2018 has shaped up to be a relatively strong year in Japanese cinema. Especially compared with last year, Japanese films have done quite well at international festivals (ex. Cannes) and the domestic box office.
To help you figure out what to watch, Cinema Escapist has compiled this list of the Best Japanese Movies of 2018. These films stretch across diverse genres including anime, slice of life dramas, and even cult zombie flicks—so there’s something for everyone, regardless of taste.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the top Japanese films from 2018!
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11. Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer
Japanese Title: 名探偵コナン ゼロの執行人 | Voices: Minami Takayama Wakana Yamazaki Rikiya Koyama Kappei Yamaguchi Aya Ueto | Genre: Animation, Adventure, Mystery, Crime
Kicking off our list of the best Japanese films of 2018 is Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer. This animation is part of the famed Detective Conan franchise, which began as a manga series in 1994 and has since spawned numerous anime, film, and video game adaptations. The franchise focuses on the exploits of Conan Edogawa, a detective who has a childlike appearance.
In Zero the Enforcer, Conan must investigate an explosion that destroys a convention center ahead of an important government summit. Unlike some other features in the Detective Conan franchise, Zero the Enforcer actually provides a pretty emotional plot with good character development, especially for a certain character with a double identity. Of course, there’s Zero the Enforcer also contains the deduction, action, and skateboarding skills that Detective Conan franchise fans have come to expect.
10. Gintama 2: Rules Are Made To Be Broken
Japanese Title: 銀魂2 掟は破るためにこそある | Starring: Shun Oguri, Masaki Suda, Kanna Hashimoto, Kankuro Nakamura | Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy
Next on our list is Gintama 2, a sequel to last year’s blockbuster Gintama. Both of those movies are live-action adaptations of the famous Gintama anime and manga franchise. Set in an alternate Edo-era Japan invaded by aliens, the Gintama series centers on a freelance samurai named Gintoki Sakata who must work with his friends to fight villains and pay the rent.
In Gintama 2, Sakata and his friends return to protect the nation’s shogun, and end up stumbling upon a broader conspiracy. While its plot isn’t particularly innovative, the movie offers a reliable two hours of entertaining fights and jokes; it should please anyone who’s a fan of the overall Gintama franchise.
9. Ten Years Japan
Japanese Title: 十年 | Produced by Hirokazu Kore-eda | Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi, Political
Fans of speculative fiction like Black Mirror will appreciate Ten Years Japan, one of the few films on this list that grapples head-on with Japan’s sociopolitical realities. Produced by famed director Hirokazu Kore-eda, this anthology of five different shorts aptly dramatizes relevant social challenges including an aging society, a rigid education system, digital privacy, nuclear anxieties, and militarization.
Ten Years Japan is a member of a pan-Asian Ten Years series (there’s also Ten Years Taiwan and Ten Years Thailand). The series sprouted from the unexpectedly successful 2015 Hong Kong anthology Ten Years, which offered several vignettes of a softly dystopian future Hong Kong. Ten Years Japan feels tonally similar to the original Hong Kong film, though perhaps slightly more hopeful—all but one short features children, which you might not expect for a country with exceptionally low birthrates.
Interested in learning more about contemporary Japanese society? Want a low-commitment break from all of 2018’s big budget anime/manga adaptations? Watch Ten Years Japan, or learn more about the film in our full-length review.
8. Doraemon the Movie: Nobita’s Treasure Island
Japanese Title: 映画ドラえもん のび太の宝島| Voices: Wasabi Mizuta, Megumi Ōhara, Yumi Kakazu, Tomokazu Seki | Genre: Fantasy, Science-Fiction, Anime
Many people around the world (this article’s author included) grew up watching big blue cat Doraemon‘s mischievous adventures with his best friend Nobita. The latest Doraemon film should bring about a wave of nostalgia as Nobita dons a captain’s hat (another one of Doraemon’s gadgets) and leads his crew to hunt for a pirate’s treasure.
Filled with animations of time-traveling spaceships and steampunk technology, Doraemon the Movie: Nobita’s Treasure Island is sure to stir your imagination as well.
7. Code Blue: The Movie
Japanese Title: コード・ブルー～ドクターヘリ緊急救命 | Starring: Tomohisa Yamashita, Yui Aragaki, Erika Toda, Manami Higa | Genre: Action, Rescue, Disaster
Immaculate skin, attractive facial features, and medical degrees—thus describes the protagonists of Code Blue: The Movie, Japan’s highest grossing domestic film of 2018. Spun off a popular TV series with the same cast, Code Blue features a (suspiciously attractive) medical team that helicopters into major disaster sites to provide emergency care.
In Code Blue: The Movie, the “helicopter doctor” team must save civilians when disasters happen at Narita Airport and Umihotaru (the artificial island in the middle of the Tokyo Bay Aqua Line). Amidst heroic deeds, the movie explores the emotional impacts of the team’s work—including challenges in their personal lives. The result is an action-packed but also somewhat touching story that’ll probably appeal to people who enjoy Japanese melodramas.
6. River’s Edge
Japanese Title: リバーズ・エッジ | Starring: Fumi Nikaido, Ryo Yoshizawa | Genre: Crime, Youth
Inspired by a cult hit manga about angsty teenagers in a Tokyo suburb, River’s Edge offers a bleak and powerful story about Japanese youth. Critics have compared it to Hollywood classic The Outsiders, which also focuses on the grittier parts of teenage life.
Like The Outsiders, River’s Edge offers a slate of compelling, complex characters. At the center is Harnua Wakakusa (played by Fumi Nikaido); through her eyes we discover the other characters’ secrets—homosexuality, violent tendencies, eating disorders, and so forth. Behind the characters’ teenage turmoil lies a broken Japan plagued by earthquakes and terrorism—perhaps a more extreme version of the gloom Japan faces today. Filled with trauma and melancholy, River’s Edge will make you rethink what “coming of age” really means.
