2016 has been an interesting year in cinema, and Japan has pumped out a vast pool of entertaining pieces to watch. To name a few, we saw two legendary horror film icons face off against each other (Sadako vs. Kayako), a legendary monster king rise from his decade-long slumber (Shin Godzilla), and even witness the collaboration of an iconic animation studio with a renowned European one (The Red Turtle).
So now it’s time to list what we thought were the standouts of Japanese cinema in 2016. A little disclaimer to keep in mind; these aren’t necessarily the most critically acclaimed Japanese films of 2016, nor are they the highest grossing. They are simply the ones we enjoyed the most.
That being said, let’s get the show started!
10. Gold Medal Man
Directed by and starring comedian Uchimura Teruyoshi, Gold Medal Man is the story of Senichi, a boy who has been winning 1st place in various competitions ever since he was an elementary school student. When he discovers girls as a teenager, his smitten self starts losing his mojo. But, throughout his life he continues to try to be number one in different competitions and challenges he comes across.
This comedic film is cute and light-hearted in every way, and is full of unexpected cameos by many big names in the industry. The story of this underdog will undoubtedly put a smile on your face and make you want to strive to be number one as well!
9. Death Note: Light up the NEW world
Directed by Sato Shinsuke, Death Note: Light up the NEW world brings together Higashide Masahiro, Ikematsu Sousuke, and Suda Masaki in this sequel to the original Death Note film series. This new story takes place 10 years after its predecessors, when new murders involving the dreaded supernatural notebook start occuring again.
Fans of the previous films will be in for enjoyment, as this film brings back numerous faces in key roles. Even fans of the anime and manga will have something to look forward to in this completely original story. For those that enjoy supernatural thrillers, this ones for you!
8. After The Storm
Directed by Koreeda Hirokazu and starring Abe Hiroshi and Kiki Kirin, After The Storm is a family drama full of bittersweet themes. The story is about a man named Ryota, stuck at the lowest point in his life, who gets a chance at re-connecting with his ex-wife, son, and mother when a passing typhoon forces everyone to stay under one roof for the night.
This film’s characters are deep and relatable, and carry the story’s themes of nostalgia, regret, looking back at one’s past mistakes, and ultimately finding a way to move forward. Fans of Koreeda’s previous hits, like last year’s Our Little Sister and 2013’s Like Father, Like Son, will feel at home with this masterpiece.
7. The Bride of Rip Van Winkle
Directed by Iwai Shunji and starring Kuroki Haru, Ayano Gou, and singer-songwriter Cocco, The Bride of Rip Van Winkle focuses on the misfortunes of Nanami. She finds out her new husband is cheating on her, but gets framed to look like she is the one actually having an affair, and eventually gets kicked out. She then enlists the help of the mysterious Amuro to find various part-time jobs, until she lands a job as a live-in maid. There, she befriends Mashiro, who is full of mysteries herself.
The film is a long three-hour escape, but it’s full of ambiguous, yet intriguing characters. Fans who love the Iwai Shunji-brand of drama and storytelling won’t feel bothered much with the lengthy runtime, as the charming characters and fleeting atmosphere have a bit of magic that can absorb any viewer.
Directed by One Hitoshi and starring Fukuyama Masaharu and Nikaido Fumi, Scoop! is a buddy comedy/thriller that dives into the world of tabloids and paparazzi. Shizuka is a veteran photographer whose main schtick is capturing celebrity scandals. He is charged with taking newbie reporter Nobi under his wing, taking her reluctantly on his nightly stakeouts.
At first, like any good buddy comedy, the main charm of the story comes from the two having trouble getting along. The performances by the two leads are the film’s biggest strengths, as they are easy to love. Though still with a small filmography, including last year’s Bakuman, director One proves that he’s one of the directors to look forward to with this hit.
Directed by Zeze Takahisa and featuring an ensemble cast led by Sato Koichi, 64 is a crime thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat. This lengthy story is split into two parts and centers around a detective named Mikami. First set in Japan in 1989, the 64th year of the Showa Period, a crime occurs when a young girl is kidnapped for ransom and eventually murdered. The culprit isn’t found for 14 years, until a similar kidnapping incident happens.
64 is full of twists and turns, with a plot loaded with police politics and loud language. The cast is loaded with huge names, including Eikura Nana and Ayano Gou, and they all contribute well to make the drama gripping. A definite must watch for any fan of crime thrillers.
Directed by Lee Sang-il, Rage is a mystery/drama featuring an ensemble of well-known faces. Included are Watanabe Ken, Miyazaki Aoi, Matsuyama Kenichi, Tsumabuki Satoshi, Ayano Gou, Hirose Suzu, and Moriyama Mirai. The story is divided into three separate ones taking place in different parts of Japan. In each location, a stranger comes into people’s lives. However, a news story of a murder makes waves throughout the country, and each group suspect that their newfound loved one could be the killer.
This film was adapted from the novel of the same name by Yoshida Shuichi, whose other work Villain was also adapted by Lee. Rage is for the fan of depressing drama, where the story gets so miserable that it’s nearly impossible to rise out of it.
3. Shin Godzilla
Directed by Anno Hideaki and Higuchi Shinji, featuring a huge cast led by Hasegawa Hiroki and Ishihara Satomi, Shin Godzilla (aka Godzilla Resurgence) is a return of the King of the Monsters to Japan after a 12-year hiatus. At its core, it’s a traditional Godzilla flick, in which the monster comes ashore to wreck havoc on unsuspecting humans. However, the film is crafted so that it depicts how real-world Japan would react if the big guy had really existed. The result is a commentary on how slow the Japanese government reacts with national emergencies, inspired by their actions with the 2011 Tohoku disasters.
Shin Godzilla brings the titular monster back to its roots as a metaphorical creature. He is transformed physically in numerous ways so that he delivers a performance that even long-time fans can experience like it was new. We can only hope that he comes back for more rampages for years to come.
2. Your Name.
Directed by anime legend Shinkai Makoto, and featuring the vocal talents of Kamishiraishi Mone and Kamiki Ryunosuke, Your Name is the highest grossing film of 2016. It has received so much hype and attention by both critics and fans, all of which it definitely deserves. The story centers on Mizuha and Taki, who find themselves magically trapped in the other’s body every few days, and the mystery as to why it’s happening.
Director Shinkai is well-known for featuring top notch artwork and animation quality, and he delivers in Your Name. Backed by the music of Japanese rock band RADWIMPS, the film takes you on a fantastical journey. It takes the body swap and teenage romantic genres and adds the bit of flair that only Shinkai Makoto can bring. A must-watch for all fans.
Directed by Ohtomo Keishi, who brought the Rurouni Kenshin live-action trilogy to the world, and starring Oguri Shun and Tsumabuki Satoshi, Museum gets the vote as being our top favorite pick of 2016. Based off a comic, the story is about a hard-boiled detective who investigates a series of brutal and bloody murders. He learns that the murders are done by someone called The Frogman, who dons a frog mask, and that this criminal is after his family next.
A crime thriller with unforgiving brutality, Museum is stylishly violent, but doesn’t go too over-the-top to the point of becoming gratuitous. The performances by the two leads, especially Tsumabuki, are memorable and frightening. With gripping music and suspense added to the formula, Museum is a punishing thriller worthy for any fan of the genre.
Making this list wasn’t easy; there were so many good films to come out this year. But what do you think? What are your favorite films of 2016? We’re sure that many of your picks differ from ours, so let us know in the comments below!
(And by all means, check out our favorite Korean films of 2016 as well!