Japanese Animated Movies: 20 Masterpieces Learners Will Love

Do you love watching movies as much as I do?

It’s one of the best ways to relax after a long day and get sucked into another world.

Japanese books, video games and films are well-known for extravagant world creation, unforgettable characters and tear-jerking moments.

In addition, anime and manga are Japanese cultural staples.

Cartoons, comic books and animated movies from Japan have become famous all over the world.

So if you’re learning Japanese, don’t leave animated movies off your study list.

Here are a few benefits of watching movies when you’re not hitting the textbooks:

  • Listening practice. Whether you use subtitles while you’re watching or not, your ears are exposed to authentic, native Japanese and that gives you great listening practice.
  • Context-specific vocabulary. Depending on the genre, you can pick up new vocabulary. Fantasy movies expose a huge range of vocabulary on magic or creatures, dramas offer useful words to do with emotions, family films can teach you children’s language… things like that.
  • Great chat topics! If you’ve seen some Japanese movies of any kind, they can be a great conversation starter when you’re practicing real-life conversations with your peers!

Tips for Studying Japanese with Animated Movies

It’s understandable if you’re eager to just sit down and get sucked in, but don’t start without keeping these vital tips in mind first!

  • Watch the whole movie with English subtitles if it’s your first time watching it. Absorb the sounds and the rhythm of the Japanese.
  • Write down any new phrases and vocabulary you hear. It’s best to watch the movie on DVD or Netflix so you can pause and rewind. Don’t worry about getting every single new word down, however, or you’ll be there forever.
  • Watch with Japanese subtitles. If you have both the subtitles and the audio, you’re twice as likely to catch what’s being said.
  • Write down any new kanji. Watching with Japanese subtitles can provide new kanji to words and phrases you might hear. Studying kanji isn’t all textbooks and novels; it’s common to be able to pick up new characters from subtitles, too!

Japan has produced some animated masterpieces over the years. Here are a few recommendations for you to enjoy.

In addition to Amazon and other sites, you can get all of the below recommendations on DVD from Right Stuf Anime, which is a great option for learners in the U.S. and Canada, especially if you buy your anime in bulk (this can mean free shipping). They also have other Japanese products, like manga and games, that you can bundle together with your movies.

Japanese Animated Movies: 20 Masterpieces Learners Will Love

Love learning with movies? Of course you do, that’s why you’re here! Well, you’re in luck:

japanese animated movies

FluentU is about so much more than videos: You also get access to interactive flashcards and vocab lists, annotated subtitles and personalized quizzes that evolve as you learn.

It’s an entertaining method to immerse yourself in Japanese the way native speakers really use it, while actively building your vocabulary.

1. “Princess Mononoke” (1997) by Studio Ghibli

Genre: Fantasy/drama
Japanese name: もののけ姫 (もののけひめ)
Types of vocabulary: Nature, fantasy
Level: Intermediate

Princess Mononoke

“Princess Mononoke” is set in the Muromachi Period (around 14th-16th century) and tells the story of a war between the guardians of a forest and the people who want to consume its resources. Through this fantasy story, we learn about the world around us and the dark undertones of human greed. Although it’s animated, viewer discretion is advised, as it has minor violence and potentially frightening scenes for young children.

Where to watch: This title is available on HBO Max and Netflix (outside the US).

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (English and Japanese audio; English subtitles only) or Amazon Japan (Japanese and English audio; Japanese and English subtitles).

2. “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988) by Studio Ghibli

Genre: Fantasy/drama
Japanese name: となりのトトロ (となり の ととろ)
Types of vocabulary: Fantasy, family
Level: Beginner to lower-intermediate

My Neighbor Totoro

Considered one of Studio Ghibli’s masterpieces, “My Neighbor Totoro” is a classic tale that remains popular with all generations. Boasting several awards and more dark undertones, it’s well worth a watch.

“Totoro” tells the story of a family that moves into a new house in order to be closer to the hospital where the mother is recovering from a long illness. Totoro appears as a guardian and a friend to the two girls, Mei and Satsuki. Some fan theories suggest that Totoro isn’t just a kindly magical being, but something more sinister. Watch this charming classic and decide for yourself.

