5. Seven Samurai
'Seven Samurai' is a bit of a given but it's the first and possibly greatest samurai ensemble movie ever made and I'm sure you could have a few fights with a Film student if you say otherwise. It's highly theatrical and a marvel of Japanese cinema. I challenge it not to pique anyone's interest in Japanese history. It is however 3 hours long, so maybe save it for the plane journey over when you have nothing better to do. If you're ready to buckle and strap down for a three hour epic than I salute you. If you want to split it into chunks, despite it's masterpiece status, I don't blame you.
The story follows a samurai answering a village's request for protection as a bit of a sword for hire after falling to his last penny. But the town needs protection from a large group of bandits, so the samurai gathers six colleagues to aid him in teaching the people how to defend themselves in return for food and board. A giant battle ensues when 40 bandits attack the village. It weaves philosophy and entertainment, human emotion and relentless action, into a well crafted, polished tale of defiance and hope.
4. Blade Runner
Okay so this actually isn't based in Japan at all, but hear me out. It's actually based in LA, in a time when humanoid robots have run amuck and a detective has to go hunt them down. That's the basis. The setting however is overrun in neon east-Asian culture after the inevitable peak of the Asian economy boom. It's a piece of art stuffed full of content - metaphors, visual easter eggs, poignant dialogue. It's got it all. It plays off the old film noir detective genre and transliterates it into a trailblazing post-modern sci-fi movie. It questions existence and gets existential before it was cool. It's slow but has tense climaxes of horror and voyeurism. I've written essays on this movie for fun, it's full to the brim and an absolute visual treat. The streets were claimed to be modelled after Tokyo with a dash of Hong Kong and to feel like you're really living this film, Japan is really the place to go.
So big-screen anime, particularly pre-Miyasaki big-screen anime, can often feel a bit empty. Like you're being given just a slice of a story that's missing a few key plot-points. Compared to the manga (all six two inch thick volumes of it) it could well be, but this violent neon wonder pulls it off without a hitch.
Set in 2019, 31 years after a mysterious nuclear explosion, a bike gang of high school kids get caught up trying to stop a secret government project. They end up battling anti-government activists, politicians, mad scientists and a military leader until mutant powers result in a final battle in Tokyo's 2020 Olympic Park (a pretty great 30 year prediction). More great reason to visit Tokyo, it's an animation that still holds up today and has an enormous cult following to boot.
2. Spirited Away
Hayao Miyazaki is considered a genius for good reason. And this is arguably the piece that brought anime to the West. It seeps Japan from every fibre of its being and it's beautiful for it. Traditional imagery is everywhere, from the mega-onsen (based on the real life Dogo Onsen of Matsuyama) to the various spirits that we encounter. It really plucks at the heart strings and Chihiro's character development shows her true strength from hopeless child to savvy survivor.
It begins with 10-year-old Chihiro being a mopey 10-year-old, justifiably; she's just been forced to move house. Chihiro and her parents find an abandoned amusement park whilst getting lost. But, surprise! It's inhabited by spirits and her parents are turned into giant pigs for eat food that doesn't belong to them. Chihiro then finds herself having to work in the bath house to survive and earn back her parents' human form. I cry every time.
1. Lost In Translation
It revolves around two people, each in their own unhappy, dissatisfying marriage that have a chance meeting in Tokyo. A film shoot for a Japanese whisky commercial adds the comic relief in a first arc that wonderfully captures loneliness. After the chance meeting of the two lead character, an adventure full of izakaya and karaoke ensues. A bit suffocated by the language barrier, it becomes a film full of escapism, cynicism, curiosity and impulse. A beauty. In turns Tokyo into a land of romance and wonderment so as not to resist being able to go.
And go I shall.