The Nine Best Japanese Movies on Netflix

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The Nine Best Japanese Movies on Netflix

Netflix only lists 42 Japanese Movies available to stream, and nearly half of those are from anime franchises like Naruto, InuYasha or Pokémon. There are some gems among the remaining selections, though, including a Takashi Miike samurai film, a Kinji Fukasaku dystopian thriller, a documentary on legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune and yes, several great anime movies, including one Netflix original.

Here are the nine best Japanese films on Netflix:

9. Ghost in the Shell Arise: Ghost Tears

Year: 2013
Director: Kazuchika Kise
Ghost Tears is a part of a larger whole, the third in a tetralogy of films set in an alternate timeline of the Ghost in the Shell continuity that follows the career of a young Major Motoko Kusanagi as she moves from being an independent investigative liaison to the Japanese department of Public Security to her inevitable ascent to becoming the chief commander of Public Security Section 9. In Ghost Tears, Motoko and her team are tasked with hunting down a mysterious body-jacking hacker that goes by the alias “Scylla.” Meanwhile, Niihama Prefecture Detective Togusa (who will eventually become a member of Section 9) investigates the murder of a man whose prosthetic limbs were produced by a shady manufacturer. How do the two cases converge? That’s up to Motoko and Togusa to find out. Ghost Tears works as a film because it’s capable of standing on its own as an individual, albeit incomplete, segment of the larger scope that is the Arise series. It explores new, relatively untapped dimensions of some of the main character’s lives and backstories, in particular Motoko’s love-life as a cyborg, while offering up the requisite political intrigue, conspiracies, and action that make Ghost in the Shell what it is. Not entirely recommended for those looking for a entry point into understanding the franchise, though you could do far worse than give this one a watch. —Toussaint Egan

8. Mifune: The Last Samurai

Year: 2016
Director: Steven Okazaki
Perhaps the most illuminating passage of Mifune: The Last Samurai—Steven Okazaki’s documentary about legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune—comes early in the film, in the form of a brief history of early Japanese cinema, especially the 1920s. Samurai films had become especially popular among young people, drawn to its nostalgic look at codes of honor in an older time in the wake of World War I and its devastation. With its inclusion of rare footage from some of these films and Keanu Reeves’s soft-spoken recitation of Okazaki and Stuart Galbraith IV’s narration in voiceover, this sequence puts us in the frame of mind not just of a standard talking-heads documentary, but also of a piece of video criticism of the type that film critics like Kevin B. Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz have been pioneering in the past decade-plus. Those who only know Mifune through his screen acting will find the biographical details fascinating: Born to Japanese missionaries in China in 1920, he was drafted into the Japanese army during World War II, where he developed the rebellious streak, distrust of authority and humane empathy he would later bring to his live-wire performances. And some of the interview subjects provide enlightening context. Mifune’s son, Shiro, fills us in on heartbreaking personal details about his father, especially his alcoholism, which led him to turn violent at times. There are colorful anecdotes from Mifune’s collaborators testifying to his intense work ethic and generosity toward other actors. Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg—the latter of whom directed Mifune in his 1979 comedy 1941—pop up to offer their own commentaries on the actor’s work. Mifune: The Last Samurai never quite shakes off a feeling of superficiality in its approach to this famous subject as the man himself remains beyond our grasp, but it should leave us with a greater appreciation of the actor—especially when we learn about the mortal danger Mifune willingly put himself in for his harrowing death scene in Throne of Blood. —Kenji Fujishima

7. Little Witch Academia: The Enchanted Parade

Year: 2015
Director: Yoh Yoshinari
Little Witch Academia: The Enchanted Parade is the crowd-funded immediate follow-up to Studio Trigger’s 2013 runaway hit. The Enchanted Parade follows the trio of apprentice witches from the previous film, Akko Kagari, Lotte Yanson and Sucy Manbavaran, following a harrowing incident during their transfiguration class. As punishment for their involvement, the girls are tasked with orchestrating their school’s annual Enchanted Parade. But when Akko’s overzealous efforts to revamp the Parade’s image inadvertently drive a wedge between her and her friends, can the trio make it out in one piece and out of trouble? Beautiful animation, sharp humor, elaborate action sequences, and a heartwarming conclusion, the only thing wrong with Little Witch Academia: The Enchanted Parade is that it’s only an hour-long and not a full-length series. At least, not yet anyway! —Toussaint Egan

6. Little Witch Academia

Year: 2013
Director: Yoh Yoshinari
When Little Witch Academia premiered in March of 2013, it was met with widespread critical acclaim from both animation fans and general audiences alike. And for good reason—it’s one of the most memorable, charming and enjoyable shorts to come out in recent memory. The brainchild of Yoh Yoshinari, a former animation director for Gainax’s immensely popular Gurren Lagann series, and written by Masahiko Otsuka, one of the former directors of Neon Genesis Evangelion and FLCL, Little Witch Academia is a powderkeg of personality packed with skillful animation, likable characters, and an action-packed finale that’s sure to win over anyone sitting on the fence by the end of its 26-minute duration. —Toussaint Egan

5. The House of Small Cubes

Year: 2008
Director: Kunio Kato
Just 12 minutes long and featuring no dialogue, Kunio Kato’s animated short film won an Oscar and a half-dozen other major awards thanks to the simple beauty of both its story and its design. It opens on an old widower smoking his pipe and fishing from the attic of a his flooded home in a flooded city. The water continues to rise until a quest for his favorite pipe takes him on an underwater journey through the submerged stories of his home. Like the opening scene of Pixar’s film Up! the following year, the quiet nostalgia of an old man looking back on life and love packs an emotional punch as he continues on alone. The rising waters and isolated buildings towering above the seafloor provide a surreal and mysterious setting for a final adventure, and the muted colors of his flooded home contrast the bright optimism and warmth of his memories. —Josh Jackson