Where to watch: This title is available on HBO Max and Netflix (outside the US).

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (English and Japanese audio; English subtitles only) or Amazon Japan (Japanese and English audio and subtitles).

3. “Spirited Away” (2001) by Studio Ghibli

Genre: Fantasy
Japanese name: >千と千尋の神隠し (せんと ちひろの かみかくし)
Types of vocabulary: Family, fantasy, Japanese history
Level: Lower-intermediate to intermediate

Spirited Away [Blu-ray]

Another well-known Ghibli movie is “Spirited Away,” the tale of a family that accidentally enters a spirit world and pays the price. Chihiro’s father takes a wrong turn while they’re traveling, and insists on exploring the new-found world. As Chihiro’s parents eat in an empty restaurant stall, a spirit warns Chihiro to leave across the river before it’s too late. However, Chihiro’s parents have been turned into pigs, trapping them all in the spirit world.

“Spirited Away” was named the fourth-best film of the 21st century in 2016. If you love Studio Ghibli, it would be a crime to miss this movie.

Where to watch: This title is available on HBO Max and Netflix (outside the US).

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (English and Japanese audio; English subtitles only) or Amazon Japan (Japanese and English audio; Japanese and English subtitles).

4. “Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection ‘F'” (2015) by Toei Animation

Genre: Fantasy/action
Japanese name: ドラゴンボールZ復活のエフ (どらごんぼーる ぜっと ふっかつの えふ)
Types of vocabulary: Action, fantasy, onomatopoeia
Level: Intermediate

Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection 'F'

The 19th Dragon Ball movie is one of the best yet. Frieza has returned, and is training himself to be more powerful than ever so he can defeat Goku for good. With great music, good animation and the return of our favorite Dragon Ball characters, this exciting movie should definitely be on your list of must-sees.

Where to watch: This title is available on Vudu, Google Play and more. See the JustWatch website for more options.

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (Japanese audio only; English subtitles only) or Amazon Japan (Japanese audio and subtitles only).

5. “Wolf Children” (2012) by Studio Chizu

Genre: Fantasy
Japanese name: おおかみこどもの雨と雪 (おおかみ こどもの あめ と ゆき)
Types of vocabulary: Fantasy, family, school
Level: Lower-intermediate

Wolf Children

Children of a werewolf father and a human mother, Yuki and Ame are “wolf children” who can change between their human and wolf forms. Ame is more interested in exploring the wild whereas Yuki is desperate to join human society and go to school. This charming tale shows the struggles of motherhood, and how children must be free to choose their own path.

Where to watch: You can watch this title on iTunes and Funimation.

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (English and Japanese audio; English subtitles only) or Amazon Japan (Japanese audio and subtitles only). You can also buy the DVD on Crunchyroll.

6. “The Boy and the Beast” (2015) by Studio Chizu

Genre: Action-Adventure, Fantasy
Japanese name: バケモノの子 (ばけもの の こ)
Types of vocabulary: Action, Family
Level: Intermediate

The Boy and the Beast [Blu-ray]

“The Boy and the Beast” features beautiful art with heartwarming messages about the power of found family and the struggle to accept who you are.

A boy named Ren runs away from home after the death of his mother and ends up wandering into the realm of beasts. He’s taken in by the warrior Kumatetsu, who’s looking for an apprentice in order to be worthy of competing for the beast realm title of Grandmaster. While their relationship is prickly at first, the two begin to learn more about themselves and build each other up in ways neither thought possible.

Where to Watch: You can watch this title on Amazon and Funimation.

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (English and Japanese audio; English subtitles only) and Amazon Japan.

7. “5 Centimeters Per Second” (2007) by CoMix Wave Inc.

Genre: Romance/drama
Japanese name: 秒速5センチメートル (びょうそく ご せんちめーとる)
Types of vocabulary: Romance, family, school
Level: Intermediate

5 Centimeters Per Second Blu Ray [Blu-ray]

Japan is famous for heartbreaking love stories, so if you love a tear-jerking romance, “5 Centimeters Per Second” is worth checking out. Childhood sweethearts Takaki and Kanae are separated when their families move away from their hometown. They keep in touch via letters, but time slowly pulls them apart. Can love survive?

