Japanese cinema is often lauded as bringing to life some of the most fantastical and bizarre, but also relatable and thought-provoking works. Coming into prominence around the world in the mid-1900s, many Japanese movie directors have made a name for themselves with seemingly controversial and/or extraordinary techniques that deviate vastly from the recognised western storytelling.
The wide range of Japanese movies means that there is always the perfect choice for all situations: whether you’re in for an effortless viewing on a lazy Sunday afternoon, or keen for an over-the-top action/horror thriller that will leave you feeling all kinds of squeamish.
10 Popular Japanese Movie Directors You Should Know
We’ve listed below 10 Japanese movie directors who have shaped Japan’s cinema experience, with some prime examples of their work for you to watch.
- Hayao Miyazaki
- Takeshi Kitano
- Takeshi Miike
- Akira Kurosawa
- Hideaki Anno
- Kon Ichikawa
- Hirokazu Kore-eda
- Nagashi Oshima
- Koji Wakamatsu
- Kenji Mizoguchi
Let’s discover each of them in more details below.
1. Hayao Miyazaki
Hayao Miyazaki is synonymous with Japanese cinema. Thanks to his stunning visuals and captivatingly unique storytelling, anime has become one of the most recognised and respectable artforms in the cinematic world.
Hayao has directed many animations in his lifetime but his crown jewel would be ‘Spirited Away’, a 2001 film about a young girl involved in a fantasy dream which broke the previous box-record held by ‘Titanic’ and even won an Oscar.
His studio, from which the likes of Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle also come from, is known for its unique strong and meditative protagonists and passive, often misunderstood villains.
2. Takeshi Kitano
Also known as one half of the nationally recognised ‘Two Beat Duo’, Takeshi Kitano is a renowned director, versatile actor, successful comedian, and in-demand game show host.
Whilst he started off his career in comedy television, Kitano quickly developed into a respected movie director. His individualistic style of depicting unabashed violence on screen has earned him a reputation of developing Tarantino-style yakuza movies.
His most famous work would be ‘Zatoichi’, a violent emotional rollercoaster movie loosely based on the samurai.
Takeshi Kitano is actually part of our list of 10 popular historical Japanese figures!
3. Takashi Miike
Takashi Miike is a Japanese movie director who likely falls on the ‘extreme’ end of movie-making. Also known as the ‘bad boy’ of Japanese cinema, you know you’re in for a wild ride when watching one of his works.
Miike’s storytelling, action shots and explicit content range from visually impressive to downright jarring and excessive – not for the faint-hearted. Miike is unafraid to delve deep into taboo topics, as can be witnessed in his more popular works such as ‘Audition’, which is about a widower who participates in fake movie auditions to find a new wife.
4. Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa boasts the title of one of the most globally recognised movie directors. It can be said that Kurosawa actually paved the way for Japanese filmmakers today to showcase their work to the world.
Initially, Kurosawa introduced the western audiences to the then unfamiliar concepts of medieval Japanese horror and Samurai honour. Through his famous films, ‘Samurai’, and ‘Yojimbo’, Kurosawa developed legions of passionate movie-goers who enjoyed his style of work and craved more, eventually leading to the opening of Japanese cinema to the world.
5. Hideaki Anno
Hideaki Anno is often credited as an anime film director, but it was his stylistic storytelling and visionary directing that brought to life the incredible live-action film Shin Godzilla, the 2016 remake of the incredibly popular kaiju monster.
This new film appeased the new generation waves of fans who were passionate about the world of the King of Monsters, and allowed Anno to cleverly wave a strong metaphor mocking the government, similar to the atomic-bomb metaphor in the original movie.
6. Kon Ichikawa
Kon Ichikawa is one of the most versatile directors to ever grace Japanese cinema. Born into a life of hardships and setbacks, Ichikawa rose above it all and eventually became the creator of the culturally iconic ‘Tokyo Olympiad’, a documentary in 1965 detailing the humanistic side of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics.
He also has prominent works in the sci-fi, period, and folklore genres.
7. Hirokazu Kore-eda
Unlike many Japanese movie directors who enjoy challenging social and political boundaries, Hirokazu Kore-eda is all about poignant storytelling and wistful moments that stay in your mind long after the movies have ended.
His most recent success, ‘Shoplifters’, about a dysfunctional phoney family living in Japan, was an international hit due to its universal contemplative outlook and realistic storytelling.
8. Nagisa Oshima
Nagisa Oshima is one such Japanese movie director that deviated drastically from the norms of filmmaking. From his distinct use of outcasts as protagonists, constant challenging of social norms, and brazen coverage of taboo subjects, Oshima’s daring experimental techniques led him to become one of Japan’s New Wave moviemakers.
He achieved international recognition with his work ‘Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence’, however, his popularity soared previously when he directed ‘In The Realm of the Sense’, an erotic art film that made headlines for its outrageous gore and sexually explicit content.
9. Koji Wakamatsu
Koji Wakamatsu was one of the most revered movie directors of his time. Coming from a history of gangs and construction work, he dabbled in filmmaking and quickly rose to fame with his distinct violent, sadistic and borderline pornographic style of film-making.
Wakamatsu’s philosophy was to challenge boundaries whenever and wherever necessary,
10. Kenji Mizoguchi
Kenji Mizoguchi is the Japanese movie director behind the famous ‘one scene, one shot’ approach that gained immense popularity for its unique ability to deliver rich scenes without unnecessary dialogue.
His most famous work would be ‘Ugetsu’, a film that takes place during a 16th century civil war. Much of his work is influenced by his early life exposure to the brutalities faced by Japanese women, such as when his sister was put up for adoption and forced to become a geisha.
If you find yourself seeking movies that are a little more challenging, a little more shocking, with storylines that are at once bizarre yet highly addictive, with cinematic styles that you might not have seen before, look no further.
We highly suggest you pick a director from the above list and check out their most famous work – you won’t regret it! There’s a reason why they’re considered one of the top Japanese movie directors who have shaped Japan’s cinema!