There's a hypnotic and absorbing quality to Japanese film that you won't find elsewhere. While the filmmakers of many other countries were still figuring out the technicalities of film narrative, Japan's film output reached a level of poesy and abstract beauty that is still hard to match. Throughout the 20th Century, the cinema of Japan has reacted to and reframed the country's stoic but intensely spiritual culture, its involvement in global conflict, and man's relationship with nature in stunning ways.
Late Spring (1949)
If any filmmaker deserves the label of "auteur," it's Yasujiro Ozu. His many classic films are nearly all low-key domestic dramas, but his light touch behind the camera lends them enormous and very affecting gravity. Late Spring stars the radiant Setsuko Hara as Noriko (a name, but not a character, she would play in two other Ozu films) who is being pushed and pulled by the whims of her father (Chishu Ryu) as he attempts to find her a suitable husband. Noriko is an independent and free-spirited woman who does not easily buckle to society's demands that she settle down. Slow and pensive, but absolutely devastating in its emotional incisiveness, Late Spring is a film that Ozu would only equal, but never better.
Woman in the Dunes (1964)
Possibly the most highly regarded film of the Japanese New Wave, Woman in the Dunes is a challenging and allegorical work adapted by Kōboō Abe from his own 1962 novel. School teacher Niki (Eiji Okada) finds himself cruelly trapped in a house in a sand quarry after taking shelter there. The woman of the film's title is a widow (Kyōko Kishida) who is also trapped, and with whom he must endlessly dig sand to sell, and to stop the house from being enveloped in the dunes. Re-casting the myth of Sisyphus as a story about manual labour leaves the film rife with layers of meaning, complicated further by Niki's growing relationship with the widow. This is one of the most confronting and disturbing films from a film culture not scared of frightening themes.
At the time of its release, Ran (which translates to "Chaos") was the most expensive Japanese production ever. Its director Akira Kurosawa was no stranger to filmic spectacle (he made Seven Samurai), but even today the intense battle sequences of the period epic are a wondrous sight to behold. When an ageing warlord decides to abdicate the throne and split his kingdom between his three sons, all hell breaks loose. Based on Shakespeare's King Lear, Ran creates a colour coded tussle for power than is never anything less than enthralling, filled with shocking twists of cruelty, devastating destruction, madness, old wounds, and above all honour.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Undoubtedly the most "adult" of the films in the canon of the great animator Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away) Princess Mononoke still resonates with the same sense of magical wonder expected of the filmmaker and the revered Studio Ghibli. After strange beasts attack his quiet village, Ashitaka must travel abroad to find the source of the disturbance. He discovers a land where the wheels of industry are slowly choking the natural world, and their last line of defence is San, a denizen of the forest raised by wolves. The magic and beauty of nature is personified by the utterly beautiful narrative and jaw-dropping animation. Princess Mononoke is urgent and melancholy, but ultimately hopeful that humanity can live at peace with the natural world.
What would Japan be without technology? The country is known for its technological advances, but on the flip side is the crushing fear of what the implications of reliance on technology are for our minds and souls. A shining example of the J-horror genre like The Ring or The Grudge, Pulse is an intensely frightening, apocalyptic tale. You won't look at grainy webcam images the same way after seeing what lurks in the shadowy corners of the internet in Pulse. Perhaps what's most frightening about the film is that it's clearly inspired by reality. At a time when internet addiction is very much a concern, the disaffected and nihilistic demonic influence depicted may not be entirely fiction.