Japanese Films Flashback

Japanese cinema has a long and diverse history, with a large influence on popular culture and cinema even today. Sub-genres such as anime and horror films are a key part of the industry and have since spread internationally, with films such as Ring (1998) inspiring American versions of the same. Samurai films are also prevalent in Japanese cinema over the years, such as the period drama Samurai Rebellion (1967) which features the popular tropes of honour and action. Most Japanese films can be split into realism and fantasy, the former dealing with its history and the harsh realities of its present. The combination of the two make for varied and interesting films, with the Japanese film industry being one of the largest in the world.

Check out CulturalPulse’s shortlist of the best Japanese films over the past 70 years below.

50's

Rashomon (1950)

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
IMDB Rating: 8.3
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura
Synopsis: The rape of a bride and the murder of her samurai husband are recalled from the perspectives of a bandit, the bride, the samurai’s ghost and a woodcutter.See full summary »

Early Summer (1951)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.2
Director: Yasujirô Ozu
Stars: Setsuko Hara, Chishû Ryû, Chikage Awashima, Kuniko Miyake
Synopsis: A family chooses a match for their daughter Noriko, but she, surprisingly, has her own plans. See full summary »

Ikiru (1952)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.3
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Takashi Shimura, Nobuo Kaneko, Shin’ichi Himori, Haruo Tanaka
Synopsis: A bureaucrat tries to find a meaning in his life after he discovers he has terminal cancer. See full summary »

The Life of Oharu  (1952)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.2
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Stars: Kinuyo Tanaka, Tsukie Matsuura, Ichirô Sugai, Toshirô Mifune
Synopsis: Follows a woman’s fight and survival amid the vicissitudes of life and the cruelty of the society. See full summary »

Ugetsu (1953)

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, War
IMDB Rating: 8.2
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Stars: Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyô, Kinuyo Tanaka, Mitsuko Mito
Synopsis: A tale of ambition, family, love, and war set in the midst of the Japanese Civil Wars of the sixteenth century. See full summary »

Tokyo Story (1953)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.2
Director: Yasujirô Ozu
Stars: Chishû Ryû, Chieko Higashiyama, Sô Yamamura, Setsuko Hara
Synopsis: An old couple visit their children and grandchildren in the city; but the children have little time for them. See full summary »

Seven Samurai (1954)

Genre: Adventure, Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.7
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Yukiko Shimazaki
Synopsis: A poor village under attack by bandits recruits seven unemployed samurai to help them defend themselves.  See full summary »

Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.4
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Stars: Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyôko Kagawa, Eitarô Shindô
Synopsis: In medieval Japan, a compassionate governor is sent into exile. His wife and children try to join him, but are separated, and the children grow up amid suffering and oppression. See full summary »

The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1959)

Genre: Drama, War
IMDB Rating: 8.6
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama, Chikage Awashima, Ineko Arima
Synopsis: A Japanese pacifist, unable to face the dire consequences of conscientious objection, is transformed by his attempts to compromise with the demands of war-time Japan. See full summary »

The Human Condition II: Road to Eternity (1959)

Genre: Drama, History, War
IMDB Rating: 8.5
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama, Kokinji Katsura, Jun Tatara
Synopsis: As a conscript in war-time Japan’s military, a pacifist struggles to maintain his determination to keep his ideals. See full summary »

60's

The Naked Island (1960)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.3
Director: Kaneto Shindô
Stars:  Nobuko Otowa, Taiji Tonoyama, Shinji Tanaka, Masanori Horimoto
Synopsis: A family of four are the sole inhabitants of a small island, where they struggle each day to irrigate their crops. See full summary »

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.2
Director: Mikio Naruse
Stars:  Hideko Takamine, Tatsuya Nakadai, Masayuki Mori, Reiko Dan
Synopsis: A middle-aged bar hostess, constantly in debt, is faced with numerous social constraints and challenges posed to her by her family, customers and friends.  See full summary »

Late Autumn (1960)

