15 Best Movies From Japan On Max (HBO Max)

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, Shinosuke Tatekawa, Takaya Kamikawa, Takeo Chii, Tatsuya Nakadai, Tomoko Tabata, Yuji Miyake, Yukiji Asaoka

Director: Isao Takahata

Rating: PG

In Drive My Car, a widowed artist travels to Hiroshima for his latest production. There he meets a young woman enlisted to drive him around the area. They forge an unexpected bond and soon share pithy observations and long-buried secrets, which culminate in a touching scene of catharsis and forgiveness.

Not a lot is said in this three-hour film, but when words (and signals) are shared, they are always underlaid with simple but transcendent truths. Drive My Car is a gripping film that explores love and loss in its own quiet way, at once intense and intimate.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ahn Hwi-tae, Ahn Hwitae, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Hiroko Matsuda, Jin Dae-yeon, Masaki Okada, Park Yu-rim, Perry Dizon, Reika Kirishima, Ryo Iwase, Satoko Abe, Shoichiro Tanigawa, Sonia Yuan, Toko Miura, Toshiaki Inomata

Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Rating: Unrated

Director Jim Jarmusch audaciously combined the DNA of French noir classics with that of samurai and mafia movies to produce this utterly original film. As advised by the ancient Japanese manual it often quotes, though, Jarmusch’s movie also “makes the best” out of its own generation by adding hip-hop into its wry genre blend. The results are more than the sum of their parts, especially because the film is so eccentric: no matter how au fait with its inspirations you are, you still won’t see “Forest Whitaker plays a lonely hitman who wields and whooshes his silencer pistol like a samurai sword, lovingly tends pigeons, and can’t even speak the same language as his best friend” coming.

Ghost Dog’s strangeness is never jarring, though, thanks to Whitaker’s cool, collected performance, an atmospheric score by Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, and the cinematography’s tendency to use smooth double exposures for scene transitions. It almost feels like we’re in another world: Jarmusch zooms in on the Bushido code obsessions of Whitaker’s single-minded character and the mafiosos’ dying laws, blurring out everything else so the movie becomes a meditation on the impulse to moralize one’s misdoings by subscribing to rigid definitions of “honor.” Not an exercise in surface style, then, but a bone-deep reflective masterpiece.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Alfred Nittoli, Angel Caban, Camille Winbush, Chuck Jeffreys, Clebert Ford, Cliff Gorman, Damon Whitaker, Forest Whitaker, Frank Adonis, Frank Minucci, Gano Grills, Gary Farmer, Gene Ruffini, Henry Silva, Isaach De Bankolé, Jamie Hector, John Tormey, Jonathan Teague Cook, José Rabelo, Joseph Rigano, Renee Bluestone, Richard Portnow, Roberto Lopez, RZA, Sharon Angela, Tracy Howe, Tricia Vessey, Victor Argo, Vince Viverito, Vinny Vella

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rating: R

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, Takashi Taguchi, Takaya Hashi, Tomomichi Nishimura, Yoshiko Asai, Yoshiko Kamei, Yûko Kobayashi, Yûko Maruyama, Yuko Tsuga, 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, Mayumi Izuka, 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

Fun and whimsical to its core, this animated film takes viewers on a visually captivating, surreal, and enchanting journey through a single night in Kyoto. The movie immerses you in an entertaining and eccentric world with its vibrant animation, characters, and offbeat humor following two unnamed characters only referred to as "The Girl with Black Hair" and "Senpai." The narrative weaves together various quirky encounters, love interests, and strange events, keeping you engaged and curious. Blending romance, comedy, and coming-of-age themes, Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is a joyous celebration of youth, adventure, and the unpredictable nature of life's unexpected twists and turns.

