So you already like learning Japanese with dramas.
Another great way to improve your Japanese is to watch Japanese movies.
Of course, it’s not just about watching the movies.
To get the most out of them, you need to pay close attention, write down new words and phrases, and study.
But it’s much more fun than cramming vocabulary from a textbook, and that fun translates into more motivation to keep you going.
Why Learn Languages through Movies and Films?
There are several advantages to learning a language through movies rather than textbooks.
First of all, you’re learning real, natural Japanese the way it’s actually spoken. Or at least the way it’s spoken in movies, but that’s real enough. You get to see the language in context, which leads to a deeper understanding of it. This includes gestures, facial expressions, conversational etiquette, and social customs and that are also part of a language.
Movies also give you a wide variety speakers to listen to. You’re exposed to different accents, registers, styles and ways of speaking. You may also get different sets of vocabulary, depending on what kind of film you’re watching.
The wonders of our technological age make it easier than ever to learn through movies. Thanks to the miracle of DVDs, you don’t have to rewind or fast-forward and you have total control over the viewing experience. You can start and stop wherever you’d like and you can have subtitles if you need them so that you’re not completely lost.
Movies are just simply good fun. While you’re practicing listening comprehension and expanding your vocabulary, you’re also enjoying a good flick. When learning is fun, you’re naturally more motivated to keep studying.
And finally, you learn about Japanese culture. If you really want to communicate and connect with Japanese speakers, then it really helps to know more about Japanese film.
How to Study Japanese through Movies
There are a number of different ways to go about studying with movies.
As I mentioned before, you may want to go with subtitles the first time you watch a film so that you’re not completely lost within the first five minutes. Movies aren’t as much fun to watch when you’re confused about what’s going on.
After a first viewing with subtitles, you can watch the movie again without them or break it up into chunks. For example, you can watch a scene at a time, going back and playing it until you have a handle on what the characters are saying.
Perhaps the most effective (but most intense) way to study is to fully digest and review every word. I recommend this for intermediate or advanced Japanese learners. Otherwise, you’re going to be stopping the movie a lot. This involves looking up new words, getting a solid grasp of how they’re used, and regularly reviewing them, either in your notebook or through a flashcard app.
The disadvantage with this method is that it requires a ton of discipline. Whenever you encounter a new word, you’ll have to identify the sound, and look it up in your dictionary. You’ll spend a lot of time and energy organizing your learning, rather than actually learning. If you’d like to be more efficient, you might want to check out FluentU, which was designed to address exactly this problem.
FluentU lets you learn Japanese with real-world videos like movie trailers, commercials, news, and inspiring talks. It lets you focus on learning Japanese, rather than managing your flashcards or looking things up in the dictionary. It features interactive captions and a video player designed for learning Japanese. It tops this off with a review system which takes full advantage of the video library.
If you’re going to study through movies, commit to it. Spend a little time each day reviewing and watching more. It doesn’t really matter if you watch your movies all the way until the end. As in all things language learning, what’s most important is that you have a habit that you can stick to.
Improving Your Speaking with Movies
Obviously, your listening comprehension is going to get better from watching movies. But ideally, you want your speaking to improve as well. When I studied Japanese through movies, I wrote down each new word or phrase and drilled them. For phrases, I would put my own words into the phrase to practice using it.
Another way to improve your speaking is to try shadowing. This means saying the word or phrase along with the character in the film. This is a real challenge if you’re not a fluent Japanese speaker, but it’s one way to help you remember words and phrases. Shadowing turns the passive viewing experience into something interactive. You’ll also entertain everybody around you when they see you talking to the TV.
For me, it sometimes helped to spend a bit of time researching on phrases. An expression like yoroshiku onegaishimasu can have different meanings and uses. There isn’t an exact word in English like it. This is why it’s important to understand the social context. I paid especially close attention to words like this when I was watching movies.
Why Watch Classic Films
There are all kinds of movies or TV shows you can watch to study Japanese. It’s always best to choose a genre or subject matter that you like, whether it’s old samurai movies or modern-day anime.
I recommend watching classics and there are a few reasons why.
First of all, they tend to be good; that’s why they’re classics.
But secondly and more importantly, I think classics give you more of an insight into Japanese culture. That’s another reason why they’re classics. They go beyond the run-of-the-mill formulaic plot and present ideas and opinions in addition to a story.
10 Modern Classics for Japanese Learners
Tampopo is a classic Japanese comedy that tells the story of a run-down ramen shop’s revitalization. In addition to the language, it gives you some pretty good insights into Japanese culture and especially its food obsession. The film’s publicity jokingly calls it the world’s first ramen western, a Japanese take on the American “spaghetti” Western.
