There are certain moments in cinema history where films transcend the boundaries of entertainment media to develop a dedicated and die-hard fan following. These films are not your average blockbuster: they tend to be controversial, obscure, and mystifying. At times, graphic and hyper-violent. They cater to (or even form) elaborate subcultures consisting of members who engage in repeated viewings, analyses, and discussions. These members revel in the fact that their cult films have been shunned by mainstream media.
Directors and viewers of Japanese films are no strangers to the bizarre and offbeat. The creativity and innovation present throughout the Japanese film industry has long stirred the interest of film-goers outside of Asia, creating worldwide fanfare. Some Japanese films have even gone as far as to inspire a number of groundbreaking films produced in both Europe and North America. This list presents 11 great examples of Japanese films that have earned the coveted 'cult classic' status outside of Asia.
A true cultural phenomenon, Battle Royale has paved the way for many different forms of entertainment media featuring the "battle royale" theme, including film, animation, literature, and video games, a number of which have been highly successful. Based on a novel of the same name, Battle Royale is set at the dawn of a new millennium, where Japan is facing a near-state of collapse. Unemployment is at an all-time high, the nation's youth are out of control, violent, and have lost interest in school. To combat this, the government introduces a radical new measure called the "Battle Royale Act", forcing a randomly chosen class of high school students to compete in a violent death-match game on a deserted island. Equipped with just some food, water, a map, and a random weapon, the students must fight to the death until only one remains. The sole survivor will earn his or her life as the prize of victory. All those who do not comply with the rules are immediately executed via an exploding collar attached to every student's neck.
Upon release, Battle Royale was not spared from controversy. Because of its gore, violence, and shock-value, it was banned in South Korea and took 11 years before it was released in the United States and Canada, though this was because the production company refused to sell the film to any US distributor over concerns of potential controversy and lawsuits. The film was banned in Germany in 2013, but this was later overturned. It has since been featured in many greatest-of-all-time lists, cementing its position as a true cult classic.
In 2019, 31 years after Tokyo's destruction during World War 3, Neo-Tokyo has been rebuilt and is now a booming metropolis. The film follows a biker gang operating in Neo-Tokyo, led by Shitaro Kaneda. Kaneda's trusted friend and fellow gang member Testuo is injured in a motorcycle accident and taken by government officials to a top-secret facility where he becomes involved in a project called "Akira". Tetsuo develops supernatural telekinetic powers, but begins to spiral into a deep pit of evil and rampage. In his attempt to save Testuo from self-destruction, Kaneda runs into numerous corrupt political and military groups. As Kaneda strives to make things right, he learns that he must not only save Tetsuo from himself, but the whole of Neo-Tokyo from the same supernatural force that brought it's destruction 31 years ago.
Akira is often credited for increasing the popularity of anime films and series outside of Japan. It is a landmark anime film and has served as a source of inspiration for many illustrators and animators. It's cyberpunk style had a significant impact on popular culture worldwide.
Asakawa Reiko, a reporter investigating the rising popularity of video curses among teenagers, discovers that her niece, Tomoko and her three other friends mysteriously died at the same time on the same night with their faces twisted in an expression of fear. Reiko decides to look further into the incident of their deaths, and upon entering the cabin of the deceased teens, finds an unlabelled video tape. After watching the video tape herself and discovering that it was a 'cursed video', strange things start to happen. As time grows short to put a halt to the impeding doom, Reiko and her ex-husband begin to unfold the mystery of the cursed video tape, its connection with a tragedy-stricken volcanic island, and a young girl named Sadoko.
Ringu had a major influence on the horror genre in Western cinema. Before its release, Hollywood horror relied largely on on-screen violence and shock tactics. Ringu helped revitalise the genre by ushering in a more restrained type of horror; one that left a lot up to the imagination of the viewer.
An unlikely love triangle forms between three emotionally abused but contrasting figures: a Catholic boy in search for true love but with a fixation on taking up-skirt photos of women in public, a girl who is anti-family and has a strong hate towards men, and a manipulative cult leader who has the ability to seek out the "original sin" of others. Love exposure accumulates into a four-hour long epic depiction of love, family, perversion, friendship, and religion.
The film has gone on to win several international awards and has been hailed for its ambitious exploration of various themes, whilst developing a considerable amount of notoriety amongst viewers. In a 2016 poll by the BBC, Love Exposure was named the ninth greatest film of the century.
A renown yakuza boss named Anjo suddenly disappears, along with 300 million yen. In search for Anjo, his sadomasochistic henchman Kakihara, along with the rest of his mob goons capture and torture a rival yakuza boss until they realise that they have the wrong man. Kakihara's insanity and gory methods worry other yakuza gangs, but he finally meets his match in Ichi, a psychotic and sexually-repressed killer who is being controlled by a retired cop named Jijii. As Ichi begins taking down yakuza members one by one, Kakihara's pursuit of Ichi intensifies. The story cumulates into a final showdown between the ultra-violent Ichi and the pain-starved Kakihara.
Ichi the Killer is notorious for its level of gore and violence. In the initial premier screenings of the film outside of Asia, several viewers were reported to have felt faint and nauseous. It has been banned for sale and distribution in several countries, including Norway, Germany, and Malaysia. For this same reason, it has cemented its cult status amongst cinema fans worldwide.
