7. “Woman in the Dunes”, Hiroshi Teshigahara (1964)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list

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Woman in the Dunes aka 砂の女 or Suna no Onna

dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara, scr. Kobo Abe based on his novel Sand Woman cin. Hiroshi Segawa with Eiji Okada and Kyoko Kishida

In 100 words: “Are you shoveling to survive, or surviving to shovel?” This stunning masterpiece of eroticism, adventure, and post-apocalyptic vision entices the audience with its loopy, Sisyphean storytelling, sensual images and sinuous sounds. The story builds slowly, suspense pulsating from every edit, music invading spaces, but once that ladder disappears, the film speeds through one existential dread after another, inviting such fascinating discussions about human dependency, survival, and community. Teshigahara’s craft is astonishing: few images are more tactile than two bodies covered in sand, a man stuck in quicksand or as terror-inducing as a wall of sand.  Elusive, dreamy, and certainly unforgettable.

Other Movies for Context: Teshigahara’s movie is one of a kind, it’s form so distinguished and so refined, few have the same sort of effect, although he’s definitely an important of the Japanese New Wave. When I think of this movie, I think about Nagisa Oshima and his impressive films like In The Realm of the Senses (1972), a hypnotic and landmark erotica, and Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka (2001), a startling Japanese movie that functions as psychological character study after a trauma.

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16. “Sansho the Bailiff”, Kenji Mizoguchi (1954)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.

Sansho the Bailiff

Sansho the Bailiff aka 山椒大夫 or Sanshō Dayū

dir. Kenji Mizoguchi scr. Fuji Yahiro and Yoshikata Yoda based on the short story by Mori Ōgai cin. Kazuo Miyagawa with Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyōko Kagawa, Eitarō Shindō

In 100 words: Mizoguchi’s greatest movie is also one of the bleakest tale of morality—an examination of the choices, good or bad, that people make when faced with dire circumstances. Mizoguchi’s formalist direction is awe-inspiring: his careful compositions, his elegant camera work, his actors’ performances, his music, his meticulous edits deepen the emotions of a folkloric tale. Though often accused of blight miserabilism, here it functions as a worldview and he paints a dark one so eloquently, even teasing out the historical, religious, and sociopolitical contexts of the era. The powerful denouement is an astonishing synthesis of everything that came before. Bravo.

Other Movies for Context: Whereas The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums felt like a more gentle and romantic story, this one is absolutely bleak–going for all out thrills than tears (although there’s plenty of the latter to be had). In his oeuvre, it feels closest to Ugetsu (1953), because the crucial tense scenes bear striking resemblance in power to this.

 

20. “High and Low”, Akira Kurosawa (1963)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.

High and Low

High and Low aka 天国と地獄 or Tengoku to Jigoku, literally “Heaven and Hell”

dir. Akira Kurosawa scr. Ryuzu Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Eijiro Hisaita, and Akira Kurosawa based on the novel King’s Ransom by Ed McBain cin. Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito with Toshiro Mifune, Kyoko Kagawa, Tatsuya Nakadai, Tatsuya Mihashi, Yutaka Sada, Tsutomo Yamazaki

In 100 words: This is Kurosawa’s best: his most inventive, tense, and intelligent film, featuring Mifune’s best performance, the director’s most jawdropping shots, and his most potent sociopolitical message. All within the confines of a procedural! The film strips back the things that make his most well-known films so distinctive: the music, letting his images and sound of objects sustain the tension and his setpieces are less painterly and more barren, almost highlighting the gulf of difference between Gonzo and the rest. But it’s in his blocking, his mise-en-scene, his camerawork, his editing and pacing, that makes this the masterpiece it really is.

Other Movies for Context: Kurosawa is a legend, but I’ve never seen a film by his that feels this tightly constructed and this tense or this propulsive. None. Other movies by him that I enjoyed include Rashomon (1950), which basically put him on the international map, and Ran (1985), his most painterly film ever.

25. “Harakiri”, Masaki Kobayashi (1962)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list

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Harakiri aka 切腹 or Seppuku 

dir. Masaki Kobayashi scr. Shinobu Hashimoto cin. Yoshio Miyajima with Tatsuya Nakadai, Shima Iwashita, Akira Ishihama, Yoshio Inaba

In 100 words: From the stately camera movements, to the glorious use of space, to its suitably eerie soundtrack, to its perfect editing, and ultimately its rigorous performers, Harakiri stands well above its genre’s other mainstays, in terms of its sheer technical proficiency and its damning sociopolitical context. Kobayashi’s highly involving story, from its austere beginnings, to its epic finish, condemns Japanese obsession with bushido and the code of honor. It then throws bushido’s hypocrisy to its face and upends the notional belief that the life of a samurai is honorable. Hard to deny it its rightful place as among the finest films ever.

