So you’re planning on visiting Japan and you need a crash course on Japanese culture? Films are a great way to learn about a different country’s customs and history, from the very ancient to today’s pop culture.
Sit back, relax and take a look at this list of 25 Japanese movies that will show you everything you need to know for your forthcoming trip to Japan.
Your Name (Kimi No Na Wa), 2016
Directed by Makoto Shinkai
This animated romantic fantasy details the story about high-schoolers Taki Tachibana and Mitsuha Miyamizu who, without explanation, start to erratically swap their bodies.
Critics and the public alike loved its animation, music, and emotional punch.
Adrift in Tokyo (Tenten), 2007
Directed by Satoshi Miki
Based on a book by a famed Japanese novelist and screenwriter Yoshinaga Fujita, this is about listless student Fumiya Takemura whose gambling debts come home to roost.
When Aiichiro Fukuhara is sent to collect the money owed, his unusual proposition would end up changing both of their lives.
All About Lily Chou-Chou (Rirī Shushu no Subete), 2001
Directed by Shunji Iwai
This introspective and innovative film documents how the music of enigmatic singer Lily Chou-Chou impacts the lives of two 14-year-old boys Shūsuke Hoshino and Yūichi Hasumi.
It is based on an interactive internet novel and uses jump cuts and non-linear narration to create a wholly unique film experience.
Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo), 2008
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
This is a family drama par excellence. Winner of the Golden Astor for Best Film at the 2008 Mar del Plata International Film Festival, the film documents the day in the life of a family as they commemorate the death of their eldest son.
Subtle and understated, this poignant family drama will have you hooked from start to finish. Just make sure you have your tissues handy.
Godzilla (Gojira), 1954
Directed by Ishiro Honda
For many, Godzilla is the first – and best – monster movie. For those wanting to delve a little deeper, Godzilla is actually a statement about the dangers of nuclear power and paranoia, created by a nation devastated by nuclear warfare not ten years earlier.
Tokyo Story (Tōkyō Monogatari), 1953
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
Today, Tokyo Story is often included on ‘best film’ lists all over the world. But this unassuming story of an aging couple who return to Tokyo to visit their adult children was originally considered ‘too Japanese’ to interest foreign movie-goers.
Take a look for yourself and see this masterpiece of Japanese filmmaking.
Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi), 2001
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
A discussion about Japanese films is incomplete without acknowledging Spirited Away. It tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl who finds herself immersed in the magical world of Kami, the spirits of traditional Japanese folklore.
Beset with accolades including the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards and the Golden Bear at the 2002 Berlin International Film Festival, it was also the highest-grossing film in Japanese history until 2019.
If there is one film on your list that is a must-see, this is it.
Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai), 1954
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
With Japan’s most iconic filmmaker at the helm, Seven Samurai is nothing short of a cultural classic and masterpiece.
It follows the lives of a small farming village and the masterless samurai – ronin – they hire to protect them from bandits who are threatening to steal their harvest.
Seven Samurai is without a doubt a genre-defining film that has influenced countless others, not the least John Sturges’ American remake The Magnificent Seven.
My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro), 1988
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
A product of Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli, which also created the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, this is the perfect animated movie to get the kids excited about Japan.
Follow two youngsters, Satsuki and Mei, as they find adventures with two wood spirits in post-war rural Japan.
Lost in Translation, 2003
Directed by Sophia Coppola
One of the only non-Japanese films to make the list, Lost In Translation captures the cultural differences between east and west, as told through the experiences of young American Charlotte.
An engaging and enigmatic story of an unlikely relationship in a foreign land, director Sophia Coppola won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Tokyo Idols, 2017
Directed by Kyoko Miyake
Only one of three documentaries to make the list, Tokyo Idols follows an aspiring J-pop singer named RioRio and her fans as she attempts to make it in the ultra-modern popular world of Japanese girl bands.
A great movie to help you understand the trends of modern Japanese pop culture.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Ono Jirō), 2011
Directed by David Gelb
This is a Japanese-language American documentary that follows the life of 85-year old sushi master Jiro Ono.
Both informative and uplifting, it’s a great way to learn about the man who many consider is the world’s greatest sushi chef.
The Birth of Sake, 2015
Directed by Erik Shirai
This documentary explores a quintessential Japanese profession, the art of making sake, which is traditional Japanese rice wine.
Such is the secrecy that surrounds the brewing techniques, the film crew underwent significant vetting to be allowed to set foot in the famed Yoshida Brewery to film.
Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005
Directed by Rob Marshall
Based on the bestselling book by Arthur Golden, the movie tells the life story of a poor, young Japanese girl, Chiyo Sakamoto, and her journey to becoming a traditional geisha in Kyoto.
Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo
Set in the dystopian futuristic world of Neo Tokyo, this ground-breaking anime feature tells the story of two teenagers, Shōtarō Kaneda and Tetsuo Shima, who challenge the military-industrial complex that controls their lives.
The Ramen Girl, 2008
Directed by Robert Allan Ackerman
If you’re after something on the lighter end of the spectrum, this feel-good romance about a young American woman who learns to cook ramen in Tokyo might be just what you need.
Okuribito (Departures), 2008
Directed by Yōjirō Takita
After failing to fulfill his goals as a concert cellist, Daigo Kobayashi returns to his hometown and starts working as a nōkanshi – a traditional Japanese ritual mortician.
The film follows his triumph and tribulations working in a taboo industry in Japan.
Tokyo Sonata, 2008
Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
This film follows the lives of a middle-class Tokyo family after the main breadwinner, father Ryūhei Sasaki, loses his job and conceals his unemployment from his family.
In a society where one’s character is inextricably linked to one’s job, this is an existential film at its heart.
Battle Royale (Batoru Rowaiaru), 2000
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku
Not for the faint-hearted, this action thriller follows a group of high-school boys who are taken onto a remote island and forced to fight each other to the death. It is a bleak, bloody, and melodramatic comment on totalitarian regimes.
Directed by Juzo Itami
This comedy, light-heartedly dubbed Japan’s first ‘ramen western’, follows two truck drivers Goro and Gun who decide to help struggling ramen cook Tampopo improve her small roadside ramen shop, Lai.
The Ring (Ringu), 1998
Directed by Hideo Nakada
Known by most westerns by the 2000 American remake, The Ring, this is a supernatural horror film about a mysterious cursed videotape that kills all who watch it.
The Happiness of the Katakuris (Katakuri-ke no Kofuku), 2001
Directed by Takashi Miike
A unique film in every sense of the word, this surreal comedy, with just a few hints of horror, uses traditional film, Claymation, karaoke, and dream sequences to tell the story of four generations of the Katakuris family.
Hiroshima Mon Amour, 1959
Directed by Alain Resnais
Set in post-war Hiroshima, this French New Wave drama follows the doomed love story between French woman Elle and Japanese man Lui. With flashbacks, real footage of Hiroshima, and a non-linear storyline, it is an influential film about love, memory, and loss.
House (Hausu), 1977
Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi
A schlock-horror cult movie for the ages, House follows teenager Gorgeous and her friends as they, one by one, die grizzly deaths during a visit to her elderly aunt’s countryside house.
Nobody Knows (Dare mo Shiranai), 2004
Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
This moving and poignant drama, based on the real-life Sugamo child abandonment case, follows the lives of four siblings who are gradually abandoned by their mother and forced to fend for themselves.