10 great films set in Tokyo

Gleaming, neon-lit and futuristic, Tokyo is not just one of the world’s great capitals, but also one of the great cinematic cities. To mark the release of Like Someone in Love, in which Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami becomes the latest to grapple with this vast metropolis on screen, we explore 10 great Tokyo stories. 

Jasper Sharp
Updated:

Tokyo is looked upon in awe by the rest of the world as the archetypal modern metropolis. Sprawling and chaotic, the city seethes with a boundless energy that its streets struggle to contain. To outsiders, it often appears alienating, perplexing and impenetrable. Its unique combination of exotic ‘otherness’ and technological progressiveness, and the overwhelming assault of neon lighting and tinny, otherworldly electronic street sounds make it appear, at times, completely divorced from nature.

As well as serving as an inspiring model of progress and mechanical efficiency, the city has provided fuel for numerous dystopian projections in international cinema, including the five-minute sequence of its concrete and chrome cityscape shot through the front windshield of a moving vehicle in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and its deployment as a template for the bleak Los Angeles of the future in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). More recently, it’s been recreated as both hedonistic theme park and nightmarish dreamscape in works including Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003), The Grudge (2004), The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) and Enter the Void (2009).

Formerly known as Edo, Tokyo’s population exploded during the 16th century to make it the largest urban centre in the word. Despite its role as the cultural and political centre of Japan, it only officially achieved capital-city status with the beginning of the Meiji era in 1868. The city has seen some remarkable changes since then. Twice during the past century it found itself flattened: first by the 1923 Kanto earthquake, and next in the Allied firebombing raids of 1945. Both times it was reconstructed to the near exact same street plans that have existed since the Edo era. Following the construction of Tokyo Tower in 1958, its majestic international profile has been defined by its gleaming skyscrapers and futuristic redevelopments, linked by the arterial spread of one of the world’s most efficient public transport systems.

Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, a portrait of a relationship between a retired professor and a young woman paying her way through university by moonlighting as a high-class prostitute, is but one recent attempt to piece together the perplexing puzzle the city presents.

There are no end of places to begin in any overview of films that have attempted to interpret, represent and explore the changing face of this most dynamic of world capitals. Let’s journey through 10 of the most emblematic…

Stray Dog (1949)

Director Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa’s gritty film noir about a police officer on the trail of the homicidal killer who has pickpocketed his pistol is among the director’s finest, and displays the same deft hand in invoking the lawlessness and chaos of the rubble-strewn aftermath of the war that Carol Reed brought to Vienna in The Third Man the same year.

The heavy use of location shooting makes this an invaluable document of the pockmarked city during the occupation. Most impressive is how Kurosawa manages to build tension by capturing Tokyo’s sweaty, stifling heat and humidity during the summer months. Bodies glisten with sweat, as its characters continually fan themselves and mop their brows, until the drama climaxes in a stormy downpour.

Stray Dog has inspired a number of remakes and homages, including Azuma Morisaki’s Nora inu in 1973, and Johnny To’s Hong Kong-set PTU in 2003. The most intriguing is Shinji Aoyama’s An Obsession (1997), which reworks the premise to fit the paranoiac pre-millennial cultural climate of the wake of the 1995 Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway by the renegade Aum sect. Aoyama’s film features a suicidal cult member suffering from congenital leukaemia as the listless police officer protagonist’s dark nemesis.

Tokyo Story (1953)

Director Yasujiro Ozu

Occupying the top spot in Kinema Junpo’s 2009 poll of Japanese critics and coming in at number three in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, Yasujiro Ozu’s timeless tale of intergenerational conflict and miscomprehension offers far more than just a trip down memory lane for modern viewers.

The story, of an aged couple who travel up from the countryside to visit their children only to find them so wrapped up in their daily lives that they have no time for them, is classic Ozu home drama. What makes this one stand out from other works by the director in the 1950s is his deployment of the capital, still smarting after destruction wreaked by the Allied bombings less than 10 years earlier but in the process of rebuilding, to portray a city that, despite retaining its traditions and idiosyncrasies, has changed forever.

Ozu’s subtle blend of nostalgic yearning, muted smiles and choked-back tears suggests that cities the world over are less defined by the physical presence of their streets and buildings than by the memories, the imaginations and the patterns of existence of their inhabitants.

