The decade of the 1990s is believed to be a period of renaissance for Japanese Movies. It started in 1997, with international film festivals granting awards to films like Shohei Imamura’s The Eel, Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi, and Naomi Kawase’s Suzaku.
The following decade continued the momentum of a resurgence with local films outperforming foreign films in 2006 for the first time since 1985. Spot-on animation, intriguing yet straightforward plots, and a flair for incorporating high-tech elements are some of the typical features of a Japanese movie. But the Japanese cinema industry has evolved dramatically in the last three decades, and new storylines have breathed life into the theaters. To explore a few of these gems, here is a list of the top 10 Japanese films in the last decade.
Spirited Away (2001)
The most successful domestic release in Japanese history, Spirited Away is a story of young Chihiro’s fight for survival in the world of spirits after her parents turn into pigs. Its sophisticated animation enhances the unsettling narrative of this landmark fable by Hayao Miyazaki. This Japanese visual masterpiece of the young girl’s journey of self-discovery will disturb you as much as it will thrill you. Miyazaki’s flair for incorporating fantastical elements such as the youkai (spirits or demons) in his films is a highlight in this movie. The movie’s merit is demonstrated by its various accolades, including the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear and the Academy Award for Best Animation.
IMDb rating: 8.6/10
Your Name (2016)
Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name is the story of two high school students, a Tokyo boy named Taki and a small-town girl named Mitsuha, who switch their bodies back and forth when they wake up. This constant switching, accompanied by their leaving notes for each other, results in them massively impacting each other’s lives and eventually falling in love. They share their lives, and yet, in a way, they can’t be more separate from each other. This heartwarming love story has been critically acclaimed, especially for its animation, and the director has been labeled “the new Miyazaki” for his outstanding work.
IMDb rating: 8.4/10
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year in 2006, this Japanese movie is another masterpiece from the list of Hayao Miyazaki’s classic films. It follows the story of an unconfident young woman who is cursed with a fragile and old body by a vicious witch. The key to breaking the dark curse lies with a young magician and his friends in his moving castle. The movie has an undeniable charm and the castle, another testament to Miyazaki’s legendary artistic vision, and is a fascinating creation with each door opening into a new world. The movie is refreshingly unpredictable and captures a sense of childlike fun with undertones of adult melancholy.
IMDb rating: 8.2/10
Wolf Children (2012)
Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children is the story of Hana, who must find ways to raise her young half-human, half-lupine children after her werewolf lover unexpectedly dies in an accident while hunting for food. The portrayal of the relationship between Hana and her children is profoundly moving. It explores the various tropes of parenting, such as the difficulty of letting go. Despite the fantastical elements, the story is grounded and is easy to relate to. Wolf Children encapsulates the charm of a well-made 2D animated movie and deserves a place on your list of must-watch films.
IMDb rating: 8.1/10
Departures is a landmark movie in Japanese cinema. It has the distinction of being the first Japanese movie that was the Academy Award winner for the Best Foreign Language Film. Based on Shinmon Aoki’s Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician, this masterpiece by Yōjirō Takita follows Daigo, a cellist who loses his job with the orchestra and takes up the role of preparing the dead for funerals.
The film deals with the rituals and ceremonies surrounding death, such as cremation ceremonies, and investigates the feelings provoked by them. The movie initially had a hard time finding a distributer in Japan because of the prejudice against those who handle the dead. Though the plot of the movie sounds dark, it is a film with an ending that will tug at your heartstrings long after the closing credits.
IMDb rating: 8.1/10
Nobody Knows (2004)
Real-life incidents inspire this Japanese movie. The director Hirokazu Kore-eda dramatized the 1980s decade’s infamous Sugamo child abandonment case of Tokyo’s Toshima Ward. The five children abandoned by their mother are aged between five and twelve in the movie. The twelve-year-old Akira, who helms the role of being the primary caretaker of his younger siblings, is played by the supremely talented Yuga Yagira.
Yagira won the Best Actor award at the 2004 Cannes film festival for his extraordinary work in this film. As they cannot go outside or be seen by outsiders, the children’s survival instincts develop in such a way that they learn to rely upon each other to get through their daily struggles. This movie is deeply moving and thrives because of the director’s compassionate treatment of the issue.
IMDb rating: 8.1/10
The Twilight Samurai (2002)
Nominated for the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film in 2004, this Japanese movie is set in the era when feudal Japan was ending. The movie features a widower samurai who struggles to cope with balancing clan loyalties, looking after his aged mother and two daughters, and dealing with the sudden reappearance of his childhood sweetheart. Yôji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai beautifully presents the complicated, emotional side of an otherwise stoic man. The movie does not feature many scenes of flashing blades but is instead a poignant portrayal of unspoken love and ethical struggle.
IMDb rating: 8.1/10
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
Directed by Isao Takahata, this Japanese movie was nominated for the Academy Award for the Best Animated Feature Film of the Year in 2015, and it is easy to see why. The aesthetic visuals demonstrate the sophistication of the movie’s animation. The story comes from a 10th-century Japanese legend. This film is the tale of a mysterious young girl who was found by an old bamboo cutter inside a bamboo stalk. The unusual story is one of the many reasons why you must watch this heartwarming movie.
IMDb rating: 8/10
Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance (2009)
This is the second part of the tetralogy of films released in the Rebuild of Evangelion. The film starts with EVA robots piloted by children protecting the earth, continuing where the last cinematic installment left off. Directed by Masayuki, Kazuya Tsurumaki, and Hideaki Anno, the movie continues the story of Shinji Ikari, the pilot, and it is a good idea to watch the first of the four films to keep up with the plot. But even without having much background knowledge, it is possible to enjoy this sci-fi action drama.
IMDb rating: 8/10
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001)
This Japanese movie features a bounty-hunting Bebop crew that is responsible for catching the culprit behind the terrorist explosion that has released a deadly virus on the masses. It is the theatrical spin-off of a popular Japanese TV series. The daunting themes of bio-terrorism and military conspiracy are in contrast with comic relief in the film. The explosive sci-fi action is highly entertaining, and the excellent animation enhances the overall experience.
IMDb rating: 7.9/10