Top 10 Japanese Mythology Movies

Written by Craig Butler Japanese films that explore the country's rich history, mythology and lore. WatchMojo presents the top 10 moves about Japanese mythology. But what will take the top spot on our list? Kwaidan, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, or Princess Mononoke? Watch to find out! Watch on WatchMojo: Big thanks to Kevin Guthrie for suggesting this idea, and to see how WatchMojo users voted, check out the suggest page here: WatchMojo.comsuggest/Top+10+Japanese+Mythology+Movies

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Kami and yokai are a part of Japanese history, so it’s natural they’d be a part of Japanese cinema. Welcome to and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Japanese Mythology Movies.

For this list, we’re looking at films from Japan that are based on or feature elements from Japanese mythology or folklore. Some filmmakers have explored this a lot, so to be fair, we’re limiting it to one film per director.

#10: “To the Forest of Firefly Lights” [aka “Hotarubi no mori e”] (2011)

This tender and touching anime tells of a little girl named Hotaru who gets lost in a forest filled with magical spirits. One of them, whose name is Gin and who has the appearance of a young man wearing a mask, ends up befriending her. There’s a complication, of course. Gin will disappear forever if a human touches him. This makes theirs a “hands off” relationship, which becomes more difficult as Hotaru matures into a young woman. Yamagami and yōkai, also known as mountain spirits and supernatural apparitions, are in abundance, making this lovely short film an easy choice for our list.

#9: “Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare” [aka “Yōkai Daisensō”] (1968)

The horror film has long been popular in Japan, and many films in this genre have roots in mythology and folklore. “Spook Warfare” was the second of three “Yokai Monsters” films produced by Daiei Motion Picture Company. It was also the one in which yokai had the most prominent role. In this film, the yokai must mount an offensive against a vampiric demon that is threatening their land, giving it the flavor of the ancient Japanese folktale of Momotarō. Yokai come in many different forms. In this film, they range from the kappa or river imp, to the blob-like Nuppeppo, to the scary Futakuchi-onna, which, in this film, has a second face on the back of its head.

#8: “A Letter to Momo” [aka “Momo e no Tegami”] (2011)

In this drama, 11-year-old Momo has recently suffered the death of her beloved father when three yokai turn up and start causing trouble. These yokai were once gods, but they were turned into yokai for improper deeds they performed. Eventually, Momo and the yokai end up helping each other. Momo finds a way out of the despair and sorrow she feels from her father’s death. The yokai, meanwhile, are forced to help Momo, which helps them escape their own punishment. This graceful, yet funny, anime captures a rare sense of magic and awe, which makes both the serious and the silly moments work beautifully.

#7: “The Great Yokai War” [“Yōkai Daisensō”] (2005)

“Spook Warfare” drew on elements of the tale of Momotarō, but “The Great Yokai War” is more clearly a retelling of this famous legend. In the film, a young boy named Tadashi finds himself thrust into a heroic role. A demon named Katō wants to get revenge on modern Japan, which it feels has turned its back on its culture. He thus marshals the forces of some evil yokai. Tadashi, meanwhile, must band together forest creatures and spirits to oppose Kato and his forces. The variety of yokai in the film is quite impressive and the effects are very believable, making this an impressive specimen of a film.

#6: “Ugetsu” [aka “Ugetsu Monogatari”] (1953)

Long considered a classic of Japanese cinema, “Ugetsu” is also well known for the distinct impression it made upon Western audiences. Set in the 16th century, this eerie ghost story concerns two peasants, each of which has dreams that exceed their circumstances. Both go through strange adventures, especially Genjuro, whose story has supernatural elements. He falls in love with a ghost and later returns to find his own wife has also become a ghost. “Ugetsu” is blessed by sensitive and masterful direction by Kenji Mizoguchi, which combines the supernatural with the tragic to create a true masterpiece.

#5: “Onibaba” (1964)

Director Kaneto Shindo’s later film, “Kuroneko,” is an excellent ghost story, but “Onibaba” is even better. Although the plot sounds like something out of “The Twilight Zone,” it actually derives from an old Buddhist parable. During a time of war, a young woman and an older woman work together to kill soldiers and sell their belongings. One night, the older woman steals a demon mask from a victim and uses it to try to scare away the young woman’s lover. But afterwards, she finds that the mask has horribly disfigured her face. What makes “Onibaba” especially effective is the way that it hints at the supernatural without explicitly featuring it.

#4: “Dreams” [aka “Yume”] (1990)

An episodic retelling of many dreams by the genius director Akira Kurosawa, “Dreams” is as hazy and gauzy as its namesake but with visceral power. There are eight different tales in this anthology film, many of which connect with mythology and folklore. Foxes, which are important creatures in Japanese folktales, dolls possessed by tree spirits, the famous Japanese “snow spirit” and mutated humans who now appear like Japanese horned demons all figure prominently. There’s an inevitable variation in quality between the various stories, but together they paint a haunting and fascinating picture.

#3: “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” [aka “Kaguya-hime no Monogatari”] (2013)

Based on the oldest Japanese prose narrative known to humanity, this beautiful animated flick has a heroine that may remind Western viewers of Thumbelina. A tiny girl is found inside a stalk of bamboo and adopted by the bamboo cutter and his wife. She grows to be a beautiful young woman and later reveals that she is actually from the Moon. The film details her struggle between her twin desires to remain on Earth and to return to the Moon. Along the way, many mystical and folkloric creatures and spirits are discussed, evoked or seen.

#2: “Kwaidan” [aka “Kaidan”] (1964)

Recipient of the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, “Kwaidan” is an anthology film that centers around four eerie Japanese folk tales. In the first, a man reconciles with the wife he left long ago only to later discover she is long dead. In the second, another man finds that the woman to whom he married is actually a snow spirit he encountered years ago. A blind musician has his ears stolen by a ghost in the third, and the fourth features apparitions that keep appearing in a watchman’s cup of tea. Masaki Kobayashi’s stylized, expressionistic direction makes these simple tales bone chilling, and an absolute must-watch for fans of Japanese cinema.

Before we reveal our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:
- “Magic Boy” [aka “Shōnen Sarutobi Sasuke”] (1959)
- “Kitaro” [aka “Gegege no Kitarô”] (2007)
- “Taro the Dragon Boy” [aka “Tatsu no ko Taro”] (1979)

#1: “Princess Mononoke” [aka “Mononoke-hime”] (1997)

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most brilliant anime directors ever, and much of his work – like the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away” – has ties to Japanese mythology. This is especially true of the incredible “Princess Mononoke,” an epic set in the 16th century. The basic story concerns the efforts of a prince who, while looking for the cure to his curse, ends up brokering peace between a human settlement and the creatures, many of them mythological, in the forest that surrounds it. Demons, forest spirits, boar gods, and many other folkloric and mythological creatures abound in the telling of this tale. Miyazaki has never been in better form, and his work here makes this into an exciting, charming, and haunting classic.

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