With one of the world’s oldest and most highly developed film industries, it’s no surprise that Japanese works have made their way to the outside world and found wide acclaim. Fact is, Japanese films have won more Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film than any other Asian country. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who inspired the world with movies like Seven Samurai, Rashomon and The Hidden Fortress, for example, is considered one of the most innovative directors in film history. While Japanese cinema has a rich and lengthy history, this list features award-winning films from the last 20 years. All offer modern perspectives on Japanese society that found particular resonance with international critics and audiences.
1. Spirited Away/千と千尋の神隠し
Famous as one of Japan’s most acclaimed animated exports, Spirited Away was widely regarded as a seminal achievement not only in animated storytelling but also filmmaking in general. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away won high praise from at least 10 different international bodies (including an Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards in 2003). The film is widely cited as a driving force behind the global popularization of Japanese anime over the past 15 years, managing also to elevate Miyazaki’s works to the pedestal of animated films that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. Since its release in 2001, the movie was picked by over 170 film critics from a number of renowned publications, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Variety, who all praised its plot, voice acting, and of course, Miyazaki’s direction. In 2016, Spirited Away was voted the fourth best film of the 21st century — the highest ranking animated film on the list.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
In addition to its massive popularity at home, Departures also won Japan’s first ever Best Foreign Language Film at the 81st Academy Awards, the Grand Prix at the 32nd Montreal World Film Festival and Best Asian film at the 29th Hong Kong Film Awards. The film tells the tale of Daigo Kobayashi, a failed cellist who transitions into mortuary work, a potentially isolating profession anywhere in the world but perhaps particularly so in modern Japan. It follows Daigo’s progression through a number of challenges and revelations brought about from his new role — including marital stress, social ostracization and a poetic reconciliation with his estranged father. A rare spotlight on Japan’s encoffination business, known locally as nokan, Departures was a major trigger for the reduce of misconceptions about this traditional job, and a guide into its behind the scenes — from the careful makeup techniques used on the deceased, to the gentle placement of their bodies inside the coffin. The movie was well received internationally, with a number of reviewers praising the humanity which death brings to the surface and the way the movie managed to portray how an end of life can strengthen family bonds.
Main Cast: Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirose Director: Yojiro Takita
3. Like Father, Like Son/そして父になる
Children swapped at birth, attempts to right that wrong and all of the resulting conflict and consternation one might imagine — that is the premise behind Like Father, Like Son. This powerful film builds sympathy toward its main players while also nurturing dissonance in our senses of right versus wrong and nature versus nurture. Koreeda’s ninth feature directorial effort (also written by him) won the Rogers People’s Choice Award at the 2013 Vancouver International Film Festival, the 2013 San Sebastian International Film Festival’s Audience Award and was screened at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. The film was well received in the US, as well, prompting American studio DreamWorks to acquire rights to the film toward a domestic adaptation of the story.
Main Cast: Masaharu Fukuyama, Lily Franky Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
4. Nobody Knows/誰も知らない
Japan is generally considered home to a massive and relatively affluent middle class, a place where both extreme poverty and extreme wealth are relatively uncommon. Given this broad perception, Nobody Knows, with its depiction of hardship, child neglect and abandonment in the world’s largest and safest city, was something of a shocking revelation and commentary on Japanese society. Yuya Yagira’s portrayal of the film’s main character, Akira, who becomes the de-facto head of a household of four abandoned children, won the award for Best Actor at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. For this, his fourth film, Koreeda also received a Best Director nomination from the Chicago International Film Festival and the film won Grand Prix for Best Film at the 31st Flanders International Film Festival in Belgium. Nobody Knows was widely positively reviewed by acclaimed film critics, though many could not hide their shock from the alarming theme of the movie. The New York Times calling it “”too naturalistic, and too disturbing,” but added that “It is also strangely thrilling, not only because of the quiet assurance of Mr. Kore-eda’s direction, but also because of his alert, humane sense of sympathy”.
Main Cast: Yuya Yagira, YOU Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Yoshio, the patriarch of a rather unremarkable family, allows old acquaintance Yasaka, recently released from prison, to move in with his family. As the story of Harmonium develops, the otherwise calm, average household is at times pleasantly surprised by this new member and at others thoroughly disturbed and upended by the sudden and rather odd change to their domestic lives. Gradually, amid heightened tensions, it is revealed why Yoshio felt deeply obligated to take Yasuka into his home. Asano’s standout performance was widely recognized and the film won the Jury Prize Un Certain Regard at the 69th Cannes Film Festival and the Hong Kong-based 11th Asian Film Awards gave nominations for Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor — with a win for Asano.
Main Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Kanji Furutachi, Director: Koji Fukada
6. Journey to the Shore/岸辺の旅
An adaptation of Kazumi Yumoto’s 2010 novel Kishibe no Tabi, Journey to the Shore received considerable praise for its director’s unexpected treatment of melancholic romance, owing considerably to the fact that Kiyoshi Kurosawa was already quite famous for his work in horror films. His treatment follows the story of a long-missing husband who finally returns home to his wife, Mizuki, only to declare that he is in fact dead. In what has been described as a very specifically Japanese narrative, the ghost and his wife decide to embark on something of a new, seemingly endless romance that, in reality, is more of a long goodbye. The film was the winner of the Un Certain Regard for Best Director at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and selected as a standout work to be featured in the Contemporary World Cinema section of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.
Main Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Eri Fukatsu Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
A film from one of Japan’s more widely known contemporary actors and directors, the one and only Takeshi Kitano. In addition to serving as writer and director of Hana-bi (released as “Fireworks” in the U.S.), Kitano also fills the protagonist role of Yoshitaka Nishi, a former detective. Having been forced into retirement after an in-custody attack kills another detective and severely injures two others, Nishi falls into a downward spiral of risky, illegal behavior. Although somewhat forced by the constraints of society, and even though he has mostly good-natured intentions toward his sick wife, the widow of the murdered detective and another wheelchair-bound former police colleague; Nishi digs himself deeper and deeper into danger. Hana-bi ultimately drives toward a not entirely unexpected yet still profoundly impactful conclusion. The film won the Golden Lion award at the 54th Venice International Film Festival, Best Foreign Language Film from the 1998 Chicago Film Critics Association Awards and the Grand Prix of the Belgian Syndicate of Cinema Critics. The film is considered a high point in Kitano’s career, after which he would not only gain international exposure but also be taken more seriously as a director in Japan.
Main Cast: Takeshi Kitano, Kayoko Kishimoto Director: Takeshi Kitano
So, why such an international reach for films from this relatively small archipelago? Perhaps it’s the unique perspective and societal context offered by the world’s last massive monoculture, perhaps it’s a historical legacy of isolationism that has resulted in a wholly unique cultural voice or perhaps it’s because more than 100 years of filmmaking have just made the Japanese very good at it — most likely, it’s a combination of all these. In art, the specifics of why we like something are always going to be subjective and up for debate, but what isn’t debatable is that Japanese films are increasingly becoming well accepted internationally.