Famous cities around the world each 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 can 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.
15. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
Directed by Justin Lin
Starring Lucas Black, Zachery Ty Bryan, Shad Moss
Action, Crime, Thriller (1h 44m)
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 Bullet Train.
But nothing can top the blend of full-throttle thrills and absurdity that we got in the third Fast & Furious movie, Tokyo Drift.
Despite being part of a franchise that's increasingly preposterous, Tokyo Drift stuck to its roots as a street race showcase. The core formula is pretty much all there: cool cars, cool races, and cool tracks.
But the best fun comes in witnessing drifter Sean Boswell (played by Lucas Black) clash with other Japanese cliques and even the yakuza.
14. Adrift in Tokyo (2007)
Directed by Satoshi Miki
Starring Joe Odagiri, Tomokazu Miura, Kyōko Koizumi
Comedy (1h 41m)
Not everything is glamorous or idealistic in Tokyo, as seen in down-to-earth films like Adrift in Tokyo. But beneath all of the turmoil, there's a unique beauty to behold.
The story finds penniless law student Fumiya Takemura (played by Joe Odagiri) who can't pay his debts and must agree to take the thug Aiichiro Fukuhara (played by Tomokazu Miura) around Tokyo.
Their stroll takes them from one tourist trap to another as they encounter peculiar Tokyo denizens ranging from tourists to cosplayers.
Despite such an aimless trip, both men get immersed from day to night in the unpredictable, colorful nature of Tokyo—and so do we.
13. Tokyo Sonata (2008)
Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring Teruyuki Kagawa, Kyōko Koizumi, Yū Koyanagi
For an even more down-to-earth watch, we recommend the drama Tokyo Sonata. This film by Kiyoshi Kurosawa—no relation to Akira Kurosawa—tells of a family that struggles to get by but sticks together as the father Ryūhei (played by Teruyuki Kagawa) loses his job.
Kurosawa is mostly skilled in horror films, so even with this one having a lighter tone, the bleakness beneath it all is equally startling. Think of Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale except set in a weary Tokyo where worry and estrangement are hard to escape.
Let's just say that Claude Debussy's "Clair de Lune" will hit quite differently after watching this poignant film.
12. Your Name (2016)
Directed by Makoto Shinkai
Starring Michael Sinterniklaas, Stephanie Sheh, Kyle Hebert
Animation, Drama, Fantasy (1h 46m)
Anime tends to show all sides of Tokyo. In the movie Your Name, we get a poignant coming-of-age tale that mixes with the fantastical by way of a body-swapping plot device.
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. But there's more to this body-swapping phenomenon than either could've imagined.
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.
11. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
Directed by David Gelb
Starring Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono, Masuhiro Yamamoto
Documentary (1h 21m)
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 traditions and strictness of preparing his specialties.
The intrigue of the documentary rests in the legacy that Jiro has built 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, all while trying to 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.
10. Shoplifters (2018)
Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring Lily Franky, Sakura Andō, Kirin Kiki
Crime, Drama, Thriller (2h 1m)
Shoplifters follows the poor Shibata family, who commit petty thefts to get by. 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 captivating as it perfectly captures 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.
9. Enter the Void (2009)
Directed by Gaspar Noé
Starring Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta, Cyril Roy
Drama, Fantasy (2h 41m)
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 (played by Nathaniel Brown), 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's electronic music. But if you're ready to explore delirious art films, Enter the Void is an absorbing place to start.
8. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
Directed by Paul Schrader
Starring Ken Ogata, Masayuki Shionoya, Hiroshi Mikami
Biography, Drama (2h)
From the radical mind of Paul Schrader comes this biographical film about famed Japanese writer Yukio Mishima.
Using three of his books as segments for the film, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters depicts Mishima's life that was defined by his extreme rejection of materialism and militarism. The three segments, as well as his flashbacks, help show his life philosophies.
Schrader's interpretation of Mishima's Tokyo manifests as a kabuki-inspired set design that bursts with stingy pastels. It lends well to show the artificiality of Japanese society, and it slowly gets to the real heart of what Mishima thinks his homeland should be.
7. Stray Dog (1949)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Starring Toshirō Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Awaji
Crime, Drama, Noir (2h 2m)
Akira Kurosawa is the undisputed maestro of Japanese cinema. His style, brilliance, and reputation has always been associated with samurai epics and Shakespeare-inspired dramas, but he's also done a lot beyond his better-known timeless period pieces.
Stray Dog gives us a taste of noir Tokyo. The legendary Toshirō Mifune plays Detective Murakami, who loses his pistol and hires fellow detective Satō (played by Takashi Shimura) to track it down.
With the film set in post-WW2 Tokyo, Kurosawa never loses his grip on the period's grittiness, which only makes the case tenser and sharper, especially as Murakami dives into dicey territory.
6. Akira (1988)
Directed by Katsuhiro Ōtomo
Starring Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama
Animation, Action, Sci-Fi (2h 4m)
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 designs 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.
5. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox
Action, Crime, Thriller (1h 51m)
Kill Bill is one of the bloodiest revenge tales ever conceived, packed with relentless violent 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 (played by Uma Thurman) as she takes revenge against several deadly assassins and their charismatic leader Bill (played by 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."
No one in Tokyo is safe from the Bride's vengeful spree, and this film proves that Tarantino truly knows his Japanese.
4. Godzilla (1954)
Directed by Ishirō Honda
Starring Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata, Akira Takarada
Action, Horror, Sci-Fi (1h 36m)
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 Godzilla (or Gojira).
Reflecting Japanese fears of nuclear holocaust during the post-WW2 era, the 1954 Toho movie debuts the giant monster as it first lays waste to 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 other monster movies.
3. Ikiru (1952)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Starring Takashi Shimura, Shinichi Himori, Haruo Tanaka
Drama (2h 23m)
When we think of top-tier Akira Kurosawa films, we usually go to the usual suspects: Rashomon, Yojimbo, and Seven Samurai. But Ikiru is a clear underdog that deserves to sit up there with the best.
Inspired by a Leo Tolstoy novella, Ikiru is a timeless tale about a man who's stricken by a terminal illness and searches for meaning in his life.
Snow-laden Tokyo serves as the ideal scenery to let the elderly Kanji Watanabe (played by Takashi Shimura) reflect on his life's emptiness and the hollowness of the metropolis.
While those divisive themes may seem heavy and depressing, Ikiru is actually the very opposite: an inspirational and motivational film with a hopeful message that many people can relate to.
2. Lost in Translation (2003)
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi
Comedy, Drama (1h 42m)
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 Charlotte (played by 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 together.
While the film's depiction of Tokyo and Japan may seem surface-level and stereotypical, Lost in Translation is the type of romance that truly fits the idyllic atmosphere of the city. A real hipster romance.
1. Tokyo Story (1953)
Directed by Yasujirō Ozu
Starring Chishū Ryū, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara
Drama (2h 16m)
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 introspections, 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.