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Top 10 Japanese Action Movies You Have to Watch

Updated on March 12, 2015

If you’re not a regular viewer of Japanese action movies, now would be a perfect time to start. Contemporary Japanese action movies still retain the qualities that set them apart from other countries’ action flicks, but the production values have improved significantly and the filmmakers have already realized that they have an audience overseas, hence the wider availability of subtitled releases of their older classics (or dubbed releases, if you prefer that sort of thing.)

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If you want to check out some of the best Japanese action movies, here are the ten moves you should start with:

Drunken Angel (1948)

Synopsis

Directed by legendary director Akira Kurosawa and starring equally legendary actor Toshiro Mifune, Drunken Angel tells the story of an alcoholic doctor in post-war Japan and a small time gangster that he meets and treats for tuberculosis. They develop an uneasy friendship after the gangster is convinced to change his ways, but things take a turn for the worse when the gangster’s former boss comes back from prison and sets eyes on reclaiming the gang as well as his former girlfriend, who is now working as the doctor’s assistant.

Best Action Scenes/Elements

  • Every action scene that Toshiro Mifune is in is exceptional. This was an era before special effects were capable of giving the average individual convincing fighting abilities, so it’s impressive that Mifune looks very agile and strong during on-screen fights.
  • Out of risk of spoiling the ending, the action scene that stands out in the whole film is towards the end, when Mifune’s character goes after his former gang boss despite being ill, leading to his eventual demise in the ensuing knife fight.

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Vengeance is Mine (1979)

Synopsis

Based on the novel of the same name, Vengeance of Mine is a classic crime thriller that depicts the story of real life serial killer Akira Nishiguchi. The film is told using a series of flashbacks.

Best Action Scenes/Elements

  • There’s really no lengthy gunfight scenes or even hand to hand combat in this film, but towards the end when the serial killer starts to fully descend into the mindset of a killer, out of desperation and fear of getting caught, the film starts to get your adrenaline pumping as he goes on a killing spree – even going so far as to killing the woman that he befriended earlier.

Outrage

Synopsis

Outrage is a Yakuza film that focuses on the complex interactions within a huge crime syndicate in control of the entire Kanto region, the Sanno-kai. The main conflict comes from one of the lieutenants, Ikemoto, who managed to befriend a rival gang leader from their time in prison and is then ordered to bring the rival gang in line.

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Best Action Scenes/Elements

  • Beat Takeshi became famous as a comedian, but he has since proven himself to be a great director and a decent action star despite his age. In one of the film’s most brutal scenes, his character, Ikemoto’s lieutenant Otomo, viciously leaves a scar on the rival gang’s chief lieutenant.
  • During the final parts of the film, Otomo gets his comeuppance as he is sent to maximum security prison and gets stabbed by the same rival gang member that he scarred earlier in the film.

The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji

Synopsis

Takashi Miike’s live action adaptation of the manga series Mogura no Uta, which follows the underperforming police constable Reiji as he gets fired from his position due to “disciplinary” issues, which is just an orchestrated plot by the Police chief in order to turn him into a “mole” in the largest crime group in the Kanto area.

Best Action Scenes/Elements

  • In one of the scenes, Reiji is tied naked to a car and driven around town, even taken to a car wash.
  • Every action scene featuring the tattooed gangster is adrenaline-pumping, whether he’s riding a motorcycle, shooting an RPG, or both.

Kuime

Synopsis

Kuime is a Japanese mystery thriller that tells the story of Miyuki Goto, who uses her connections to get her relatively unknown lover cast alongside her in a new play. When two other co-stars in the play also develop affections for Miyuki, the lines blur and they no longer know where fantasy ends and reality begins.

Best Action Scenes/Elements

  • The film starts to get intense once the characters realize that their feelings are not meant to be both on and off the stage, where their frustrations turn into a grudge and they start going after each other.
  • If Ringu scared the daylights out of you, one scene in Kuime will bring similar scares even though the character isn’t really a ghost.

