Some of the best Japanese films worth watching are in the comedy genre and if you have only been watching J-horrors and Samurai films it’s high time you gave Japanese comedies a shot. That being said, the Japanese sense of humor is quite different from the typical humor in Western comedies, and sometimes it might feel like an acquired taste that takes a while to fall in love with. However, once you do get into Japanese comedies, you will probably be binge-watching them for months because they are that good. To get you started on the journey, we will introduce you to some of the best Japanese comedy movies that are not only highly entertaining but also will give you an insight into the essence of humor in Japanese culture. Let’s begin!
It's Tough Being a Man (Otoko wa tsurai yo) (1996)
The very first movie of the iconic film series that boasts of 48 (the longest-running film series in the world!) installments, this movie is a must-watch classic Japanese comedy.
The main protagonist Tora-san, acted by the famous Japanese actor Kiyoshi Atsumi, is one of the most beloved characters of Japanese cinema with a nationwide fan following. His kind-hearted and free-spirited personality makes him a true delight to watch, while his bad luck in finding a romantic partner and creating havoc in the family in the process of going after his love interest is something the viewers can whole-heartedly sympathize with.
Simple and predictable, yet thoroughly entertaining with a magnetic character that is impossible not to fall in love with, It's tough being a man is a comedy that even those who are not familiar with Japanese humor will enjoy and possibly get addicted to!
Turtles are surprisingly fast swimmers (Kame wa Igai to Hayaku Oyogu) (2005)
The second feature film from Satoshi Miki, a director known for his quirky and charming comedy movies (Adrift in Tokyo , Instant Swamp) is this little gem starring Japanese Academy Award-winning actress Juri Ueno ( Swing Girls ).
The protagonist of the story is a young housewife Suzume (Juri Ueno) who is living with only a pet turtle as her daily company and her husband living abroad who calls her only to check up on his turtle's wellbeing. Her life and everything she is and has ever been is the epitome of boredom, mundanity, and ordinary which she is growing tired of. One day she reaches out to a spy recruitment agency where she is recruited as a spy by a middle-aged spy couple (played by Ryō Iwamatsu and Eri Fuse) who trains her to become a spy. Her 'ordinariness' which has been a curse turns out to be a strength in being an inconspicuous spy, making her a more purposeful and confident person even after she goes back to her ordinary life.
Do not go into this movie expecting lots of spy-movie actions and energetic entertainment. Much like Satoshi Miki's other comedy movies, the keyword of the movie's humor is 'subtlety'. The movie is not about memorable events, actions, or a solid storyline but it is about the characters, their lovable eccentricity, and the gently comedic interactions they have with the people they meet along the way. The movie is slow-paced, quiet, and low-key which is the perfect setting for Satoshi Miki's witty, thoughtful screenwriting and Ueno's perfect comedic timing to shine.
The humor in this movie is utterly random and often surreal, such as a middle-aged hairdresser starting to dance in the middle of his salon, a turtle sporting a red-white parachute, and a plumber insisting the protagonist come to his office so that he can show her the proof of a squid which was blocking a drainage pipe. Random. Right? But that's one of the unique things about off-beat Japanese comedy movies that make them so refreshingly different from the comedy stereotypes.
Thermae Romae (Terumae Romae) (2012)
If it has started to feel like all Japanese comedies are quaint, calm, and gentle, this is the perfect example to prove that the polar opposite also exists, and thankfully so. While other Japanese comedies might have made you smile internally with their witty and thoughtful lines, this movie, from very early on, will have you in tears – from laughing too hard. Thermae Romae in its wildly imaginative, bold, and flashy style is one of the most unapologetically original movies out there.
The plot is based on an architect called Lucius (played by Hiroshi Abe) who lives in ancient Rome and is assigned by the Roman emperor with a difficult task – to improve the Roman bathhouses. While sitting inside a bath at a Thermae (a Roman bathhouse), Lucius time (and space?) travels to a modern-day bathhouse in Tokyo (why and how we don't know and who needs it to make sense anyway!). He finds himself amidst a group of naked octogenarians taking bath at a Sentou (Japanese public bathhouse). This is where the hilarious Fish-out-of-water gags start to drop one after another making you laugh until your jaws hurt. Lucius is amazed and impressed by everything he sees in a Japanese bathhouse and he draws inspiration and ideas to improve the Roman bathhouses when he goes back.
Mixing ancient Rome, its bathhouse culture, opera music, and all the small details of Japanese bath culture by using unexplained time travel might seem like a crazy idea, and it indeed is. A crazy idea that works so well that it was the highest-grossing Japanese movie at the Japanese box office in 2012.
Based on an award-winning manga series of the same name, screened at multiple international film festivals, and filmed at Roman Cinecittà film studio, Thermae Romae should be on your must-watch Japanese classic cult comedies.
Waterboys (Wōtā Bōizu) (2001)
The original movie poster for Waterboys flaunts the Japanese tagline written in bold letters, “Synchronized Swimming, Male-only?!” and this refreshingly original idea is what sets it apart from other Japanese sports comedy movies. This unique idea is combined with the triumph-of-the-nerdy-underdogs and other familiar sports comedy elements skillfully by the award-winning director Shinobu Yaguchi, known for his zero-to-hero movies (Swing girls).
To watch the five geeky high school boys trying to learn Synchronized swimming despite being laughed at by their peers and finally delivering their performance is entertaining and uplifting. The comedy is wacky and anime-Esque, making anyone regardless of age or cultural background burst into laughter throughout the movie.
This movie is one of the most popular movies to be shown at Japanese language classes and social movie nights and is one of those feel-good movies that transcends language and cultural barriers.
Fine, Totally Fine (Zenzen daijōbu) (2008)
Director Yosuke Fujita’s debut film Fine, Totally Fine might seem like just another Japanese slice of life comedy movie in the "off-beat" category, but do not let this little gem get lost amidst the others. It will pleasantly surprise you as it has many others, winning not only the viewers' hearts but the Audience Award at the 2008 New York Asian Film Festival and the Grand Prize at Nippon Connection Film Festival in Germany.
The overly-used premise of "three socially awkward people in their 30s find themselves in a love triangle while trying to figure out life and relationships" is given a fresh perspective by the very capable actors who bring the main characters to life. Along with the movie's slow and quiet progression, you find yourself deeply caring about Teruo (YosiYosi Arakawa), Hisanobu (Yoshinori Okada), and Akari (Yoshino Kimura).
The movie’s humor comes from the expressions delivered excellently by each of the actors, and by subtle comedic lines which, if you can connect to, you will be having multiple hearty laughs throughout the movie.