There’s nothing wrong with a Attack on Titan binge, or rewatching Mononoke Hime for the umpteenth time. They’re great! But, there are so many other movies in Japanese aside from your favourite anime.
Besides language learning opportunities, movies can teach you about Japan’s culture. A story can show you values or highlight an aspect of Japanese society you hadn’t considered. But where to begin?
With such a long history of cinema combined with the ton of options out there, it can be tough to know where to start. So, we did the work for you. Broaden your horizons with this curated list of our picks for best Japanese movies and series!
Best movies and series in Japanese
Our list of the best movies in Japanese has a little something for everybody. Dark crime dramas, wild sci-fi action, quiet dramas, and a few choice picks somewhere in the middle. Read on to find your next favourite Japanese movie or series!
Yakuza and the Family (ヤクザと家族)
Yakuza and the Family starts like a typical Japanese gangster film. Distraught teen Kenji Yamamoto finds a father figure in Yakuza boss, Hiroshi Shibasaki. Hiroshi recruits Kenji into the gang and becomes a mentor of sorts. Action, violence, and threats of vengeance ensue as Hiroshi takes Kenji under his wing.
It’s entertaining but nothing terribly original. But by the second and third acts, the movie slowly transcends the genre. You’ll witness a realistic take on the Yakuza’s dwindling power. Besides being one of our picks for best Japanese movie, the film is a fascinating look at a real cultural phenomenon in Japan nearing its bitter end.
Okuribito (also titled Departures) follows Daigo Kobayashi, a cellist in a small local orchestra. After the orchestra disbands, Daigo is forced back to his hometown and finds a new way to make a living – working at a mortuary.
Okuribito is a quiet, funny movie in Japanese that covers a taboo topic in Japanese society. There are some prejudices against people who deal with the dead in Japan. So much so that the movie almost never saw commercial release.
The heavy themes go down easy thanks to a sentimental script focused on family. Give Okuribito a go if you enjoy slow-burn, character driven movies.
Alice in Borderland (今際の国のアリス)
Alice in Borderland is a thrilling sci-fi series based on a manga of the same name. Ryohei Arisu is a depressed, directionless 20-something without much going on in his life. One day his dad decides to kick him out of the house for playing video games all day long. After a day out with his like-minded friends, the 3 of them are mysteriously transported to a world that functions like a post-apocalyptic video game.
The action and tension of this series are the main draws here. But you’ll also enjoy some eye-candy courtesy of abandoned Tokyo streets, including an impossibly empty Shibuya Station. That’s one instance of the show’s many unique sights you’ll never spot in real Japan.
Giri/Haji is a blend of genres packed into a classic crime drama aesthetic. It starts with detective Kenzo Mori travelling to London to find his brother Yuto. He becomes embroiled in London’s criminal underworld which drives the drama of the show.
The best part of Giri/Haji is the wide range of stories told in a familiar setting. Looking for criminal action scenes? It’s here. Investigation and intrugue? Yes and yes. Character-driven love story? Check.
And if the fresh take on the crime genre doesn’t hook you, the solid writing and acting throughout the series will.
Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories (深夜食堂)
Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories is a limited series based on a manga called Shin’ya Shokudō (Midnight Diner). Both the manga and show are amazing resources for Japanese language learning. The slice-of-life feel of the stories shows you plenty of everyday situations and the natural dialogue that goes with them. You’ll find a treasure trove of useful phrases in any given episode.
The show itself is also wildly entertaining if you enjoy tight, character-focused stories. Each episode revolves around a regular customer at a late-night diner in Tokyo. Some problem is revealed to the enigmatic “Master” (the shop’s owner), and gets resolved by the end in a poignant, understated fashion.
Erased is another series based on a manga called Boku Dake ga Inai Machi. It follows a struggling manga artist with an extraordinary gift to turn back time.
The plot jumps between different periods in time which usually makes a complex narrative. But the slow introduction to the show’s rules of time travel make it easy to follow. The characters and fast pace will make you want to binge watch the whole thing.
Keep in mind that you have three options to watch. There’s the original anime series, a 2016 anime movie, and a 2017 live-action adaptation. As of this writing in September 2021, the live-action version on Netflix is the only one with English subtitles.
Queer Eye: We’re in Japan! (クィア・アイ in Japan!)
The Fab Five did a whole season in Japan in Queer Eye: We’re in Japan! It follows the tried and true format of the other seasons (examining someone’s life and making it fabulous). But, it adds an off-screen Japanese interpreter, a Japanese tour guide, and comedian Naomi Watanabe.
This season is an amazing look at everyday aspects of Japanese culture that are often overlooked in your standard guidebook or blog article. You’ll get to ride along with the Fab Five and learn a lot through their insightful questions about Japan.
And if you’ve never seen the original show before, each episode usually ends in a genuinely touching, tearjerker moment. You’ll walk away with a deeper understanding of Japan and an empathic connection with each episode’s subject.
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