6. Spirited Away
Studio Ghibli's triumphant sensation Spirited Away is the pinnacle of Japanese animated cinema. Hayao Miyazaki's ingenious storytelling, rich character construction, and exquisite visual animation is a masterstroke. The film follows a young girl named Chihiro, who moves to a small town in the Japanese countryside with her parents. While on their way to their new home, Chihiro's father makes a wrong turn, but stops at a dead-end before deciding to explore the area with Chihiro and her mother. It turns out they ended up in an abandoned amusement park, though one of its restaurants is actually open and serving food. Chihiro refuses to eat, and continues to explore the area. She meets a young boy names Haku, who warns her that she and her parents are in great danger if they stay. She returns to the restaurant to find that her parents have been transformed into pigs, before discovering that the amusement park is actually a bathhouse used by spirits and run by an evil witch named Yabuba, who does not take kindly to trespassers. Chihiro learns that she must work at the bathhouse in order to break the curse bestowed on her parents and gain back their freedom.
Spirited Away made waves across the globe, sweeping many awards shows and racking up numerous accolades. It is the first and only hand-drawn and non-English-language animated film to win an Academy Award for Best Animation Feature. This award, along with universal acclaim for the film, increased the social recognition of the Japanese animation across the globe.
A troubled police detective named Nishi has to deal with a series of emotionally destructive events that occur to him and family: his only child died two years prior, one of his colleagues, Horibe, is shot and as a result ends up bound to a wheelchair during a stakeout that Nishi was supposed to be on, and his wife has been diagnosed with terminal leukaemia. Nishi is caught up with guilt over his colleague's ill faith and does everything he can to help make his life a meaningful one, whilst trying to spend as much time as possible with his dying wife. To make ends meet, Nishi is forced to borrow money from the yakuza, who pursue him to get their borrowed money back. The film is filled with touching, special moments that are almost poetically overlaid with scenes of violence.
Though it was not a commercial success, Fireworks/ Hana-Bi won numerous accolades, including the Golden Lion Award at the Venice International Film Festival. It is revered amongst film fans for director Takeshi Kitano's unique stylistic choices, including a mesmerising soundtrack curated by composer Joe Hisaishi.
8. Lady Snowblood
A gravely ill woman gives birth to a baby girl named Yuki while confined in prison. She recounts to her fellow inmates how she was kidnapped and brutalised by a band of criminals who also murdered her husband and son a year ago. Because she stabbed one of her captors to death when chance presented itself, she was imprisoned. While there, she successfully attempted to seduce the prison guards in order to conceive a child, with revenge for her family's destruction being her driving purpose. Though she dies at childbirth, the mother makes sure that Yuki is raised to be a bloodthirsty assassin, trained to hunt down the thugs who destroyed her family.
Despite being produced on a relatively small budget, Lady Snowblood rose in popularity outside of Asia. It has been referenced throughout various forms of pop culture and even served as a major inspiration to Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill.
9. Horrors of Malformed Men
After escaping from an asylum for the insane, a young medical student assumes the identity of a mysterious dead man - an exact replica of himself he saw in a newspaper - in order to find out the man's true identity. His search leads him to a remote island, home to a crazed scientist who performs brutal experiment on live humans. He discovers that his family has a deep historical connection to this scientist.
Horrors of Malformed Men was banned in Japan upon release for its strikingly grotesque imagery and politically incorrect style. It also received very little viewership upon when released into the mass market, due to the difficulty in acquiring it. Despite this, it has earned a cult reputation for its contribution to freak horror in cinema. In 2018, the film received a 2K restoration, bringing a new life to the original negative.
10. Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Continuing on the theme of cyberpunk and body-horror, Tetsuo: The Iron Man follows the story of a white-collar worker who accidentally runs over and seemingly kills an extreme sado-sexual "Metal Fetishist". In an act of revenge, the Metal Fetishist assures that the salaryman is slowly overtaken by a unique disease; one that turns his body into scrap metal. His agonising transformation seems to have no limit, and the salaryman wonders whether there is anything he can do to stop himself from reaching his final mutated form.
Another film produced with a very low-budget and underground feel, its success at international film festivals prompted a revival of Japanese independent film in the 1990s and the attention of an international audience. Despite struggling to find an initial audience and being screened without subtitles because the filmmakers could not afford them, Tetsuo: The Iron Man received the award for best film at the Fantafestival in Rome. It has gone on to create a worldwide cult following.
Excited about spending her summer vacation with her father at his villa, Oshare's plans are set aside when she discovers that her father's girlfriend will be going there as well. She instead decides to go to her aunt's house in the countryside, taking six of her friends with her. Little do they know that the house is actually haunted and that Oshare's aunt may not have their best interest in mind. As the girls begin disappearing one by one, the horrific secrets of the house begin to unfold.
This comedy horror film was a hit in Japan, but was generally panned by critics. However, it received more favourable reviews when it was released to a wider audience in North America. It's ability to supersede the horror on display with near-parody has made it a fan-favourite amongst horror enthusiasts.