Japan has created some incredibly beautiful, moving, and influential films but which ones are the best? I’ve made this list to answer exactly that, here are the 10 best Japanese movies based on their ratings, importance and just how good they are.
Below is a list of the best Japanese movies of all times by rating and importance. These are Spirited Away, Grave of the Fireflies, Your Name, My Neighbour Totoro, Howls Moving Castle, Battle Royale, Seven Samurai, Ran, Rashomon, and Harakiri.
|Title||Genre||Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)||IMDB rating||Rotten Tomatoes critic rating||Rotten Tomatoes audience score|
|Spirited Away||Anime & Adventure||PG||8.6/10||97%||96%|
|Grave of the Fireflies||Anime & Drama||Unrated||8.5/10||100%||95%|
|Your Name||Anime & Romance||PG||8.4/10||98%||94%|
|My Neighbor Totoro||Anime & Fantasy||G||8.2/10||94%||94%|
|Howls Moving Castle||Anime & Fantasy||PG||8.2/10||87%||93%|
|Battle Royale||Adventure & Thriller||R||7.6/10||87%||89%|
|Seven Samurai||Action & Adventure||G||8.6/10||100%||97%|
|Ran||Action & Adventure||R||8.2/10||97%||95%|
|Rashomon||Art & Drama||NR||8.2/10||98%||93%|
|Harakiri||Drama & Action||NR||8.7/10||76%||75%|
Now I’ll give you a brief breakdown of each film, what they’re about, and what makes each one so special. Don’t worry I haven’t put any major spoilers in so you can still get a feel of each one without ruining anything for yourself…
Spirited Away is the first of three Studio Ghibli films that are on my list. Often referred to as the Japanese version of Walt Disney, Studio Ghibli films are hard not to fall in love with. Their films are beautifully animated and the fantasy worlds they make up are original, entrancing and leave you feeling a nice warm glow inside.
One of the lead animators Hayao Miyazaki is a large reason as to why these films are so popular. His beautifully crafted mysterious storylines keep you engaged, and the stunning imagery that Hayao creates really makes these films really special.
At the 75th Film Academy Awards, Spirited Away won the ‘Academy Award for Best Animated Feature’, making it the only film to have ever won the award that is completely hand-drawn and not in the English language.
The film is based in a fantasy world and follows Chihiro, a young girl who is moving house with her family. They stop off in a small town on the way to have some food but when Chihiro wanders off and gets talking to a boy she realises they’re in danger.
Nothing is as it seems, spirits are transformed, and sorcerers rule. Chihiro’s future depends on her judgement, skill, and of course a good dose of fortune.
I’d try to explain the film further for you but it is almost blasphemous to try and put such stunning artwork into the written word. However, I can promise you that this film is unlike any other movie. It will draw you into a strange wonderful world where people’s parents get turned to pigs and their friends shapeshift into dragons.
Grave of the Fireflies
While Spirited Away will leave you walking away feeling warm and viewing the world through rose-tinted glasses, Grave of the Fireflies will do pretty much the exact opposite. It’s a thoroughly depressing movie but it watching it is an incredible experience and I believe leaves the viewer as a better person.
The tale is of a young boy and his even younger sister, and their lives living in Japan in the last few months of World War 2. Early on in the film they are separated from their parents in an American bombing mission and they are left with only each other and the hard task of staying alive in war trodden Japan.
Sadly, these kinds of tales of lost children during war times are all too real and the film is made in such a way that is impossible not to empathise with these children and feel their pain.
Based on the book and true story of Akiyuki Nosaka whose young sister died of malnutrition during World War 2. Although her death was outside of Akiyuki’s control, he blamed himself for what happened to her for the rest of his life. He wrote the book ‘Hotaru no haka’, which translates to A Grave of Fireflies, over 50 years ago in an attempt to put his grief to rest.
It’s a graphic, utterly depressing and very real film. It’s incredibly engaging throughout and really makes you think about the horrors of war, and how far-reaching the destructive effect they have on peoples lives really is.
Your name is the highest-grossing anime film and the highest-grossing Japanese film ever made. The film was incredibly successful being the 16th highest-grossing film in the world that isn’t in English. It won a bunch of awards and America is currently in the making of a live-action rendition.
