(Photo by David Gelb/©Magnolia Pictures)
The Summer Olympics have taken place in Asia only three times, and the earliest of those occasions was in Tokyo, Japan in 1964. More than half a century later, we’re back in the island nation’s capital city to witness the world’s finest athletes go for gold again. And while Tokyo is a bustling tourist hotspot, those who hoped to visit and catch the sights during the Olympics were met with disappointment — due to COVID-19 concerns, not only were the games delayed a year, but no spectators are allowed this time around.
Thankfully, Tokyo is such a remarkable city that it has inspired filmmakers both from Japan and elsewhere to contribute to its rich cinematic history, so it’s not too difficult to take a virtual tour from the comfort of your couch. With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of movies that either showcase Tokyo in all its splendor or offer glimpses of the various ways filmmakers have remixed and reinterpreted the city. We couldn’t include every movie set in Tokyo, of course, but we did try to cover a representative sample of films from across the spectrum. So stow your tray table and return your seat to its upright position as we whisk you away with 12 films that celebrate Tokyo, Japan in unique ways.
Akira Kurosawa is probably best known for his influential period samurai adventures — Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and The Hidden Fortress among them — but he also helmed a number of contemporary dramas and crime thrillers, several of which are set in Tokyo. The most celebrated of these is Ikiru, a bittersweet tale about a man who receives a terminal cancer diagnosis and, regretful of a life spent at a monotonous desk job, seeks fulfillment in his final days. His journey takes him first into the nightlife of the city before he connects with a young former employee who inspires him to fight for the construction of a neighborhood playground. It may not sound like a thrill-a-minute ride, but it’s a deeply moving meditation on legacy, a scathing commentary on the bureaucratic gridlock that was all too common in Japan at the time, and a poignant, revealing glimpse of post-war Tokyo.
Tokyo Story (1953)
Like Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu counts multiple masterpieces among his works, but the one that stands apart from the rest is Tokyo Story. Loosely based on the 1937 Hollywood film Make Way for Tomorrow, this thoughtful drama centers on an elderly couple who travel from southwestern Japan to Tokyo to visit their children. While the film splits its time between several locations, the first half largely takes place in Tokyo, offering a brief sightseeing tour with pre-skyscraper vistas, a night on the town among friends, and a taste of home life in the city. It’s also the most striking example of Ozu’s minimalist directorial style and his exploration of complicated family dynamics, one of his trademarks.
What list of movies about Tokyo would be complete without this cautionary tale by way of giant monster disaster flick? Ishirō Honda’s seminal kaiju thriller embodies all of Japan’s post-WWII fears in the form of a prehistoric, fire-breathing, 50m-tall lizard creature who lays waste first to a fishing town off the coast of Tokyo and then to the big city itself. Here, the city is depicted via intricately crafted miniatures as an actor dressed in a Godzilla suit levels the landscape and scorches unlucky victims in much the same way the atomic bombings of 1945 devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s gripping entertainment for sure, but it’s also a somber warning born of a country reckoning with the horrors of its past, and you won’t see Tokyo depicted quite like this anywhere else.
Fast-forward to 1988, and we have another influential dystopian vision of Tokyo, this time set in the not-so-distant future (for its time, anyway), in which the city is destroyed. Based on the 1982 manga of the same name by Katsuhiro Otomo, who also directed the film, Akira takes place in the post-apocalyptic cyberpunk “Neo-Tokyo” of 2019, aglow in neon Blade Runner-esque holograms and home to criminals and revolutionaries. The sci-fi thriller centers on the leader of a biker gang and his best friend, who uncover a government conspiracy involving experiments on people with psychic powers, and it’s one of the most influential animated films ever made. Aside from its reputation, it’s also notable for the fact that it — and the manga it’s based on — predicted more than 30 years ago that the 2020 Olympics would be held in Tokyo, and even indirectly called for its cancellation. Let’s hope the new stadium isn’t hiding any secret laboratory facilities.
Ju-on: The Grudge (2003)
Like any thriving metropolis, there’s more to Tokyo than just its bright lights, busy streets, and tall buildings. There are smaller wards that fan out from the heart of the city, and one of them, Nerima, is the setting for Takashi Shimizu’s iconic horror film. The action primarily takes place in a quiet house surrounded by greenery, where a social worker stumbles upon a deadly curse when she arrives to check in on an elderly woman, the house’s latest victim. Ju-On was the first theatrically released film of its franchise (it was preceded by a short and two direct-to-video installments), which has grown to include sequels, reboots, and even a trilogy of Hollywood remakes, and it helped introduce a larger international audience to what we all now know as “J-Horror.”
