221 Best Movies to Watch From Japan

Staff & contributors
Monster is a deceptively simple story about growing up and the many misunderstandings that come with it. It’s told through different points of view, a technique that could easily feel gimmicky in the hands of a lesser director. But with director Hirokazu Kore-eda at the helm, it feels natural and inevitable, as if there was no other way to tell this specific story. It’s a masterful mystery, but Monster is less about suspense and answering the whodunnit question than it is about navigating the murky waters of truth and real life. As corny as it sounds, watching Monster is an experience unto itself: you’ll find yourself believing something one moment and dismantling it the next, learning and unlearning in a span of two hours. But as with past Kore-eda films, it’s the story’s heartwarming sensitivity that trumps everything. You’ll likely come for the mystery but stay for its heart.

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Akihiro Kakuta, Ayu Kitaura, Daisuke Kuroda, Eita Nagayama, Hinata Hiiragi, Kayo Noro, Mitsuki Takahata, Moemi Katayama, Pee, Ryu Morioka, Sakura Andô, Shidô Nakamura, Soya Kurokawa, Yûko Tanaka

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Rating: PG-13

Based on a classic Japanese folktale, Isao Takahata’s last film will break your heart. This adaptation, of course, follows Princess Kaguya from her being discovered in a glowing bamboo stalk to her departure to the moon. However, while faithful to the original tale, Takahata’s direction turns this historical fantasy into a heart-wrenching coming-of-age film as ethereal as the titular character. The film doesn’t focus on the crazy pursuit of her suitors; instead, we’re drawn to the simple experiences Kaguya herself is drawn to and wants more of, as she tries to balance her life with the societal expectations places on women. All of which is rendered through the film's lush watercolored scenes of the blowing wind or the opening of plum blossoms.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Fantasy

Actor: Aki Asakura, Atsuko Takahata, Hikaru Ijūin, Hiroyuki Yamamoto, Isao Hashizume, Kengo Kora, Mirai Uchida, Nobuko Miyamoto, Ryudo Uzaki, Shichinosuke Nakamura, Shinosuke Tatekawa, Takaya Kamikawa, Takeo Chii, Tatsuya Nakadai, Tomoko Tabata, Yuji Miyake, Yukiji Asaoka

Director: Isao Takahata

Rating: PG

, 1997

Cure is about a mad society, where both cure and sickness might be one and the same. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa subverts the police procedural into an interrogation without definite answers, an abstract study on the evil that resides and is suppressed in every person’s heart. Unlike most horror films, Cure’s scares are left in plain sight, hypnotically mesmerizing as they are gruesome, with a sense of mundanity associated with other Japanese masters like Ozu or Kore-eda. “At the time it just seemed the right thing to do,” a man answers when asked why he killed his wife, and it is this contradictorily calm, nonchalant demeanor that creates a feeling of unease in the film’s horror aesthetic.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Akira Otaka, Anna Nakagawa, Denden, Hajime Tanimoto, Kōji Yakusho, Makoto Kakeda, Makoto Togashi, Masahiro Toda, Masato Hagiwara, Misayo Haruki, Ren Osugi, Shôgo Suzuki, Shun Nakayama, Taijirō Tamura, Takeshi Mikami, Taro Suwa, Tsuyoshi Ujiki, Yoriko Dōguchi, Yukijiro Hotaru

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

The title of this 2018 Palme D'or winner is not to be taken metaphorically: Shoplifters is about a marginalized family of day workers, crooks, and small-time outlaws, who live on the fringes of Japanese society. Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) both have jobs but spruce up their low-wage income by committing petty crimes. One day in winter, Osamu takes in a bruised girl he finds outside in the cold and introduces her to the family in his ramshackle house. But when the second-youngest member of the family, Shota (Kairi Jyo), finds himself teaching her how to shoplift, he faces a moral dilemma that threatens to unravel the family's fabric. If you were hitherto unfamiliar with the unique storytelling and social realism of Hirokazu Koreeda, we really recommend checking it out—as well as his other movies, namely, Still Walking, Like Father, Like Son, I Wish, and After the Storm. His 2018 outing features the last ever performance of Kirin Kiki, who plays the elderly matriarch and passed away that same year. Like many of Koreeda's works, Shoplifters is an understated, beautiful, and mysterious study of the effects of poverty and trauma and a delicate portrait of a family in Japan's urban underbelly.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Family, Thriller

Actor: Aju Makita, Akira Emoto, Chizuru Ikewaki, Hajime Inoue, Haruna Hori, Jyo Kairi, Kairi Jo, Kairi Jyo, Kengo Kora, Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Mayu Matsuoka, Miyu Sasaki, Moemi Katayama, Nana Mizoguchi, Naoto Ogata, Sakura Andô, Sosuke Ikematsu, Yoko Moriguchi, Yuki Yamada, 山田裕貴, 松冈茉优, 蒔田 彩珠

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda, Hirokazu Koreeda

Rating: R

There are many movies by the much-celebrated Japanese auteur director Hirokazu Koreeda on A Good Movie to Watch. Why? Because, like all the movies we showcase here, his work is often little-known, but unbelievably good. After the Storm is no different. Much like his other works, notably Like Father, Like Son, Shoplifters, and Nobody Knows, it deals with the topic of family dynamics, regret, and disappointment. But his movies are never dramatic downers but delicate dioramas, understated in tone. Once a successful writer, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is now a private detective who spends the little money he makes on gambling instead of paying child support. His ex-wife and son are increasingly alienated by his behavior until one day, during a storm, they all find themselves trapped in Ryota's childhood home. Subtly touching on notions of inter-generational bond and tension –⁠ Koreeda's works are mesmerizing and stick with you long after you've finished watching.

