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20 Best Japanese Movies To Watch Now

Travel across Asia with the best Japanese movies to take you there and teach you more.

If you are headed to Japan or wish to travel abroad via armchair, there are plenty of great Japanese movies set in and about the country to watch.

For families, find fantastic animated Japanese films and light-hearted high school romances. For thrill-seekers, encounter high-speed car chases and fatal curses.

Head back in time and watch historical movies about Japan that will teach you more. Or, catch a glimpse into the future, cyborgs included.

So, what are the best Japanese films to watch right now? Of course, “best” is subjective, and we’d love to hear your favorites in the comments. Let’s get started!

*Please know that since our readership is based largely in the U.S., we tried to pick Japanese movies that are accessible and available in America or that you can add to your watchlist. Some are harder to obtain, though.

You may also enjoy these books set in and about Japan.

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Travel across Asia with the best Japanese movies to teach you more and transport you there.

Grab the best Japanese films (and books) here:

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20 Best Japanese Movies

By Dagney McKinney

Spirited Away Japanese Movie Poster with illustrated drawings of young girl with brown hair and bangs in pink outfit and a pinkish brown pig

Spirited Away (2001)

While moving house to a new district of Japan, Chihiro and her parents accidentally get lost on the drive to the new house.

Stopping at a dead end, they find a tunnel that leads to what Chihiro’s dad believes is an abandoned theme park.

As they explore this seemingly abandoned place, Chihiro’s parents discover a buffet of delicious food and begin eating.

However, when Chihiro tries to get them to stop and leave, she finds that they have been turned into pigs.

To make matters worse, there’s now a river between them and their exit.

Unknowingly, they have crossed into the spirit realm, and Chihiro must use her wits and any help she can get from the locals to rescue her parents from the clutches of the evil witch Ubaba.

Upon its release, Spirited Away became the first (and so far only) non-English language film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

With a combination of an engaging story, excellent animation, and an amazing amount of creativity, this is one of the best Japanese films for families to watch, both with English dubbing or with subtitles if you prefer.

Akira Japanese Film Poster with illustrated drawing of a person in red jacket and pants walking to a futuristic red motorcycle

Akira (1988)

31 years after World War Three destroyed the city of Tokyo, Kaneda and Tetsuo spend their nights riding in their biker gang on the streets of the rebuilt metropolis that is Neo-Tokyo.

When Tetsuo is injured in an accident, he is taken not to a hospital but to a top-secret military facility.

There he is subjected to experiments that greatly expand his mental capacities, giving him the power to move things with his mind.

But instead of being a willing test subject, Tetsuo goes on a rampage, and it’s up to his friend Kaneda and a group of similarly enhanced individuals to try to bring him in.

Along with all of this, a great mystery hangs in the air: who – or what – is Akira?

This is the film that broke anime movies into western popular culture, and with good reason. The effects are considered groundbreaking for the time, and they still hold up today.

Akira is widely regarded as a landmark achievement in Japanese animation, and as one of the best Japanese movies of all time.

Battle Royale Japanese film poster with all black image of the letters "BR" and people holding one arm up in the air

Battle Royale (2000)

In the near future, in order to combat the rise in youth crime rates, the Japanese government initiates the Battle Royale Act: Every year, a randomly selected class of students will be taken to a remote area and forced to fight to the death.

One year after his father’s suicide, Shuya Nanahara and his middle school class are gassed while on a school trip and wake up at an island BR facility.

Greeted by Kitano, one of their former teachers, they are told that they have three days to complete the exercise.

Each student is given a bag of supplies and a random weapon – ranging in usefulness from a pot lid to a machine gun – and sent out onto the island.

As factions emerge and schoolyard rivalries become deadly, Shuya must work out how to survive when there can be only one “winner.”

Due to its violent subject matter, Battle Royale is definitely not for everyone and was considered controversial on its release.

However, it is one of the most important Japanese movies to tackle social commentary and youth culture.

