Friday, January 21, 2011

The J-Film Pow-Wow Top 100 Favorite Japanese Films


The J-Film Pow-Wow has been going for nearly four years now and during that time we've reported on the annual Top Ten lists put out by various online and print sources and Chris, Bob, Marc, Matt and Eric have spent our fair share of time scouring and critiquing other people's Top 100 lists of Japanese films. It got to the point where we thought we'd put ourselves out there with our own list, something beyond our monthly Top Ten lists. With that in mind we pooled our collective movie-going experiences and have come up with the J-Film Pow-Wow's own Top 100 Japanese Films list.

Now, before you read on you should keep something in mind. This list was tabulated by all five of the Pow-Wow crew making lists of their own favorite Japanese films - not films we felt were historically important and not films that parroted other lists that have created the present canon of Japanese cinema. Our main concern was to come up with films that we held a real heartfelt love for. Once we drew up our lists we ranked them, assigned a points system and cross referenced all five to come up with this Top 100 list. There are some obvious picks ranking in obvious positions, there are some critically-favoured films in the Japanese film canon that didn't fare as well, and there are a lot of surprises. Those are the films on the list we're all most excited about.

So read on, enjoy and please have your say in the comments afterwards. We hope that this list, like all we do here on the J-Film Pow-Wow, leads you to explore films you may have only ever heard of, or have never heard off. Happy exploring!


Youth of the Beast

100. A Last Note (dir. Kaneto Shindo, 1995)

Kaneto Shindo's story of a group of senior actors spending their last summer together made while the film's star (and his wife) Nobuko Otowa was fighting a losing battle against liver cancer. The poignancy comes across and makes us wonder why this gem isn't better known in the West.

99. Youth of the Beast (dir. Seijun Suzuki, 1963)

Jo Shishido survives being blown up in a house while he's hanging upside down, then manages to swing himself to a gun, fight off two remaining yakuza, shoot himself free and finish them off - do you really need to know more than that?

98. Yojimbo (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1961)

A list of our favorite Japanese films wouldn’t be complete without the one that introduced the world to Toshiro Mifune’s unforgettable ronin. In addition to the great actor’s pitch-perfect performance (possibly the finest example of his feral manly-man act), "Yojimbo" provides a gleefully entertaining yarn as only Kurosawa at the top of his game could pull off.

97. Shinobi no Mono 2 (dir. Satsuo Yamamoto, 1963)

If the first "Shinobi No Mono" was the film that made ninja’s legendary, using real techniques and historical backdrops, it's the second one that creates an epic, bloody and emotional narrative that solidified the influence the 8 part series would generate. The best of the series by far.

96. Double Suicide (dir. Masahiro Shinoda, 1969)

A classic bunraku puppet play by Monzaemon Chikamatsu is melded with the daring New Wave vision of director Masahiro Shinoda. Equal parts traditional and avant-garde the story of a merchant attempting to redeem a prostitute is a visual and dramatic feast.

95. Wife to be Sacrificed (dir. Masaru Konuma, 1974)

A classic of erotic/ exploitation cinema starring one of the queen's of pink film, Naomi Tani. Like the San Francisco Chronicle said in its original review of the film, "It’s like watching a sexual madhouse."

94. Ornamental Hairpin (dir. Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941)

Hiroshi Shimizu makes fine use of Ozu favorite Chishu Ryu in this bittersweet, multi-layered tale of routine, escape and love set during one summer at a country inn.

93. Funky Forest: The First Contact (dir. Katsuhito Ishii, 2005)

Dreams mixing with reality is a common theme in "Funky Forest", so it makes sense that it would flit between skits, sketches, recurring characters and some of the strangest sights you'll ever see - all the while doing it with a firm grasp of the silly and the absurd.

92. 13 Assassins (dir. Takashi Miike, 2010)

Takashi Miike embraces a conventional jidai geki story and infuses in with an energy all his own, and the result is a modern classic of the genre.

91. Erotic Diary of an Office Lady (dir. Masaru Konuma, 1977)

From the prime of Pinku, this Masaru Konuma film’s narrative captures both the drudgery of real life and the transcendent power of sex. While perhaps not as flashy as other films in the genre, a scene featuring a young couple surrendering to passion on the tatami floor of a small room full of baby chicks is a standout.


Horrors of Malformed Men

90. Pitfall (dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1962)

A touchstone in Japanese horror filmmaking for its use of sound and its mix of numerous themes, Teshigahara's first film still retains a creepily effective power over viewers.

89. Woman in the Dunes (dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)

Existentialist stories don’t always work as cinema, but Kobo Abe’s allegory for man’s place in work and society succeeds largely due to director Hiroshi Teshigahara’s moody visuals.

