From 1950 to 1976, the Japanese New Wave movement ushered in a new set of voices, offering a cathartic way to explore previously taboo themes of violence, radicalized youth culture, and societal struggles, often in the wake of a post-war, American-occupied Japan. At the same time, there began a shift away from big-budget studio films, allowing more independent creators to enter the previously exclusionary industry.
The movement birthed some of Japan’s most famous film directors, including Nagisa Ōshima, Yoshishige Yoshida, Masahiro Shinoda, Yaszuo Masumura, and Shohei Imamura, all of whom remain influential. To start exploring (or rediscovering) the Japanese New Wave, here are the best films from the innovative period of cinema.
20 Crazed Fruit (1956, Ko Nakahira)
Based on the novel of the same name by Shintarō Ishihara, Crazed Fruit follows a love triangle between two brothers and a woman they both fall in love with. Taking place over the summer in a seaside town, the brothers compete with each other through activities such as drinking, gambling, and boating. The movie explores the complexities of their relationships and the consequences of romantic entanglements.
The Beginnings of the Japanese New Wave
Considered one of the quintessential films in establishing the Japanese New Wave of films, Ko Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit began to show the alternative approach to storytelling that would become prominent. The movie also explored themes that would become common throughout Japanese cinema, notably examining the effects of youth in a post-war/occupied Japan. Ko Nakahira’s cinematography is praiseworthy, and so are the performances by the young cast, including Yûjirô Ishihara, Masahiko Tsugawa, and Mie Kitahara, all of whom would go on to establish impressive careers.
19 Kisses (1957, Yasuzo Masumura)
After meeting in a Tokyo prison where both their fathers are being detained, Kinichi and Akiko decide to spend the day together after winning money in a bicycle race. They get involved in an intense, quick relationship in which they confide in one another the troubles they face, including financial difficulties and their responsibilities to the family.
Debut of One of Japan’s Most Influential Directors
Another precursor to the Japanese New Wave, as well as one of the directorial debuts of Yasuzo Masumura, who would become a staple of the industry and one of the most influential directors of his era. Kisses is a wonderfully captured romance story that deals with themes of disenfranchised youth, steeped in the perfect amount of tragedy to land an emotional punch. Moreover, the movie encapsulates a lot of the uncertainty felt by the younger generation at the time, as their prospects and worldview were in a state of rapid change.
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18 Blood is Dry (1960, Yoshishige Yoshida)
Blood is Dry revolves around Takashi, who becomes involved in a love triangle with his wife and a younger woman, leading to dramatic events. This includes his attempt to make a strong statement by threatening his own life, making him an accidental poster child for societal change and the battle against corruption. However, as he becomes a minor celebrity, his problems only compact, leading to his decline.
A Tragic Celebrity
There is a wonderful type of absurdity in seeing a giant poster of a man holding a gun to his head hanging off a building to rally the people that makes Blood is Dry unforgettable. The subtle, dark humor makes this a memorable entry into the New Wave. However, it still dwells on familiar themes, including facing uncertainty in an evolving Japan and exploring couples’ love lives. However, its focus on the corporate landscape makes the movie timeless and able to resonate with an international audience.
Blood is Dry Is Not Available for Stream or Rent
17 Pigs and Battleships (1961, Shohei Imamura)
Pigs and Battleships is a satirical comedy set in the port city of Yokosuka. It revolves around a young yakuza, Kinta, who is given a peculiar job: fattening up pigs to sell their meat to Americans. The movie explores the trading between the Japanese and the occupying Americans, which brought on a slew of illegal activities such as prostitution and gambling.
Dealing with Pigs in More Ways Than One
Starting as a playful tale of a peculiar yakuza trying to climb the ranks, Shohei Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships transforms into a dark satire of the strained relationship between the US Navy in Japanese port towns and how it negatively shaped the culture. At the same time, the movie is intelligently scripted and features a colorful cast of characters that help cement the comedic elements while keeping the film’s serious themes intact. Pigs and Battleships also marked the debut of actor Jitsuko Yoshimura, who would star in several other notable movies of the New Wave.
16 Harakiri (1962, Masaki Kobayashi)
Harakiri revolves around Hanshiro Tsugumo, a masterless samurai (ronin) who arrives at the manor of a feudal lord and requests to commit seppuku within the premises. As the ronin prepares for the act, the movie unravels the reasons and events that led up to this moment. Harakiri is also one of the few Japanese New Wave films to get a remake, with director Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai premiering at Cannes in 2011 as the first 3D film ever featured.
