The 11 Best Japanese Movies on Netflix

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The 11 Best Japanese Movies on Netflix

Netflix lists 102 Japanese Movies available to stream, and most of those are from anime franchises like Naruto, InuYasha or Pokémon. And while you used to be able to find things like a Takashi Miike samurai film, a Kinji Fukasaku dystopian thriller, or a documentary on legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, this is the first time our list of recommendations is exclusively anime films. Fortunately, there are some great anime films that span genres from drama and action/adventure to fantasy and sci-fi.

Here are the 11 best Japanese films on Netflix:

1. Mirai

mirai.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Stars: Moka Kamishiraishi, Haru Kuroki, Gen Hoshino, Kumiko Aso, Mitsuo Yoshihara, Yoshiko Miyazaki, Koji Yakusho, Masaharu Fukuyama
Genre: Anime, Fantasy, Drama
Rating: PG
Runtime: 98 minutes

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Most if not all of Mamoru Hosoda’s original films produced in the past decade function, to some degree or another, as exercises in autobiography. Summer War, apart from a premise more or less recycled from Hosoda’s 2000 directorial debut Digimon Adventure: Our War Game!, was the many times removed story of Hosoda meeting his wife’s family for the first time. 2012’s Wolf Children was inspired by the passing of Hosoda’s mother, animated in part by the anxieties and aspirations at the prospect of his own impending parenthood. 2015’s The Boy and the Beast was completed just after the birth of Hosoda’s first child, the product of his own questions as to what role a father should play in the life of his son. Mirai, the director’s seventh film, is not inspired from Hosoda’s own experience, but through the experiences of his first-born son meeting his baby sibling for the first time. Told through the perspective of Kun, a toddler who feels displaced and insecure in the wake of his sister Mirai’s birth, Mirai is a beautiful adventure fantasy drama that whisks the viewer through a dazzling odyssey across Kun’s entire family tree, culminating in a poignant conclusion that emphasizes the beauty of what it means to love and be loved. Mirai is Hosoda’s most accomplished film, the recipient of the first Academy Award nomination for an anime film not produced by Studio Ghibli, and an experience as edifying as it is a joy to behold.—Toussaint Egan


2. Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack

mobile-suit-gundam-chars-counterattack-poster.jpg Year: 1988
Director: Yoshiyuki Tomino
Stars: Toru Furuya, Shuichi Ikeda, Hirotaka Suzuoki, Maria Kawamura, Nozomu Sasaki, Koichi Yamadera
Genre: Anime, Sci-Fi, Action
Rating: TV-14
Runtime: 119 minutes

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The first Gundam theatrical film and final chapter in the original saga begun in 1979 with the “Universal Century Timeline” of the Mobile Suit Gundam TV series, Char’s Counterattack has the weight of three seasons of TV behind it. Yoshiyuki Tomino, creator of the Gundam series, directed and wrote the film, adapting it faithfully from his novel, Hi-Streamer. Widely considered the best film in the Gundam franchise, Char’s Counterattack is most successful at wrapping up the 14-year rivalry between the “hero” of the Earth Federation, Amuro Ray, and the leader of Neo-Zeon, Char Aznable. The story involves a classic Gundam dilemma: Char’s Neo-Zeon force attempts to drop an asteroid filled with nuclear weapons onto Earth, which would free the colonies from the yoke of oppression by their rivals, the Earth Federation, and kill everyone on Earth in the process. As with all of the best Gundam tales, Tomino approaches the story from a hard sci-fi point of view, clearly laying out the science behind things like giant mobile suits and “newtypes” (humans that have evolved to acquire psychic abilities). Tomino carefully lays out the reasoning behind Char and Amuro’s passions and hatreds, not allowing the viewer to choose a clear side. Gundam series have always been willing to take on discussions about the horrors of war and how mankind, for all its advancements, never seems to be able to free itself from humanity’s baser instincts. Char’s Counterattack attempts this as well, yet it’s mostly concerned with wrapping up the rivalry between Amuro and Char—and on that note, it succeeds wildly. Featuring gorgeous, tense fight sequences set in space, an excellent soundtrack by Shigeaki Saegusa, and some of the most lauded Gundam designs in the history of the franchise, the film is inarguably one of the high points of the Gundam Universe. One downside: If you don’t have the investment of spending hundreds of episodes of television with these characters, the plot can be confusing, and Char/Amuro’s ending will likely not resonate as strongly. Regardless, Char’s Counterattack remains a key moment in the Gundam universe, one still worth checking out almost 30 years later. Hail Zeon!—Jason DeMarco


3. A Silent Voice

a-silent-voice-poster.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Naoko Yamada
Stars: Miyu Irino, Saori Hayami, Aoi Yuki, Kensho Ono, Yuki Kaneko, Yui Ishikawa, Megumi Han, Toshiyuki Toyonaga, Mayu Matsuoka
Genre: Anime, Drama
Rating: TV-14
Runtime: 129 minutes

