Do you want to dive into the world of experimental Japanese cinema? The Japanese film industry has a history that is more than a hundred years old. Its celebrated directors have produced some of the most influential films and their contribution to world cinema has been tremendous.
If you are wondering where to start your exploration of Japanese arthouse cinema, here is a list of the 10 best art films to come from Japan.
Directed by Iwai Shunji
About a love story degenerating into madness and chaos, the 47-minute film features a young woman desperately trying to bind herself to her lover, literally, as he desperately tries to undo the stifling binds. The metaphor in the title of the movie is obvious, but it doesn’t come across as on the nose. Shunji repeatedly serves his audience with the most deranged and complicated characters, laid out on the dissecting table for our examination. The characters would leave you disturbed but you will also find yourself sympathizing with them.
FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES (1969)
Directed by Tashio Matsumoto
Perhaps the best film to emerge out of the Japanese New Wave, or Nuberu bagu, the film is a surreal classic that features a queer character who navigates the conservative society and its dark underbelly. The film provides the audience with a rare glimpse into the underground gay culture of Tokyo. Matsumoto enriches the film with various references to other pieces of transgressive literature and art. Parallels can be between the film and the ancient Greek drama Oedipus Rex, with several major plot points and scenes echoing the Sophoclean play.
THROW AWAY YOUR BOOKS, RALLY IN THE STREETS (1971)
Directed by Shuji Terayama
Terayama’s masterpiece seems to be locked in conflict with itself. In attempting to subvert nearly all conventions of cinema, it moves towards annihilating the very idea of itself –
“The film will be over soon,
and no one will remember me.
When it ends only the white screen remains.”
The plot follows a rebellious young man who lives his life on the streets. It is a brutal critique of every social institution and every social construct. An extremely vulgar and provocative film, the film has had its share of controversy due to its graphic and disturbing nature.
Directed by Hideaki Anno
Anno’s interpretation of Ayako Fujitani’s novella Tōhimu centers around a young, disillusioned filmmaker’s encounter with a disturbed young girl who ritually repeats “Tomorrow is my birthday.” This film is not one of those that feature the “manic pixie dream girl” – it is a sincere contemplation of isolation, loneliness, and abuse. Visually evocative and deeply imaginative, Anno’s sets are like art installations, unparalleled in the richness of their symbolism.
WHEN THE TWILIGHT DRAWS NEAR (1969)
Directed by Akio Jissoji
A unique take on the survival horror genre, the film’s premise is a dangerous game that a group of college students plays. As the students recreate the conditions of an Auschwitz concentration camp in their home, the film implicitly hints at Japan’s uncomfortable history during the world war and its participation with Nazi Germany as one of the Axis powers. Shot entirely inside a small apartment, the film induces an acute sense of claustrophobia and uneasiness in the audience. You would want to open your windows while watching this.
WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)
Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara
A hypnotic and haunting exposition of the human need for purpose and the need for control, the film is a critique of man’s condition in modernity. The film is brilliantly conceived and earned Teshigahara an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Its protagonist, Niki Junpei is an entomologist who travels to a remote village to collect insects and is housed with a widow who lives at the bottom of the dunes and who has to dig herself out of the sand every day to survive. As he finds himself confined to the small and claustrophobic house in the dunes, he comes to live like the bugs he collects.
Directed by Iwai Shunji
More subtle in its symbolism than the other Iwai Shunji film featured in this list, it still is a visually meaningful film. Chara, a mentally disturbed woman is dropped at a mental institution by her apathetic parents and she makes an escape with two fellow inmates. The film follows the escaped patients as they make a journey walking along walls and ledges, reflecting their extremely marginalized position in an uncaring and unfeeling society.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Roshomon is arguably the most influential Japanese film of all time and it has cemented Kurosawa’s position as a legend in world cinema. A crime thriller at its core, the film presents four versions of the “truth” regarding the rape of a young bride and the murder of her samurai husband, told from the perspective of the bandit, the bride, the woodcutter, and the ghost of the samurai. Kurosawa posits that there is no truth at all – there is only the absurd universe in which we impose our own meaning.
EMPEROR TOMATO KETCHUP (1971)
Directed by Shuji Terayama
The short film is a biting satire on the political situation in post-war Japan. Set in a dystopia where children have seized power and commit extremely violent acts on other living beings under their domination, the film eloquently comments on Japanese extremism. The film’s reception has been turbulent due to its highly graphic nature, with Rex Reed describing it as the “most disgusting thing” he had ever seen.
Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi
Japan is well known for its innovative horror film industry. However, this film stands apart from the rest in the genre. House is a comedy horror that centers around the young schoolgirl Gorgeous who travels to her aunt’s house with her classmates. Obayashi was inspired by his own daughter Chigumi who had confessed her irrational fear of being eaten by her mirror. It is a trippy experience watching this film as it is riddled with unexpected turns and encounters with a demonic cat, a murderous piano, evil spirits, and other nightmarish entities.