15 Best Japanese Movies of All Time That Will Leave You Mesmerized

The overpowering and crazy fan following of the anime and manga culture often draws our attention away from some of the best Japanese movies out there. Although some of the best Japanese movies are, no doubt, animated, anime is just one of the many genres of movies that are produced in Japan. There’s Jidaigeki (period films), Samurai films, Kaiju (monster films), Yakuza films (mob movies), SF (science fiction), Shomingeki (realistic films), etc. One of the oldest film industries in the world, Nihon Eiga or simply Hoga (Japanese domestic film industry) has been producing movies since the late 19th century. These movies have stood the test of time as some of the most brilliant and powerful works of world cinema.

Also read: 15 Best Japanese Anime Movies of All Time That Deserve Your Attention

Let’s have a look at some of the best Japanese movies of all time, across genres.

1. Departures

Japanese name- Okuribito

Directed by Yôjirô Takita, this movie won the Best Foreign Language Film award at the 2009 Oscars along with several other international awards, and rightly so, it deserves acclaim. Chasing uncertainties all his life, a cellist stumbles upon a job in a funeral home and realises that there is only one certainty in life and that it is death. Produced in a country with the highest life expectancy, this movie subtly throws light on the various facets of death and mourning that few dare to talk about. 

2. Spirited Away

Japanese name- Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi

Studio Ghibli is one of the most popular anime production houses in Japan, and it is also the studio that produced this Hayao Miyazaki masterpiece. It is, in fact, one of the most critically acclaimed Japanese movies. A young girl named Chihiro and her parents find an abandoned amusement park and decide to give it a visit. Chihiro later finds out from a mysterious man named Haku that the park is a resort for spirits and that she needs to work in that place in order to free her parents. What follows is a magical (oh, the amount of magic is just crazy) journey that will surely have you spirited away!

3. Tokyo Story

Japanese name- Tōkyō Monogatari

This 1953 masterpiece is the story of Tomi and Sukichi, an aging couple who decide to visit their children living in Tokyo. Their children are too busy to entertain them and send them to a resort. Although the couple has a good time in the resort, they are worried about being a burden to their children. In this modern world, people often forget about their roots while chasing after material gains. But can anything come in between the love of parents and their children? The sheer sensitivity with which this story is presented is powerful enough to move the toughest of hearts.

4. Nobody Knows

Japanese name- Dare mo Shiranai

Based on a real story, this movie is a poignant social drama that follows the lives of 4 children abandoned by their mother in an apartment in Tokyo. The eldest sibling, Akira, takes care of his brother and two sisters who have never had the opportunity to go to school. Together they try to survive in a modern city with nothing but each other’s support. The movie is poignantly natural and the subtle details of family life are presented with utmost brilliance.

5. Still Walking

Japanese name- Aruitemo aruitemo

The movie has been directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, who has also directed the movie Dare no Shiranai. Kore-eda is known for his knack for capturing the subtlest details of family life in a way that remains unmatched. Ryo’s brother Junpei died years ago saving a boy from drowning. Even after so much time, the family has not been able to deal with the grief of losing their son. When Ryo visits his parents with his wife and son, old resentments are brought to the fore. But this is not a family drama. It is far from anything that we would call dramatic for that matter. It feels so natural and real that for a while the viewer might feel like a character in the movie. If that isn’t the purpose of good cinema then what is?

6. A Man Vanishes

Japanese name- Ningen jōhatsu

Tadashi Oshima, a businessman, vanishes without a trace. Directed in the form of a pseudo-documentary, the film follows the various interviews that are held to find where the man is. Each person presents a different picture of the man to the point that the viewer starts questioning if the man is real or not. There is a sense of urgency about this movie that is unsettling at times and eye-opening at others. It is one of the most unique and best Japanese movies of all time.

