Best Japanese Movies Of All Time – Hollywood blockbusters are usually on the tip of people’s tongues when someone asks for ‘best movies of all time’. Whilst Japan has churned out some fantastic movies that have attained global success (The Grudge, anyone?), the elements of a great movie there are a bit different to mainstream media.
In saying that, some Japanese produced films have achieved great results throughout the years. These are often the movies that resonate with the experiences and emotions of people globally.
Japanese horror films can also be named the unofficial kings and queens of horror films worldwide. Many Japanese horror films draw on the traditional elements of their own culture as inspiration for these films. The hyper-supernatural themes are often new and exciting to many people, and without knowing what to expect, the scares are wild!
The greatest gift to the world, though, has got to be Japanese animated movies. Their highly accurate depictions of growing up and adulthood, their extreme detail to their characters, their intricate storylines, and emotionally charged dialogue are just the start.
The 14 Best Japanese Movies Of All Time
Below we’ve listed a list of some of the best Japanese movies of all time that you should watch. From realistic monster movies to fantasy animated movies, we’ve covered all the bases.
- Godzilla (1954)
- Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train (2020)
- Suicide Club (2001)
- Your Name (2016)
- Spirited Away (2001)
- Princess Mononoke (1997)
- Battle Royale (2000)
- Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)
- High&Low The Movie (2016)
- 13 Assassins (2010)
- Shoplifters (2018)
- Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
- Ringu (1998)
- Weathering With You (2019)
1. Godzilla (1954)
Regarded as one of the best monster films ever made, we’re starting off the list with Godzilla, the 1954 masterpiece. This is the first film that started the successful Godzilla franchise and it made a huge mark in the world.
The film is essentially about how the Japanese people one day come across a monster who they’ve named Godzilla. He takes on a dinosaur-like form, comes and goes from the ocean, and appears to be indestructible. He wreaks havoc across Japan and the story follows the people’s plight to destroy him.
As the first of its kind, this kaiju monster film sent waves across the world. Godzilla himself became an iconic character, spawning multiple different movie and series adaptations, game developments, literature pieces, and inspiration for music.
There have been a few American remakes of Godzilla, but none quite capture the essence of the original.
2. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train (2020)
This film is based off the incredibly popular manga series of the same name by Koyoharu Gotoge.
It follows the journey of Tanjiro Kamado whose life is disrupted one day when a demon murders his family, leaving only his sister alive. However, she has been turned into a demon herself. He goes on a quest to attempt to return her to her human form. Along the way, he meets some interesting characters and overcomes incredible hardships.
The manga was adapted as an anime series in 2019. It reached unprecedented levels of popularity around the world. Following that, this movie, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train was released at the end of 2020.
This movie has broken multiple records. Biggest weekend opening; smashing 10 billion yen after 10 days; best second weekend at the Japanese box office.
It’s definitely one of Japan’s biggest and best movies to date!
3. Suicide Club (2001)
This cult classic was released back in 2001, but its title is still recognisable to this day.
The movie takes place over six days. Within this timeframe, multiple seemingly randomised suicide incidents take place around Japan with the first being a group of 54 schoolgirls who hold hands and jump in front of a moving train together.
It follows several detectives as they try to get to the bottom of it. As with all Japanese scary movies, there is some gore, there are some scares, and it will leave you feeling a little empty inside.
The Suicide Club drew the attention of the world with many critics weighing in on its themes. Its reception was mixed, but those who enjoyed it, really enjoyed it!
4. Your Name (2016)
This absolute masterpiece is a romantic fantasy film written and directed by Makoto Shinkai. It’s one of Japan’s top grossing films and took over the world at a stage as one of the most must-watch anime movies.
The movie follows the lives of two teenagers, Mitsuha and Taki, as they magically swap bodies for periods of time. They both live in Japan but have polar opposite lifestyles (country girl and city boy!). Things begin to get complicated as they eventually try to meet up and timelines begin to get murky. The ending is beautiful and poignant at the same time.
Makoto Shinkai manages to beautifully weave all the forgotten feelings of teenager social anxiety, angst, and family pressure with the emotions of first loves and strong friendships.
There will be moments when you laugh and when you cry because the characters are perfectly introduced and you immediately connect with them.
