2021 was a big year for Japan, with the Tokyo Olympics finally occurring and a big COVID surge thereafter. Despite ups and downs, Japanese theaters and film festivals still persisted for a good part of 2021.
So what were the Best Japanese Movies of 2021?
Cinema Escapist has selected 10 Japanese movies that we feel are the top releases from 2021. Our choices include both indie and blockbuster films, with samplings across genres like comedy, action, romance, animation, and more. Note while feature-length sequels to popular anime or manga franchises took Japan’s box office by storm in 2021, we’ve tilted this list towards more original movies that display better narrative innovation and societal significance. We’ve also tried to include streaming links on services like Netflix, when available.
Let’s look at 2021’s top Japanese films!
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Japanese title: いとみち | Director: Satoko Yokohama | Starring: Ren Komai, Daimao Kosaka, Mei Kurokawa | Genre: Drama, Music
Teenage girl rebels against family and finds a job at a maid cafe—that’s one way to describe the 2021 Japanese film Ito. However, this isn’t some sordid tale of a young woman fallen from grace. Instead, it’s an exploration of Japan’s cultural traditions, and outer prefectures that you don’t often see in cinema.
Ito’s title comes from its protagonist, a girl named Ito Soma. She’s really good at a variety of music called Tsugaru-shamisen that’s a centerpiece of local culture in her native Aomori prefecture (in the north of Japan). However, Ito has significant anxiety about playing in public, and feels ashamed by her regional Aomori dialect. Pining for self-transformation, she ends up getting a job at a maid cafe (a wholesome one) and learning about life from the people she meets there.
Though Ito might feature some highly specific Japanese traditions, it managed to gain a decent amount of festival distribution in New York, Hawaii, and more. The film also won the Audience Award at 2021’s Osaka Asian FIlm Festival in Japan.
10. Masquerade Night
Japanese title: マスカレード・ナイト| Director: Masayuki Suzuki | Starring: Takuya Kimura, Masami Nagasawa, Fumiyo Kohinata | Genre: Fantasy, Thriller, Mystery
Masquerade Night is the sequel to Masquerade Hotel, which was on our list of 2019’s best Japanese movies.
The film returns to the Hotel Cortesia Tokyo, where detective Kosuke Nitta goes undercover to investigate a murder threat. At the hotel, Detective Nitta runs up against Naomi Yamagashi—a concierge who’s ruthlessly committed to fulfilling guest requests.
If you enjoyed Masquerade Hotel, you’ll find Masquerade Night strikingly similar in terms of substance and characters. Even if you haven’t seen its predecessor film, Masquerade Night should prove a spirited and entertaining movie with your standard murder mystery elements. Japanese audiences seemed to like it at least; Masquerade Night was the eighth highest grossing film of 2021 in Japan.
9. The Blue Danube
Japanese title: きまじめ楽隊のぼんやり戦争 | Director: Akira Ikeda | Starring: Kou Maehara, Hiroki Konno, Hiroki Nakajima | Genre: Drama, Experimental, Comedy, War
Movies critiquing militarism are part and parcel of Japanese cinema, given the nation’s pacifist legacies in the wake of WWII. The Blue Danube continues this tradition in its own absurdist, artistic way.
This 2021 Japanese film examines war through the perspective of two towns on opposite sides of a river. Every day, these towns wake up and start shooting at each other—though nobody really knows why. When a bugler named Tsuyuki is assigned to play in a marching band, he begins to play the Blue Danube Waltz by the riverbank whilst wondering what people in the other town are like.
The Blue Danube proceeds almost like a series of episodic sketches. It’s reminiscent of a Samuel Beckett play—full of boredom and bleakness, yet somehow still able to find humor amidst it all. It’s no wonder the film did decently on the festival circuit, screening at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and Japan Cuts, among others. If you’re someone who enjoys independent, experimental films, The Blue Danube is worth a watch.
