20 Best Movies From Japan On Netflix Canada

Staff & contributors

Based on a classic Japanese folktale, Isao Takahata’s last film will break your heart. This adaptation, of course, follows Princess Kaguya from her being discovered in a glowing bamboo stalk to her departure to the moon. However, while faithful to the original tale, Takahata’s direction turns this historical fantasy into a heart-wrenching coming-of-age film as ethereal as the titular character. The film doesn’t focus on the crazy pursuit of her suitors; instead, we’re drawn to the simple experiences Kaguya herself is drawn to and wants more of, as she tries to balance her life with the societal expectations places on women. All of which is rendered through the film's lush watercolored scenes of the blowing wind or the opening of plum blossoms.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Fantasy

Actor: Aki Asakura, Atsuko Takahata, Hikaru Ijūin, Isao Hashizume, Kengo Kora, Mirai Uchida, Nobuko Miyamoto, Ryudo Uzaki, Shichinosuke Nakamura, Takaya Kamikawa, Takeo Chii, Tatsuya Nakadai, Tomoko Tabata, Yuji Miyake, Yukiji Asaoka

Director: Isao Takahata

Rating: PG

The title of this 2018 Palme D'or winner is not to be taken metaphorically: Shoplifters is about a marginalized family of day workers, crooks, and small-time outlaws, who live on the fringes of Japanese society. Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) both have jobs but spruce up their low-wage income by committing petty crimes. One day in winter, Osamu takes in a bruised girl he finds outside in the cold and introduces her to the family in his ramshackle house. But when the second-youngest member of the family, Shota (Kairi Jyo), finds himself teaching her how to shoplift, he faces a moral dilemma that threatens to unravel the family's fabric. If you were hitherto unfamiliar with the unique storytelling and social realism of Hirokazu Koreeda, we really recommend checking it out—as well as his other movies, namely, Still Walking, Like Father, Like Son, I Wish, and After the Storm. His 2018 outing features the last ever performance of Kirin Kiki, who plays the elderly matriarch and passed away that same year. Like many of Koreeda's works, Shoplifters is an understated, beautiful, and mysterious study of the effects of poverty and trauma and a delicate portrait of a family in Japan's urban underbelly.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Family, Thriller

Actor: Aju Makita, Akira Emoto, Chizuru Ikewaki, Hajime Inoue, Haruna Hori, Jyo Kairi, Kairi Jo, Kairi Jyo, Kengo Kora, Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Mayu Matsuoka, Miyu Sasaki, Moemi Katayama, Nana Mizoguchi, Naoto Ogata, Sakura Andô, Sosuke Ikematsu, Yoko Moriguchi, Yuki Yamada, 山田裕貴, 松冈茉优, 蒔田 彩珠

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda, Hirokazu Koreeda

Rating: R

Watching A Silent Voice, sensitive viewers will likely feel repulsion toward the main character, Shoya Ishida — and maybe you should, for the awful things he did as a kid. You might even feel the urge to jump into your screen and protect Shouko Nishimiya, the deaf girl who is new at school. A beautifully crafted anime, the story captures a high-school bully’s remorse and despair as he tries to redeem himself from past wrongdoing, demonstrating that even the cruelest among us can become vulnerable to feelings of shame and regret. While it is heart wrenching, the story is also full of hope, showing how to ask for forgiveness, as well as how to give it. Beyond the great script, animation, colours, and scoring, each shot of A Silent Voice is a masterpiece in and of itself.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Aoi Yuki, Kensho Ono, Mayu Matsuoka, Megumi Han, Miyu Irino, Naoko Yamada, Saori Hayami, Toshiyuki Toyonaga, Yoshitoki Oima, Yui Ishikawa, Yuki Kaneko

Director: Naoko Yamada

Rating: Not Rated

Hayao Miyazaki is no stranger to the fantastical. Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away conjure worlds of spirits and demons, monsters and witches, imaginary wars and extraordinary heroes. But in Kiki’s Delivery Service, the real magic arises from the mundane.

The titular teenaged Kiki leaves home, setting out to become a better witch. She arrives in the idyllic seaside town of Koriko with only her broom and best friend, a black cat named Jiji. When she serendipitously meets Osono, the gentle owner of a bakery, Kiki begins a delivery service as part of her training.

