These are some of the best Japanese movies about Japan to watch to help understand the country before visiting or just for general viewing.
First of all, you may be wondering what a backpacking website has to do with Japanese movies? Well, I’ve been a huge fan of Japanese movies since I went to film college when I saw them for the first time, and for the past 25+ years have watched all the movies listed here, and many more.
I always recommend to other travellers to watch movies about the places they intend to travel to before going to understand the place better, which is why I do articles like this, especially as my Japan guides are some of the most popular ones on my site.
Naturally, there are plenty more great Japanese movies to watch than just these, but these are my personal favourites and span all genres from the old classics to modern greats.
Updated with new Japanese movies for 2022.
*Note: This post contains affiliate links to Amazon where you can watch some of the Japanese movies listed here. I get a small commission at no extra cost to you if you watch them through these links.
*I own none of the images in this post. They are used in fair usage terms in order to publicly discuss the movies and shows recommended in this post.
1. Drive My Car (2021)
I’ve updated this list since first publishing it a few years ago to reflect some other Japanese movies and Drive My Car is number one on this list now.
If you were to watch just one recent movie about Japan then make it this one. It’s the best Japanese movie I’ve seen in a while.
It follows an actor whose wife dies and in dealing with his grief he ends up getting new work and needs a driver to help get him around. That driver is a young 20-year-old woman and they develop a special relationship over time and in doing so it helps him.
A lot of this movie is set inside a car which may not sound so exciting but the dialogue between the two is brilliant. Highly recommended.
2. Seven Samurai (1954)
This is a masterpiece in Japanese cinema and is directed by legendary director Akira Kurosawa.
It’s a story about a samurai who is down on his luck and recruits 6 other samurai to help in the defence of a village from bandits when asked to.
The villagers, in turn, provide meals and a place to stay for the samurai.
There’s an epic fight sequence at the end of the movie.
This movie won’t be to everyone’s liking as it’s three and a half hours long and can be slow in parts.
But if you appreciate beautiful cinema and directing and have an interest in the times of the samurai in Japan then this is a must-watch.
Watch to see one of the best movies about samurai ever made and for what it was like during the times of the samurai.
It’s one of the best movies about Japan in feudal times and one of the best Japanese fighting movies.
Have a read of the 15 best Japanese samurai movies I recommend watching.
3. Spirited Away (2001)
This list would not be complete without including animation movies.
Even if you don’t like animation you should watch it at least once before going to Japan, as they are such a big part of the modern-day culture there.
Spirited Away is one of the best Japanese anime movies you could watch and is directed by the legendary animation director Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli fame.
It’s about a ten-year-old girl who wanders into an old amusement park in the countryside with her parents, who are turned into pigs, and she then has to work in a bathhouse for gods in order to be free and free her parents.
Interesting fact: Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama is part of the inspiration for the epic bathhouse in Spirited Away.
Watch Spirited Away to see how great Japanese animation can be.
Have a read of the 10 best Japanese animation movies I recommend watching.
4. Battle Royale (2000)
Get ready for some fun but also gross youth culture of the future.
Japan is brilliant for all things weird and horror-related when it comes to movies and Battle Royale is a perfect example of this.
It’s about a teenage school class that is taken to an island by the authorities and each given different weapons. They are then told that the last one alive will be allowed to leave the island.
It’s brilliant for mixing typical Japanese cuteness, youth culture, along with a lot of violence.
Rated as one of the best modern Japanese movies.
5. Tokyo Story (1953)
A beautiful story about an elderly couple who go to visit their family in Tokyo, only to discover that their children have such busy lives they don’t have much time to see them.
It shows the growing differences in Japanese culture between the old and the young. It’s a slow movie, but the acting and general ambience make it worth the watch.
One of the best Japanese drama movies and a great movie about Japanese history in Tokyo after WW2.
Also, a must-see if looking for movies about Japanese culture in general.
It was directed by legendary Japanese director Ozu.
Side note: If you’re looking for one of the best Japanese war movies then check out Grave of The Fireflies (1988) which is generally acknowledged among film critics as one of the best. It’s an animation movie but don’t let that put you off.
6. Akira (1988)
As great as Spirited Away is, Akira is the movie that put Japanese animation into the mainstream.
It’s about a cyberpunk motorbike gang set in neo-Tokyo in the future, where one of their members has an accident against a child with special psychic powers that he then gains himself.
This is an epic piece of animation. In fact, if you were ever to see just one animation in your life then this would be a good choice and it’s one of the best-animated movies about Japan.
7. Ringu (1998)
Japanese horror movies can easily out-beat many of Hollywood. In fact, Hollywood does remakes of them a lot, such as the Ring.
It’s about a girls ghost who was viciously murdered by her dad and now haunts those who watch a video she has possessed, where they then have 7 days to find out how they won’t die from having seen it.