Genre: Drama, Family

Actor: Aju Makita, Daisuke Kuroda, Hiroshi Abe, Isao Hashizume, Izumi Matsuoka, Jun Matsumoto, Kanji Furutachi, Kazuya Takahashi, Kensuke Ashihara, Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Maki Yoko, Makoto Nakamura, Michie Ikeda, Mickey Curtis, Rie Minemura, Ryoko Tateishi, Satomi Kobayashi, Shôno Hayama, Sosuke Ikematsu, Taiyo Yoshizawa, Yôko Maki, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Yūko Fukui, Yuri Nakamura, 蒔田 彩珠

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda, Hirokazu Koreeda

Rating: Not Rated

, 2000

Edward Yang’s masterful and lush Yi Yi follows the lives of the Jian family and their respective, middle-class worries. The father agonizes over a business deal and, at the back of his mind, an old flame. The mother struggles with emptiness, the daughter with sensuality, and the son with his burgeoning artistry. In the periphery are other family members trying to get by as best they can despite having no certain future to look forward to. The story, which is bookended with life and death, is punctuated with these lingering anxieties but also, crucially, with moments of potent, profound joys. 

The premise seems simple, but Yang weaves a breathtaking epic out of the mundane. The mise-en-scene is immersive, the dialogue delicate, and the direction effectively real. The understated elegance of each piece coming together to build a rich whole is what makes YiYi Yang’s legacy to the world of cinema.

Genre: Drama, Family, Romance

Actor: Adriene Lin, An-an Hsu, Chen Yiwen, Cheryl Yang, Danny Deng, Edward Yang, Elaine Jin, Hsi-Sheng Chen, Hsu Kuei-ying, Hsu Shu-Yuan, Issey Ogata, Jerry Sun, Jonathan Chang, Kai-Li Peng, Kate Yeung, Kelly Ko, Kelly Lee, Kenjiro Tsuda, Lawrence Ko, Leon Dai, Liang-Tso Liu, Luo Bei An, Ru-Yun Tang, Sharon Mao, Shau-Ching Sung, Shu-shen Hsiao, Shu-Yuan Hsu, Tang Ru-Yun, Tang Tsung Sheng, Tao Chuang Cheng, Wang Chi-tsan, Wu Nien-Jen, Yi-Wen Chen

Director: Edward Yang

If you're living alone and just came back home from a bad day, Wolf Children can make you feel like everything's alright. It's the kind of movie that feels like a warm hug and one that you will likely bookmark to get back to for this exact reason. Co-written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda, who's most known for The Girl Who Leaps Through Time, the title is to be taken without any salt: it tells the, allegedly true, story of a woman raising children who are half-human and half-wolf. It all starts with Yuki studying at Tokyo University, where she meets a mysterious and handsome young man, who can turn into a wolf at will. They fall in love and have children inheriting this strange skill. This is where the colorful visuals and life-affirming vibe of this anime give way to a bleak narrative turn. Wolf Children is a strange story of love and parenting told in an imitable style.

Genre: Adventure, Animation, Drama, Family, Fantasy

Actor: Amon Kabe, Aoi Miyazaki, Bunta Sugawara, Hajime Inoue, Haru Kuroki, Kumiko Aso, Mamoru Hosoda, Megumi Hayashibara, Mitsuki Tanimura, Momoka Ohno, Momoka Ono, Shota Sometani, Tadashi Nakamura, Taichi Masu, Takao Ohsawa, Takao Osawa, Takashi Kobayashi, Takuma Hiraoka, Tamio Ohki, Tomie Kataoka, Yukito Nishii

Director: Mamoru Hosoda

Rating: PG

While billed as a “ramen western”, Tampopo satirizes plenty of other American genres, including, but not limited to: 1) the inspirational sports film, with Tampopo’s diligent training, 2) the erotic, arthouse drama through its egg yolk kiss, 3) the witty, social comedy pointing out the absurd in dinnertime tables, and 4) the melodramatic mafia romance with its room-serviced hotel getaway. But the film doesn’t buckle under the weight of carrying all these genres– instead, the customer vignettes are all delicately plated to balance out the hearty journey of a store owner learning about ramen and the bemused, yet cohesive contemplation about food. Tampopo is one of a kind.

