Japanese film is a unique art form. While there are many excellent and rightfully well-known Japanese horror movies, Japanese drama movies deserve just as much credit. Drawing on ancient cultural traditions, Japanese drama movies offer something entirely unique.

Many of the best ones were produced just as film was coming into its own in the 1950s, around the same time as modern Japan was truly beginning to rise, while other, newer films offer a unique take on the modern world.

Let’s take a look at the ten best Japanese drama movies.

1) Tokyo Story (1953)

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Tokyo Story (1953), one of the famous Japanese drama films, was directed by Yasujiro Ozu and stars Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama. The script was written in only 130 days and is loosely based on an older American film, Make Way for Tomorrow, from 1937.

Tokyo Story is about an aging married couple who travel to Tokyo to visit their busy grown children.

Originally, the movie was considered “too Japanese” for foreign audiences, but it won the inaugural Sutherland Trophy when screened in London in 1957, becoming a much-acclaimed masterpiece. Many consider it the director’s best work.

2) Children of Hiroshima (1952)

This docudrama was directed by Kaneto Shindo. It is known for its powerful emotional quality and there are a number of fictional elements.

It is a painful look at life in Hiroshima after the war, with the literal and emotional fall out of the atomic bombing in clear effect.

This is one of the first films made after the war during the Allied occupation of Japan and is one of the first forms of media that explored Japan’s feelings about the atomic bombing. This makes it incredibly important to the history of Japanese film-making.

3) Departures (2008)

This drama was directed by Yojiro Takita and is loosely based on Coffinman, a memoir by Shinmon Aoki.

It is the story of a young man who comes back to his hometown after he fails to make it as a professional cellist and now works as a traditional Japanese ritual mortician.

There are strong taboos about death in traditional Japanese culture and the hero must deal with them from his neighbors and even his family.

He eventually earns everyone’s respect thanks to the beauty and dignity of his important work. The film won the grand prize at the 2008 Montreal World Film Festival, the first of many accolades.

4) Ikiru (1952)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa and stars Takashi Shimura, Ikiru is considered one of greatest Japanese drama films.

It was partially inspired by The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy and tells the tale of a bureaucrat trying to find meaning in his life after he learns that he has terminal cancer.

The film examines learning how to truly live, the inefficient nature bureaucracy, and the nature of the decay of family life in modern Japan. It has won multiple film awards in Japan and abroad.

5) The Life of Oharu (1952)

The Life of Oharu is a work of historical fiction directed by Kenji Mizoguchi and starring Kinuyo Tanaka. It is the story of Oharu, once the concubine of a feudal lord (daimyo) and the mother of his heir.

She struggles to escape being forced into prostitution by her father. While the film was obviously under-financed, the director considered it one of his favorite projects.

The movie won the International Prize at the 1952 Venice Film Festival and received a nomination to Golden Lion. It also won the 1953 Mainichi Film Award for best film score.

6) Black Rain (1989)

Black Rain, Kuroi Ame in Japanese, was directed by Shohei Imamura and is based on a novel of the same name. An American film of the same name and based on this one was also made in the same years.

It moves between the main character’s journal entries about Hiroshima in 1945 after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city and 1950, the film’s “present day”, as he and his wife try to find a husband for their niece, who has been declined three times because she was in the “black rain” fallout.

The film is another look at post-war Hiroshima, with much pain and death on display, it is an intense drama that looks closely at suffering, transience, and the uncertainty of knowing when you will die.  It has received very high praise and many awards.

7) Nobody Knows (2004)

The film “Nobody Knows” is based on the Sugamo child abandonment case, where a mother abandoned her five children to fend for themselves.

When found, they were severely malnourished and two were dead. The film is a much gentler treatment of actual events, though it is still deeply painful.

It highlights the intense bonds between the siblings who are now all on their own in the world without any adult help.  the film received wide acclaim from critics and the young actors are especially noted as giving excellent performances.

8) Late Spring (1949)

This post-war Japanese drama film was directed by Yasujiro Ozu. It is based on a novel by Kazuo Hirotsu and stars Chishu Ryu. It tells the story of a young woman named Noriko, who lives with her widowed father.

The people around her try to talk her into marrying, but she only wishes to remain at home caring for her father.

It has been considered one of the greatest films of all time and gives a unique view into the life of women in post-war Japan.

9) Early Summer (1951)

This is another film directed by Yasujiro Ozu. It follows the story of another young woman named Noriko, who lives with her parents. They only want her to marry as is traditional.

However, Japanese society is changing, and Noriko’s independence is difficult for the older people around her to deal with. The film has received wide critical acclaim and is another incredible classic of Japanese drama.

10) Still Walking (2008)

This film “Still Walking” was written, edited, and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. It tells the story of a family for a roughly 24 hour period as they come together to commemorate the death of their eldest son.

The film guides us through their tension, sorrow, nostalgia, and humor.

It won the Golden Astor for Best Film at the 2008 Mar del Plata International Film Festival. It received wide praise from both Japanese critics and foreign ones.