24 Best Japanese 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

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

From the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, and courtesy of Studio Ghibli, which also brought you Spirited Away, comes this epic whirlwind of a story. Set during a fantastical late Muromachi period, the medieval era of Japan, in a time when many humans were still living among nature, while others set out to conquer and tame it, the movie follows a young man named Ashitaka, who he seeks cure for the curse of a boar god, giving him superhuman powers but eventually killing him. He rides west on a fantastic beast, where he eventually sees a young woman named San, also known as Princess Mononoke. What unfolds from here, is an epic tale of mythical war on many fronts, between the nature gods and humans. While this may sound like a dichotomy, it never is that morally simplistic. The story is action-packed and fast-paced, drawing freely from Japanese mythology as well as modern hot-topic political issues. Add to this the fantastic visuals: Hayao Miyazaki uses a mixture of hand drawings and 3D rendering that are nothing short of spectacular. In short, Princess Mononoke is movie history. If you haven't seen it yet, do it now.

Genre: Adventure, Animation, Fantasy

Actor: Akihiro Miwa, Akira Nagoya, Akira Sakamoto, Alex Fernandez, Billy Bob Thornton, Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Corey Burton, Daikichi Sugawara, Debi Derryberry, Gillian Anderson, Hisaya Morishige, Ikuko Yamamoto, Jada Pinkett Smith, John DeMita, John DiMaggio, Kaoru Kobayashi, Keith David, Kiho Iinuma, Makoto Satō, Masahiko Nishimura, Minnie Driver, Mitsuko Mori, Mitsuru Satô, Shiro Saito, Sumi Shimamoto, Takako Katou, Tara Strong, Tetsu Watanabe, Tsunehiko Kamijo, Yayoi Kazuki, Yôji Matsuda, Yoshimasa Kondô, Youji Matsuda, Yûko Tanaka, Yuriko Ishida

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Rating: PG-13

Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s feature debut is nothing short of a masterpiece, his style of serenity apparent from the get-go. With Kore-eda’s still frames and touching, relatable stories, it’s almost impossible not to find yourself caring for his characters like they are your own family. 

In Maborosi, Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) is haunted by one loss after another and struggles to accept these tragedies and move on with her life. Her story is probably the toughest Kore-eda has had to tell, yet there is still a certain beauty to it, especially in its quietness and moody atmosphere. Not forcing any of his characters’ feelings on the audience, Kore-eda manages to tell a harrowing tale in the gentlest of ways.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Akira Emoto, Hidekazu Akai, Hiromi Ichida, Makiko Esumi, Midori Kiuchi, Minori Terada, Mutsuko Sakura, Ren Osugi, Sayaka Yoshino, Tadanobu Asano, Takashi Inoue, Takashi Naito

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Rating: Not Rated

Studio Ghibli has brought us moving, remarkable animated films such as Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke. One of Studio Ghibli’s most overlooked movies is Yoshifumi Kondou’s Whisper of the Heart, which finds magic in the ordinary every day. Shizuku is a young girl with great aspirations to become a writer—the only thing stopping her is herself. When she comes across a curious antique shop, she befriends a mysterious boy and his grandfather, who are just the push she needs to look inward and discover her own artistic capabilities.

If you have ever wanted to create something bigger and better than yourself—a story, a song, a poem, a painting, a work of art—then Whisper of the Heart will excite you, will call to you, will remind you to answer your heart’s calling.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Family

Actor: Issey Takahashi, Kazuo Takahashi, Keiju Kobayashi, Maiko Kayama, Mayumi Iizuka, Mayumi Izuka, Minami Takayama, Mitsuaki Ogawa, Naohisa Inoue, Shigeru Muroi, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi, Shiro Kishibe, Takashi Tachibana, Toshio Suzuki, Yoko Honna, Yorie Yamashita, Yoshifumi Kondo, Yoshimi Nakajima

Director: Yoshifumi Kondô, Yoshifumi Kondou

Rating: G

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

Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue is a chilling psychological thriller and a fantastic next step for those looking to explore anime’s dark side. Kon animates with Hitchcockian flair and is so successful at memorable compositions that Darren Aronofsky even lifted a scene from this into Requiem for a Dream. 

