I love Netflix, and I just want to shout it from the rooftops.
It’s saving our butts from cable companies while providing us with affordable and high quality entertainment. With the wealth of foreign cinema and television there, it’s even opening our eyes to international video content on a whole new scale.
But when I really considered how much time I’ve spent watching movies and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”—and especially when I compared that to the relatively pitiful amount of time I was spending with Japanese study materials—I had a realization.
I wasn’t fully taking advantage of my $8/month.
Netflix has tons of Japanese content that’s perfect for learners. Before exploring some of the best titles that are currently available, let’s take a look at how you can best utilize Netflix during your Japanese study time.
How to Learn Japanese by Watching Movies on Netflix
Don’t count it as Japanese study time. I know, it already seems like I’m contradicting myself. I’m actually not. Instead of using Japanese content on Netflix as designated “study time” materials, use it during your free time. If you love Japanese like I do, this shouldn’t be any hardship.
Do me a favor and try this out today. Instead of binging on “Futurama” for two hours tonight, pick out a choice Japanese movie to watch. Watch it passively for entertainment and start building those positive associations with language learning in your brain. You’ll start to trick yourself into thinking that listening to any Japanese content is fun time!
Use the English subtitles (or don’t). The downside to Netflix is that it only offers English subtitles (there are Chinese subtitles now, so we can only hope that this changes in the near future). English subtitles can really be either a help or a hindrance, mostly depending on your current Japanese level.
If you’re beginner or lower-intermediate, having the English subtitles will help you get more immersed in the storyline and understand what’s happening. For shorter phrases and isolated words, you’ll usually see a pretty direct translation on-screen, which means you’ll actually get to pick up some vocabulary this way. After watching the movie once with subtitles, watch the movie again without.
If you’re more advanced than this, go for full immersion without subtitles. Even if you only understand 50% of what’s going on at the time, you’ll pick up most of the story by its relation to the story’s overall context. You can always play the movie through again to catch what you missed the first time.
Get yourself some subtitles. Alright, let’s say you really love Japanese subtitles to help you along with authentic content. Use a plugin like Super Netflix or Netflix Subtitles Downloader for Chrome. These allow you to stick in your own Japanese subtitles, as long as the movie’s subtitles are available online. Be careful with these, though, as they may sometimes be a bit out-of-sync with your movie.
Freestyle it. Watch the movie casually as you would any other Netflix content. Just absorb everything and talk back to the screen. Make comments out loud in Japanese when your movie takes that surprising twist.
Active listening. Okay, now it’s actually going to be study time. Pay close attention to everything that’s being said.
Vocabulary lists. Grab a pen and paper and jot down new vocabulary words and phrases along the way. Keep a running list of these with their English definitions and in-context usage examples. Always be sure to write down the full sentences in which the words or phrases were used in the movies.
Practice on FluentU before or after. FluentU can train your brain to learn language through authentic video content.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. The FluentU app has a broad range of contemporary videos that cover all sorts of cool topics. Just take a look at this small sample:
You’ll be watching authentic content that Japanese people actually watch on the regular. That means you’ll get exposed to real-world Japanese, the kind that you’ll hear on the streets of Tokyo and on Netflix.
FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
All definitions have multiple examples, and they’re written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you’d like to review to a vocab list.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.
Practice your listening comprehension by watching these entertaining videos clips and train your ears to pick up on what people are saying. This will help you out when the time comes to watch more Netflix content (since you’ll usually be doing this without the help of Japanese subtitles).
The FluentU App is now available for iPhone, and it’s also available as a website that you can use with your computer or tablet. If you’re an Android user, fear not, for our Android app is in the works!
The 8 Best Japanese Movies Currently Available on Netflix
English Title: “Battle Royale”
Right now it’s super trendy for books and movies to feature teenagers killing one another in a dystopian future where humanity has lost its way. Well, here’s where that global phenomenon began.
In the not-so-distant future, unruly and rebellious children have been beaten into submission by a new government decree—every year, a class is shipped to a remote island to fight to the death. Only one student may live. Former classmates, friends and sweethearts are now pitted against each other as enemies competing for survival—oh, and a few bloodthirsty assassins, brutal weapons and exploding collars are thrown into the mix just for fun.