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In a medium that too often feels at times constricted by the primacy of masculine aesthetic sensibilities and saturated with hyper-sexualized portrayals of women colloquially coded as “fan service,” Naoko Yamada’s presence is a welcome breath of fresh air, to say nothing of the inimitable quality of her films themselves. Inspired by the likes of Yasujiro Ozu, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Sergei Parajanov, Sofia Coppola, and Lucile Hadzihalilovic, Yamada is a director par excellence, capable of arresting attention and evoking melancholy and bittersweet catharsis through delicate compositions of deft sound, swift editing, ephemeral color palettes and characters with rich inner lives rife with knotty, relatable struggles. A Silent Voice, adapted from Yoshitoki Oima’s manga of the same name, is a prime example of all these sensibilities at play. When Shoya Ishida meets Shoko Nishimiya, a deaf transfer student, in elementary school, he bullies her relentlessly to the amusement of his classmates. One day when Shoya goes too far, forcing Shoko to transfer again for fear of her own safety, he is branded a pariah by his peers and retreats into a state of self-imposed isolation and self-hatred. Years later, Shoya meets Shoko once again, now as teenagers, and attempts to make amends for the harm he inflicted on her, all while wrestling to understand his own motivations for doing so. A Silent Voice is a film of tremendous emotional depth, an affecting portrait of adolescent abuse, reconciliation, and forgiveness for the harm perpetrated by others and ourselves.—Toussaint Egan


4. The End of Evangelion

the-end-of-evangelion-poster.jpg Year: 1997
Director: Hideaki Anno, Kazuya Tsurumaki
Stars: Megumi Ogata, Megumi Hayashibara, Yuko Miyamura, Kotono Mitsuishi, Fumihiko Tachiki, Yuriko Yamaguchi
Genre: Anime, Sci-Fi, Action
Rating: TV-MA
Runtime: 87 minutes

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The final two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion are notorious among fans of the series. Titled “Do you love me?” and “Take care of yourself,” the two-part finale infamously sidelined the climactic finale to the series’ central conflict, instead opting to take place entirely away from the action within the subconscious of the show’s protagonist, Shinji Ikari, as he wrestled to resolve the self-loathing and hatred which plagued him throughout the story’s duration. The unconventionality and unsatisfying nature of this conclusion prompted disgruntled fans to issue death threats on Anno’s life and Gainax’s building to be defaced with graffiti. In response, Anno set to work on an alternative ending to the series to be produced in two parts and aired in theaters. If you were looking for a light, campy and celebratory conclusion, End of Evangelion is not that movie. Instead, what fans were treated to was perhaps one of the most fatalistic, avant garde and, oddly enough, life-affirming endings to an anime series ever produced. In short, it is the best and worst of everything that is Evangelion combined to create a film that is unlike anything that had come before it. Despite its unrelenting darkness, End of Evangelion remains true to the ethos of its subtitle, that the joy of death is in the act of rebirth.—Toussaint Egan


5. Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro

lupin-the-third-castle-of-cagliostro-poster.jpg Year: 1979
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars: Yasuo Yamada, Eiko Masuyama, Kiyoshi Kobayashi, Makio Inoue, Goro Naya, Sumi Shimamoto, Taro Ishida
Genre: Anime, Adventure, Comedy
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 102 minutes

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The nature of Miyazaki’s oeuvre is such that it brims with an embarrassment of riches, each film in its own part situated indelibly into the continuum that is the anime canon. His films garner so much acclaim for their visual storytelling and emotional virtuosity that even those few that could be considered his “worst” movies still rank leagues above those animators who only aspire to his status. Case in point: Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. Miyazaki’s take on Kazuhiko Kato’s notorious master criminal is at once a rip-roaring heist film with heart and what might arguably be Miyazaki’s lesser films. Chalk it up to Miyazaki’s nascent efforts as a director, Castle of Cagliostro suffers from a plodding middle-half and a disappointingly simplistic antagonist while still somehow managing to sparkle with his signature charm peeking through the baggage of a preexisting work. Fans of the series passionately criticized the film for relieving Lupin of his anarchic predilections and instead casting him in the mold of a true gentleman thief, stealing only when his nebulous sense of honor permits it. In any case, The Castle of Cagliostro remains an important and essential artifact of Miyazaki’s proto-Ghibli work. A flawed Miyazaki film is a triumph all the same.—Toussaint Egan and Jason DeMarco


6. Blame!

blame.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Hiroyuki Seshita
Stars: Sora Amamiya, Kana Hanazawa, Takahiro Sakurai
Genre: Anime, Sci-Fi, Action
Rating: TV-14
Runtime: 105 minutes

