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The 10 Worst Films About Japan*: You Might Only Live Twice But Are These Movies Worth Seeing Once?

In honour of Japan’s Celebration of Cinema Day, December 1st, we’ve reposted some reviews and articles on classic films. Some good, some bad, some epic and some considered to be the worst films in Japan by our caustic guest movie review,毒舌姫, 庄司かおり様


by Kaori Shoji

1) Memoirs of a Geisha  (2005)


Directed by Rob Marshall and starring Zhang Ziyi as a ravishing prewar geisha by the name of Sayuri (‘white lily’), this particular vehicle sinks to basement level lows of pigeon-holing and cultural misunderstanding. As a Japanese female I just don’t feel like forgiving this one – the emotional damage is irrevocable. To make things worse, national acting treasure Ken Watanabe makes an appearance and seals his fate as an enabler for Hollywood filmmakers to cater to the white male fantasy regarding all things Japanese – namely, geishas. The one bright spot is Kaori Momoi as a hard-as-nails proprietress of a geisha house. The lone authentic presence in a film hyped up on false pretensions.


2) The Last Samurai (2003)

The Last Samurai parody, The Last Jedi!

Just as Japanese women could never escape the geisha issue, Japanese men will always be associated with the samurai. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Hollywood just HAD to up and star Tom Cruise as a disillusioned ex-Union soldier who finds redemption and rebirth in the samurai racket in Meiji era Japan. The story (penned by Jon Logan) is just wrong on so many counts one forgets to feel offended. Most discouragingly, the film was wildly popular on both sides of the Pacific, which goes to show you: the samurai racket (like the geisha racket) is good business. How it affects the yen rate is anyone’s guess.

3) Lost in Translation (2003)

Don’t get me wrong – I love Sofia Coppola as much as the next girl movie afficionado. But the thoroughbred filmmaker of the Coppola clan whose sensibility radar is always spot-on when it comes to charting the emotions and mindscapes of the under-29 woman, ran into some major static at the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku. As a poignant and appropriately jaded love story between Bill Murray as the slightly weary Hollywood actor come over to shoot a commercial, and Scarlett Johansson (who was all of 18 at the time) “Lost..” is a 4-star affair. But Coppola’s cut-out portrayals of Tokyo are sterile and silly and the Tokyoites who make brief and regrettable appearances…spare us the embarrassment please. No wonder the Murray-Johansson couple hardly ever venture out of the hotel.


4) You Only Live Twice 

The Japanese have had always had a soft spot for James Bond but after Sean Connery spent time here for this movie, he became Main Man 007 man as far as the archipelago was concerned. At the time of the film’s release (1967), Connery was sited in fashion magazines as the dude in the suit, who never, ever wore undershirts and whose hairy chest held a ferocious appeal, especially to Japan’s first Bond girls Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama. He left behind a massive inferiority complex from which the nation’s male populace never fully recovered. Shame on you, Bond-san.

5) Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Okay, so this isn’t a movie about Japan, but as a depiction of a Japanese male it’s practically the cinematic equivalent of a hate crime. The Hollywood classic that stars  Audrey Hepburn as It Girl of Lower Manhattan, Holly Golightly and the buffy George Peppard as her neighbor slash would-be lover, the film is absolutely delightful. But once Mickey Rooney comes on as a mysterious Japanese man called “Yuniyoshi,” we start feeling a leetle uncomfortable. Rooney is outrageously made-up: protruding teeth, slanting eyes behind thick glasses and spiky black hair heavily pomade-ed. So as a poster boy endorsing Japanese internment during WWII, Yuniyoshi-san is perfect. Otherwise we can do without him, thanks very much.


6) Hachiko: A Dog’s Tale (2009)

You can’t grow up in Japan and not know the loyal dog Hachiko (he went to Shibuya station everyday to greet his master coming home from work) or choose the dog’s statue in front of Shibuya Station as a meeting spot. Hachi is to the Japanese what Cheerio’s may be to the American – so much a part of our daily fabric that it seems weird, really weird when Hachiko shows up in a Hollywood movie starring Richard Gere. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom (whose feature debut is called “My Life as a Dog”), the whole thing feels forced, contrived and highly artificial. Hachiko doesn’t belong in a manicured suburban town among all those white picket fences, and Gere as the college professor who opts to be his American master, well…the word “jarring” comes to mind.