“Battle Royale” is a true classic of modern Japanese cinema, perhaps one of the most internationally well-known Japanese movies out there. And it’s all for good reason. This movie will shock, awe, amaze and immerse you.
The language introduced here has mostly to do with school, friendship, family and—of course—strategic planning and bloody deaths.
If you loved the first one, try out the sequel which is also on Netflix: バトル・ロワイアル II 鎮魂歌(レクイエム) (“Battle Royale II: Requiem”).
It’s a different director (the son of the previous director, actually) so the vibe is different, and the premise takes a different turn. It’s a bit more G.I. Joe than the last one, and the majority of these students are killed off unceremoniously in the first few minutes (not too much of a spoiler).
English Title: “The Grudge”
While this movie might not be a critically-acclaimed work of art, horror buffs will learn more about Japanese horror movie history—of which this film is a key component. You’ll get a few chills, goosebumps and jump scares in this one. Morbidly curious about, say, what it looks like when a vengeful ghost rips someone’s jaw off? This one’s for you.
Expect to hear plenty of Japanese past tense as you watch this movie, as the characters attempt to unravel the history of a terribly haunted house carrying a brutal curse: All who enter, die. You’ll also learn plenty of vocabulary related to everything sinister, occult-related, spiritual and fantastically gory.
If you had a fun time watching this spooky tale unravel, then try the sequel which does a fantastic job of delivering more of the same: 呪怨2 (“Ju-on 2”)
English Title: “Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”
This documentary highlighting the triumphs and tribulations of Studio Ghibli will completely immerse you in the place where your childhood dreams were born. What more can you ask for? Follow the life of Hiyao Miyazaki and get deeper into the goals and visions of the cartoon studio which changed the world and set our imaginations free.
Since this is meant to capture a sliver of Miyazaki’s life and accomplishments, you’ll get to hear Japanese as it’s typically spoken day-to-day. You’ll see conversations take place casually and formally, everywhere from Miyazaki’s kitchen to his office space. You know, real-life Japanese. Listen to the creator of animated magic muse on careers, life and art and the beautiful strength of animation.
You’ll most definitely enjoy listening to Miyazaki casually wax philosophical, debating the intrinsic worth of creating art and films—has all his work amounted to nothing? Is it all just a hobby? Or are our artistic endeavors actually so profound that they affect humanity? It truly goes to show you that even the most successful, revered and well-known people find themselves plunged into doubt from time to time.
English Title: “Kagemusha” (Shadow Warrior)
A classic movie featured in film classes the world over, this Akira Kurosawa directed powerhouse is one of those movies that you should watch, if for no other reason, so you can say you’ve watched it. It’s a critical element of cinematic history, and now you can form your own opinions about it—and maybe even bring those up in your next conversation with your Japanese exchange partner.
You’ll encounter some formal and archaic language in this film, but this is balanced by the evenly-paced speech that is used. Bombastic statements about lofty goals, conquests, loyalty and military might abound. Also, this film packs an aesthetic punch, so bold cinematography and constant action will help you understand the story line just by watching alone. The only trick is keeping track of what’s happening with the main warlord and his doppelganger, who has been hired to stand in as a body double.
English Title: “13 Assassins”
Love that traditional Japanese feel but are looking for something a bit more modern? The samurai, bushido code and shogunates are alive and well in modern Japanese cinema, and this movie proves it. Of course, all these concepts are highly sensationalized for this movie’s purposes, but who says we can’t all enjoy a little historical fantasy now and again?
This movie hones in on the darkness, filth, corruption and spilled blood that comes along with attaining great power amongst warring territories. A vicious, bloodthirsty relative of a shogun uses his status to prey on other’s vulnerabilities—and he takes pleasure in causing pain and despair. The rest of the movie spirals out from there, with a seemingly never-ending chain of assassinations and suicides as victims, rulers and noble warriors attempt to carry out justice.
You’ll find a lot of the same language here as in “Kagemusha”: formally spoken Japanese, some archaic language, lofty words spoken about justice, law and leadership, and extremely polite phrases reserved for political authorities and the like.
