5 Japanese Movies I Actually Used to Learn Japanese

It was a cold 1950’s day in Tokyo when Godzilla attacked…Pixar’s Onward had just recently been released…

Immersing yourself completely in a language is essential to improving listening comprehension. While living in Japan for 7 years, I have seen a ton of Japanese movies, but these are the one’s that I would recommend personally to language learners.

Before the feature presentation…

Do you know what dagashi are? Dagashi are Japanese snacks that are meant to be devoured with passion. Dagashi are cheap Japanese snacks that most people in Japan have fond memories of from their childhood. If you are thinking of vegging out with some Japanese films to support your language-learning process, why not help create a more authentic atmosphere with some dagashi?

You can check out a dagashi package here on Amazon. Actually this company offers a ninja dagashi set. Pretty cool right!

Now that you have your ninja dagashi, let me recommend some of the best Japanese films for learning Japanese I have watched over the last 7 years.

1. Kokuhaku (告白)

Toho Co., Ltd.© , 2010

Not only is this probably my favorite Japanese movie, but it also happens to be a fantastic movie for learning Japanese. Well… at least for the first 30 minutes. This is because the first 30 minutes of the film is one long monologue spoken in a more-natural and contemporary Japanese compared to what you may have been exposed to thus-far.

I make a point of this because so much of the Japanese people end up learning is from anime, or is spoken is a samurai ‘mysterious ancient warrior’ vernacular.

I really think you should go into this movie blind, but the basic gist is that a teacher is recounting to her class something horrible that happened to her. Something that the students may be responsible for…

And it’s free milk day! (This will make sense after you watch the movie)

Much of the story is told to us through the perspective of this teacher, and becomes one of the rare examples I can think of in a film where the old adage ‘show not tell’ is flipped on it’s head in a truly effective way. I wouldn’t be surprised if the first 30 minutes of Kokuhaku hold the record for the most lines spoken in a film’s into…if such a record exists…It’s a good watch, and probably is somewhat removed from what you may be expecting.

I would just like to caution that the second half of the movie can get pretty dark, so it may not be the best thing to watch if you’re going through a hard time. That being said, like so many Japanese films, I think that the artistic vision that is accomplished by choosing to omit any happy ending that you would likely see in a western retelling of this story is worth the emotional downer. The ends justify the means, and I think it’s absolutely worth it.

Why this is a good movie to watch for learning Japanese

Japanese differs from English in that the grammatical structure of sentences incorporates varying levels of ‘politeness’ or ‘honorifics’ in Japanese. To really oversimplify, one’s position in Japanese society dictates the style of Japanese that they use. Kokuhaku offers you many different perspectives on one singular event, similar to films such that inspired it such as rashomon (羅生門.) Kokuhaku allows you to view one situation from many different angles, and through many different perspectives. Kokuhaku features copious amounts of both casual Japanese (tameguchi ため口 in Japanese) and various forms of honorific Japanese (Keigo 敬語 in Japanese), that will allow you to experience a wide range of of the kind of Japanese you will come across in real life.

2. The Snow White Murder Case (白ゆき姫殺人事件)

SHUEISHA INC.© , 2014

Another film based on the works of novelist Kanae Minato. I like her work, what can I say? I would recommend this film for many of the reasons I recommend Kokuhaku, so I won’t get too much into the film. This is another mystery, and is another one that is worth going into compleltely blind. I will say, however, Kanae Minato has a tendency as a writer to create these grand openings that may not always live up to the build up. This may be especially true with Kokuhaku, although I think that this film mostly sticks the landing. If anything, there is a little bit of fat that could be trimmed around 2/3 of the way through the movie.

Why this is a good movie to watch for learning Japanese

Just like with Kokuhaku, this film presents one story from a variety of viewpoints. Compared to Kokuhaku, however, the Japanese in this film is comparatively less dramatic, and is more similar to what you would see in everyday life living in Japan. Most of the characters are adults, too, while many of the characters in Kokuhaku are teens are younger. I also think that this movie is VERY Japanese in it’s story beats and settings, to the point where it may actually be a little bit difficult to catch the subtle nuances in character development as well as the story if you have no prior knowledge of Japanese culture. This makes it a great immersion tool…but it may confuse you if you’re a beginner, so just keep that in mind! I think it’s a great example of a more dramatic Japanese movie done right. Give it a shot!

3. Josee, the Tiger and the Fish

Asmik Ace, Inc. © , 2003

It’s difficult to even describe what this one is about. It draws many comparisons and makes metaphors to Japanese culture, and well as everyday life in Japan, Josee, the Tiger and the Fish is about the reality, vs. the ideal, of what we can all accomplish given our unique limitations. The main character is going through the new graduate job hunting process, which is one of the most suffocating and challenging experiences people go through during young adulthood in Japan (I can say it is from first-hand experience). At the same time, he meets a a girl named Josee who is crippled from the waist down. She can’t move, and she lives with her barely capable grandmother who pushes her in a run-down baby carriage around her neighborhood for her daily walk. She can’t move, but she spends her days learning to read and cook. The main character, on the other hand (played by probably my favorite Japanese actor Satoshi Tsumabuki, doesn’t have any clear limitations, but he spends his nights working at a seedy Mahjong parlor and trying to figure out his way through the job hunting process. From his perspective, Josee doesn’t have to dear with the harsh realities of society outside of her tiny room. From Josee’s perspective, he doesn’t understand what it’s like to not be able to face those challenges. It’s an interesting look at the perspective of both of these characters, and ends in a way that probably isn’t what you’re expecting.