Where to watch: You can watch this title on Crunchyroll.

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (Japanese audio only, English subtitles only) or Amazon Japan (Japanese only; English subtitles only).

8. “The Garden of Words” (2013) by CoMix Wave Films

Genre: Drama, Romance
Japanese name: 言の葉の庭 (ことのは の にわ)
Types of vocabulary: Romance, literature
Level: Intermediate

Garden of Words [Blu-ray]

“The Garden of Words” is a short and simple film about unrequited love, with stunning visuals that are bound to enchant any viewer.

Takao is a high schooler who hopes to become a shoemaker. Yukari is a mysterious woman he meets only on rainy days at a garden in Shinjuku. The two of them go to the garden to avoid the hardships of their lives. Upon getting Yukari to open up, Takao promises to design her a pair of shoes. Over the course of the rainy season, they start to ease their worries simply through the other’s presence.

If you’re interested, you can watch the trailer on FluentU with interactive subtitles. Add any word to your vocab list as you watch or let the SRS test following the video let you know what you need to study and what you’ve perfected.

Where to Watch: You can watch this title on Vudu.

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (English and Japanese audio; English subtitles) and Amazon Japan.

9. “Tokyo Godfathers” (2003) by Madhouse and Sony Pictures Japan

Genre: Adventure, Comedy
Japanese name: 東京ゴッドファーザーズ (とうきょう ごっど ふぁーざーず)
Types of vocabulary: Family, slang
Level: Intermediate 

Tokyo Godfathers - DVD

While looking for presents in a dumpster on Christmas Eve, three homeless people—alcoholic Gin, ex-drag performer Hana and runaway girl Miyuki—discover an abandoned baby. Using the clues left in the infant’s cradle, the three go on a quest to reunite the baby with her mother. Along the way, they confront yakuza hitmen, runaway ambulances, a suicidal woman and their own pasts. 

“Tokyo Godfathers” is a wild crazy adventure with gorgeous animation. Both funny and heartwarming, this movie is sure to become one of your favorites.

Where to watch: You can watch this title on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and Vudu.

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (English and Japanese audio; English subtitles only) and Amazon Japan.

10. “Paprika” (2006) by Madhouse and Sony Pictures Japan

Genre: Thriller, Sci-fi
Japanese name: パプリカ (ぱぷりか)
Types of vocabulary: technology, medicine
Level: Intermediate to upper-intermediate

Paprika

A mind-boggling feast for the eyes, “Paprika” is the final film of renowned director Satoshi Kon.

In this movie, a device that allows therapists to enter the dreams of patients in their care is stolen and used to imprison people in a bizarre dream. The group of scientists who created the device, a police officer receiving treatment and the mysterious dream therapist Paprika work together to track down these stolen devices and uncover the thief.

If this sounds a bit like “Inception” to you, then you’re not alone! Critics and fans alike have noticed considerable similarities between these two films.

Where to Watch: You can watch this title on Amazon, Google Play, and Vudu.

Buy the DVD: This title isn’t available on Amazon US but you can buy the Blu-ray on Amazon Japan.

11. “Perfect Blue” (1997) by Madhouse

Genre: Psychological thriller
Japanese name: パーフェクトブルー (ぱーふぇくと ぶるー)
Types of vocabulary: show business, crime, psychology
Level: Intermediate to upper-intermediate

Perfect Blue [Blu-ray + DVD]

This is another Satoshi Kon movie and, like “Paprika,” it blurs the lines between what’s real and what’s imaginary.

Mima, a member of an idol group, decides to leave singing for a career as an actress. However, as the roles she takes on go against her previous pure, clean image, her fans become unhappy and a stalker begins to take action against her. Soon, those around her start ending up murdered, and the combination of these stressors send her on a descent into madness.

Please keep in mind that this film deals with some rather dark subjects and is intended only for mature audiences.

Where to Watch: You can watch this title on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and Vudu.

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (with English subtitles) and Amazon Japan.

