Courtesy of FUNimation
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate
"Kill Bill, Volume 1" wherein hushed Japanese temples become the backdrop for epic girl-on-girl combat.
If you’re longing for a trip to Tokyo, get a shot of Japanese culture by watching these movies—from anime to film festival favorites—all set in the capital city.
Whether your favorite Tokyo story stars Godzilla or Bill Murray, you know that the Japanese cinema has produced some amazing movies of every kind and has even come up with genres of its own. Not surprisingly perhaps, Japan, rich in artistic traditions, mastered the medium and its movies entertain fans around the world. We’ve prepared a curated list of our favorite Japanese movies set in Tokyo, full of gangsters, monsters, romance, and quiet beauty. Pretend you’re there: Make yourself a big bowl of ramen, put up your feet, and embark on a streaming trip to Tokyo.
On its face, Jiro Dreams of Sushi sounds like the kind of movie you may have trouble convincing others to watch: A documentary that follows 85-year-old Jiro Ono making sushi at a 10-seat restaurant in a Tokyo subway station. Hmm. But when you add the fact that the restaurant is Michelin-starred, and that Jiro has two sons trying to fulfill their father’s legacy, suddenly things become a lot more interesting. It doesn’t hurt that Jiro himself is charming and that the documentary allows us a look into the kaizen (art of unattainable perfection) that characterizes Japan. Best to watch with some sushi on deck. —Katherine LaGrave, Digital features editor
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation walks a line between comedy and drama, light and dark. With a bustling Tokyo as its backdrop, the film stars Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte, a young wife on location with her photographer husband, and Bill Murray as Bob Harris, a past-his-prime movie star bored in his own marriage. In between Bob’s commitments shooting an ad for Suntory whiskey, the two gallivant around the city, singing karaoke at Karaoke-Kan in Shibuya and eating sushi in Daikanyama. Made most famous by the film, perhaps, is the sleek, sky-high New York Grill at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Though some of the scenes around Japanese culture are dialed up for comedic effect, the film’s theme of existential ennui will ring true for most. —K.L.
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I saw Shoplifters right when it arrived in U.S. theaters, so intrigued was I by both its promise (to shed light on an oft-overlooked side of the city) and its premise (a family lives in poverty on the outskirts of Tokyo and uses shoplifting to get by, but becomes entangled in the disappearance of a young girl). The film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the first Japanese film to win the accolade since 1997, and it was a 2019 finalist for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards. (It lost to Roma.) —K.L.
The secretive yakuza, or Japanese organized crime organization, is the object of seemingly endless fascination. In Kill Bill: Volume 1, they’re given some screen time, even if that screen time is packed with more blood and gore than is comfortable to stomach. The crime bosses feature heavily in the movie’s fantastical fight scene at the Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves: Here, former assassin Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman) swiftly dispatches the personal army of O-Ren Ishii, the so-called Queen of the Tokyo Underworld, before taking on Ishii (played by Lucy Liu) herself. —K.L.
Before Akira became an essential part of any anime collection, it started as a serialized manga (Japanese comic) in 1982 and was later compiled into seven lengthy graphic novels. The manga author also wrote and directed this film adaptation, resulting in a two-hour movie that’s very heavy but very close to the source material. Set in 2019, the narrative manages to be both dystopian fiction and prophecy, depicting a Tokyo that survived WWIII in 1988 and is attempting to host the 2020 Olympics. Unrest permeates Neo-Tokyo as religious fanatics and biker gangs take to the streets, unaware of disturbing experiments the military is conducting on children with psychic abilities. The movie is as dark as it sounds, and the hand-drawn animation adds a gritty beauty to the experience. —Nicole Antonio, Managing editor
This animated teen-centric tale takes the “star-crossed lovers” trope more literally than most romances, following two high school students who have never met but find themselves switching bodies after a celestial event that only takes place every 1,200 years. Japanophiles will swoon over the meticulously drawn scenery: lanterns illuminating the last night of an autumn festival in a rural town, the JR Yamanote train pulling out of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station, popular cafés serving up soufflé pancakes for our protagonists to photograph, street food stalls hawking skewered meats and fresh mochi. Even if young adult love stories aren’t your favorite, this feature-length anime is worth watching for its dazzling depictions of Japan. —N.A.
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Set in struggling, postwar Tokyo, this movie offers a compelling version of the idea that a cop and a killer can be two sides of the same coin. Toshiro Mifune plays a young detective whose gun has been stolen and used in a murder. He is determined to get it back, and that search takes him to black markets in the city’s tough underworld. Directed by Akira Kurosawa.—Pat Tompkins, Copy editor
Some writers live bland, desk-bound lives. Not novelist and playwright Yukio Mishima. One of the four parts of this film—Art, Action, Beauty, Harmony of Pen and Sword—draws from his acclaimed quartet, The Sea of Fertility, his final masterpiece. Another focuses on his final act: committing seppuku (ritual suicide) in 1970 at age 45. Paul Schrader wrote and directed this look at a man fueled by dark obsessions.—P.T.
Tokyo is a magnet for foodies, and the Japanese interest in what they eat gets a wild, satirical treatment in this rom-com. A truck driver arrives at a modest noodle shop one day and decides to teach the widowed chef, Tampopo (or Dandelion) how to be a better cook. The chef, played by Nobuko Miyamoto, was the real-life wife of the director, Juzo Itami, and starred in several of his other films, including A Taxing Woman.—P.T.
When bureaucrat Kanji Watanabe (played by Takashi Shimura) learns he has only a few months before cancer will end his life, he tries to figure out how to spend his limited time. He has just been going through the motions at work for decades. Ikiru means “to live.” How can he best do that? Director Akira Kurosawa featured Shimura in numerous other films, including The Seven Samurai, The Bad Sleep Well, and Stray Dog.—P.T.
This adaptation of an American crime novel explores what happens when the son of a business executive (played by Toshiro Mifune) is kidnapped. The executive is ready to pay the exorbitant ransom but then learns that the kidnappers have made an important mistake. Leading the investigation is another compelling actor, Tatsuya Nakadai. A key scene occurs on a bullet train. With Akira Kurosawa directing, the result is a dynamic movie about moral choices.—P.T.
This understated and unforgettable film—about elderly parents visiting their busy adult children in the city—asks the viewer to slow down, to hear the unsaid, to notice the everyday. We’ve all experienced uncomfortable or badly timed family visits, so even if the tatami mats, painted banners, and kimonos of just-postwar Japan feel foreign, the universal subject matter resonates deeply. Roger Ebert said that this Yasujiro Ozu film “ennobles the cinema,” and in 2019, the British Film Institute polled directors and they named Tokyo Story the greatest film of all time. Need more convincing? —Ann Shields, Managing editor, travel guides
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