88. Vortex and Others (dir. Yoshihiro Ito, 2001-2008)

Is it possible to combine the disturbing imagination of David Lynch, the creative daring of Seijun Suzuki and the abusrd sense of humour of Haruki Murakami? It is and the man who does it is film-maker Yoshihiro Itoh in this quintet of fascinating shorts that desperately need to be seen in North America.

87. Tokyo Sonata (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa pulls back the curtain on modern Japan to reveal the Sasakis, an average Japanese family who will lie to others and to themselves about everything that matters to maintain an unrealistic facade of tradition. A gripping and intense showcase for actors Teruyuki Kagawa and Kyoko Koizumi, whose characters prove average is anything but ordinary.

86. Samurai Spy (dir. Masahiro Shinoda, 1965)

Warring factions and displaced samurai make the perfect breeding ground not only for spies, but for some of the most beautifully shot black and white cinematography you'll ever see.

85. Ninja Scroll (dir. Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1993)

Weaving historical characters, demonic mythos, and insane anime action, "Ninja Scroll" is an amazing kaleidoscope of influences funneled through the mind of Yoshiaki Kawajiri.

84. Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (dir. Koki Mitani, 1997)

What happens when you simply change a name in a radio play? Writer and director Koki Mitani weaves a madcap comedy around the result of this seemingly inconsequential last minute re-write. Watch out for superstar Ken Watanabe as a lone truck driver listening in on the action.

83. Terror of Mechagodzilla (dir. Ishiro Honda, 1975)

Originally Gojira was a dark, compelling metaphor for the atomic bomb and many decry the way he became a pro-wrestling children’s favorite, but the goofier Godzilla movies have an insight into a child’s logic and sense of wonder that I find irresistible.

82. Horrors of Malformed Men (dir. Teruo Ishii, 1969)

The perverse tales of Edogawa Rampo as told by the radical Teruo Ishii, with a little butoh through in for good measure, "Horrors of Malformed Men" is a cinematic experience like no other, and is a precursor too much of the extreme visual and narrative story telling that would follow in the 1970’s and beyond.

81. Cure (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1997)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's perfectly controlled masterpiece contains a terrifying idea: anyone can be made to kill.


Tokyo Twilight

80. Zatoichi’s Revenge (dir. Akira Inoue, 1964)

More or less chose this Katsu-Shin blind swordsman film at random from the middle of the pack, which was when the series had established its rhythm. Cookiecutter? To some degree perhaps, but we think cookies are delicious.

79. Mind Game (dir. Masaaki Yuasa, 2004)

Masaaki Yuasa takes our idea of what "anime" is and blows it up, sweeps up the pieces and then blows them up again. This story of hell, purgatory and ultimately heaven was the film to put STUDIO4°C on the map.

78. All About Lily Chou-Chou (dir. Shunji Iwai, 2001)

Full props to writer and director Shunji Iwai for handling this story of teenage misfits and the pop idol they adore so well, yet his collaborators deserve just as much praise – especially the young central actors, cinematographer Noboru Shinoda and musician Salyu.

77. Armchair Theory (dir. Junji Kojima, 2004)

One of the funniest looks at love and the dating game ever committed to film. The stand out short from the 2004 "Jam Films" collection.

76. Tokyo Twilight (dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1957)

This underrated Ozu uses monochrome cinematography to its full advantage as it drops in on a family burdened with secrets and regrets in the midst of a gloomy winter.

75. Swing Girls (dir. Shinobu Yaguchi, 2004)

“Zero to hero” comedies have become a huge element in contemporary Japanese cinema due largely to the artictic and commercial success of this film, which is breezy and charming and made Juri Ueno a star.

74. Naked of Defenses (dir. Masahide Ichii, 2008)

Former comedian Masahide Ichii breaks our hearts with this story of two women, one pregnant and one infertile, who grow to hate and eventually love each other. In this age of manga adaptations and TV spin-offs it's wonderful to see film about human relationships that can go toe-to-toe with the Golden Age classics.

73. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (dir. Kenji Misumi, 1973)

"Lone Wolf and Cub", one of the most incredibly rich manga narratives by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima was adapted into a 6 film series before the manga was even completed, and part 5, "Baby Cart in the Land of Demons", by the great Kenji Misumi is not only the best of the series, but also one of the great samurai epics.

72. Zero Focus (dir. Yoshitaro Nomura, 1961)

So few mystery films really do keep audiences guessing, but here’s a film that really does keep you in the dark until the final reel. Add to that that it incorporates a hard-hitting look at post-war poverty and you have a masterpiece on your hands.

71. Three Resurrected Drunkards (dir. Nagisa Oshima, 1968)

An exuberant work of pop art from a particularly inspired phase of Nagisa Oshima’s fascinating career. Its playful, anything-goes spirit meshes strangely well with its accusatory stance towards such issues as the Vietnam War and mistreatment of Korean immigrants by the Japanese.