Famously the writer and director Makoto Shinkai was never happy with the final result. He expressed that the two year time period they had to make the film was too short, and their budget too limited to do all the animation that they wanted to. I think this is just a sign of what a perfectionist Makoto is. The film received an unparalleled positive response and made hundreds of millions of dollars.
The film follows two adolescent Japanese children who live very different lives from one another. The young girl Mitsuha is the daughter of a well-respected mayor in a quiet town set off in rural mountainous Japan. She feels as if there is more to the world than small-town politics and old Shinto rituals and dreams of another life in Tokyo.
Meanwhile our other protagonist Taki is at school in Tokyo, while also working part-time in an Italian restaurant. He is also unsatisfied with the lot he has received and dreams of becoming a creator of some sort. A strange occurrence happens to him though, when he goes to sleep he has strange dreams that he can’t explain, dreams of becoming a young girl named Mitsuha…
My Neighbor Totoro
This is the second Studio Ghibli movie on my list and arguably the most iconic. People in Japan half-joke that every Japanese family has at least one copy of My Neighbor Totoro and that every child knows who Totoro is. An even bigger sign of how influential My Neighbor Totoro is obvious when you look at Studio Ghibli’s logo.
Of course like all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films the animation is soft, beautiful and draws you in. What makes the film special though is how cute and adorable all of the characters are and how simple yet thought-provoking the story is. Set just after World War 2 in rural Japan there’s no doubt it has a nostalgic feel for many older Japanese people.
My Neighbour Totoro merchandise is everywhere in Japan, and everybody loves it no matter what age they are. People find these things gives them a sense of belonging and rooting to their past.
A Harvard paper looking at ‘ The Conservation for Satoyama, the traditional landscape of Japan’ even wrote about My Neighbor Totoro saying “The movie has served as a powerful focus for the positive feelings of the Japanese toward satoyama and traditional village life”.
The story follows a pair of young girls Satsuki and her young sister Mei as they move away from the city so that they are able to spend more time with their sick mother. They soon find out that the forest next to their new home is unlike any other forest, it is filled with these extraordinary other-worldly creatures named Totoros. They make friends with the Totoros and go on many magical adventures with them learning about life.
Howls Moving Castle
Another Studio Ghibli creation, it’s cute, fun, and full of adventure. The film is actually based, albeit quite loosely, on a book written by a British author, but this is something I would have never have guessed as the whole story has such a Japanese feel to it.
Miyazaki has said that he was strongly influenced by his opposition to America invading Iraq back in 2003, and this is very evident in the film with its obvious anti-war message. It also tackles ideas of ageing, portraying getting old as a positive, freeing experience. There are also some messages about feminism, making the film popular with a number of feminists.
When Miyazaki was asked why Howls Moving Castle was his favourite creation he responded in the perfect way “I wanted to convey the message that life is worth living, and I don’t think that’s changed.”
Sophie is a young girl who lives an ordinary life working at a hat shop in a bustling town in Japan. But everything changes when she falls in love with a magician called Howl. A witch mad at her for being friends with Howl curses her and turns her into an old, haggard lady. Sophie takes this incredibly well, given the circumstances, and goes out into the world in search of her fortune.
Led by an enchanted scarecrow she finds Howls bizzare rickety floating castle, and joins him and his fire demon (who is possibly the cutest thing in the world). I could tell you more but I don’t want to spoil anything and it’s really worth just giving this a watch. If you like anime this is a must-watch, it will not disappoint.
Going from Studio Ghibli to Battle Royale is like going from cuddles and sleepy nights with your girlfriend to slamming beers and going to war. It’s been classed before as “One of the most controversial films ever made”, and Quentin Tarintino called it his favourite movie of all time.
I can see why he said that because it is a sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat kind of film. It’s a gruesome premise and is incredibly captivating. If you haven’t already seen Battle Royale you may have seen Hunger Games which has an incredibly similar plot (but Battle Royale was made first). In Battle Royale, there are 42 students, 3 days, and 1 survivor.
A school bus is driving through a tunnel on what seems to be a normal school trip. All of a sudden it is forced to stop and a mysterious lady comes aboard armed and wearing a gas mask. The children all pass out and wake up later in a room with electronic shock bands around their necks. Life is a game, they are told, the only option is to fight for your survival and see if you deserve to live.