Kiki’s Delivery Service may be one of Miyazaki’s more understated films, but it’s a beautiful reminder that believing in oneself is a magical act of courage that we should all undertake.

Genre: Adventure, Animation, Drama, Family, Fantasy

Actor: Akio Otsuka, Chika Sakamoto, Haruko Kato, Hiroko Maruyama, Hiroko Seki, Kappei Yamaguchi, Keiko Toda, Kikuko Inoue, Kôichi Miura, Koichi Yamadera, Michihiro Ikemizu, Mieko Nobusawa, Mika Doi, Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma, Shinpachi Tsuji, Takaya Hashi, Tomomichi Nishimura, Yoshiko Kamei, Yûko Kobayashi, Yûko Maruyama, Yuriko Fuchizaki, Yuuko Kobayashi, 丸山裕子

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Studio Ghibli has brought us moving, remarkable animated films such as Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke. One of Studio Ghibli’s most overlooked movies is Yoshifumi Kondou’s Whisper of the Heart, which finds magic in the ordinary every day. Shizuku is a young girl with great aspirations to become a writer—the only thing stopping her is herself. When she comes across a curious antique shop, she befriends a mysterious boy and his grandfather, who are just the push she needs to look inward and discover her own artistic capabilities.

If you have ever wanted to create something bigger and better than yourself—a story, a song, a poem, a painting, a work of art—then Whisper of the Heart will excite you, will call to you, will remind you to answer your heart’s calling.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Family

Actor: Issey Takahashi, Kazuo Takahashi, Keiju Kobayashi, Maiko Kayama, Mayumi Iizuka, Minami Takayama, Mitsuaki Ogawa, Naohisa Inoue, Shigeru Muroi, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi, Shiro Kishibe, Takashi Tachibana, Toshio Suzuki, Yoko Honna, Yorie Yamashita, Yoshifumi Kondo, Yoshimi Nakajima

Director: Yoshifumi Kondô, Yoshifumi Kondou

Rating: G

This beautiful, realistic, and nostalgic anime movie about childhood is one that almost anyone can relate to. Set in the year of 1982, twenty-seven-year-old Taeko Okajima is traveling to the countryside by train. Along her journey, she gets flashbacks of her childhood: mostly in elementary school, stealing glances at a boy, and navigating puberty. The movie goes back and forth between past and present, easily making one long for sun-filled summers of yesteryear and silly jokes between playfriends. As well as telling a story about Taeko's past, Only Yesterday also tells a story about her present, and the combined realism of the plotline with the beautiful animation grips you and doesn’t let go. Only Yesterday truly feels like home.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Romance

Actor: Chie Kitagawa, Ichirō Nagai, Issey Takahashi, Masahiro Ito, Masahiro Itou, Mayumi Iizuka, Mayumi Izuka, Michie Terada, Miki Imai, Toshiro Yanagiba, Yoko Honna, Yorie Yamashita, Yoshimasa Kondô, Yuki Minowa, Yuuki Masuda

Director: Isao Takahata

Rating: PG

In what was originally intended to be his final film, Hayao Miyazaki is at his most lucid with The Wind Rises. Fluid and luminous, it cleanly moves between a grounded, historical reality and an intuitive, imaginative dreamscape. Here Miyazaki reflects on the process of creation and what it means to be an artist, drawing parallels between his own meticulousness as a filmmaker with Horikoshi’s immutable passion for flight and efficient design.

But questions of responsibility and duty arise, as Horikoshi—and by extension, Miyazaki—must reckon with the reality that even things as beautiful as aeroplanes can be destructive, and that even dreams can be violent. This meditative film does not offer any easy answers but it provides solace in its prevailing sentiment: The wind is rising, we must try to live.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Family, History, Romance, War

Actor: Hayao Miyazaki, Hideaki Anno, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Jun Kunimura, Keiko Takeshita, Mansai Nomura, Martin Short, Masahiko Nishimura, Miori Takimoto, Mirai Shida, Morio Kazama, Shinobu Otake, Stephen Alpert

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Rating: PG-13

Snowpiercer is an under-the-rader post-apocalyptic thriller that offers the grittiness that many times only Asian cinema may achieve. South Korean director Joon-ho Bong forces audiences to forget that Chris Evans was ever a Marvel superhero, as he leads a revolt of his fellow “low-class” citizens against the self-appointed gentry in a train that contains all remaining members of the planet. With immersive environments and a layered script, this film melds together social commentary and moral discourse in a visually arresting and vastly entertaining package.