Japanese Title: ブリーチ | Starring: Sota Fukushi, Hana Sugisaki, Ryo Yoshizawa, Erina Mano | Genre: Fantasy, Action
Yup, in case you haven’t heard, there is now a live action Bleach movie. Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, Bleach is one of the most popular manga/anime franchises of all time. With its storyline about a teenager who acquires the powers of a “soul reaper”, Bleach entertained tens (or maybe hundreds) of millions of people who grew up (or otherwise watched anime) during the early 2000s.
Though nothing super remarkable, Bleach lives up to expectations and feels like a season of the anime fit into two straight hours. Tite Kubo, the franchise’s creator, helped write the movie—so it remains pretty faithful to the series’ original characters and plot points.
4. Kids on the Slope
Japanese Title: 坂道のアポロン | Starring: Yuri Chinen, Taishi Nakagawa, Nana Komatsu | Genre: Slice-of-Life, Drama, Youth, Music
We swing to the complete opposite end of the “coming of age” spectrum with Kids on the Slope, another manga/anime franchise live action adaptation. The franchise focuses on a group of high school kids during the 60’s who form an intense friendship through their love for jazz.
A bit of trivia: the 2012 Kids on the Slope anime series was directed by Shinichiro Watanabe and scored by Yoko Kanno. If those names sound familiar, that’s because Watanabe and Kanno also worked together on the renowned anime Cowboy Bebop, among others. Kanno is one of Japanese anime’s best composers—and that means Kids on the Slope has some of the most evocative music you’ll find in anime.
Kids on the Slope the movie feels like a faithful adaptation of the original source anime/manga, down to the costumes and set list. Importantly, the film also maintains the same essence of beautiful bittersweetness that results as the characters’ lives and dynamics evolve. If you love jazz, slice-of-life, or coming of age movies, you should watch Kids on the Slope.
3. One Cut of the Dead
Japanese Title: カメラを止めるな! | Starring: Takayuki Hamatsu, Mao, Harumi Syuhama, Yuzuki Akiyama, Kazuaki Nagaya | Genre: Zombie, Horror, Action, Cult, Comedy
Getting tired of anime/manga/TV show adaptations and want something different? Well, you might want to try One Cut of the Dead, the most unexpected Japanese film hit of 2018.
One Cut of the Dead features a cast of unknown actors who play a film crew shooting a low budget zombie movie in a water filtration plant. However, a real zombie apocalypse happens—and the film crew decides to keep shooting.
With a ~$27,000 USD budget, One Cut of the Dead initially opened in a Tokyo art house theater to very little fanfare. However, after winning some international festival awards in early 2018, the film went viral and garnered a wide release in Japan, eventually making over $30M USD.
In an era of big budget superhero flicks, One Cut of the Dead offers a sense of refreshing earnestness that few films possess. The movie is fully aware of its ridiculous plot, and makes many loving meta-movie references and contains elaborate jokes that explode like laughing gas on a long timer. Furthermore, One Cut begins with a 37 minute single take, a cinematic feat you’d find more in art house classics than zombie movies.
If you want something original, fun, and brilliantly made—feast on One Cut of the Dead.
2. Mirai of the Future
Japanese Title: 未来のミライ | Voices: Moka Kamishiraishi, Haru Kuroki, Gen Hoshino, Kumiko Aso | Genre: Family, Drama, Anime
One of Japan’s top animators outside Studio Ghibli, Mamoru Hosoda is known for vivid animations like Wolf Children and The Girl Who Leapt through Time. In 2018, Hosoda returned with a superb addition to his already distinguished track record: Mirai.
Incorporating fantasy and time travel, Mirai imagines the consternation a four year old boy named Kun when he’s introduced to his new infant sister Mirai (Japanese for “future”). Upon realizing he is no longer the center of his parents’ attention, Kun embarks on a series of fantastical journeys in which he meets a teenage Mirai, his dog in human form, and other relatives. Through these journeys, he learns heartwarming lessons about the value and complexity of family.
Mirai‘s poignant storyline comes straight from Hosoda’s heart: he started the film when he had a baby daughter, and saw his firstborn son’s reactions. Hosoda also drew all of Mirai‘s storyboards; the movie’s sweeping hand-painted backgrounds deserve special praise.
For a family-friendly, sublime, and uplifting animation, check out Mirai!
Japanese Title: 万引き家族 | Starring: Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Mayu Matsuoka, Kirin Kiki | Genre: Family, Drama
Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of the masters of contemporary Japanese cinema. His evocative films usually touch on family dynamics, wowing critics and audiences alike. Shoplifters further advances Kore-eda’s reputation with its story about a family of indigent shoplifters who adopts an abandoned girl.
After premiering at Cannes in May 2018, Shoplifters garnered acclaim at many festivals worldwide and was Japan’s submission to 2019’s Foreign Language Oscar and Golden Globe Awards. Humanistic, nuanced, and beautifully shot, Shoplifters draws a silent contrast between the compassion of its “criminal” protagonist family and the otherwise unforgiving “normal” society around them. This film will make you reassess what’s “right” versus “wrong”.
Of course, as expected from a Kore-eda film, Shoplifters‘ rich storyline keeps viewers captivated throughout; this isn’t your average critical darling film. Blending art house cinematography with plot twists, excellent pacing, and a powerful ending, Shoplifters became the fourth-highest grossing Japanese movie of 2018.
It’s rare a movie has it all—entertainment value, philosophical punch, critical acclaim, and commercial success. Yet, Shoplifters achieves all of the above, and that’s why it’s our top Japanese film for 2018.
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