Genre: Comedy, Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.2
Director: Yasujirô Ozu
Stars:  Setsuko Hara, Yôko Tsukasa, Mariko Okada, Keiji Sada
Synopsis: A widow tries to marry off her daughter with the help of her late husband’s three friends. … See full summary »

The Human Condition III: A Soldier’s Prayer (1961)

Genre: Drama, History, War

IMDB Rating: 8.8
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Stars:  Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama, Tamao Nakamura, Yûsuke Kawazu
Synopsis: His ideals challenged by life as a conscript in war-time Japan’s military, a pacifist faces ever greater tests in his fight for survival.  See full summary »

Yojimbo (1961)

Genre: Action, Drama, Thriller
IMDB Rating: 8.3
Director: A. Vincent
Stars:  Toshirô Mifune, Eijirô Tôno, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yôko Tsukasa
Synopsis: A crafty ronin comes to a town divided by two criminal gangs and decides to play them against each other to free the town. See full summary »

Harakiri (1962)

Genre: Action, Drama, History
IMDB Rating: 8.7
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Ishihama, Shima Iwashita, Tetsurô Tanba
Synopsis: An elder ronin samurai arrives at a feudal lord’s home and requests an honorable place to commit suicide. But when the ronin inquires about a younger samurai who arrived before him things take an unexpected turn.  See full summary »

High and Low (1963)

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
IMDB Rating: 8.4
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars:  Toshirô Mifune, Yutaka Sada, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyôko Kagawa
Synopsis: An executive of a shoe company becomes a victim of extortion when his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped and held for ransom. See full summary »

Woman in the Dunes (1963)

Genre: Drama, Thriller
IMDB Rating: 8.5
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Stars:  Eiji Okada, Kyôko Kishida, Hiroko Itô, Kôji Mitsui
Synopsis: An entomologist on vacation is trapped by local villagers into living with a woman whose life task is shoveling sand for them. … See full summary »

Red Beard (1965)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.3
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Yûzô Kayama, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Reiko Dan
Synopsis: In 19th century Japan, a rough tempered yet charitable town doctor trains a young intern … See full summary »

Samurai Rebellion (1967)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.4
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Yôko Tsukasa, Gô Katô, Tatsuyoshi Ehara
Synopsis: The mother of a feudal lord’s only heir is kidnapped away from her husband by the lord. The husband and his samurai father must decide whether to accept the unjust decision, or risk death to get her back. … See full summary »

70's

Demons (1971)

Genre: Drama, Horror
IMDB Rating: 8.2
Director: Toshio Matsumoto
Stars: Katsuo Nakamura, Juro Kara, Yasuko Sanjo, Masao Imafuku
Synopsis: After being robbed by a geisha, a ronin warrior carves a bloody path to seek revenge. … See full summary »

Narita: The Peasants of the Second Fortress (1971)

Genre: Documentary
IMDB Rating: 7.9
Director: Shinsuke Ogawa
Stars:
Synopsis: This important film compiles “Magino Story” footage taken by Ogawa for a period of more than ten years after he moved to Magino village. … See full summary »

Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (1972)

Genre: Drama, Mystery, War
IMDB Rating: 8
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Stars: Tetsurô Tanba, Sachiko Hidari, Shinjirô Ebara, Isao Natsuyagi
Synopsis: One woman’s search to find the truth about her husband’s death in World War II. … See full summary »

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)

Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
IMDB Rating: 8
Director: Kenji Misumi
Stars: Tomisaburô Wakayama, Kayo Matsuo, Minoru Ôki, Akiji Kobayashi
Synopsis: Trailed by a clan of female ninja, Ogami is paid to assassinate a clan traitor accompanied by three killers known as the Gods of Death. … See full summary »

Dersu Uzala (1975)

Genre: Adventure, Biography, Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.3
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Maksim Munzuk, Yuriy Solomin, Mikhail Bychkov, Vladimir Khrulyov
Synopsis: The Russian army sends an explorer on an expedition to the snowy Siberian wilderness where he makes friends with a seasoned local hunter. … See full summary »

