If you’re learning Japanese and are interested in Japanese culture, then you NEED to watch these incredible Japanese movies… like, right now.
Japan has released some legendary, heartfelt, strange, fantastical, and horrifying films over the decades. Many of which were so critically acclaimed, they received their own Hollywood remakes (which were, let's face it, not as amazing). From world-renowned director Hayao Miyazaki to horror legend Hideo Nakata, Japanese movies are seriously addictive.
They’re also a great learning tool!
If you’re actively listening and using the right methods, you can easily use movies and TV as a language learning tool. In fact, movies should be a part of your study routine for success! You’ll learn about the culture, hear the language spoken in a natural way, pick up body language, and more. And besides, it’s a great break from staring at your textbook all day.
Of course, this should only be one part of your studies. You still need to learn how to speak Japanese by studying the essential phrases and core words. And, it’s smart to look up some things about your movie before you get started. This includes character names, locations, basic plot details, and some relevant vocabulary. That will give you a head start in understanding what you hear when you watch the movie.
So, here are the very best Japanese films to watch and learn Japanese from movies.
Director: Youjirou Takita
IMDb Rating: 8.1/10
I have to start with my all-time favorite Japanese movie: Departures. This movie is so beautiful, I can’t recommend it enough. It follows the story of Daigo, a cellist who loses his job playing with the orchestra and struggles to find what to do next with his life. He finds a job “assisting departures,” and mistakes it to mean flights and travel. Instead, he discovers he’ll be handling the rituals and cremation ceremonies as a mortician.
While that sounds dark, the movie is anything but. Departures focuses on the beauty of the rituals, the impact it has on the families left behind, and Daigo’s struggle with social ostracism. Even though proper attendance to the dead is important, the actual job is considered “dirty,” shameful, and largely looked down upon in society. This movie hits all the right notes, and the ending will tug at your heartstrings.
You’ll learn a lot of nuanced Japanese culture and body language. You’ll also be exposed to a wide range of formalities — from casual speech between long-time friends to honorific and humble speech appropriate for the heavy situations.
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Genre: Animation, Drama
IMDb Rating: 8.4/10
Critically acclaimed, Your Name follows high schoolers Mitsuha and Taki, who switch bodies back and forth when they wake up. One day, Mitsuha is Mitsuha. The next, she’s Taki and Taki is Mitsuha. As a result, they begin leaving notes for each other, texting and impacting each other’s lives and social circles.
Enter fantasy, a comet, and a wistful, heartwarming love story. The beautiful animation alone makes this one worth a watch. Director Makoto Shinkai has been labeled “the new Miyazaki” for this film.
Because it’s a “youth drama,” the language will be easier to understand for those newer to the language.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki, Kirk Wise
Genre: Animation, Adventure
IMDb Rating: 8.6/10
If you haven’t seen this one by now, well… What have you been watching? Hayao Miyazaki’s most acclaimed movie, Spirited Away, follows young Chihiro as she adventures through the spirit world. After her parents are turned into pigs, she is stuck working for a witch in a bathhouse. Miyazaki’s typical fantastical elements and youkai (“spirits” or “demons”) play a big role in this film. With the help of a good spirit named Haku, Chihiro must attempt to save her parents and break free from the spirits to return to the human world.
Although this story takes place in a fantasy setting, there’s still a lot about Japanese culture to pick up here, especially regarding youkai and kami (“god”, “gods” or “god-like things”). The language isn’t too hard to follow, especially if you’ve seen the film before and have context.
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
IMDb Rating: 7.7/10
Do you love The Hunger Games? Well here’s the original, real, gory deal. (Although supposedly Suzanne Collins had never heard of Battle Royale before, they’re incredibly similar.)
Following a recession, the Japanese government has designed to hold an annual Battle Royale. The Battle Royale is comprised of misfits and badly behaved youth, as a way to control them. A class of these unruly kids are gassed and kidnapped, brought to a remote island, and told they must fight to the death until there’s one person standing. Obviously, things get crazy and gory fast.
What kind of Japanese will you hear? The typical teen topics… You know, plenty about school, friends, family, foes, death, and blood. All wholesome.
