20 Best Japanese Movies Every Film Buff Should Watch

Best Japanese movies

Japanese cinema is more than just colossal sea monsters rampaging through cities, spine-chilling horror movies, and animated box office sensations. For those who are looking for something more, dive deep into the world of Japanese cinema with our top 20 picks of the best Japanese movies.  

1. Departures (2008)

Image credit: IMDb

After a failed career as a cellist, Daigo Kobayashi and his wife return to his hometown in northern Japan. He unwittingly finds work as a nōkanshi (納棺師; Japanese ritual mortician), an unheralded profession that is often considered unclean in Japanese society. 

Image credit: IMDb

Though Daigo was subjected to prejudice initially, the people around him gradually come to understand the value of the work he does. Departures is a unique and beautiful take on the cultural taboos of death and funerals. Its portrayal of the industry received critical acclaim, winning the film the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.  

Video credit: TheBestJohnnyBoy

Available on: Amazon Prime 

2. University of Laughs (2004)

Image credit: IMDb

Set in pre-WWII Japan, the premise of University of Laughs is simple: a comedy playwright is determined to get his script approved by the censorship officer. The officer, who sees no value in comedy during wartime, is prepared to do everything in his power to discourage the playwright. 

As the playwright returns with an amended script day after day to have it approved, what started as outrageous demands and censorship cuts make the once subpar script better and better. Originally written as a radio show and broadcasted in 1994, University of Laughs was subsequently adapted into a play and finally, a film. 

Video credit: Federico De Marchi

Available on: DVD

3. Nobody Knows (2004)

Image credit: Wikipedia

Based on the real-life 1988 Sugamo child abandonment incident, Nobody Knows follows the heart-wrenching story of four underage half-siblings after they were abandoned by their biological mother. Left to fend for themselves with little money and food, the children struggle to survive and cope with their isolated existence in a small Tokyo apartment.  

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Available on: Amazon Prime

4. Always, Sunset at Third Avenue (2005)

Image credit: IMDb

Often touted as the Golden Age of Japan, the post-war Shōwa era was a period of rapid economic and social development. Always, Sunset at Third Avenue looks back at the good old 1950s in a fond manner. It follows the story of a group of characters as they move on from the ravages of war and strive for a better life. 

From being introduced to the wonders of refrigerators and revolutionary television sets, to having their first sips of Coca-Cola, the wholesome experiences and interactions of the characters make this a heart-warming classic not to be missed. 

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Available on: Amazon Prime, Hulu 

5. Shoplifters (2018)

Image credit: Yahoo Japan 

As the saying goes, blood is thicker than water. But the poor family of six in Shoplifters is connected by something even thicker than blood – petty theft. 

Stuck in poverty, the family members rely on committing crimes to survive. The father-son duo routinely shoplifts at local supermarkets, while the grandma continues to live off her dead husband’s pension. Shoplifters dives into the sobering reality of poverty in Japan and sheds light on those living life on the fringe.  

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Available on: Amazon Prime 

6. Suspect X (2008)

Image credit: Yahoo Japan 

If you enjoy watching intelligent characters play mind games in a battle of wits, Suspect X will be right up your alley. The film was adapted from Keigo Higashino’s most critically acclaimed novel, The Devotion of Suspect X. Unlike typical mystery-thrillers, the murderer’s identity is out in the open from the start. 

After Yasuko kills her abusive ex-husband, her sympathetic neighbour Ishigami, who is a mathematician, helps her cover up the murder. Yukawa, the genius physics professor helping out with the case, happens to be Ishigami’s ex-classmate and suspects his involvement in the murder. And so begins a cat and mouse game where both parties try to outwit each other. 

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Available on: Amazon Prime 

7. Swing Girls (2004)

Image credit: IMDb

What have you done to skip classes? Feign illness? Had your friend to cover up for your absence? Well, a bunch of lazy delinquent high school girls decided that joining the school’s brass band is a sure-fire way to miss their summer make-up class. 