The Way of the Samurai
Harakiri is a jidaigeki (period drama) that explores the samurai code (Bushido) and challenges its values of blind devotion and unwavering servitude. Shinobu Hashimoto’s writing here is taut yet thoughtful; Masaki Kobayashi’s direction is impeccable; and Tatsuya Nakadai’s acting is superb. Additionally, the film’s exploration of themes such as nationalism, ethnocentrism, and the power of honor codes was constructed to resonate with the current sentiments around such topics.
15 Onibaba (1964, Kaneto Shindo)
Set during the Japanese feudal period, Onibaba follows a mother and daughter who double as grave robbers and have their family dynamic interrupted when they kill a samurai. The mother seemingly becomes possessed by the spirit of the samurai who donned an Oni mask and begins to terrorize her daughter, who had already started to shift away from grave robbing.
Onibaba merges fictional and real-life horror elements, showing the extremes people had to go to survive during a dark period in Japanese history and evoking the spirit of a vengeful samurai. It is, in many ways, a parable that is easily approachable by anyone, and part of why the film is still revered by horror and Japanese New Wave fans decades after its release. Visually, the movie strikes that perfect balance of the beauty of the Japanese landscape with the horror of the deeds below the picturesque veneer.
14 Woman in the Dunes (1964, Hiroshi Teshigahara)
An entomologist, Niki Jumpei, on a trip to unwind and indulge in his hobby, soon finds himself lured into a peculiar predicament. Trapped in a sandpit by the locals, he is tasked to help the woman who lives there, needing to constantly shovel out sand to ensure the house does not get buried. Niki’s anger slowly starts to subside over the monotony of his existence and a growing relationship with the woman in the dunes.
Why Do You Dig?
Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes presents an existential nightmare bordering on nihilism. Having to dig day in and out represents the ‘daily grind’ while removing any semblance of reward for labor; Niki is simply digging to survive. The introduction of erotic elements does not escape this feeling of unending monotony, as the passionate relationship becomes more a product of necessity than actual love. The movie is dark thematically and visually, yet Hiroshi Teshigahara can interject a unique beauty into his work through lush and intimate cinematography.
13 The Face of Another (1966, Hiroshi Teshigahara)
After being disfigured in an industrial accident, a salaryman undergoes experimental surgery to give him a new face that previously belonged to another. At first, embracing his new lease on life, Mr. Okuyama notices subtle changes in his personality that only escalate as he becomes used to his new visage. The Face of Another also follows a sub-plot of a disfigured woman who seeks the companionship of her brother when concluding her condition has made her unlovable.
Struggling with Identity
While having two Hiroshi Teshigahara movies back to back, both adaptations of beloved Japanese author Kobo Abe may seem repetitive, the two productions are wholly unique in themes explored. Exploring how one’s identity is attached to an image and the potential disconnect between how you present yourself to the world versus your perception is told through surreal imagery and a modernist aesthetic.
This one cuts deep into the nature of being and the struggles of self-perception that can lead to a profound alienation from your fellow (wo)man. It can be dark, much like Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes, but it is a worthy entry into the Japanese New Wave for its thoughtful exploration of complex yet universal themes.
12 The Pornographers (1966, Shohei Imamura)
Based on the novel “Erogotoshitachi” by Akiyuki Nosaka, Shohei Imamura’s The Pornographers follows a downtrodden pornographer, Sabu. Struggling to avoid mobs and authorities, all while balancing family life, Sabu tries to establish his work in the controversial adult film industry while pushing back against his desires.
The Pitfalls of Pornography
Within the primarily conservative society of Japan, the subject of pornographic material has always been a contentious subject, with the medium still facing censorship to this day. Shohei Imamura’s movie deals with how the culture approached such subjects as sexuality, perversion, and criminality in post-war Japan with an intelligent, witty script. Comparatively, the film also explores the breakdown of the family unit in the face of Sabu’s decline in the adult film industry, showing the importance of strong, familial bonds to navigate tumultuous times.
11 The Red Angel (1966, Yasuzo Masumura)
Based on the novel by Yoriyoshi Arima, The Red Angel follows a young Japanese nurse, Sakura Nishi, tending to patients on the Chinese front during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Among the chaos, she falls in love with a doctor who has taken up an addiction to Morphine to cope with the pressures of the war and his duty to care for others.
Love in the Time of War
The Red Angel shows the realities of war while offering a brief reprise of the endless suffering in a strained romance, combining Masumura’s dramatic flair with a scathing criticism of war. The film also shows much of why Masumura is one of the more revered in the New Wave, focusing his story on a female protagonist and telling the story from her perspective, which had become a focus point of much of his career. While somewhat purposely detached due to dealing with death, Ayako Wakao’s performance is stunning, and, as always, Masumura’s visual approach evokes a sense of wonderment despite the movie’s grim subject.
