Determining the most valuable elements of an entire country’s cultural output isn’t easy. But a country with as rich an entertainment history as Japan offers plenty of options to choose from. The items on the list were selected for their broad appeal, critical acclaim and wide respect. If you think you might like Japanese film and anime, watch the items on this list to find out.
Note that most of the film and anime listed below are available with both English subtitles and English audio. There’s a big debate in the anime community about whether English subs or English dubs are better, but don’t worry about picking the “right” one. In general, go with whatever feels comfortable. If you don’t like reading while you watch, don’t force yourself to watch with subtitles because it’s the “correct” way to watch something.
Akira is a 1988 animated science fiction film directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, and it’s one of the most respected and discussed animated feature films of all time. Set in the cyberpunk, dystopian Tokyo of 2019, the film follows the leader of a local biker gang as he tries to stop his friend from unleashing newly discovered superpowers on the world.
If you haven’t watched an animated film intended for adults before, Akira will be a fascinating experience. Take note of animation style as you watch. Akira is considered a landmark animated film for more than just its mature subject matter and deeply complex plot. The animation itself is an art form that’s worth noticing.
Another animated classic from 1988, My Neighbor Totoro is the first Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli film on this list. Miyazaki and, by association, Studio Ghibli, is an outrageously famous director of animated film. His films are sometimes called “Japanese Disney,” since their apparent intended audience is fairly young children, but the films’ appeal if far deeper than that.
Totoro has frequently ranked as one of the best films ever made, and certainly one of the best animated films ever produced. It follows the story of two young sisters as they explore the friendly woodland spirits they’ve discovered near their new home. It’s an emotionally affecting film, nearly the opposite of something like Akira.
If you’re not interested in animated films, Roshomon might be more your speed. This legendary 1950 film by Japanese directory Akira Kurosawa features astonishing cinematograph and a gripping plot device. It follows the same story from multiple perspectives, with various characters providing their own self-serving and contradictory interpretations of a controversial event. It’s unclear which of the film’s unreliable narrators are telling the truth, and if any of them are trustworthy, building a gripping character drama throughout the film. If you’re a fan of classic cinema, you need to see Roshomon.
The first anime on our list, Death Note is a unique and intriguing anime that has more in common with detective noir than Sailor Moon. It follows the story of high school student Light Yagami after he discovers a supernatural notebook from the spirit realm. This “Death Note” kills anyone whose name is written in the notebook, and Light soon uses the book to reshape the world to his own stringent moral code. But the Japanese police investigate, and we’re treated to a compelling cat-and-mouse detective game as a mysterious investigator begins to suspect Light’s involvement. For a show that’s basically about mental trickery and writing in a book, it’s incredibly engaging.
A touching coming of age story wrapped in a fantasy storyline, Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood follows the story of two brothers as they attempt to reclaim their bodies from a disastrous alchemical experiment. The episodic format follows the boys journey throughout a medieval world as they attempt to uncover the secret to recovering their bodies. That cartoonish summary obscures a surprising emotional core about accepting the loss of the most important things in life, which is the show’s most memorable element.
This is only a small taste of the wide world of Japanese media. If you’ve already worked through these, you might consider some other classics. If you like Roshomon, check out Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, or Late Spring. If you want some action, school-kid-murder-fests like Battle Royale and Old Boy will suit you well. For feature length animated works, the cyberpunk Ghost in the Shell is an excellent companion to Akira, and Princess Mononoke is tied for the best Ghibli film. Budding anime fans should check out Neon Genesis Evangelion, Attack on Titan and Cowboy Bebop.