Tokyo has a lot to offer for both national and international filmmakers. The country has modern cityscapes, as well as a strong sense of history with many stunning feats of architecture, beautiful temples and a unique culture. So it will come as no surprise that there are so many wonderful movies set in Tokyo.
Although one can see the mix of the new and the old in many Asian cities, this fascinating phenomenon is most evident in the city of Tokyo.
Walking the streets of this ancient city is a surreal experience. Some of the most antique and beautiful buildings in the world lie just around the corner from some of the most modern shopping malls and apartment complexes.
The city is filled with nooks and crannies where one can observe its past. It isn’t just the past, though: the Japanese have become one of the most developed countries in the world, but they still preserve much of the traditions that were part of their culture before their westernization.
From an outside perspective, Tokyo seems to be a city of contrasts. Yet, if you were to ask a local, they would find that their way of living their history and culture is perfectly balanced.
What no one will deny is that Tokyo is a complex city, particularly for foreigners. This list of films will help you understand this gem of a place. It features both the voice of the locals, but also some perspectives that are not. Tokyo is such a vibrant city, that each person is bound to have a unique experience there.
These Japanese films have narratives that rely on their settings as much as their main protagonists, and as a result, spectators get a glimpse of this iconic country through the director’s eyes. To honor the concept of cinematic travel, we have also assembled lists of our favorite films shot in some of our all-time favorite travel destinations: Romania, Italy, Mexico, Ireland, Australia, Japan, Alaska, and Israel.
Wondering where to watch? It depends on where you live in the world and which streaming services you have. We link to the streaming service we watch on in each case - be it Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, or elsewhere.
You can get one month free of Amazon Prime (or a 6-month trial for students) of Amazon Prime and also get immediate access to FREE Two Day shipping, Amazon Video, and Music. While you won't be charged for your free trial, you'll be upgraded to a paid membership plan automatically at the end of the trial period - though if you have already binged all these, you could just cancel before the trial ends.
Apple TV+ also has a one-week trial, and Hulu has a one-month trial (which can be bundled with Disney!). Another option might be using a VPN to access Netflix titles locked to other regions. Netflix is now available in more than 190 countries worldwide and each country has a different library and availability. US Netflix is (understandably) one of the best.
While we wish everything could just be in one place - for now, it seems these are the best streaming platforms to watch on.
- Stray Dog [野良犬] (1949)
- Funeral Parade of Roses [薔薇の葬列] (1969)
- Tokyo Story [東京物語] (1953)
- Tokyo Drifter [東京流れ者] (1966)
- Tokyo Godfathers [東京ゴッドファーザーズ] (2003)
- Like Someone in Love [ライク・サムワン・イン・ラブ] (2012)
- Cherry Blossoms [Kirschblüten – Hanami] (2008)
- Shoplifters [万引き家族] (2018)
- Enter the Void (2009)
- Tokyo! (2008)
- The Garden of Words [言の葉の庭] (2013)
- Your Name [君の名は] (2016)
What better way to start a list of the best movies set in Tokyo, than with the Japanese master of filmmaking himself, Akira Kurosawa.
Widely regarded as one of the best directors to ever live, Kurosawa’s films have influenced filmmakers worldwide. He was one of the first to truly explore how movement could be captured in cinema: films like Seven Samurai or Rashomon are filled with activity and action.
Like many of Kurosawa’s movies, Stray Dog holds a special place in cinema. It not only was one of the first detective films in Japan, but it is also considered to be the foundation for the buddy cop genre.
Even though over fifty years have passed since its release, the film still feels like a fresh take on the very genre it originated. That’s perhaps due to the genius of Kurosawa, whose movies all remain timeless.
Stray Dog takes place in post-war Tokyo and sees an inexperienced homicide detective, Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) chasing after a man who stole his police-issued pistol.
When the robber starts to commit crimes with the detective’s weapon, Murakami partners with the veteran Satō (Takeshi Shimura). The two of them will dive deep into the case, eventually finding out that the man they’re looking for is actually a disgruntled war veteran with ties with the yakuza.