Pastoral: To Die in the Country

70. Samurai Rebellion (dir. Masaki Kobayashi, 1967)

Director Masaki Kobayashi subtly creates a masterpiece of storytelling. It creeps up on you, sucks you in and makes you feel as outraged as Isaburo Sasahara (Toshiro Mifune) himself.

69. Ring (dir. Hideo Nakata, 1998)

The most influential horror film of the last 20 years, Hideo Nakata forever changed the landscape not only in his native country, but also on a global scale, taking the classic Onryo from Japanese folklore and infusing it with a technological sensibility. Plus, he reworked the ending of Koji Suzuki’s novel and added a Cronenberg twist.

68. Kikujiro (dir. Takeshi Kitano, 1999)

Critics may not have been kind to Kitano’s follow-up to his Golden Lion-winning “Hana-bi”. Still “Kikujiro” isn’t just magical because of its boy in search of his mother plot, but because it comprises all that Kitano had learned about film-making up to that point. A wonderful journey!

67. Dodes’ka-den (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1970)

This curio of Kurosawa’s career deserves a place among the greatest color debuts – scratch that, the greatest color films period. Yet it is far more than a bold display of style, as proven by the hope and compassion contained within its assorted stories of Tokyo slum dwellers.

66. Departures (Dir. Yojiro Takita, 2008)

Conventional and safe yet near-perfectly executed, the 2009 best foreign film Oscar-winner has proven to be borderless despite its dour subject matter. It turns out respect, grief, and loss don’t have language barriers.

65. Tokyo Story (dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

An emblematic film from Ozu’s career and, yes, quite possibly his crowning achievement. It serves quite nicely as either an introduction to or apex of his heart-wrenching examinations of family bonds and the trademark eloquence he uses to conduct them.

64. Pastoral: To Die in the Country (dir. Shuji Terayama, 1974)

Avant-garde film-maker Shuji Teryama is a name that needs to be better known in the West and we believe his 1974 semi-biographical surreal masterpiece “Pastoral: To Die in the Country” is the film to do it. Audiences love the craziness of Seijun Suzuki, so why not Terayama?

63. Only Yesterday (dir. Isao Takahata, 1991)

Though less fantastical than most of the Studio Ghibli offerings, Isao Takahata's follow-up to "Grave Of The Fireflies" is filled with just as much wonder and gorgeous animation.

62. Jigoku (dir. Nobuo Nakagawa, 1960)

Nobuo Nakagawa moved on from his folk tale influenced horror films and made a gory descent into hell that whilst at the time was failure critically, is a visual masterpiece, the likes of which have rarely been matched.

61. Rashomon (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

This Kurosawa classic easily makes any list of "best" or "most influential" films (even without restrictions to the confines of Japan), but it makes our favourites list because it's multiple viewpoint story is so easily re-watchable.


Linda, Linda, Linda

60. Ghost in the Shell (dir. Mamoru Oshii, 1995)

Nest to Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira” there isn’t another film that has had more influence on anime and the world of science fiction at large than Mamoru Oshii’s futuristic detective story.

59. Dolls (dir. Takeshi Kitano, 2002)

While many of Takeshi Kitano’s previous films demonstrate his artistic merits as a director, it is this one that elevates him to master status. His skills with color, editing and pacing are shown off in three artfully interwoven tales about love’s transience.

58. A Gentle Breeze in the Village (dir. Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2007)

Like the feeling of a cool summer breeze flashing across your cheek, Nobuhiro Yamashita's story about one young girl transitioning to adulthood is also a paean to a simpler life.

57. Giants and Toys (dir. Yasuzo Masumura, 1958)

A vicious satire of Japanese business practices and blind loyalty to superiors - “Giants and Toys” would be an impressive film today, but the fact that this was made over 50-years ago makes it downright astounding. It also helps that it’s funny and wildly entertaining.

56. The Hidden Blade (dir. Yoji Yamada, 2004)

Of Yoji Yamada’s trilogy of quiet, dramatic samurai films based on stories by Shuhei Fujisawa, this film is by far the most moving, and features a very restrained Masatoshi Nagase as the man with the secret technique.

55. Black Tight Killers (dir. Yasuharu Hasebe, 1966)

The band of female Ninjas who wield tape measures, old 45 singles and the Ninja chewing gum bullet as their stock weapons are just one of many reasons to fall for the regular-guy-becomes-undercover-spy plot of "Black Tight Killers". It's continually surprising, wonderfully cinematic and designed for maximum fun. Mission accomplished.

54. Zatoichi (Dir. Takeshi Kitano, 2003)

Now this is a reboot. Takeshi Kitano reinvents Katsu-Shin’s blind swordsman yet manages to hit all the necessary beats, crafting a film that is new yet comfortable, and extremely watchable.

