Tokyo on Film – 5 Great Films about Tokyo

The words of author Michael Ryan capture the essence of Tokyo perfectly - “If Japan is enigmatic, then Tokyo is the heart of that riddle, its rhythm...

The words of  author Michael Ryan capture the essence of Tokyo perfectly -

“If Japan is enigmatic, then Tokyo is the heart of that riddle, its rhythm and essence so utterly alluring that it demands to be explored. It has a depth that keeps travelers in a constant state of rapture and delight. Whatever your vice, Tokyo has you covered."

Tokyo, one of the largest metropolises is crowded yet isolating, is futuristic yet full of conservative social values, and remains one of the most paradoxically alluring cities in the world. It comes as no surprise that Tokyo has inspired some of the best cinemas to come out of Japan. Let us introduce you to five great films about Tokyo which will take you straight to the core of the essence of this fascinating city.


Tokyo Story (1953)

There is no better place to start your Tokyo cinematic journey than this legendary masterpiece by one of Japan's most iconic filmmakers Yasujiro Ozu. You won't find your modern neon-lit sky-scrapers filled Tokyo as you would in the more recent movies. The Tokyo shown here is post-war 1950s Tokyo, a phase during which the city experienced rapid growth and westernization.


The basis of the story is an old retired couple who travels from the countryside to Tokyo to visit their children, grandchildren, and widowed daughter-in-law. Upon their arrival to Tokyo, the couple finds out that their children are too busy with their fast-paced urban life and jobs, and their widowed daughter-in-law is the only one who takes time out to attend to them and to take them out on a sightseeing trip around Tokyo.


Don't let the plain and humble storyline let you underestimate this movie. It recurrently appears top of the list on many reputable film polls and rankings and is globally recognized as one of the greatest films ever made. In 2012, it was voted as the best film of all time in a poll voted by the film directors in Sight and Sound magazine. Tokyo Story's power to touch its viewers at the deepest cores of human emotions has made it a movie that is timeless and universal. Watching Tokyo Story will also remind you of the often-forgotten fact that at the heart of any city is not the buildings and infrastructures, but the people and their lives that inhabit it.



Adrift In Tokyo (2007)


Quirky, charming, and delightful, this movie by Satoshi Miki will take you on a stroll around Tokyo as you accompany the two main protagonists Fumiya (Joe Odagiri) and Fukuhara (Tomokazu Miura) as they encounter unexpected incidents and characters. Satoshi Miki masterfully layers humor and emotions, creating a movie that is much deeper than a casual comedy.

Fumiya is a college student burdened with an enormous debt that he has no way to pay off. One day, a man named Fukuhara comes to collect the money from him. When it becomes clear that Fumiya is incapable of paying the debt, Fukuhara offers to forgive the debt in return for a long walk around Tokyo. Not having any other choice, Fumiya reluctantly accepts the offer. This seemingly aimlessly walk around Tokyo turns out to be a remarkable journey for both of them, as well as for the viewers!



Tokyo! (2008)

What we can’t see from within, can sometimes be seen clearly by an observer looking at the whole picture from outside, which is why outsiders can often provide fresh, new, and valuable perspectives on things.

‘Tokyo’ is a collection of 3 short (about 40-minutes long each) films directed by three different directors, none of whom are from Japan - Michel Gondry and Leos Carax are French, whereas Bong Joon-ho is from Korea; they all capture Tokyo in a non-Japanese flavor and style, which in itself is a good reason to watch this movie.

The opener by Michel Gondry – "Interior Design" gives us a great insight into the challenges of starting a career and livelihood in Tokyo faced by a young couple ( Ryo Kase & Ayako Fujitani) who have just moved to Tokyo and is struggling to find a home and a job.

The second movie, ‘Merde’ by Leos Carax is the strangest of the three, combining fantasy and reality in a bizarre yet captivating way. It tells the story of a man (Denis Lavant) who lives in the sewers and comes out of manholes to do various absurd activities in the town, becoming a media sensation called “The Creature from the Sewers”.

The closing film “Shaking Tokyo” by Bong Joon-ho tells the story of a ‘hikikomori’ (shut-in) man (Teruyuki Kagawa) living in Tokyo. "Hikikomori" are people who seek extreme social isolation and live confined within their homes, and have been one of Japan's major social issues in recent times.



 Tokyo Sonata  (2008)

Although you might know film-maker Kiyoshi Kurosawa for his highly-reputed work in the J-horror genre (Pulse, Cure) this non-horror family drama set in Tokyo is considered by many film critics to be one of Kurosawa’s best work. In 2008, it has won "Best Film" at Asian Film Awards, and a jury prize in the Un Certain Regards section at Cannes Film Festival.

It is about each of the members of a family in Tokyo – a father (Teruyuki Kagawa) who is trying to conceal the fact that he has been fired from his job, a mother (Kyoko Koizumi) who tries to hide that she is aware of her husband’s unemployment, their eldest son (Yu Koyanagi) who plans on joining the US army despite his parents’ objections, and the youngest son (Inowaki Kai) who is taking secret piano lessons with his lunch money as he has been forbidden by his family to take the lessons due to the financial situation of the family.

Through this movie, you will get to know the ‘real’ Tokyo – the social expectations and burdens, unemployment issues, financial struggles, a family trying to maintain a normal life despite all of these, are all unglamorous yet very real side of living in Tokyo that we don’t usually get to see in other similar movies.


Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue  (2017)


Based on a 2016 poetry book of the same name by Tahi Saihate, this movie directed by Yuya Ishii gives you a poetic view of Tokyo, a place where hopes and dreams co-exist with urban alienation, depression, and an impending sense of doom.

Mika (Shizuka Ishibashi) is a nurse by daytime and a bar hostess by night, whereas Shinji (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a socially awkward construction worker who is trying to make ends meet in Tokyo. These two young individuals keep on meeting each other by chance at different parts of Tokyo as they find the human connection they have been looking for in each other.

The poetic foundation this movie is built upon is apparent in the aesthetics of how the movie captures the night scenes around Tokyo – the cityscape at night, the sight and sound of street singers, the traffic lights, and the lonesome moon in Tokyo sky. 

Have you watched any of these films? What are some of your favorite movies about Tokyo? Let us know in the comments!