Genre: Animation, Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Romance

Actor: Ami Koshimizu, Aoi Yuki, Chikara Honda, Gen Hoshino, Hiroshi Kamiya, Hiroyuki Yoshino, Junichi Suwabe, Kana Hanazawa, Kazuhiro Yamaji, Kazuya Nakai, Masaaki Yuasa, Mugihito, Nobuyuki Hiyama, Ryuji Akiyama, Seiko Niizuma, Yuhko Kaida

Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Rating: PG-13

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, Kaichi Kaburagi, Keiko Takeshita, Mansai Nomura, Martin Short, Masahiko Nishimura, Miori Takimoto, Mirai Shida, Morio Kazama, Sascha, Shinobu Otake, Stephen Alpert

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Rating: PG-13

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

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, Tsubasa Kobayashi, 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

, 2021

This Japanese animated film employs a gorgeous blend of CGI and traditional animation—as well as intricately orchestrated original songs—to present a plausible simulation of virtual reality where people are truly free to do anything. Belle might not be as careful with its characters and the difficult situations they're put into "off-screen," but this is still ultimately an optimistic movie. Director Mamoru Hosoda suggests that uniting ordinary people through the internet won't actually lead to chaos. Instead, it'll help each of us become more empathetic of people around the world. And while that means Belle is still a sci-fi fantasy story more than anything, the film's wondrous images and music make it feel good to dream.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Family, Music, Science Fiction

Actor: Asami Miura, Fuyumi Sakamoto, Kaho Nakamura, Ken Ishiguro, Kenjiro Tsuda, Kōji Yakusho, Lilas Ikuta, Mami Koyama, Mamoru Miyano, Michiko Shimizu, Mitsuru Miyamoto, Ryo Narita, Ryoko Moriyama, Shota Sometani, Sumi Shimamoto, Taichi Masu, Takeru Satoh, Tina Tamashiro, Toshiyuki Morikawa, Yoshimi Iwasaki

Director: Mamoru Hosoda

Happy Together is a beautifully devastating tale about a gay couple, portrayed by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Leslie Cheun, who struggle with maintaining romance and fidelity in their relationship. Despite their efforts, they find the emotional distance growing between them, especially as they leave their home of Hong Kong for Buenos Aires.

Filmed and set in the late 1990s, Happy Together explored the depths of queer love in a way most films hadn’t. 

Since its release, it has touched the souls of many and caused tears to be shed. It serves as a reminder that love isn’t perfect, but it’s always worth the effort.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Chang Chen, Chen Chang, Gregory Dayton, Law Shu-Kei, Leslie Cheung, Shirley Kwan, Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai

Director: Kar-Wai Wong, Wong Kar-wai

Rating: N/A

There is a great deal of disbelief to suspend with this film, arguably the weakest of Japanese animation director Makoto Shinkai’s oeuvre. It follows Hodaka, a broke high school student in Tokyo looking for a job. The story kicks off when he meets Hina, a cheerful girl who lives with her younger brother and has the power to control the weather.

Again, as with all of Shinkai’s work, it’s remarkably beautiful. Rainfall, skies, and cityscapes are eye candy here, probably more than in any piece of animation ever. But this has every high school romance trope elevated to an extreme level, like Shinkai’s best known film Your Name but on steroids—a teenage boy and cute girl fit together like pieces of a puzzle, a grand adventure starts, forces beyond their control threaten to separate them, and the standard anime couple seemingly never see each other again, until they dramatically meet years later.

For the sake of an against-all-odds romance, Weathering with You downplays its insane plot devices. It glosses over runaway kids wielding firearms, an underage girl almost going into sex work, and a climate disaster potentially displacing millions of people—all for a love story.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Fantasy, Romance

Actor: Aoi Yuki, Ayane Sakura, Chieko Baisho, Hidekatsu Shibata, Kana Hanazawa, Kana Ichinose, Kanon Tani, Kotaro Daigo, Masako Nozawa, Mone Kamishiraishi, Nana Mori, Ryo Narita, Ryohei Kimura, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Sakura Kiryu, Sei Hiraizumi, Shun Oguri, Sumi Shimamoto, Tsubasa Honda, Yuki Kaji, Yuki Ominami

Director: Makoto Shinkai

Rating: PG-13