This historical Japanese language film was created and produced by American filmmakers, thus the English title. Not only is the film based on true events in American and East Asian history, but the film itself has been celebrated as a major cultural achievement for Asian American artists.
It follows the lives of women selected by matchmakers to wed immigrant workers living abroad in Hawaii and elsewhere in the Western United States, where agricultural businesses were flourishing in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Essentially mail-order brides, these women were referred to as Picture Brides because matchmakers made their pairings based primarily on photographs, along with a bit of family input.
While living and working in the United States sounded like a great deal for the immigrant workers and their brides—by virtue of having access to the United States many thought that they’d be earning well and living more comfortably than at home—almost everyone who traveled here to work got caught up in a vicious cycle of indentured servitude, making just enough money to survive but not enough to send abroad, care for their families or ever return to their homelands.
This film captures this era of hope and despair in a highly nuanced way, following a young Picture Bride on her journey to Hawaii and her struggle to adapt to her new world. As this is mainly a human drama, the language is related to work, travel, family and personal economic situations. The workers discuss the fields, the wives and children chit-chat on the sidelines, couples exchange intimate pillow talk about life, love and respect. One big theme is the idea of home and family—what are home and family when you’re thousands of miles away from your hometown?
You’ll become so immersed in the immigrant community and their Japanese that you might be surprised when an employer pops in speaking English, when bilingual residents mix and match languages, and when a few characters learn English along the way. The cinematic style and structure of storytelling is very American, so that makes the whole movie feel more familiar.
7. Shall We ダンス
English Title: “Shall We Dance”
Move over Richard Gere and J. Lo., we’re talking about a different (but also wickedly talented) cast of dance-happy actors here. This irreverent comedy flick follows the humdrum life of a Tokyo office worker who’s utterly bored with his existence. Office is boring, home is boring, and everywhere he turns people are giving him the stink eye for occasionally stepping out of line. So, what does he do? He freaking dances out of line.
Charmed by a local dance school instructor, he signs up for ballroom dance and finds himself caught up in the motions.
This movie is not only adorable, it’s also perfect for Japanese learners—especially beginners who find other feature films too far over their heads. Most of the Japanese here is related to dancing (“ichi, ni, san!”) and home life. It’s hard not to smile while watching the interactions between this new dance school student and his wife and snarky, too-honest teenage daughter who’s always blasting mom and dad for hogging the computer (a veritable 90’s relic). You’ll also pick up some restaurant/bar chatter from the various scenes when the main character goes out to hang with his new dance school buddies.
English Title: “Departures”
Morbidly beautiful, this is a soul-soothing piece of art which should speak to anyone who has ever wandered aimlessly, questioned their life’s meaning or wondered about death. A professional cellist, Daigo, loses his job playing with an orchestra and relocates with his wife to his small hometown, where his late mother left him his childhood home to revisit.
He begins applying for jobs willy-nilly to care for his family and stumbles upon a job as a mortician, after mistakenly thinking the advertisement was describing airport departures—not departures from this world. Anyone who lives in a small town will know, you take what you can get sometimes. So, he decides to take this, and pretty much everyone around him begins to lay the judgement on thick.
This will introduce you to some interesting cultural ideas surrounding death in Japan. While the traditions involved in preparing bodies and arranging funeral ceremonies are thought-out and considered incredibly important, the act of handling corpses may label the handler as “unclean.” However, as Daigo begins to love and appreciate this job which previously frightened and repulsed him, others too begin to see the beauty, art and love involved in his new line of work.
The language is relatively easy to follow because you’ll be watching families and friends interact—not to mention, much of Daigo’s work is solitary. This is a human drama, so you’ll learn vocabulary for describing feelings, situations, people and relationships. You’ll also learn about professional titles and work-related vocabulary as Daigo searches for jobs, and then again when his wife begs him to quit the mortician gig and find something less icky.
And there you go—with the tips, methods and movie recommendations provided here, you’re completely equipped to turn your Netflix time into Japanese study time.
Go hop over to Netflix and get started now!
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