10 Branded to Kill (1967, Seijun Suzuki)
A contract killer, Goro Hanada, becomes a target of his organization after he messes up a job. Hounded by the agency’s ‘Number One Killer,’ Goro begins to slowly lose his sanity, while also struggling with the constant threats against his life. Now considered a classic, the movie was deemed ‘too awful’ to be released by the production company Nikkatsu; this led to a case where Seijun Suzuki sued for damages and to get the film released theatrically—a fact which saw him blacklisted for a decade.
One Wild Ride
Surreal, absurd, and unconventional, Branded to Kill challenged filmmaking conventions at the time, cementing its eventual cult status. The movie also has a sleek film-noir ambiance complimented by a Jazz score, making it an immersive and aptly hip visual and audio experience. Full of subtle touches and slight absurdities, like Goro’s fetishistic love of smelling rice and the constant images of butterflies, the film is worth revisits – it is a lot to take in at once.
9 Death by Hanging (1968, Nagisa Oshima)
An ethnic Korean, known only as R, is set to be hanged for crimes in Japan. However. after he survives the hanging and subsequently loses his memory, it leaves the authorities uncertain of how to proceed with his sentencing. They ultimately decide to convince R once again of his criminal activities to fulfill their moral obligation to carry out the execution. The movie is loosely based on the case of Ri Chin’u.
Theater of the Absurd
Told in several parts and switching styles, Death By Hanging is a darkly absurd comedy that challenges the Japanese penal system and its treatment of the Korean diaspora. The setup is simple yet brilliant, with a man who is unaware of his crimes being made to try to remember them through bizarre reenactments fraught with racial biases; it is equally humorous as it is unnerving. Rather minimalistic in its execution, the intelligent script interjected much of the humor (combined with Oshima’s brilliant framing) while staying focused on the cultural issues it aimed to address.
8 Kuroneko (1968, Kaneto Shindo)
Yone and her daughter-in-law Shige, who live in a house in a bamboo grove, are murdered by a group of samurai, and their home is burned down. However, a cat brings the two back to life as vengeful ghosts who kill any passing samurai. Upon returning from war, Yone’s son, Gintoki, is tasked with taking down the spirits, a duty to which he stays committed even after learning they are his deceased mother and wife.
Folklore and Familly Drama
While Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko touches on such themes as a sense of duty to country and family, the movie excels as a more straightforward horror entry in this list. In addition, Kuorneko, which translates to ‘The Black Cat,’ touches on aspects of Japanese folklore, which many will find interesting with its relevance in modern TV, anime, and film. Moreover, it is an adaptation of the beloved and tragic literary figure Ryunosuke Akutagawa, adding to its cultural intrigue.
For those wanting to explore early Japanese horror, Kaneto Shindo’s work is a must-watch. Kuroneko makes the perfect companion piece to the previously mentioned Onibaba (It also has the same visual flair and gothic vibes).
7 Double Suicide (1969, Masahiro Shinoda)
Double Suicide follows two star-crossed lovers, a married paper merchant, Jihei, and a courtesan, Koharu. Set in feudal Osaka, the movie shows an intense love affair between the two, which eventually leads to the two making a pact after Jihei is given a mandated divorce. The film is a close adaptation of Chikamatsu’s 1720 doll-drama (traditional Japanese puppet theater that originated in the 17th century), “The Double Suicide at Ten No Amijima.”
A Deadly Love Affair
Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide draws influence from traditional storytelling to delve into themes of infidelity, marriage, and the role of women in traditional Japanese society. Shinoda also understands how to emphasize his subjects’ despair, presenting a busy Osaka only to cut to the solidarity of the two lovers exploring their passions and fears. The movie is the perfect balance of avant-garde and traditional, managing to paint a desperate and dark situation with relevance and grace.
6 Eros + Massacre (1969, Yoshishige Yoshida)
The first film in Yoshida’s “Japanese Radicalism Trilogy, ” Eros+Massacre, is divided into two parts. The first explores the notorious figure/anarchist Sakae Osugi in the 1920s and his relationships with three women. Moving forward to the 1960s, the movie then focuses on the lives of two students studying Osugi’s works.
A Dark Piece of Japanese History
Yoshida’s trilogy offers a unique insight into Japanese culture and its more extreme, focusing on radicalized figures and beliefs. This alone will be enough to pique some people’s interest, but the movie also benefits from its hypnotic, dreamlike flow, fascinating characters, and beautifully varied score. Eros+Massacre presents the viewer with various ideas and concepts, making it worthy of in-depth exploration and discussion. The other entries in the trilogy, Heroic Purgatory and Coup d’Etat, deserve the same consideration equally.
