Top Movies Filmed in Japan

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  29 Jan 2015 

Tokyo is looked upon in awe by the rest of the world as the archetypal modern metropolis. Sprawling and chaotic, the city seethes with a boundless energy that its streets struggle to contain. To outsiders, it often appears alienating, perplexing and impenetrable. Its unique combination of exotic ‘otherness’ and technological progressiveness, and the overwhelming assault of neon lighting and tinny, otherworldly electronic street sounds make it appear, at times, completely divorced from nature. As well as serving as an inspiring model of progress and mechanical efficiency, the city has provided fuel for numerous dystopian projections in international cinema, including the five-minute sequence of its concrete and chrome cityscape shot through the front windshield of a moving vehicle in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and its deployment as a template for the bleak Los Angeles of the future in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). More recently, it’s been recreated as both hedonistic theme park and nightmarish dreamscape in works including Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003), The Grudge (2004), The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) and Enter the Void (2009). Formerly known as Edo, Tokyo’s population exploded during the 16th century to make it the largest urban centre in the word. Despite its role as the cultural and political centre of Japan, it only officially achieved capital-city status with the beginning of the Meiji era in 1868. The city has seen some remarkable changes since then. Twice during the past century it found itself flattened: first by the 1923 Kanto earthquake, and next in the Allied firebombing raids of 1945. Both times it was reconstructed to the near exact same street plans that have existed since the Edo era. Following the construction of Tokyo Tower in 1958, its majestic international profile has been defined by its gleaming skyscrapers and futuristic redevelopments, linked by the arterial spread of one of the world’s most efficient public transport systems. 10 to try Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK. Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, a portrait of a relationship between a retired professor and a young woman paying her way through university by moonlighting as a high-class prostitute, is but one recent attempt to piece together the perplexing puzzle the city presents. There are no end of places to begin in any overview of films that have attempted to interpret, represent and explore the changing face of this most dynamic of world capitals. Let’s journey through 10 of the most emblematic…

genres
9 Seven Samurai
imdb
rating

8.7

Seven Samurai (1954)

Action, Drama

If you only ever see one Japanese film, this has got to be it. Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai is the film that not only put Japanese cinema on the map, it also inspired a generation of filmmakers across the globe with its rousing story, incredible action sequences, and outstanding performances. The story of a desperately poor village that hires a rag-tag bunch of samurai to protect itself from bandit raids, Seven Samurai basically created the template that almost every action movie since has followed. Every movie where a reluctant hero gathers a team to accomplish a task owes a structural debt to the film. The story is a natural crowd-pleaser but the innovative use of slow motion, editing, and gorgeous black and white photography make Seven Samurai an arthouse favourite as well. The original cut is almost 4 hours, but every minute is an absolute treasure of cinema.

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A veteran samurai, who has fallen on hard times, answers a village's request for protection from bandits. He gathers 6 other samurai to help him, and they teach the townspeople how to defend themselves, and they supply the samurai with three small meals a day. The film culminates in a giant battle when 40 bandits attack the village.

actors:
Toshirô Mifune as Kikuchiyo   Takashi Shimura as Kambei Shimada   Yoshio Inaba as Gorobei Katayama   Seiji Miyaguchi as Kyuzo   Minoru Chiaki as Heihachi Hayashida   Daisuke Katô as Shichiroji   Isao Kimura as Katsushiro Okamoto   Keiko Tsushima as Shino   Yukiko Shimazaki as Rikichi's Wife   Kamatari Fujiwara as Manzô - Father of Shino   Yoshio Kosugi as Mosuke   Bokuzen Hidari as Yohei   Yoshio Tsuchiya as Rikichi   Kokuten Kôdô as Gisaku, the Old Man   Eijirô Tôno as Kidnapper   Kichijirô Ueda as Bandit Scout (as Ueda Kichijiro)   Jun Tatara as Coolie A   Atsushi Watanabe as Bun Seller   Toranosuke Ogawa as Grandfather of Kidnapped Girl   Isao Yamagata as Samurai  