53. Doing Time (dir. Yoichi Sai, 2002)

Yocihi Sai takes every aspect of the prison film genre and turns them on their ear. This adaptation of Kazuichi Hanawa’s autobiographical manga makes prison seem more like a Buddhist monastery than a correctional facility… and we in the audience can’t help following the gentle plotline.

52. The Funeral (dir. Juzo Itami, 1984)

Actor Juzo Itami made a nearly perfect first film with his look at a grieving family planning the funeral of their patriarch. All the humour, sexiness and satire of Itami’s later films like “Tampopo” and “A Taxing Woman” is here and fantastically played.

51. Linda, Linda, Linda (dir. Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2005)

Nobuhiro Yamashita's film about 4 teenage girls in a band practicing for that big final concert is not frenetic, has few costume changes and doesn't contain a single montage - and it's all the better for it as it concentrates on these young girls who haven't got it all figured, but seem to be off to a good start.


All Around Us

50. Hana-bi (dir. Takeshi Kitano, 1997)

Kitano’s award-winner is bleak, funny, and beautiful.

49. Dead or Alive (dir. Takashi Miike, 1999)

See Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi butt heads in Miike’s famously delirious gangster drama, which combines cinematic adrenaline rushes and bizarre imagery with a downright Shakespearian story of family and loyalty.

48. Survive Style 5+ (Dir. Gen Sekiguchi, 2004)

Vibrant candy coloured explosions of fun burst from every frame of this film as it barrels through its five main stories with reckless abandon taking side routes, stopping to enjoy the scenery and then continuing to careen all over the screen crashing from one plot point to another.

47. My Neighbour Totoro (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)

The purest distillation of Hiyao Miyazaki’s whimsy, with character design for the ages. His later films have more scope and spectacle but “Totoro” feels like a fairy tale that’s always been there and always will be.

46. Maborosi (dir. Hirokazu Koreeda, 1995)

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first fiction feature is a masterful achievement, addressing the subjects of death, time and unresolved mysteries with the gentle grace that would define his later films.

45. All Around Us (dir. Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2008)

This film’s success hinges on one performance and actress Tae Kimura fearlessly accepts the challenge, depicting clinical depression in a way which is neither maudlin nor pandering.

44. 9 Souls (dir. Toshiaki Toyoda, 2003)

Most prison break films take the convicts’ escape as the film’s climax, but with “9 Souls” it’s only the start. Toshiaki Toyoda starts off his film as a black comedy and then turns it into a heart-wrenching tragedy before our eyes.

43. Late Spring (dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)

Never would Setsuko Hara, Japanese cinema’s Eternal Virgin, be as luminous and engaging as she was in this 1949 Ozu classic. Hara hits all the marks in her performance – joyous, flirtatious, grieving, angry and back to joyous and makes us fall in love with her in the end.

42. Visitor Q (dir. Takashi Miike, 2001)

Miike’s take on Passolini, shot on DV cameras over the course of 8 days, this family melodrama starts as out disturbing and twisted, then unfolds into an often hilarious and deeply moving film as only Miike can make.

41. Sansho the Bailiff (dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

A relentlessly heartbreaking film – without a doubt one of Mizoguchi’s finest - about a family torn apart by the greed of others.


Perfect Blue

40. Kamome Diner (dir. Naoko Ogigami, 2006)

Watching three middle-aged women mill around for 2 hours shouldn’t be this enjoyable. Quiet humor punctuates a sense of calm that is present in all of Ogigami's work, but perfectly suits this fish out of water story about, of all things, Japanese soul food.

39. Branded to Kill (dir. Seijun Suzuki, 1967)

Highly influential, quite insane and possessed of the power to get its director fired, "Branded To Kill" is primarily on this list because it's also incredibly entertaining - Seijun Suzuki's hitman odyssey plays tricks with narrative storytelling, but never at the expense of characters or story.

38. Fine, Totally Fine (dir.Yosuke Fujita, 2008)

A film that gets more charming with each viewing. It doesn’t try too hard, it’s not conventional, and it is profoundly Japanese. Is it the finest Japanese movie ever made? No, but it might be the most unassuming.

37. Akira (dir. Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988)

Katsuhiro Otomo changed the anime world with this groundbreaking film, which not only incorporates science fiction, religion, and social commentary into one mind-blowing film, but also brought a new level of detail to animation that is still hard to replicate 25 years later.

36. Perfect Blue (dir. Satoshi Kon, 1998)

This tale of an actress’ descent into paranoia and madness will likely be receiving new attention thanks to "Black Swan," which owes it a major debt. "Perfect Blue" put the late, great Satoshi Kon on the map and showed what anime could really do as a legitimate artistic medium.

35. Nobody Knows (dir. Hirokazu Koreeda, 2004)

Kore-eda directs his gaze to a real-life incident involving children abandoned by their mother in an apartment and creates a lyrical ode to lost innocence.