7) Wasabi (2001)



Around the time this film was released, France had a kind of amorous fling with Japanese culture and one of the byproducts was this film by Gerard Krawczyk. The equivalent of an haute couture dress souped up on Akiba culture, the film has great ideas and (probably) benevolent intentions. Unfortunately they don’t quite work together. Too bad, as it pairs Jean Reno as a Parisian cop once married to a Japanese woman, and our very own Ryoko Hirosue in a role pitched halfway between a pouting, flighty anime girl come to life and Reno’s comprehensive guide to Tokyo. The result is a chaotic hodgepodge of vignettes that show up the city as a kind of noisy, plasticine pleasure palace.

Ultimately, the film caters to a frayed stereotype: that given the choice, a Japanese will choose brutality over love, and death over life


8) The Pillow Book  (1996)

This is an ambitious undertaking by British auteur Peter Greenaway, but his sensibility that created such visually resplendent (and often grotesque) pictures like “Drowning by Numbers” and “The Belly of an Architect,” failed when it came to a rendition of  “The Pillow Book” (a collection of essays by 10th century court scribe Seishonagon). For lovers of the truly weird, the film provides much fodder: Vivian Wu stars as the extremely sensuous Nagiko, who inspires her calligraphy master dad (Ken Ogata) to paint characters all over her face and body. Later, she meets her match in Jerome (Ewan McGregor) who proves himself masterfully creative with the brush as he is with other uh, physical skills. For the record people, this has nothing to do with Seishonagon’s book and still less with calligraphy.

Try reading the actual book instead. Sei Shonagon was the Kaori Shoji of her day: acerbic, funny, and a great essayist.


9) Ai no Corida (In the Realm of the Senses) 

When this opened in Paris back in 1976, people lined up for hours for the pleasure of seeing one of the most controversial films of the 20th century. In Tokyo it was banned from opening at all and when that was cleared many theaters refused to show it. Based on the real-life story of servant girl Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) and her master Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji), “Ai no…” takes Japanese eros to a whole new dimension.  Director Nagisa Oshima is masterful in his no-holds-barred depiction of an all-consuming sexual obsession between a man and a woman. But ultimately, the film caters to a frayed stereotype: that given the choice, a Japanese will choose brutality over love, and death over life.


10) Rhapsody in August (1991)

Somehow Richard Gere makes it into at least two of the worst ten movies about Japan. Hopefully, he can be in more before the decade ends.

A well-crafted story commemorating the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki by Japanese cinema giant Akira Kurosawa, this marked his first-time collaboration with Asiaphile Richard Gere. Gere plays the relative of an old woman whose husband had died on that August day and now with dementia setting in, she often relives the day that deprived her of her parents, husband and many friends. There are plenty of opportunities to make Gere’s character feel remorse about what the US did, but Kurosawa was apparently in a forgiving mood, and the movie spares Gere any major discomfort. As it is, we never get closure.


Kaori Shoji writes about movies and movie-makers for The Japan Times and is also a writer for the International Herald Tribune and other publications. Well known for her sharp wit, some have likened her to “the Dorothy Parker of Japan.

 *Editor’s note: The 10 Worst Films About Japan are not necessarily in order of suckiness. Thank you. 

Kaori Shoji

Kaori Shoji is a film critic for the Japan Times and write about fashion and society as well. 欧米の出版物に記事を執筆するフリーランス・ジャーナリスト。The Japan Times、The International Herald Tribune、Zoo Magazineへ定期的に記事を寄稿している。

60 thoughts on “The 10 Worst Films About Japan*: You Might Only Live Twice But Are These Movies Worth Seeing Once?”
    1. Hey, I liked the film too (sort of) but the reviewer is expressing her opinion and that’s her right. Personally, I think a lot of the samurai were just ruthless hired killers and hardly noble. The guys who tested their new swords out on peasants–not nice.