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When it comes to dark industrial sci-fi, Tsutomu Nihei is a visionary. Trained as an architect before pursuing a career as a manga author, Nihei’s art is simultaneously sparse and labyrinthine, his body of work defined by a unifying obsession with invented spaces. Byzantine factories with gothic accents spanning across impossible chasms, populated by bow-legged synthoids and ghoulish predators touting serrated bone-swords and pulsating gristle-guns. His first and most famous series, Blame!, is considered the key text in Nihei’s aesthetic legacy, going so far as to inspire everything from videogames, to music, and even art and fashion. Past attempts have been made to adapt the series into an anime, though none have been able to materialize successfully. That is, until now. With the support of Netflix, Hiroyuki Seshita of Polygon Pictures has delivered that long-awaited Blame! film. Set on a far-future Earth consumed by a massive, self-replicating superstructure known as The City, Blame! follows Killy, a taciturn loner, wandering the layers of the planet in search of a human possessing the “net terminal gene,” an elusive trait thought to be the only means of halting the city’s perpetual hostile expansion. Boasting a screenplay penned by Sadayuki Murai, famed for his writing on such series as Cowboy Bebop and Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, and supervised by Nihei himself, Seshita’s film abbreviates much of the manga’s early chapters and streamlines the story into an altogether more narrative and action-driven affair. Art director Hiroshi Takiguchi deftly replicates Nihei’s distinctive aesthetic, achieving in color what was before only monochromatic, while Yuki Moriyama capably improves on the uniform character designs of the original, imparting its casts with distinct, easily identifiable traits and silhouettes that greatly improve the story’s parsability. Blame! is as faithful an adaptation as is possible and as fitting an introduction to the series as the manga itself. Blame! builds a strong case for being not only one of the most conceptually entertaining anime films of late, but also for being one of, if not the best original anime film to grace Netflix in a long time.—Toussaint Egan


7. Lu Over the Wall

lu-over-wall-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Stars: Kanon Tani, Shota Shimoda, Christine Marie Cabanos, Michael Sinterniklaas, Stephanie Sheh
Genre: Anime, Comedy, Fantasy
Rating: PG
Runtime: 107 minutes

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Distributor GKids sells Lu Over the Wall as “family friendly,” which it is, an innocuous, offbeat alternative to the conventional computer animated joints typically found in modern multiplexes. But there’s “whimsical” and there’s “weird,” and Lu Over the Wall ventures well past the former and into the latter before director Masaaki Yuasa gets through the opening credits. Barely a moment goes by where we come close to touching base with reality: Even its most human beats, those precious hints of relatable qualities that encourage our empathy, are elongated, distorted, rendered nigh unrecognizable by exaggeration. Lu Over the Wall isn’t a movie that takes itself seriously, and for the average moviegoer, that’s very much a trait worth embracing. The plot is both simple and not: Teenager Kai (voiced by Michael Sinterniklaas in the English dub), recently relocated from Tokyo to the quiet fishing village of Hinashi, spends his days doing what most teenage boys do, sullenly hunkering down in his room and shutting out the world. As Kai struggles with his self-imposed isolation, he befriends Lu (Christine Marie Cabanos), a manic pixie dream mermaid wrought in miniature. What’s a solitary emo boy to do in a literal and figurative fish-out-of-water plot that’s buttressed by xenophobic overtones? Lu Over the Wall blends joy with political allegory with vibrant color palettes with storytelling magic, plus some actual magic, plus too many upbeat musical interludes to count. Describing the film merely as “creative” feels like an insult to its inspired madness.—Andy Crump


8. Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll & The Movie

violet-evergarden.jpg Year: 2019, 2020
Directors: Haruka Fujita, Taichi Ishidate
Stars: Yui Ishikawa, Minako Kotobuki, Aoi Yuki, Daisuke Namikawa
Genre: Anime, Drama, Fantasy
Rating: TV-PG
Runtime: 90 minutes, 140 minutes

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The key to Violet Evergarden is that it’s about the future. Violet, a former child soldier who survived a war and lost both her arms, has to face that future, and she can’t help but look backward. Her day job has her ghostwriting clients’ thoughts and memories. She endures PTSD-fueled echoes of her own past constantly. She yearns for her beloved superior officer who (we think?) died. And throughout, she struggles both physically, with her prosthetic hands, and socially, with everyone she meets. So much anime, including many titles on this list, focuses on conflicts during wartime; it’s rare to see one go all in on the conflicts that come with peace. Violet Evergarden’s argument—that those aftereffects are surmountable—is a compelling, important one. —Eric Vilas-Boas


9. Modest Heroes

modest-heroes-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Yoshiyuki Momose, Akihiko Yamashita, Takuya Okada
Stars: Fumino Kimura, Rio Suzuki, Masaki Terasoma, Machiko Ono
Genre: Anime, Fantasy, Drama
Rating: PG
Runtime: 53 minutes