Mima is a pop idol who abandons her singing career to become an actress. Shaken by a series of murders, and a stalker who knows her every move, she begins to lose her grip on reality. The rest is a riveting ride into Mima’s unraveling psyche in the vein of Mulholland Drive or Black Swan. This 1996 film not only anticipates the reality busting thrillers of the early aughts but also presages the way our identities are splintered across the internet.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Thriller

Actor: Akio Suyama, Emi Motoi, Emi Shinohara, Emiko Furukawa, Hideyuki Hori, Jin Yamanoi, Junko Iwao, Kaori Minami, Kishō Taniyama, Kiyoyuki Yanada, Kōichi Tōchika, Masaaki Okura, Masashi Ebara, Megumi Tano, Osamu Hosoi, Rica Matsumoto, Shiho Niiyama, Shin-ichiro Miki, Shin'ichirō Miki, Shinpachi Tsuji, Soichiro Hoshi, Takashi Nagasako, Teiya Ichiryusai, Tōru Furusawa, Yoku Shioya, Yosuke Akimoto, Yousuke Akimoto

Director: Kou Matsuo, Satoshi Kon

Rating: R

Surreal, strange, yet wondrous, Penguin Highway never takes a straightforward approach to its story. Penguins pop up out of nowhere, leading the nerdy and precocious Aoyama to study them via empirical observation and logical deduction. These studies don’t end up with a feasible explanation– in fact, by the final act, the film abandons all laws of physics. But the journey to that act feels intuitively right. This journey feels like an indescribable formative experience. Aoyama may be obsessed with growing up and committing to the reasonable adult mindset, but he is still a child. From fending off bullies to forming connections with others, his childhood imagination served him better than science could. The film reveres this discovery as well as it should.

Genre: Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Drama, Fantasy

Actor: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Kana Kita, Landen Beattie, Mamiko Noto, Megumi Han, Miki Fukui, Misaki Kuno, Naoto Takenaka, Rie Kugimiya, Winston Bromhead, Yu Aoi

Director: Hiroyasu Ishida

Rating: Not Rated

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

This beautiful, realistic, and nostalgic anime movie about childhood is one that almost anyone can relate to. Set in the year of 1982, twenty-seven-year-old Taeko Okajima is traveling to the countryside by train. Along her journey, she gets flashbacks of her childhood: mostly in elementary school, stealing glances at a boy, and navigating puberty. The movie goes back and forth between past and present, easily making one long for sun-filled summers of yesteryear and silly jokes between playfriends. As well as telling a story about Taeko's past, Only Yesterday also tells a story about her present, and the combined realism of the plotline with the beautiful animation grips you and doesn’t let go. Only Yesterday truly feels like home.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Romance

Actor: Chie Kitagawa, Ichirō Nagai, Issey Takahashi, Masahiro Ito, Masahiro Itou, Mayumi Iizuka, Mayumi Izuka, Michie Terada, Miki Imai, Toshiro Yanagiba, Yoko Honna, Yorie Yamashita, Yoshimasa Kondô, Yuki Minowa, Yuuki Masuda

Director: Isao Takahata

Rating: PG

In what was originally intended to be his final film, Hayao Miyazaki is at his most lucid with The Wind Rises. Fluid and luminous, it cleanly moves between a grounded, historical reality and an intuitive, imaginative dreamscape. Here Miyazaki reflects on the process of creation and what it means to be an artist, drawing parallels between his own meticulousness as a filmmaker with Horikoshi’s immutable passion for flight and efficient design.

But questions of responsibility and duty arise, as Horikoshi—and by extension, Miyazaki—must reckon with the reality that even things as beautiful as aeroplanes can be destructive, and that even dreams can be violent. This meditative film does not offer any easy answers but it provides solace in its prevailing sentiment: The wind is rising, we must try to live.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Family, History, Romance, War

Actor: Hayao Miyazaki, Hideaki Anno, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Jun Kunimura, Kaichi Kaburagi, Keiko Takeshita, Mansai Nomura, Martin Short, Masahiko Nishimura, Miori Takimoto, Mirai Shida, Morio Kazama, Sascha, Shinobu Otake, Stephen Alpert

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Rating: PG-13

As impressive as Studio Ghibli’s collection of films are, I am still stubborn to believe that Porco Rosso is its most underrated film. Porco Rosso, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, is the story of a World War military aviator-turned-bounty hunter who has mysteriously been transformed into a pig. 