Funeral Parade of Roses, by Toshio Matsumoto, was a revolutionary film. Not only due to its use of experimental and arthouse techniques when filming and editing, but also due to its subject matter.
It’s no surprise, since Matsumoto is now known for his forward-thinking style and activism.
Most of the film takes place in the, at the time, very famous Tokyo hostess clubs. These kinds of nightclubs were known for an all-female staff that was there to provide conversation and entertainment to male guests.
While it wasn’t common for Japanese films to show this aspect of the nightlife, Matsumoto took it a step further by telling the story of a transgender woman trying to make a life for herself working as a hostess.
Funeral Parade of Roses (a play on words about the fact that the protagonist is transgender) follows Eddie, a transgender woman working at Genet, a gay bar in Tokyo.
The film tells her story in a non-linear fashion and features some truly gruesome scenes. This is because, although it may be shocking to hear, the film is actually a loose adaptation of the quintessential Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex.
The film magazine Sight & Sound runs a poll each year where filmmakers all over the world vote for the greatest film of all time. In 2012, the winner was Tokyo Story by Yasujirō Ozu.
The film captures much about Japan’s cultural climate during the post-war period. It shows how Japan became the capitalist and developed nation that it is today, and the difficult readaptation of its culture, practices, and values to fit Western standards.
Of course, these changes had much impact on Japan and its people. Stories can be derived from many issues and struggles from that era. Tokyo Story tells a single story, but one that could be seen as representative of many other real-life stories that took place during this time.
The film begins with Shukishi (Chishu Ryu) and his wife Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), who live in a seaside village in the West of Japan. We see the quiet and traditional lives they lead, before they go to Tokyo in order to visit their children.
Yet as they arrive in the big city, we also see that their children don’t seem to have much time for them. Instead, they spend most of their time working. This disrespect breaks the elderly couple’s hearts.
Their only consolation is Noriko, their daughter-in-law who became a widow when their son died in the war. This won’t be enough, though, and the consequences of their trip to Tokyo will turn their lives around.
Tokyo Drifter is part of the genre of “Yakuza” films, meaning films that deal with the lives of yakuzas, members of the biggest crime syndicate in Japan.
The film’s director, Seijun Suzuki, is widely known for being a pioneer in the genre, with this film being regarded as his best work
. Even though his films are considered B-movies, he has influenced great directors from Japan (like Takeshi Kitano) and outside of Japan (like Quentin Tarantino).
The film follows a yakuza who, after his boss disbanded their gang, can’t find a place for himself in society. Still, what Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) didn’t expect was for the rival gang to offer him a job with them.
When he refuses, the old world of crime comes back to haunt him, with the rival gang members sending a skilled hitman after Tetsu.
Tokyo Drifter will see Tetsu becoming just that, a drifter living in the streets of Tokyo trying to avoid the notice of the hitman. As he explores Tokyo, so does the viewer.
The city takes on a marvelous nature when seen through Suzuki’s particular style. More than an accurate depiction, the film manages to capture the feeling of being lost in the enormous and wonderful city of Tokyo.
From the anime director, Satoshi Kon comes this beautifully animated portrayal of Tokyo. Those unaware should know that Kon is regarded as one of the masters of Japanese animation, making some of the greatest films in the genre.
From Perfect Blue to Paprika, his stories reflect on the beautiful and the dark things about Japanese societies. Sadly, there aren’t many movies directed by him due to his untimely death when he was only forty-six years old.
Tokyo Godfathers is a wonderful melodrama told through comedy. Set during Christmas Eve, it tells the story of three homeless people who happen to find an abandoned newborn baby in a dumpster. The three of them decide to take the baby and find their parents.
To do so, they take on the role of being the baby’s family for the night. The film will see them wander the beautifully snowy streets of Tokyo as they look for clues about the baby’s parent’s identity.
As they get involved in a mysterious plot by the organized crime family of the Yakuza, the three of them will get to know each other, revealing their sad backstories to the audience.
