Catching the elusive

If you are both a movie lover and somewhat of a Japan enthusiast, chances are there will become a point where these two interests inevitably collide. However ‘where to watch Japanese movies?’ is a valid question many have; after all, international or foreign language movies have often proved to be a bit difficult to discover over those produced domestically or from Hollywood. 

Yet in 2020, the BFI (British Film Institute) ‘100 greatest films of all time’ list was published, many of them are European and seven of those were Japanese with ‘Tokyo Story’ even at number 3. There is some good news; within the last five years (thanks to the remarkable rise of streaming services), access to Japanese and other international live-action films have become significantly easier, not to mention the incredible rise in demand for such films. 

To that end I have spent time investigating many of the available streaming services (as well as other options) to find where are truly the best places to watch Japanese live-action movies.

Quick selection

Subscription VOD

Subscription video on demand services or streaming services are going to be the best place to start. There are a rapidly increasing number of these to choose from for your everyday viewing; Interested in Japanese movies? Then not so much. After some extensive research and database trawling you can boil your choices down to 4:

These are the options available to many people which are also the most convenient with additional legwork. 

A cinema screen

Netflix

Netflix is the behemoth of subscription streaming services the world over. If you’re somebody who is into your anime, then you will probably know Netflix is becoming a popular hub for it. It is also starting to expand more into overseas and foreign language programmes including Japanese film and tv.

Currently on Netflix I would say they stream more Japanese live-action tv shows then live-action films; however, there is good variety available and the uptake more recently has been impressive. The films that are available tend to be newer releases over those of classic Japanese cinema but there are ways of leveraging more variety — more on that in a bit.

Netflix’s basic subscription starts at £6.99 ($9.99) a month but the quality isn’t brilliant — better off getting the standard at £10.99 ($15.99) at least.

Amazon Prime Video

Amazon prime video, the other giant in subscription services. Has reportedly around double the content of Netflix, however this is slightly misleading. Amazon prime also has non-subscription VOD service and additional channel bolt-ons, so the two are more likely evenly matched.

If we’re comparing this to Netflix, I would say that the Japanese live-action film to tv ratio has swapped. Prime video certainly has more Japanese films available with just the subscription, in addition to more feature length Japanese documentaries. Similarly, there are a fair number of titles you probably won’t have come across before; however, a couple stood out to me I have previously heard of worth looking into: Harmonium and Tag are two such films which received 100% and 92% on Rotten tomatoes respectively.

Amazon prime video is included in the prime membership which is £8.99 a month.

Arrow video

Arrow video is a bit of an unusual case. On Amazon Prime Video it is a subscription service available as an add-on for £4.99 a month. It’s a company that specialises in Horror films which is fantastic as one genre of film that Japan seems to excel at is horror.

However, it also has a website where you can buy physical DVDs and Blu-Rays of all available titles. Clicking on buy now redirects you to various storefronts and websites, so I would probably just stick to the Prime subscription add-on.

Sure enough though, looking through the catalogue of films it offers on Prime Video; there are about 70 Japanese live-action movies available to watch. If you’re a fan of this genre this is definitely worth a look as there’s probably more Japanese horror films here than Netflix and the basic Prime video combined. If your question is ‘where to watch Japanese live-action horror movies’ then you can probably stop your search here.

BFI Player

The BFI player is slightly different from the previous three entries. It is a product produced by the British Film Institute which was founded in 1933 with the purpose of promoting British film and television. The BFI has the world’s largest film archive and part of that archive contains works that are deemed internationally significant — which Includes some Japanese titles.

Currently on the BFI player there are 117 Japanese live-action films available through subscription and 14 through paid rental. What’s different about the BFI player is that all the films available (not just Japanese) have been either highly influential, award winning, acclaimed or seen as a landmark in the film industry. The likes of Seven Samurai, Departures, Audition, and Tokyo Story are all there. The counter-side to this is unlike Netflix or Prime video, you’re not going to see a continuous stream of brand-new releases, or the most up-to-date films.

A BFI subscription costs £4.99 a month as a stand-alone service but is also available as an add-on through prime video.