34. Sonatine (dir. Takeshi Kitano, 1993)

Though one of Kitano’s finest yakuza films, "Sonatine" is really about the memory of summer and childhood as relived by a bunch of thugs hiding out at a beach house. Funny and positively jubilant – that is, until the fun and games arrive at their inevitable end.

33. Confessions of a Dog (dir. Gen Takahashi, 2005)

The gripping story of a good cop gone bad. They stopped making police movies like this in Hollywood in the 70’s and they never made cop movies like this in Japan. The last 6-minutes will shake you to the core.

32. Ichi the Killer (dir. Takashi Miike, 2001)

Yakuza cinema unfettered by conscience. Takashi Miike cemented his reputation by indulging every whimsy in this ultraviolent, wildly entertaining thriller.

31. A Scene at the Sea (dir. Takeshi Kitano, 1991)

Where are the guns and the gangsters? This is Takeshi Kitano’s most atypical film, but it may be his best. The gentle tale of a blind mute who attempts to use surfing to transform his life. Simple and truly profound.


Sword of Doom

30. Still Walking (dir. Hirokazu Koreeda, 2008)

Hirokazu Kore-eda's gentle, touching and personal story about family dynamics (written after his parents passed away) strolls through slice of life moments that will bring a smile of recognition to anyone's face.

29. Mr. Thank You (dir. Hiroshi Shimizu, 1936)

This journey by bus from a coastal village to the city of Tokyo may be one of the most remarkable road movies of all time. Not only does it introduce us to a cast of wonderful characters, but it cuts across social, financial and cultural boundaries like few films that have come after it.

28. High and Low (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

A morality play built around a tense kidnapping and the ensuing police procedural epitomizes Kurosawa’s incredible use of staging and his multi-camera setups, and as the name implies, is a roller coaster ride of emotions, right down to the last frame.

27. Throne of Blood (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1957)

Kurosawa doing "Macbeth" is without a doubt the greatest adaptation of Shakespeare ever set on film, and both Toshiro Mifune and Isuzu Yamada’s performances are nothing short of perfection, climaxing in one of the most stunning endings in Kurosawa’s career.

26. Bullet Ballet (dir. Shinya Tsukamoto, 1998)

Shinya Tsukamoto’s usual bone-rattling style is combined with subject matter than can break your heart. A man grieving the loss of his girlfriend enters the shady underworld of Tokyo in search of the gun that she took her own life with. Totally affecting and harrowing.

25. Red Beard (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Kurosawa tried his hand at many genres, but it is often forgotten that the medical drama was one of them. Still terribly underrated, "Red Beard" amply showcases his steady command of black-and-white compositions, period detail and the inner workings of human nature.

24. Gojira (dir. Ishiro Honda, 1954)

Our favourite fire-breathing lizard may have gone on to star in 27 more films, each one campier than the last, but this first film is one of the most heartfelt and incisive anti-war protests ever put on film. Look past the man in the rubber suit and we’ll see what we mean.

23. Kwaidan (dir. Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)

Masaki Kobayashi’s painting roots are quite evident in this beautiful but haunting series of ghost stories, all of which planted roots for the plethora of ghost stories that have followed decades later.

22. Sword of Doom (dir. Kihachi Okamoto, 1966)

The fatalistic samurai epic only covers the first section of Kaizan Nakazato’s "Dai-bosatsu tōge", but thanks to a brooding performance by Tatsuya Nakadai and some brilliant direction by Kihachi Okamoto, "Sword of Doom" is an epic character study of a samurai descending into hell.

21. Love Exposure (dir. Sion Sono, 2009)

Sion Sono's film bucks convention in every possible way, proving that if you have enough passion and nerve, 4 hours is a perfectly sensible running time for a thrilling piece of cinema.


20. Battle Royale (dir. Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)

In what is literally a take-no-prisoners exercise, “Battle Royale” director Kinji Fukasaku proves that he hadn’t much mellowed in the decades since his “Battles Without Honor and Humanity”. “Battle”’s unblinking depiction of aggressively forced social Darwinism remains shocking 10 years on, especially so since much of the teen cast has gone on to major film success (Tatsuya Fujiwara, Chiaki Kuriyama and Ko Shibasaki have all graduated to movie star status). Takeshi Kitano injects dark humor and a touch of pathos into his role as the teacher who oversees the carnage, but the real star here is Fujasaku for subversively managing to show society’s savage underbelly in a way which both horrifies and entertains. EE


19. A Snake of June (dir. Shinya Tsukamoto, 2002)

Shinya Tsukamoto adapts his trademark style to that of an oppressive, voyeuristic feminist masterpiece that adds a blue tinted sheen to his usually black and white imagery. Combining elements from his usual cyberpunk universe, as well as that of pinku eiga and touching family melodrama, Tsukamoto takes what could have easily been an exercise in perverse exploitation and turns it into a beautifully executed tale of a Tokyo couples cold, loveless relationship and one woman’s empowerment as a sexual confident being. This is Tsukamoto at his best, perfectly balancing his artistic visual sensibilities with Chu Ishikawa’s pulsing music and some beautiful narrative storytelling. MH


