Good Japanese Live-Action Films

attack on titan film

Yeah, that’s my face whenever I see most Japanese live-actions films too.

It’s pretty easy to critique the Japanese live-action film industry. While the number of domestic products being made has steadily increased over the past couple of decades, comparatively few of them have made enough money to be deemed mainstream hits while many struggle to even recoup production costs. It’s an industry riddled with earnest but terrible acting (because flavour-of-the-week models, TV personalities, musicians and idol group members are often hired in place of professional actors) and littered with a huge amount of derivative content (since so many films are based on flavour-of-the-week anime and manga franchises aimed squarely at already-established fanbases). In terms of available budgets and overall quality, the Japanese film industry simply cannot be compared to its American counterpart.

While all this may sound like I’m painting an overly bleak picture of mainstream Japanese live-action films (arthouse cinema being a totally different topic that I might deal with in a separate post sometime), there are a number of exceptions to the rule. I’d like to take the opportunity to introduce a few of them here, particularly for new viewers interested in checking out some films that are visually strong, showcase decent acting, and aren’t based on preexisting anime or manga.

Zatoiichi (2003)

zaotoiichi 2003

Going in chronological order, let’s start with Zatoiichi, released in the U.S as The Blind Swordsman: Zatoiichi. The character himself has been around for a long time – he’s based on the classic figure that started tearing up the screen back in the 1960s and has seen a ton of remakes in TV as well as film ever since – but this particular version of him is hands down my favourite. It also happens to be my favourite Kitano “Beat” Takeshi film by a long shot, and since he directed, wrote, co-edited, and starred in it, this is absolutely a Beat Takeshi film, albeit perhaps more ‘normal’ than his usual fare. The man has a lot of credits to his name but I can’t help but still see him as a comedian before anything else – and that’s not a critique in this case but a compliment. Zatoiichi is not a comedy, it’s a sometimes quite bloody action piece and a samurai drama, but Beat Takeshi brings a charmingly light-hearted touch to what might otherwise have been an overly serious or conventionally dull affair. Most importantly of all it’s a fun watch, and also one that adds a distinct sense of freshness and originality (and dare I say it, even artistry) to a highly traditional genre.

Kamikaze Girls/Shimotsuma Monogatari (2004)

kamikaze girls

This was based on a light novel originally released in 2002, but keep in mind before you run away screaming that this is not an anime. I happen to think that the light novel format actually quite suits the transition to the big screen, if only because the stories tend to fit those quirky one-shots a lot better than they do episodic content. And if I could use only one word to describe Kamikaze Girls then it would definitely be ‘quirky’ – this is a vaguely surreal, purposefully over-the-top and definitely tongue-in-cheek film that nonetheless makes for an easy watch, mostly because its sense of humour feels so very genuine. At some points it might almost be called a parody rather than just a chick-flick comedy, but the great thing about Kamikaze Girls is that it doesn’t rest on in-jokes and genre convention and as such never comes across as stale or contrived. It also helps a great deal that main duo Fukada Kyoko and Tsuchiya Anna have a fantastic dynamic going on, and they bounce off each other so well that it all seems remarkably natural despite the movie’s inherent poppy weirdness. The snappy editing style is a lot of fun too, and I had no idea until long after I first watched it that Kanno Yoko (of Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Wolf’s Rain, and Zankyou no Terror fame) was the composer here as well. The amount of talent behind this one really shines through.

Shinobi: Heart Under Blade (2005)

shinobi heart under blade
The 1950s novel The Kouga Ninja Scrolls has spawned numerous adaptations, probably most famously the manga and anime series Basilisk (of which I’m not particularly fond). Shinobi: Heart Under Blade is a different beast entirely, which uses the same character names but otherwise is a product all on its own; you can (and should) view it as a stand-alone production with basically no relation to any of the other adaptations out there. I’ll get this out of the way first, the movie isn’t really on par with the others listed here. It’s cheesy and not particularly deep, it’s merely competent in its delivery rather than great, and it conforms in every single way to its genre and storyline (think Romeo and Juliet with ninjas). That said, it conforms in the best way possible in that it’s basically perfected its material to become the best ninja drama/romance showdown of its kind that I’ve seen to date. The action is fun without being stupidly overdone, most of the acting is surprisingly solid despite the cliché writing, and everything’s paced well the whole way through. If you’re after something of decent quality but don’t want to have to think or even concentrate too hard, Shinobi might be just the movie for you.

