classic, 1950, Akira Kurosawa)
Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan: Statistics of Film Industry in Japan