Movie website Screen Junkies recently compiled its top 10 list of the best Japanese movies ever made. The line-up (which seems to be in no particular order) is: Rashomon; Godzilla, King of the Monsters; The Seven Samurai; Yojimbo; Kwaidan; Ran; Akira; Princess Mononoke; Spirited Away and Departures.
A couple of Miyazaki films and a handful of Kurosawa masterpieces being included here is certainly no surprise; in fact nothing on this list really is—although at first I was a little bit surprised at the lack of contemporary selections, or rather, non-anime films of the past decade. Then again, the view lately that Japan is lagging in many areas—and not just on economic growth—seems to be gaining some ground. Recent statistics, for example, show that although it still stands as the world’s fourth-largest film-producing country, Japan was overtaken by China in 2009, which itself sits behind the United States and output king India.
Still, Japanese cinema continues to be a cultural force to be reckoned with, not just for its prolific nature, but rather for the influence it’s had upon generations of film-makers, audiences, academics and enthusiasts around the world. Whether inspiring straight-up remakes like The Magnificent Seven, or sparking entirely new genres—like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo series did with spaghetti westerns—or fueling global fascination with animation, Japanese films have for decades made a significant mark across borders.
1. Seven Samurai (1954) in the top spot for simply being one of the greatest and most influential films ever made. Kurosawa’s masterpiece has inspired everything from the US hit western The Magnificent Seven to Bollywood blockbuster Sholay. And it still ranks number 13 on the Internet Movie Database’s 250 top movies of all time list—not bad for a 57-year-old ‘foreign’ movie. Read more on Seven Samurai here.
2. Scenes from Godzilla (1954) are instantly recognizable even decades after its initial release, thanks to its now-iconic ‘hero,’ who may still be the world’s ultimate terrorist—a giant angry radioactive lizard wreaking havoc on a city of helpless citizens. Even today, Googling the term ‘godzilla’ results in thousands of results— according to dictionary.com, the word has taken on the new meaning of: ‘a huge example of something; a monstrous entity.’ Read more on Godzilla here.
3. Ringu (2003) literally sparked a new genre of horror worldwide. In Hong Kong it reportedly spawned a ‘Ring fever,’ and South Korean filmmakers have since started produced similar hit films. Hollywood started remaking J-Horror films for its audiences after Ringu shattered Western expectations of what really scary horror movies should be like. Read more on Ringu here.
4. Spirited Away (2001) piqued the interest of those who may not have been familiar with Miyazaki’s films before, especially after it won the top prize (Golden Bear) at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2002 and the Best Animated Picture Oscar at the 2002 Academy Awards. It remains the only non-English language winner of the Oscar to-date. Read more on Spirited Away here.
If I had it my way, I’d also add Takeshi Kitano’s 2003 samurai action film Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman to the top 10 list, hoping that the remarkable piece could inspire a new generation of filmmakers and fans of Japanese cinema. It has already made a start: the film won the esteemed Silver Lion award Venice Film Festival in 2003. This masterpiece is a highlight of Kitano’s directing career for me, which has come to encompass a certain subtle sensitivity and empathy toward its protagonists—along with a captivating visual minimalism—since his life-threatening motorcycle accident in 1994.
Images: Illustration by Devon Doss. http://devondoss.net/ (top).