If you’re looking for something to get you in the mood for Japan, here’s a list of my favorite movies, TV shows and documentaries on Japan.
A still from the movie Tampopo
Drama and Comedy
- Tampopo: This is my all-time favorite Japanese movie from my favorite Japanese director: Itami Juzo. It’s a meditation on the meaning of food in our lives. If this doesn’t get you hungry for a good bowl of ramen in Japan, nothing will! If you like Tampopo, you will also like Itami’s other work like A Taxing Woman and The Funeral.
- Jiro Dreams of Sushi: This documentary about an 85-year-old Tokyo sushi chef perfectly captures the Japanese approach to life: sincere, diligent, obsessive and perfectionist. Perhaps more than any other film, this will make you want to jump on a plane and eat your way through Japan.
- Lost in Translation: While this movie focuses closely on a near romance between two lonely people, it also shines an interesting and relatively realistic light on its setting: Japan. Most of the action takes place in Tokyo, but there’s a nice montage of a day spent in Kyoto.
- The Handmaiden: While this 2016 film by Korean director Park Chan-wook is only tangentially related to Japan, it’s still gets a place on this list. It takes place in Korea during the time of the Japanese occupation, presumably in the 1920s. The film is a lush visual masterpiece, constantly shifting perspective and surprising the viewer. Do yourself a favor and see this film.
- Shall We Dance: This 1996 film, directed by Suo Masayuki, is a heartwarming and, at times, comedic look into modern Japanese life. The film tells the story of a discounted Tokyo salaryman who finds unexpected meaning in the world of ballroom dance. Be sure to watch the Japanese original and not the dreadful Hollywood remake!
- Doraemon: I’ve got kids, so naturally I’m a big fan of Doraemon, that blue robotic cat and his human friend Nobita. These anime movies are head and shoulders above most anime out there. The stories are incredibly well thought out and the message is always positive. At last count, there have been 37 Doraemon films (they’re released annually in Japan). It’s hard to find them for rent or sale, especially in English, but most of them are on YouTube in English.
- My Neighbor Totoro: You probably know the films of Miyazaki Hayao and Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki is often called “the Walt Disney of Japan” and for good reason: his anime films are magical classics that appeal to both children and adults. My Neighbor Totoro is arguably his best work – it’s a simple story of two young girls and their “imaginary” friend, a giant creature named Totoro.
- Ponyo: This Miyazaki anime tells the story of a little sea girl who comes up on land and befriends a lonely boy. It’s a meditation on the sea, nature, magic and the human world and it is beautiful from start to finish. The harbor town on which it is based is Onomichi, in western Honshu.
- Spirited Away: Another Miyazaki classic, this somewhat complicated tale centers on a magical bathhouse (sento) in the spirit world. The scenes of train tracks laid across a tropical sea are some of the most visually lush in the entire Miyazaki canon. The bathhouse in the film was inspired by Dogo Onsen in Shikoku.
- Porco Rosso: Miyazaki’s obsession with flying machines is on full display in this film that centers on a pig who pilots flying boats around a Mediterranean-like world. His magical secret base is modeled on Minami-jima Island in the Ogasawara Islands, 700km south of Tokyo.
- The Wind Rises: This is the most “realistic” of Miyazaki’s anime films. It is a fictionalized account of Hiroshiki Jiro, who designed the famous WWII Mitsubishi Zero fighter. The film depicts the conflict Hiroshiki faced in reconciling his desire to produce beautiful flying machines with the reality of his planes being used as war machines. There is a memorable scene of the Great Tokyo Earthquake. Later, Hiroshiki journeys to the alpine retreat of Karuizawa, where he meets a German ex-pat (voiced by Werner Herzog). When the German ex-pat launches into a scathing critique of Japanese pre-war imperialism, you get the sense that Miyazaki is speaking directly to the audience – it’s a rare moment in Japanese cinema.
- Laputa (aka Castle In The Sky): I’ve saved the best for last. This is my favorite Miyazaki anime. It is the story of a magical island in the clouds known as Laputa. The depictions of Laputa are magical and beautiful – pure and perfect fantasy. If you see only one Miyazaki anime, make it this one!
- Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, Season 2/Episode 7 – Tokyo: This episode of Bourdain’s show is a brilliant introduction to Tokyo. At the beginning of the episode, Bourdain says: “What do you need to know about Tokyo? First time I came here…it was a transformative experience. It was a powerful and violent experience. It was just like taking acid for the first time. Meaning, what do I do now? I see the whole world in a different way. I often compare the experience of going to Japan for the first time – going to Tokyo for the first time – to what Eric Clapton and Pete Townsend must have gone through the week that Jimi Hendrix came to town. You hear about it. You go see it. A window opens up into a whole new thing. And you think: `What does this mean? What do I have left to say? What do I do now?’”
- Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown, Season 8/Episode 6 – Back to Japan: This episode is some serious food porn. Bourdain travels Japan in the company of Masa Takayama, the owner/chef of New York’s famed Masa restaurant. Bourdain gets deep into Japan and has meals and experiences that mere mortals can only dream about. This is pure aspirational stuff. And Bourdain’s love and respect for Japan comes shining through.
- Amazon Prime Japan
This series of excellent documentaries is the perfect thing to get you excited about your Japan trip. Each of the 10 shows goes into depth about a particular Japan topic like sushi, sake, ramen and ryokans. These shows will really deepen your experience and understanding of Japan.
I cannot resist introducing one of my favorite bits of Japanese pop culture here: Genki Sudo and his group World Order. These suit-clad men look are a cross between Kraftwerk and the Rock Steady Crew. Their intricately choreographed videos, shot around the world, are some of the most interesting dance performances you will see anywhere. Here’s just a sampler:
- Mind Shift: One of their earliest works, this video ends up inside a Japanese temple, where Genki and the boys create a living Senju Kannon figure. So good!
- 2012: This video, shot in Mexico City, contains some of the most mind-blowing of popping and locking that you will ever see. The long arm bit in front of the cathedral is superb, but the piece de resistance is their otherworldly garden routine – it’s got to be seen to be believed!
- Aquarius: How can I not like this video? It was shot in Kyoto. If you’ve been to Kyoto, you’ll recognize many of the spots.
For some book picks, see my Favorite Books on Japan page.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com - usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too.
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
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