      1. The image of samurai today is not an accurate depiction of what they were really like, especially in the Sengoku Era. Here is what Asakura Takakage (朝倉孝景, 1477-1555)said: “You can call a warrior a filthy dog or a piece of shit, but all he cares about in the end is victory (武者も犬といへ、畜生ともいへ、勝つことが本にて候」. This is a bit of a long read, but provides some excellent insight onto the emergence of the “bushido” and the role it played during the Edo period.


      2. “Personally, I think a lot of the samurai were just ruthless hired killers and hardly noble.”
        So, you think most samurai were assholes? Or are you specifically referring to ronin?

  1. While I don’t necessarily disagree with some (many?) of the movies on this list (Lost in Translation wasn’t just a ‘sucky movie about Japan’, it was terri-bad sucky all around), I wish the author would go into a bit more detail & analysis of why she thinks the movies are bad. Granted, it’s hard to say much in 100-word vignettes…but just because a movie ‘caters to a stereotype’ doesn’t make it bad (see Killers, Natural Born…or anything ever done by Tarantino). And the author should forget how familiar Hachiko is to Japan hands – that she finds the movie ‘jarring’ because of Richard Gere and white picket fences is the author’s problem, not the movie’s; how does the movie -itself- play? (I’m a massive dog lover, FWIW, but I absolutely hated both Hachiko and Marley and Me).

    IMHO, none of the Bond movies have aged all that well, but You Only LIve Twice remains one of the better early films from the franchise.

    Also – Tokyo portrayed as a ‘noisy, plasticine pleasure palace’…..well, yeah. You can’t knock of points when a film is being mostly realistic….

    1. You have to admit she has a way with alliteration–‘noisy, plasticine pleasure palace’. I would agree with you there.
      I believe this article is a polemic meant to amuse rather than a deeply analytical piece. I liked You Only Live Twice too–and the theme song by Nancy Sinatra still rocks.

      1. Lovely writing. Hope to see more (thus my comment!).

        Wasabi was indeed one of the worst movies about Japan, but only because of the presence of Hirosue; watching her in this movie made me want to gouge my own kidneys out with a spoon.

  2. The point that was missed about “Lost in Translation” is that it’s got nothing to do with Japan. The fact that the reviewer thinks the film is “about Japan” missed the entire point of the film, lending doubt to the credence of the remaining opinions proffered.

    If anything, the main characters’ naivete and clueless nature about the country to which they had both traveled was meant to be merely a backdrop. That movie could have been filmed in any country and it would have held just as poignant a message.

    It’s sad that the message was lost on the column’s author. Ironic as well.

    1. Sadly, TerilynnS, I think it’s you that has completely missed the point of the review. Perhaps Ms. Shoji should write slower so you can keep up, because I can’t quite figure out how you came away from the review thinking she thought Lost in Translation was ‘about Japan’.

  3. Great list, I concur they all deserve at least one viewing.

    I have to say though, Lost In Translation rang very true for me; it really echoed my experiences when I first started traveling and doing business in Japan. But, after the first year those stereotypes fall away as you dig deeper into every day life and not just the “subculture” scenes. I think the film really came out of Sofia’s interactions with the creative niche in Japan, as illustrated by appearances from Nigo and others from the music and modeling world.

    1. I found parts of Lost In Translation very true as well. I liked the movie very much and it was a wonderful platonic romance. (Great soundtrack as well.) But I’m also not Japanese and maybe that’s one of the reasons I see it a different way.

    2. Exactly. The main characters were adrift in huge city very different from NYC or London, where neither one spoke the language. So, unlike others have contended, the Tokyo portrayed (except maybe for the “Lip my stockings” scene) is very much what first time visitors see.

  4. I think that the article isn’t saying that these are bad films, but rather that they offer problematic stereotypes about Japanese people and culture. In that sense, the movies are not being criticized for poor craftsmanship (directing, acting, writing, etc.) nor do they necessarily need to be about Japan explicitly. For example, even if Lost in Translation isn’t about Japan because it’s about travel, jet-lag, relationships, etc, it is still set in Japan, and Japan’s difference from the character’s cultural context plays a part in the story. A version of Japan filtered through a tourist’s eyes is a part of the film no matter what-the same way a tourist eye view of France is part of Midnight in Paris and a traveler’s experience of Vienna is part of Before Sunrise. These films may not be about the location or a moment in that place’s history, but the audience is still learning about that place by watching. You just have to remember that movies are fiction and always filtered through someone’s point of view. There’s no such thing as a 100% accurate movie.