Godzilla (1954)

Director Ishiro Honda

The shadows of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombings loom large over Ishiro Honda’s classic monster movie. However, it was the combined forces of the 1952 Japanese reissue of King Kong (1933), the release of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and a real-life tragedy closer to home, the Bikini Atoll incident of 1 March 1954, in which the crew of a Japanese fishing boat were exposed to radioactive fallout following US nuclear testing in the Pacific, that prompted the iconic fire-breathing giant lizard to emerge from the murky depths. (This incident also inspired Kaneto Shindo’s more overtly political Lucky Dragon No. 5 in 1959).

The beast would make regular reappearances to wreak havoc on a Tokyo meticulously constructed through scale models (or on Manhattan, in Roland Emmerich’s much-maligned 1998 Hollywood remake), with Honda directing eight of the 15 films in the first cycle, up to his final as a director, Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). The original is still by far the best, presenting a poignant allegory about the destructive power of nuclear weapons, before the series became increasingly pitched towards younger audiences.

House of Bamboo (1955)

Director Samuel Fuller

Captured for the very first time in glorious Eastmancolor and expansive CinemaScope, Tokyo provides a suitably exotic backdrop for Samuel Fuller’s all-American crime drama about a gang of ex-servicemen-gone-bad running riot in postwar Japan. Not just Tokyo, but Yokohama, Mount Fuji and the Kamakura Buddha – all presented in vivid picture-postcard glory to symbolise the new breaking down of barriers between east and west in the Cold War era.

In accordance with this new entente cordiale, the American Motion Picture Code was revised for House of Bamboo’s racy depiction of the interracial romance between leading man Robert Stack and his ‘kimono girl’, Shirley Yamaguchi. Local Japanese pressure groups were not so impressed, perhaps not surprising with Yamaguchi’s cartoonish Madam Butterfly offering a misleading cultural 101 through such hackneyed lines as “In Japan, a woman is taught from childhood to please a man”. While far from Fuller’s finest work, it is a fascinating time capsule of a movie, worth watching for its vibrant street locations and the finale’s bravura shootout on a rooftop amusement park.

The Insect Woman (1963)

Director Shohei Imamura

Shohei Imamura’s approach to his tale of a country girl lured to the big city where she rises to become one of Tokyo’s top brothel madams was apparently motivated by the tireless and seemingly unmotivated motions of an insect he noticed circling his ashtray as he wrote the script while drinking sake.

His ethnographical fanfare to the indomitable spirit of Japanese women is similarly shot in observational documentary mode, using long lenses to depict his subjects within their natural (or unnatural) environment: the seething termite mound of Tokyo during the construction boom that saw the erection of Tokyo Tower and, in the year following the film’s release, the opening of the main Shinkansen line linking the city to Osaka and the staging of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The result is an ant’s-eye view of the emergence of the modern metropolis, filmed with all the clutter and vitality that became a crucial component of Imamura’s signature style.

Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

Director Toshio Matsumoto

Tokyo’s Shinjuku district was a hotbed of countercultural activity throughout the 1960s. Seldom was it captured with such energy and wit as in Toshio Matsumoto’s ‘mockumentary’ portrait of the area’s transvestite subculture, combined with dramatised scenes based on the Oedipus Rex myth.

Unfolding in an experimental melange of to-camera interviews, more naturalistic observational sequences, freeze frames, sped-up sequences, onscreen text, solarised and over-exposed shots, wavering news footage filmed directly from TV, and stroboscopic cross-cuts, the film is a testament to the mould-breaking, taboo-shattering artistic scene that came of age in 1969, and as evocative a depiction of this seductive demimonde as one could hope for.

Akira (1988)

Director Katsuhiro Otomo

Pessimistic fantasies of Tokyo’s imminent annihilation were very much a feature of Japan’s economic bubble in the late 1980s. 1987 alone saw the release of Akio Jissoji’s live-action special effects fantasy Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis and Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s adult-themed anime Wicked City. In Jissoji’s film, pent-up occult forces are posited as the source behind the city’s destruction in the 1923 earthquake. In Wicked City, the city lies in an uneasy truce with an alternate mirror universe known as the Dark Realm, populated by demons who manifest themselves in the real world as beguiling but deadly succubi.  