Departures/Okuribito (2008)

okuribito departures

It’s impossible to write any post at all about good Japanese films and not mention Okuribito. Very loosely based on the 1993 memoir Coffinman written by a Buddhist mortician, Okuribito is a heartfelt drama with just enough well-timed comedic moments to save it from being a too-heavy watch. It also performs beautifully in nearly every way but especially in terms of its cinematography and musical score. Though it occasionally slips from quietly emotive to a touch overwrought – the acting is good overall but at times a little melodramatic – the film generally maintains a nicely grounded atmosphere that suits its rural setting. Much of the praise from critics upon its release came from its visual and musical polish though, and rightly so; this is an unmistakably high-quality production, and the soundtrack in particular is positively dreamy. You have Fujisawa Mamoru to thank for that, better known by fans as Joe Hisaishi, who’s done most of his composing for Ghibli films including Spirited Away (of which Okuribito’s music is very reminiscent). Bottom line is that if you have an appreciation for the cello or gorgeous background shots, or have any interest whatsoever in how Japan approaches death from a cultural perspective, this is a definite must-watch.

Lala Pipo: A Lot of People (2009)

lalapipo

If Kamikaze Girls was too much for you then you should probably avoid Lala Pipo; the screenplay was done by Nakashima Tetsuya who directed and scripted the former film, and his hand really shows in the…. again, shall we say ‘quirky’ manner of delivery. Lala Pipo, based on the 2005 novel by the same name, is an altogether sharper and more adult affair than Kamikaze Girls though – which is probably to be expected given that the story revolves around a bunch of intersecting characters all involved one way or another in the Japanese porn industry. The humour is morbid enough to border on black at times and there are a couple of moments that definitely push the boundaries in taste, so if you’re the kind to get easily offended then again, you may want to give Lala Pipo a miss. If on the other hand you’re up for something vibrantly colourful, brilliantly cast, weirdly upbeat despite the content, and more than a little bit crazy, then Lala Pipo should be fun and cheeky in all the rights ways. I hasten to add that although it’s about the porn industry (sort of – it’d probably be more accurate to say that this is a character-driven work rather than one that sheds any major light on the industry itself), it’s not a porn movie. It’s certainly not a kids movie either, but most of what you see onscreen is relatively tame.

Shiawase no Pan/Bread of Happiness (2012)

shiawase no pan film happy bread
Of all the titles listed here, this is the one I suspect most people likely haven’t seen or maybe even heard of. It’s an original story (there’s a game-based anime of the same name floating about but that’s purely coincidence – they have absolutely nothing to do with each other), and I don’t even know whether or not it ever received an official release outside of Japan. Still, if you can track a copy down then it’d be well worth the effort because this is a perfectly lovely film, albeit not anything ground-breaking or out there. Shiawase no Pan is a quiet drama set in small-town Hokkaido, and like the bakery/restaurant our main characters run is warm and sweet. Made up of a series of vignettes centered around the diverse mix of visitors who for one reason or another find their way to the bakery, the story is unified through the personal journey of the two owners Rie and Nao (but especially Rie), as well as through the overarching sense of nostalgic comfort via actual comfort food. So much love is put into their bread that it literally brings happiness to the people who eat it, and that translates over into the feel of the movie itself.

Question of the post:
Do you have any favourite live-action Japanese movies that aren’t based on anime/manga? I’ve seen a fair few but this isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, so let me know your recommendations in the comments!

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40 thoughts on “Good Japanese Live-Action Films

  1. One of my favourite movies is Norwegian Wood, somehow I remain faithful to Murakami. ^^ I also like Junjou, Oresama and Wara no tate. Among those based on anime/manga I enjoyed MW, Beck, Nana and Rurouni Kenshin.

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    • Yes to the Haruki Murakami lurve and to the film, though as with most book adaptations, my greater affection is for the original. But I especially appreciate actually hearing the characters sing Norwegian Wood.

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    • You know, despite having read most of Murakami’s books I still haven’t seen a single adaptation, film or otherwise. I should really get around to that sometime.

      Ahh yes, Kenshin. That one remains one of the only anime/manga-based film adaptations that I love wholeheartedly – well, the first film anyway, the second two I’m a lot iffier on.

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  2. I saw it a long time ago, but I remember really liking the film Tampopo (1985). It’s about a young woman trying to open a ramen shop and make the perfect bowl of ramen… unfortunately, her noodles aren’t very good. But, she acquires some friends along the way to help her out, and I remember it being very funny and sweet.

    Of the films you mentioned in this post, I’ve only seen Zatoiichi. Again, it’s been a while since I watched it, but I remember thinking the ending was a bit silly, though I loved the sound and music, and how it was integrated into the movie.

    Thanks for the movie suggestions! I’ll have to check some of them out. 🙂

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    • I haven’t seen that one – thanks for the rec, I’ll see if I can track down a copy.

      I don’t remember the ending of Zatoiichi striking me as silly, but it’s been a while since I’ve watched it as well. You’re right about the integration of sound and music though, I really appreciated that about the film as well.

