Before we start, two words you should know: 映画 (えいが, eiga) is movie, and 映画館 (えいがかん, eigakan) is movie theater.
1. How to find a movie theater in Japan
Though there are various ways to find theaters in Japan, one site I find particularly helpful is MovieWalker. Yes, it's in Japanese, but it's not too hard to navigate, as I'll show you below.
First, choose your location (red text is mine):
Next, choose your desired city from the menu on the left. Don't worry about all the options on top unless you are comfortable with them, want to practice Japanese, or use a browser translation tool.
You'll then come to a page with information about the movie theaters, such as costs, current movies playing, and other pertinent info (see red in picture below):
To look up a specific movie theater's website, just copy and paste the name into a search engine. Another way to find theaters in your area is to use Google maps (or similar) and search for 映画館 (えいがかん, movie theater).
2. How to know what movies are currently showing
Look for something like 上映中の映画 (such as on MovieWalker). Although many theater websites list the link menu items in English as well as Japanese (don't necessarily count on it, though). 上映スケジュール (じょうえい, jouei, screening, and sukejuuru, schedule, so together “screening schedule”) may also be used.
You'll probably want to be able to read katakana in order to read the movie titles if there are no pictures/posters (but most theater websites have the posters next to the descriptions and/or time schedule). Also keep in mind that some movies may have completely different names. For example, the movie "Up" was "Grandpa and the Flying House" or something along those lines (in Japanese).
3. How to know when movies will be released in Japan
There are various ways to figure this out (any online search engine, really), but I typically search for the particular movie I'm curious about on IMDB. IMDB by default will show a movie's release date in Japan for me (as I’m in Japan, obviously), but no matter the country that shows up first, if you click on the date (see image) it will display the release dates for all countries.
For example, I look up Kung Fu Panda 2, and it shows the release date to be August 19 in Japan.
If you want a list for upcoming releases this year (2011) in Japan, you can view the IMDB link here.
One thing I've noticed, sometimes it isn't worth paying to see a western movie in the theater here (unless you really want the experience or want to watch a film in 3D) because often within two-three weeks or so the same movie is released to rent or buy on iTunes. Something to keep in mind.
4. How to know if a movie is subtitled or dubbed
To know if a movie is subtitled, (usually meaning you can watch it in English if it’s a western, "Hollywood" movie) or dubbed in Japanese, look for the following words:
Subtitles: 字幕 (じまく, jimaku) or 字幕版 (jimakuhan)
Dubbed: 吹替 (ふきかえ, fukikae) or 吹き替え
*Note that some theater websites will also indicate in English whether the movie is “English” or “Japanese.”
Most western kids' movies will typically be dubbed, such as Pixar, Disney, etc. (which honestly just completely changes the movie in my opinion. It'd be like watching Ghibli films in English - so different than the original version!). In my experience, in large cities, you can find subtitled versions of these movies as well, but in smaller, local theaters, I've yet to find a subtitled kids' movie. (If you've found this to be different where you are - please let us know in the comments).
Most other western movies will typically be subtitled, so you can enjoy them in English (or their native language - though most are movies in English). Occasionally, you'll find some exceptions. For example, the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie is available both dubbed and subtitled (yes, even at our smaller local theater...).
5. Know your fees and discounts
You'll want to know the following terms in order to buy tickets (and to know how much it'll cost you).
基本料金 きほんりょうきん kihonryoukin basic fees (also just seen as 料金)
一般 いっぱん ippan general admission
大学 だいがく daigaku college (but in this case, college student)
高校 こうこう koukou high school (student)
学生* がくせい gakusei student (usually high school/college)
中学 ちゅうがく chuugaku junior high/middle school
小人 こども kodomo child
(may also be shown as “elementary student” 小学生 )
幼児 ようじ youji infant
シニア shinia senior
身障者 しんしょうしゃ shinshousha disabled
*(For all the student tickets you may also see “生” at the end)
割引 (わりびき) - Discount
A variety of discounts are available and certainly worth taking advantage of considering how expensive it typically is to see a movie in Japan. The types of discounts offered vary by theater and location, but a few examples:
First day of the month
Example: 毎月1日 or ファーストデー
Example: Wednesday is ladies day - 水曜女性. Ladies day can also be seen as レディースデイ
Example: Friday is men's day - 金曜男性. You’ll probably see ladies day more often than mens day, though. Mens day may also be in katakana: メンズデイ
Driver's discount (if you drive/park)
Example: ドライバー割引 (though this may be displayed in various other ways)
Married couple with at least one individual in the couple over 50
Example: いずれかが50歳以上の夫婦ペア or 夫婦50割引
Those are just a few examples... but many others exist, so you'll want to check at your local theater. Some theaters have discount days in the middle of the month as well.
One point to note: when you buy tickets, they will usually ask you to choose your seats - even if there are only 5 other people seeing the movie.
6. How to know if the movie is 3D or not
More and more movies are being shown in 3D (sometimes only 3D here it seems). If the theater is showing a movie in 3D, then "3D" will be indicated somewhere near the movie title. And yes, you have to pay extra (prices vary by theater, but typically a few hundred yen).
7. When to go to the movies
Most movie theaters have showings from morning until late at night (many theaters offer discounts for late night showings, and some may offer morning show discounts as well). Times vary depending on the theater and movie, just as they probably do in your home country. Some movies, such as children's movies in subtitles, may be shown less often than the dubbed versions, if available at all. It all depends, but you can easily look at time schedules for any given movie, either on the theater's website or via Moviewalker, or another site of your choice.
You'll want to click on: 上映スケジュール (じょうえい, jouei, screening, and sukejuuru, schedule, so together “screening schedule”.)
The picture below shows one theater's time schedule for the new Pirates of the Caribbean, subtitled and dubbed, both 3D:
Now, hopefully you're prepared to head to the movies! Another thing I haven't mentioned is snacks, but that's probably something to save for another time. Though popcorn is usually sold, along with caramel corn, churros, and various other treats and beverages (including alcoholic drinks). Though you probably won't find any giant boxes of Sour Patch Kids or Junior Mints (US)... (something I seem to associate with going to the movies).
Feel free to share your Japan movie-going experiences below!