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8 Battle Royale
imdb
rating

7.7

Battle Royale (2000)

Adventure, Drama, Thriller

Even if you don’t know anything about Japan, the 2000 film Battle Royale still delivers as a kickass, bloody cult movie. It’s got plenty of gunplay, lots of gore, and a supremely dark comedic undertone. The movie has earned infamy for its hyper-realistic violence, unrelenting cynicism, and casting of actual teenagers and is a favourite among cult movie fans the world over. But the story of a class of ninth grade students who are forced to murder each other in an alternate reality fascist Japan is actually a cutting satire of Japan’s growing fear that its youth culture was just a step or two away from complete anarchy. The casting of Japanese legend Takeshi Kitano as the students’ psychotic former teacher and overseer of the game is especially fitting given Kitano’s public ambivalence towards Japanese youth and seems to firmly root the film in the anti-youth camp. But Battle Royale’s director Kinji Fukasaku has described it as a “warning” to the country’s youth not to be misled by adults and authority figures. In the end, Battle Royale becomes a hopeful film about the potential of youth masquerading as a cynical anti-youth picture masquerading as an action-packed sci-fi gore fest. It’s deep, shocking, funny, smart, and once you’ve seen it, you’ll never forget it.

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In the future, the Japanese government captures a class of ninth-grade students and forces them to kill each other under the revolutionary "Battle Royale" act.

actors:
Takeshi Kitano as Kitano   Tatsuya Fujiwara as Shuya Nanahara (Boy #15)   Aki Maeda as Noriko Nakagawa (Girl #15)   Tarô Yamamoto as Shogo Kawada (Boy #5)   Masanobu Andô as Kazuo Kiriyama (Boy #6)   Kô Shibasaki as Mitsuko Souma (Girl #11)   Sôsuke Takaoka as Hiroki Sugimura   Takashi Tsukamoto as Shinji Mimura (Boy #19)   Sôsuke Takaoka as Hiroki Sugimura (Boy #11)   Chiaki Kuriyama as Takako Chigusa (Girl #13)   Eri Ishikawa as Yukie Utsumi (Girl #2)   Yukihiro Kotani as Yôshitoki Kuninobu (Boy #7)   Sayaka Kamiya as Satomi Noda (Girl #17)   Aki Inoue as Fumiyo Fujiyôshi (Girl #18)   Takayo Mimura as Kayoko Kotôhiki (Girl #8)   Yutaka Shimada as Yûtaka Seto (Boy #12)   Ren Matsuzawa as Keita Îjima (Boy #2)   Hirohito Honda as Kazushi Nîda (Boy #16)   Yûko Miyamura as Training Video Girl   Kazutoshi Yokoyama as Basketball referee   Minami as Keiko   Jirô Nitta as Kyôichi Motobuchi (Boy #20)  

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7 Audition
imdb
rating

7.2

Audition (1999)

Drama, Horror, Thriller

Directed by controversial and breathtakingly original filmmaker Takashi Miike, Audition is one of the most disturbing and captivating films ever made. But you’d never know it from the first forty minutes. Audition starts with a premise straight out of a Jennifer Anniston romcom. Aoyama, a widowed TV producer, decides to hold “auditions” for a new wife, under the guise of casting a role in a TV program. When he sees the young and beautiful Asami, he is instantly smitten by her submissive nature and reserved beauty. Despite some weird discrepancies on her resume, he starts to date her and they fall in love. Then things take a very, very surreal turn. Audition is one of those movies that works best if you don’t know what’s coming, but rest assured that it you can make it through the deliberately slow beginning, you will see things that you have never seen in any other film. Audition is profoundly disturbing (even Rob Zombie admitted to being uncomfortable watching the final scenes) but it is a work of true originality by an uncompromising master of cinema. Just don’t plan on eating any time soon after you watch it.