80's

Kagemusha (1980)

Genre: Drama, History, War
IMDB Rating: 8
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ken’ichi Hagiwara, Jinpachi Nezu
Synopsis: A petty thief with an utter resemblance to a samurai warlord is hired as the lord’s double. When the warlord later dies the thief is forced to take up arms in his place. See full summary »

Muddy River (1981)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 8
Director: Kôhei Oguri
Stars: Takahiro Tamura, Mariko Kaga, Nobutaka Asahara, Makiko Shibata
Synopsis: In post-War Japan, a boy from a noodle store-owning family befriends a neighboring boy living in poverty. See full summary »

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Genre: Animation, Adventure, Fantasy
IMDB Rating: 8.1
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars: Sumi Shimamoto, Mahito Tsujimura, Hisako Kyôda, Gorô Naya
Synopsis: Warrior and pacifist Princess Nausicaä desperately struggles to prevent two warring nations from destroying themselves and their dying planet. See full summary »

Ran (1985)

Genre: Action, Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.2
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryû
Synopsis: In Medieval Japan, an elderly warlord retires, handing over his empire to his three sons. However, he vastly underestimates how the new-found power will corrupt them and cause them to turn on each other…and him. See full summary »

Castle in the Sky (1986)

Genre: Animation, Adventure, Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.1
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars: Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek, Cloris Leachman, Mark Hamill
Synopsis: A young boy and a girl with a magic crystal must race against pirates and foreign agents in a search for a legendary floating castle. See full summary »

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)

Genre: Documentary, War
IMDB Rating: 8.2
Director: Kazuo Hara
Stars: Kenzo Okuzaki, Riichi Aikawa, Masaichi Hamaguchi, Toshio Hara
Synopsis: A documentary following Kenzo Okuzaki, a 62-year-old WW2 veteran notorious for his protests against Emperor Hirohito, as he tries to expose the needless executions of two Japanese soldiers during the war. See full summary »

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Genre: Animation, Drama, War
IMDB Rating: 8.5
Director: Isao Takahata
Stars: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Akemi Yamaguchi, Yoshiko Shinohara
Synopsis: A young boy and his little sister struggle to survive in Japan during World War II. See full summary »

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Genre: Animation, Family, Fantasy
IMDB Rating: 8.2
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars: Hitoshi Takagi, Noriko Hidaka, Chika Sakamoto, Shigesato Itoi
Synopsis: When two girls move to the country to be near their ailing mother, they have adventures with the wondrous forest spirits who live nearby. See full summary »

Akira (1988)

Genre: Animation, Drama, Sci-Fi
IMDB Rating: 8.1
Director: Katsuhiro Ôtomo
Stars: Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama, Tesshô Genda
Synopsis: A secret military project endangers Neo-Tokyo when it turns a biker gang member into a rampaging psychic psychopath who can only be stopped by two teenagers and a group of psychics.  See full summary »

Black Rain (1989)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 8
Director: Shôhei Imamura
Stars: Yoshiko Tanaka, Kazuo Kitamura, Etsuko Ichihara, Shôichi Ozawa
Synopsis: The story of the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing, based on Masuji Ibuse’s novel.  See full summary »

90's

Dreams (1990)

Genre: Drama, fantasy
IMDB Rating: 7.8
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Akira Terao, Mitsuko Baishô, Toshie Negishi, Mieko Harada
Synopsis: A collection of tales based upon the actual dreams of director Akira Kurosawa… See full summary »

Porco Rosso (1992)

Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
IMDB Rating: 7.8
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars: Shûichirô Moriyama, Tokiko Katô, Bunshi Katsura Vi, Tsunehiko Kamijô
Synopsis: In 1930s Italy, a veteran World War I pilot is cursed to look like an anthropomorphic pig… See full summary »

Ninja Scroll (1993)