Thirteen Assassins Japanese Movie Poster with image of red 13, Japanese characters, and people standing in fog

13 Assassins (2010)

1844, Edo Period Japan: The Military government is in decline, and the sadistic Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu is spreading violence among the people.

By his own hand, he tortures and murders both nobles and commoners alike, but due to his familial connection to the Shogun, no one dares do anything about him.

In fact, he is due to be promoted to the Shogunate Council – an act that could lead to civil war.

In order to stop the havoc he will wreak, justice minister Sir Doi Toshitsura reaches out to a trusted ally, the seasoned samurai Shimada Shinzaemon.

Under Sir Doi’s instructions, Shinzaemon recruits a team of samurai and devises a plan to defeat Lord Naritsugu at any cost, even their lives.

Director Takeshi Miike’s big-budget epic is wildly entertaining and features the rare feat of having a climactic battle that isn’t an overlong incoherent mess.

This is one of the best Japanese films for anyone looking for an exciting historical samurai movie.

Zatoichi Movie Poster with person in dark top and blue green pants holding metal tools

Zatoichi (2003)

In the historic Edo period, the blind masseuse Zatoichi travels from town to town looking for work and also the opportunity to gamble.

Seemingly affable and harmless, Zatoichi keeps a deadly secret: he is the greatest sword fighter in Japan, with unparalleled accuracy and precision despite his lack of sight.

When he happens upon a town where the residents are being ruined by local yakuza and a powerful samurai, he decides to take matters into his own hands and cut a bloody swathe through those who are evading justice.

But he’s not the only one; two beautiful geishas are also in the town, and they too have a score to settle.

Zatoichi (also known as The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi) is a highly stylized reinvention of a popular Japanese film and TV character.

Using modern film techniques, styles, and effects, writer/director/star Takeshi Kitano has made one of the most cinematic and unique movies about Japan.

Ghost in the Shell Japanese Film Poster book cover with illustrated person holding a weapon but their back is open with wires coming out in all directions

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

In the year 2029, advancements in technology have led to two significant breakthroughs. Firstly, human brains can now directly connect to the internet. Secondly, human/robot hybrids are commonplace.

One such cyborg is Major Motoko Kusanagi, an elite and highly trained officer who works for the secret police force Section 9.

As an agent who deals primarily with cyber crime and counter-terrorism, she is on the trail of a mysterious cyber criminal known as the Puppet Master, who has been hacking into the brains of cyborgs and making them do their bidding.

Pay no attention to the 2017 live-action version – this animated cult classic is the real deal.

Ghost in the Shell’s title refers to the idea of the human consciousness inside a robotic body, and there are some big themes on the nature of existence being explored here.

On top of that, this is one of the landmark Japanese movies that showcases the cyberpunk style to the rest of the world.

Yojimbo Japanese movie poster with two Japanese men, one holding a sword and the other a gun

Yojimbo (1961)

Towards the end of the Edo Period in nineteenth-century Japan, a nameless samurai stops for water at a farm. While there, he overhears talk of a nearby town that is overrun with gangsters.

Traveling to this town, the samurai learns that there are two rival gangsters fighting with each other for control of the territory and that their actions have caused the suffering of many families.

Adopting the name Sanjuro, the samurai uses his wits and cunning to play each side off against the other, and with each violent action, the criminals unknowingly bring themselves closer to ruin.

Starring Toshiro Mifune in one of his 16 collaborations with legendary director Akira Kurosawa, Yojimbo is one of the most iconic Japanese movies ever made.

Even if you’ve not yet seen this cinematic masterpiece, you may already be familiar with its most famous remake: A Fistful of Dollars, Sergio Leone’s genre-defining “spaghetti western” that first put Clint Eastwood’s cigarillo-chomping nameless gunslinger into the public consciousness.

Ringu Japanese theatrical poster with person's face between red and yellow rings

Ringu (1998)

An urban legend tells of a cursed videotape, and that those who watch it meet their demise seven days later.

While at a sleepover, high schooler Tomoko tells her friend Masami that she and a group of friends watched something like that the week before.

When Masami comes back from a bathroom break, she finds Tomoko dead with a horrific expression on her face.