    Stereotypes are built in all parts of a film though, not just in the narrative but also into the backgrounds and setting, etc. The author is making a point about stereotypes and she sees these films as reinforcing negative stereotypes.

    It doesn’t mean these are bad films and that people shouldn’t watch them, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or a racist if you enjoyed them. The point is to be self-aware and think about things like, “if I were Japanese how would I feel about this film?” or “according to this film what kind of a place is Japan” and to remember that if you actually visit there you might find it to be completely different.

  5. Admittedly I haven’t seen all these movies, but I have to say the main insight I’ve gleaned from reading these reviews is that Kaori Shoji writes well. I don’t find the wit particularly satisfying but the commentary is accessible and the opinions are clear. Works for me. FWIW, the one that floored me as a Japanese kid growing up abroad in the 80s was Karate Kid. “Oh myyy,” as a certain Mr. Sulu would say.

    1. I loved all four of the Karate Kid movies. I’m a geek. And I agree with you main insight completely.
      My favorite Japanese film would be 鬼火 (Onibi)or Ghost In The Shell or Innocence (Ghost In The Shell 2). They’re not really films “about” Japan though. They’re great Japanese films. Outrage and Outrage Beyond were also great.

      1. Oh, no you didn’t. There are only three Karate Kid movies. The fourth one never happened, OK? NEVER HAPPENED!

        Quite frankly I’m trying to figure out a way to transport myself to the universe where Karate Kid III never happens either.

  6. Wish you had space to squeeze in Isabel Croixet’s MAP OF THE SOUNDS OF TOKYO. Truly appalling. And now that we’re mentioning stereotypes why is Kikuchi Rinko always the go-to girl for any foreign or co-produced film needing a Japanese female role? She was way overaged for NORWEGIAN WOOD and hearing her speak Jp-style girly talk in squeaky voice was insufferable.

  7. Rising Sun should be on this list. That was some dreadful drek and chock full of ridiculous stereotypes. The Last Samurai is indeed terrible; not as a movie, but as a depiction of history. The good guys were actually the bad guys. Hello, feudalism!

    1. Wow–I’d almost forgotten that one. That would put Sean Connery in two bad movies about Japan–elevating him to near Richard Gere status.

  8. I guess I never thought about how some of these films really reinforced some cultural stereotypes. Thank you for making this post, it really did make me think about the movies on the list I have seen.
    I actually liked memoirs of a geisha, and even though I was aware it wasn’t historically accurate, I thought the story was entertaining. I liked the soundtrack with yoyo ma,and I liked the costumes, too. I guess I just kind of think of it as “fantasy” and not historical. Does that make it ok? I don’t know. I guess I like it as fiction. It becomes problematic when people believe it as fact.
    I also saw lost in translation, and I guess you could put Bill Murray and Scarlett johnannsen in any foreign country and have the same kinds of things happen to them as they did in that movie. There were a lot of really really offensive stereotypes in it.

  9. I basically agree with all of these assessments except for those of Pillow Book and Ai no Koriida, which I think are much more complex and interesting films that deserve more than these brief, misguided dismissals (and they certainly don’t belong on a list with Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha).

  10. “Death Ride to Osaka” surely belongs on this list: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085595/

    I rather liked “Memoirs of a Geisha” — but then, I’m a white middle-aged male and thus incapable of judging the film impartially. I do agree that “You Only Live Twice” is dreck; but I don’t like James Bond movies (apart from the original “Casino Royale,” a glorious mess of a movie).

  11. “There were a lot of really really offensive stereotypes in it”.

    Lost in Translation was an awful movie, but not because of ‘offensive stereotypes’. Perhaps you could note the scenes from the movie that you think represent ‘really really offensive stereotypes’?

  12. these are all very good selections… though I would rank Memoirs and The Last Samurai as the worst, and replace Lost in Translation with Black Rain- which does nothing but play on tropes.. Would love to know the other films that barely missed the cut. I also strongly agree that Rising Sun should make the list, in replace of what exactly is hard to tell… I would give 007 a pass for having the Toyota 3000GT- just saying.