Genre: Action, Drama, Mystery, Science Fiction

Actor: Adnan Haskovic, Alison Pill, Chris Evans, Clark Middleton, Dana Green, Ed Harris, Emma Levie, Ewen Bremner, Go Ah-sung, Griffin Seymour, Jamie Bell, Jim High, John Hurt, Joseph Bertót, Kendrick Roger Ong, Kenny Doughty, Ko A-sung, Ko Asung, Luke Pasqualino, Luna Sophia Bar-Cohen, Magda Weigertová, Marcanthonee Reis, Octavia Spencer, Parry Shen, Paul Lazar, Peter Hallin, Robert Russell, Sean Connor Renwick, Song Kang-ho, Stephen Park, Steve Park, Tilda Swinton, Tomáš Dianiška, Tómas Lemarquis, Tyler John Williams, Vlad Ivanov

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Rating: R

As impressive as Studio Ghibli’s collection of films are, I am still stubborn to believe that Porco Rosso is its most underrated film. Porco Rosso, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, is the story of a World War military aviator-turned-bounty hunter who has mysteriously been transformed into a pig. 

Bright with humor, heart, and flight (Miyazaki is largely influenced and inspired by the art of aviation), Porco Rosso manages to also acknowledge and reckon with the horrors of war. It also boasts one of, if not the greatest, line in any Ghibli film: I’d rather be a pig than a fascist.

Genre: Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family

Actor: Akemi Okamura, Akio Otsuka, Bunshi Katsura, Bunshi Katsura Vi, Hiroko Seki, Mahito Tsujimura, Minoru Yada, Osamu Saka, Reizō Nomoto, Sanshi Katsura, Shûichirô Moriyama, Tokiko Kato, Tsunehiko Kamijo, Yoko Soumi, Yu Shimaka

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Rating: PG

Robert Redford and Brad Pitt make quite the ensemble in this edgy game of espionage. With performances as strong as their jawlines, this action-packed rescue mission will keep you in suspense! Be sure to keep up with all the witty banter and interesting plot twists shifting between flashbacks and present-day scenarios. Keep in mind that this isn't your average spy movie, with a more realistic approach and a character-driven storyline, most of the flash happens cinematically.

Genre: Action, Crime, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Adrian Pang, Amidou, Andrew Grainger, Balázs Tardy, Benedict Wong, Bill Buell, Brad Pitt, Catherine McCormack, Charlotte Rampling, Colin Stinton, Dale Dye, David Hemmings, David K.S. Tse, David Tse, Demetri Goritsas, Eddie Yeoh, Freddie Joe Farnsworth, Garrick Hagon, Hon Ping Tang, Ian Porter, Imre Csuja, In-sook Chappell, James Aubrey, Joerg Stadler, Ken Leung, Kimberly Tufo, Larry Bryggman, Logan Wong, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Matthew Marsh, Michael Paul Chan, Mohamed Quatib, Nabil Massad, Omid Djalili, Peter Linka, Robert Redford, Rufus Wright, Shane Rimmer, Stephen Dillane, Stuart Milligan, Ted Maynard, Todd Boyce, Tom Hodgkins, Tony Xu

Director: Tony Scott

Rating: R

Vague statement alert: Burning is not a movie that you “get”; it’s a movie you experience. Based on a short story by Murakami, it’s dark and bleak in a way that comes out more in the atmosphere of the movie rather than what happens in the story. Working in the capital Seoul, a young guy from a poor town near the North Korean border runs into a girl from his village. As he starts falling for her, she makes an unlikely acquaintance with one of Seoul’s wealthy youth (played by Korean-American actor Steven Yeun, pictured above.) This new character is mysterious in a way that’s all-too-common in South Korea: young people who have access to money no one knows where it came from, and who are difficult to predict or go against. Two worlds clash, poor and rich, in a movie that’s really three movies combined into one - a character-study, a romance, and a revenge thriller.