4. 13 Assassins

Year: 2011
Director: Takashi Miike
An adaptation of Seven Samurai more in spirit than in tone and plot, Miike’s 13 Assassins is a sprawling blood bath of mythic proportions—so, in other words, nothing new for the Japanese auteur. What Miike later expounded upon with his faithful adaptation of Masaki Kobayashi’s Hara-kiri (also available on Netflix streaming) he began here, translating classic chamabara films into neo-realistic accounts of a gritty, painful time for Japanese culture, making historical epics literally eviscerating experiences. Long and grueling, 13 Assassins could easily be Miike’s best film—a high honor coming from such a multifaceted and unsettling filmmaker—but the film is worth watching if only for the moment when the phrase “TOTAL MASSACRE” makes its reappearance. Just … goose bumps. —Dom Sinacola

3. Miss Hokusai

Year: 2016
Director: Keiichi Hara
Keiichi Hara’s follow-up to his 2013 breakthrough Colorful is a fantastical period piece situated around one of the most prolific artists in Japanese history. Set in 1814 in the city of Edo, Miss Hokusai is the story of O-Ei Katsushika, a talented Ukiyo-e painter whose talents and accomplishments are otherwise dwarfed in the shadow of her father, the legendary Ukiyo-e master Hokusai. Hara’s film follows O-Ei’s struggle to come into her own as an artist while wrestling with the resentment she feels towards her father, whose itinerant and emotionally absent lifestyle have caused him to neglect O-Nao, Hokusai’s blind and sickly daughter. A far cry from the sci-fi action and fantasy plots that typify most impressions of anime, Miss Hokusai is a beautifully animated coming-of-age story filled with uncanny visual references to Hokusai’s most famous compositions and a memorable score by Harumi Fuuki and Yo Tsuji. A cinematic portrait of the artist as a young woman growing to know herself and shape her own life. —Toussaint Egan

2. Blame!

Year: 2017
Director: Hiroyuki Seshita
When it comes to dark industrial sci-fi, Tsutomu Nihei is a visionary. Trained as an architect before pursuing a career as a manga author, Nihei’s art is simultaneously sparse and labyrinthine, his body of work defined by a unifying obsession with invented spaces. Byzantine factories with gothic accents spanning across impossible chasms, populated by bow-legged synthoids and ghoulish predators touting serrated bone-swords and pulsating gristle-guns. His first and most famous series, Blame!, is considered the key text in Nihei’s aesthetic legacy, going so far as to inspire everything from video games, to music, and even art and fashion. Past attempts have been made to adapt the series into an anime, though none have been able to materialize successfully. That is, until now. With the support of Netflix, Hiroyuki Seshita of Polygon Pictures has delivered that long-awaited Blame! film. Set on a far-future Earth consumed by a massive, self-replicating superstructure known as ‘The City’, Blame! follows Killy, a taciturn loner, wandering the layers of the planet in search of a human possessing the ‘net terminal gene,’ an elusive trait thought to be the only means of halting the city’s perpetual hostile expansion. Boasting a screenplay penned by Sadayuki Murai, famed for his writing on such series as Cowboy Bebop and Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, and supervised by Nihei himself, Seshita’s film abbreviates much of the manga’s early chapters and streamlines the story into an altogether more narrative and action-driven affair. Art director Hiroshi Takiguchi deftly replicates Nihei’s distinctive aesthetic, achieving in color what was before only monochromatic, while Yuki Moriyama capably improves on the uniform character designs of the original, imparting its casts with distinct, easily identifiable traits and silhouettes that greatly improve the story’s parsability. Blame! is as faithful an adaptation as is possible and as fitting an introduction to the series as the manga itself. Blame! builds a strong case for being not only one of the most conceptually entertaining anime films of late, but also for being one of, if not the best original anime film to grace Netflix in a long time. —Toussaint Egan

1. Battle Royale

Year: 2000
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
It’s OK to compare Battle Royale to The Hunger Games movies—or, rather, to find how the lasting accomplishments of the latter franchise were essentially done better and with so much more efficiency by the former—because you probably will anyway. Battle Royale, like the immensely successful four-film crash course in crafting an action star who is really only a symbol of an action star, chronicles a government-sanctioned battle to the death between a group of teens on a weird, weapon-strewn island. (There are even regular island-wide announcements of the day’s dead as the sun sets on the remaining children.) Yet, Battle Royale is so lean in its exposition, so uninterested in dragging out its symbolism or metaphor, that one can’t help but marvel at how cleanly Fukasaku (who had a full career behind him when he made this, only three years before he died) can lend depth to these children, building stakes around them to the point that their deaths matter and their doomed plights sting. What the director can do with such a tenuous premise (which The Hunger Games takes multiple films to do, and without a single ounce of levity) is astounding—plus, he wrangled Beat Takeshi Kitano to play the President Snow-type character, which Kitano does to near-perfection. That Battle Royale II sets out to up the stakes of the first film, especially given the first film’s crazy success in Japan, is to be expected, but stick to the first: Battle Royale will make you care about kids murdering each other more than you (probably) would anyway. —Dom Sinacola

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