Culture

5 Innovative Genre Filmmakers from Japan

Feel the pulse of anime, J-horror, samurai and yakuza movies with these celebrated Japanese directors.

By 10 min read

Japan’s two greatest filmmakers, Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki, are known for their work in the jidaigeki (Japanese period drama) and anime film genres, respectively. Outside those genres, other Japanese movie directors have gained global prominence by helming dramas with a focus on family and contemporary life. Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, for instance, actually unseated Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time in a 2012 poll conducted by the British Film Institute.

Let’s face it though: when you’re chilling at home, you’re not always going to be in the mood for a simple human drama. Sometimes you might be looking for a movie with an element of excitement to it, one that’s more thrilling or plot-driven. In short: a genre film.

For viewers whose tastes run that way, there are a number of Japanese directors who have established themselves as premium genre filmmakers. From anime to J-horror to samurai and yakuza films, the five filmmakers on this alphabetically ordered list hold continued popular appeal at home and abroad. If you missed this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, these picks and access to a streaming or rental outlet might help you plan your own personal Japanese film festival at home.

1. Hideaki Anno

Screenshot from Rebuild of Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone. Studio Khara.

Filmmakers like Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) were instrumental in popularizing anime overseas. The past few years have brought similar crossover success to a new wave of anime directors like Mamoru Hosada (The Boy and the Beast) and Makoto Shinkai (Your Name). Compared to his earlier contemporaries, Hideaki Anno is one anime filmmaker who has had better luck crossing over into live-action.

Giant monsters and mechs (battle robots) characterize Anno’s filmography. After masterminding the 26-episode anime TV series, Neon Genesis Evangelion, he made the leap to the big screen with Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth (1997) and The End of Evangelion (1997). These two movies served, respectively, as a clip reel recapping the series and an all-new feature-film finale for it. The story involves a team of teen mech pilots, led by the flawed Shinji Ikari, fending off attacks from monstrous “angels.”

You needn’t be a hardcore Evangelion fan to enjoy the movies. Back in college, I had not seen the series (or any anime, at that point), but my roommate’s friend showed the movies to us. I was blown away by the epic scale of Anno’s vision, his entwinement of classical music and candy-bright pop vocals with apocalyptic imagery. With the Rebuild of Evangelion series, he has since embarked on a four-film retelling of the same story.

Screenshot from Shin Godzilla, Toho Pictures.

In 2016, Anno gained live-action cred by reinventing the King of Monsters for a new generation of fans with Shin Godzilla. This film updates the atomic-bomb metaphor of Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 Godzilla movie. Instead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the creature here symbolizes the nuclear disaster in Fukushima and the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku.

Part political satire, part monster movie, Shin Godzilla highlights the absurdity of government bureaucracy. Fun fact: cult filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man) appears in Shin Godzilla as the scientist with the sweat towel around his neck.

2. Takeshi Kitano

Screenshot from Sonatine. Miramax Films.

Earlier this year, Netflix released its own yakuza thriller starring Jared Leto, The Outsider. If you were disappointed by that movie, maybe you were looking for your yakuza yarns in the wrong place.

Chances are, anyone who’s watched television in Japan has seen Takeshi Kitano appear on a Japanese variety show. Domestically, he’s famous as a comedian who goes by the stage name “Beat Takeshi.” Abroad, he’s more famous as the actor-director behind numerous Tarantino-esque yakuza films.

His first three entries in the genre were Violent Cop (1989), Boiling Point (1990), and Sonatine (1993). With its scenes of gangsters engaging in horseplay and Russian roulette on Okinawa beaches, the latter helped him break through to the international market. Not since Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter had there been such a memorable depiction of a man holding a gun to his own head on-screen.

Screenshot from Outrage. Magnolia Pictures.

As the joke goes, “You know what they call The Hunger Games in Paris? Battle Royale with cheese.” Kitano didn’t direct Battle Royale (2000). Rather, it was Kinji Fukasaku who ended his long directing career with this film. But in it, Kitano did play the teacher of a class of kids pitted against each other in a battle to the death on an island.

After that, Kitano would make a samurai-era yakuza film, directing and starring as the blind swordsman in Zatoichi (2003). This zany flick even blends in a Bollywood-like dance number.

More recently, Kitano has been occupied making the Outrage trilogy. The first of those films is still the best. As it draws you into the Shakespearean web of its yakuza underworld, Outrage (2010) casually indulges in dental torture of the sort that would make Sir Laurence Olivier’s Marathon Man character blush. There’s a shakedown scene in this movie that might make male viewers think twice about buying girls drinks at a hostess bar.

3. Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Screenshot from Pulse. Daiei Film.

When the name Kurosawa comes up in film conversation, it’s often in reference to Akira Kurosawa, who we’ve already mentioned. However, “the other Kurosawa,” Kiyoshi, is an accomplished filmmaker in his own right. In terms of critical reception, his track record is more consistent than that of his J-horror contemporary, Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Dark Water).

