Below is an entirely arbitrary list of my favorite Japanese films. Many titles listed in English can be found in well-stocked video stores (such as Scarecrow Video, 5030 Roosevelt Way NE). The ones marked with an asterisk (*) can be found in Japanese video stores (such as HOP Video, 601 S King St.)--some of these are only available untranslated, so you should enlist the help of a patient Japanese friend.
Akira Kurosawa, Japan's best-known director, is mostly associated with medieval epics like Seven Samurai (1954) and Ran (1985), but also directed a trio of stylish noir thrillers. Stray Dog (1949), High and Low (1963), and The Bad Sleep Well (1960) are gritty crime dramas at once familiar, but with a Japanese sensibility that adds an alien piquancy. In Ikiru (1952), a civil servant learns he has terminal cancer and realizes he has nothing to show for his life. This film is a thoughtful and sweet tale of self-redemption, without the usual cloying sentimentality. Watch for Miki Odagiri, a really, really cute actress, in her only film appearance.
The most interesting film of Kurosawa's mature period is Dreams (1990), a series of surrealistic vignettes that is the most personally revealing of his films. It's also a kind of tour through many of the archetypes that inform the Japanese psyche.
Nagisa Oshima, best known in the United States for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), is more political and experimental. Realm of the Senses (1976) shocked everyone with its compulsive hardcore sexuality and harsh criticism of Japanese society. Oshima, unsurprisingly, was prosecuted for obscenity in Japan (the charges were later dropped) and the film itself was seized by customs when it debuted at the New York Film Festival in 1976. Films like Death by Hanging* (Koshikei, 1968) and The Man Who Left His Will on Film* (Tokyo senso sengo hiwa, 1970) show political and social tension percolating through a culture that prizes harmony above all else.
Seijun Suzuki is an ultra-modern and iconoclastic director whose stylized and nihilistic films are a genre unto themselves. Branded to Kill (1967) and Tokyo Drifter (1966) are typical of his bizarre world; there's nothing quite so odd as seeing characters break into song for no apparent reason. Kinji Fukasaku's Black Lizard (1968) is a campy, psychotronic comedic thriller and has been a cult favorite for the last decade. Watch for the infamous gay, militaristic, suicidal Yukio Mishima, who has a bit part in this film.
Juzo Itami is perhaps the best-known Japanese comedy director, with films such as The Funeral (1985), Tampopo (1986), and A Taxing Woman (1988) offering wry yet charming insights into the frenzied, materialistic modern condition. Sadly, his oeuvre ends right there: Itami committed suicide after an article describing an alleged affair (he left a note denying it) appeared in Flash magazine. Another film that highlights the absurdity of modern life is The Crazy Family* (Gyakufunsha kazoku, 1984) by Sogo Ishii. The Koboyashi family has finally realized their dream of owning a home, and the tension engendered by their newfound status causes them to literally self-destruct. In the end, they are reduced to living under an overpass. Dreams, apparently, cause problems.
Many Japanese comedies start out hilariously funny and end up achingly sad. Ikinai* (1998), directed by Hiroshi Shimizu, tells the story of Mitsuki, a young girl who inherits a bus ticket from her recently deceased uncle. But it's a one-way trip--the male passengers have signed on for a surreptitious mass suicide so that their families can collect the insurance money. These doomed men feel affection for Mitsuki, but dare not risk revealing their plan, and the magic bus careens to an end so unbelievable as to be truly shocking. Shohei Imamura's The Pornographers (1966) also starts out in a lighthearted vein, but the burden of catering to other's fantasies and the relentless sexualizing of love finally drives the protagonist to introverted madness.
One of my all-time favorite films is T-bakku no hanayome* (1992), directed by Akiyoshi Imazeki. It's the story of a young prostitute whose specialty is "cosplay" (costume play). Drawn by news reports to a neighborhood where a murderer has gone underground, she does what she does best: She plays policewoman and goes door to door interviewing the suburban inhabitants for fun. Unsurprisingly, she stumbles into the house where the criminal has holed up and taken a hapless family hostage, which quickly becomes a Stockholm Syndrome situation run amok. Besides showing a mix of thematic elements that would scarcely qualify as comedy in the West, T-bakku no hanayome also stars the scandalous Ai Iijima, a notorious AV (adult video) girl whose recent biography, Platonic Sex, has been driving parents insane on both sides of the Inland Sea. It seems that teenage girls are buying the book in droves, and Ai is not considered a good role model. It's worth hunting down this video just to see her.
So many great films! Evil Dead Trap 1 & 2* (Shiryo no wana 1 & 2, 1988/1991) is as gory and creepy as anything we've seen from Hong Kong, but with a much bleaker world view. Iron Man* (Tetsuo, 1988) is the story of a man being painfully transformed into a machine--a kind of mechanized Eraserhead on speed. Shown this year at SIFF, Battle Royale (2000; by Black Lizard's Fukasaku) is the weirdly sadistic story of a high-school class kidnapped and forced to fight to the death on a deserted island. The Sea and Poison* (Umi to dokuyaku, 1986), based on an excellent novel by Shusaku Endo, deals with experiments conducted on prisoners of war during WWII. It is also the study of human degradation brought on by war and personal failure. My final recommendation is Tokyo Decadence (1992), which starts as a provocatively sexual movie but devolves into a study of personal romantic tragedy. Stay for the credits: There's a little coda at the very end which makes whole film come together. I actually stood up in the theater and exclaimed, "Of course!" when I saw it.
I wish you all the best in your forays into Japanese cinema. The films are often very difficult to find. Many truly interesting films still depend on the near-cultish devotion of a distributor or patron before they are subtitled and released in the West. Much of the enjoyment, for me, comes from ferreting out these goodies from the little shops in the International District and elsewhere. I'll see you there.
Clarke Fletcher is Japanese pop culture researcher and is currently programming Japan-O-Rama, a weekly Internet radio show devoted to anime music, scheduled to resume in mid-December on antennaradio.com>.