Aside from books, one of the ways to learn about a country’s rich history is through movies. Japanese cinema is widely-known for successfully producing films that depicted Japan’s rich history. So why don’t you sit back, relax and enjoy as we take a look back in the past with these best Japanese Historical films of all time!
1. Always: Sunset on Third Street (2005)
The first of our best Japanese historical films takes us back to 1958 Japan. It gives us a glance of Japan’s rising economy after its upheaval caused by the war. The film’s story also took place at the time of Tokyo Tower’s construction.
Always: Sunset on Third Street, mainly tells the story of different people living in the neighborhood, as they each start anew with their lives.
This film hit the 15th spot at Japan’s box office in 2005 and won 12 awards at the 2006 Japanese Academy Awards. It also got the audience award in 2006 at the New York Asian Film Festival.
2. Abacus and Sword (2010)
Let’s take further back into history as we go back to the Meiji Restoration Period during the last days of the Edo Era. This film features the story of a low-ranking Samurai and his struggling family. Instead of using a sword, he uses his mathematical ability to save his household from bankruptcy.
This movie reflects much of Japan’s culture and history at the time where Japan transitions to western-style modernization.
3. Mumon (2017)
Mumon is a film set around the 16th century Japan, where it depicts the disputes between the Samurai clan and the Iga Ninja clan. The fictional story in the film took place during the Tensho Iga War.
The story revolves around a strong but lazy ninja who wants to earn money to give to his wife. He kills a Samurai for reward, but this killing led to a deadly battle between the two clans.
The film was widely accepted by the audience nationwide where it was considered to be the most successful film in its time.
4. Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust (2007)
This next movie will bring us from 2007 back to Japan in the 1990’s. The film gives us a glimpse of Japan during 1990 when it suffered from the massive bubble inflation.
It all began when inventor Mariko Tanaka, reconstructed a washing machine for time travel. The Japanese government compelled Mariko to go back to 1990, to stop the passing of the law that caused the massive inflation that hit the country.
There is no other film among the best Japanese historical films that successfully portrayed Japan’s bubble era as this one. The differences in technology between the two generations were highlighted in a fun way. Also adding the cameo appearances of some celebrities back in the 90s adds more fun and entertainment in watching this movie.
5. Yoko the Cherry Blossom (2015)
Let us go back again in time as this next movie is set to war-stricken 1940’s Japan. This movie featured the true to life story of Masaaki Takaoka, an agricultural teacher at a school in a rural village in Shikoku Island.
In fear of young men being sent off to war where hardly any return, he devises a new strain of Sakura tree that could thrive in extreme climates and temperatures. He planted the Sakura trees in lieu of the graves of his students that died in the war.
This film that was written and directed by Gen Takahashi gives us a hindsight of the feelings and experiences of the citizens in Japan during the war.
6. Ran (1985)
Ran is a 1985 historical film by Akira Kurosawa. It dates back to the Sengoku Warring States Period of Japan, also known as the Sengoku Period.
A Japanese warlord, in time of his retirement, decides to divide the land to his three sons. Taro and Jiro, the eldest and the second son respectively, agreed to their father’s plan. But the youngest son, Saburo said otherwise, doubting that his brothers will keep the land in unity.
Because of this, Saburo was banished by his father. When their father retires, Taro and Jiro, in their selfish schemes, cause war in the land. Now Saburo must return in time to save his father.
This film of all the best Japanese historical films is considered to be the perfect and classic depiction of the Sengoku period where an all-out war of brothers against each other enrages.
7. The Lower Depths (1957)
Returning to the Edo Period Japan, we will view the lives of the people who lived and thrived in poverty.
An elderly couple named Rokubei and Osugi leased out rooms and beds to the poor. The tenants were usually gamblers, prostitutes and small-time thieves. Sutekichi, a self-proclaimed tenement leader is having an affair with Osugi but is more attracted to Osugi’s younger sister, Okayo.
Soon a series of unfortunate events took place that led Sutekichi to kill Rokubei. But out of his anger with Osugi, Sutekichi claimed that Osugi urged him to kill his husband. In the end, both Sutekichi and Osugu end up in jail.
