17 Best Japanese Films Movies to Watch

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

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, Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Maki Yoko, Makoto Nakamura, 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

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

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, 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, Sonoko Soeda, Susan Egan, Suzanne Pleshette, Takashi Naito, Takehiko Ono, Tara Strong, Tatsuya Gashuin, Tetsurô Ishibashi, Tsunehiko Kamijo, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Yayoi Kazuki, Yo Oizumi, Yoko Ono, Yoshitaka Sukegawa, Yumi Tamai, 沢口靖子

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Rating: PG

Koreeda's troubled childhood often serves as the inspiration for his poignant Japanese dramas that deal with loss, the meaning of being a child, and of being parent. In Like Father, Like Son, Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama), a hard-working architect, who is married to his work, comes home from work. He receives a call from the hospital where his son Keita was born and learns that he was switched at birth with their biological son Ryūsei. His wife and him are not only faced with the prospect of having to switch the two six-year-olds back, but also with the rickety family his 'real' son grew up in—and his aversion to what they stand for. But who is real and who isn't? Must they be switched back? The age-old question of nature vs. nurture and the relationship of love and biology is at the heart of the parent's struggle. As always with Koreeda's works, the result is soft-spoken, sensitive, and symphonically directed. Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes.

Genre: Drama, Family

Actor: Arata Iura, Hana Kino, Hiroshi Ôkôchi, Ichirō Ogura, Isao Natsuyagi, Jun Fubuki, Jun Kunimura, Kazuaki Shimizu, Kazuya Takahashi, Keiji Nakazawa, Keita Ninomiya, Ken Ochiai, Kirin Kiki, Kōichi Kitamura, Lily Franky, Machiko Ono, Maki Yoko, Masaharu Fukuyama, Megumi Morisaki, Meguri Hiroo, Natsuki Inaba, Pierre Taki, Rina Endou, Sasaki Masakazu, Shogen Hwang, Tetsushi Tanaka, Tomomitsu Adachi, Tomoya Nakamura, Yamamoto Shuri, Yo Yoshida, Yoh Yoshida, Yôko Maki, Yuji Yoshimasu, Yujiro Komura, Yuri Nakamura, 福山雅治

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda, Hirokazu Koreeda

Rating: Not Rated

Watching A Silent Voice, sensitive viewers will likely feel repulsion toward the main character, Shoya Ishida — and maybe you should, for the awful things he did as a kid. You might even feel the urge to jump into your screen and protect Shouko Nishimiya, the deaf girl who is new at school. A beautifully crafted anime, the story captures a high-school bully’s remorse and despair as he tries to redeem himself from past wrongdoing, demonstrating that even the cruelest among us can become vulnerable to feelings of shame and regret. While it is heart wrenching, the story is also full of hope, showing how to ask for forgiveness, as well as how to give it. Beyond the great script, animation, colours, and scoring, each shot of A Silent Voice is a masterpiece in and of itself.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Aoi Yuki, Kensho Ono, Mayu Matsuoka, Megumi Han, Miyu Irino, Naoko Yamada, Saori Hayami, Toshiyuki Toyonaga, Yoshitoki Oima, Yui Ishikawa, Yuki Kaneko

Director: Naoko Yamada

Rating: Not Rated

The tragic irony of war — that, if battling soldiers had been born in any other time or place, they may well have been friends with each other — takes center stage in this brilliant drama set in WWII-era Java. It's a theme best encapsulated by Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto in his film debut), the bushido code-following commandant of a Japanese POW camp: “How wonderful it would have been if we could have invited all of you to a gathering under our cherry trees,” he muses to the titular British Lieutenant Lawrence (Tom Conti), one of his prisoners.

Lawrence is the camp’s mediator, and not just because he’s fluent in Japanese; in the culture clash microcosm that is the camp, he is uniquely understanding of his captors’ way of life. That earns him special privileges of sorts from the camp’s often brutal enforcer (Takeshi Kitano), but this pales in comparison to the instant partiality with which the charismatic Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) enjoys, courtesy of a smitten yet deeply repressed and tormented Yonoi. This psychosexual undercurrent bubbles furiously throughout Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, deepening its (already poignant) lamentations about war’s humanity-stripping effect and the self-imposed prisons that are honor and shame.