18. Ju-On: The Grudge (dir. Takashi Shimizu, 2003)

It might seem scant praise to describe a horror movie as scary, but few films match “Ju-on”’s dread, unease, and jump-out-of-your-seat scares. Most horror directors shoot for either tone or adrenaline, yet Takashi Shimizu mastered both in this film that continues to stand out despite a flood of sequels, remakes and knockoffs. Equally effective are the film’s sound design and nonlinear narrative: the former gives voice to a spirit in a way that is unique and chilling, and the latter demands more from the viewer and rewards with an ending as tidy as a perfectly tied bow. To see “Ju-on” in a dark theater is to understand why haunted houses are still relevant to horror cinema. EE


17. Kairo (Pulse) (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)

Dark, depressing and all the more poignant, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s horror masterpiece epitomizes what made the j-horror boom so great before it crushed itself under its own weight. Through subtle use of camera angles, movement and the heavy use of low contrast imagery, filled with shadow and darkness, Kurosawa creates a sense of dread that no other film has been able to match, and it lingers with you for days. The sparse, but often disturbing use of sound, the minimalist approach to specters and their bizarre, butoh like movements, technology has never seemed so evil, sucking the life out of all those it comes in contact with, until they’re left with no will to live. MH


16. In the Realm of the Senses (dir. Nagisa Oshima, 1976)

Best-known for its straight-forward, unsimulated depictions of sex, "In the Realm of the Senses" is worthy of attention for so much more. Beyond anything else, it is simply a great love story that never shies away from the darker aspects of desire, not least of all obsession and madness. The film is driven forward by the fiery emotions of Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji as they portray the real-life figures of Sada Abe and her ill-fated lover, who stand out as two of the most memorable additions to Oshima’s wide gallery of social outcasts. MSC


15. After Life (Hirokazu Koreeda, 1998)

What single memory defines your existence? Would you take this memory with you as your only remnant of life here on Earth? That’s what the people in Hirokazu Koreeda’s film “After Life” are asked. The recently deceased are asked to choose one single moment out of the millions of moments of their life. This singular memory will be turned into a film, their own personal heaven. Koreeda, who began his career as a documentary film-maker, mixes actors with non-actors to create this film so basic in its concept and execution, but it is rare to see a film so full of compassion and understanding of our muddled human existence. CM


14. Life of Oharu (dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952)

Kenji Mizoguchi made the lives of fallen women that defining theme of his film-making career, but in all of his 94 films one of the most powerful female characters has to be Oharu, the noblewomen who becomes a lowly street walker through a series of unfortunate events. Mizoguchi took a number of short stories by 17th century author Ihara Saikaku and with the help of actress Kinuyo Tanaka created a woman of fabulous complexity and all-to-human failings. What really makes Oharu’s downward spiral all the more poignant is that her biggest failing was that she simply fell in love. CM


13. Face of Another (dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966)

The very best science fiction takes our own world and just pushes it ever so slightly into the realm of speculation. There may not be a better of example of this in Japanese cinema than Hiroshi Teshigahara’s “Face of Another”. Okuyama, portrayed by Tatsuya Nakadai, has his face blown off in an industrial accident, but is given a second chance at a normal existence when a surgeon offers him a miraculous solution – an artificial face. This new face quickly becomes a mask though and the line begins to blur between Okuyama’s reality and the life of this new face. In an age of instant messaging, Second Life and internet anonymity “Face of Another” couldn’t be more relevant. CM


12. Audition (dir. Takashi Miike, 1999)

A novel by Ryu Murakami, a screenplay by Daisuke Tengan and directed by Takashi Miike. The mother of all horror dream teams gives you a film that lulls you into a sense of safety and complacency a blossoming romance, and then punches you in the gut, ripping out your heart, as well as most of your chest cavity. Love has never been this painful, nor this compelling. It helped blast Eihi Shiina to fanboy stardom and establish Miike as an international film festival regular. Very few horror films are this transgressive, that they can pluck at your heartstrings and then make you wish it had plucked out your eyeballs. MH


11. The Taste of Tea (dir. Katsuhito Ishii, 2004)

Stop, appreciate the little things in life and just enjoy the taste of tea. That's the gist of the message that the characters in Katsuhito Ishii's "The Taste Of Tea" eventually discover via the head of their family. It's a simple tale of a single family whose individuals are all wrapped up in their own personal issues and problems until they eventually "see the light", but it's also so much more. It's warm, funny, inventive, surreal and not without a solid dose of well-earned emotion in its truly wonderful final 20 minutes. It also contains "Oh My Mountain" - one of the silliest, funniest and downright catchiest little tunes you'll ever be happy to have melt your brain. BT