A graphic showing where to watch Japanese movies

Other options

Some of the next best ways to watch some Japanese live-action movies, is through paid/rental on demand services. These are more of an online store where you only pay for what you want to watch. The downside is that this can quickly become a more expensive option, as rentals on most platforms are around £3.49 per film, although it can range from £2.49 to £4.49.

The best place to start the search for this — honestly — is back to Prime Video due to its library size. Japanese films that aren’t included in the basic subscription can be rented or purchased instead. For this you don’t need to have a subscription in order to pay for an individual film. Other options are the iTunes store and google play store, but even here Japanese streaming options are quite limited.

Physical DVD/Blu-Ray

The last option on the list is purchasing physical DVDs and Blu-Rays. This is generally becoming a thing of the past, but yet it’s still a good way to get your hands on Japanese material. There is also of course only one place you’re going to find these: yep, its Amazon once again (Sorry). The thing with Amazon though is the fact that you can put in almost any Japanese film title and there’s a good chance they’ve got it.  

Japanese films on VODs

Mid-Point break

After reading all the above options, I hope that you have found a handful of good solutions to try. As previously mentioned, the selection is improving due to increasing interest and will only continue going forward. I personally already had Amazon prime and decided to go with a BFI player subscription. This has really filled out my library of live-action films with both newer and classic Japanese titles.

Despite all the conventional options listed above, there is one more additional method you can harness. It does require a little more work potentially but is a legitimate option if you are serious about discovering Japanese live action. Let’s keep going!

Fire up that VPN

laptop graphic

VPN’s have become a lifeline for many people for the privacy they offer, as they can hide your IP address.

The other increasingly good reason to get a VPN is to essentially unblock the internet. You can fool websites into thinking you are somewhere else in the world.

What this does, is allow you access to any website or country specific variation of a website. Why would you want to do this? Well, companies like Netflix and Prime video have different content for different regions. Then there are companies such as Hulu and HBO that block entire access altogether. The two main reasons for this are:

  • They are catering to different audiences and demands
  • Licensing and rights for content varies by territory.

Bear in mind if you don’t already have a VPN this is going to cost you on top of any subscription service you pay. In other words, this endeavour may become more expensive than is worthwhile! Also, not all VPN’s are made equal. Many websites are becoming more sophisticated and so free and cheap VPN’s are no longer going to cut it!

Now with our aim of watching Japanese live-action film you might be tempted to go straight to Netflix Japan, or an entire Japanese based streaming service like U-Next. It’s true they are going to have the most content, but unless you can speak almost fluent Japanese, you’re not going to get the most out of it!

There are going to be incredibly few titles with English subtitles; after all, why would they need them? If, however, you are confident with the Japanese language this is the greatest solution and should go for it.

Personally, my Japanese language ability is not close to the level needed and so recommend a different approach — U.S services.

Try US services instead

If we were to compare the libraries of the two biggest providers: Netflix and Prime Video with their U.S counterparts, the results are stark. They have loads more Japanese content then we do in the UK. Maybe not as many as japan but with the U.S services, subtitles are present so everything is watchable.

Even in this scenario, these are still the two best places for Japanese content. The same rules apply here though in terms of Netflix having more live-action tv shows and Prime having more live-action Films. Good news, if you already have an account in the U.K, it can be used to log in to other versions around the world. If you are serious about watching as much as you possibly can, or already have a good quality VPN; I would recommend using these services over the U.K equivalent.

Final thoughts

This is my roundup of where to watch Japanese live-action movies. If you are just getting started on discovering Japanese films, I believe there are some good, convenient and inexpensive options here that are easily accessible with a lot of choice.

My Recommendation in the current situation would be to start off close to home with the BFI Player. At £4.99 a month is the cheapest stand-alone option, and you get access to some all-time great Japanese movies, as well as many others outside this niche. Amazon Prime Video would be my next step as by itself offers good content. It’s also a great starting block that you can improve further with BFI player or Arrow Films.

If, however you already have a good VPN, a Netflix or Prime account and sufficient Japanese language skills; then the world is your oyster my friend. Go mad on those Japanese Servers.

Nathan