Though initially reluctant to take learning the instruments seriously, the group of girls eventually began to enjoy playing jazz. With lovable characters and great music to boot, Swing Girls is a feel-good comedy movie that all jazz lovers should watch.  

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Available on: DVD

8. Go (2001)

Image credit: IMDb

Born to a Japanese mum and a North Korean dad, Sugihara has felt like a misfit his whole life. He is what you would call a “Zainichi Korean” – ethnic Koreans with lineage tracing back to Korea, but who have since assimilated into Japanese society.  

Go is a coming-of-age film that follows Sugihara as he learns to deal with his dual identity and cultural roots after he falls for a bigoted Japanese girl. It reflects the grim reality of the racism long-term Korean residents in Japan are subjected to and tackles the complex problem of citizenship in the country. 

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Available on: Amazon Prime, AbemaTV

9. Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (1997)

Image credit: Yahoo Japan

Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald is a hilarious film adapted from a stage play. 

The film shows the behind-the-scenes workings of a live radio broadcast in Tokyo and follows Miyako Suzuki, a timid housewife whose script for a romance drama gets selected for broadcast. 

However, no thanks to unreasonable demands and ridiculous ideas from difficult actors thrown into the mix, Suzuki’s story gets changed beyond recognition. As the production team improvises, the situation spirals out of control and hilarity ensues. 

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Available on: Amazon Prime, DVD

10. Tampopo (1985)

Image credit: IMDb

With cooking channels abound and easily accessible, we’re truly living in the age of food porn. In 1985, however, the gastronomic experience on the big screen was not yet a thing. Tampopo was the first Japanese food movie of its kind.  

A mousy, hardworking widow is left with her deceased husband’s ramen shop. With no experience in ramen making, she enlists the help of two mentors, both of whom happen to be ramen-loving truck drivers. Tampopo is a cult classic that Japanese cinema lovers have deemed a must-watch – just make sure that you’re not viewing it in the middle of the night, lest hunger pangs strike. 

Video credit: TIFF Trailers

Available on: Amazon Prime, DVD 

11. Still Walking (2008)

Image credit: Amazon Japan

One of the earlier works of Kore-eda Hirokazu, the same director behind Shoplifters, Still Walking tells the story of a family who has gathered to commemorate the death of their eldest son, who died tragically 12 years prior while trying to rescue a boy from drowning.

The film is not a tear-jerker by any means, but it’s an authentic and solemn portrayal of the life of a family in modern Japan.  

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Available on: Amazon Prime, DVD 

12. Hana-bi (1997)

Image credit: IMDb

Directed and written by Takeshi Kitano – who also stars in the film – Hana-Bi follows Nishi, a retired violent cop who spends most of his time taking care of his terminally ill wife. 

Life’s been going downhill for Nishi – his only daughter passed away two years ago, his wife suffers from leukaemia, and his friends in the police force were either killed or left crippled after a violent stake-out. At his wit’s end and struggling to afford his wife’s medical bills, Nishi turns to questionable methods to obtain money.  

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Available on: Amazon Prime, DVD 

13. Her Love Boils Bathwater (2016)

Image credit: IMDb

Grab some tissues and strap in for an emotional ride. After single mother Futaba realises that she only has months to live, she sets out to make the best out of her remaining time by bringing her family back together. 

Futaba reaches out to her estranged ex-husband, gets her defunct bathhouse running again, and prepares her adolescent daughter for life after her death. Her Love Boils Bathwater is a touching film that will make you want to hug your mum right away.  

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Available on: Amazon Prime, DVD

14. 100 Yen Love (2014)

Image credit: IMDb

Single and unemployed at the age of 32, protagonist Ichiko isn’t exactly the poster child of what Japanese society would deem as a successful woman today. She spends most of her days at her parent’s home and in oversized pyjamas, until an argument with her sister causes Ichiko to move out of the house out of spite.

