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10 Best Japanese War Movies To Better Understand Japan’s Military History!

10 Best Japanese War Movies To Better Understand Japan’s Military History!

As a country with a longstanding tradition in the art of strategy and combat, the history of Japan has inspired many tales of war and consequent Japanese war movies. Myths and legends of mighty characters have been written in ink, drawn in pencil, or shot in a film.

But sometimes creators get lost in the excitement that violence may bring into their hearts and use their tales to vainglory something as tragic and sad as war.

When selecting the films in this list, we’ve taken into account that they do a great job at portraying both the might and the crudeness of war, not only the first one. These films will bring you a greater understanding of the many wars that were fought in Japan, showing you the points of view both of Japanese people and foreigners. In sum, they will give you a big-picture look at the country’s military history and the many captivating stories that it has to tell.

But why watch war films at all? War films have an enduring appeal – and often portray the most extreme of human experiences: trauma, hardship, death, love, separation, violence and combat. War movies often cultivate a sense of gratitude; they touch us on a primal level and remind us at evil can be conquered, and that life is a gift. They teach us that freedom isn’t free and that there are heroes that protect our way of life from those who may seek to destroy it.

japanese war movies - japan war movies

These heroes may inspire us to be a better version of ourselves; thus, lessons from the past – taught via war movies such as those set in X, Y, and Z – help transform today’s society in a positive way.  We also have put together our favorite films set in Japan if you would like to learn more about this intriguing nation…

Wondering where to watch? It depends on where you live in the world and which streaming services you have. We link to the streaming service we watch on in each case - be it Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, or elsewhere.

You can get one month free of Amazon Prime (or a 6-month trial for students) of Amazon Prime and also get immediate access to FREE Two Day shipping, Amazon Video, and Music. While you won't be charged for your free trial, you'll be upgraded to a paid membership plan automatically at the end of the trial period - though if you have already binged all these, you could just cancel before the trial ends.

Apple TV+ also has a one-week trial, and Hulu has a one-month trial (which can be bundled with Disney!). Another option might be using a VPN to access Netflix titles locked to other regions. Netflix is now available in more than 190 countries worldwide and each country has a different library and availability. US Netflix is (understandably) one of the best. 

While we wish everything could just be in one place - for now, it seems these are the best streaming platforms to watch on.

japanese war movies - japan war movies
japanese war movies - japan war movies
japanese war movies - japan war movies

Seven Samurai [七人の侍] (1954)

Seven Samurai, by Akira Kurosawa, is considered one of the greatest and most influential films in history. It is one of the few Japanese war movies that gained fame and popularity in the West at a time when almost no Japanese film was seen by Westerner viewers. That being said, it only garnered the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and two Academy Awards nominations. The film influenced many later western productions, such as the well-known western The Magnificent Seven and its remakes.

The action takes place in 16th-century Japan. Bandits repeatedly raid a small farming village and plunder the crops. When the next harvest is due, the villagers decide to hire some samurai. Although the village has no wages other than food, they enlist seven fighters for the defense: the aging samurai Kambei, the young son of a samurai family Katsuhiro, Shichiroji, a friend of Kambei, the archer Gorobei, Heihachi, the taciturn Kyuzo, the Katsuhiro is admired, as well as farmer’s son and wannabe samurai Kikuchiyo.

The social division between the samurai as a warrior class and the poor peasants is repeatedly expressed. While the peasants approached the samurai with great obsequiousness when they were hired, the villagers initially hid in their houses when the seven fighters arrived, frightened. In addition, some of the farmers fear that the samurai could get involved with their wives or daughters. Nevertheless, under Kambei’s leadership, the samurai begin to fortify the village, arm the villagers with bamboo spears, and give them basic combat training.

The Last Samurai (2003)

The Last Samurai, by Edward Zwick, was loosely inspired by the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigō Takamori and the westernization of Japan by foreign powers, although the United States is portrayed in the film as the main force behind the drive for westernization. It is also influenced by the stories of Jules Brunet, a captain in the French army who fought alongside Enomoto Takeaki in the Boshin War, and, to a lesser extent, by Frederick Townsend Ward, an American mercenary who helped westernize the Chinese army by forming the Always Victorious Army.

Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a man adrift, morally and spiritually tormented by the remorse of the battles against the North American Indians. He once risked his life for honor and country, but in the years since the American Civil War, the world has changed. Pragmatism has replaced courage, self-interest has taken the place of sacrifice, and honor is nowhere to be found. He receives the offer to go to Japan to train his inexperienced army of conscripts and peasants, accepting immediately due to the excellent salary he will receive.

Arriving in the country, Algren is advised by Simon Graham (Timothy Spall), a former British diplomat who acts as a translator. Algren is surprised to see a country that is suspended between the medieval and the modern. It is a country amid the Meiji Restoration, led by the young Emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura), who wants his country to modernize, influenced by some of his advisers, more interested in personal than national enrichment, among them the infamous Omura (Masato Harada).

One of the emperor’s former teachers and advisors, the samurai Katsumoto Moritsugu (Ken Watanabe), has decided to take up arms against this sudden cultural revolution, which he considers too radical for the country. Algren will become sympathetic toward Moritsugu’s eventually joining him as a newly trained samurai.

Ran [乱] (1985)

Ran, also by Akira Kurosawa, it’s based on the tragedy King Lear by William Shakespeare. It is a period drama that shows the fall of Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) a warlord of the Sengoku Era who decides to abdicate in favor of his three sons. After carrying out this decision, his kingdom disintegrates due to power struggles between his offspring who try to assassinate his rivals. 

The once powerful Ichimonji clan, after its patriarch Hidetora decided to give control of his kingdom to his three sons, spirals into decline. Tarō, the eldest son, is awarded the prestigious First Castle and becomes the head of the Ichimonji clan. The other two sons, Jirō and Saburō, are granted the Second and Third castles respectively. Jirō and Saburo have to support Tarō and, by illustrating this order through the image of a bundle of arrows, his father Hidetora advises them to strengthen themselves among the three. Hidetora will remain the official leader and will hold the title of High Lord. Saburō criticizes his father’s logic. Hidetora gained power from him through treachery, she tells him, and yet she expects his sons to be loyal to her. Hidetora mistakes this comment for a threat, and when his servant Tango comes out to defend Saburō he banishes them both.

Thus begins the tragedy. First, his eldest son snatches his nominal title, so it goes to his second son, Jiro, who also acts against him. Finally, both ally against Hidetora, when he takes refuge in the third castle, where they defeat him. Thus, Hidetora begins to go crazy, something that is further accentuated when those power struggles, which his two eldest sons now do with each other, destroy the kingdom more and more.

Battle Of Okinawa (1971)

Battle of Okinawa, by Kihachi Okamoto, tells the story of the 1945 battle on the island of Okinawa. Known as “Typhoon of Steel”, it was one of the harshest and most brutal battles in the whole of World War II. Be advised: this is a harsh movie. There are terrible scenes, such as those of civilians who commit suicide in a group with grenades, and then those who are badly injured kill each other, or that of the student girls by the sea, taking pills to kill themselves, both scenes form part of the end of the movie

After the conquest of the island of Iwo Jima in the War of the Pacific, the Americans go to the Island of Okinawa. The film describes the two-and-a-half months that the battle lasted. In the film, there are not what could be called protagonists since it tells different stories within the same context which is this battle. 

In the first part of the film, we can see how the Japanese organize and envision the battle, convincing the population that they are going to win, but for this, the civilians must also fight, but all they achieve is instilling fear. As the film progresses, we can observe disorganization and a lack of weapons. One of the solutions they put forward is to send kamikazes able to destroy American aviation more easily and quickly, but even so, they fail to stop them.

The days went by and the Americans advanced more and more causing terror and a large number of suicides in the Japanese population. Little by little the Japanese both by air, sea and land fail and their mistakes become fatal.

