Described by writer Angela Carter as “…probably the most non-boring city in the world”, Tokyo has provided fertile ground for film-makers for many decades. Here are some of the best films which reflect, celebrate and capture the heart of this extraordinary city.
The oldest film on this list, Kon Ichikawa’s documentary explores the Summer Olympics held in Tokyo in 1964. The Games were a landmark event for Japan as they marked the country’s economic recovery and return to the world stage after the desolate aftermath of the Second World War. A lot of resources were dedicated to the production of Tokyo Olympiad, as the Japanese government wanted it to present Japan as a modernised industrial nation. Ichikawa poured his creative heart into the work and produced what is considered by many to be the best cinematic depiction of the spirit of the Olympic Games.
Fran Rubel Kuzui’s Tokyo Pop works best as a delightfully kitsch piece of ’80s nostalgia, made while Tokyo was in its economic ascendancy, with a charming story about a visiting American singer who strikes up a love affair with a local musician. Shadowed by the era’s excess, the emergence of globalisation and the erosion of local culture, Tokyo Pop is a homage to the enjoyably seedier side of life in the city, depicting its love hotels, late-night ramen shops and drunk salarymen singing karaoke – all through the eyes of an outsider who finds herself overwhelmed by the uniqueness of Japanese culture.
Bounce KO Gals portrays one of the more sombre aspects of Tokyo’s nightlife, with a look at the fetishisation of Kogal subculture. The movie follows three friends as they try to raise money to support their lifestyles by working as escorts for Tokyo’s businessmen. The film captures the atmospheric buzz of nighttime in Harajuku and Shibuya, while looking at the ways in which Japanese and Western cultures intersect and interact with one another.
Tokyo Godfathers was the mid-career masterpiece by the late anime auteur Satoshi Kon. Three homeless people find an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve and set out on a quest to reunite it with its parents. What follows is an epic journey from one end of the city to the other, as our intrepid trio encounter drag queens, yakuza and juvenile delinquents along the way. Kon’s movie is a touching love letter to the city and its many subcultures and landmarks, with the Japanese capital serving as a character in its own right.
Akihabara (often referred to by the portmanteau Akiba) is a district in Tokyo famous for its maid cafés, hobby shops and a near-endless amount of consumer electronics. The area is the centre of Otaku culture in Japan, and Train Man provides viewers with an offbeat, esoteric look into the culture of Otaku life in Akihabara, all set around an old-fashioned love story. Quirky and self-referential, it’s as much an ode to Otaku fandom as it is the bright lights of Akiba.
If you are looking for a change of pace, Satoshi Miki’s Adrift in Tokyo provides a more leisurely experience. Based on Yoshinaga Fujita’s book of the same name, the film tells the story of two people out of love with life, who bond thanks to an eye-opening journey through the city together. Flowing throughout with Japanese humour, plenty of cultural references and gentle moments, the film is an enchanting examination of modern Japan through the streets of Tokyo.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s acclaimed movie is a powerful story which follows a family’s struggle in the suburbs after the father is fired from his job at a prominent company. As the patriarch opts to keep his dismissal secret from his family, the struggle to maintain a facade of normalcy inevitably gives way to emotional turmoil and heartbreak. Tokyo Sonata offers a poignant look into the many problems the city has faced following the burst of the ’80s economic bubble and, while sombre, is an essential watch.
A playful riff on Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Doris Dörrie’s Cherry Blossoms does an excellent job of taking the original story and turning it on its head. Although the first part of the movie is set in Germany, the second part follows Rudi (Elmar Wepper) in Tokyo as he tries to follow his late wife’s passion for Japanese shadow dancing, or Butoh. Filmed with a dynamic eye, the scenes portray Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park, Shinjuku and Mt Fuji at their most beautiful during cherry blossom season.
This unique anthology combines some of the world’s best film-making talent (including Korean auteur Boon Jong-Ho and arthouse darling Michel Gondry) with short stories that offer insight into how it feels to live in and visit Tokyo during the present day. Surreal and entertaining, the film’s offbeat approach belies a surprisingly accurate look at city life.
Set in central Tokyo, Like Someone in Love is the latest offering from celebrated Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, telling the story of a sociology student who moonlights as a sex worker. When a seemingly routine visit to an elderly client has unforeseen consequences, her world is turned upside down. With a serene, meditative tone that washes over the viewer, it evokes feelings both familiar and mysterious, much like Tokyo itself. A compelling, unforgettable film.
Most of Makoto Shinkai’s exquisite 2013 feature is set in Shinjuku Gyoen, a haven of tranquillity in one of the busiest areas of the city. A teenager skips school one morning only to have a chance encounter with an older woman, a meeting that will change both their lives forever. Set during Tokyo’s rainy season, the film’s gorgeous animation and nuanced storytelling lend themselves perfectly to a story which balances romance, drama and simmering sexual tension. This is a film to fall in love to and with.
Sophia Coppola’s acclaimed 2003 romantic film brilliantly reconciles all that is great about Tokyo life, with the disconnect that so many people feel when lost in a new place. A young woman, newly married, strikes up a friendship with an American actor in the city where they both find themselves adrift and unsure of themselves. With splendid performances from Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, you will be dying for the chance to go for a drink in the Hyatt Regency Hotel by the end.
James Gates contributed additional reporting to this article.