Where To Start With Japanese Films - An Introduction Across Genres

The Japanese have always been patrons of art. From the haiku to mangas, they have introduced a variety of story-telling forms to the world. If you're...

The Japanese have always been patrons of art. From the haiku to mangas, they have introduced a variety of story-telling forms to the world. Since 1990 - the advent of multiplexes and eventually the world wide web - more and more people can easily access international films. If you're a newcomer who is looking to check out the works of actors like Yūya Yagira or directors like Akira Kurosawa, then you've come to the right place!

We've compiled a list of Japanese films - one introductory film from each genre. While these films may not be the best in their genre, they were chosen for a particular reason. For someone with no prior understanding of Japanese culture or language, these specific films contain enough universal and contemporary elements to slowly ease them into the experience. 

My Neighbour Totoro

Even if you're not familiar with Japanese films, you've probably heard of Hayao Miyazaki. Which is hardly a difficult task considering that his animated film My Neighbour Totoro is considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made! Disney later released an English dubbed version and the film went on to earn over USD 41 million. Miyazaki is notorious for working without a script and creating intricately detailed backgrounds that reveal something new with each watch. Most of his films deal with themes of childhood, growing up, friendship and are set in a calm, rural background. 

My Neighbour Totoro is the story of a father and two daughters who live in the countryside. Their mother Yasuko is sick and the girls often explore the countryside alone. During their adventures, they come across Totoro - the King of the Jungle. Miyazaki does not use unnecessary tension, unhappy endings or excessive drama. If you're looking for a light watch - this is the film for you. If you-re looking for a layered film that will let you know more about spirituality and the human conscience, then this is the film for you. And if you're looking for a movie that has a cat with twelve legs and functions as a bus - this movie is for you!


There's a saying. If you want to become famous, you have to become a verb. The case in point? "Let's google it! Can you photoshop this? I need this xerox-ed!"

Rashomon has managed to do exactly that. In 1950, Akira Kurosawa came out with a film years ahead of his time which set forward a method of storytelling now called the Rashomon effect. As a psychological thriller, the movie deals with a man who murders his wife, but the storyline becomes progressively complex. Four different people from different backgrounds meet to discuss the crime from their point of view. With each telling, the dynamics shift and each person believes his or her version to be the ultimate truth.

The same effect was used to some extent in The Handmaiden by Park Chan-wook, however, Kurosawa will forever remain the forefather of mastering the effect. Not surprisingly, when it was first released, Rashomon did not perform too well and most critics felt the subject matter was too 'western'. Thankfully, 70 years later, we no longer think the same!

Honey & Clover

There's a high chance that if you're shifting to Japanese movies, you came via the route of mangas. Honey & Clover is a widely popular manga series by Chica Umino that revolves around the life of 5 art students. This is one of those slide-of-life movies that will remind you of your college days and everything that came along with it - the unsure beginnings, the insecurity of securing a job, the heartbreaks and rejections and grappling for a source of joy. 

Honey & Clover is an adaptation that closely follows the manga, presents a decent cast that carries the movie well, but it is the plotline that shines the brightest. While some major elements were skipped due to paucity of time, the movie is still a fresh take on the lives of students and how they learn to adjust to their new surroundings. Within the confines of the university - to some extent protected from the world - the three boys and 2 girls learn what it means to be an adult.

Nobody Knows

Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and extremely strict gun laws to the point where even most police officers do not carry guns! Hence, the maximum that an average dweller deals with is petty crimes of theft. However, once in a while, something comes along that burns itself into public memory for decades. Nobody Knows is based on such a case of child abandonment. 


The movie is based on the real-life case from 1998 that had been widely publicised by the media. A family consists of a mother and four children, each with a different father. However, only one of them is allowed to be seen in public, while the others are barred from ever going out or attending school. After some bouts of disappearance, the mother leaves them forever and the children are left to fend for themselves. The movie is equal parts distressing and traumatic and the undertones of it being based on a real-life event can be triggering for some. The child actors were exemplary in their roles as emaciated, ignored children and Yūya Yagira went on to be the youngest person to win Best Actor at Cannes.

1. Woman In The Dunes

If you're looking for something to pick up your spirits - stay away from this movie. If you're looking for something that will keep you thinking for years and send you down a rabbit hole of despair - yes, you're the right audience for this movie! There is a woman living in the dunes (no surprise, the film gets the title right) - who digs to survive. She lives at the bottom of a dune in the sand and must keep digging to keep alive. If she does not, the sand will cave in. If she does not, the villagers will top providing her with rations.

Niki Junpei is an etymologist who visits the place to study rare insects. Instead, he finds himself in the 'home' of the woman and he cannot leave! So, what now? He cannot escape and now must aid her every day in digging the sand. The premise is hallucinatory and the movie combines erotic shots laced with fear and despair. But isn't that also similar to working a job that sucks all energy out of you and in the end - you do get food and water, that's all. This movie is going to make you question - what is it that makes us alive?

Know more films that a beginner should watch? Let us know what we're missing!