Top 5 Movies of Modern Japanese Cinema

I am probably doing this post because I am not happy with the current state of Japanese cinema. It’s not that there aren’t good films, but I think that it is plagued by its own set of problems including way overused cliches. I’ll have a different post on this coming soon.

For now, it’s worth noting what actually are good Japanese films that I have seen. I trust that there are many more, but here are the top 5 that I have seen. To make this Top 5 list clear, I am only counting live-action films. I’ll have another list for Ghibli films down the road. Before I get to the real Top 5, I have to award the movies that almost made it. There are several on here, but they all deserve mentioning in this world (as in the world of modern Japanese cinema) where there are so few great movies.


Nobody Knows

Whereas Tony Takitani was a bit short, this film is just a bit long. It is still a heartbreaking story that I’ve found a surprising number of people connect with. As for the actress who plays the mother, this is one of her best roles.

Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald

This movie has nothing to do with McDonald’s, but has everything to do with radio broadcasts. It was quite entertaining to see these cast of characters go at each other for the movie. I liked how the movie maintained itself even given the limited setting.

-Bright Future

Like many Japanese movies in modern cinema, there is a very independent feel to this one. Actually, I am pretty sure this was independent. The special effects for the only violent scene were kind of shoddy. It doesn’t stop this film from being relatively interesting. There are two main characters, who I think were childhood friends (like #4 on this list, it has been a while since I’ve seen this movie…sorry!) I really liked how it went in the mind of the sort of ‘evil’ character while following the other character’s journey. The first act is all character development as the last two acts tell the story of these characters after the major ‘violent’ incident. The directing is where this movie wins, as I wouldn’t expect too many people to be won over by the acting. Why is this movie on my list? Like many of the other movies, it’s not trying to be mainstream-it’s just trying to be a good movie.

And now here are my top 5 movies:


5. Tony Takitani

Based on a novel by Haruki Murakami, Tony Takitani does an excellent job of telling a unique, albeit short tale. The movie might end a tad too abruptly for my liking, but it does a very good job of telling a specific kind of story that I suspect Murakami is good at. The cinematography is quite unique, with several slow pans that weave together this cautionary tale.

4. All About Lily Chou-Chou

This movie is a tad lengthy, but does a relatively good job maintaining a main idea of how one celebrity connects people across the Internet. Well…that is what you think the movie is about. It turns out to be a very good movie about bullying. While the movie released unrated in the US, it would definitely have been rated R, and is not at all for kids (scenes of nudity and implied rape are in this movie). You have to wonder sometimes where the adults are when we see all of these bad things occur to these kids. Then again, that may be one of the main questions the movie asks of its audience-are parents and adults doing the best job they can to prevent these kinds of situations from happening? There are probably many other things to extrapolate from this film. It’s a tough one to watch at times, but is well-crafted enough to recommend.

3. Life Back Then

This movie has yet to be released in America, but stands as one of the best Japanese movies I have seen. It also has not been released with official English subtitles, so I would likely enjoy this movie even more with proper understanding of some of the characters’ lines. You can read my full review here. It’s a rather lengthy review; I’ll point out a few things about this movie briefly here. First, is the directing and writing. There is one scene where a class of high school boys are talking with each other in a teacherless classroom. As they converse with each other, they start waving their arms up and down. They are liking imitating a movie or another person’s past actions; it was something that was obviously impressionable enough for them to do it. This kind of behavior is very typical of boys this age. However, the point of sharing all of that was to say this-the fact that it was in the movie is quite a plus for the movie. When you think about it, the scene where it occurs could have been rather by-the-book and bland; these students didn’t need to be doing that. It would have been easy in the screenplay to write this scene-the boys are sitting in the classroom discussing something before the protagonist makes an appearance. But it’s when movies add nice touches like this that make it even better.

This is to say nothing on the movie’s commentary on bullying. While “Lily Chou-Chou” was more of a full-on anti-bullying movie, this movie using the bullying scenes to shape the main character and create some drama. But the tension that this movie has, especially surrounding one kid who was bullied, is very good. The movie perhaps loses some points for not being a bit more personal and emotional with the topic of bullying, but it’s certainly enough to start conversations. All in all, this is a wonderful drama-read my review for more about it.

2. Tokyo Sonata

Here’s another movie that I have reviewed. It is the best movie of modern Japanese cinema, and really helps define what it should be aiming for. Life Back Then is a good example of a more mainstream well-made Japanese movie. This movie feels more independent, but still does an excellent job of providing an engaging story ranging from topics such as joining the military to parenting to unemployment. The movie finds a near perfect way to end itself before falling into potential chaos while leaving us with quite a few things to remember. You’ll likely remember the movie as being music-related though the movie itself has very little music playing throughout the movie. The movie doesn’t try to move the audience through its scenes with sweeping dramatic music, but instead finds itself well in its simplicity. The movie features excellent writing and directing that carries the audience through without the necessity of the typical orchestral movements were so accustomed to hearing in cinema. And it still does well as a movie with music. You’ll see why when you see it; watching the trailer will give you a good glimpse into the movie, as well.

1. The Kirishima Thing

This movie sort of came out of nowhere and exploded onto this list. I had to edit this list to get this movie on here, and despite its newness, I do think it deserves to be on the top of this list. I’ve reviewed this movie as well, so there’s already a lot that I’ve said about this movie.

The bottom line is that there may never be another movie that will say as much as this movie has said about not only Japanese high school life but about the aspirations, goals and dreams of Japanese youth than this movie. A big focus of the movie is about seeing things from a different perspective. The last 10 seconds of the movie play out like a dream, as we see one of the main characters stare off into what is happening in front of his eyes. Dare I say that this scene is reminiscent of the ending of Fight Club, where all that the main characters can do is stare at what is unfolding in front of them.

This movie isn’t trying to be a big movie. In all that occurs in these high-schoolers’ lives, we are always enthralled by the perspective that we are presented. We are simply presented that perspective. We see that not every character grows tremendously. That is their fate because that is the consequence of their actions. And perhaps not every character has to grow. The grander scale tells us that this is the way it is-not everyone in life will grow. Perhaps if people continue in their current trajectories, they will not be able to grow. That may be the greatest real tragedy of the modern Japanese high-schooler.

This movie gives the feeling that there should be a way to change all of this. And that way may be presented in the last 8 minutes, however subtle it may be. Maybe people simply need a fresh perspective to change. That’s probably what one of our main characters realizes. As he puts things together, so do we. We know everything isn’t okay. There’s much more going on. And that is the way it is in life, as well. There may never be another Japanese movie that truly portrays people whilst telling a greater story that is beyond what any of these characters could imagine. Kirishima quit his school’s volleyball team. This movie needed nothing more than to show the aftermath of that decision. And it does that ever so brilliantly.