  13. And I agree… Death Ride to Osaka should top the list. There wasn’t a positive portrayal of a single Japanese person…

  14. Can anyone name 10 GOOD non-Japanese films about Japan? Oh, and no one thought to include Mr. Baseball on the worst list?

    1. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence?

      Nobody said the portrayal had to be in a good light, but it was a very good movie.

  15. I guess Lost in Translation, as you might guess from the title cannot be fully enjoyed by the Japanese or someone who has spent enough time there before seeing it. It does an insanely accurate job of recreating the impressions of a first visit to Japan in the early 2000s. That wondeful (or nightmarish for some) WTF moment can’t be understood by someone who’s been there forever. That might be a lot of cliches and stereotypes, but still I witnessed most of them on that first visit (and probably could have witnessed more if my interests matched some of my roommates’)

    Even now that I could offer valuable guidance, I still encourage friends to research as little as possible before going on a first trip to not lose that opportunity you can only live once. The hows, whys and communication beyond pointing and smiling will come later if you’re interested and add a new layer of enjoyment.

    1. Yes, I think that’s very well put. “It does an insanely accurate job of recreating the impressions of a first visit to Japan in the early 2000s.” And as others have noted, the dialogue that isn’t translated is very funny if you know Japanese. Great attention to detail.

  16. How about the remake of “Shall We Dance” starring an actor you may have heard of: Richard Gere? Why that classic Japanese film had to be remade is a mystery. Although, Stanley Tucci is amusing in his role.

      1. The remake was ok as a stand alone film, but it did not have anywhere near the magic of the original. It is just another example of the dearth of ideas in Hollywood. The “make it again” attitude has ruined innovation there. I cannot believe with billions of people on the planet, that new ideas are so hard to come by.

  17. “I can’t quite figure out how you came away from the review thinking she thought Lost in Translation was ‘about Japan’.”

    Could be because it appeared in her article called “The 10 Worst Films About Japan.”

    Personally I love it, and found a lot of the interaction amusing and accurate. It’s a film about two disillusioned tourists, Japan is seen through their eyes. Anyone who’s been here a little while knows the country has a lot more to offer, but so what? It’s not the point of the film.

  18. What a joke this is…. Simply look at the memoires of a Geisha critique. Typical Japan Times intelligence: “I do not like itk I do not like it, I do not like it!”

    Not a single word WHY!

    Lost in Translation is NOT a film about Japan. It is afilm about americans, who come to Japan and what is the frist thing they do? Tehy move in a typical american Hotel….

    Jesus… and Adelstein is afraid the Yakuza will bother about him? What a joke….

    1. We’re not sure what your beef with the Japan Times or this tongue in cheek article is or how that relates to Jake and the yakuza but thank you for the incoherent comment under a fake name.
      We look forward to more commentary from you unless you actually get a real job, which seems unlikely.
      Have a nice day!
      PS. Blog policy is not to post comments that are defamatory in nature or under fake names, but we’ll make an exception now and then.
      Thanks Tyler!

  19. Although some are ‘films about Japan,’ others are simply Japsploitation flicks. And in some cases, the writer confuses ‘bad films’ with her feelings (resentment) for how Japan is portrayed.

  20. Dear Kaori and contributors,

    I really enjoyed reading your list and your personal comments were funny and witty, and particularly about the Bond movie – btw, that poster is mindblowing.

    May I suggest another entry : “Inju: The Beast in the Shadow”, a 2008 french-japanese movie directed by Barbet Schroeder – however a good director. I think it fulfills a lot of your criteria : geisha, sex scenes, blood, gloomy thriller and lost actors on the stage. You may watch it and write something better and funnier than I do now.

    Anyway, it is quite amazing that when western directors cast a japanese actress, a nude scene is almost a requirement – for almost no reason (also true in Inaritu’s “Babel”).
    Regarding japanese movies – I’m fond of them – I also have remarked that a fair lot of them include… a train scene (or just a shot of a distant train). Maybe some matter for a future article ?…


  21. This is the most unfairly maligned film of the year. Some critics took it upon themselves to be the defenders of Japanese culture (without fully researching their arguments) and, in the process, betrayed their own racism. “The film is inauthentic because the actresses do not wear matronly bouffants,” one said. Riiiiiight. Matronly bouffants are a Western stereotype! But in any case, some of them do and some don’t! THAT’S authenticity. I guess critics wouldn’t know that writing reviews without seeing the film or walking out long before it’s over (some, such as Jeff Wells, do).