Genre: Animation, Action, Adventure
IMDB Rating: 7.9
Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Stars: Kôichi Yamadera, Emi Shinohara, Takeshi Aono, Osamu Saka
Synopsis: A vagabond swordsman is aided by a beautiful ninja girl and a crafty spy in confronting a demonic clan of killers – with a ghost from his past as their leader – who are bent on overthrowing the Tokugawa Shogunate… See full summary »

Love Letter (1995)

Genre: Drama, Romance
IMDB Rating: 8
Director: Shunji Iwai
Stars: Miho Nakayama, Etsushi Toyokawa, Bunjaku Han, Katsuyuki Shinohara
Synopsis: When exchanging letters two women discover new things about a man they knew… See full summary »

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Genre: Animation, Action, Crime
IMDB Rating: 8
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Stars: Atsuko Tanaka, Iemasa Kayumi, Akio Ôtsuka, Kôichi Yamadera
Synopsis: A cyborg policewoman and her partner hunt a mysterious and powerful hacker called the Puppet Master… See full summary »

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Genre: Animation, Adventure, Fantasy
IMDB Rating: 8.4
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars: Yôji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yûko Tanaka, Billy Crudup
Synopsis: On a journey to find the cure for a Tatarigami’s curse, Ashitaka finds himself in the middle of a war between the forest gods and Tatara, a mining colony. In this quest he also meets San, the Mononoke Hime. See full summary »

Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (1997)

Genre: Comedy
IMDB Rating: 7.9
Director: Kôki Mitani
Stars: Toshiaki Karasawa, Kyôka Suzuki, Masahiko Nishimura, Keiko Toda
Synopsis: A radio play is going to go on air at a Tokyo radio station. It is a weepy melodrama written by housewife Miyako, who is the winner of the competition run by the station. Suddenly, the … See full summary »

Perfect Blue (1997)

Genre: Animation, Horror, Mystery
IMDB Rating: 7.9
Director: Satoshi Kon
Stars: Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, Masaaki Ôkura
Synopsis: A retired pop singer turned actress’ sense of reality is shaken when she is stalked by an obsessed fan and seemingly a ghost of her past. See full summary »

Fireworks (1997)

Genre: Crime, Drama, Romance
IMDB Rating: 7.8
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Stars: Takeshi Kitano, Kayoko Kishimoto, Ren Osugi, Susumu Terajima
Synopsis: Nishi leaves the police in the face of harrowing personal and professional difficulties. Spiraling into depression, he makes questionable decisions. See full summary »

Kikujiro (1999)

Genre: Drama, Comedy
IMDB Rating: 7.8
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Stars: Takeshi Kitano, Yusuke Sekiguchi, Kayoko Kishimoto, The Great Gidayû
Synopsis: A young, naive boy sets out alone on the road to find his wayward mother. Soon he finds an unlikely protector in a crotchety man and the two have a series of unexpected adventures along the way. See full summary »

00's

Eureka (2000)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 7.9
Director: Shinji Aoyama
Stars: Kôji Yakusho, Aoi Miyazaki, Masaru Miyazaki, Yôichirô Saitô
Synopsis: The traumatized survivors of a murderous bus hijacking come together and take a road trip to attempt to overcome their damaged selves. Meanwhile a serial killer is on the loose… See full summary »

Spirited Away (2001)

Genre: Animation, Adventure, Family
IMDB Rating: 8.6
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars: Daveigh Chase, Suzanne Pleshette, Miyu Irino, Rumi Hiiragi
Synopsis: During her family’s move to the suburbs, a sullen 10-year-old girl wanders into a world ruled by gods, witches, and spirits, and where humans are changed into beasts… See full summary »

Millennium Actress (2001)

Genre: Animation, Drama, Fantasy
IMDB Rating: 7.9
Director: Satoshi Kon
Stars: Miyoko Shôji, Shôzô Îzuka, Mami Koyama, Fumiko Orikasa
Synopsis: A TV interviewer and his cameraman meet a former actress and travel through her memories and career… See full summary »

The Twilight Samurai (2002)