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Seven years after the death of his wife, company executive Aoyama is invited to sit in on auditions for an actress. Leafing through the resumés in advance, his eye is caught by Yamazaki Asami, a striking young woman with ballet training.

actors:
Ryo Ishibashi as Shigeharu Aoyama   Eihi Shiina as Asami Yamazaki   Jun Kunimura as Yasuhisa Yoshikawa   Tetsu Sawaki as Shigehiko Aoyama   Renji Ishibashi as Old man in wheelchair   Miyuki Matsuda as Ryoko Aoyama   Toshie Negishi as Rie   Ren Ôsugi as Shimada   Shigeru Saiki as Toastmaster   Ken Mitsuishi as Director   Yuriko Hiro'oka as Michiyo Yanagida   Ren Ohsugi as Shimada  

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6 Fireworks
imdb
rating

7.9

Fireworks (1998)

Crime, Drama

There’s no one else in the world quite like Takeshi Kitano. His main gig for the last forty years or so is hosting goofy comedy TV programs in Japan. Insanely prolific, at one time he was on TV every night of the week. But when he takes off the funny wigs and bizarre costumes, Kitano is also one of the most respected Japanese film directors of his generation. Unlike his TV work, which is all sight gags and silly weirdness, Kitano’s films are stunning works of seriousness and violence. He has made many excellent films over his career, but none perhaps as amazing as Hana-bi. Meaning “fireworks” in Japanese (which was also its international title), the film tells the story of a two former cops, one who adapts to new his life in a wheelchair by painting surreal paintings (which were all painted by Kitano), and another who robs a bank to take his dying wife on one last trip. The plot is slim, but the colors, images, and transitions between violence and silence are stunningly poetic. Hana-bi is a very rare and special thing: a gangster movie infused with the soul of a painter.

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A police officer leaves the force in the face of harrowing personal and professional difficulties. Spiraling into a depression he makes questionable decisions.

actors:
Takeshi Kitano as Nishi Yoshitaka   Kayoko Kishimoto as Miyuki   Ren Ôsugi as Horibe   Susumu Terajima as Nakamura   Tetsu Watanabe as Tesuka   Hakuryu as Yakuza-Mitglied   Taro Istumi as Kudo   Makoto Ashikawa as Tanake   Ren Ohsugi as Horibe  

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5 Nobody Knows
imdb
rating

8.1

Nobody Knows (2004)

Drama

When most of us think about Japanese cinema, it’s hard-boiled yakuza, freaky monsters, and homicidal schoolgirls that spring to mind. While those things exist (and appear elsewhere in this list), Japanese filmmakers are also capable of making some incredibly dramas that don’t involve vengeful ghosts or women with swords instead of hands. One of the most moving- seriously, don’t watch this film without a full box of Kleenex, is Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2004 film Nobody Knows. Based on actual events, it tells the story of four children who are left to fend for themselves by their mother in a Tokyo apartment. As the oldest son sets out to keep his brother and sisters alive while making sure no one finds out that they are all alone, events slowly spiral towards a terrible conclusion. The film is anchored by four truly stunning performances by the child actors who play the family and captures not only the bleak horror of their lives, but also the deep bond they feel for each other. It is a very special film and it truly earns every tear it gets.

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In Tokyo, the reckless single mother Keiko moves to a small apartment with her twelve years old son Akira Fukushima and hidden in the luggage, his siblings Kyoko, Shigeru and Yuki. The children have different fathers and do not have schooling, but they have a happy life with their mother. When Keiko finds a new boyfriend, she leaves the children alone, giving some money to Akira and assigning him to take care of his siblings. When the money finishes, Akira manages to find means to survive with the youngsters without power supply, gas or water at home, and with the landlord asking for the rental.

actors:
Yûya Yagira as Akira   Ayu Kitaura as Kyoko   Hiei Kimura as Shigeru   Momoko Shimizu as Yuki   Hanae Kan as Saki   You as Mutter Keiko  

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4 Lost in Translation
imdb
rating