8. We Made a Beautiful Bouquet
Japanese title: 花束みたいな恋をした | Director: Nobuhiro Doi | Starring: Masaki Suda, Kasumi Arimura | Genre: Romance
Masaki Suda and Kasumi Arimura are two of Japan’s most popular actors; they unite for the 2021 romance film We Made a Beautiful Bouquet.
Suda and Arimura respectively play a man named Mugi and a woman named Kinu. One day, the two meet after missing the last train home.
However, the movie starts five years after that encounter, and establishes that their relationship will not last. What makes this film interesting, then, is its exploration about the ephemerality of love and happiness, and how that fleeting nature imbues relationships with meaning.
Furthermore, We Made a Beautiful Bouquet offers a realistic, modern take on the challenges of romance. The film dives into the character’s financial issues and professional obligations, offering a welcome respite from the sudden cancer diagnoses or memory loss-inducing car accidents that often plague East Asian melodramas.
Japanese title: あのこは貴族 | Director: Yukiko Sode | Starring: Mugi Kadowaki, Kiko Mizuhara, Kengo Kora | Genre: Drama
In 2019, a whopping 92% of Japanese considered themselves middle class. However, as director Yukiko Sode’s film Aristocrats show, that doesn’t mean Japan lacks class distinctions.
Aristocrats centers on two women, Hanako and Miki. The former is a wealthy Tokyoite; the latter grew up in a small prefecture and tested into the prestigious Keio University, but dropped out due to family circumstances and has to work odd jobs to make ends meet. When Hanako learns that Miki has also been seeing the man her upper-class family wants her to marry, the two end up meeting and building an unlikely connection.
Class divisions are certainly on display in Aristocrats. However, what’s even more interesting is how the movie shows that, regardless of wealth or privilege, Japanese women seem to always be second-class citizens compared to men. If you’re looking for a socially conscious film that’s female-centric and mellow, check out Aristocrats.
6. We Couldn’t Become Adults
Japanese title: あのこは貴族 | Director: Yoshihiro Mori | Starring: Mirai Moriyama, Sairi Ito | Genre: Romance, Drama
The movie starts with a 46 year-old man named Makoto Sato. One day, a sudden friend request sends Sato back on a nostalgia trip to the 1990’s, one imbued with reminisces about past lovers. We see the vagaries of romantic disappointment and professional failure gradually grind Makoto down, his dreams fading into the past.
We Couldn’t Become Adults is particularly interesting when viewed as a mirror for the social malaise of Japan’s Lost Decades. Since the early 1990s, Japan’s economy has stagnated. As a result, a whole “lost generation” of Japanese stuck in a state of sclerotic social purgatory, with some retreating inwards as hikikomori. Though Makoto Sato is not a hikikomori himself, his trials and tribulations offer an easily accessible and emotionally resonant look into the struggles of those who’ve lost all direction in modern Japan.
5. Ride or Die
Japanese title: 彼女 | Director: Ryuichi Hiroki | Starring: Kiko Mizuhara, Honami Sato | Genre: Romance, LGBTQ
The combination of brooding violence and lesbian sex isn’t something you see very often in live-action Japanese cinema. However, Ride or Die contains that unique mix.
This 2021 Japanese movie begins with an introduction to Rei. She’s a plastic surgeon from a rich family, who also happens to be a lesbian. Rei has just killed a man—the abusive husband of her former classmate (and teenage crush) Nanae Shinioda. In the wake of the murder, Rei and Nanae go on the lam together, and begin to explore the messy depths of their rekindled relationship.
What makes Ride or Die worth including on this list is just how refreshingly different it feels from other live-action Japanese movies. Most live-action Japanese movies these days are yawn-inducingly mellow, agonizingly spineless, disappointingly regressive, or some combination of those factors.
Ride or Die is none of those things. It’s exciting, avoids usual Japanese LGBTQ stereotypes (ex. Boy’s Love romance), and replete with a level of passion (thanks to gratuitous violence and full-frontal sex scenes) you might expect from Korea or Hollywood.
With high production values and a distinctive soundtrack from eclectic musician Haruomi Hosono as icing on the cake, Ride or Die is worth a watch if you’re tired of the usual plodding fare Japan puts out these days. Even better, it’s easily streamable on Netflix.
4. Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle
Japanese title: ONODA 一万夜を越えて | Director: Arthur Harari | Starring: Yuya Endo, Kanji Tsuda, Yuya Matsuura | Genre: War, Drama, History
You might notice that the director of Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle isn’t Japanese. Indeed, this film is a Japanese-French co-production with a heavily French crew and financing. However, Onoda tells a thoroughly Japanese story with 100% Japanese cast and dialog.
Onoda takes its name from Hiroo Onoda, a real-life Imperial Japanese Army officer who spent 29 years hiding in the Philippine jungle after WWII, refusing to surrender or even believe that the war had ended.
The film centers on Onoda’s time in the Philippines, diving deep into his psyche to explore what motivated him to hold out for so long. In doing so, it offers a nuanced and resonant exploration of the psychology of fanaticism. That should hold resonance for viewers even outside Japan, given the popularity of conspiracy theories and lies about stolen elections these days. Within a Japanese context, the notion of militaristic fervor should also strike a chord given increased nationalistic burblings over the past few years.
3. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
Japanese title: 偶然と想像 | Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi | Starring: Kotone Furukawa, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Fusako Urabe | Genre: Drama, Romance
Noted Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi kicked off 2021 with Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. The film won the prestigious Silver Bear Award at 2021’s Berlin International FIlm Festival, and garnered significant critical acclaim worldwide.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy consists of three parts. Each depicts a coincidental encounter centering on a female character, and explores the vicissitudes of love. With this film, Hamaguchi has crafted flowing dialog and fleshed-out characters that all come to life with excellent acting.
If you enjoy artistic films that explore the intricacies of human nature, look no further than Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. It’s a sweet, sensitive, and humorous examination of what it means for humans to feel, and be, connected.
Japanese title: 竜とそばかすの姫 | Director: Mamoru Hosoda | Starring: Kaho Nakamura, Ryo Narita, Shota Sometani | Genre: Animation, Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Mamoru Hosoda is one of Japan’s most critically acclaimed animators, and he returned in 2021 with Belle. The film was not only critical success—garnering a standing ovation upon its premiere at Cannes—but also became one of the top grossing films in Japan during 2021.
Belle focuses on a 17 year-old student named Suzu, who lives with her father in Japan’s rural Kochi prefecture. After becoming traumatized by the death of her mother, Suzu finds solace in a virtual world called “U” and assumes an online alter ego through her avatar “Belle.”
It goes without saying that Belle contains some high quality animations; Hosoda does an exceptional job of bringing “U” to life with epic visuals of dragons and castles. On the front of social significance, Belle also comes at an opportune time. With large tech companies ramping up their efforts to create metaverses, the film helps us ponder whether such virtual realities will truly bring the world closer together, or instead simply transplant the real world’s alienation into a new yet parallel medium.
1. Drive My Car
Japanese title: ドライブ・マイ・カー | Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi | Starring: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Toko Miura, Reika Kirishima | Genre: Drama
Topping off our list of 2021’s best Japanese movies is Drive My Car. This is yet another movie from director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who seems to have had quite a good year with 2021.
Hamaguchi was working from some pretty strong source material for this movie. Drive My Car is the adaptation of an eponymous short story by famed author Haruki Marukami. Despite the fact that the original story is just under 40 pages, Hamaguchi manages to make Drive My Car the movie into a three hour-long epic. Don’t be scared by that running time though. Drive My Car’s plot flows by smoothly, and is pretty easy to follow.
The film follows a Tokyo-based theatrical actor named Kafuku. We learn that his wife Oto has been dead for two years, and her death has imbued Kafuku with silent streaks of trauma. One day, Kafuku accepts an invitation from a theater festival in Hiroshima to put on a production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. The festival assigns him a driver, a young woman named Misaki. As the two journey across Japan, their bond deepens—and the film takes us into a devastatingly beautiful exploration of loss and letting go. It’s a profound meditation on the human condition.
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