Famous cities around the world have their own identities, and those clichés show up in movies all the time. Need a busy, bustling city? New York. Romantic mystique? Paris or Rome. Exploring fame, fortune, and dreams? Los Angeles is always there.
But with Tokyo, it's a bit different. No matter what kind of movie or genre, it's hard to separate the setting from its ethnic backdrop. Japanese culture is distinct, inexplicable, and intricate.
Setting a story in Tokyo requires passion, experience, and nuance from the filmmaker. Otherwise, the issue of Japanese stereotypes will rear its head and bring down the film in one or more ways.
Here are our picks for the best movies set in Tokyo that actually stand out by doing something different.
10. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
Tokyo appears to be a favorite playground for stylish action blockbusters, from James Bond's stealthy exploits in You Only Live Twice to the high-speed kills in the latest Bullet Train.
But nothing can top the blend of full-throttle thrills and absurdity in the third Fast & Furious movie, Tokyo Drift.
Despite being part of a franchise that's increasingly absurd, Tokyo Drift stuck to its roots as a street race showcase. The formula is pretty much there: cool cars, cool races, and cool tracks.
But the best fun comes in witnessing drifter Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) clash with other Japanese cliques and even the yakuza.
9. Your Name (2016)
Anime tends to show all sides of Tokyo. In the movie Your Name, a poignant coming-of-age tale mixes with the fantastical by introducing a body-swapping element.
High school boy Taki and high school girl Mitsuha randomly switch bodies when they wake up, and each one must cleverly deal with the other's real life so that they don't get into trouble. And that's only the start.
The body-swapping element plays a crucial role as the story progresses, but between the high school hijinks and slice-of-life charm rests the overt beauty of both Tokyo and the Japanese countryside.
8. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
Preparing sushi remains a modest discipline for Japanese chefs. This truth is fully emphasized in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary film that centers on 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono.
As owner of a former Michelin-starred restaurant, Jiro maintains the tradition and strictness of preparing his specialites, all with a high value.
The intrigue of the documentary rests in the legacy that Jiro builds and how he must pass it on to his sons. Both of his sons have their own paths to live as Jiro continues to seek perfection in his craft and make up for his parenting failures.
If you think you'd enjoy a film that combines a food trip with a Wes Anderson-like family history, this one's for you.
7. Shoplifters (2018)
Not all life in Tokyo is glamorous, and there is some happiness to be found in getting through rough times.
Shoplifters follows the poor Shibata family, who commit petty thefts to survive. However, when their young son is suddenly arrested, their simple lives are interrupted and they're forced to deal with the consequences.
Filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda brings out his inner Yasujirō Ozu in this story, evidenced in everything from the family dynamics to the wistful cinematography. Every scene's atmosphere is truly captivating, perfectly capturing a Tokyo that isn't stereotypically Tokyo.
And though it doesn't delve too much into the city's poverty, Shoplifters does show some of it in a humanistic yet beautiful fashion.
6. Enter the Void (2009)
For a more vibrant side of Tokyo, turn your head to Gaspar Noé's most well-known film: the psychological fantasy Enter the Void.
This trippy film dives into the seedy underworld of Tokyo's neon-clad nightclubs. At the center of it is drug dealer Oscar, who—after being shot by police—explores the nightlife scene in an out-of-body experience.
Noé's works are never for the faint of heart. His psychedelic imagery, surreal camerawork, brutal characters, and taboo themes might tick you off over Tokyo electronic music. But if you're ready to explore delirious art films, Enter the Void is an absorbing place to start.
5. Akira (1988)
Given that it's a city that's central to technological progress, Tokyo is unsurprisingly known for its futuristic designs. And of all the science-fiction movies set in this city, Akira stands as an icon above them.
Akira is a cyberpunk anime film about Shōtarō Kaneda, a biker gang leader who must rescue his childhood friend Tetsuo and uncover the dangerous secret behind Tetsuo's telekinetic abilities.
If you've never seen adult anime, Akira is a great starting point. Its blend of cyberpunk and postmodern design is further enriched by its animation, atmosphere, and action. The chases are a huge highlight, with the iconic "Akira slide" scene as the best part.
4. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
Kill Bill is one of the bloodiest revenge tales ever conceived, never relenting on its violent fun from start to finish. The first volume in this two-parter sets up the Bride's origins and the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 follows the Bride (Uma Thurman) as she takes revenge against several deadly assassins and their charismatic leader Bill (David Carradine). Along the way, she must face the yakuza and confront her own past that transformed her into the "deadliest woman in the world."
In Tarantino's world, Tokyo is never safe from the Black Mamba's vengeful spree. This film proves that Tarantino truly knows his Japanese.
3. Godzilla (1954)
Early Japanese cinema brimmed with kaiju movies. Yet despite the abundant number of Japanese monster movies and creature features, the king of them all remains the original Gojira (or Godzilla).
Reflecting Japanese fears of nuclear holocaust during the post-WWII era, the 1954 Toho movie debuts the giant monster as it first lays waste over Tokyo. Cue city-wide destruction with the kaiju stomping on buildings, munching on trains, and breathing fire everywhere.
As the very first kaiju movie, Godzilla cemented its place in pop culture and paved the way for all kinds of monster movies.
2. Lost in Translation (2003)
The wonderfully soft Lost in Translation shows an opposite side to the neon-lit excitement of typical Tokyo.
This 2003 comedy-drama features Bill Murray as Bob Harris, an actor past his prime who goes to Tokyo to film a commercial. There, he bonds with up-and-comer Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) during his stay.
Themes of alienation and yearning spread throughout the film as Bob and Charlotte feel displaced from their own worlds. They rely on each other while stuck in this foreign culture.
While the film's depiction of Tokyo and Japan may seem surface-level and stereotypical, Lost in Translation is the type of romance that fits in the idyllic atmosphere of the city. A true hipster romance.
1. Tokyo Story (1953)
Even with all the vibrancy of modern Tokyo, it can be rewarding to go back to the city's roots in an earlier era. In our case, the reward is Yasujirō Ozu's masterpiece film Tokyo Story.
Tokyo Story is the tale of an elderly couple, Shukishi and Tomi, who visit their children and grandchildren in the city. But when they get there, they find that their arrival is seen as an imposition.
To the untrained eye, Ozu's films are slowly paced. Tokyo Story is certainly no action-banger, instead choosing to take its time and make every scene calm yet absorbing. Each character has their own introspection, and the cutaways are amazingly shot.
Tokyo Story is a huge contrast to the fast-paced flow of today's Tokyo, and it's a must-watch for any cinema fan.