Why this is a good movie to watch for learning Japanese

Josee, the Tiger and the Fish exposes you to a number of different kinds of people in Japanese society, from college students, Josee’s grandmother, Mahjong parlor goers, and many different perspectives. Really though, it’s just a good movie regardless, and will encourage you to keep listening, which is one of the most important things when first starting out. The actor who plays the main character, Satoshi Tsumabuki, is also in a TON of movies, especially from the early 2000’s, so you will definitely recognize him in a ton of other works, especially stuff from the 2000’s to early 2010’s.

4. Shin Godzilla

Toho Cinemas, © , 2016

It’s funny…I know…recommending a Godzilla movie to learn Japanese. Really though, this might be one of the most politically dense films I have ever seen…period. At the time of release, I was taking college courses in Japan…in Japanese, and I still had no idea what was going on. The Japanese in this movie may be the most difficult to comprehend of any Japanese movie in the last few years, and will be a challenge to nearly anyone. So, if you are looking for a challenge, this is a great pick. It’s also a great political satire and is very steeped in the current Japanese climate and attitude towards politics in the country. This film just screams symbolism, particularly in it’s imagery depicting scenes similar to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Godzilla, after all, was conceived as a comment on the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as Japan’s relationship with nature and frequent natural disasters. It’s a good watch! I would just say that it is DENSE, so if you are watching it with somebody who isn’t interested in Japan, or learning Japanese, they WILL probably be bored. In my opinion, however, it’s the best Godzilla film from what I have seen.

Why this is a good movie to watch for learning Japanese

As I covered above, it is DIFFICULT. This would be a great learning resource for the prime minister of Japan, let alone some person abroad who is trying to jumpstart their Japanese-learning career. It may be above your level, but it will let you know what you may want to ultimately shoot-for. I say watch it for the cultural satire and look into modern-day Japan. Use it as an immersion piece, and less of a study tool, untill you get to a certain level.

5. The Wind Rises

Studio Ghibli, © , 2013

I wouldn’t normally recommend anime as a study tool (sorry to the many proud weeb’s reading this), however, the Japanese is The Wind Rises is fairly standard, and it may be one of my favorite Ghibli movies. The story centers around Jiro Horikoshi and his quest to create amazing planes. Based on the real person and true story, the story follows him from childhood, up until World War II, where he would somewhat reluctantly take part in designing the infamous zero Japanese bomber. This is the central theme of The Wind Rises. Jiro just wants to create beautiful planes. He lives, breathes, and see’s plane schematics in his sleep, where he is visited in his dreams by his idol, the famous Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Battista ( who was also a real person.) Is it okay to create a beautiful thing that is used for destruction? At what point should the artist take responsibility for their creation? These are the kinds of questions The Wind Rises asks of it’s audience. It’s one of the more adult Ghibli films, which I think has left it in somewhat of a strange spot. I think this may be the most challenging and interesting Ghibli film, however, I don’t know…it is difficult to decide. I really can recommend that anybody what this movie. While I think you definitely should watch it with it’s original Japanese, this one does has a really good dub available as well (Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Jiro).

Why this is a good movie to watch for learning Japanese

This film is a good way to expose yourself to some more old-fashioned Japanese, without diving head first into a samurai film, or something that is nearly completely removed from modern Japanese. The film also provides a lot of historical context to many things that will stick with you across your varied Japanese studies, albeit language, history, or culture. I think this a fair and mostly unbiased view at wartime Japan from the Japanese perspective, and is also a view into the way Japanese was spoken at that time. It’s a good watch, and is fairly educational as well. All of the violence is suggested, or is depicted through visual symbolism, so this is also a good Japanese film to watch for families.

Why you should use films to study Japanese

Films are perhaps one of the greatest tools we have to immerse ourselves completely in a different setting and culture. I always suggest people who ask me how to learn Japanese to just do ‘more’. Spend more time immersing yourself in the language. Spend more time writing Japanese characters. Spend more time using the Japanese language, etc.

This is how you get better, and for those who cannot just uproot their lives and move to Japan, immersing yourself completely in a Japanese story for a few hours can be a decent substitute. Just make sure that you find a way to practice Japanese in a more active way to accompany it.

Other resources

If you are interested in learning Japanese, please check out some of the editorials and other resources I have linked below;

If you are considering studying at a Japanese language school, check out my experience with that here.

If you are lost on where to start learning written Japanese, check out my guide here on which Japanese alphabet to learn first.

If you are searching for recommendations on Japanese textbooks, you can check out my beginner-to-advanced guide here.

Thanks for reading! I hope you find all of the information you need through both this article, and the rest of the content on this website.

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