I remember the day I got into Japanese movies. I had just watched Throne of Blood. I loved it and I had recently gotten over my hesitation to watch movies with subtitles.
So I went to IMDb and looked at the reviews for movies by the same director. A certain Akira Kurosawa, an unknown entity for younger, naive me.
I was glad to see a lot of his movies had a rating of 8.0 or more. So I started on his filmography. Ran, Rashomon, Yojimbo and so on.
Add to those Western movies set in Japan and we have some of the best movies set in Japan.
Akira Kurosawa movies
I’ve come to look at Kurosawa movies as great movies that happen to set in Japan. Look at Throne of Blood, it’s an adaptation of Macbeth. A Shakespeare tragedy.
Pretty universal in its theme. Who among us hasn’t let envy and paranoia take over our lives and turn to violence as a result?
The samurai are in because feudal Japan is a setting rich for storytelling. Also, how good is that DVD box art? An instant iconic design.
But most of it was shot indoors. Not something you can say about Seven Samurai. Audience unfamiliar with it needs to know that Seven Samurai inspired the original ‘The magnificent Seven’ movie in 1960.
It told the story of seven Ronin, masterless Samurai hence a life without the honor of being Samurai, who are paid by a defenseless village to protect them from bandits.
So it is the story of a lawless time and the ronin redeem themselves by submitting to a purpose greater than themselves.
The first thing watching Kurosawa movies did for me was that it debunked my image of Japanese films.
I used to imagine Samurai films to be filled with fighting scenes with two skilled samurai putting each other through steely hell.
There is swordplay but it never formed the crux of the story. The same thing applies to Yojimbo and Sanjuro.
Then he kicked me in my stereotypes again with Rashomon. That movie played out more like a crime thriller set in Feudal Japan.
It told the story of a crime and investigation into that crime. The movie has the same event told from the side of the victim, the transgressor, the victim’s husband and someone who watched the crime.
Again, a great movie that just happens to be set in feudal Japan. Also a movie with a fantastic poster.
Kurosawa also made movies in modern settings, modern for that time anyway (the 50s and 60s).
Ikiru told the story of an old company man, who gets diagnosed with a terminal illness. The movie is about how he reexamines his priorities after this diagnosis.
High and Low shows how a wealthy man handles a situation where his employee’s kid gets kidnapped. He knows his own kid was the target, but he still does everything in his power to save the child.
The Bad Sleep Well is about an angry young man who wreaks havoc on the lives of the men he blames for a personal tragedy.
Another feature of Kurosawa movies is the presence of leading Toshiro Mifune. He’s almost always one of the leads or the outright lead in these movies. Another filmography for you to check out.
That’s it for my list of Kurosawa movies. As a side note, a lot of Kurosawa movies are featured in the Criterion collection. The best sort of recommendation.
Western movies set in Japan
But since this is the list of greatest movies set in Japan, let’s take a look at Hollywood movies set in Japan. These tend to highlight the Japanese culture a lot more explicitly.
After all the filmmakers are as interested in Japan as we would be. So it can get a little repetitive in the way Samurai are portrayed.
I have to start with my favorite, The Last Samurai. This was one of those movies I watched much earlier in my movie-watching marathon.
So there is a rose-tinted situation going on. But I remember being absolutely into that movie. It had an American soldier, carrying a lot of guilt, with a death-wish get captured by hostile Samurai.
He becomes a prisoner of war and due to fickle weather has to live with them in their home through the winter till the snow thaws.
This acts as a catalyst for the Samurai to understand the Gaijin (outsider) and for the American to understand the Samurai.
And considering the battle was between the old ways and the new ways, this creates doubt in the outsider’s mind.
The outsider was played by Tom Cruise (with MI2 hair) and the locales that this story was set against, was breathtaking.
The cinematography in the training scenes and battle scenes were just stunning. There were cherry blossoms. Surely this was shot in Japan.
So it was a bit of a slap to the face when I saw the filming was done in NZ. Screw that piece of heaven.
So a movie set in Japan, just not shot in it.
Then quite recently, there was Logan. How silly were we to think that’d be the best Logan movie.
But it was set in Japan. An anti-social Wolverine was brought back into civilization to save the life of a powerful man.
He falls in love, absconds through Japan and fights off the bad guy after a very obvious twist.
And 2/2 this too was shot outside Japan. Who knew airline tickets scared off big movie studios?
So I turned to my main man Tarantino and Kill Bill. A movie clearly inspired by Japanese culture. Everyone but Budd was carrying around their own katana for goodness sake.
There was even an anime section to explain O-Ren Ishii’s bloody backstory. The bride takes out ~88 crazed killers in a Japanese bar before spilling blood on the snow while trying to kill a woman in a kimono.
So it will come as no surprise that most of the sequence set in Tokyo was shot in Beijing. Which is in China. There is a scene where the old dude openly hates on Japanese martial arts.
All except for part of the iconic chase scene on the yellow bike. This was shot on the Rainbow bridge in Tokyo.
So my next thought was how about the movie about the inner workings of the life of a Geisha, a Japanese dancer/prostitute. It was set in Kyoto, a very prominent city in Japan.
Then I remembered the cast had 3 of the biggest stars of the Chinese film industry in Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li (watch her movies you guys) and Michelle Yeoh (Malaysian but a big star in China).
So I took a deep breath and checked the filming locations. California.
So it was down to Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, and Sofia Coppola. In a story about an aging star who goes to Japan and connects with a newlywed woman, both left adrift in the throbbing mass that is Tokyo.
They couldn’t have captured the many wonderful crowd shots, Japanese nightlife, the view from a hotel window, a trip to a temple,
So it is with great pleasure that I say that Lost in Translation was shot almost entirely in Tokyo.
It grabbed the sheer madness of the city of Tokyo, in a good way. The movie also shows places outside of the city in all its breathtaking beauty.
Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte visits Jugan-Ji temple in Tokyo prefecture (think that’s like a district).
There’s even a shot of Mt. Fuji as she travels by train to these spots. It’s safe to say that Lost in Translation captured Japan in a way that really appeals to a Gaijin.
It showed us the maddening crowds and the serene beauty of its countryside. And I feel that was the point of the list.
The thing about writing is, you never know where the writing takes you. It started as a movie list and ended as a search for a movie that showed glimpses of a country I’ve never visited.
This is what I could too-lazy-to-write-two-separate-posts-and-ending-up-with-a-mishmash. Japanese cinema is a fantastic movie industry.
It gives you glimpses into a very vibrant country and culture. Also to the works of true masters like Kurosawa and Miyazaki, maker of the best animated films.
There are other great Japanese filmmakers outside of these two that have made films like Tokyo Story, a movie about old age in a fast-moving world.
So make sure to check out their movies. Watch the others mentioned always aware that none of it is Japan. None of it.
A lot of these are movies on Netflix or Amazon Prime. So it’s easy to binge on them.
I’m aware that I completely disregarded Japanese horror films. A genre the Japanese film industry has perfected over the years.
But most of all, watch Lost in Translation. Sofia Coppola serves up a wonderful movie experience while showing us the beauty of another country.