On Location Japan: Movies Set in Tokyo

By: Claire Bullen

December 30, 2013

On film, Tokyo is an eternally beguiling palimpsest. Some directors hone in on its neon lights and hordes of traffic, which melt watercolour-like in front of the camera. Other movies capture Tokyo as a dark and grimy warren of alleyways and offices, overpopulated and bristling with tension. But no matter how it’s transposed onto the big screen, the city operates as part-character, part-backdrop, and part-muse. Below, we’ve selected five of the most atmospheric and exotic movies set in Tokyo.

Tokyo Story, Yasujiro Ozu


Post-war, black and white Tokyo is captured in Ozu’s masterpiece Tokyo Story © rafael rozendaal

Filmed in 1953, Tokyo Story is a Japanese classic. The poignant black-and-white film peers into the daily lives of Tokyo’s denizens, from the city’s cramped noodle bars to the screened confines of their houses, with occasional sweeping views of the city and its hills. Focusing on the generational conflict post-WWII, Tokyo Story is widely regarded as director Ozu’s masterpiece.

Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola

Movies Set in Tokyo | Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation captures the loneliness of expat life © Filipão 28

One of the most celebrated films of the early 2000s, Sofia Coppola’s Tokyo-based story trains its sights on the loneliness of expat life in the megalopolis. Scarlett Johansson plays Charlotte, a young wife left to her own devices while her photographer husband jaunts off to glamourous gigs; her foil is played by Bill Murray, a jaded actor past his prime. From within overstimulating karaoke joints, the quiet bar at the Park Hyatt Hotel, and the crazed crosswalks of Shinjuku, the two form an unlikely bond.

Tokyo Sonata, Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Movies Set in Tokyo | Tokyo Sonata

The city’s neon malls and cramped residential quarters are the setting for Tokyo Sonata © slackrhackr

A groundbreaking film for the way that it depicted interior family struggles, 2008’s Tokyo Sonata sees the city at its dimmest. Set during a period of economic difficulty, the movie follows a family falling apart as the father, Ryuhei, loses his job and lies to his family about his new janitorial work. Set primarily in a run-down, residential area of the city, Tokyo Sonata also brings us to the neon ravages of a shopping mall, the desolation of a nearby beach, and into the family’s cramped home.

Stray Dog, Akira Kurosawa

Movies Set in Tokyo | Stray Dog

Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog depicts the criminal underworld of war-scarred Tokyo © Japanese Film Archive

Tokyo turns dark and sultry in Stray Dog, a film noir work from 1949. An early movie by Akira Kurosawa, one of Japan’s most influential and prolific directors, the film is set in war-scarred Tokyo. Its exciting plot takes viewers through the city’s criminal underworld, following the theft of a detective’s gun and the subsequent murders committed with the weapon.

Tokyo!, Michel Gondry, Léos Carax, Bong Joon-ho

Movies Set in Tokyo | Tokyo!

The three-part Tokyo! captures three very different perspectives of the city © iStock/Thinkstock

This magnificent collection of three shorts by experimental French directors Michel Gondry and Léos Carax, and Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho captures three very different sides of the city. In Interior Design, Gondry’s film, viewers watch a young couple struggle with their creative destinies in the overcrowded, dark and unpromising apartments of the city. Carax takes on the Godzilla motif with his dark, surrealist film Merde, which sees a sewer-dwelling foreigner begin a series of bizarre attacks on the city. Rounding off the triptych, Joon-ho explores the closeted world of the hikikomori, or shut-ins, in Shaking Tokyo; his protagonist hasn’t left his apartment for over 10 years before being forced to evacuate after an earthquake.

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What’s your favourite film set in Tokyo? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Written by Claire Bullen


Claire Bullen

Claire is a born globetrotter: before relocating to London, she spent time in New York, Paris, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco. When she's not in pursuit of the next exciting meal, she can be found haunting indie bookstores and sketching outdoors. Follow Claire @ClaireMBullen

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