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Alistair Browning, Arthur Ranford, Colin Francis, Daisuke Iijima, David Bowie, Grant Bridger, Hideo Murota, Hiroshi Mikami, Jack Thompson, Johnny Ohkura, Kan Mikami, Rokkō Toura, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Ryūnosuke Kaneda, Takashi Naito, Takeshi Kitano, Tamio Ishikura, Tom Conti, Yūji Honma, Yūya Uchida

Director: Nagisa Ōshima

Rating: R

Small, Slow But Steady is a quiet, contemplative film about a deaf boxer named Keiko. Keiko is determined to become a professional boxer, but she faces many challenges; the pandemic, the closure of her boxing club, and the illness of her aging coach. The film's director, Sho Miyake, excellently captures the slow, deliberate pace of Keiko's training; and the quiet moments of her life outside the ring. 

With serene wide shots of the Japanese countryside and small intimate moments in the boxing ring, the film lives up to its name, giving a tender portrayal of the need for connection and community in (and outside) of the pandemic. The steady performances from Yukino Kishii as Keiko and Masahiro Higashide as her coach make this slow-burning film a rewarding and inspiring story about perseverance and the power of dreams.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Himi Sato, Hiroko Nakajima, Makiko Watanabe, Masaki Miura, Nobuko Sendo, Tomokazu Miura, Tomomitsu Adachi, Yukino Kishii, Yuko Nakamura, Yutaka Shimizu

Director: Sho Miyake

For public toilet cleaner Hirayama, “enjoy the little things in life” is more than just an adage: it’s a philosophy. Every day, he follows a strict routine of watering his plants, going to work, taking a break at a nearby shrine, and having dinner at his favorite stalls. It seems unexceptional, and yet Hirayama manages to find small, meaningful joys in between (and at) those very moments. A tree branch dancing in the breeze and shadows making funny shapes are enough to make him chuckle, while it seems like a good book and a trusty cassette are all he needs to be at peace. Hirayama’s mundane miracles are life-affirming, but make no mistake: this isn’t one of those cheesy films that push you to be happy no matter what. Director Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire) infuses the film with a certain gloom so that the overall tone is one of deep, poignant melancholy. Through vague clues about Hirayama’s past, we learn that his attempts at capturing joy might also be bids to escape a traumatic life. All this builds to a powerful ending that speaks to the complexity of human emotion. We can be happy and sad, peaceful and troubled, lonely and content all at the same time, and it’s okay. At the end of the day, we’ll still have our favorite book passage, our favorite singer, a great artwork, or a beautiful park to return to, and sometimes that’s all the reminder you need that life can be worth living.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Aoi Iwasaki, Aoi Yamada, Arisa Nakano, Atsushi Fukazawa, Bunmei Harada, Daigo Matsui, Gan Furukawa, Hairi Katagiri, Hiroto Oshita, Inuko Inuyama, Kōji Yakusho, Makiko Okamoto, Masahiro Koumoto, Mijika Nagai, Min Tanaka, Miyako Tanaka, Morio Agata, Morooka Moro, Motomi Makiguchi, Nao Takahashi, Naoko Ken, Nari Saitô, Nijika Tonouchi, Sayuri Ishikawa, Soraji Shibuya, Taijirō Tamura, Tamae Ando, Tateto Serizawa, Tokio Emoto, Tomokazu Miura, Tomoyuki Shibata, Yoneko Matsukane, Yumi Asou, Yuriko Kawasaki

Director: Wim Wenders

Rating: PG

Fun and whimsical to its core, this animated film takes viewers on a visually captivating, surreal, and enchanting journey through a single night in Kyoto. The movie immerses you in an entertaining and eccentric world with its vibrant animation, characters, and offbeat humor following two unnamed characters only referred to as "The Girl with Black Hair" and "Senpai." The narrative weaves together various quirky encounters, love interests, and strange events, keeping you engaged and curious. Blending romance, comedy, and coming-of-age themes, Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is a joyous celebration of youth, adventure, and the unpredictable nature of life's unexpected twists and turns.

