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Japanese cinema has become increasingly highly regarded by Western audiences, and that's for good reason. The top Japanese sci-fi films can put many of our cinematic masterpieces to shame, in both cinematography and plot.
If you haven't really gotten into the worlds of J-horror or Japanese sci-fi, it may be hard to know where to begin. Our suggestion? Take a look at some of the top Japanese sci-fi films of all time. The ones below are sure to please, and also make you fall in love with this genre of science fiction.
(Note: For the sake of this list, anime movies are NOT included among the top Japanese sci-fi films. That's a whole 'nother genre.)
Did you really think that anyone could make a list of the top Japanese sci-fi films without including the biggest Japanese movie of all time? The 1954 movie, Godzilla, still remains the movie that most people think about when they think of Japanese cinema.
Godzilla basically invented an entire genre of movies, and believe it or not, it also was a pretty big social commentary at the time. An allegory for the bombings that happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Godzilla was just as much about the destruction that Japan faced as it was a crazy monster movie.
Even if the dubs in English aren't good, there's no doubt that there's good reason for people's love of the crazy B-movie monster to this day. The Godzilla franchise is basically as iconic and tied to a country as America's Star Wars film franchise.
The monster Godzilla made may have lost much of its social commentary, but it kept its awesomely Japanese cultural meaning for many.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
Another must-have for any list of the top Japanese sci-fi films to ever be made is Tetsuo: The Iron Man. This dystopian, unorthodox cyberpunk flick is known for its ability to elicit horror and raw emotion using an insanely low budget.
The film itself was visually stunning, and launched director Shinya Tsukamoto into international stardom. Along with being one of the first cyberpunk movies ever made, Tetsuo also made audiences truly question how much technology is too much in society as a whole.
Realistically, it's an art movie and a sci-fi film masterpiece, all in one.
The Clone Returns Home (2008)
The Clone Returns Home is a visually stunning sci-fi film that has become famous for making us ask what we really know about life, death, family, and memories.
The premise of the film basically asks what kind of effect technology would have on a clone that was created from a dead person. Would the clone have the dead person's memories? Their personality?
Japanese movie critics were quick to name the philosophy-heavy flick one of the top Japanese sci-fi films of all time, and we're inclined to agree. Between the hauntingly still, ethereal imagery and the deep questions it poses, The Clone Returns Home really forces us to ask questions that may one day confront us head-on.
Princess from the Moon (1987)
What were to happen if you were to find a small baby sleeping inside a glowing bamboo stalk? Based on a popular Japanese legend, Princess from the Moon explores what happens when a Japanese family ends up discovering a mysterious child from the moon, raising her as one of their own.
The strange child grows up extremely rapidly - into a beautiful young woman who no man, including the Japanese Emperor, can resist. As her adoptive father continues to try to come up with harder tasks to keep suitors at bay, pressure starts to increase. Will the alien girl marry one of Japan's finest? Or, will she head back to the moon on a space ship?
Between the dreamlike plot and the breathtaking visuals, it's easy to see why Princess from the Moon ranks among the top Japanese sci-fi films ever made. It pointedly pulls from old world Japanese culture, and brings audiences to tears with its emotional story. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you will end up wanting to watch it again. It's just that good.
20th Century Boys: Chapter 1: Beginning of the End (2008)
Technically, this isn't anime. It's not animated - it's live action, even though it's developed from one of the most popular manga series of the last decade.
20th Century Boys is actually a trilogy of films that illustrate a sci-fi dystopia filled with mayhem, cultists, and a plot to potentially destroy the world with viruses. The entire series spans several decades, and believe it or not, the movies reflect that too.
Great visuals, awesome acting, and a surprisingly true-to-manga plotline make this a great trio. In order to understand the other two films in their entirety, you will want to make sure to watch the first one first. If you love the manga series, this is definitely one of the top Japanese sci-fi films you need to see.
Another live action movie based off a manga series and anime series, Casshern has regularly been cited by cinematography critics as one of the top Japanese sci-fi films of all time.
What really makes this film incredible, plot aside, is the visuals. The scenery and imagery is breathtaking to the point of mesmerizing. Among artists, it can actually be enough to trigger Stendhal Syndrome.
There's symbolism in this movie. There's deep social commentary about the state of humanity and how we view one another based on frivolous, superficial standards. Every single time you watch this movie, another layer of genius shows itself.
If you're a film student, a writer, or an artist, Casshern will humble you and make you realize you still have so much more to go before you can be among the greats.
Battle Royale (2000)
Most people are aware of the movie and book series called The Hunger Games. What most Westerners aren't aware of is that The Hunger Games is a total copycat from the Japanese book Battle Royale.
Much like what happened with the Western version, the Japanese movie industry created a movie based on Battle Royale. If you thought Katniss and her fellow castmates were awesome, wait until you see the brutal realism of Battle Royale.
In many ways, Battle Royale takes what its copycat counterpart did to a way further level. The bad guys are real monsters, and the kids often have a scary, monstrous side to them, too. As a result, it's clear that Battle Royale slayed its competition - and landed among the top Japanese sci-fi films ever made.
The Face of Another (1966)
This Japanese film was part of the late 60s New Wave art movement, and despite it being an art film, it still is regularly seen on lists of the top Japanese sci-fi films ever made.
In this book-based sci-fi film, a worker had his face burned while on the job. He visits a man called Dr. Hira to get a mask that can make him look human again, and gets a man to volunteer to be a model for that mask.
Dr. Hira warns that the mask may make him act different, worried that the worker will end up losing any sense of ethics when he lives as another man.
Another woman, a victim of Hiroshima, has a similar issue after radiation scars ended up disfiguring her. The film asks why we attach so much emphasis on looks, and what happens if we could change ourselves to be perfect.
It's artsy, it's beautiful, and it's thought-provoking as can be.