Movies, books, and songs to capture the essence of Tokyo and get you in the mood for travel

Movies

Rashomon (1950)
Akira Kurosawa’s tale of a crime told from four different perspectives. Today, “Rashomon” is Hollywood slang for this kind of storytelling.

Godzilla (1954)
Quintessential monster movie has spawned over two dozen sequels. The original Godzilla was a prehistoric creature brought to life after the atomic bombings of WWII; now he’s a hero.

A Taxing Woman (Marusa no Onna) (1987)
Nobuko Miyamoto plays a tax inspector who tangles with yakuza (gangsters) and shows them who’s boss. Directed by Juzo Itami.

Tokyo Pop (1988)
Feel-good comedy about an American singer who finds love and success ephemeral in Tokyo’s music scene.

Akira (1988)
Touchstone film of anime (Japanese animation), directed by Katsuhiro Otomo and based on his manga (comics). Grim story of biker gangs and overlords in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo.

Shall We Dance? (1996)
Director Masayuki Suo’s lyrical story of a salaryman (office worker) who rediscovers life, love, and lilt through ballroom dancing.

Lost in Translation (2003)

The definitive Tokyo film of the last decade, directed by Sofia Coppola. Bill Murray plays an unhappy actor who meets an abandoned young newlywed (Scarlett Johansson’s breakout role) at the Park Hyatt hotel.

Zatoichi (2003)
Filmmaker and TV personality “Beat” Takeshi Kitano directed and starred in this multiple-award-winning samurai/martial arts drama about a blind swordsman, based on a classic TV series.

Nobody Knows (Dare mo Shiranai) (2004)
Hirokazu Koreeda’s depressing drama of four young brothers and sisters forced to fend for themselves. A Cannes Film Festival award winner for its young star, Yuya Yagira.

Babel (2006)
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s masterpiece of interwoven dramas set in the U.S., Mexico, Morocco, and Tokyo. Rinko Kikuchi gives a fearless performance as a deaf Tokyo high school girl.

TV Shows

The Iron Chef (Japanese TV series 1993-1999)
This show, set in the “kitchen stadium,” elevated cooking from art to kitschy competition; created a sensation on both sides of the Pacific.

Books

A Personal Matter, Kenzaburo Oe (1968, English translation 1994)
Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe’s signature work about a teacher who considers abandoning his brain-damaged son; story parallels the author’s life; his son was born with a brain hernia and not predicted to survive past childhood.

Kitchen, Banana Yoshimoto (1988, English translation 1993)
Explosively popular stories incorporating pop culture, food, love, loss, and an easygoing (some say kitschy) brand of magical realism.

Audrey Hepburn’s Neck, Alan Brown (1997)
In this sly and sentimental cross-cultural tale, a twenty-something Tokyoite man’s infatuation with Western women has more to do with celluloid than lust.

Underground, by Haruki Murakami (1998, English translation 2000)
Japan’s most celebrated novelist, Haruki Murakami, takes on the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway via interviews with victims, rescuers; revealing insights into the civic personality.

Out, by Natsuo Kirino (1997, English translation 2003)
Prize-winning thriller in which working-class female co-workers band together to conceal a murder, and encounter Tokyo’s seamier underbelly.

Music

Compilations:

Burning Farm
This 1983 release is the first of many albums by the all-girl band Shonen Knife, which inspired rock acts including Nirvana and Sonic Youth.

Enka Damashii (Enka Best)
People who mock enka, the syrupy, melodramatic music that seems to emanate from karaoke bars on every Tokyo side street, often secretly love it. This compilation features standards by beloved artists including Hiroshi Itsuki, Frank Nagai, and Sayuri Ishikawa.

Japanese Melodies
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s take on traditional Japanese songs, from folk dance to lullabies; haunting, stirring, and always engrossing.

Jazz & Bossa
Sadao Watanabe’s 1967 album earned him international recognition and appearances at jazz festivals worldwide.

Viva La Woman, Cibo Matto
Tokyo-born indie rockers Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori’s funky-cool 1996 album features English lyrics about food, like “Know Your Chicken” and “Birthday Cake.”

Words Can’t Go There
Imagine yourself at a temple on a mountain as you listen to this 1991 album by John Kaizan Neptune, a modern master of the shakuhachi (traditional Japanese bamboo flute).

Yellow Magic Orchestra USA
This 1978 album is a seminal work of techno-pop, with multiple instruments and orchestrations by Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Classic Songs:

1. “Amagi Goe” by Sayuri Ishikawa
2. “Buttercup (I’m a Supergirl)” by Shonen Knife
3. “Itoshi no Ellie (Ellie My Love)” by Southern All Stars
4. “Kanashimi Ni Sayonara” by Anzen Chitai (Safety Zone)
5. “Osaka de Umareta Onna” by Boro
6. “Pop Star” by Ken Hirai
7. “Tokyo Ondo” by Various Artists
8. “Twiggy Twiggy” by Pizzicato Five
9. “Ue o Muite Aruko (Sukiyaki)” by Kyu Sakamoto

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