The 10 Best Japanese Movies on Max

The 10 Best Japanese Movies on Max

May 17, 2024

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It’s no surprise that Japanese cinema has become such a prominent and popular export to high-profile, international streaming platforms like  Max. Apart from having a storied history of revered classics dating all the way back to the 1930s or earlier, Japanese cinema typically manages to blend high emotion with a sophisticated style—making them appealing to all kinds of audiences. In this list of little-known but highly-rated Japanese productions and co-productions, you’ll find a lot of anime but also a fair share of live-action films, often with that same elegance and visceral style of storytelling.

1. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)

best

9.3

Country

Japan

Director

Isao Takahata

Actors

Aki Asakura, Atsuko Takahata, Hikaru Ijūin, Hiroyuki Yamamoto

Moods

Dramatic, Emotional, Lovely

Based on a classic Japanese folktale, Isao Takahata’s last film will break your heart. This adaptation, of course, follows Princess Kaguya from her being discovered in a glowing bamboo stalk to her departure to the moon. However, while faithful to the original tale, Takahata’s direction turns this historical fantasy into a heart-wrenching coming-of-age film as ethereal as the titular character. The film doesn’t focus on the crazy pursuit of her suitors; instead, we’re drawn to the simple experiences Kaguya herself is drawn to and wants more of, as she tries to balance her life with the societal expectations places on women. All of which is rendered through the film’s lush watercolored scenes of the blowing wind or the opening of plum blossoms.

2. Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime) (1999)

best

9.0

Country

Japan

Director

Hayao Miyazaki

Actors

Akihiro Miwa, Akira Nagoya, Akira Sakamoto, Alex Fernandez

Moods

Action-packed

From the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, and courtesy of Studio Ghibli, which also brought you Spirited Away, comes this epic whirlwind of a story. Set during a fantastical late Muromachi period, the medieval era of Japan, in a time when many humans were still living among nature, while others set out to conquer and tame it, the movie follows a young man named Ashitaka, who he seeks cure for the curse of a boar god, giving him superhuman powers but eventually killing him. He rides west on a fantastic beast, where he eventually sees a young woman named San, also known as Princess Mononoke. What unfolds from here, is an epic tale of mythical war on many fronts, between the nature gods and humans. While this may sound like a dichotomy, it never is that morally simplistic. The story is action-packed and fast-paced, drawing freely from Japanese mythology as well as modern hot-topic political issues. Add to this the fantastic visuals: Hayao Miyazaki uses a mixture of hand drawings and 3D rendering that are nothing short of spectacular. In short, Princess Mononoke is movie history. If you haven’t seen it yet, do it now.

3. Spirited Away (2001)

best

9.0

Country

Japan

Director

Hayao Miyazaki

Actors

Akiko Tomihira, Akio Nakamura, Bob Bergen, Bunta Sugawara

Moods

Lovely, Sunday, Sweet

Frequently considered one of the greatest animated movies of all times, and certainly the highest-grossing film in Japanese history, Spirited Away is Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli at their very best. It was also the first non-English animation movie to win an Oscar. On the surface, it’s a film about a Chihiro Ogino (Hiiragi), a young girl who stumbles into an abandoned theme park with her parents. In a creepy spiritual world full of Shinto folklore spirits, she sees all kinds of magic and fantastic creatures, while having to find a way to save her parents and escape. In addition to the adventure, the coming-of-age theme, and the motifs of ancient Japanese lore, the film can also be understood as a critique of the Western influence on Japanese culture and the struggle for identity in the wake of the 1990s economic crisis. A deep, fast-paced, and hypnotizing journey.

4. Tampopo (1985)

best

9.0

Country

Japan

Director

Jūzō Itami

Actors

Akio Tanaka, Chōei Takahashi, Fukumi Kuroda, Gō Awazu

Moods

Easy, Feel-Good, Funny

While billed as a “ramen western”, Tampopo satirizes plenty of other American genres, including, but not limited to: 1) the inspirational sports film, with Tampopo’s diligent training, 2) the erotic, arthouse drama through its egg yolk kiss, 3) the witty, social comedy pointing out the absurd in dinnertime tables, and 4) the melodramatic mafia romance with its room-serviced hotel getaway. But the film doesn’t buckle under the weight of carrying all these genres– instead, the customer vignettes are all delicately plated to balance out the hearty journey of a store owner learning about ramen and the bemused, yet cohesive contemplation about food. Tampopo is one of a kind.

5. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

best

8.8

Country

France, Germany, Japan

Director

Jim Jarmusch

Actors

Alfred Nittoli, Angel Caban, Camille Winbush, Chuck Jeffreys

Moods

A-list actors, Action-packed, Character-driven

Director Jim Jarmusch audaciously combined the DNA of French noir classics with that of samurai and mafia movies to produce this utterly original film. As advised by the ancient Japanese manual it often quotes, though, Jarmusch’s movie also “makes the best” out of its own generation by adding hip-hop into its wry genre blend. The results are more than the sum of their parts, especially because the film is so eccentric: no matter how au fait with its inspirations you are, you still won’t see “Forest Whitaker plays a lonely hitman who wields and whooshes his silencer pistol like a samurai sword, lovingly tends pigeons, and can’t even speak the same language as his best friend” coming.

