What Movies To Watch: Japan

April 4, 2023

Paul Kay

Are you a traveler looking for destinations, attractions, or new vacation ideas? Have you ever been to Japan? Before I travel to a country I’ve never visited, I try to do some research. You might have read some of my fun facts posts about countries. I worked and lived in Japan on three different occasions. I’ve got a post on Japan reading already. What are good movies about Japan?  I put together a selection of what movies to watch that I think you would enjoy.

Our Reading and Movies series is provided as a supplement to our posts. Whenever we travel, we like to learn as much as we can about our destination. Since we’ve read books and watched movies we've learned a lot. Hopefully some of these might give you a more in-depth and entertaining view of the topic you just enjoyed.

There are so many movies to watch if you want to get an understanding of Japanese culture. My list is not any particular order, but I love them all. I always learn something from each of them. Here are 14 movies. Some are about set in the feudal stem and others are in current times. You can learn from all of them.

Seven Samurai

The Seven Samurai is a classic Japanese film directed by Akira Kurosawa and released in 1954. The film is set in 16th-century Japan and tells the story of a poor farming village that hires seven samurai warriors to defend them against bandits who plan to raid the village during the harvest. The film is known for its gripping action scenes, as well as its exploration of themes such as loyalty, honor, sacrifice, and the nature of heroism. It also portrays the samurai in a more realistic light than many other films of the time, showing them not only as skilled warriors but also as flawed human beings with their own strengths and weaknesses. "The Seven Samurai" has been highly influential in the world of cinema and has inspired numerous other films, including the western classic "The Magnificent Seven" (1960). The film is widely regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made and is a masterpiece of Japanese cinema.

Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha is a 2005 American film directed by Rob Marshall and based on the novel of the same name by Arthur Golden. The movie is set in Japan during the 1920s and 1930s and follows the life of a young girl named Chiyo Sakamoto, who is sold into slavery and trained to become a geisha. The movie has stunning visuals and elaborate production design, which captures the beauty and elegance of Japan during the early 20th century. The film also explores themes such as beauty, power, and the struggle for independence and self-determination, particularly for women. The movie received some criticism for its casting of Chinese actresses in the lead roles, rather than Japanese actresses. It did very well at the box office and critics loved it. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning three for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. We loved it and I think you would as well.


Ikiru is a 1952 Japanese film directed by Akira Kurosawa, the same director of The Seven Samurai. The film tells the story of Kanji Watanabe, a middle-aged bureaucrat in Tokyo who has spent his entire life working for the city government but has never accomplished anything meaningful. I won’t tell you more about the plot, but movie explores themes such as the meaning of life, mortality, and the search for purpose and fulfillment. It is structured in two parts, with the first part focusing on Watanabe's struggle and the second part on his efforts to make a positive impact on the world around him. The film has been highly influential in the world of cinema and is regarded as one of Kurosawa's greatest works. It has been praised for its profound message and its ability to inspire viewers to reflect on their own lives and the impact they can make on the world around them.


Shogun is a TV miniseries that was originally broadcast in 1980 based on the historical novel of the same name by James Clavell, which was published in 1975. The miniseries was produced by NBC and is considered one of the most popular and successful miniseries of all time. The story takes place in feudal Japan in the 1600s and follows the adventures of an English sailor named John Blackthorne, played by Richard Chamberlain, who is shipwrecked on the Japanese coast. He is rescued by a powerful Japanese warlord named Toranaga, played by Toshiro Mifune, who takes him under his wing and begins to teach him about Japanese culture. The miniseries is known for its attention to historical detail, and it was filmed on location in Japan. It was a critical and commercial success, winning three Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe, and it helped to popularize Japanese culture in the West. Japan was largely closed off to the Western world until Blackthorne. The movie is an easy way to learn about history without reading the novel. I will say that the novel is excellent as well. 


Yes, this is another film but the master director. Akira Kurosawa that was released in 1950. The film is based on two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, and it is widely regarded as a masterpiece of world cinema. It has had a significant influence on filmmakers around the world and is considered a classic of Japanese cinema. The film is set in medieval Japan and tells the story of a murder and rape that takes place in a forest. The film's title comes from the Rashomon Gate, which is a famous landmark in Kyoto. The film is known for its innovative storytelling, which presents the events of the story from multiple, contradictory perspectives. The film's cinematography is also notable, featuring stunning shots of the forest and innovative use of lighting and camera angles. The film's music, composed by Fumio Hayasaka, is also widely regarded as a masterpiece. Rashomon was a critical and commercial success, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and helping to introduce Japanese cinema to international audiences.


Here is another great one from Akira Kurosawa. This is one of his later works, released in 1985. It is loosely based on William Shakespeare's play "King Lear" and is considered one of Kurosawa's greatest works. The film's title, "Ran", means "chaos" or "turmoil" in Japanese. The movie is known for its epic scale and its stunning visuals, featuring large-scale battle scenes and beautiful cinematography. The film's use of color is also notable, with Kurosawa using vibrant colors to convey the emotions of the characters and the chaos of war. "Ran" was a critical and commercial success, winning numerous awards, including the Academy Award for Best Costume Design and the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

This is a wonderful movie about a real person. The film showcases the life and work of Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old sushi master who runs a small sushi restaurant in Tokyo called Sukiyabashi Jiro. The film portrays Jiro's dedication to his craft and the attention to detail he puts into every aspect of his restaurant, from selecting the freshest fish to perfecting the rice seasoning. The movie has received critical acclaim for its stunning cinematography, insightful storytelling, and inspiring portrayal of a master craftsman at work. The film has become a cult classic and is widely regarded as one of the best food documentaries ever made.


