The association between animated movies and children’s stories was nearly undisputable until very recently, at least where Hollywood productions are concerned. On the other side of the Pacific, however, animated art has long paid homage to complex themes and heart wrenching tales.
Most anime movies were created with the young ones in mind, but the genre is full of masterpieces that remain equally enthralling as decades go by. Many of these hidden jewels remained under the radar until just a few years ago, as locating VHS tapes or DVDs required knowing someone who was part of this devoted fandom.
But if there was ever a time to indulge in niche tastes, it’s now. On your next lazy Saturday evening or rainy-day-date, load up Blu-Ray player with any of these anime classics.
Back in the mid-90s, Ninja Scroll awed American audiences by showing exactly how R-rated could anime be. Hidden beneath the violent and intense swordfights, however, lies the epic tale of a common mercenary who has to save Japan from an army of terrific demons. Set during the Tokugawe Shogunate, Ninja Scroll was directed by Joshiaki Kawajiri and produced by the same studio that brought us Aeon Flux. It quickly grew into a generational phenomenon in Japan, and even now remains the “gateway drug” for many Western anime fans.
Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, 5 cm per second was released straight onto the internet back in 2007. Its producers were keenly aware of the potential audience hiding overseas, who may have needed to look up how many inches five centimeters are but nonetheless demanded easy access to the movie.
Little over an hour long, 5 cm per Second is actually a trilogy of three short stories that narrate the development, frustrations, and eventual growth of Takaki Tono, the protagonist. It’s half a slow-burn romance story and half a coming of age tale. The movie won the Asia Pacific Screen Awards’ Best Animated Feature Film award.
Before “Community” made hidden pop culture references into its own genre, FLCL had already provided millennial Japanese audiences with its own shrine to American trivia.
Originally launched as a miniseries with six 20-minute-long episodes, FLCL takes a group of unremarkable teenagers through the fast-growing chaos that follows having to save the world from giant robots and the evil conglomerate that builds them. However, it did so through a colorful aesthetic that mimicked South Park’s irreverence and celebrated references to Star Trek and Neon Genesis Evangelion alike. FLCL is now a generational statement for those of us who grew up on a borderless, international culture.
Stories of immortal vampiric romances may be all the rage nowadays, but the affairs of vampire hunters always bring that extra edge of danger, the possibility of quick death or a prolonged infection, and sharp weaponry.
Directed by Koshiaki Kawajiri, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust keeps an appropriately dark aesthetic but never falls into the emo clichés that vampires are often associated with. On the contrary, its dark themes and doomed love stories are kept witty and endearing.
This list started out attempting to prove how “Adult” anime can be, but we would be doing it a disservice by not including the 1988 classic My neighbor Totoro.
Yes, this is a children-oriented story, but so was Toy Story – and way too many 20-year-olds have cried while watching it for it to be constricted to the children’s alley.
Set in post-war Japan, Totoro is a big, fluffy, purple woodland creature. My Neighbor Totoro, however, is truly the tender story of two sisters who are attempting to keep their childhood going even as their mom lies in a hospital bed. To remain close, the family moves to an old country home inhabited by “dust spirits,” who keep the girls company while the adults around them deal with the consequences of devastation, long-term illness, and fear.
Director Satoshi Kon tried (and succeeded) to expand the genre’s boundaries with this tense psychological thriller. Away from the typical samurai and fantasy stories that crowd most successful anime productions, Perfect Blue shows an actress slowly lose herself and her identity in the trappings of fame and 24/7 media coverage. Hitchcock would have loved this one.
Before it was a Scarlett Johansson movie, Ghost in the Shell was already one of the most influential anime movies across the world. The futuristic space colonies of Avatar and the genre of steampunk itself owe much of its aesthetic to the 1995 anime, which narrates the gripping action-oriented story of a girl who is more machine than human. Despite her impressive battle prowess, her very humanity and free will is under constant threat from hackers and their cyberattacks.