This film was one among the best Japanese historical films directed by Akira Kurosawa and was rated 80% approval on Rotten Tomatoes based on five reviews.
8. The Twilight Samurai (2002)
The Twilight Samurai is set in 1868 during the Bakumatsu Civil War Era. It’s a film that reflects the lives of the lower-class Samurai a few years before the Meiji Restoration. This film is the first installment of Yoji Yamada’s Samurai Trilogy.
It follows the life of Seibei, a widowed, lower-class Samurai working as a civil-servant to support his two daughters. His colleagues mock him by calling him “Tasogare” (Twilight), as he chooses to head home right away after work, instead of having a drink with other Samurai.
His life changes when his childhood first love, Tomoe, returns back to their town. Tomoe, divorced from his drunkard husband, gets along with Seibei’s daughters. Seibei is now faced with conflicting issues involving his work, family and love life.
This film received many awards and nominations. Among which is a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 76th Academy Awards, and 12 awards from the Japanese Academy Awards.
9. The Hidden Blade (2004)
Next up is the second part of Yoji Yamada’s Samurai Trilogy, where it depicts the last remaining days of the Samurai in 1860s Japan.
The story begins where two Samurai, Katagiri and Shimada bid goodbye to their friend Hazama to serve under the Shogunate of the Edo (now Tokyo) region.
Katagiri and Shimada went on to live their lives. Shimada ends up marrying Katagiri’s sister. However, with the changing times, Katagiri and Shimada were forced to learn westernized weaponry techniques.
An overturn of events took place when a frustrated uprising against the Shogun that involved Hazama. Hazama was sent back to their village but denied of committing Seppuku because of bringing dishonor to the clan. Instead, Hazama is doomed to life imprisonment.
Katagiri and the other Samurai, is faced with the challenges that came with the inevitable changes of Japan’s modernization.
10. Love and Honour (2006)
Love and Honour is the third and last installment of director Yamada’s Samurai trilogy film.
The movie revolves around the lives of a low-class Samurai and his wife, whose love for each other was tested within the flames of lies and deception.
Shinnojo, a low-class Samurai now working as a food-taster for a feudal Lord, accidentally goes blind as he was poisoned by a whelk sashimi. In order to survive, Kayo seeks the help of Toya Shimada, a high class Samurai. He offered to help but in exchange for something from Kayo.
Soon, Shinnojo finds out and divorces Kayo out of anger. Later on, he figured that the help did not come from Shimada himself, but from the Lord of a wealthy clan. He avenges Shimada by cutting his right arm.
Shimada, now unable to live as a Samurai, commits Seppuku. In the end, Shinnojo and Kayo reconciled and started their relationship anew.
11. Goyokin (1969)
Goyokin is a film directed by Hideo Gosha. It tells the story of Tatsuya Nakadai, a Samurai turned Ronin, driven by guilt after failing to stop the massacre committed by his own clan. With the help of faithful friends, he sets forth to stop another massacre from taking place. He endured hardship in order to make amends for his past mistakes.
Goyokin, a name which means “gold” in Japanese is a film that tells the rich history of Sado, an island west coast of Japan. Sado is known as a gold mining island in the Edo Period where shogunates sent prisoners to dig in the gold mines.
12. Sansho the Bailiff (1954)
This movie is directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. It is based on a short story title of the same written by Mori Ogai. Sansho the Bailiff is set around the Heian Era, regarded as the peak of Japanese classical civilization.
It tells the story of a governor and his family who were sent into exile. The governor later on was separated from his wife and his children. Their children, Zushio and Anju grow up in the midst of slavery. The two must find their way to look for their long lost mother.
Sansho the Bailiff won the Silver Lion award at the 15th Venice International Film Festival.
13. Sword of the Stranger (2007)
Sword of the Stranger is set during the Sengoku Period, where it is considered to be one of the most brutal periods of civil war in Japanese history. It follows the story of a young boy named Kotaro, who is chased down by Ming swordsmen.
Along the way, Kotaro will find Nanashi, a Ronin with a dark past that made him not to draw his sword ever again. Together, they set off a journey as they battle against the Ming warriors.
This is a Japanese animated film directed by Masahiro Ando. This film won the award for best Animated film at FANTASPOA in Brazil.