But don’t worry, Tokyo Godfathers is a charming and uplifting film that shows that even in the biggest city one can find the best of people.
Like Someone in Love is one of the last films to be directed by the acclaimed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. It is also one of the two films (together with Certified Copy) that he filmed outside Iran.
Like many of his films, it’s a concise story that captures the culture of the place it’s set in. In this case, Japan.
The film follows the life of a young woman named Akiko (Rin Takanashi). We’re shown that she’s a brilliant student progressing on her degree in sociology at the University of Japan. But our assumptions about her are quickly challenged when we also see that she works as a prostitute, albeit a very luxurious one.
One night she meets a client who is out of the ordinary. Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) is an old man who used to teach at the same university she goes to. But he isn’t interested in having sex with her. All he want’s is her company. The two of them have a pleasant evening and another day, he drives her back to the university.
The thing is, Akiko has a very jealous boyfriend, Noriaki (Ryō Kase), who has the feeling that something is up with her undisclosed work. When he sees Akiko get out of Takashi’s car, Noriaki mistakes him for her grandfather. This will lead Noriaki to get in the car with him and spend the whole morning talking with the man.
Cherry Blossoms, by German director Doris Dörrie, is a beautiful dramatic film that shines a light on some of the most interesting traditions and places in Japan.
It tells a heart-wrenching story about losing someone you love, but it also shows that grief is something important that we all have to go through and that happiness can still be found in the end.
An elderly couple lives in a remote town in Germany. All their children have left the family home, with one of them going away to work in Tokyo. The wife, Trudi (Hannelore Elsner) has long been wanting to visit him, particularly since she became interested in Japanese culture, but her husband, Rudi (Elmar Wepper), isn’t interested.
When Trudi learns that Rudi has only a few weeks left to live, she chooses not to tell him and takes him to visit their children in Berlin. Cherry Blossoms has an upsetting twist that will take the movie’s focus to Tokyo, and the Japanese ritual dance of Butoh will take center stage in the story.
Many see some resemblances in the plot of this movie to that of Tokyo Story. If it’s truly an homage, Dörrie has decided to put the story on its head.
Cherry Blossoms doesn’t tell us how Japan became more like the West. Rather, its message has more to do with the fact that people from the West have a lot to learn from Japanese culture and traditions.
It’s often hard for directors with long and successful careers to outdo their previous work. But when it happens, it’s usually with movies that are too good to be true. This is the case with Hirozaku Kore-eda and Shoplifters.
A key voice in Japanese cinema, Kore-eda has spent the last twenty years producing some of the most interesting films set in the country (the tragic Nobody Knows and the beautiful Like Father, Like Son, to name a few).
With Shoplifters, he showed that even after all these years, he still has the talent to make a groundbreaking film. At its core, it’s a film about family. But not just any family: Kore-eda explores the life of poor families and how they get by.
He won several awards for his work on this film, including the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
The film tells the story of a patchwork family of five who all lie together in a house on the outskirts of Tokyo. Focusing on the married couple that is part of this “family”, the film shows a common practice amongst poor Japanese people: shoplifting.
The philosophy of many is that stealing from stores isn’t as bad since the things don’t belong to anyone in particular. The film sees them adopting a girl who has run away from her abusive household, even when the police are searching for her.
Gaspar Noé has to be one of the most interesting directors out there. Recently, his movie Climax shocked and awed audiences and critics alike. Although he has made many great films before and after, Enter the Void remains his best.
The film offers a psychedelic exploration of Tokyo’s underworld and nightlife, told through the eyes of a man in drugs who is recalling his life as he faces his death.
It’s an incredible experience that shows the city of Tokyo like no other. It may not be the most charming depiction of the city, but it’s one that you’ll want to experience, at least once in your life.
Enter the Void is told and shot, through the eyes of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), an American drug dealer living in Tokyo. While first, we see how Oscar deals drugs in some of the most bizarre nightclubs in the city, it comes a time when he arrives at a bar called The Void.
He was supposed to deal drugs with a friend there, but it turns out that that friend betrayed him and quickly the police arrive.