7.8

Lost in Translation (2003)

Drama

Champions of Sofia Coppola’s boutique-chic tale of two lonely hearts who find solace in one another’s company will claim that Lost in Translation is not really about Tokyo, nor Japan, and could in fact be set anywhere. Its detractors will point to the same failure of its main characters – Scarlett Johansson’s blasé college graduate who arrives in tow of her photographer husband and Bill Murray’s world-weary actor in town to shoot a whiskey advert – to engage in any meaningful way with the bewildering neon jungle surrounding their hotel. Both camps have their points, although the casual racism of certain scenes and the sheer ambivalence towards the film’s locale tilt the balance in favour of the latter reading. Other films featuring young American girls who find a sense of purpose in the metropolis have managed to scratch deeper beneath the surface: Robert Allan Ackerman’s Ramen Girl (2008), featuring Brittany Murphy as the young tourist who successfully crosses the cultural divide in her quest to make a tasty bowl of noodles may have suffered from soap-opera level performances and paper-thin characterisation, but its heart was in the right place. By far the most convincing of such fish-out-of-water dramas, however, is Fran Kuzui’s Tokyo Pop (1988), starring Carrie Hamilton as a singer who turns up in Tokyo on a whim and goes on to successfully storm the Japanese charts with her newfound lover Hiro (Diamond Yukai, who plays the commercials director in Coppola’s film). The film is sadly currently unavailable on any home viewing format, but is definitely long overdue a reappraisal.

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Two lost souls visiting Tokyo -- the young, neglected wife of a photographer and a washed-up movie star shooting a TV commercial -- find an odd solace and pensive freedom to be real in each other's company, away from their lives in America.

actors:
Bill Murray as Bob Harris   Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte   Anna Faris as Kelly   Giovanni Ribisi as John   Akiko Takeshita as Ms. Kawasaki   Kazuyoshi Minamimagoe as Press Agent   Kazuko Shibata as Press Agent   Take as Press Agent   Fumihiro Hayashi as Charlie   Hiroko Kawasaki as Hiroko   Daikon as Bambie   Catherine Lambert as Jazz Singer   Daiamondo Yukai as Commercial Director  

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3 Akira
imdb
rating

8.1

Akira (1988)

Animation, Science Fiction

Pessimistic fantasies of Tokyo’s imminent annihilation were very much a feature of Japan’s economic bubble in the late 1980s. 1987 alone saw the release of Akio Jissoji’s live-action special effects fantasy Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis and Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s adult-themed anime Wicked City. In Jissoji’s film, pent-up occult forces are posited as the source behind the city’s destruction in the 1923 earthquake. In Wicked City, the city lies in an uneasy truce with an alternate mirror universe known as the Dark Realm, populated by demons who manifest themselves in the real world as beguiling but deadly succubi. Akira is the best known of them all. Directed for the screen by Katsuhiro Otomo from his own phenomenally popular epic manga series, it was, at the time, Japan’s most expensive animated production. Set in the run-up to the fictional Tokyo Olympics of 2019, the action unfolds in an imagined Year Zero capital rebuilt and renamed Neo-Tokyo after being razed to the ground for the third time in the 20th century at the end of World War III in 1988. The story centres upon the titular teenage tearaway as he flees from authorities who wish to harness his unique psychic powers for their own nefarious ends. Almost single-handedly launching the anime craze in the west, Akira is a milestone highlighting the animated medium’s ability to construct, in a manner that live action could never emulate convincingly, an imaginable dystopian future metropolis extrapolated from the present day, only to have it wiped out again in cataclysmic scenes of devastation.