    Anyway, it’s a fantastic film and more than deserving of multiple Academy award nominations – which it may not get thanks to the fact that so many people decided they wanted to use the film as the sacrificial lamb for a half-baked debate about international politics, rather consider that pan-Asian casting for major roles is NOTHING new (it’s true of House of Flying Daggers, The Joy Luck Club and even Crouching Tiger) and that this film’s production might represent international cooperation at its best.

    Look out for Gong Li and Youki Kudoh in RICHLY developed supporting roles. The supporting males, while obviously not as well developed since they spend less time in the geisha quarters, still give incredible performances. Ken Watanabe was excellent, but I particularly enjoyed the performance of the actor playing Nobu. Oprah is right about the sets and costumes; they (amongst other things) make you want to savor every moment of the film. Some people have argued that the brilliant colors make it seem like some sort of Orientalist fantasy. Truth is that this would only be the case if we saw a departure from a more sedate West to a flamboyant East; instead, the film opens in a rather sedate part of Japan and then takes us to the more colorful geisha district (which introduces this fascinating paradox of great suffering in a milieu of tremendous beauty). We know from Chicago that it’s simply Rob Marshall’s aesthetic to make everything the height of beauty, even if it’s a slum. God forbid ENTERTAINMENT CIRCLES should be presented as visually spectacular! The film is by turns funny, moving and, yes, thrilling. Gasps in the audience for the film’s third act gave way to sniffles. Ziyi Zhang really managed any language difficulties well; her face has this ripple effect when she’s emoting. It’s stunning to behold. If I were voting for the Oscars, I’d definitely give her a nomination at the very least. And homegirl can dance, too! Her performance and the film itself are not boring at all; audience members laughed when she was trying to be funny and sighed when she was suffering. IMO, too much happens in the film for it to get boring; there’s a strong balance between the rivalries, the details about geisha entertainment and the romance. In the final scene, it all comes full circle. I won’t tell you how. See for yourself.

    My #1 film of the year. Brokeback Mountain, Chronicles of Narnia, Howl’s Moving Castle, King Kong and Grizzly Man aren’t far behind.

  22. Well the author of this article never gives any examples as to why the first two movies were bad. Memoirs of a geisha and The last samurai were both good movies. Being a person who studied Japanese history and also living in Japan for 30 years, these films aren’t bad. Of course hollywood always takes liberties when making historical pictures and some things are plain wrong. But Ms. Shoji just lambasts the movies with no specifics. Please tell us why you think the movies are bad not just “this particular vehicle sinks to basement level lows of pigeon-holing and cultural misunderstanding. As a Japanese female I just don’t feel like forgiving this one – the emotional damage is irrevocable.” Please give us an example in this movie as to why you feel this way. Then with The last Samurai she says, “The story (penned by Jon Logan) is just wrong on so many counts one forgets to feel offended. Most discouragingly, the film was wildly popular on both sides of the Pacific, which goes to show you: the samurai racket (like the geisha racket) is good business. How it affects the yen rate is anyone’s guess.” Again with no specifics as to why we should feel offended.

  23. Stereotypes exist in every film and not just about Japan but every country or culture especially in which the Caucasian “rescuer” is portrayed. I find it particularly annoying especially when history has shown that it was Caucasians (and I am one) who damaged or destroyed every country and native people it came into contact with, it’s ironic that they are now portrayed as the heroes who come to save the day. There is not a profession (cops, doctors, lawyers, etc) that is portrayed as the world truly is, so while the Japanese certainly have a legitimate point, its important to realize that the film industry cares little about accuracy and more about the bottom line. Even Ron Howard admitted he had to add conflict which didn’t occur in Apollo 13. My thought at that was directors must really think the majority of film viewers are easily bored and very stupid. I never watch a film today and believe I am watching reality in any form, even when taken “from a true story.”

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