This list excludes anime, and, to ensure variety, includes only two films from any one director.
I. Tokyo Story 
Tokyo Story is one of the greatest films of all times. Director Yasujirō Ozu’s trade-mark subtlety in rendering a picture so quietly powerful is seen here as in no other film as a story is told about the post-war perception shift and the young generation’s disregard and failure to care for their elderly.
II. The Ballad of Narayama 
In my opinion, Keisuke Kinoshita’s version of The Ballad of Narayama (1958) is far superior to the now more popular 1983 version directed by Shōhei Imamura. The film is based on a 1956 novella of the same name by Shichirō Fukazawa and tells of one village and its ancient practice of ubasute, whereby the elderly, upon reaching a certain age, are taken to the mountain to die. The 1958 film’s colourful, theatrical vision gives this story much potency, emphasising its more thought-provoking elements.
III. Ikiru (To Live) 
Ikiru is that kind of a film once seen never forgotten. Loosely based on Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, it tells of an aging, inflexible bureaucrat who has been diagnosed with incurable cancer. His “journey of redemption” is one of the most moving and powerful on screen.
IV. Departures 
This Academy Award-winning film is about Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), an ex-cellist, who comes to his home-town and finds a very undesirable employment as a nōkanshi, a traditional ritual mortician in Japan. This tragi-comedy is rendered with warmth, compassion and humour, bravely challenging social prejudice that many morticians still face today in Japan.
V. Rashomon 
Based on a short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa titled In a Grove, Rashomon revolutionised certain aspects of modern cinema. This is a story of a murder as told through four different perspectives, that of the dead samurai (through a medium), his wife, the bandit and the local woodcutter. This deeply philosophical film by Akira Kurosawa challenges the viewer to take a second look, and its influence really does spread far and wide, for example, it can be seen in such films as The Usual Suspects (1995), The Handmaiden (2016) and The Last Duel (2021).
VI. Late Spring 
If Ozu’s Tokyo Story was a masterpiece then this is an earlier jewel to match it, telling a story of a twenty-seven-year-old unmarried woman Noriko (Setsuko Hara) who lives with her father, washing and cooking for him. The attempts to marry Noriko off will satisfy the society’s desires, but will be far from the family’s true happiness. It could be said that, in this film, Ozu criticises Japan’s pressure on the individual and societal expectations, and Hara gives one of the best performances of her career.
VII. Still Walking 
Arguably, this is one of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s best films. Its beauty is meditative and understated, but it still packs an emotional punch. This is a story of one family who are coming to terms with the death of the eldest son. Kore-eda is a master of family dramas, and Still Walking’s themes are universal.
VIII. Onibaba 
This horror must be seen just for its production design and sound effects. The film is one uncanny experience, portraying medieval Japan and ex-soldier Hachi, returning from the war, who starts to show interest regarding two women who live nearby and barely survive in hard times of the civil war. When the younger woman, a daughter, starts to show interest in the returned soldier, strange things also start to take place.
IX. Twenty-Four Eyes 
This film is an underseen masterpiece, a moving cinematic experience and one of the most important anti-war films. It tells of a young teacher who arrives in one rural village to teach children and soon develops a very close bond with each of them. As these children grow up, and start experiencing hardship and war, one heart always remains concerned.
X. The Woman in the Dunes 
This adaptation of Kobo Abe’s novel of the same name tells of a man who gets stranded in sand dunes and meets a woman there, living alone in a shack. It turns out that she has a curious arrangement with local villagers, and, as he gets to know more of her situation, it dawns on him that he may be trapped. As claustrophobically atmospheric and sexually suggestive as the novel, this film by director Hiroshi Teshigahara is one of the best of 1964, with the music and the cinematography being particularly impressive.
Honorable mentions: Shohei Imamura’s The Eel (1997), Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows (2004), Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain (1959), and Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954).
🇯🇵 What do you think of this list? Do you have a favourite film from Japan?