Song to the Sun
Director: Norihiro Koizumi
IMDb Rating: 7.4/10
Starring Japanese acoustic pop singer YUI as Kaoru, a young singer with Xeroderma Pigmentosum (XP). She can’t be exposed to direct sunlight, or ultraviolet radiation could poison her. So every night she goes out to perform on the street. She meets a surfer, Kouji, and tries to hide her worsening condition from him.
A bittersweet, soft romance movie that spawned a drama, manga, and a recent American remake all with the same plot (although the American version is called Midnight Sun). The movie doesn’t have a lot of dialogue and is slow-paced, so it’s very easy to follow along and understand the Japanese. You’ll also hear some surfer slang like “Ossu!” quite often.
Director: Hideo Nakata
IMDb Rating: 7.3/10
You’ve probably seen the American version, but if you haven’t watched the original Japanese one, you’re missing out. It’s a cult classic! This is the movie that started the Japanese horror trend and Hollywood remakes, paving the way for similarly eery movies like The Grudge. The Ring follows Reiko and her ex-husband Ryuuji, who watch a cursed tape and have 7 days to break the curse before they will die.
Even though it’s a horror film, it actually showcases the work-life balance of single mothers, gender issues, and patriarchy in Japanese society.
Director: Naomi Kawase
IMDb Rating: 7.4/10
A simple story for any bighearted foodie. This indie flick follows Sentaro, a man running a small dorayaki shop — a popular Japanese snack like a pancake sandwich with an, or sweet bean paste, in the middle. Sentaro makes good pancakes, but not-so-good an… So he hires Tokue, an elderly woman with a passion for bean paste.
The movie focuses heavily on the process of making the food, which is hunger-inducing. The language isn’t overly complicated, and its emotional wrap-up showcases some of Japan’s history and prejudices, as well as reconciliation.
Director: Takashi Miike
IMDb Rating: 7.6/10
Loosely based on real history during the Tokugawa Shogunate, 13 samurai join together to stop an evil daimyou (a “lord” in feudal Japan). If you loved *Game of Thrones *for it’s long, record-breaking fight scenes while still maintaining a sense of story… You’ll love this one. The end fight scene is 45 minutes long!
The language will be more complicated than the other movies on this list, due to taking place in Edo-era Japan. You’ll hear harsher samurai speech and old-fashioned words — think like the difference between modern English and watching a British movie set in the 1800s. But, it’s an incredible movie to dip your toes into the water of real Japanese history when the shogun ruled Japan.
Director: Hideo Nakata
IMDb Rating: 6.7/10
Another Japanese horror film that was remade in the US… But the Japanese version is much better. A divorced woman, Yoshimi moves into a run-down apartment following her separation with her daughter, Ikuko. Her apartment has a leak coming from the apartment upstairs, despite it being seemingly abandoned. The longer she lives in the home, the more strange things occur, and she learns about a young girl who died in the building.
Like The Ring, this movie focuses a lot on the struggles of single motherhood in Japan. But it also has a lot of moments focusing on family relationships, and you’ll learn how parents and children talk to each other.
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
IMDb Rating: 8.0/10
Since its release, this movie’s received tons of acclaim and awards. Shoplifters follows a non-biological family who shoplift in order to get by as they live in poverty.
This movie is really interesting because it pushes past typical Japanese social stereotypes. In Japan, nothing is more important than the family name, blood, and “face” — one’s image is also one’s family’s. Although this movie focuses on the importance of family, it shows that family is not always blood or the best people for us. In fact, the movie highlights child abuse (a major issue in Japan right now), and even shows what poverty is like in a country where it's overlooked and swept under the rug. It’s a very alternative view of typical Japan.
Boost Your Language Skills with Amazing Japanese Movies
These critically-acclaimed, legendary movies are a great place to start your Japanese movie-watching habit. Not only will you enjoy the story, but you’ll also learn a lot about Japanese culture, history, myths, and language! Just remember to put in the real study time by actively listening, taking notes of new vocab, and rewatching scenes to pick out more phrases.
If you want to prep your language skills and get more listening practice, make sure to check out JapanesePod101. It’s the best Japanese language podcast to pick up everything from beginner survival phrases to advanced dialogue and slang.