After landing a part-time job at a nearby 100 yen store, Ichiko meets a regular customer and soon becomes enamoured with him and his interest in boxing. You’d have to watch 100 Yen Love to find out what happens, but let’s just say that the fateful encounter changes her life.  

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Available on: Amazon Prime, DVD, Blu-Ray

15. Tokyo Sonata (2008)

Image credit: AllMovie

At first glance, the Sasakis in Tokyo Sonata seem like your typical nuclear family in Japan – the dad works as a salaryman, the mum is a housewife, and the two teenage sons are still in school. 

Unbeknownst to each other, the family members all have their own secrets. The dad has been retrenched but is unable to come clean with his family. Instead, he pretends to commute to work every day. 

The mum feels unfulfilled as a housewife, the youngest son secretly takes piano lessons, and the eldest child plans to enlist in the military. As the deception and lies are revealed, the Sasaki family slowly disintegrates.  

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Available on: Amazon Prime 

16. The Great Passage (2013)

Image credit: Yahoo Japan

Majime, a salesman in a publishing company, is terrible at his job. But his unique connection to words and linguistics catches the attention of Araki, an editor in the dictionary department who is looking for young blood to join the team. After he is headhunted by Araki, Majime joins the team. Together, they compile the titular new dictionary “The Great Passage”.  

The premise of dictionary-making sounds dull, but The Great Passage reveals the fascinating and labour-intensive work that goes into completing one.  

Video credit: International Film Festival Rotterdam

Available on: Amazon Prime 

17. The Funeral (1984)

Image credit: Yahoo Japan

You wouldn’t normally associate laughter with the subject of death, but in The Funeral, comedy takes centre stage. After his father-in-law passes away, the responsibility of undertaking suddenly falls on the shoulders of Wabisuke and his wife, Chizuko. 

As the couple and their extended family plan for a traditional funeral, their exposure and hilarious reactions to a slew of intricate Buddhist rituals will give you a much needed cathartic dose of laughter. 

Video credit: 劇場予告

Available on: Amazon Prime 

18. Penguin Highway (2018)

Image credit: IMDb

Penguin Highway has a peculiar, intriguing premise imbued with cuteness and a healthy dose of fun for good measure.

When adorable penguins start to appear in his sleepy hometown, 10-year-old Aoyama decides to take matters into his own hands and investigate their origins. He soon finds out that the mysterious appearance of these aquatic mammals is connected to a young woman he met at a dental clinic. 

Video credit: Eleven Arts

Available on: Amazon Prime 

19. Shall We Dance? (1996)

Image credit: Yahoo Japan

Virtuous salaryman Shohei seems to have his whole life figured out and is living his best life, but he can’t shake off this nagging feeling of emptiness and unfulfillment. That is until he meets Mai, a beautiful dancer, on his commute home. 

Enamoured and intrigued, Shohei signs up for ballroom dance lessons at Mai’s dance studio and his once mundane world starts to be filled with colour. Shall We Dance? was so well-received in Japan and internationally that it inspired a Hollywood remake. 

Video credit: okaime 

Available on: Amazon Prime 

20. The Taste Of Tea (2004)

Image credit: Yahoo Japan

Hearing your voice in your head is pretty normal, but having a giant doppelganger hover around your side isn’t. Sachiko, the young daughter of the Haruno family, is being followed by a gigantic version of herself. In order to get rid of her unwelcome company, she is convinced that the perfect backflip has to be executed. 

Taste of Tea tells the story of the quirky Sachiko and her family as they move to a rural town.  

Video credit: FILMS NEW PEOPLE

Available on: Amazon Prime, DVD 

Best Japanese movies to watch

From cult classics to film festival favourites, Japanese cinema has a plethora of movies for you to choose from. Grab some popcorn, snuggle up, and enjoy our pick of the best movies Japan has to offer. 

For more films and series to watch, check out these articles:

Cover image adapted from: Yahoo Japan, Yahoo Japan, and IMDb

Xiu Ting Wong

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