Ghost Dog’s strangeness is never jarring, though, thanks to Whitaker’s cool, collected performance, an atmospheric score by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, and the cinematography’s tendency to use smooth double exposures for scene transitions. It almost feels like we’re in another world: Jarmusch zooms in on the Bushido code obsessions of Whitaker’s single-minded character and the mafiosos’ dying laws, blurring out everything else so the movie becomes a meditation on the impulse to moralize one’s misdoings by subscribing to rigid definitions of “honor.” Not an exercise in surface style, then, but a bone-deep reflective masterpiece.

6. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

best

8.5

Country

Japan

Director

Hayao Miyazaki

Actors

Akio Otsuka, Chika Sakamoto, Haruko Kato, Hiroko Maruyama

Moods

Heart-warming, Inspiring

Hayao Miyazaki is no stranger to the fantastical. Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away conjure worlds of spirits and demons, monsters and witches, imaginary wars and extraordinary heroes. But in Kiki’s Delivery Service, the real magic arises from the mundane.

The titular teenaged Kiki leaves home, setting out to become a better witch. She arrives in the idyllic seaside town of Koriko with only her broom and best friend, a black cat named Jiji. When she serendipitously meets Osono, the gentle owner of a bakery, Kiki begins a delivery service as part of her training.

Kiki’s Delivery Service may be one of Miyazaki’s more understated films, but it’s a beautiful reminder that believing in oneself is a magical act of courage that we should all undertake.

7. Whisper of the Heart (1995)

best

8.3

Country

Japan

Director

Yoshifumi Kondô, Yoshifumi Kondou

Actors

Issey Takahashi, Kazuo Takahashi, Keiju Kobayashi, Maiko Kayama

Moods

Feel-Good, Lighthearted, Romantic

Studio Ghibli has brought us moving, remarkable animated films such as Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke. One of Studio Ghibli’s most overlooked movies is Yoshifumi Kondou’s Whisper of the Heart, which finds magic in the ordinary every day. Shizuku is a young girl with great aspirations to become a writer—the only thing stopping her is herself. When she comes across a curious antique shop, she befriends a mysterious boy and his grandfather, who are just the push she needs to look inward and discover her own artistic capabilities.

If you have ever wanted to create something bigger and better than yourself—a story, a song, a poem, a painting, a work of art—then Whisper of the Heart will excite you, will call to you, will remind you to answer your heart’s calling.

8. Night Is Short, Walk On Girl (2017)

best

8.2

Country

Japan

Director

Masaaki Yuasa

Actors

Ami Koshimizu, Aoi Yuki, Chikara Honda, Gen Hoshino

Moods

Feel-Good, Quirky, Slice-of-Life

Fun and whimsical to its core, this animated film takes viewers on a visually captivating, surreal, and enchanting journey through a single night in Kyoto. The movie immerses you in an entertaining and eccentric world with its vibrant animation, characters, and offbeat humor following two unnamed characters only referred to as “The Girl with Black Hair” and “Senpai.” The narrative weaves together various quirky encounters, love interests, and strange events, keeping you engaged and curious. Blending romance, comedy, and coming-of-age themes, Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is a joyous celebration of youth, adventure, and the unpredictable nature of life’s unexpected twists and turns.

9. Only Yesterday (1991)

best

8.0

Country

Japan

Director

Isao Takahata

Actors

Chie Kitagawa, Ichirō Nagai, Issey Takahashi, Masahiro Ito

Moods

Heart-warming, Lovely, Slice-of-Life

This beautiful, realistic, and nostalgic anime movie about childhood is one that almost anyone can relate to. Set in the year of 1982, twenty-seven-year-old Taeko Okajima is traveling to the countryside by train. Along her journey, she gets flashbacks of her childhood: mostly in elementary school, stealing glances at a boy, and navigating puberty. The movie goes back and forth between past and present, easily making one long for sun-filled summers of yesteryear and silly jokes between playfriends. As well as telling a story about Taeko’s past, Only Yesterday also tells a story about her present, and the combined realism of the plotline with the beautiful animation grips you and doesn’t let go. Only Yesterday truly feels like home.

10. The Wind Rises (2013)

7.9

Country

Japan

Director

Hayao Miyazaki

Actors

Hayao Miyazaki, Hideaki Anno, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Jun Kunimura

Moods

Heart-warming

In what was originally intended to be his final film, Hayao Miyazaki is at his most lucid with The Wind Rises. Fluid and luminous, it cleanly moves between a grounded, historical reality and an intuitive, imaginative dreamscape. Here Miyazaki reflects on the process of creation and what it means to be an artist, drawing parallels between his own meticulousness as a filmmaker with Horikoshi’s immutable passion for flight and efficient design.

But questions of responsibility and duty arise, as Horikoshi—and by extension, Miyazaki—must reckon with the reality that even things as beautiful as aeroplanes can be destructive, and that even dreams can be violent. This meditative film does not offer any easy answers but it provides solace in its prevailing sentiment: The wind is rising, we must try to live.

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