Genre: Comedy

Actor: Akio Tanaka, Chōei Takahashi, Fukumi Kuroda, Gō Awazu, Hideji Ōtaki, Hisashi Igawa, Hitoshi Takagi, Hyōe Enoki, Isao Hashizume, Izumi Hara, Ken Watanabe, Kenso Kato, Kinzō Sakura, Kōji Yakusho, Mariko Okada, Masahiko Tsugawa, Naritoshi Hayashi, Nobuko Miyamoto, Nobuo Nakamura, Rikiya Yasuoka, Ryutaro Otomo, Toshimune Kato, Toshiya Fujita, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Yoriko Dōguchi, Yoshi Katō, Zenpaku Kato

Director: Jūzō Itami

Rating: NR

Koreeda is a master of the tender gaze. He deals so softly, elegantly, and emphatically with the characters in his films, it will make you feel like you're watching life itself in all its complex, emotional splendor. Maybe this is particularly true for this movie because it has been inspired by Koreeda's memories of his own childhood and the passing of his mother. Still Walking is a quietly toned movie spanning a period of 24 hours in the life of the Yokoyama family, as they gather to commemorate the passing of their eldest son. At the center of the story is the father, an emotionally distant man who commands respect both from his family and community. Opposite from him sits the other son, the black sheep, who seeks his father's validation. Directed, written, and edited by Koreeda, this dynamic is one of many in this slice-of-life movie about how families deal with loss. And, however distant the culture or setting in Japan may seem to the outsider, you're bound to recognize either yourself or your family among the tender scenes of this masterful drama.

Genre: Drama, Family

Actor: Haruko Kato, Hiroshi Abe, Hotaru Nomoto, Kazuya Takahashi, Kirin Kiki, Ryoga Hayashi, Shohei Tanaka, Susumu Terajima, Yoshio Harada, You, Yui Natsukawa

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda, Hirokazu Koreeda

Rating: Not Rated

Frequently considered one of the greatest animated movies of all times, and certainly the highest-grossing film in Japanese history, Spirited Away is Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli at their very best. It was also the first non-English animation movie to win an Oscar. On the surface, it's a film about a Chihiro Ogino (Hiiragi), a young girl who stumbles into an abandoned theme park with her parents. In a creepy spiritual world full of Shinto folklore spirits, she sees all kinds of magic and fantastic creatures, while having to find a way to save her parents and escape. In addition to the adventure, the coming-of-age theme, and the motifs of ancient Japanese lore, the film can also be understood as a critique of the Western influence on Japanese culture and the struggle for identity in the wake of the 1990s economic crisis. A deep, fast-paced, and hypnotizing journey.

Genre: Animation, Family, Fantasy

Actor: Akiko Tomihira, Akio Nakamura, Bob Bergen, Bunta Sugawara, Daveigh Chase, David Ogden Stiers, Hayashikoba, Hiromi Takeuchi, Ikuko Yamamoto, Jack Angel, Jason Marsden, Jim Ward, John Ratzenberger, Kaori Yamagata, Katsutomo Shîbara, Kazutaka Hayashida, Keiko Tsukamoto, Ken Yasuda, Koba Hayashi, Lauren Holly, Mari Natsuki, Masayuki Kizu, Mayumi Saco, Michael Chiklis, Michiko Yamamoto, Mina Meguro, Minako Masuda, Miyu Irino, Naoto Kaji, Noriko Kitou, Orika Ono, Paul Eiding, Rina Yamada, Rodger Bumpass, Rumi Hiiragi, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Shigeru Wakita, Shigeyuki Totsugi, Shinobu Katabuchi, Shiro Saito, Shirou Saitou, Sonoko Soeda, Susan Egan, Suzanne Pleshette, Takashi Naito, Takehiko Ono, Tara Strong, Tatsuya Gashuin, Tetsurô Ishibashi, Tsunehiko Kamijo, Tsuzuki Kayako, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Yayoi Kazuki, Yo Oizumi, Yoko Ono, Yoshitaka Sukegawa, Yumi Tamai, 沢口靖子

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Rating: PG

The Sanskrit word Samsara refers to the wheel of life and roughly translates to “continuous flow”. And, indeed, Samsara takes us on an entrancing journey, chronicling the never-ending cycle of birth, life, death, and re-birth that life, big and small, goes through—at least according to the religions that were born on the Indian continent. Shot on 70mm film and utilizing computerized camera movements as well as time-lapse photography, this film by American director Ron Fricke delivers absolutely breath-taking visuals. Whether it's awe-inspiring vastness or the close-up of a human face, its narration-less narrative integrates every aspect of human and natural life regardless of scale or location. The scope of this effort is truly awe-inspiring and the clarity of it has to be seen to be believed. An unusual and magical film!

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Balinese Tari Legong Dancers, Hiroshi Ishiguro, Ni Made Megahadi Pratiwi, Olivier De Sagazan, Puti Sri Candra Dewi, Putu Dinda Pratika

Director: Ron Fricke

Rating: PG-13