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Ah-in Yoo, Ban Hye-ra, Cha Mi-Kyung, ChoI Seung-ho, Jang Won-hyung, Jeon Jong-seo, Jeon Seok-chan, Jong-seo Jun, Jun Jong-seo, Kim Shin-rock, Kim Shin-rok, Kim Sin-rock, Kim Soo-kyung, Lee Bong-ryeon, Lee Joong-ok, Lee Soo-jeong, Min Bok-gi, Moon Sung-keun, Ok Ja-yeon, Song Duk-ho, Soo-Kyung Kim, Steven Yeun, Yoo Ah-in

Director: Chang-dong Lee, Lee Chang-dong

Rating: Not Rated

The film follows Yuma, a young woman with cerebral palsy who dreams of becoming a manga artist but struggles to find independence while living with an overprotective mother. That, however, doesn’t stop her from applying to work at an erotica manga publishing house. In this moving narrative, the themes of identity and self-discovery are tenderly portrayed through the lens of disability as Yuma embarks on a  journey toward self-acceptance and sexual empowerment. Despite a rocky and somewhat dragging last act, the respectful depictions of sex work and disability make this film's warm heart feel genuine.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Eita Okuno, Haruka Imou, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Makiko Watanabe, Mei Kayama, Minori Hagiwara, Misuzu Kanno, Nanami Kawakami, Shizuka Ishibashi, Shohei Uno, Shunsuke Daitoh, Toshinori Omi, Yuka Itaya

Director: Hikari

One of Studio Ghibli’s overlooked gems, My Neighbors the Yamadas is a charming anthology film about a modern-day Japanese family. The film sets itself apart from other Ghibli films through its unique doodle-like watercolor animation and its short piano themes. While the vignettes may just depict regular family conflicts, the scenes still feel compelling due to the Yamadas’ imagination of the metaphors that they use. Exaggerating the metaphors keeps the audience breathless in certain strategic moments - most notably in the wedding day speech of the mother of the bride. While not as fantastical as Ghibli’s other offerings, the completely digital My Neighbors the Yamadas finds humor in and celebrates the mundane.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Family

Actor: Akiko Yano, Chôchô Miyako, Hayato Isohata, Masako Araki, Naomi Uno, Tamao Nakamura, Toru Masuoka, Yukiji Asaoka

Director: Isao Takahata

Rating: PG

While more known for their fantastical children’s stories, Studio Ghibli occasionally serves a down-to-earth, domestic film set in the real world. One of them is From Up On Poppy Hill. On the surface is a story of two student activists who fall in love while fighting to keep their high school club’s Latin Quarter from demolition. Of course, with this in mind, the most surprising event in the film is the incest scare. However, this seemingly random plot point feels important in the sense that everything is resolved once they've fully understood the past. And because of the 1960s post-Korean War Tokyo setting, the film is nostalgic yet dares to question whether or not Japan has fully processed and acknowledged their losses in a war that isn't theirs.

Genre: Animation, Drama

Actor: Aoi Teshima, Goro Miyazaki, Haruka Shiraishi, Jun Fubuki, Jun'ichi Okada, Junichi Okada, Keiko Takeshita, Masami Nagasawa, Nao Ōmori, Rumi Hiiragi, Shunsuke Kazama, Takashi Naito, Teruyuki Kagawa, Yuriko Ishida

Director: Goro Miyazaki

Rating: PG

This 1994 animated gem from Studio Ghibli is one of their many environmentally-conscious works. In a world of shape-shifting animals and environmental conservation, Pom Poko beautifully combines folklore, humor, and social commentary to tell a tale of raccoons fighting to save their forest home from human encroachment. The animation is stunning, showcasing Ghibli's signature attention to detail and vibrant visuals. But it's the heartfelt story and lovable characters that really steal the show. Although it is slow-paced, Pom Poko is a thought-provoking and entertaining film that will make you laugh, cry, and appreciate the wonders of nature. 

Genre: Adventure, Animation, Drama, Fantasy

Actor: Akira Fukuzawa, Akira Kamiya, Beichou Katsura, Bunshi Katsura, Gannosuke Ashiya, Kobuhei Hayashiya, Kokondei Shinchou, Kosan Yanagiya, Makoto Nonomura, Megumi Hayashibara, Nijiko Kiyokawa, Norihei Miki, Osamu Kato, Shigeru Izumiya, Shincho Kokontei, Shozo Hayashiya, Takehiro Murata, Yorie Yamashita, Yumi Ichihara, Yuriko Ishida

Director: Isao Takahata

Rating: PG