Genre: Animation, Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Romance

Actor: Ami Koshimizu, Aoi Yuki, Chikara Honda, Gen Hoshino, Hiroshi Kamiya, Hiroyuki Yoshino, Junichi Suwabe, Kana Hanazawa, Kazuhiro Yamaji, Kazuya Nakai, Masaaki Yuasa, Mugihito, Nobuyuki Hiyama, Ryuji Akiyama, Seiko Niizuma, Yuhko Kaida

Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Rating: PG-13

Directed by Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams, this documentary combines intimate interviews, fly-on-the-wall observation, and striking cinematography to present a compelling glimpse into the lives of three transgender individuals working as hosts in Tokyo's bustling Shinjuku district. With unprecedented access to the subjects' lives, the documentary delves deep into their emotional journeys, capturing their hopes, fears, and aspirations surrounding identity, gender, and societal acceptance.  An eye-opening documentary that wastes none of its 53-minute runtime, Shinjuku Boys challenges preconceived notions and invites viewers to empathize with individuals navigating a world that often marginalizes them. 

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Director: Jano Williams, Kim Longinotto

Arrietty may not be as epic as other Ghibli movies, both in the literal and figurative sense, but its tiny world is so richly detailed that you could spend hours studying a single frame of the film. In Arrietty’s lovely house-underneath-a-house, stamps are hung on the walls like paintings, a flowerpot serves as the hearth, a tea canister is a cabinet, an olive a chair, a sewing pin a sword, a clothespin a hair tie, and so on. The possibilities are endless, but the film tries to exhaust them as much as it can. This alone makes Arrietty a delightful watch, but the simple story at the heart of it—one of survival, empathy, and faith—elevates into a timeless classic.

Genre: Animation, Family, Fantasy

Actor: Amy Poehler, Bridgit Mendler, Carol Burnett, David Henrie, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Keiko Takeshita, Kirin Kiki, Mirai Shida, Moises Arias, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Shinichi Hatori, Shinobu Otake, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Tomokazu Miura, Will Arnett

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Rating: G

Part fantasy, part road trip, and part coming-of-age, Suzume is a rich and fast-paced tale with no dull moments in between. The energy is relentless and the animation, as expected, is dazzling, so even though there are occasional plot holes and melodramatic reaches, you’d be hard-pressed not to forgive them. Suzume still wins you over. Of course, the fantastical aspects are what make Shinkai’s films his, but Suzume works best when it zeroes in on humans and their complicated feelings toward each other. The confrontation between Suzume and her aunt, where Suzume accuses her of suffocation and the aunt, in turn, laments the life she could’ve had if she wasn’t charged with caring for her dead sister’s daughter, is just as shattering as any scene involving slaying monsters or battling gods. I only wish there were more tender moments like this, but Suzume is just as endearing and entrancing all the same.

Genre: Adventure, Animation, Drama, Fantasy

Actor: Aimi, Akihiro Tajima, Arisa Maesako, Ayumi Tsuji, Eri Fukatsu, Genta Nakamura, Hinano Harumi, Hokuto Matsumura, Kaito Ogawa, Kana Hanazawa, Katsumi Fukuhara, Kotone Hanase, Kyo Yaoya, Matsumoto Hakuō II, Nanoka Hara, Ryoko Nagata, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Sairi Ito, Saori Seto, Shinjirou Gouda, Shota Sometani, Takuya Yokota, Tomomichi Nishimura, Yoji Ueda, Yoshino Aoyama, Yuki Sorami, Yuri Kimura, Yuu Ayase

Director: Makoto Shinkai

Rating: PG

A beautiful enigma from start to finish, Angel's Egg follows a young girl carrying a large egg through a desolate, post-apocalyptic world. She meets a young boy who helps her on her journey, and together they search for answers about the egg and the world they inhabit. Filled with religious symbolism, it teeters between a story about the creation of the universe and a meditation on the nature of faith and belief. From director Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell), this largely wordless film relies on its surreal and enigmatic dark visuals and atmosphere to tell its story. Heavy with silence and shadows, this disturbingly stunning film is up for interpretation. 

Genre: Animation, Drama, Fantasy, Mystery

Actor: Jinpachi Nezu, Keiichi Noda, Mako Hyodo, Mako Hyoudou

Director: Mamoru Oshii