From classic kaiju and samurai films to US series that travel to Japan, these are the best of movie, tv, and documentaries for Japan-lovers.
The power of film and television as mediums is transcendent. The reason why millions are drawn to stories on the screen over and over again is because they have the power to transport fans to new realms. Furthermore, they maintain the ability to transport people across the globe to places they may have never seen before.
One of these places is Japan. Stories set in Japan have always served as an endless source of appeal for audiences, across decades. From the kaiju franchises of yore to samurai action-dramas to heartbreaking stories of isolation and aging, all sorts of genres can play out against the backdrop of Japanese culture and landscapes.
Famously, most of Girls, Lena Dunham’s coming-of-age comedy series on HBO, takes place in New York. However, there is also still time devoted to setting the series in Japan, after Shoshanna moves there in season five.
Girls could often hold its own as one of the best series on television. This particular Japanese storyline was a shimmering example of that, as Shoshanna’s arc rarely seemed to be as riveting as it was overseas.
9 The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
The franchise of The Fast and the Furious is a globetrotting affair that has brought Dom Toretto and his family across many different landscapes and cultures. The third film in the franchise, Tokyo Drift, is one that sends the group to Japan.
Somewhat confusingly, this movie is a prequel. Furthermore, it features very few Fast characters. It does star Han, though, and everyone knows Han is one of the best in the franchise. Therefore, Tokyo Drift earns its dues.
8 Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is one of the best documentaries ever made. Largely set at Sukiyabashi Jiro, a small sushi restaurant in Tokyo, the documentary follows Jiro Ono as he sets out to perpetually master his culinary craft.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a testament to love, loyalty, dedication, and precision. Those featured may be somewhat complicated figures, but they are always worthy of curiosity. That’s what this Japan-set film is all about, after all.
7 Godzilla (1954)
It wouldn’t be a list of media set in Japan without reverence for the genre of kaiju, which features many cultural touchstones of the monster known as Godzilla raining havoc down across the country. The best way to understand Godzilla is to return to the very first one from 1954.
Ishiro Honda’s monster movie may have spawned many more warmly-beloved installments. But this particular Godzilla has the most immense legacy of all. It was a much-needed reprieve for the Japanese people after the trauma inflicted upon them a decade prior.
6 Childrens Hospital
Childrens Hospital is Rob Corddry’s WB/Adult Swim comedy series that serves as a send-up of many melodramatic medical series. It’s in the same vein of humor as Medical Police and Wet Hot American Summer and positively delirious.
Clearly shot in Los Angeles, Childrens Hospital continuously positions itself as being set in Brazil, save for one season that earns it a spot on this list. Season five takes the team to Japan. It’s again done for no reason, but that absurdity is part of the show’s charm.
5 Tokyo Story (1953)
Tokyo Story is not only one of the best movies ever set in Japan, but many consider it to be one of the best movies ever made. Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece centers around the Hirayama family.
In this clan, the parents strive to build connections with their children, who have now grown up and have become increasingly busy in their lives. It’s tragic in conceit, but also deeply moving at all times.
4 Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003)
The Kill Bill films are an interesting beast from director Quentin Tarantino. However, the prevailing consensus remains that the first film in the duology is the better one.
Part of what makes the first Kill Bill such a thrill is that it centers around The Bride’s journey, which leaves her in Tokyo eventually. In the Tokyo scenes exists one of the greatest martial arts action sequences ever put to film. That alone earns it a spot on this list.
3 Samurai Gourmet
Few series have as kooky a concept as Samurai Gourmet does. It’s a Netflix series set in Japanese and written and spoken in Japanese; it all comes from a story by Masayuki Kusumi.
But the story is about a man who wanders freely through Japan, eating, drinking, and imagining himself to be a samurai. It’s like if a Jack Kerouac novel combined with an Anthony Bourdain series and a Snoopy non sequitur from the Peanuts comic strip. That is to say, it’s astoundingly fresh.
2 Lost In Translation (2003)
Lost in Translation might be the best Japanese movie that isn’t actually Japanese and is only set in Japan. The fish-out-of-water, introverted narrative from Sofia Coppola still resonates almost two decades after its release.
Starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation is all about forging human connections and bonds in environments that seem most unwelcoming to such a concept. The Japanese setting only serves to make this even more powerful.
1 Seven Samurai (1954)
Could it be anything else? Seven Samurai is much more than just a movie set in Japan and one of the best films ever made, by every metric of success. Seven Samurai is also a template as one of the most influential stories ever constructed.
The Akira Kurosawa classic combines the best of drama with the best of samurai-based action and it’s all set during Japan’s historical Sengoku period. There might not be so many beloved westerns without it. That’s the power of the eastern landscape.
NEXT: Japan’s 10 Best Samurai Films Of All Time, Ranked On Rotten Tomatoes
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