This is not a list of the 20 greatest Japanese films of all time. It's a grab-bag of classics and genre flicks, sentimental Japanese favorites and worldwide smashes. The intention is to offer a quick survey of Japanese cinema that will hopefully lead you in a dozen different directions. A list of the most important films by the most important directors is easy to find elsewhere. These are the first 20 that sprang to mind, offered in alphabetical order.
A COLT IS MY PASSPORT (1967) -- A wacky crime flick, sort of a cross between a spaghetti western and a Warner Bros. gangster movie. It will quickly convince you the idea of Japanese films as samurai movies or noble and slow-moving is far from the truth. Joe Shishido stars as a hitman trapped between two rival gangs.
CRAZED FRUIT (1956) -- A hugely popular teen melodrama, a la Rebel Without A Cause. Director Ko Nakahira's controversial movie shows the young and privileged teens reveling in their new-found sexual freedom as two brothers compete to win over a beautiful young woman over the course of a summer at the seashore. Shocking!
FLOATING WEEDS (1959) -- Ozu remade his own silent film with this gem about a traveling theater troupe in a seaside town. An ode to acting, complete with low funds, affairs, off-stage turmoil and a love of performing that makes it all worth enduring.
HIGH AND LOW (1963) -- One of many films by Akira Kurosawa on the list. For a long time, he was the only Japanese director known overseas. Now he's been eclipsed a tad by critics crazy for Ozu and Naruse and others. But he's still a master. This is a contemporary drama about a businessman about to take control of his company when a little boy is abducted to force his hand. Gripping and a great glimpse into the upper class.
I AM WAITING (1957) -- A great-looking and fatally romantic film. Yujio Ishihara stars as a loner, the manager of a restaurant and a one-time professional boxer who wanders the docks and keeps to himself. Until the desperate, doomed (and beautiful) Mie Kitahara walks into his place looking to escape her gangster boss. Terrific and not well-known outside of Japan.
I WAS BORN, BUT... (1932) -- A delightful early Ozu film. Two little brothers form a "gang" and make friends after they move into a new neighborhood. They idolize their hard-working father though a glimpse into his real status at the company is a sad eye-opener for the boys who have been lording it over the boss's son. Gentle social satire and a charming look at the life of kids.
LATE SPRING (1949) -- More Ozu. This time a widowed father must marry off his adoring only daughter in post-war Japan. Bittersweet drama.
MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988) -- This is one of two animated movies by the master Hayao Miyazaki. In this one, two little girls move to a new home in the country because their mother is ailing. They have a grand time playing with the wood spirits that live nearby but sadness is never far from the surface in this lovely film.
PALE FLOWER (1964) -- Another really great-looking, glamorous film. A doomed, almost-romance between a handsome young gangster just out of prison and the gorgeous rich girl who gets her kicks by holding her own playing against the men in gambling dens. It's not going to turn out well....
RASHOMON (1950) -- An iconic film, one you have to see if only because any time people have competing versions of the truth, it's referred to as a Rashomon-like incident. In this brief but memorable period tale, a terrible crime has occurred and everyone involved gives their spin on what happened, with the incident dramatically different each time. This broke through internationally and established Japanese cinema as an artistic force with the rest of the world.
SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) -- Perhaps the longest film on this list, but also the most fun and purely entertaining. It was remade in the US as The Magnificent Seven, a great western in its own right. This is the story of seven samurai who are hired by peasants in 1587 to protect them from bandits that come every harvest and steal all their crops. Great, great fun.
SPIRITED AWAY (2001) -- The second animated film from Hayao Miyazaki. This one follows a ten year old girl whose family moves to a new neighborhood. She wanders into a spirit world, where her parents are transformed into pigs. She has to become self-reliant and figure out how to rescue them and get back to the human world. A worldwide smash, this is Miyazaki's masterpiece. While it will be familiar to anyone who's read fairy tales, it's also very Japanese and has a sensibility and style that couldn't have arisen anywhere else.
THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUMS (1939) -- Not easy to find, though it is sometimes broadcast on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Another ode to acting, in this case it's the story of the adopted son of a famous kabuki star. He must follow in his father's footsteps but everyone around him just blandly praises him despite his many artistic shortcomings. Only the wet nurse speaks honestly to him about the work he needs to do. They fall in love and he runs away to hone his craft and prove himself. Romance is often doomed in Japanese cinema, so watch out for when a character coughs -- in classic movies, the only reason someone coughs is to give you a warning sign that deadly illness (and much weeping) is only a scene or two away.
TOKYO DRIFTER (1966) -- A sardonic mocking of movies that glorify the "honor" of gangsters, this is a really nutty, over the top crime film with the hero wandering around whistling, a catchy theme song, bar brawls and more, all in service of ridiculing the idea of unquestioning loyalty. Loyalty being a highly valued character trait, it's a pretty revolutionary tack for the movies to take. But above all, it's just a crazy, crazy flick.
TOKYO STORY (1953) -- Considered by many to be Ozu's masterpiece, this is the story of an elderly couple who go on a trip to visit their various children, all of whom are too busy to pay them much attention. Only a widowed daughter-in-law shows them the respect and love they deserve. A quiet heartbreaker.
TONY TAKITANI (2005) -- It was kind of a shock to see how few Japanese films have made my best of the year list (other than Miyazaki's animated movies). All the action has been happening in Hong Kong and Korea and Japan. But two dramas do appear: Twilight Samurai (from 2002) and this drama about a man who falls in love with a woman who is obsessed with shopping. It's based on a short story by Haruki Murakami (the author of Norwegian Wood) and is very spare and quiet and strange.
TWENTY-FOUR EYES (1954) -- A sentimental favorite among Japanese but little known in the west, this is the story of a beloved female schoolteacher who inspires and delights her students from the mid-1920s through the war. A tearjerker.
UGETSU (1953) -- Kenji Mizoguchi's masterpiece is a ghost story about greed. Villagers struggle to survive in the 1500s as war swirls around them. One man who makes pottery sees the turmoil as a chance to make a lot of money, despite his wife's pleading to stay with her and various warnings to not take that path. Does he listen? Of course not. Does he yearn to become a samurai and take part in the glory of battle? Of course he does. Is war glamorous? Hardly. A gorgeous, haunting film that along with Rashomon established Japanese cinema on the world stage.
WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS (1960) -- Director Mikio Naruse often had women at the center of his films and this is perhaps his masterpiece. Keiko is a "hostess," not a prostitute but a Japanese variant that comes close to it and sometimes crosses over. She yearns to open her own bar rather than remarry because she still honors the memory of her late husband. Noble? That doesn't even begin to describe a woman who must sacrifice everything in order keep her brother out of jail and help a nephew crippled by polio walk again, all while battling off a potentially fatal illness. Melodrama of the highest order.
YOJIMBO (1961) -- Samurai films are Japan's westerns and not only are the best of them important classics, they're also tremendous fun. This one is a blast, with the great Toshiro Mifune playing a wandering ronin who comes into a village and finds two rival gangs at war and desperate for his services. He plays them off each other with hilarious results. It was remade as A Fistful Of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood in one of his most famous roles.