Lost in Translation (2003)
Speaking of all the sights and sounds many of us typically associate with Tokyo, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation serves as a unique travelogue for a certain kind of tourist. Coppola herself was inspired to write the film by her experiences in the city, so she paired a past-his-prime actor (Bill Murray) with the wife (Scarlett Johansson) of a celebrity photographer in a ritzy hotel and let them work out their existential issues together. The film trades on themes of isolation and loneliness and gets some mileage out of Murray’s fish-out-of-water performance, which is appropriate for a city that can be pretty overwhelming for newcomers.
Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
Thanks to pioneering works like Akira, Japanese animation has long established itself as a reliable medium for mature storytelling, and the all-too-brief career of the late Satoshi Kon — who once worked under Katsuhiro Otomo, by the way — is a great example. In between the inventive, reality-bending stories of 2001’s Millennium Actress and 2006’s Paprika, Kon set his sights on a Christmas movie, albeit an appropriately unconventional one. Tokyo Godfathers centers on a trio of homeless people — an alcoholic, a transgender woman, and a runaway — who discover an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve and make it their mission to return it to its parents. What ensues is a lively, surprisingly moving odyssey through the streets of Tokyo from the vantage of three outcasts who are scraping by simply to survive.
Tokyo Drift may be regarded as the black sheep of the Fast and Furious family, but it does hold some small pleasures — we even dedicated an entire podcast episode to it. For many mainstream viewers, this was an introduction to the world of drift racing, which originated in Japan before it spread across the world. If the self-contained story feels isolated from the central narrative of the Fast Saga, it at least features kickass drift races through some of the most recognizable streets in Tokyo, where director Justin Lin pulled a rebel move and filmed illegally when he was unable to secure the necessary permits. The film depicts a slick and glossy MTV version of the city, but it pays homage to one of the country’s most famous homegrown subcultures and looks pretty doing it.
Adrift in Tokyo (2007)
If any film on this list could serve as a travel guide to Tokyo, it’s Adrift in Tokyo. It would be a slightly absurd travel guide, mind you, but a fun one nonetheless. Satoshi Miki’s adaptation of the eponymous novel puts you in the company of Fumiya, an aimless college student in debt to some dangerous loan sharks, and Fukuhara, the middle-aged enforcer who’s come to collect but makes Fumiya an offer he can’t refuse: Fukuhara will pay off Fumiya’s debt and then some if he accompanies Fukuhara on a leisurely walking tour through Tokyo to a police station, where Fukuhara will turn himself in for a crime he deeply regrets. Along the way, the pair visit famous landmarks, meet various offbeat characters, and forge a bond with each other, providing a perfectly enjoyable way to experience the city vicariously.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
There are a lot of things about Jiro Dreams of Sushi and its fascinating subject, sushi chef Jiro Ono, that feel distinctly Japanese, from Ono’s impeccable attention to detail and relentless pursuit of perfection to the film’s simple, meditative presentation. But it’s also an exemplary portrait of food culture in Japan and especially Tokyo, where Ono’s formerly Michelin-starred restaurant sits in an underground subway station. This is a place where you can spend upwards of $300 a meal — the 10-seat restaurant serves sushi and only sushi — and be in and out in 15 minutes, quick enough to catch the next train. Even if you had made it to Japan for the Olympics, though, this doc is probably the closest you would have gotten to tasting Jiro’s sushi; the only reservations it now accepts are through a luxury hotel. Luckily, the underground stations in Tokyo are bustling centers of commerce filled with dozens of notable eateries, so you’ve got options.
Similar to Tokyo Godfathers, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters focuses on a makeshift family living in poverty whose lives are upended by the presence of a young girl they bring into the fold. In this case, however, the family at the center of the story essentially kidnaps the child, rescuing her from the balcony where she’s been locked out on a cold night, and initiate her into their grifting schemes. It’s a quietly observed slice-of-life dramedy that draws attention to the plight of those living on the fringes of Tokyo society, and thanks to its fully realized characters and ultimately hopeful spirit, it earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
Tokyo Olympiad (1965)
Finally, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the exceedingly appropriate 1965 documentary Tokyo Olympiad, which is exactly what it sounds like. Prolific director Kon Ichikawa took the place of none other than Akira Kurosawa behind the camera and delivered a rousing portrait of the crowds, athletes, and even workers behind the scenes of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, a much more impressionistic result than the Japanese government was hoping for. In this way, Ichikawa captured the full humanity of the experience, even as he mined individual events for their inherent competitive drama, and provided a blueprint for sports documentaries that would follow. The 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo will surely inspire a unique legacy, what with the unprecedented extenuating circumstances, but we’d be lucky to get a film about them that matches the excellence of Tokyo Olympiad.
Have a favorite movie about Tokyo? Let us know in the comments! And for more cinematic interpretations of the city, see:
Thumbnail images by Everett Collection, ©Streamline Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection, ©Focus Features