5 Funeral Parade Of Roses (1969, Toshio Matsumoto)
Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses is an abstract exploration of the lives of the underground gay culture of 1960s Tokyo, focusing on the gender-nonconforming hostesses of a Tokyo gay bar, Eddie. The movie follows Eddie and his friends through the day, their various challenges, and the strong sense of community formed around each other.
Essential LGBTQ+ Cinema
Out of the many taboos addressed in the Japanese New Wave, one that was often overlooked was gay culture. This made Funeral Parade of Roses genuinely groundbreaking for the time. In addition, the movie is a visual wonder, an experimental mix of melodrama, comedy, horror, and documentary that defies any strict genre classifications yet manages to paint a sincere portrait of the ‘gay-boy’ culture of the ’60s. For those fascinated by boundary-pushing cinema with an LGBTQ+ angle, Funeral Parade of Roses is essential viewing.
4 Go, Go, The Second Time Virgin (1969, Koji Wakamatsu)
A young man meets a woman on a rooftop who has given up on life after a series of assaults against her. The boy, carrying his own trauma, becomes obsessed with the girl, and the two discuss the meaning of their existence and whether it has any purpose.
Only Knowing Suffering
Director Koji Wakamatsu was one of the most prominent directors of Japanese Pink Films (erotic movies), which saw some crossover with the Japanese New Wave. Out of his extensive catalog of self-produced movies, Go, Go, The Second Time Virgin, marks one of his most uncompromising and nihilistic features.
While essentially one long conversation toward an inevitable conclusion, the movie’s exploration of disenfranchised youth is shockingly tragic/bleak but nuanced and deeply rooted in a cultural disconnect. It is a hard pill to swallow, and not everyone will vibe with a film steeped in such a dark vision of the world, including scenes of molestation, but it is a profoundly disturbing dive into the minds of broken youth that some will find fascinating.
Go, Go, The Second Time Virgin is not Available for Rent or Stream
3 Gushing Prayer (1971, Masao Adachi)
A group of teenagers looking to escape their dull lives and lack of prospects in a failed society decides to kill their ambitions by indulging in devious activities. Among them is teenager Yasuko, whose journey to lose her virginity is disturbingly captured as the group flows through the world with an aimless nihilism.
How to Kill One’s Sense of Self
Masao Adachi is an often overlooked figure in Japanese cinema, known primarily for his work as a writer for Koji Wakamatsu and his subsequent prison sentence for involvement with the United Red Army. However, his work was essential to defining the bleaker side of Pink cinema while pushing the taboo-challenging nature of the Japanese New Wave to its most extreme.
Gushing Prayer deals with such subjects as the fetishization of underage kids, as well as how the economic collapse of Japan created a dangerously disconnected generation of youth that eventually led to a push for social change. The movie is highly uncomfortable and challenging, but those looking for just that will find a harrowing portrait of broken youth struggling through a failed system.
2 Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (1971, Shuji Terayama)
Presented as a metaphor for Japan’s descent into materialism, Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets takes an abstract approach in following one young man’s decline. Presented simply as ‘Me,’ the protagonist pushes through his disillusionment with the world and desire to achieve more extraordinary things, in stark contrast to his family’s content existence in poor social and economic standing.
The Kids are Not Alright
The debut of experimental filmmaker Shūji Terayama, Throw Away Your Books, and Rally in the Streets found a willing audience thanks to its critique of American culture on Japanese society, including a decline in materialism. In addition, the movie is imbued with the candor and energy of youth, taking on an experimental and provocative style that is explosive and full of energy. Beyond its significance in the New Wave, the movie is considered an essential part of Japanese film history and remains relevant and influential today.
Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets is Not Currently Available For Stream or Rent
1 Himiko (1974, Masahiro Shinoda)
Himiko follows the life of the shaman queen Himiko, a powerful and influential figure during the Japanese Yayoi period. The film is a free-flowing imagining of the figure’s life, focused on her fall from power due to her romantic involvement with her half-brother, which saw her ‘powers’ as a shaman diminish.
Art House, Fantasy, and History
Masahiro Shinoda’s knack for combining historical elements and traditional methods with abstract and experimental storytelling becomes all the more gorgeous when presented in color. While this work is more divisive than others, given its loose narrative and focus on visuals, the movie is a stunning example of its creator’s visual prowess. It has some of the most hypnotic and beautiful visuals committed to the screen. Those who love otherworldly films with themes of mysticism will appreciate the movie despite its abstract nature.