Crows Explode

Synopsis

The third in the series of films based on the Crows manga, Crows Explode follows new characters – delinquent students of the Suzuran All-Boys High School who battle for the top spot while dealing with an inter-school conflict with the rival school, the Kurosaki Industrial High.

Best Action Scenes/Elements

  • The film has several rumble scenes between various factions, but the first fight featuring new transfer student Kazeo Kaburagi in the movie stands out, as it proves that he’s not a pushover. The scene also sets the stage for his rivalry with Ryohei Kagami.
  • The final fight scene is one of the best action scenes in a film full of them; it is the culmination of the rivalry between Kagami and Kazeo, as they fight mano-a-mano in a rooftop.

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013)

Synopsis

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? follows two gangsters, Muto and Ikegami, who hate each other but share a common bond through a girl – Muto’s actress daughter Michiko, who is loved by Ikegami. The situation is further complicated when a random passerby named Koji is mistaken for a movie director and forced to cast Michiko in a film. Koji then turns to indie film director Hirata and things fall into chaos.

Best Action Scenes/Elements

  • A showdown between rival groups led by Muto and Ikegumi, which featured a guy wearing Bruce Lee’s iconic yellow jumpsuit. There are blades and bullets everywhere while Muto and Ikegumi fight their way towards each other. It’s just a scene for a film, though. And it is abruptly interrupted by the director.
  • Fight scenes where the females in the film show their stuff. From Muto’s wife Shizue fighting off thugs with a knife while wearing a traditional Japanese dress, to Michiko sliding down a hallway all bloodied while slicing any foe she comes across.
  • There’s also a silly fight scene with Michiko cutting down enemies with a samurai sword, with the setting being made up of brightly colored paper set. It’s of course not real within the film, but it still looks badass.

Dead Sushi

Synopsis

Dead Sushi is a comedy horror film that revolves around a famous sushi chef’s daughter, who works at a pharmaceuticals company. When an employee of the company decides to take revenge the company through a serum that turns fish on rice into killer sushi, it is up to Keiko and former sushi chef Sawada to fight the creatures.

Best Action Scenes/Elements

  • Rina Takeda is an actual martial artist, and it shows in many of her scenes. One has her fighting other chefs and doing her best Bruce Lee impression.
  • Most of the scenes that has her fighting the sushi-zombified people.
  • The showdown with the octopus (or is it fish) – like creature, where she uses a bunch of sushis as makeshift nunchuks.

The Bayside Shakedown the Final

Synopsis

The Bayside Shakedown the Final is the last movie spinoff from the popular Japanase police drama/comedy series. The stories take place in the fictional Wangan Precinct of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. While the series focuses more on the bureaucratic issues in policework, the last film dials up the action.

Best Action Scenes/Elements

  • The opening scene has the protagonists doing undercover work as store employees, in an effort to catch the store owner’s son. A chase soon ensues with the protagonists still wearing their undercover clothes (a chef, a store clerk, even a santa suit.) When they finally catch the suspect, they relegate the task of delivering the perp to the precinct, as they have committed to finishing their store shift, out of respect to the store owner.
  • The final scene has a tense standoff between the main villain and one of the protagonists, who is unable to fight back because he is protecting a child.

Rurouni Kenshin

Synopsis

A live action adaptation of a manga and anime series, this trilogy of films follows former assassin Himura Kenshin as he tries to lead a new pacifist lifestyle in the Meiji era. The wandering swordsman is known for the cross-shaped scar on his cheek, his reverse-edged cane sword, and his vow to never take another human life.

Best Action Scenes/Elements

  • One of the best action scenes has Kenshin fighting against another former assassin, Shishio Makoto, whose body is wrapped in bandages in order to hide a horribly burnt skin.
  • Kenshin’s fight against former shinsengumi captain Saitou Hajime, who is now working as a police constable. Unlike Kenshin, Saitou has not lost his edge. He proves to Kenshin that the pacifist view is a hindrance by causing Kenshin's reverse-edged blade to wound its own wielder.

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