10. Harakiri (dir. Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)

Samurai films, like American westerns, have often used Japan’s feudal history to comment on and critique contemporary issues. Masaki Kobayashi’s “Harakiri” went well beyond picking and choosing specific social ills to go after with the blade of a katana though. Instead Kobayashi chooses to go after the core of Japanese society in his story of a samurai who seeks vengeance for his stepson who was forced to commit ritual seppuku by a group of jaded noblemen. Blind loyalty, the unspoken caste system and most specifically the smug judgment by the group of an individual all are held up to be skewered in this brave and blistering film. CM


9. Ugetsu (dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

Along with "Sansho the Bailiff" and "The Life of Oharu," "Ugetsu" makes up a three-pronged summation of-sorts of Mizoguchi’s fixation with cruelty, misfortune and the exploitation of women. It also showcases the great director’s cinematic talents at an all-time high, here applied to a singularly exquisite ghost story. This sad tale of a pair of peasants and their wives who all become ensnared in war, ambition and lust is rightfully canonized as an everlasting treasure of cinema. MSC


8. Battles Without Honor and Humanity (dir. Kinji Fukasaku, 1973)

From the opening frame, Kinji Fukusaku blasts the viewer out the barrel of a gun, giving us a gritty, visually bombastic view of post war Japan and the Yakuza’s morally corrupt struggle to regain and maintain control of their firebombed empires. Bloody as hell, this film established Fukusaku as a revolutionary director with talent to burn, and turned the Yakuza genre on its heels, as Fukusaku obliterated the genre trappings of the ninkyo eiga into dust, and establishing the jitsuroku eiga, with his wild handheld style, freeze frames, news clippings and text references to characters names and ever changing titles. MH


7. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (dir. Mikio Naruse, 1960)

Mikio Naruse and his muse, Hideko Takemine, give us the ultimate portrait of Japanese perseverance. Keiko, an aging geisha aware of how limited her options are, experiences crushing disappointment yet maintains a dignity that astonishes. The director and star would collaborate many times and with great success, but this tale of a woman striving to remain as independent as possible in a job and society that seem to oppose her at every turn is their low-key masterwork. “Ganbatte” was never so lyrical or painful. EE


6. Ikiru (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

We occasionally like to flirt with our mortality and ask the question "If I only had six months to live what would I do?" We invariably come up with scenarios where we max out our credit cards, tour the world or have one long extended debauch. But what would we really do? This is the exact dilemma that faces Watanabe, the protagonist of Akira Kurosawa's masterful "Ikiru". Watanabe is a career bureaucrat who has never missed a day of work in 30 years... and in all that time he's never really lived his life. When he's diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer his entire existence ids turned upside down and he's faced with oceans of regret, fear, and grief. Booze doesn't help, nor do dancing girls and not even a young woman who he befriends and becomes obsessed with. The only thing that can redeem Watanabe is a purpose and Kurosawa gives him one that is both simple and profound. There isn't a film in the world that is as insightful and empathetic to the certainty of death, something that we all face. CM


5. Tampopo (dir. Juzo Itami, 1985)

Juzo Itami’s first three films as director—“The Funeral”, “Tampopo” and “A Taxing Woman”—are an astonishing hat-trick of subversive humor and narrative mastery, but his freewheeling foodie masterwork “Tampopo” is an effortless celebration of cinema where big laughs, passionate sex, and epic fistfights coalesce into a whole that’s more than its parts. Whether you watch for the main narrative (a sly take on spaghetti westerns with Tsutomu Yamazaki as a ramen connoisseur trucker helping hapless single mom Nobuko Miyamoto with her noodle shop) or for the many vignettes that pepper the film, this a unique and essential piece of J-cinema. Just don’t watch on an empty stomach. EE


4. House (dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977)

If you've ever seen a young child play with editing software, you'll get a vague idea as to how experimental filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi approached his first feature film - use every single trick and effect at your disposal and mash it all up together. The difference is that Obayashi's grab bag approach still resulted in something coherent, jaw-droppingly creative and, most of all, heaps and heaps of fun. So what was the tipping point for us in the movie? Was it the demon cat attack? The piano with the munchies? Or that gorgeous false backdrop at the bus stop? If you haven't seen "House", it really is the one movie that can be described as being nothing like you've ever seen before. BT


3. Ran (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

In any consideration of Akira Kurosawa’s finest films, Ran is absolutely essential. Whether it deserves the highest honors is a little more debatable, as its bleak worldview and pronounced distance can be off-putting to some. Yet its vision, beauty and discipline indicate the considerable skill of an experienced artist determined to make one more masterpiece. Grafting the outline of "King Lear" onto the history of feudal Japan, Kurosawa creates a universal examination of war and violence that, between its sorrowful depiction of human viciousness and impeccable craftsmanship, makes for an awe-inspiring viewing experience. MSC