Discover one of the coolest Japanese horror movies. Although there are plenty of others out there also worth seeing for this genre.
8. Audition (1999)
The end scene alone is what makes this movie so good and equally sick in one.
As mentioned before Japanese horror is some of the best, but it’s hard to put this movie into a category. It certainly gets very horrific and psychotic as it goes along.
A widowed man interviews (auditions) various women to see who he likes, and then the one he ends up choosing turns out, in the end, to be not what he was expecting at all.
It could be called a very f**ked up Japanese romance movie.
Just be prepared for that spine-shivering end scene. A brilliant slow build-up throughout.
9. Harakiri (1962)
Another samurai movie (let’s be honest samurai movies are awesome for action and history) that starts on the slow side but the story builds up to an epic ending.
It’s set in the early 17th century in the Edo period.
It’s about a samurai who has no master (a ronin) and wishes to commit suicide (seppuku) in the traditional Japanese way having had problems with his family.
At the House of Li Samurai Clan, he recalls the family story in the courtyard of what happened.
That ending is so epic you need to see it just for that. In fact, it’s that slow build-up that helps make the ending so great.
10. Departures (2008)
Departures won the academy award for best foreign-language film and is definitely worthy of it (not that you need an academy award to have great movies)
The plot evolves around Daigo Kobayashi who finds out the orchestra he is a part of is disbanding (after he just bought a new cello).
He leaves his home to go back to the far north of Japan where his family is from and ends up working in a mortuary where he learns how to get the dead ready for their end in life with traditional Japanese rituals.
It can be slow and chilled out but it’s a really beautiful story and sometimes funny.
One Extra: Ichi The Killer (2001)
I’m adding this Japanese movie as a “one extra” as it will not appeal to many people but if you enjoy gangster style movies with violence then this will appeal.
This is some seriously sick stuff. It’s a gruesome movie that stirred up some controversy due to its extreme violence.
It’s about a psychotic killer who is enrolled in the Japanese mafia (yakuza) to find a boss who has been kidnapped.
Watch for an example of Japanese cinema pushing the boundaries.
This will definitely not be for everyone, which is why it’s here for those more curious about the darker side of Japanese cinema.
For more stylized yakuza movies check out Tokyo Drifter and the classic Drunken Angel.
I’ve added a few extras for movies to watch about Japan apart from the 11 Japanese movies mentioned above.
Non–Japanese Movie to Watch:
Lost In Translation (2003)
A non-Japanese film about two Americans visiting Tokyo for different reasons. They don’t know each other but end up having adventures in Tokyo together.
It’s fun to watch the older (Bill Murray) and younger (Scarlett Johansson) learn about Japanese life and some of the “funnier things” they are not used to.
The film title says it all. Want to know what complete culture shock can feel like before going to Japan?
Then this is the movie to see.
Japanese Documentary To Watch:
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is based around Jiro Ono an 85-year-old sushi master, one of the best sushi chefs in Japan (if not the world), and his son who tries to follow in his father’s footsteps.
Jiro runs a small sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway that only takes several people at a time. It’s also a Michelin award-winning place and there’s a long wait to get a seat there (months).
My favourite Japan food documentary.
If you love sushi and Tokyo then this is a must-watch.
Have a read of the 15 best documentaries about Japan I recommend watching.
TV Series About Japan:
Shogun TV Series (1980)
If you’re looking for a Japanese TV series this isn’t Japanese made but it is a very fun TV series from the ’80s that are actually very good at showing a look back into ancient Japan from a foreign perspective towards the end of the 1500s.
It’s about an English seaman shipwrecked in Japan and while totally culture shocked has to integrate and eventually work his way up in Japanese society.
It is an epic samurai saga and you will learn a lot about old Japanese culture from this. I personally learned so much about some of Japan’s old traditions in this TV series.
No, it’s not a shogun movie but is a great shogun show!
Watch it for a look at the samurai past.
Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner is a non-Japanese movie and not even set in Japan. It’s a science fiction dystopian movie set in Los Angeles in the future and is a cult classic.
This one is included just for the fact that Tokyo is regarded as the ultimate futuristic city and walking around some of the modern areas when there you can almost feel like you’re in this movie at times.
Also, there is the sequel Blade Runner 2049 if you want to watch that as well, although the original Blade Runner conveys the ‘futuristic modern metropolis’ style better.
See it before going to Tokyo.
The Best Japanese Movies
So those are some of the best movies about Japan to watch spanning a lot of genres plus a few extras.
If you’re looking for Japanese movies in English don’t worry these can all be found dubbed over but it’s better to watch them in Japanese with subtitles for a more authentic experience with the language.
Enjoy whichever ones you may choose to see!
Planning to visit Japan? Get a Japan Rail Pass (get one with that link) to save money on the fast Shinkansen trains.
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