The altercation ends with Oscar being shot, yet that’s not the film’s end: we see through Oscar’s eyes as his spirit leaves his body and he floats through the city of Tokyo, exploring both the past and the future.
Enter the Void is a mesmerizing film that is sure to show you sights you’ve never seen before.
Tokyo! is an anthology film comprised of three short films about the Japanese city.
What’s most interesting about the film is that these shorts are not made by Japanese filmmakers but are directed by foreigners who offer their outside perspective about Tokyo. The premise brings lots of originality through these artists’ interpretation of the city.
The first segment was directed by Michel Gondry (whose work you may know from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). It sees a young couple whose prospects couldn’t be better: Akira (Ryō Kase) is about to debut his first film, and Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani) has gotten them an apartment. But as time goes by Hiroko realizes that nothing is as good as it seems.
The second segment was directed Léos Caraz (who did Boy Meets Girl, among other French films) and tells the story of a chaotic creature living in the sewers of Tokyo. The creature, played by Denis Lavant, speaks a language no one can understand. This segment deals with the place of immigrants in the big city.
The third and final segment was directed by Bong Joon-ho (who recently got lots of praise for his movie Parasite). This one is a love story between a hikikomori (a shut-in played by Teruyuki Kagawa) and a pizza delivery woman. Among the shakes of the earthquakes that plague Tokyo, the shut-in will gain the strength to go outside and find his soulmate.
The Garden of Words, by Makoto Shinkai, is a love letter to the city of Tokyo and one of the sweetest movies you’ll ever see.
The film tells the story of a young boy who wants to become a shoemaker. He’s so passionate about this dream that he skips classes to design shoes, which he likes to do in a rainy garden in the city.
He constantly sees a lonely woman who is sitting in the garden. One day he decides to approach her. The two of them become friends, eventually finding in each other the thing each of them needed to keep on going.
The film wouldn’t be the same without the titular garden. Although the film is animated, the director bases his locations on those of Tokyo in order to achieve a more realistic depiction of the city. In this case, the garden is the Shinjuku Gyoen National Park.
This beautiful park served as the inspiration for the film, since it’s where many people go either to spend time with their loved ones or just to feel less alone.
One could say that Makoto Shinkai garnered much success with The Garden of Words, but it wasn’t until Your Name that he became the critically acclaimed director he is today.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that this film was a total phenomenon. It was praised by audiences and critics worldwide, and it ended up becoming the most successful anime film of all time (surpassing Hideo Miyazaki’s 2001 hit, Spirited Away).
The story follows a boy and a girl who suddenly switch bodies. There’s Mitsuha, who lives in a rural town a couple of hours away from Tokyo called Itomori, and then there’s Taki, a student in Tokyo.
The two of them are, at first, really annoyed about what’s happening to them. But, with time, they start to learn things about each other. The film sees Taki going to Mitsuha’s town in order to meet her (up next comes an important spoiler, so be warned).
However, Taki doesn’t find what he had hoped for. Mitsuha’s town was destroyed in 2013, when a meteorite hit Earth right in the center of Itomori.
So, Taki is living in 2016, but he’s been communicating and taking part in the life of someone who died three years ago. He then decides to do whatever he can to prevent the accident and save Mitsuha’s life.
Further Things To Consider Before Any Adventure
Now you're all set and prepared to explore our big wide world, why not sort out everything else out all in one go? If necessary for your travel plans make sure you have brought proper travel insurance, protected your privacy by getting a secure VPN, compared all the top hotel booking sites to find just what you're after, reserved an unbeatable rental car price and - of course - booked the best flight deals!
Many budget travelers (including me) indulge in worldwide airport lounge access, so we can experience luxury while still slumming it in economy. Naturally, we would never leave home without a more general travel guide since we couldn’t possibly cover everything here!
Just add an adventurous attitude and plenty of smiles - they go a long way - and that about covers it all! Now go out, find your own path and don't forget to share your best inspiration stories with me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram...I'd love to hear from you!