Most canons are overwhelmingly centered on cinema of the West, so I decided mostly to emphasize the Japanese films I picked in my Best list (with a few additions) that probably most people do not know about—but I think should. These are in no particular order.
- Bakumatsu Taiyôden (1957) .. Kawashima Yuzo
Often voted one of the 10 best Japanese films of all time by Japanese critics, it is a tour de force of ensemble acting that therefore, paradoxically, brilliantly evokes the individual Kawashima hero’s desire to escape. (Originally the 1860s hero was supposed to run away at the end all the way out of the Nikkatsu studio.) Can be watched in conjunction with the other great Kawashima/Frankie Sakai teaming: Kashima ari.
- Embracing (1992) .. Kawase Naomi
Kawase came to fame internationally for Suzaku, which features a scene in which an 8mm film is projected. This recalled for those of us in Japan who knew Naomi before her 35mm debut the 8mm film style she abandoned as she went to the big screen. I am not the only one who thinks her 8mm film work is more personal and powerful.
- Spacy (1981) .. Ito Takashi
The most influential experimental film in Japan from the 1980s on (I have seen far too many films imitating it), this structuralist investigation of still images, photography, motion and space is a totally mesmerizing deconstruction of space.
- Koibitotachi wa nureta (1973) .. Kumashiro Tatsumi
My favorite of Kumashiro’s films takes youthful angst, sexual frustration, and the end of the sixties and melancholically ties it to the end of cinema.
- Danryu (1939) .. Yoshimura Kozaburo
Remade several times, the first 1939 version is a smart, stylish work that reminds us how modern Japanese culture was even in a militarist era on the eve of the Pacific War.
- Blossoms Have Fallen (1938) .. Ishida Tamizo
The film that stunned Noel Burch never leaves a geisha house, even as rebel samurai pursue their quest to restore the Emperor; never shows a single man on screen; and never repeats a single shot position. (For another experiment in never repeating a shot, see Kawashima’s Shitoyakana kedamono.)
- The Thirteen Assassins (1963) .. Kudo Eiichi
Miike Takashi is doing a remake of this, but we should all see the original first. The most famous of the “group action” samurai films that Toei made at the end of its glory days as the top samurai movie studio in Japan, these films rip apart the samurai ethos without any of the Kurosawa-esque individual heroics.
- Typhoon Club (1985) .. Sômai Shinji
Somai is the best Japanese director of the 1980s and a master of the long take. Here the tension over when the camera will stop moving powerfully ties in with a storm of youthful energy that combines life, love, and death.
- Akanishi Kakita (1936) .. Itami Mansaku
An anti-samurai film that not only reveals a bit of the Lubitsch touch (the ending is marvelous), but shows the versatile Kataoka Chiezo (the smartest of the samurai film actors) in two roles at his coolest and his intentionally ugliest.
- Sazen Tange and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo (1935) .. Yamanaka Sadao
I put Humanity and Paper Balloons in my Best list, but this is my emotional favorite. Yamanaka takes apart the Tange persona and celebrates the playful life.
- Sumo Do, Sumo Don't (1992) .. Suo Masayuki
The best sumo film ever made, which might not seem to say much, but this is still a sports movie that touchingly mixes a nostalgic affection for the competition with a modern—and Ozu-esque—touch.
- A Colt Is My Passport (1967) .. Nomura Takashi
One of the few older films on this list to actually come out on DVD with English subtitles—which means you should get it immediately. Forget the effort to sell it as “Japanese noir” (a problematic concept) and just enjoy Jo, the ending and the music.
- The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) .. Shimizu Hiroshi
Shimizu is one of my favorite directors, combining a geometric film style with a documentary touch and an affection for the marginal and the abandoned. This was also recently remade, but let’s forget about that version.
- Oshidori Utagassen (1939) .. Makino Masahiro
My vote for one of the two best Japanese musicals, directed by a director who made nearly 200 films and was a master of rhythm (his Ketto Takadanobaba and Awa no odoriko are both must-sees). One sees a smart Kataoka Chiezo, a dandy Dick Mine as a crooning feudal lord, and the best treat: Shimura Takashi (of Seven Samurai fame) singing a love song to his favorite piece of pottery.
- Kimi mo shusse ga dekiru (1964) .. Sugawa Eizô
This is the other of the two best Japanese musicals. A full-blown, Hollywood style musical that makes America itself the issue. The “America de wa!” number is a knock out.
- Aa Bakudan! (1964) .. Okamoto Kihachi
One could argue whether this is a musical, but Okamoto is the next master of rhythm after Makino and this is 1960s yakuza electoral politics comically put to Noh and Kabuki music.
- Narita: Peasants of the Second Fortress (1971) .. Ogawa Shinsuke
Probably the most accessible of Ogawa’s documentaries about the peasants and students violently protecting their land against the onslaught of authorities trying to build the Narita Airport.
- Indecent Tongue Technique (1990) .. Zeze Takahisa
Zeze debuted in pink films, but this is just as much about postwar politics and the others on the margins of Japan. I love the ending.
- Cure (1997) .. Kurosawa Kiyoshi
The best Japanese film of the 1990s.
- Gaichu (2001) .. Shiota Akihiko
The ending still blows me away: noise, alienation, and the “harmful insect’s” desire to destroy it all without reason.
- Minamata: The Patients and their World (1972) .. Tsuchimoto Noriaki
Tsuchimoto’s exposé of the famous mercury poisoning incident in Minamata goes behind the “news” and rethinks the documentary filmmaker’s relationship to the body of the “other.”
- Sonatine (1993) .. Kitano Takeshi
My favorite Kitano film, and I wrote a book about him.
- Nausicaä - Of the Valley of the Wind (1984) .. Miyazaki Hayao
Still my favorite of Miyazaki’s films, but in part because I’ve read the manga.
- Ghost in the Shell (1995) .. Oshii Mamoru
Arguably the most intellectually complex of recent anime, this film makes Oshii, along with Kurosawa Kiyoshi, the master of ambiguity in contemporary Japanese film.
- Tokyo Drifter (1966) .. Suzuki Seijun
Branded to Kill may be crazier, but this film just works better for me.
- A Page of Madness (1926) .. Kinugasa Teinosuke
As I wrote in my book on this film, this is not really the avant-garde masterpiece most people say it is, but for me, its complex history and textuality make it all the more compelling.
- Dead or Alive (1999) .. Miike Takashi
Forget about the opening sequence, which of course is outrageous. I prefer the long takes of the graveyard in a tidal swamp, moments that better represent Miike’s challenge to contemporary Japanese film than the wild style he is known for.
- Eureka (2000) .. Aoyama Shinji
Aoyama’s treatise on trauma, responsibility, repetition and time is also a mesmerizing experiment in cinema.
- Ghost of Yotsuya (1959) .. Nakagawa Nobuo
The best rendition of Japan’s most famous ghost story, it must be studied closely before anyone goes off spouting about what “J-horror” is.
- Tsuru-Henry (1998) .. Takamine Go
I wrote about this film in the book Censoring History, but this is a mirthful and magical exploration of the politics of Okinawan identity, as well as an evocation, especially through the form of rensageki (which combines film and theater), of the possibilities of alternative forms of cinema.
- The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970) .. Oshima Nagisa
Fascinating in itself as an exploration of the intersections between radical politics, cinema, and subjectivity, it is also deeply entwined in the film theory—specifically landscape theory (fukeiron)—of its day.