Emperor (2012)

Emperor, by Peter Webber, is set in Japan shortly after its surrender during World War II. It tells the story of the search of the US military under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) for Japanese war criminals. It also treats the question of the guilt or innocence of the Japanese Emperor Hirohito in everything that his country did during the war.

Shortly after the Japanese Empire capitulated in 1945 and the Second World War came to an end, General Douglas MacArthur arrives in the Japanese capital Tokyo, establishes his staff as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, and assumes authority over Japan. Special attention is paid to a US military department that is working under time pressure to prosecute and imprison Japanese war criminals. General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), a “Japan expert” who visited Japan before the war and fell in love with a Japanese woman, is given the special task of determining whether the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, who still enjoys a kind of divine status in Japan, is guilty or not at all responsible for the outbreak and course of the war.

Given only 10 days by General MacArthur, and under additional pressure from the American public and politicians, Fellers is aware that an indictment and even imprisonment of the emperor would lead to extremely serious problems in Japan. In particular, the emperor is considered by the Japanese people to be equal to God and thus practically untouchable. However, the core task of the US occupying power is to rebuild Japan. Fellers sees himself faced with a seemingly insurmountable task and an insurmountable dilemma, but the closer the deadline for submitting his investigation results approaches, the more clearly, he finally seems to get a picture of the whole thing.

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

Tora! Tora! Tora!, by Richard Fleischer, Kinji Fukasaku, and Toshio Matsuda, tells the story of the Pearl Harbor Attack from the perspective of the Japanese officials that ordered it. The title comes from the expression “Tora, Tora, Tora”, the code used by the Imperial Japanese Army to announce success in obtaining surprise in such an attack. The film had five Oscar nominations and received one for best visual effects.

The film meticulously reproduces the attack on Pearl Harbor, as well as all the events that preceded it, both on one side and the other: on the part of the Japanese military, how and why they decided to launch an attack in stages; on the other hand, the fact that some senior officers in the US military, among whom skepticism and overconfidence reigned, ignored this possibility of a large-scale attack.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise military offensive by the Imperial Japanese Navy against the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack was intended as a preemptive action intended to prevent the intervention of the United States Pacific Fleet in the military actions that the Empire of Japan was planning to carry out in Southeast Asia. The attack deeply shocked the American people and led directly to the entry of the United States into World War II.

The non-existence of a formal declaration by Japan while negotiations that seemed to be prospering were carried out, led US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to describe shun the Japanese for their infamous behavior. Furthermore, the attack on Pearl Harbor was judged at the Tokyo Trials as a war crime.

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Hacksaw Ridge, by Mel Gibson, is based on the real-life story of Desmond Doss, an American combat medic who was also a pacifist. The film begins with a young Desmond (Andrew Garfield) as he almost kills his brother by accident. A member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, he affirmed his adherence to the Ten Commandments after this mistake: meaning he will not kill. 

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Desmond decided to join the army as a military doctor. Desmond’s father, Tom Doss, was a World War I veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the war. Tom was very frustrated and disturbed by Desmond’s decision.  Desmond performed quite well in terms of physical fitness, but he was excluded by other soldiers of the same company because he refused to carry a gun and did not train on the Sabbath (Saturday). One day, Desmond was beaten by other soldiers of the same battalion in his sleep, but he refused to identify the perpetrator and decided to stay in the army.

Desmond’s company is then dispatched to Okinawa with the task of capturing Hacksaw Ridge. In the initial battle, both sides suffered heavy casualties, and Desmond managed to save several seriously injured soldiers. That night, the fighting took a break, and Desmond and his fellow soldier Smitty talked alone in the same ditch. Smith apologized to Desmond, saying he had misjudged Desmond and should not have called him a “coward”. Desmond then reveals the reason why he didn’t carry a gun: he had witnessed his drunk father beating his mother and was about to shoot her. He snatches the pistol and nearly pulls the trigger to kill his father.

