10 Movies to Watch Before Traveling to Japan

Cultural tips

One way to experience the world of Japan at home is to watch movies. Through film, the dynamic and local atmosphere of a place that cannot be portrayed well in photographs or books can be seen and will really come to life.

In this article, we will introduce ten films about Japan that include not only anime and live-action films but also period dramas and movies that have won Academy Awards in the past, as well as various other films about Japan that will grant you visual access to the Land of the Rising Sun.

1. Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Copyright © Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) All rights reserved.

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is an acclaimed documentary that depicts Jiro Ono, owner of the famous Ginza restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, and his passion for sushi. This film delicately explores a sushi restaurant so famous that it has been awarded three Michelin stars and the ups and downs of dedicating one’s life to the craft.

 The American director, greatly intrigued by Mr. Ono’s passion for sushi, closely followed him, and you get a deep understanding of the Japanese passion for workmanship. This film is highly recommended for those who want to take a closer look at the world of sushi in Japan and for sushi fans all around.

Official Website: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

2. Lost in Translation

Copyright © Lost in Translation (2003) All rights reserved.

“Lost in Translation” is a rom-com movie set in Tokyo. The film stars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson and is directed by Sofia Coppola. The film depicts a romance between a middle-aged Hollywood actor who feels lonely in Tokyo and an American woman who is looking for an ember of love in Tokyo, a city with an exotic and mysterious atmosphere. Coppola has stated that she has stayed in Japan in the past and that her experience is reflected in this film.

3. Spirited Away

Copyright © Studio Ghibli (2001) All rights reserved.

Famous as Ghibli’s biggest hit film, “Spirited Away” remained No. 1 at the Japanese box office until 2020, when the theatrical anime movie of “Demon Slayer” smashed the box-office record by miles. 

While on her way to a new town that her family is planning to move to, Chihiro suddenly gets lost and is separated from her parents. The town she ends up in is a hot-spring resort inhabited by spirits and deities and, most shockingly, is a place where humans are prohibited.

With the help of a boy named Haku, she embarks on an adventure that will lead her back to her parents and the world from which she came. Ghibli’s detailed movements and unique characters make this one of the most beloved films in Japan, and to this day, the film invokes nostalgia for many.

Official Website: Spirited Away

4. Your Name

Copyright © Funimation Films (2016) All rights reserved.

One of Makoto Shinkai’s most famous animated films is “Your Name.” The main character, Miyamizu Mitsuha, is a high school girl living in Itomori Town, Gifu Prefecture, who longs to live in the city of Tokyo. Tachibana Taki is a high school boy who lives in Tokyo with his father. These two high school students, who are completely unacquainted with each other, have a strange dream one day and suddenly switch bodies with each other. From there, an epic story begins of them exploring different sides of life and learning to appreciate their own upbringings.

In addition to the excellent story and characters, the background of the film is very beautiful with its detailed and careful depiction of nature, such as the sky and clouds, as well as the cityscape of Tokyo.

Official Website: Your Name

5. Our Little Sister

Copyright © Our little Sister (2015) All rights reserved.

“Our Little Sister” is a story about the conflicts and bonds between four sisters set in Kamakura, a city with a strong religious history religion, and deeply rooted traditions upheld by shrines and temples

One hot summer morning, the three sisters living in Kamakura receive news of their father’s death. Before his death, he abandoned his family, and also the mother remarried and left. Since then, the three sisters have struggled to make ends meet. 

At their father’s funeral, the three sisters meet their half-sister, a junior high school student. Although she is a daughter of the father who abandoned three sisters in the past, the eldest sister unintentionally asks her to come live with them together because her mother has already passed away. From there, the lives of the four sisters began in Kamakura. They share their problems and joys and sometimes clash with each other, deepening their bond. But when their mother suddenly appears, the lives of the four sisters take an unexpected turn. 

The emotions of the sisters are intertwined with each other in the beautiful Kamakura setting, making this a film well worth watching.