In the West, Kurosawa is perhaps best known for his 2001 cyber-ghost movie, Pulse. Reviewers derided the 2006 American remake but Kurosawa’s original film tapped into early unease with the internet — how it connects us to a wider world while leaving us somewhat disconnected from our immediate surroundings. In this movie, lonely phantoms haunt people through computers and start crossing over into the living world.

Screenshot from Cure. © Kadokawa Corporation, 1997.

Personally, I first gained exposure to Kurosawa’s work through the “Masters of J-Horror” showcase at the 2015 Tokyo International Film Festival. That’s where I encountered what is arguably his true masterpiece, the 1997 film Cure. Made a year before Ringu during the advent of J-horror, Cure follows a detective who is investigating a string of related murders that may have been programmed through hypnosis. If the plot sounds dubious, rest assured, the movie itself is mesmerizing, full of long takes that build an unbearably tense atmosphere.

Cure marked Kurosawa’s first collaboration with actor Koji Yakusho (Memoirs of a Geisha, Babel), who has since gone on to star in numerous other films of his such as Seance (2001). A more recent Kurosawa title is Creepy (2016), which plays upon fears of the stranger living next-door. What if your neighbor is a psycho killer?

Kurosawa has also gained international recognition outside the J-horror genre. His dysfunctional family drama, Tokyo Sonata, won the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.

4. Takashi Miike

Screenshot from Audition. Omega Project.

Takashi Miike’s films aren’t for the faint of heart, but like the others on this list, he’s a director with some global recognition to his name. He’s also highly prolific, having made over a hundred movies. If you can stomach the ultra-violence and gore, he’s especially renowned for his samurai films and J-horror films.

The most popular Miike movie among list makers would undoubtedly be Audition (1999). Based on a novel by Japanese author Ryu Murakami, Audition is about a widower who participates in fake movie auditions to find a new wife. The film starts out deceptively dry, like a drama, before it crescendos to one of the scariest horror movie scenes of all time. Quentin Tarantino included Audition on a list of his 20 favorite films from 1992 to 2009 (the 17-year bracket between his own movies, Reservoir Dogs and Inglourious Basterds).

Miike’s One Missed Call (2003) draws upon the J-horror convention of cursed phone calls. This is another one of those genre titles that spawned an American remake with a low (in this case, 0% flat) rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Screenshot from 13 Assassins. Magnolia Pictures.

Played by Tadanobu Asano (Thor, Silence), the cut-mouth assassin in Miike’s 2001 crime-horror nightmare, Ichi the Killer, is famous enough to warrant a wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Odaiba. Attendees received barf bags for this movie’s midnight screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was just a promotional stunt, but that should tell you something about the level of graphic violence on display in Ichi the Killer.

Viewers unwilling to settle for anything less than a baker’s dozen killers would be well advised to check out Miike’s 2010 film 13 Assassins. The movie brings modern production values to the old familiar Seven Samurai plot whereby a small band of heroes faces off against a larger band of attackers in a fortified location.

In recent years, Miike has collaborated with the famous kabuki actor, Ebizo Ishikawa, on a couple of other well-reviewed samurai films, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011) and Blade of the Immortal (2017).

5. Isao Takahata

Screenshot from Grave of the Fireflies. Studio Ghibli.

The late Isao Takahata (he passed away in 2018) is responsible for a number of classic Studio Ghibli movies. Though Hayao Miyazaki’s name has become more well-known internationally, Takahata actually co-founded the studio with him. Ghibli’s early output alternates between films directed by Takahata and Miyazaki.

Takahata’s first Ghibli film, Grave of the Fireflies, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It originally hit theaters as a double feature with My Neighbor Totoro on the same day back in 1988. Don’t be fooled by that pairing, however, because Grave of the Fireflies is more of a serious drama in anime form. The film follows a brother and sister, Seita and Setsuko, as they attempt to survive on their own in a fire-bombed Kobe during World War II.

Takahata’s next animated drama was Only Yesterday (1991), about a young woman’s life-changing trip to the countryside. In 2016, Star Wars actress Daisy Ridley fulfilled her obsession with Japanese culture by voicing the lead in the 25th-anniversary English version of Only Yesterday.

Screenshot from The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Studio Ghibli.

You may never look at tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs) the same way again after watching Takahata’s 1994 suburban fantasy, Pom Poko. This movie utilizes Tama, Tokyo as the setting for a war between raccoon dogs and humans. Though it’s ostensibly a family-friendly cartoon, there are fatalities on both sides of the war. When not inflating their testicles into parachute gliders, the tanuki also use their shape-shifting ability to terrorize locals in a hyakki yagyō (“night parade of one hundred demons”).

The beautiful, brushstroke anime style of Takahata’s final film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013) makes it stand apart visually from other Ghibli movies. Steeped in the kind of Japanese folklore where bamboo shoots give birth to girls of royal lineage, this film received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.

Who’s your favorite Japanese filmmaker? Are there any notable Japanese genre movies you would recommend? Share your own essential flick picks in the comments section below.

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