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Childhood friends Tetsuo and Kaneda are pulled into the post-apocalyptic underworld of Neo-Tokyo and forced to fight for their very survival. Kaneda is a bike gang leader, and Tetsuo is a member of a tough motorcycle crew who becomes involved in a covert government project called Akira. But a bloody battle ensues when Kaneda sets out to save his friend.

actors:
Mitsuo Iwata as Shôtarô Kaneda (voice)   Nozomu Sasaki as Tetsuo Shima (voice)   Mami Koyama as Kei (voice)   Tesshô Genda as Ryûsaku (voice)   Hiroshi Ôtake as Nezu (voice)   Kôichi Kitamura as Priestess Miyako, Council A (voice)   Yuriko Fuchizaki as Kaori (voice)   Masaaki Ôkura as Yamagata (voice)   Takeshi Kusao as Kai (voice)   Kazuhiro Kamifuji as Masaru (No. 27) (voice)   Tatsuhiko Nakamura as Takashi (No. 26) (voice)   Fukue Itô as Kiyoko (No. 25) (voice)  

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2 Godzilla
imdb
rating

7.5

Godzilla (1954)

Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller

The shadows of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombings loom large over Ishiro Honda’s classic monster movie. However, it was the combined forces of the 1952 Japanese reissue of King Kong (1933), the release of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and a real-life tragedy closer to home, the Bikini Atoll incident of 1 March 1954, in which the crew of a Japanese fishing boat were exposed to radioactive fallout following US nuclear testing in the Pacific, that prompted the iconic fire-breathing giant lizard to emerge from the murky depths. (This incident also inspired Kaneto Shindo’s more overtly political Lucky Dragon No. 5 in 1959). The beast would make regular reappearances to wreak havoc on a Tokyo meticulously constructed through scale models (or on Manhattan, in Roland Emmerich’s much-maligned 1998 Hollywood remake), with Honda directing eight of the 15 films in the first cycle, up to his final as a director, Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). The original is still by far the best, presenting a poignant allegory about the destructive power of nuclear weapons, before the series became increasingly pitched towards younger audiences.

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Japan is thrown into a panic after several ships explode and are sunk near Odo Island. An expedition to the island led by paleontologist Professor Kyohei Yemani soon discover something more devastating than imagined in the form of a 164 foot tall monster whom the natives call Gojira. Now the monster begins a rampage that threatens to destroy not only Japan, but the rest of the world as well.

actors:
Takashi Shimura as Kyohei Yamane-hakase   Momoko Kôchi as Emiko Yamane   Akira Takarada as Hideto Ogata   Akihiko Hirata as Daisuke Serizawa-hakase  

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1 Tokyo Story
imdb
rating

8.3

Tokyo Story (1953)

Drama

Occupying the top spot in Kinema Junpo’s 2009 poll of Japanese critics and coming in at number three in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, Yasujiro Ozu’s timeless tale of intergenerational conflict and miscomprehension offers far more than just a trip down memory lane for modern viewers. The story, of an aged couple who travel up from the countryside to visit their children only to find them so wrapped up in their daily lives that they have no time for them, is classic Ozu home drama. What makes this one stand out from other works by the director in the 1950s is his deployment of the capital, still smarting after destruction wreaked by the Allied bombings less than 10 years earlier but in the process of rebuilding, to portray a city that, despite retaining its traditions and idiosyncrasies, has changed forever. Ozu’s subtle blend of nostalgic yearning, muted smiles and choked-back tears suggests that cities the world over are less defined by the physical presence of their streets and buildings than by the memories, the imaginations and the patterns of existence of their inhabitants.

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An old couple visit their children and grandchildren in the city, but the children have little time for them.

actors:
Chishû Ryû as Shukishi Hirayama   Chieko Higashiyama as Tomi Hirayama   Setsuko Hara as Noriko Hirayama   Haruko Sugimura as Shige Kaneko   Sô Yamamura as Koichi Hirayama   Kuniko Miyake as Fumiko Hirayama - his wife   Kyôko Kagawa as Kyôko Hirayama   Eijirô Tôno as Sanpei Numata   Nobuo Nakamura as Kurazo Kaneko   Shirô Osaka as Keiso Hirayama   Hisao Toake as Osamu Hattori   Teruko Nagaoka as Yone Hattori  

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