Other Movies for Context: I love love love this movie. Kobayashi’s movie is the best samurai film I’ve ever seen, and that includes the Kurosawa samurai movies, like Seven Samurai (1954) which suffers from its laborious attempt to put together a team (highly overrated I think), Throne of Blood (1957), which is maybe Kurosawa’s best samurai movie since it’s an adaptation of Macbeth, and Kagemusha (1980), which is more pretty than actually interesting. Takashi Miike remade this movie in 2011 in 3-D.

31. “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum”, Kenji Mizoguchi (1939)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.

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The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum aka 残菊物語 or Zangiku monogatari

dir. Kenji Mizoguchi scr. Matsutarō Kawaguchi, Yoshikata Yoda based on the novel by Shôfû Muramatsu cin. Yozo Fuji and Minoru Miki with Shotaro Hanayagi, Kokichi Takada, and Gonjuro Kawarazaki

In 100 words: Mizoguchi, one of the greatest Japanese directors, finds himself pushing the boundaries of the cinematic form with this beautiful take on a man’s obsession with his art and the woman who helps him reach his peak. His mise-en-scene provide not only cultural context, but informs the characters’ complex emotions. But it’s his tracking shots, shooting through obstacles and only matched by Ophuls, to evoke strong feelings and keep audiences engaged as tensions rise and fall onscreen. Every nuance and movement in the story builds slowly, but surely, until it reaches a devastating ending. Prepare to cry a boatload of tears.

Other Movies for Context: What a great discovery this one was. Mizoguchi is among my favorite directors, one who had such strong interest in women. This particular movie deals equally with the story of Kiku and Otoku. The obvious films by his that has some resonance with this are The Life of Oharu (1952), a weepie that focuses on the life of a Japanese woman as she goes from one man to another, The Crucified Lovers (1954), which bears striking resemblance to this with similar emotional textures and grace, and Street of Shame (1956), the only contemporary-set movie I’ve seen of his, focusing on women who work in the brothel. Mizoguchi would show up one more time on this list.

70. “The Ballad of Narayama”, Shohei Imamura (1983)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.

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The Ballad of Narayama aka 楢山節考 or Narayama bushikō

dir. Shohei Imamura (1983) scr. Shohei Imamura, based on the novel by Shichiro Fukazawa cin. Masao Tochizawa with Ken Ogata, Sumiko Sakamoto, Tonpei Hidari, Seiji Kurasaki

In 100 words: If he were not a filmmaker, Imamura would have made a great anthropologist. His incisive observations of Japanese society’s outcasts was best epitomized by this naturalistic, almost zoological take on a Japanese urban legend. Narayama possesses incredible tonal fluidity—there are moments of tenderness within the frequent vulgarity and dark humor that blend well with the intense grimness of its subject and storytelling. Its themes of self-sacrifice and of familial love and loyalty encapsulated so much of the real Japanese culture that its director famously sought to portray all his life. The final 20-minute near-silent journey is a cinematic wonder.

Other Movies for Context: I think Imamura is one of my five favorite directors ever and so I’ve seen a lot of his work, which has been populated by characters like pimps, whores, gangsters, pornographers, etc. My favorite of his work, apart from this one, is his glorious take on the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombings, Black Rain (1988). This is followed closely by Intentions of Murder (1964), about a rapist who falls in love with his victim, and Vengeance is Mine (1979), Imamura’s grimmest and coldest picture that profiles a serial murderer. The Insect Woman (1963) offers his most interesting female character, since the movie focuses solely on her development. Pigs and Battleships (1961) and The Pornographers (1966) are both oddball movies, even by Imamura’s standards. Eijanaka (1981), meanwhile, finds Imamura at his loosest, most chill mode. All of them are worth seeking out.

77. “Castle in the Sky”, Hayao Miyazaki (1986)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.

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Castle in the Sky aka 天空の城ラピュタ or Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta

dir. Hayao Miyazaki (1986) scr. Hayao Miyazaki cin. Hirokata Takahashi

In 100 words: Animation has never looked more ravishing and more complex than in the hands of Miyazaki, and his pinnacle is this gorgeously rendered film that instantly recalls the best of Spielberg and Lucas. Adventure, mythology, and science fiction blend together so seamlessly with Miyazaki’s complicated and shaded villains, an adorable hero and strong-willed heroine, and of course his trademark visualization of the thrills of flight. But what pushes this film past his other great work is the unmatched beauty and detail he imbues in his floating paradise and the sad implication it has about human nature and our capacity for genius and recklessness.

Other Movies for Context: Miyazaki is a genius and his oeuvre can fill an entire list of the greatest animation films ever: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) unveiled a serious artist concerned about the environment, and My Neighbor Totoro (1988) gave us the most adorable creature ever to be thought up. Among his most recent efforts, Spirited Away (2002) remains a cornerstone of animation and how the West came to love it and Miyazaki’s legacy.