Journalist Reiko Asakawa is Tomoko’s aunt, and she begins to investigate this supernatural phenomenon.

Soon, more teenagers begin to be found, all with similar expressions on their faces, and Reiko finds herself pulled into the curse as well. Can she find a way to stop these deaths before she also is killed?

Ringu (“The Ring”) made a major impact on horror cinema both in the east and in the west, where it added a new movie monster to the western horror rogue’s gallery in the form of the “creepy, long-haired girl in the white dress”.

This film is as inventive as it is terrifying, and is one of the Japanese movies you need to watch with a group of friends. The story makes for one spooky book to read too.

Rashomon Movie poster with Japanese man wielding sword and woman in pink top with dark hair holding his arm to restrain him

Rashomon (1950)

This classic film recounts a horrific crime that takes place during the Heian era in Kyoto (then called Heian-Kyō).

The events are told from the point of view of four different people, with each person’s account altering the story.

When a young bride is raped and her samurai husband murdered, everyone knows that Tajōmaru, an infamous bandit, is responsible. And he doesn’t deny it.

However, no one can decide exactly what happened, and four distinct series of events emerge: the bandit’s, the wife’s , the ghost of the dead samurai husband, and the woodcutter who found his body.

Rashomon is one of the most famous Japanese movies, and it is one of the first films to use the plot device of multiple POVs all telling similar, but slightly different versions of the same event.

In fact, this style is commonly referred to now as the Rashomon effect.

Seven Samurai Film poster with man with arm up in air and yellow belt around tunic with person looking on

Seven Samurai (1954)

In 1597, a village in Japan is being being attacked and raided by bandits.

Answering their calls for help is aging masterless samurai Kambei, who pledges to help defend them even though he will receive little to no compensation for doing so.

To help him in this endeavor, Kambei calls upon six other disparate mercenary samurai to join him.

Knowing this could be his last act, Kambei and the group train the villagers to be better able to defend themselves, as the threat of an all-out bandit attack looms.

Endlessly referenced, Seven Samurai is a staple of the trope of a group of ragtag yet skilled people coming together for “one last job.”

Remade in the west as The Magnificent Seven, it stands as a masterpiece among Japanese movies.

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Kiki’s Delivery Service Animated Movie Poster with young girl with bangs and big red bow with arms and head on brown table and bread rolls and loaves all around her

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

In Hayao Miyazaki’s delightful interpretation of Eiko Kadono’s novel, we follow the journey of Kiki, a thirteen-year-old witch who must spend a year away from home, as is a tradition among witches.

Making her way with only her black cat Jiji for company, she flies on her broom to the port city of Koriko.

After an awkward arrival in which she causes a small accident, Kiki manages to get taken under the wing of kindly pregnant baker Osono and her husband.

With her help, she establishes Kiki’s Delivery Service: a business in which she can deliver packages quickly by means of her flying powers and make a living for herself.

The films of Studio Ghibli are charming to a fault, and this slice-of-life magical realism tale is no exception.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of the best Japanese films for children of all ages, and it has plenty for adults to engage with as well.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time Movie Poster with illustrated girl in white top and black shorts or skirt flying or jumping into the air

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)

​​What would you do if you could time travel? That’s what seventeen-year-old Makoto gets to find out in this light-hearted high school romance.

Having wandered into an empty classroom, Makoto accidentally falls onto an unusual object and finds she now has the ability to literally throw herself through time.

Initially, she is thrilled to be able to redo all the things that frustrated her in her day-to-day life.

She is able to get full marks on her tests, she manages to avoid all the accidents her clumsiness would have caused, and she can relive the same karaoke session for hours at a time.

However, she starts to realize that her changes are having bad consequences on her friends and family and that she only has a limited number of leaps left.

Anyone familiar with high school life will have lots to enjoy in this film version of the 1967 novel of the same name by Yasutaka Tsutsui.

The characters are relatable, and despite her faults, Makoto is a fun protagonist. If you love time travel movies, you might enjoy these books featuring time travel.