Genre: Drama, History
IMDB Rating: 8.1
Director: Yôji Yamada
Stars: Hiroyuki Sanada, Rie Miyazawa, Nenji Kobayashi, Ren Osugi
Synopsis: As the feudal Japan era draws to a close, a widower samurai experiences difficulty balancing 2 young daughters, an aged mother, clan loyalties, and the sudden reappearance of his childhood sweetheart… See full summary »

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
IMDB Rating: 7.9
Director: Satoshi Kon
Stars: Tôru Emori, Yoshiaki Umegaki, Aya Okamoto, Shôzô Îzuka
Synopsis: On Christmas Eve, three homeless people living on the streets of Tokyo find a newborn baby among the trash and set out to find its parents… See full summary »

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Genre: Animation, Adventure, Family
IMDB Rating: 8.2
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars: Chieko Baishô, Takuya Kimura, Tatsuya Gashûin, Akihiro Miwa
Synopsis: When an unconfident young woman is cursed with an old body by a spiteful witch, her only chance of breaking the spell lies with a self-indulgent yet insecure young wizard and his companions in his legged, walking castle… See full summary »

Nobody Knows (2004)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.1
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Stars: Yûya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, Hiei Kimura, Momoko Shimizu
Synopsis: In a small Tokyo apartment, twelve-year-old Akira must care for his younger siblings after their mother leaves them and shows no sign of returning… See full summary »

Memories of Matsuko (2006)

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Musical
IMDB Rating: 7.9
Director: Tetsuya Nakashima
Stars: Miki Nakatani, Eita, Yûsuke Iseya, Mikako Ichikawa
Synopsis: When Matsuko dies of murder, her nephew Sho gets to progressively unveil many details of her mysterious past, discovering she wasn’t only a forgotten outcast but led a very interesting yet bizarre life… See full summary »

Departures (2008)

Genre: Drama, Music
IMDB Rating: 8.1
Director: Yôjirô Takita
Stars: Masahiro Motoki, Ryôko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kazuko Yoshiyuki
Synopsis: A newly unemployed cellist takes a job preparing the dead for funerals… See full summary »

Still Walking (2008)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 8
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Stars: Hiroshi Abe, Yui Natsukawa, You, Kazuya Takahashi
Synopsis: A family gathers together for a commemorative ritual whose nature only gradually becomes clear… See full summary »

10's

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

Genre: Documentary
IMDB Rating: 7.9
Director: David Gelb
Stars: Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono, Masuhiro Yamamoto, Daisuke Nakazama
Synopsis: A documentary on 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono, his renowned Tokyo restaurant, and his relationship with his son and eventual heir, Yoshikazu. … See full summary »

Wolf Children  (2012)

Genre: Animation, Drama, Family
IMDB Rating: 8.1
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Stars: Aoi Miyazaki, Takao Ohsawa, Haru Kuroki, Yukito Nishii
Synopsis: After her werewolf lover unexpectedly dies in an accident while hunting for food for their children, a young woman must find ways to raise the werewolf son and daughter that she had with him while keeping their trait hidden from society. … See full summary »

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (2013)

Genre: Animation, Adventure, Drama
IMDB Rating: 8
Director: Isao Takahata
Stars: Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, James Marsden
Synopsis: Found inside a shining stalk of bamboo by an old bamboo cutter and his wife, a tiny girl grows rapidly into an exquisite young lady. The mysterious young princess enthralls all who encounter her, but ultimately she must confront her fate, the punishment for her crime. … See full summary »

Your Name. (2016)

Genre: Animation, Drama, Fantasy
IMDB Rating: 8.4
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Stars: Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi, Ryô Narita, Aoi Yûki
Synopsis: Two strangers find themselves linked in a bizarre way. When a connection forms, will distance be the only thing to keep them apart? … See full summary »

Shoplifters (2018)

Genre: Crime, Drama
IMDB Rating: 8
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Stars: Lily Franky, Sakura Andô, Kirin Kiki, Mayu Matsuoka
Synopsis: A family of small-time crooks take in a child they find outside in the cold. … See full summary »