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  3. I’m about to say that I’ve a lot favourite live-action Japanese movies, then I checked and I realized that they are all old Kurosawa or Ozu films. Gotta watch some newer Japanese films. Unfortunately most of the new TV series and movies I saw aren’t very good. I do enjoy some toku like Kamen Rider and Garo though.

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  4. Should you get on the subject of Japanese arthouse cinema, I would appreciate it if you cover the relationship between the arthouse and the mainstream. For instance, I know Rinko Kikuchi and Takashi Miike have made their share of Japanese schlock and I would like to know if their careers are typical in the 21st century Japanese film industry.

    Also, the last Japanese live action movie I saw was A Boy and His Samurai, which I recommend. It’s about a samurai who time travels to the present and gets taken in by a single mom, eventually becoming a pastry chef. There are the expected fish out of water jokes, but the movie’s also a thoughtful examination of class and gender in the present day, particularly how modern society is still structured around the nuclear family while steadily breaking down the systems that produce nuclear families. The film’s not a didactic women’s studies manifesto, but it does illustrate exactly how tough it is to be a single parent and how gender and class expectations tie into that difficulty, all wrapped up with a sweet story about a boy finding a surrogate father.

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    • You’re right, Japanese mainstream live-action films and arthouse cinema aren’t mutually exclusive, definitely a point worth making if/when I do a follow-up post.

      I haven’t yet seen A Boy and His Samurai but it’s been on my to-watch list for a while. I might have to bump it up nearer the top now though, it sounds exactly the kind of thing I could really get into. Thanks for the rec – and I’m glad I could provide you with some. Happy viewing!

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  5. I have only watched a few but the ones that really stuck in my mind are Hanakimi and Anohana. Hanakimi is always leans more to anime-like reactions so it is enjoyable to me. Anohana was shortened by a lot of margin in the movie but I think the actors’ effort really shine through and each moment focused to them touched my heart, especially the Jintan and Yukiatsu cast. Ah, each of these movies sound good too so I would keep them in mind for what-to-watch when I have some time

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    • I didn’t include any films based on anime and manga in this list – there are some major exceptions like Kenshin, Death Note, Helter Skelter, and Battle Royale but on the whole, they’re usually uniformly awful. I haven’t seen either the Hanakimi or the Anohana live-action though so I’ll have to take your word for it.

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  6. I’m not too big one Japanese film mainly because of the poor film quality etc. You should totally check out Helter Skelter if you haven’t already. Its a psychology drama. Its one of my top must watch movies. It was based off a manga if I’m not wrong. The cinematic in this film is incredible! Don’t miss it.

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  7. You know me, I could go on and on about Japanese films and we have discussed “cheese” in Japanese films a lot. Of the Japanese films I have seen/studied which I am pretty sure are not based on anime/manga I can recommend the following:

    Battle Royale (2000)
    Fireworks (1997) – a gangster film but also most of Takeshi Kitano’s stuff is brilliant
    Still the Water (2014) – this film is simply gorgeous!
    R100 (2013) – it is a cult film about a man obsessed with bondage and weird trips down the road to insanity but it is also pretty funny
    Moon and Cherry (2005) – this is a very funny film about a young student joining a university erotic writing society. Lots of gender commentary and plays on gender role stereotypes
    Love Exposure (2008) – this is an insanely long film (4 hours) about a guy obsessed with becoming the best at up-the-skirt-photography. It has great crazy religious nutjobs and a woman who keeps a canary down her blouse
    13 Assassins (2010) – Takashi Miike is another director I adore. I saw this film at the film festival and absolutely adored it
    Goemon – I seem to remember you didn’t like this film? It has gorgeous costumes and cinematography though
    Lesson of the Evil (2013) – another Takashi Miike film, its a crazy morally twisted movie about a good-natured high school teacher or so it seems
    Dolls – another Takeshi Kitano film with three stories of love told through elements of Bunraku
    Tampopo (1985) – This was actually the first Japanese film I saw, it is a funny Noodle Western
    I Wish (2011) – a really cute film about two brothers who are separated because of their parent’s divorce who run away to meet up and to place a wish using the energy of two bullet trains passing by for the first time

    Some older ones which are still great are:
    The Human Condition I (1959) II (1959) and III (1961) – It’s pretty traumatic as it deals with a Japanese pacifists experience of the Sino-Japanese War
    Almost anything by Akira Kurosawa – Seven Samurai (1954), Ikiru (1952), Yojimbo (1961), Rashomon (1950), The Hidden Fortress (1958), Ran (1985)
    Harakiri (1962) – amazing historical film
    Twenty-Four Eyes (1954) – heartbreaking film about a teacher during war-time Japan trying to save her students
    The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1983) – I know there is an animated version but I think it was an adaption of this one
    Yasujiro Ozu’s films – he can be a little hard to appreciate as they are VERY Japanese in the style as well as content but Late Spring (1949), Tokyo Story (1953), Early Summer (1951) are all brilliant

    I could go on but I have to go teach my Chinese Film class now!