2. Spirited Away (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

It's indisputable that Hayao Miyazaki is one of, if not the, most famous Japanese director in the world right now. It almost seems fitting that in this age of blockbuster films so loaded with CGI and blue screen effects that they are basically animated films it seem appropriate that Miyazaki has such a high profile. Still, Miyazaki sets himself head and shoulders above all these other animated films for the fact that he doesn't use all these technological bells and whistles. It's just straight 2D animation used to tell engrossing and magical tales. His 2001 film "Spirited Away" may be the very best example of this. It's story of a young girl lost in the would of the yokai, or Japanese spirits, is at once awe-inspiring, delighful and heartbreaking. This film can not only be counted as an amazing feat of animation, but also a fantastic story on the same level as "Wizard of Oz" or "Alice in Wonderland". CM


1. Seven Samurai (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

Not really a surprising choice for the #1 spot, but a warranted one nonetheless. Perhaps the reason behind the continuing affection lauded upon "Seven Samurai" is as simple as the fact that there is nothing like an entertaining, well-told story – especially when it is as generous and absorbing as this one. From the very first shot, Kurosawa draws the viewer in with a deceptively simple us vs. them scenario, then deliciously proceeds to up the ante with wonderfully written characters, humor, intense action, compelling subplots and unforeseen conflicts. The technique utilized throughout the film is the very definition of dynamic, fluidly carrying along the plot and making three and a half hours fly by in an expertly choreographed maelstrom of emotion, battle and pure cinema. MSC

18 comments:

Peter Nellhaus said...

No Kon Ichikawa, Hideo Gosha, Tomu Uchida?

nishikata said...

Fascinating what diverse tastes you guys have. I was thinking about doing a 300 favourite films to celebrate my 300th blog post and drew up a rough draft over the holidays... and only a few of them are on your list. Maybe I should do that list after all. ;)

samonakuba said...

I love lists! I think if it were me I would have put later Juzo Itami on there, somewhere, too: Marutai no Onna for its hilarious adn informative account of Yakuza extortion, or Minbo no Onna for that insane karaoke bar and fist fight in the rice paddy sequence, or Daibyonin. Probably would have also picked a different Koki Mitani film than Welcome Back Mr. McDonald, good as it was. I appreciate that When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is so high on the list, as it's one of my all time favorites, too. :-)

Dr. Stan Glick said...

Great list. However, I must say that while anime is well-represented by several of your picks, I'm astonished that "Grave of the Fireflies" isn't anywhere to be found. (At least I didn't see it.) I can easily think of at least two films I'd bump (Visitor Q, All About Lily Chou-Chou) in favor of "Fireflies." But maybe that's just me. Overall, very well done.

Chris MaGee said...

Hey All, yes there may be some films not included on the list, but we didn't tabulate the list by saying "Oh, we have to have this film represented, etc, etc." All five of us drew up our lists of favorite films and then a points system was assigned to each pick with the most points going to the films that appeared right at the top of the lists and then in descending order from there. About 50 film didn't make the final list.

Chris MaGee said...

Oh, and peter, I beleive both Matt and I voted for "Fires on the Plain" but it didn't end up making the final cut.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I should probably hasten Fires on the Plains up on my Netflix queue. There is some stuff I'm not familiar with that I'd like to see, plus I have Love Exposure on my pile of recently acquired but unseen DVDs.

edgarchaput said...

That's a very extensive list. Nice job.

I've been following your blog for only a month or so (I think it was Big Thoughts From a Small Mind who sent me your way) and I love it!

Wostry Ferenc said...

No VENGEANCE IS MINE?

adgy said...

Surprised to not see Lady Snowblood or any other Meiko Kaji films on the list. No Sonny Chiba either, eh?

Marc Saint-Cyr said...

I made sure Lady Snowblood got a vote, but it sadly didn't make the final list. And though I can't speak for him, I'm sure Bob would've also picked at least one Meiko Kaji film in his initial round-up. There's certainly no shortage of love for her among us, that's for sure...

spike said...

No Imamura Shohei??
Well not a difficult task to find a reputable film critic stating him the most important jap. director. But nice job anyway. :P

spike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hiroshi said...

good list but c'mon no Shoei Immamura - he has so many good ones, Unagi or Narayama at the least should be on there

keeperdesign said...

I somehow completely forgot "Tony Takitani", which hypnotises me every time I see it.

leon said...

Sorry but House being in a top 100 anything is just bad, it being 4th kills the list stone dead

Phantom of Pulp said...

HOUSE at number 4? That is hard to understand.

And no Immamura? VENGEANCE IS MINE?

Also missing, but perhaps nominated? MUDDY RIVER? RED ANGEL? UNDER THE FLAG OF THE RISING SUN? PRINCESS OF THE MOON?

Still, an entertaining list.

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