Godzilla 1954 Japanese Movie Poster with picture of large monster attacking a city

Godzilla (1954)

Ships are being mysteriously destroyed near Odo Island.

Fishermen in the area are telling of how their catches are becoming non-existent. A village on the island is destroyed – seemingly crushed by something very large indeed.

The city of Tokyo is about to discover that testing underwater nuclear devices was not a good idea. For they have awakened an unstoppable force: Godzilla, a 50m tall fire breathing lizard!

Godzilla is the undisputed king of Japanese movie monsters. In fact, Godzilla is such a popular character in Japanese cinema that it holds the record for the longest-running film franchise in history.

Made in the mid-fifties, Godzilla took advantage of the newly created worldwide fear of nuclear power.

Sure, the effects are dated. But for many, that adds to the charm, and Godzilla remains one of the most iconic Japanese movies ever made.

Audition (1999) Movie Poster with man and two intersecting white rings

Audition (1999)

Ever since his wife passed away, Shigeharu has been raising their son Shigehiko on his own.

Now, seven years later, the teenage Shigehiko encourages his dad to get back out into the dating world and find a new partner who might make him happy.

In order to find someone compatible, and because he believes his dating skills to be rusty, Shigeharu asks his friend Yasuhisa, a film producer, for help.

Yasuhisa suggests holding casting sessions for a fake film, with the requirements being Shigeharu’s wishlist of what he would like in a partner.

They can then “audition” several people and see if he feels a spark with anyone.

As it happens, he finds himself enraptured by one lady, named Asami, and the two begin dating. However, things are not necessarily what they seem.

But as you might be able to tell from looking at the movie poster, Audition isn’t just a romantic drama. There is a much darker side to this Japanese movie.

Part of the appeal – or possibly the problem – of Audition is that the less you know about it going in, the greater the impact it will have on you.

As long as you’re prepared to have your expectations subverted, and you respect the strong adult rating, this is one of the best Japanese movies to experience for the first time.

Drive My Car movie poster with person leaning up against a red car and another person in the drive seat of the car

Drive My Car (2021)

Drive My Car has quickly become one of the most talked about Japanese movies in recent years having been nominated for and won several international awards. And all of the praise is well deserved!

Yūsuke Kafuku, a popular theater actor and director, and his screenwriter wife, Oto, have a seemingly happy marriage.

We soon learn that might not be the case when Yūsuke sees her having sex with another man but leaves rather than confront them.

However, when his wife unexpectedly dies, Yūsuke breaks down during a performance and temporarily retires from acting.

Two years later, he is offered a job in Hiroshima director Chekov’s Uncle Vanya – the last play he was ever in. He accepts but is told he must have a driver and cannot go anywhere by himself.

As he and his driver, Watari, slowly begin to bond, the layers of Yūsuke and Oto’s lives begin to unfurl.

The film is largely based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, one of the most internationally well-known Japanese authors.

Fast & Furious Tokyo Drift Movie Poster with orange and black shinny car and four people in black standing to the side front of it in city

Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

The third installment in the Fast & Furious Franchise – but chronologically the sixth film in the series – can also be enjoyed as a standalone film about street racing in Japan.

It was also retroactively deemed a sequel to Justin Lin’s indie hit Better Luck Tomorrow.

In this one, we are introduced to Sean Boswell (in my opinion the WORST character in the entire franchise) and Han (hands down the best character).

Sean is a problem child, having been kicked out of so many schools – and having committed enough car-racing-related crimes – that his mom sends him to live with his military father in Tokyo to avoid jail.

In Tokyo, Sean makes friends with other foreigner kids and through them is soon introduced to the world of drift racing. He is taken under the wing of Han who teaches him how to drift.

Tokyo Drift is hardly elevated cinema. But if, like me, you love silly movies about fast cars, this will easily become one of your favorite go-to movies about Japan.

Still Walking film poster with woman in white holding white umbrella over children as they walk down a path

Still Walking (2008)

12 years ago Toshiko and Kyohei lost their eldest son Junpei when he drowned saving a young boy. Every year since, they invite their surviving son, Ryota, to celebrate Junpei’s life for 24 hours.