Under The Flag Of The Rising Sun (1972)

Under the Flag of the Rising Sun, by Kinji Fukasaku, is based on two of the stories featured in a short story collection by Yūki Shōji—which won the Naoki Prize. It tells the story of a widow of a Japanese army sergeant who fought in New Guinea and has been trying for twenty-six years to get her state pension. She is refused because her husband was shot as a deserter, but no detailed documents have been preserved. The widow is looking for her husband’s colleagues to prove his innocence.

When she finds the men that used to be in her husband’s squad, each of them tells a different story. Tsuguo reveals that her husband saved his life by not following the hopeless orders of the officers. Tomotaka remembers that someone was shot for stealing potatoes, but isn’t sure whether it was her husband or not. A Nobuoka military policeman recalls a sergeant shot for cannibalism who killed soldiers. Gadahiko tells that the sergeant, along with other soldiers, killed Lieutenant Goto, executed the captured Australian pilot, then went crazy and tortured the soldiers. Major Takeo says he ordered the soldiers to be shot to hide what had happened.

Tsuguo admits that the sergeant, along with other soldiers, killed Lieutenant Goto, who was ordered to go into battle after the surrender of Japan, and that Nobuoki took part in the execution of those responsible for this crime. The movie ends with the widow realizing that her husband was not only dead, but also a killer driven crazy by war, and she curses the emperor for sending him away.

Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)

Letters from Iwo Jima, by Clint Eastwood, tells the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers and civilians who played a part in preparing the ground for the battle.

The film begins with a private who is grudgingly digging trenches on the beach. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a teenage baker, has been recruited into the Imperial Japanese Army despite his youth and his wife being pregnant. Saigo complains to his friend Kashiwara (Takashi Yamaguchi) that they should let the Americans take Iwo Jima. Hearing them, the enraged Captain Tanida (Takumi Bando) begins to brutally beat them for conspiring with unpatriotic words. At the same time, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) arrives to take command of the garrison and immediately begins an inspection of the island’s defenses.

Kuribayashi orders Captain Tanida to stop beating them, as they cannot afford to injure their soldiers, and instructs him to deny Saigo and Kashiwara food rations. After completing the inspection, Kuribayashi receives bad news from the lieutenant colonel, Baron Takeichi Nishi, an old friend, and Olympic champion show vaulter. The Japanese Combined Fleet, on whose support the island depended, has been destroyed in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

The next day, the Kuribayashi garrison begins building defensive tunnels under Mount Suribachi. He explains that the American soldiers will take the beaches quickly and that only the underground defenses offer a chance of resistance. Kuribayashi’s subordinate officers are outraged and view these strategies as a betrayal of Bushido. Unsanitary conditions and poor nutrition take their toll: several soldiers die of dysentery, including Kashiwara.

The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)

The Bridge on the River Kwai, by David Lean, is a fictional film, but it tells the true story of the construction of the Burma railway line from 1942 to 1943. It is based on the novel by Pierre Boulle. She was the winner of seven Oscars.

During World War II, British prisoners of war are ordered by the Japanese to build a railway bridge over the river Kwai in the middle of the jungle. Colonel Nicholson, who is in charge of the prisoners, refuses to do so, citing the Geneva Convention that prohibits the forced labor of officers. The Japanese commander Saito despises Colonel Nicholson’s attitude and forces him to remain formed in full sun, along with the rest of the officers.

After suffering confinement in a metal hut, the colonel is released, to the joy of the imprisoned soldiers. Colonel Saito decides to continue with the construction but fails. Nicholson, who is a typical British officer looking for a way to raise the morale and physical condition of his men, sees the bridge as a way to achieve it, keeping them busy building and feeling proud of the work. He manages to convince Saito with technical arguments, who, forced by the delay, accepts. The prisoners, who had tried in many ways to boycott the construction of the bridge, are ordered by Nicholson to collaborate.

For his part, an American major, Shears, a prisoner in the same camp, only thinks about fleeing. He succeeds and manages to reach the allied lines. Against his will, he returns a few weeks later leading a unit of British commandos, under the orders of Major Warden, whose mission is to blow up the bridge built by the prisoners.