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    • The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a novel that has had different adaptations, including the live action one you mention and the recent-ish anime movie.

      And I’ve just thought of a live action movie that I most heartily un-recommend: Funky Forest, which is just weird and nonsensical. I remember my friend and I rented it then after 15 minutes asked each other, “Uh, are we supposed to be high right now?”

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    • Yup, you’ve probably seen more Japanese films than me I imagine. I’ve definitely seen and liked a fair few from this list but as usual, my own to-watch just keeps on growing no matter how much I chip away at it.

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    • Love this list; Harakiri and Twenty-Four Eyes are among my favorite films of all time.

      Watched Lesson of Evil recently, but yeah, Miike’s combination of glacial build-up and gratuitous shock climax has worn out its welcome to me by this point. Still love Audition, though.

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  8. May I recommend
    The 有頂天ホテル / The Uchōten Hotel – 2006
    大奥 / Ooku (also known as The Lady Shogun and Her Men) – 2010 (the one based on Yoshinaga Fumi’s manga, not the other films or dramas)
    誰にも知らない / Nobody Knows – 2004 (fun fact – the singer from Uchoten plays the abusive mother in this film)

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  9. Departures kind of lost me by the end (the melodramatic stuff in the final act don’t really work), but I really enjoy the subject matter and its use of black humor. That one cello piece (main theme?) was indescribably lovely, too.

    Haven’t heard of the other titles in this list, I’ll take note of them.

    As for recs and faves, gosh I have a lot. Let’s just sort them by directors (*some of them may be arthouse though):

    Ozu (just absolute faves here): Late Spring, Tokyo Story
    Kurosawa (ditto): Rashomon, Ikiru
    Kore-eda (probably my favorite living Japanese director): After Life, Nobody Knows, Still Walking. He makes such bittersweet masterpieces
    Kobayashi: Harakiri, best samurai film I’ve ever seen
    Kinoshita: 24 Eyes, melodramatic as hell but really works, esp. if you’re a teacher
    Teshigahara: Woman in the Dunes

    From the last decade or so, I really like All About Lily Chou-Chou (Iwai; heavy teen drama), Confession (Nakashima; thriller about a vengeful female teacher), Kisaragi (Sato; very entertaining locked chamber mystery), and Drudgery Train (Yamashita; dramedy about a selfish loser. It’s awesome in a way that I can’t really describe).

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    • I kinda agree with you re: your comment on Departures. I dearly love the film but it does drag on towards the end – I think it could have been stopped a bit earlier with no negative impact on the central story.

      Thank you for the recs! Some of them I’ve seen, others I’ve only heard of. Yet more to add to my to-watch list (oh dear).

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  10. Out of curiosity, which Japanese movies do you consider as the worst you’ve ever watched?

    The last Japanese language movie I saw recently was the live action version of Joker Game-have you seen that one? It wasn’t too bad by any means, but in terms of cinematography I felt it looked quite weak. Even it somehow managed to make 1930s Singapore look cheap and flat, despite most of the movie being filmed there.

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    • I haven’t seen the Joker Game live-action but I have seen part of Attack on Titan. Now to be fair I was pretty lukewarm about the anime series anyway, but that movie was so bad I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. I also was really not a fan of the Gantz live-action movies. The second installment especially was truly horrendous.

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  11. Okuribito is a wonderful film. I also like “Udon,” Lovely Complex’s live action as a guilty pleasure, and the Yojimbo/Sanjuro samurai films.

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  12. I second the vote on Love Exposure…it is surely one of the oddest films I’ve ever watched, but a ludicrously ambitious film. Definitely worth the four hour investment.

    The Great Youkai War (Takashi Miike) is also quite good.

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  13. I have always liked Chronicles of my Mother as well as the mor recent Like Father, Like Son. The biggest problem we have here in Australia is that our only exposure to Japanese cinema is the yearly Japanese Film Festival and the VERY FEW live action titles that come out of DVD with quality subtitles. There are a few on Amazon that when you purchase them you realise the subtitles have been translated from Japanese to Mandarin to English and become barely deciferable. I would probably give a limb for more quality subtitled releases here in Aus.

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    • Yeah, that’s exactly the same problem we have in New Zealand as well. Before living in Japan, I usually had to order in films from America or the UK – which was a) vastly expensive because of shipping and b) I never knew how good the quality of the subs would be.

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  14. Pingback: Pen! Pad! Action! Extra! Recent Films! – "Pen! Pad! Action!" @The Michigan Theater

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