Akira is the best known of them all. Directed for the screen by Katsuhiro Otomo from his own phenomenally popular epic manga series, it was, at the time, Japan’s most expensive animated production. Set in the run-up to the fictional Tokyo Olympics of 2019, the action unfolds in an imagined Year Zero capital rebuilt and renamed Neo-Tokyo after being razed to the ground for the third time in the 20th century at the end of World War III in 1988. The story centres upon the titular teenage tearaway as he flees from authorities who wish to harness his unique psychic powers for their own nefarious ends.

Almost single-handedly launching the anime craze in the west, Akira is a milestone highlighting the animated medium’s ability to construct, in a manner that live action could never emulate convincingly, an imaginable dystopian future metropolis extrapolated from the present day, only to have it wiped out again in cataclysmic scenes of devastation.

Lost in Translation (2003)

Director Sofia Coppola

Champions of Sofia Coppola’s boutique-chic tale of two lonely hearts who find solace in one another’s company will claim that Lost in Translation is not really about Tokyo, nor Japan, and could in fact be set anywhere. Its detractors will point to the same failure of its main characters – Scarlett Johansson’s blasé college graduate who arrives in tow of her photographer husband and Bill Murray’s world-weary actor in town to shoot a whiskey advert – to engage in any meaningful way with the bewildering neon jungle surrounding their hotel. Both camps have their points, although the casual racism of certain scenes and the sheer ambivalence towards the film’s locale tilt the balance in favour of the latter reading.

Other films featuring young American girls who find a sense of purpose in the metropolis have managed to scratch deeper beneath the surface: Robert Allan Ackerman’s Ramen Girl (2008), featuring Brittany Murphy as the young tourist who successfully crosses the cultural divide in her quest to make a tasty bowl of noodles may have suffered from soap-opera level performances and paper-thin characterisation, but its heart was in the right place.

By far the most convincing of such fish-out-of-water dramas, however, is Fran Kuzui’s Tokyo Pop (1988), starring Carrie Hamilton as a singer who turns up in Tokyo on a whim and goes on to successfully storm the Japanese charts with her newfound lover Hiro (Diamond Yukai, who plays the commercials director in Coppola’s film). The film is sadly currently unavailable on any home viewing format, but is definitely long overdue a reappraisal.

Adrift in Tokyo (2007)

Director Satoshi Miki

Satoshi Miki’s brand of quirky broad comedy isn’t to everyone’s taste, but in this gentle shaggy-dog tale he reins in the slapstick enough to allow his characters time to breathe. The typically eccentric setup features one of Japan’s most bankable stars, Jo Odagiri, as the down-on-his-luck college student who has managed to rack up over 800,000 yen in gambling debts with little prospect of ever paying it back.

Confronted by a surly middle-aged loan shark acting on behalf of the local mob to get their money back, he is offered a surprising get-out clause – to accompany the older man on a slow meander of indeterminate duration around the city streets. As the two saunter around some of the lesser-known sites of the great metropolis, a curious shared sense of understanding steadily evolves into a bizarre friendship, with unexpected developments lying around every corner.

Tokyo Sonata (2008)

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s choice of post-industrial wastelands, derelict buildings awaiting demolition and other neglected pockets of the labyrinthine cityscape were a crucial component of the unsettling atmospheres of fin-de-siècle chillers such as Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001). With Tokyo Sonata, his equally bleak post-Lehman Brothers portrait of a jobbing salaryman who finds himself unceremoniously stripped of his post when his company’s admin department is outsourced to China, Kurosawa achieved a crossover success with arthouse audiences after the film received the Jury Prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.

If Tokyo Story is about the dissolution of the family in the modern age, Tokyo Sonata is about the collapse of an entire philosophy, the death of the postwar dream. In an unnervingly everyday story in which existence is marked by solitude, the protagonist continues ritually to don his suit every morning and leave the house as if for work, without ever letting on to his family about his unemployment, instead passing working hours roaming the city’s empty spaces – areas that the financial crisis has left devoid of meaning and function.

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