14. The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003)
An ordinary, blind swordsman, Zatoichi, arises to defend the town people threatened by a local Yakuza gang war to pay large amounts of protection money. Zatoichi helped two Geisha siblings, who want to avenge the death of their parents. To his discovery, the Yakuza are the ones responsible for the murders. He goes into a perilous conquest of defeating the Yakuza gang.
This is one of the best Japanese historical films set around the 1800s during the Edo Era. The movie depicts a part in the Edo Period, upon the birth of Yakuza, where ordinary people are caught up in gang wars. The emergence of Yakuza at the time played a huge role in shaping Japan’s history.
15. The Ballad of Narayama (1983)
According to the 19th century Japan tradition, if a person is approaching 70 years old, he or she is to practice “Ubasute”, where one should climb a mountain until they die of starvation.
The story tells about Orin, who is 69 and is now preparing her family for her departure. She spends the entire year arranging everything for her family, even helping his son to get married. The film successfully portrayed the harsh conditions of life viewed from the eyes of the villagers during this time.
This film by Shohei Imamura won several awards and nominations in its time. Among these is the Palme d’Or at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival.
16. 13 Assassins (2010)
A 2010 film directed by Takashi Miike, 13 Assassins is a film broadly based on historical events that took place in 1844. 13 assassins plotted the murder of the brutal leader of Akashi Clan, Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu.
A Samurai named Shimada Shinzaemon, was summoned by the Shogun Justice Ministry, to conspire an assassination plot to stop the exploits of Lord Naritsugu. Shimada gathers 11 more Samurai and planned the assassination with support and help coming from the Shogun Justice Ministry. But before they knew it, Hanbei, a loyal servant of Naritsugu, devised a plot to impede them.
They were driven to the mountains, where they met the 13th assassin, a hunter named Kiga, who helped them find their way back. Together they engage in a bloody battle against the 200 soldiers to kill Naritsugu. In the end Naritsugu lost his life in the hands of Shimada.
It was widely-acclaimed worldwide. It has a 95% score with 7.9/10 score based on 128 reviews.
17. Red Beard (1965)
Red Beard is the last black and white film directed by Akira Kurosawa. This follows the story of two doctors faced with the social injustice that existed during the 19th century. It highlights the story of Dr. Yasumoto, whose view on life changes as he encountered several patients at a rural clinic he was assigned to.
This film was a major box office film after its release in 1965. It has an average 73% score on Rotten Tomatoes based on 15 critics’ reviews.
18. The Life of Oharu (1952)
The Life of Oharu is a 1952 black and white film by Kenji Mizoguchi. It is about the tragic tale of a woman named Oharu who went through several misfortunes as a result of the stigma of being a prostitute.
This novel based movie portrayed the gender issues and the women’s role in society during the 1600s Edo Period in Japan.
This film won the International Prize at the 1952 Venice International Film Festival. This also gained the Mainichi Film Concours in 1953 for best film score.
19. Seven Samurai (1954)
One of the best Japanese historical films by Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai takes us back to 1586, during the Sengoku Period where civil war ensued chaos and lawlessness among the people living in the countryside.
Village farmers decided to hire seven Ronin to fight bandits that steal the crops after the harvest. In its first year of release, the film sold up to ¥268 million, ranking third highest-grossing film of 1954. Widely accepted by the international scene, it has a 100% approval from Rotten Tomatoes based on 60 reviews.
20. Kagemusha (1980)
Now let us end this list again, with an Akira Kurosawa direction. Kagemusha is a Japanese term used to describe a political decoy. It follows the story of a low class criminal who imitates a dying Daimyo to impede the rival Lords from attacking the Daimyo’s clan.
The film is notable for its depiction of the 1575 Battle of Nagashino, one of the greatest battles that occurred toward the end of the Sengoku Era.
This film also got the Palme d’Or in the 1980 Cannes Film Festival. It received a lot of awards and nominations by several award giving entities. This also highlighted Kurosawa’s success in the international scene.
All things come to an end as they say. But I hope you enjoyed this journey as we look back to Japan’s beautiful history. Watching the best Japanese historical films is certainly a great way to enjoy as you reminisce about the past that shaped Japan.