They are put on an island and forced to fight until only one is left standing. As you can imagine it’s jam-packed with some super fun action scenes and it gets pretty gruesome at times. Alongside the action is a deeply moving story to the film which gives it a depth that often these kinds of films are missing.
It’s an intensely violent but still beautiful film and is one that has had an incredibly influential effect both in Japan and across the world.
Released in 1954 Seven Samurai is now well over 50 years old. Even after that time it is still often ranked as one of the greatest films of all time. Just back in 2018, it won the award for ‘Greatest foreign language film’ in the BBC’s international critics poll.
It’s also been remade and referenced by countless other films, but as with all classics, the original is by far the most popular.
Set way back in 1586 it is arguably one of the best Samurai movies out there. It tells an epic tale of a group of farmers who, worried about nearby bandits stealing their crops, employee seven master samurais to defend their village.
A great look at the Samurai culture that was once so prevalent in Japan, this is a wonderful insight into old Japan.
Ran was a Japanese-French venture written and directed by Akira Kurosawa. It was regarded as one of his best films ever made and took him almost 20 years to create.
Released in 1985 it was at the time the most expensive film in Japan to have ever been made. It received widespread critical acclaim and won multiple awards.
The plot is largely based on William Shakespeare’s play King Lear. But there are also references to some old Japanese legends. Set in Medieval Japan, an old warlord is retiring and so splitting his empire up between his three sons. Even though he was corrupted by power, he underestimates how much power will corrupt his children.
A tale of family feuds in ancient Japan and a cautionary tale to the evils of power, it’s also got a nice dose of action-packed scenes mixed in there. If you’re looking for some old school Japanese drama this is a great watch.
This is one of those films that really challenges your perceptions of what you once held to be true, and leaves you thinking for a good while after the film has ended.
It shows the perspectives of four different characters who were all in some way involved in the same horrific event, rape and murder. The film flicks between their each different retellings of the crime. We see that with each retelling we get a slightly different story. Each character casts themselves in an idealistic light making themselves seem to not have been at fault.
This is where the term ‘The Rashomon effect’ is born from. A term widely used to refer to the notorious unreliability there is in eyewitness statements.
If you like films that make you think this is one of my favourite psychological thrillers there is. It is another one of the first Japanese films to be internationally recognized, winning many international awards.
Released in 1962 this is a period drama film depicting the Edo period between 1619 and 1630. Often known as the last period of medieval Japan it’s a fascinating time in Japanese history.
It tells the story of a Samurai with no lord requests to commit seppuku, ritual suicide. However, being told of the brutal seppuku of another samurai the tale turns.
It is a slow, yet beautiful film which favours the depth of human feeling and emotion over action. A gripping and wonderfully made film this is another really thought-provoking tale.
Where can I watch Japanese films online?
Well if you’re after one of the Studio Ghibli movies you’re in serious luck because they all just got released on Netflix. Yep, that’s right you can sit those rainy days away getting your anime fix that easily. The others are a little harder to find but can be rented on youtube or amazon prime for just 2 or 3 dollars.
What are the best Japanese TV shows of all times
I could write a whole other article on Japanese TV shows but for now, I’ll recommend two to you here.
First is Mushi-Shi, a series I have watched through about five times now. It follows a type of travelling doctor in old age Japan, he sees ‘Mushi’ which are a type of entity not quite animal and not quite plant. It’s beautiful, has a really relaxing soundtrack and is the perfect just before bed watch. Even better than that the whole first series is now available on youtube, I’d really recommend checking out an episode or two.
My second suggestion is the Liar Game. There are three seasons and I’m currently on season 2 but I’ve been hooked from the very start. I won’t say much as I don’t want to spoil things for you, but let’s just say it’s filled with twists, turns and deceit.
Why is Anime so popular in Japan?
There’s no doubt that Anime is the most popular form of media in Japan and many people wonder why that is. Well, there are lots of factors. But it’s partly due to Japans obsession with everything Kawaii (meaning cute). I wrote a whole article about why Anime’s so popular in Japan, check it out here.