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Short film anthologies are some of the most impressive showcases of boundary-pushing visual storytelling in animation, let alone Japanese animation. A cursory glance of anime anthologies produced within just the last 30 years is enough: From Masao Maruyama and Rintaro’s 1987 film Labyrinth Tales (known in the West as Neo Tokyo), to Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1995 film Memories, to even the 2003 American-Japanese co-production Animatrix, anthologies stand the test of time not only as landmarks of anime history, but as a vital venue through which to facilitate the introduction of new and exciting talent into the animation industry. With this mind, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, along with former Ghibli animators Yoshiyuki Momose (The Tale of The Princess Kaguya) and Akihiko Yamashita (Howl’s Moving Castle), have pooled their significant creativity to create a new installment in the storied lineage of prestige anime anthologies: Modest Heroes, the first volume in Studio Ponoc’s series of animated short films. “Kanini & Kanino,” directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, is the first and most explicitly “Ghibli-esque” of the anthology’s three shorts. Following the story of a pair of anthropomorphic crab children living at the bottom of a riverbed, the short could be interpreted as something of a reprise of Yonebayashi’s directorial debut, the 2010 film The Secret World of Arrietty, although this time conceived and written entirely by himself. The anthology’s second short, directed by Yoshiyuki Momose, is the volume’s most poignant installment and, arguably, the true namesake of Modest Heroes. “Life Ain’t Gonna Lose” tells of a young mother and her son Shun, a happy and otherwise unassuming little boy born with a debilitating food allergy to eggs. “Life Ain’t Gonna Lose” sets a high bar for the film going forward, but the anthology’s final short, “Invisible,” manages to meet and yet even surpass those expectations. Directed by Akihiko Yamashita, known not only for his prior work on Howl’s Moving Castle, but also as a character designer on Yasuhiro Imagawa’s Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still, “Invisible” follows the story of a man who struggles with a condition that seemingly renders him completely unnoticeable to every person he comes across. Modest Heroes is a satisfying sophomore effort from Studio Ponoc, a collection of shorts that, together, resonate with the sentiment of that most joyous and courageous of adages made famous by the likes of Rod Serling: “...there’s nothing mightier than the meek.”—Toussaint Egan


10. A Whisker Away

a-whisker-away-poster.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Junichi Sato, Tomotaka Shibayama
Stars: Mirai Shida, Natsuki Hanae, Hiroaki Ogi, Koichi Yamadera,Minako Kotobuki
Genre: Anime, Romance, Fantasy
Rating: TV-PG
Runtime: 104 minutes

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There have been creepier things done in movies than magically turning into a cat in order to get closer to your crush, but those are few and far between. It’s not exactly standing outside a window with a boombox. But in directors Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama’s A Whisker Away, even this bonkers premise yields beauty and touching romance. Mari Okada’s script deftly leaps the anime through some emotional loops, running it through crinkly toy tunnels, ultimately landing its silly premise—replete with a troupe of angsty, depressed middle schoolers—in emotional honesty. A dash of otherworldly magic from the canon of Miyazaki (a corpulent face-dealing cat and an entire invisible cat-world) mixes well with some honest dives into the mental health issues of its characters (not quite as deeply and darkly as Neon Genesis Evangelion, but with a similarly stylish flair). While the characters are a little annoying when you meet them—they’re middle schoolers, after all—the truth behind the writing manages to shine through, all the while impressing us with its realistic animal animation and stunning depictions of smaller-town Tokoname life.—Jacob Oller


11. Berserk: the Golden Age Arc I, II & III

berserk.jpg Years: 2012-13
Directors: Toshiyuki Kubooka
Stars: Mirai Shida, Natsuki Hanae, Hiroaki Ogi, Koichi Yamadera,Minako Kotobuki
Genre: Anime, Action
Rating: TV-MA
Runtime: 274 minutes

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The first adaptation of Kentaro Miura’s brutally visceral and viscera-laden manga Berserk, a TV series from 1997, is considered a classic. And while the first two films in this triptych from 15 years later receive a rather scornful treatment from most anime experts, its final offering is as riveting a watch as the form has to offer—and as violent, too. This grimdark fantasy, set in a feudal world clearly modeled on medieval Europe, follows a sellsword named Guts, who is forced to join the mercenary group called the Band of the Hawk once its leader defeats him in single combat twice in a row. From there on out, it’s all blood and Guts as an absolutely vicious cycle of battles, assassinations, sieges, duels, and the like pulls humans, bears, and demons alike into its vortex, with all parties vying to rip each other to shreds in the names of sex, power, and greed. And by Descent, the third entry, it’s as riveting and depressing as Game of Thrones at its best. —John Maher