This is a very “cute” film. I know some of the others were more historical and perhaps a bit darker. Tampopo is a Japanese comedy film directed by Juzo Itami and released in 1985. The film is a satirical take on the traditional Japanese noodle Western genre and is widely regarded as one of the best food films ever made. The film follows a woman named Tampopo who is determined to make the perfect bowl of ramen noodles. She enlists the help of a truck driver named Goro who becomes her mentor in the art of noodle-making. The film humorously depicts various aspects of Japanese society, including a group of gangsters who are obsessed with food and a group of wealthy women who hire a food critic to teach them how to eat in a refined manner. The film is still widely regarded as a classic of Japanese cinema and a must-see for food lovers.


Departures is a Japanese drama film directed by Yojiro Takita and released in 2008. The film follows a young cellist named Daigo Kobayashi, played by Masahiro Motoki, who loses his job when his orchestra disbands. He returns to his hometown with his wife, and in need of a job, he answers an ad for a "departures" position, assuming it is a travel agency job. However, he soon realizes that it is actually a job preparing bodies for burial and helping families to cope with their loss. The film explores themes of death, grief, and the meaning of life, and is known for its emotional depth and poignant performances. The film's direction and cinematography are also notable, with the film featuring beautiful shots of the Japanese countryside and carefully composed scenes. "Departures" was a critical and commercial success, winning numerous awards, including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009. The film is widely regarded as a masterpiece of Japanese cinema and is a touching exploration of the human experience of loss and grief. I know the subject manner sounds dark but it is a beautiful movie.

Hiroshima Mon Amour

Hiroshima mon amour is a French Japanese film directed by Alain Resnais and released in 1959. The film is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the French New Wave movement and is considered one of the most important films in the history of cinema. The movie is a powerful discussion of memory, trauma, and the human experience of war. The film won quite a few awards including the prestigious International Critics' Prize at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. The film was also nominated for the Palme d'Or, which is the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival. Additionally, the film won the Best Foreign Film award from the New York Film Critics Circle in 1960, and it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1961.

Lost In Translation

When Madeline and I lived in Tokyo, we brought each of our kids over for a visit so they could experience Japan. We made them watch Lost in Translation either before they came or at our apartment. Lost in Translation is a 2003 American film directed by Sofia Coppola. The film stars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as two Americans who meet in Tokyo, Japan and form a close bond despite their age difference and the cultural barriers between them. The film follows the characters of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson) who are both staying in the same Tokyo hotel. Over the course of several days, they explore Tokyo together, often feeling isolated and disoriented in the unfamiliar city. What we loved is that the filming was in Tokyo, and they went to many of the places we would routine go ourselves. It was widely acclaimed by critics and received numerous accolades, including an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Coppola. The film also earned nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Bill Murray.

Tokyo Idols

Tokyo Idols is a 2017 documentary that explores the world of Japanese idol culture, which involves young girls, usually in their teens or early twenties, who perform pop music and dance routines for a predominantly male fan base. The film primarily focuses on one particular idol group called "Happiness" and their fans, who are mainly middle-aged men. The documentary shows the behind-the-scenes lives of the idols, as well as the fans' devotion to them, including their spending habits on merchandise and concert tickets. As a Westerner, I knew these people existed and I knew a lot of young girls and guys would dress up on the weekends as characters. We would see them in Harajuku.  The film features interviews with former idols, fans, and industry experts, who offer insight into the idol culture and its impact on society.

Drive My Car

Drive My Car is a 2021 Japanese film that follows a stage actor named Yusuke Kafuku, played by Hidetoshi Nishijima, as he comes to terms with the death of his wife and learns to move on with his life. The film is set in various locations in Japan and South Korea, as Kafuku travels to direct a production of Anton Chekhov's play "Uncle Vanya". During his travels, he meets a young woman named Misaki, played by Toko Miura, who becomes his chauffeur and confidante. Through their conversations, Kafuku begins to confront his grief and learns to let go of his past. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021 and received critical acclaim, with many critics hailing it as one of the best films of the year. The film won the Palme d'Or, the highest prize awarded at the festival, and was Japan's official entry for the Best International Feature Film category at the 94th Academy Awards.


Shoplifters is a 2018 Japanese film that tells the story of a poor family who live on the outskirts of Tokyo and struggle to make ends meet. The family relies on shoplifting and other petty crimes to survive, but they find love and happiness in their small community of fellow misfits. The film explores themes such as family, love, poverty, and the complexities of morality. Shoplifters received critical acclaim and won several awards, including the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018. The film was also Japan's official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 91st Academy Awards. It is widely regarded as one of the best films of 2018 and is considered a masterpiece of Japanese cinema.

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