12. “Millennium Actress” (2001) by Madhouse

Genre: Drama
Japanese name: 千年女優 (せんねんじょゆう)
Types of vocabulary: Cinema, wartime
Level: Intermediate to upper-intermediate

Millennium Actress [Blu-ray]

A beautiful melding between past, present and future, “Millenium Actress” is a wonderful film that’ll satisfy the artistic soul in you. When a prominent film studio goes bankrupt, a TV interviewer named Genya Tachibana and his cameraman find the studio’s star actress who retired 30 years ago to interview her for a commemorative documentary. As she speaks with them, the two go on a journey through her memories of her life, her film career and her lifelong pursuit of a mysterious man.

On a linguistic note, this film showcases scenes from various movie genres, which provides learners with a chance to practice listening to different speech styles!

Where to Watch: You can watch this title on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and Vudu.

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (Japanese audio with English subtitles) and Amazon Japan.

13. “Summer Wars” (2009) by Madhouse

Genre: Sci-fi, adventure
Japanese name: サマーウォーズ (さまーうぉーず)
Types of vocabulary: Family, technology
Level: Intermediate

Summer Wars (Blu-ray + DVD)

This critically acclaimed adventure takes place in both virtual and real worlds, while also emphasizing the importance of family.

Kenji Konso is a genius yet timid eleventh-grader who spends his time in the online world of OZ. He’s invited by a classmate, Natsuki, to her great-grandmother’s 90th birthday party in the town of Ueda. While there, he accidentally gets implicated in the hacking of OZ’s servers and has to track down the true culprit: a malicious AI who’s using accounts of OZ users to cause widespread havoc in the real world.

Where to Watch: You can watch this title on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and Funimation.

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (Japanese audio with English subtitles) and Amazon Japan.

14. “Barefoot Gen” (1983) by Madhouse

Genre: War Drama
Japanese name: はだしのゲン (はだしの げん)
Types of vocabulary: Military, family
Level: Intermediate

Barefoot Gen movies 1 & 2 Blu Ray [Blu-ray]

The atomic bombs dropped on Japan left huge scars on its population, both physical and mental. Many artistic works depict the bombs as well, including Studio Ghibli’s famous tragedy, “Grave of the Fireflies.” But did you know that movie was actually inspired by another film?

“Barefoot Gen” tells the story of Gen, a young boy living with his family in Hiroshima during World War II. After the atomic bomb goes off, killing most of his family, he has to survive with his mother and newborn sister.

“Barefoot Gen” depicts the brutal reality of life in the aftermath of the atomic bomb, the struggles faced by victims and the tragedies they endured. This film is not only useful for learning Japanese, but also for learning about the lives of Japanese people during that period in history.

Where to Watch: You can watch this title on Amazon Prime.

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (English and Japanese audio with English subtitles).

15. “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” (2006) by Kadokawa Pictures

Genre: Romance, Comedy, Sci-fi
Japanese name: 時をかける少女 (ときを かける しょうじょ)
Types of vocabulary: School, family
Level: Lower intermediate to intermediate 

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time [Blu-ray]

A girl named Makoto is having a pretty crummy day but after a harrowing close call with a speeding train, she realizes she has the power to go back in time. At first, she uses her power to benefit herself and fix things that went wrong in the past. However, it turns out that her actions have consequences, and when things go horribly awry, she realizes she only has a few jumps left to make everything right.

“The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” is a coming of age film with a supernatural twist that cleverly drives home the importance of treasuring the time you have, when you have it.  

Where to Watch: You can watch this title on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and Funimation.

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (audio available in English and Japanese with English subtitles) and Amaon Japan.

16. “Ghost in the Shell” (1995) by Production I.G.

Genre: Cyberpunk, Action
Japanese name: GHOST IN THE SHELL / 攻殻機動隊 (こうかくきどうたい)
Types of vocabulary: Technology, crime
Level: Intermediate to Upper-intermediate

Ghost in the Shell (Special Edition)

Ghost in the Shell” is a long-running and well-loved franchise, beginning with a manga released in 1989 and expanding to include anime, games and movies.

In the year 2029, cyborgs abound and human brains can be connected to the internet directly through a device called a cyberbrain. Those inhabiting these artificial bodies are commonly called “ghosts,” and one such ghost named Makoto Kusanagi leads a team called Section 9 Security force. This force is put in charge of tracking down a cybercriminal named Puppet Master who’s hacking into the brains of ghosts with a virus in order to make them commit crimes.