“A Scene at the Sea”
A Scene at the Sea revolves around a deaf couple, so there’s not a great deal of dialog and when there is talking, it’s easy to follow. Although written and directed by Beat Kitano, who is known more for his violent gangster movies, A Scene at the Sea has no shoot-outs or violence. It’s about a deaf garbage collector who is determined to learn to surf.
Good Morning is a Japanese film classic by Yasuhiro Ozu. It’s a comedy about two young brothers who take a vow of silence in protest of their father’s refusal to buy a TV. It gives a unique look at a rapidly changing Japan and does it in a humorous way. Since many of the film’s characters are children, the Japanese is fairly easy to understand. The movie’s simple plot also makes it an easy one to watch.
“Shall We Dance”
Shall We Dance is a classic with a lighthearted story that’s easy to follow. It doesn’t have any heavy dialects or particularly difficult Japanese. Of course, I mean the original version of the film, not the 2004 American remake with Richard Gere. The film is a romantic comedy about a man who becomes infatuated with a dance teacher and gets roped into taking ballroom dance classes.
You’ve probably seen Godzilla dubbed awkwardly into English. Well, the original Japanese version is great for sharpening your Japanese skills. The plot isn’t too difficult to understand (giant radioactive monster destroys city) and there are long stretches where there is no dialog except Godzilla roaring. Plus, you can learn some handy vocabulary in case your city is ever besieged by a giant monster. The cheesiness factor also makes this a fun one.
Tokyo Story is a 1950s movie about a traditional Japanese couple who visit their young, busy children in modern Tokyo. In addition to helping with your Japanese, it offers a look at the generation gap in Japan that occurred after World War 2. Although it’s fairly slow-paced, much of the action happens off camera. You only know what’s going on through the dialog. I’d save this one for advanced study, but it’s a really good movie (it’s topped a number of greatest classic film lists).
“Woman in the Dunes”
Woman in the Dunes is another film that can be found on many greatest movie lists. Although it’s not a horror film, it’s pretty eerie and disturbing. It’s about a guy collecting insects who gets trapped by some weird villagers in a sunken house, where he’s doomed to shovel the encroaching sand out for all of eternity. Or at least that’s what I think it’s about. I’m pretty sure it’s a metaphor for the human condition. But you can watch it to study your Japanese and not worry about the philosophical implications too much. I found the dialog to be fairly easy to follow and pretty slow-paced.
One more creepy film and then I promise we’ll move on to something more light-hearted. Kwaidan is an anthology horror film from the 60s with four spooky stories. I don’t recommend watching it late at night because it’s not the creepy you’re used to. It’s Japanese-creepy. The dialog is slow and spare but because of the subject matter and because it uses slightly old-fashioned Japanese, it may be a bit tough to follow.
If you thought Tango & Cash was a wild romp of a buddy cop movie, you haven’t seen Stray Dog. This is hailed by many as the first buddy cop movie, but don’t let that stop you from checking it out.
It’s a film noir police drama by Akira Kurosawa and, like many of his great movies, it’s overshadowed by his samurai films. In Stray Dog, Toshiro Mifune plays a rookie cop whose gun gets nabbed. He spends the movie running around in the post-war Tokyo underground with a seasoned older cop. Stray Dog is fairly fast-paced so you may have to stop it to understand the Japanese, but the plot will hold your interest.
“Adrift in Tokyo”
I don’t know if this qualifies as a ‘classic’ since it’s only a few years old, but it’s a great movie for studying Japanese and I’m sure it will be a classic in the years to come. Adrift in Tokyo is about a guy who can’t repay the money he borrowed from the yakuza, so a loan shark says he’ll cancel the debt if the guy walks around Tokyo with him and then turns himself in to the police. So, the film is basically the two walking around Tokyo talking. There’s a great deal of very natural dialog and you also get to see quite a bit of the city.
And One More Thing…
If you love learning Japanese with movies, then I should also tell you about the the FluentU app.
Like the site, the FluentU app takes real-world videos like music videos, commercials, news, and inspiring talks and turns them into Japanese learning experiences. It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s actually spoken.
The FluentU app has a broad range of engaging videos:
FluentU makes these native Japanese videos understandable with interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
Each definition has several examples, and they’re all written for Japanese learners. You can add words you’d like to review to a vocab list.
FluentU’s learn mode turns videos into language learning lessons. When answering questions, swipe left or right to see more examples.
The best part? FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and it suggests content and examples based on the words you’re learning. You’ll have a completely personalized experience.
The FluentU App is now available for iPhone, but it’s also accessible as a website that you can use with your computer or tablet. And if you’re an Android user, fear not—our Android app is currently in the works!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.