Beyond Anime: 5 Great Japanese Movies
Seven Samurai (1954)
Over 60 years on from Seven Samurai's initial release, it still stands tall as one of the greatest films in the history of cinema—holding 19th position in IMDB's list of the Top 250 movies of all time. Seven Samurai (七人の侍・Shichinin no Samurai) is not just an important work of art in the history of Japanese film-making, but in fact, the movie is believed to inspired the entire genre of Spaghetti Westerns which took over American cinema in the 1960s. Not to mention the obvious influences that it has had on the pantheon of subsequent Japanese samurai films, raid films and the action genre as a whole. So what makes it so special?
Seven Samurai takes place in feudal Japan during the 1600s. A veteran samurai and his 6 accomplices are recruited to defend a fishing village from a group of roaming bandits. This is arguably the first example in the history of cinema, where a rag-tag group assemble in response to a unified cause—a theme which has been used time and again since, in both movies and video games alike. The movie also challenges the traditionally infallible ideals of the samurai, who become entangled in a web of caste mixing, rebellion and even forbidden romance. Director Akira Kurosawa deftly juggles these sub-plots alongside the main arc of the story, with it all culminating in an epic, unforgettable battle scene. Kurosawa's masterpiece was groundbreaking in 1954, and in 2018 it's still regarded by many as the gold standard of Japan's celebrated film industry.
Fireworks (花火・Hanabi) is the 1998 movie that really cemented Takeshi Kitano's position as one of the biggest names in Japanese cinema—a film which he wrote, directed and starred in. He plays sensitive Tokyo-based cop Nishi, who has a hard-nosed side which he tries his best to keep at bay. Nishi hands in his badge as he struggles to come to terms with the recent death of his daughter, and his wife's terminal illness. His misery is compiled as his partner is wounded in the line of duty and is confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, leading to an emergence of suicidal tendencies. His life derailed, the constant stream of bad luck leads to some questionable decision making. Before long he is embroiled in a Yakuza-infested criminal underworld, with no end in sight.
At face value Fireworks appears to be a gritty cop drama, however this is only one side of the coin. The movie's depth is enhanced by the emotional and artistic undertones employed by Kitano throughout the film. The development of Nishi's relationships with both his wife and his partner are heartfelt and often somber. They are the embodiment of what makes this film stand out from the genre. The film's score comes from the venerable Joe Hisaishi, whose melancholic piano compositions (which would be right at home in a JRPG) are a fitting accompaniment to the more intimate scenes—right up until the final, heart-wrenching act.
Considering Japan's centuries-old fondness of ghost stories, it feels fitting to include one on this list. None may be more deserving than the 1998 classic Ring (リング・Ringu). The film is based on Koji Suzuki's 1991 novel of the same name, and is believed to have been inspired by the 18th century ghostly, theatrical piece Bancho Sarayashiki. Ring's immediate critical and commercial success subsequently led to the 2002 Hollywood remake, The Ring, paving the way for generation of English speaking adaptations of Japanese horror films. While both the Japanese and US versions of this film are great (and more importantly downright terrifying), the original version just pips its American counterpart to the proverbial post.
The premise is simple. There is a fabled video tape in Izu that supposedly causes the death of anyone who watches it exactly seven days later. The movie follows journalist Reiko, who is determined to understand the source of the video tape and the fatal curse that it besets upon its unsuspecting viewers. Ring is a nail-biting, frightening tale that turned our favorite living room props—the television and the video tape—into the stuff of nightmares. A lone TV with a fuzzy screen, playing in a darkened room will forever send chills down your spine after watching this film. It is an absolute classic in the horror genre, and one of the best to ever come out Japan.
Battle Royale (2000)
Battle Royale (バトルロワイアル・Batoru Rowaiaru) is indicative of the type of storytelling that has been popularized by Japan's more violent manga and anime series'. At its core, it is a blood-soaked, dystopian thriller set in an Orwellian alternate reality Japan. However, this is juxtaposed with a high school coming-of-age drama, and to great effect. Kinji Fukusaku directed the film, which is in essence a streamlined version Koushun Takami's 1999 novel of the same name, a worthy adaptation of the source material. The year is 1997, and Japan has conquered many of its neighboring countries, collectively known as the Greater Republic of East Asia. The story revolves around a clandestine government program which sends a group of high school kids unwittingly and unwillingly to a remote island on the inland sea where they have one simple objective—fight to the death, and the last remaining student will be crowned victorious.
Battle Royale is a precursor to The Hunger Games, viewed through a Japanese cinematic lens, with the violence ramped up to R-rated levels. The high school drama tropes of cliques, bullies, jocks and self-insecurity are intricately woven into the gory tale of deception and survival. The result is a truly unique and controversial thriller, that still stands as one of the finest examples of Japanese cinema.
13 Assassins (2010)
13 Assassins (十三人の刺客・Jusannin no Shikaku), as you may well have guessed, is one of the many films to have taken at least some of its inspiration from Seven Samurai. A remake of the 1963 classic of the same name, 13 Assassins is one of the best modern entries in Japan's acclaimed samurai movie genre, hands down.
The story is set in the 1800s, when Japan's samurai era was on the wane, not long before they finally opened their doors to colonialism. It follows a group of samurai who embark on a suicide mission in order to kill the sadistic heir to the Shogunate, Lord Naritsugu. The brutal, masochistic inclinations of Lord Naritsugu are shown very early on in the movie, lending some credence to the group of 13's mission—a mission that is seemingly at odds with traditional samurai ethics. Each one of the 13 assassins involved joins the cause for the their own individual reasons, and embarks on the foolhardy endeavour knowing full-well that they probably won't return. It combines classic genre themes, such as the code of honor and an epic, against-all-odds final battle, with shades of popular mythologies, like the tale of the 300 Spartans. It is a suspense-filled modern classic, and a great contemporary alternative to the samurai films of old. As expected, the movie is quite violent, and is not for the faint of heart!