Fun Fact: One of the most famous scenes from the movie is actually a real-life location in Japan! If you’re interested, read more about our real-life anime locations here.
5. Spirited Away (2001)
There is probably not a person in the world who hasn’t heard of Spirited Away. This classic film by the one and only Hayao Miyazaki may be a Japanese animation film, but it’s resonated with people of all ages from all over the world.
The movie follows the adventures of little Chihiro whose parents got turned into pigs. She has to navigate her way through a magical world of witches, dragons and monsters.
The thing that stands out the most about this film is its honesty and pureness in character development and storyline. Nothing feels out of place or forced. Rather, you watch it as though you are literally living out the characters.
One of the comments made by a critic is that each frame Spirited Away is absolutely stunning. Pause at any time during the film and you’ll have a beautiful still image. The craftsmanship and dedication to this film is honestly overwhelming.
Read More: The 10 Best Japanese Film Directors
6. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Before there was Spirited Away, there was Princess Mononoke. This is yet another much-loved classic by Hayao Miyazaki.
The story is about the pure Prince Ashitaka and his involvement in the fight between the forest creatures and opportunist humans who want to strip it for its resources. Whilst it may sound black and white, many universal themes are introduced in the film. There is no such good or evil in this film, rather, you learn about how people will fight for what they believe in.
When released, it achieved amazing success, and rightfully so. This beautiful fantasy animated film had all the right elements for commercial success. The characters were engaging, there were tender and intense moments, story and character development was well-paced, and the scenes were always on point.
We couldn’t write a list of the best Japanese movies of all time without referencing Princess Mononoke!
7. Battle Royale (2000)
This 2000 action-thriller film helped Japan stamp its mark in the thriller genre. Its high level of madness and gore made certain countries ban it from being distributed. It’s even been touted by Quentin Tarantino as one of his favourite films!
The movie starts off seemingly innocent with some excited school children having fun on a bus whilst they’re heading on an excursion. It then cuts to the next scene where they all wake up in a classroom on a deserted island, fitted with a mechanism around their necks.
What follows is absolute mayhem. They’re instructed that they have a certain amount of time to kill each other otherwise everyone dies. Of course, you go through the feelings of disbelief alongside the characters themselves. That is, until people start actually dying and killing each other.
This film is one of the first of its kinds. It’s unique plot and exponential growth in popularity has cemented its place as one of most influential films of all time. Multiple movies, series’, novels and games all over the world have spawned from the inspiration of this movie.
Read More: Top 10 Yakuza Movies >>
8. Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)
Ju-On: The Grudge is the ultimate Japanese supernatural horror movie. Whilst there were many before it, and so many more after it, this is the one film that many people will immediately think of when they think ‘Japanese horror’.
This movie is so popular that it’s actually been remade several times over! However, nothing hits like the original from 2002.
The movie follows the curse of the Saeki family murders which happened because the husband found out about his wife’s infidelity. The vengeful spirits then haunt all those who move into their home and eventually spread out to other areas that people die. Detectives in this movie quickly catch on and try to find a way to lift the curse.
Warning: there are some serious jump scares in this movie, and the ghosts are not your regular friendly ghosts.
9. High&Low The Movie (2016)
If you’re into gangster action movies, this is the one for you!
This is the first of many of the High&Low movie franchises which has gained a massive following worldwide.
The story starts off in a town that is currently dominated by five district gangs. One of the central themes of this movie is pride and glory, which you will witness through fights and heavy dialogue. When a new gang seemingly appears out of nowhere and begins to challenge the lines of power, trouble ensues.
If you end up falling in love with this movie, know that there are five more that you can watch afterwards to continue the drama!
Read More: Most Anticipated Japanese Movies In 2022
10. 13 Assassins (2010)
If anything, you should watch this movie for the ultimate standoff between 13 assassins and 200 men.
This 2010 samurai movie set during the Edo period not only serves as an entertaining action movie, but there’s a little bit of a history lesson in there too.
It opens up with a disturbing sequence of Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu abusing his power as he tortures and murders various commoners at his own free will. The Shogun Justice Minister realises that he must be stopped and enlists the help of a samurai, Shimada Shinzaemon, to assassinate him.