Bright with humor, heart, and flight (Miyazaki is largely influenced and inspired by the art of aviation), Porco Rosso manages to also acknowledge and reckon with the horrors of war. It also boasts one of, if not the greatest, line in any Ghibli film: I’d rather be a pig than a fascist.

Genre: Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family

Actor: Akemi Okamura, Akio Otsuka, Bunshi Katsura, Bunshi Katsura Vi, Hiroko Seki, Mahito Tsujimura, Minoru Yada, Osamu Saka, Reizō Nomoto, Sanshi Katsura, Shûichirô Moriyama, Tokiko Kato, Tsunehiko Kamijo, Yoko Soumi, Yu Shimaka

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Rating: PG

Another indie zombie movie? Far from it. One Cut of the Dead, written and directed by Shin'ichirô Ueda, became a global sensation following its small theatrical run in Japan for its creative and original screenplay. A hack director and film crew are shooting a low-budget zombie movie in an abandoned WWII Japanese facility when they are attacked by real zombies. That’s all you need to know about the plot, as the film is full of surprises that will catch you off guard. Wondering how an independent film with a budget of just $25,000 was able to gross over $30 million worldwide? The answer lies in the film itself. 

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Horror

Actor: Ayana Goda, Donguri, Harumi Shuhama, Harumi Syuhama, Hiroshi Ichihara, Kazuaki Nagaya, Manabu Hosoi, Mao, Miki Yoshida, Sakina Asamori, Shinichiro Osawa, Shiori Nukumi, Shuntaro Yamazaki, Takayuki Hamatsu, Yuzuki Akiyama

Director: Shin'ichirō Ueda, Shin'ichiro Ueda

Rating: Not Rated, Unrated

5 Centimeters per Second is a quiet, beautiful anime about the life of a boy called Takaki, told in three acts over the span of seventeen years. The movie explores the experience and thrill of having a first love, as well as being someone else’s. In depicting how delicate it is to hold special feelings towards another, director Makoto Shinkai also perfectly captures how cruel the passing of time can be for someone in love. While the early stage of the movie maintains a dreamy mood, as the stories develop we become thrust back into reality, where it is not quite possible to own that which we want the most. All things considered, 5 Centimeters per Second is a story about cherishing others, accepting reality, and letting people go.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Family, Romance

Actor: Akira Nakagawa, Ayaka Onoue, Hiroshi Shimozaki, Keiko Izeki, Kenji Mizuhashi, Masami Iwasaki, Mika Sakenobe, Rika Nakamura, Rion Kako, Risa Mizuno, Ryo Naito, Ryou Naitou, Satomi Hanamura, Suguru Inoue, Yoshiko Iseki, Yoshimi Kondou, Yuka Terasaki, Yuka Terazaki, Yuko Nakamura

Director: Makoto Shinkai

Rating: TV-PG

One of Studio Ghibli’s overlooked gems, My Neighbors the Yamadas is a charming anthology film about a modern-day Japanese family. The film sets itself apart from other Ghibli films through its unique doodle-like watercolor animation and its short piano themes. While the vignettes may just depict regular family conflicts, the scenes still feel compelling due to the Yamadas’ imagination of the metaphors that they use. Exaggerating the metaphors keeps the audience breathless in certain strategic moments - most notably in the wedding day speech of the mother of the bride. While not as fantastical as Ghibli’s other offerings, the completely digital My Neighbors the Yamadas finds humor in and celebrates the mundane.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Family

Actor: Akiko Yano, Chôchô Miyako, Hayato Isohata, Masako Araki, Naomi Uno, Tamao Nakamura, Toru Masuoka, Yukiji Asaoka

Director: Isao Takahata

Rating: PG