7. Your Name

Japanese name- Kimi no Na Wa

Get ready to enter into a world quite different from the one we see, but which has emotions quite similar to the ones we feel. Right from the beginning of this Makoto Shinkai wonder, you’ll be hooked, not just by the picturesque animation but also by the brilliant plot. This is not the kind of movie that you can fit into just one genre. It is a well-balanced mixture of all that is good and true. The oh-so-good musical score by Radwimps will just leave you speechless and mesmerized.

8. Suzaku

Japanese name- Moe no Suzaku

Naomi Kawase directed this masterpiece at the young age of 27 and was awarded the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for this marvel. Nishiyosino-mura is a small village that has remained disconnected from the world due to a neglected railway project. The inhabitants of the village, especially the Tahara family, suffer due to years of isolation and neglect. Kozo, the head of the family, loses his job and goes into depression, the effects of which distort the entire family. The movie is an aesthetic representation of the delicate threads that tie a family together.

9.  Harakiri

Japanese name- Seppuku/ Harakiri

This 1962 jidaigeki drama has its title derived from the ancient samurai practice of committing suicide in order to protect their honor which is called Seppuku or Harakiri. Hanshiro, a samurai, visits a feudal lord in order to ask him for a place to perform the ritual of Harakiri. There he learns of the fate of a younger samurai named Chijiiwa. This brings about a change in him that becomes the driving force of this powerful classic movie.

10. Rashomon

Japanese name- Rashōmon

Ever heard of the Rashomon effect? When a samurai is found dead and the witnesses to his death are questioned, there is something interesting to note. Each witness presents a different story but each story seems plausible. The varied testimonies leave the viewer to question their own understanding of truth and justice. It’s fascinating how a movie can induce such thoughts into the minds of individuals.

11. Seven Samurai

Japanese name- Shichinin No Samurai

One of the most renowned Japanese films, Shichinin no Samurai is as the name suggests, a samurai film. A group of 7 samurai braces a group of villagers to defend themselves and then helps them fight against an attack of 40 bandits. Created by the man who created the great film Rashomon, Seven Samurai is a Japanese masterpiece.

12. Battle Royal

Japanese name- Batoru Rowaiaru

Quentin Tarantino called this movie his “favourite movie of all time”, just so you know what you are getting yourself into. Trapped on an island, 42 high school students need to kill each other to the point that there is just one survivor. The last living survivor gets to go back home safe. This highly unsettling and controversial film is what inspired the famous game PUBG. This movie is considered a cult classic.

13. Sonatine

Japanese name- Sonachine

A yakuza movie, Sonatine is a highly suspenseful ride into the world of gang wars and violence. Takeshi Kitano, the director and also the actor playing the role of the protagonist of this movie, does a brilliant job in creating a sense of stillness amidst all the violence in the movie. That stillness is used by the viewer to contemplate the seldom-visited truths about life. It is one of the best Japanese movies of all time.

14. Akira

Japanese name- Akira

Back in 1988, a new surge of anime fandom was triggered just by this movie. What is it about this movie that makes it so awesome? Jaw-dropping action sequences, brilliant character development, a generous dose of science fiction, and so much more! Set in a world where Japan is rebuilding itself after the third World War, this cyber-punk action anime is a delight to watch. I wouldn’t be exaggerating when I say that this movie is pure gold. It is considered one of the best Japanese movies ever made.

15. Godzilla

Japanese name- Gojira

Last but not the least, the most popular Japanese movie ever made, Gojira or Godzilla is pure cinematic brilliance. This classic Japanese kaiju movie is a clear representation of the horrors of nuclear bombings by the Americans in Japan, manifested in the form of a monster named Gojira. Over the years the movie has become a popular culture icon with its several adaptations and cult following. Undoubtedly, it is one of the best Japanese movies ever made.

Notable mentions:  Sharu wi Dansu? (Shall we Dance), Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro), Ringu (Ring)

With this, we have come to the end of the list of some of the best Japanese movies of all time. The industry sure has a lot to offer both in terms of aesthetics and also entertainment. Which of these recommendations did you find the most fascinating? Do let us know in the comments sections.

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