Shimada creates a band of trusted samurais and secretly plots to diverge Matsudaira off his traveling route and kill him at a nearby village. In this movie, there are actually a lot of deaths and blood, so be warned!
It is a period film, which some people may find not their cup of tea. However, this movie makes great use of adapted script and colouring whilst still paying respectful homage to one of Japan’s most important aspects of its cultural past.
11. Shoplifters (2018)
This 2018 drama about the lives of a small non-biological family and how they get by through shoplifting may be a break from all the anime and horror you need.
The story follows the lives of Osamu, a labourer, Nobuyo, his wife, Aki, a hostess, Shota, a young boy, Yuri/Lin, a rescued young girl, and Hatsue, a grandma and owner of the home they all live at.
From the beginning, you will notice instantly that they are living in poverty. The only way they are able to get by is to swindle the government to receive aid and shoplift at the markets for food and other items.
Whilst we all know it is inherently bad to steal, the characters are in no way or sense ‘evil’; they are just trying to get by, something that we’ve all probably experienced at some point in our lives. It makes the story relatable from start to end.
As relationships develop and secrets are revealed in the movie, we find that shoplifting may not be the answer to all their lives’ problems.
12. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Quite often, Hayao Mizayaki’s films do not contain romance as a theme, but Howl’s Moving Castle is a movie that lightly touches on it. This movie is one of his most popular movies, as it has a strong and likeable female protagonist, a complex yet seemingly relevant storyline, and, of course, the artwork is engaging from beginning to end.
Sophie is a milliner who is transformed into a 90-year-old woman. She goes on an epic adventure to lift her curse and along the way, encounters a scarecrow, a demon, a wizard, a King, and many more interesting characters.
Meanwhile, there is a war happening between her nation and a neighbouring kingdom. However, with her help, they are able to pacify the situation and find the missing piece to the puzzle.
Whilst his movies are usually much more poignant, this one is a fun one to watch!
13. Ringu (1998)
Ringu is a cult classic, and continues to be so up until this day. This Japanese horror film inspired the American remake starring Naomi Watts. It also serves as an inspiration for the level of horror that many Japanese films aspire to achieve after its release.
This movie is about a cursed video tape that haunts and kills anyone who watches it. It follows the plight of Reiko Asakawa as she attempts to figure out the meaning behind the tape and how to lift the curse. She enlists the help of her ex-husband and together they travel to various parts of Japan to understand the history of the tape and how it came to be.
Of course, much horror ensues as secrets are revealed and time runs out.
Ringu contains one of the most famous scenes in Japanese horror film history. Without giving away too much, it is when a female figure grotesquely crawls out of the TV screen. A mix of fascination and disbelief will quickly be overcome by fear at this scene. This scene is recognisable by almost all horror film/Japanese film aficionados.
It’s a classic. No surprise it made our list of the best Japanese movies of all time!
14. Weathering With You (2019)
This stunning romance fantasy film by Makoto Shinkai is set to become an animated Japanese classic. It had big shoes to fill, following on from Your Name, but it definitely beat the odds.
Hodaka Morishima is a high schooler who escapes to Tokyo. He meets Hina, who he discovers can manipulate the weather and is the reason why Tokyo has been experiencing odd weather reports lately. Together they decide to open up a business to (anonymously) clear up weather for people.
However, trouble ensues when Hina’s face is accidentally publicly shown. Hodaka’s family has also filed a missing person’s report during this time. We are taken through a whirlwind of emotions as the film weaves realistic emotions of helplessness as a teen and desperation to escape, with fantasy elements of the magical work that Tokyo is set in.
The ending of this movie is not overly sugar-coated, nor will it leave you feeling empty. It’s the perfect one for those rainy days indoors.
We hope you enjoyed our specially curated collection of Japanese movies. We strongly believe that these are the best Japanese movies of all time that you should add to your watch list! Their characters are strong and beautiful; their storylines are unique and powerful.
From animated classics to movies which have stood the tests of time, watching these will help you fit right in with the Japanese film aficionados.
If anything, your Japanese might improve after watching all these!
And if you are looking for more things to watch, check out our list of the best Japanese dramas.
If you are more into reading, we also made a cool list of the best books about Japan here.