Official Website: Our Little Sister

6. Seven Samurai

Copyright © Seven Samurai (2054) All rights reserved.

One of the most acclaimed films not only in Japan but around the world is “Seven Samurai,” a samurai film by master director Akira Kurosawa. 

At the end of the Warring States Period in Japan, the peasants were suffering from the robberies of their villages by the warriors who had turned into thieves. One day, a thief takes a child hostage and hides in the village house. One of the villagers, Rikichi, pleads for help from a samurai who was just passing by, and the samurai, with his quick wit, quickly rescues the child. 

Rikichi is so impressed with the samurai’s skill with a sword that he asks him to be the village guard. The samurai refuses at first, but Rikichi’s enthusiasm wins him over, and he decides to become a village guard in the end. This is a gem of a movie that covers cinematic themes such as the great spirit of righteousness, humanity, and “helping the weak”.

7. The Great Passage

Copyright © The Great Passage (2011) All rights reserved.

The book “Funa wo amu (The Great Passage)” by Shion Miura, released in 2011, is the story of a dictionary editorial department of a publishing company. Mitsuya Majime works for a publishing company and is recruited to the department that compiles dictionaries because of his outstanding sense of how to capture words. There, Majime immerses himself in the creation of dictionaries while growing together with the unique members of the editorial team around him. The story depicts a variety of human relationships through the creation of dictionaries.
If you are interested in the Japanese language, this film is more enjoyable and gets you into the beautiful world of literature.

Official Website: The Great Passage

8. Tampopo

Copyright © Tampopo (1985) All rights reserved.

In “Tampopo”, two truck drivers stop by a deserted ramen shop owned by a beautiful shopkeeper, but the ramen she is selling is lukewarm and not very tasty. After hearing about the owner’s situation, they decide to turn her store into a thriving business and fight for her. The film’s content is sure to satisfy those who love Japanese cuisine, with delicious-looking Japanese dishes such as ramen and omelet rice, with detailed scenes showing how to make wonderful ramen.

9. Drive my Car

Copyright © Drive My Car (2022) All rights reserved.

Winner of the 2022 Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, “Drive My Car” is based on the novel written by Haruki Murakami. Kafuku, a stage actor and director, is happily married to his beloved wife, Oto, until suddenly she leaves him with a secret. 2 years later, Kafuku drives to a theater festival and meets Misaki, a personal driver with a secret past, which dramatically changes the course of the story. This is one of the masterpieces of Japanese cinema that successfully weaves together all the emotions of grief over the loss of the beloved, relationships with the people around them, and the difficulty of maintaining one’s faith.

Official Website: Drive My Car

10. Departures

Copyright © Departures (2008) All rights reserved.

The last movie introduced here is “Departures,” a humanistic film directed by Yojiro Takita. This film is also known for being the first Japanese film to win the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film and has received many awards around the world. It is the story of a former cello player of an orchestra who loses his job and, through a chance encounter with an embalmer, who helps him confront life and death head-on with sincerity. The music of this film is composed by Joe Hisaishi, who is also famous for his work on Ghibli films. This film powerfully depicts the inevitable path of “life and death.”

Official Website: Departures

In this article, we have introduced ten movies that we feel captivate the essence of Japan but were there any movies that you would like to see? If you find a movie on this list that interests you, we highly recommend you give it a chance and watch it. You can also experience the atmosphere of Japan through Japanese movies and enjoy watching them with your friends and family. 

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Happy traveling!

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Writer’s profile

Mao Goto is a Japanese freelancer who was born in Hayama, Kanagawa prefecture and raised in Tokyo. Since 2016 she lives in the Taito Ward, home to a lot of Japanese culture hotspots such as Asakusa, Akihabara, and Ueno. She has been interested in the field of English education in Japan and got her Master’s degree in March 2020. A lover of photography, travel, sweets, and cross-stitch. Contact her via Facebook.

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