There are many theories and discussions around this classic. Check out a clip on FluentU for a taste of what the movie has to offer!

Where to Watch: You can watch this title on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and Vudu.

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (Japanese and English audio with English subtitles) and Amazon Japan.

17. “Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade” (1999) by Production I.G/ING

Genre: Action, political thriller
Japanese name: 人狼 (じんろう)
Types of vocabulary: Military
Level: Upper-intermediate

Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade Blu Ray [Blu-ray]

Set in an alternate history of postwar Japan, “Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade” is a dark, gripping political thriller filled with symbolism regarding the beastly nature of humanity.

When a soldier from the Special Anti-Terrorism Forces named Kazuki witnesses a girl set off a suicide bomb at a riot, he’s punished for his lack of preventative action. Haunted by her death, he goes to visit her grave, where he meets her older sister and begins a relationship with her. Behind the scenes, the Special Anti-Terrorism Forces and the Metropolitan Police engage in a fierce power struggle, with Kazuki stuck in the middle.

Where to Watch: You can watch this title on Amazon Prime and Google Play.

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (available with Japanese or English audio with English subtitles) and Amazon Japan.

18. “Vampire Hunter D” (1985) by Ashi Productions

Genre: Fantasy, sci-fi, romance
Japanese name: 吸血鬼ハンターD (きゅうけつき はんたー でぃー)
Types of vocabulary: Action, romance, supernatural
Level: Intermediate to upper-intermediate

Vampire Hunter D [Blu-ray]

Older anime fans may already be familiar with this classic, but “Vampire Hunter D” holds up well for modern audiences to enjoy. In a far-off post-apocalyptic future, a young woman named Doris is bitten by a vampire, and her only chance at survival is to hire a mysterious vampire hunter known only as D. D must face off against the mighty vampire and his minions, who are intent on bringing her into their coven.

“Vampire Hunter D” has a classic story setup with monsters and animation that gives off a nostalgic vibe, making it a must-watch for lovers of retro anime.

Where to Watch: You can watch this title on Hidive.

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (available with Japanese or English audio, but please note that the English is a redub) and Amazon Japan.

19. “Sword of the Stranger” (2007) by Bones

Genre: Action, Adventure
Japanese name: ストレンヂア 無皇刃譚 (ストレンヂア むこうはだん)
Types of vocabulary: Action, historical
Level: Intermediate 

Sword of the Stranger [Blu-ray]

If you’re a fan of action-packed historical dramas, “Sword of the Stranger” is the film for you. In the warring states era of Japan, an orphan named Kotaro and his dog Tobimaru are being hunted by Ming swordsmen for an unknown reason. As they flee, the two encounter a nameless wandering samurai who saves them from their pursuers.

Kotaro grudgingly hires the samurai as a bodyguard to escort them to a Buddhist temple across Japan. However, it soon becomes clear that the Ming have far more sinister intentions for Kotaro.

Where to Watch: You can watch this title on Amazon Prime and Funimation.

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (with Japanese and English audio; English subtitles) and Amazon Japan.

20. “Colorful” (2010) by Sunrise and Ascension

Genre: Fantasy, Drama
Japanese name: カラフル (からふる)
Types of vocabulary: School, family
Level: Intermediate 

Colorful [Blu-ray]

“Colorful” offers a profound look at the inner workings of a family and the pressures faced by adolescents in Japan, giving the viewer a new appreciation for life.

When an impure soul arrives at the bus station leading to death, it’s unwillingly given a test to return to life by the spirit guide Purapura. The soul wakes up as 14-year-old Makoto Kobayashi, who recently tried to kill himself. To pass the test, the soul has six months to discover what its greatest sin was, as well as what caused Makoto to attempt to end his life.

Where to Watch: You can watch this movie on Vudu.

Buy the DVD: Amazon US (available with English subtitles) and Amazon Japan.

 

With these 20 animated movies under your belt, you can pick up an enormous amount of Japanese by listening to the authentic language and reading the provided subtitles.

You can also get some great new conversation topics to talk about with your friends.

So grab a blanket and a cup of tea, or coffee if you prefer, and soak up your new language with the joys of cinema!

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.

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