Ryota resents this tradition as he knows Junpei was the favorite son, but he dutifully attends. This year he has brought along his new wife – a widow, whom his parents see as bad luck – her son and their daughter.

As the day unfolds, tensions rise as we see each family member struggle to move on from this singular, life-changing event.

If you like hard-hitting stories about complex family dynamics, Still Walking will definitely be one of the best Japanese movies for you.

Tokyo Story Japanese Movie Poster with five people, men and women on it sitting or standing

Tokyo Story (1953)

Shūkichi and Tomi are a retired couple living in the Western Japanese city of Onomichi with their youngest daughter Kyōko. Of their five children, four are still alive, the rest of whom live outside of Onomichi.

The couple decide to visit Tokyo where their eldest son and daughter live, as well as their deceased son’s wife, as well as Osaka where their youngest son lives.

However, upon arrival, they feel neglected by their children and find that only their daughter-in-law is welcoming.

For those who love a drama about the chasms between parents and their children, Tokyo Story is for you – just make sure to keep the tissues nearby.

Although now considered one of the best Japanese films ever made, sadly this classic was not initially appreciated for the masterpiece it is by audiences outside of Japan.

It was even considered “too Japanese” to market internationally.

Tokyo Godfathers Japanese Film Poster with illustrated people intertwined with cityscape that looks like an explosion all jumbled together

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

On Christmas Eve, a baby is abandoned and left in a box in the garbage.

Fortunately, the box is discovered by three homeless people looking for presents – teenage runaway Miyuki, transgender woman Hana, and middle-aged alcoholic Gin.

The trio find that there is a mysterious key in the box as well, which upon investigation leads to a bag full of clues as to the baby’s parents.

Despite initially disagreeing on what to do with the baby, they decide to embark on a quest to reunite the baby (which they name Kiyoko) with the parents.

Little do they know that their mission will take them on a wild adventure and lead all three to some much-needed moments of self-discovery and learning.

This is not your average animated Christmas movie. The visual style is very distinct, and there are some very serious and harrowing story elements.

But Tokyo Godfathers is still a great choice for anyone looking for unconventional animated movies about Japan.

Ride or Die Movie Poster with woman with long red hair turned sideways with someone's hand in her hair

Ride or Die (2021)

In this revenge fuelled LGBT+ Japanese film, Rei has been in love with Nanae for years. So when Nanae confesses to her that her husband is abusive and she fears he will kill her, Rei decides the only course of action is to kill him.

Nanae struggles with Rei’s actions, while Rei seems unfazed by her decision, having done what she deemed necessary to save her friend.

Despite her reservations, the two stick together as each has nowhere else to go, and together they go on the run.

Soon their feelings for each other start to bloom into something more than Rei’s pining and Nanae’s loyal friendship.

But will they get their happily ever after, or will the consequences catch up to them and prevent that from happening?

Based on the popular manga series Gunjō, Ride or Die is for anyone looking for romantic Japanese movies.

More Great Japanese Movies

Only Yesterday (1991)

Shoplifters (2018)

Paprika (2006)

Departures (2008)

Silence (2016)

Lost in Translation (2003)

The Last Samurai (2003)

Where to read more on the best movies about Japan:

Amazon Prime Video | Netflix | IMDb

Save your favorite Japanese films for later:

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Did you find great Japanese movies to watch? Save this post for later, and travel across the world with The Uncorked Librarian.

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Writer Dagney McKinney white female with light brown hair wearing a purple shirt and smiling

Thank you to TUL contributor, Dagney McKinney from Dark Distractions

Dagney (pronouns: any) is a neurodivergent writer who loves all things macabre and weird. She likes outrageously spicy food, long walks through graveyards, and historical tangents. You’ll most likely find her wandering around somewhere quiet or underground, buying salt, or whispering to camels.

What Japanese movies do you love and recommend?

What are the best Japanese films that you love? Which movies about Japan do you recommend watching before traveling there? Let us know in the comments!

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