Movies in Japan and How to Make the Most of Your Experience!

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  • Have you ever watched a movie in a Japanese cinema? I did and in fact, it’s one of the highlights of my trips to Japan because I’m able to watch the latest Japanese movies as soon as they’re screened and there are perks that come along with the experience.

    Foreign Films
    “Frozen” (アナと雪の女王) – No.1 foreign movie in Japan for 2014

    Watching movies in Japan can be interesting in various ways in comparison to elsewhere. If you watch Hollywood or foreign language films outside of Japan, they would probably be screened with the original English track with subtitles or be dubbed in local languages.

    Conversely, foreign films are presented in the form of Japanese-dubbed or subtitled versions in Japan. If you do not know the Japanese language, watching Japanese movies without subtitles can be challenging, though. Fret not, there are still English films to choose from although they tend to be shown much later than the first release date. For example, “The Martian” starring Matt Damon began its run in North America, Europe and parts of Asia in September/October 2015 but will only be screened in Japan from February 2016.

    Japanese Films

    In the past, it has been said that the Japanese film market was largely dominated by foreign films (youga). However, Japanese films (houga) have been doing really well in recent years as seen from the closing gap in box office takings between foreign and Japanese films. According to figures from the ‘Motion Pictures Producers Association of Japan, Inc.’, Japanese films used to dominate the box office with a market share of about 70% since figures were first available in 1955.

    However, the trend was reversed in 1975 with foreign films taking 55.6% of ticket sales. Since then, it’s been a see-saw between both sides with neither side having the upper hand until foreign films first went above 60% in 1993. In the early 2000s, foreign films took the lion’s share of about 70% before things turned around again in the Japanese film industry’s favor from 2008 and the trend has been continuing to date. No doubt this latest trend could be largely due to the higher number of Japanese films shown in cinemas compared to foreign films, interest in domestic films has been greatly boosted as seen from some movies which did well critically in international film festivals and/or commercially.

    Author’s photo

    Most cinemas in Japan these days are operated in the form of cineplexes (cinecon for short) where there are multiple theatres at one location although there are also private cinemas which screen indie or mini-theatre or older films. Major cineplex chains include Aeon Cinemas, TOHO Cinemas, United Cinema, MOVIX and 109 Cinemas. Pricing can vary across cinemas depending on the promotions offered by each company but generally, tickets are at 1,800 JPY each. Mondays tend to offer cheaper tickets than other weekdays and the weekend while Wednesdays are usually ladies’ days. There are also perks for using each company’s prepaid-value cards or discounts for the elderly as well so do check out the websites of these cineplexes when planning your visit.

    At the cineplexes, the purchasing of tickets is usually done electronically on the internet or at the automated machines at the lobby. For people who don’t know Japanese, there’s the English option to rely on. From what I observed, the staff at the cineplexes are mainly deployed to take care of the snacks/drinks counters and the shops selling movie merchandise but there are some cinemas who still have staff selling tickets over the counter. Payment for the tickets can be done by cash or credit card (both local and overseas).


    Film-related merchandise is big business in Japan so you get to see a wide range of products bearing the cast’s pictures sold at the shops within the cineplexes e.g. soundtrack CDs, notebooks, T-shirts, towels, stationery and snacks. Before or after the screening of the films, there are lots of people in the shops checking out the stores so do give yourself some time to browse. I tend to do it after the show because that’s when most people are heading out.

    Personally, I recommend getting a copy of the movie’s pamphlet (パンフレット) which is actually not a single sheet flyer as the name suggests, but a nicely printed booklet containing information about the movie, interviews with the cast and crew as well as premium content such as on-set photos. This is a really good memento to mark the end of your cinematic experience. Last but not least, check out the chirashi (チラシ) section too since this is where you can get free promotional flyers of current and upcoming movies as a souvenir. The chirashi of popular movies tend to run out very quickly so you probably should head there as soon as you reach the cineplex.

    Food and Drinks

    In terms of the food and drinks on offer, I find that the selection is pretty extensive beyond the usual popcorn and tidbits and the quality’s fairly good. I still remember the juicy karaage and chocolate hotcakes I had at one of the cineplexes. The downside though is, these frills can be a bit pricey but if you think of it as a once-in-a-while indulgence, the enjoyment you derive would probably outweigh the costs you have to pay.

    Have fun at the movies!

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