Abandoned babies have always been game changers and excellent plot fodder: the book of Exodus and the origin story of Azeroth’s greatest hero show all the potential ramifications of casting a newborn adrift.
Perhaps this is why Tokyo Godfathers show the hijinks of three homeless men who risk what little they have left to find such a baby’s mother. Created and written in collaboration by Perfect Blue’s Satoshi Kon and Vampire Hunter D’s Koshaki Kawajiri, Tokyo Godfathers is an endearing but unapologetic snapshot of Tokyo’s orderly underbelly.
Howl’s Moving Castle was originally based off the British novel of the same name (originally published by Dianne Wynne Jones). However, Hayao Miyazaki’s retelling of the story is very much her own. What starts with a girl cursed into a 90-year-old’s body searching for a prince to save her becomes an in-depth examination of revenge, power, and attraction.
Akira was originally released in 1988 and ever since, it has transcended the confines of a “best anime” list as it is often featured in many “best films” rankings. The tale is set in a 2019 that we hope will never come to pass – a dystopian post-apocalyptic Tokyo where military intelligence and gangs squabble over the remains of a city driven mad by nuclear disaster.
In Akira, a lowlife hero with telekinetic powers threatens the grim daily reality of Neo-Tokio, as inspired and told by his childhood sidekick – or at least tries to. Their journey defined the concept of cyberpunk and provides humanity with a chance to start anew.
Based on the anime series of the same name, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, can stand on its own two feet and should be re-watched before Hollywood’s live action remake is released.
Cowboy Bebop, also known among certain circles as the world’s best humored bounty hunter, acts as both a main character and as the opportunity to push the boundaries of loneliness and rivalry right up to where they become respect and admiration.
Time travel can never be done without some sci-fi, but not all time travel stories have to be about robots and technology. In The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, director Mamoru Hosoda shows us the harsh lessons learned by Makoto, a schoolgirl who literally tumbles over a time-travelling device on the way back from school. The discovery saves her life, but, just as teenage girls are bound to do, it is quickly put to use for frivolous means, such as getting better grades and extra time in bed. The more she messes with forces she doesn’t understand, the harsher the consequences become.
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke may have accidentally created a whole new generation of environmentalists, similarly to the effect Captain Planet had on the other side of the Pacific. This historical fantasy takes us back to the Muromachi period, where a local princeling is accidentally caught as a pawn in the struggle between the old spirits of the forests and the humans who threaten them.
The tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought new perspectives on our own destructive power all around the world. In Japan, however, they played a major role in defining the generation that grew up in its shadow. Barefoot Gen narrates the story of a 6-year-old boy who lost his entire family in the nuclear blast. Highly autobiographical, Tengo Yamada’s film lets us explore the values of resistance and resilience through its impact on a child who shouldn’t have played a part in this mess to begin with.
The alienation of big city life has served as the starting point for all types of media and art. Metropolis, Rintaro’s highest grossing film from 2001, follows proudly on this tradition and on the universe created by its predecessors.
The plot is based on that of a 1947 manga, which itself derives from a 1927 silent film. In Metropolis, the uneasy coexistence between humans and robots is threatened by the actions of a human-supremacist terrorist group.
This hidden gem of a tearjerker tells a World War II story – appropriately, the best period in human history when it comes to examining the depths of human resilience and evil alike. Created and produced by Studio Ghibli, one of the most lauded and commercially successful anime producers, Grave of the Fireflies tells the story of two children who are left to fend for themselves following the destruction of their city. Their relentless escape from a gnawing empty stomaches leaves behind tragic but eerily beautiful images.
Although this 1997 release probably requires you to watch the anime series first, chances are you already have: Neon Genesis Evangelion was a phenomenon of Biblical themes and proportions. What first seemed to be yet another iteration of the “robot in cyberpunk world” genre quickly became a weird, confusing metaphysical examination of what it means to be human.
If you have never watched anime but are a hardened Doctor Who fan, Read or Die will simultaneously open up an entire new genre and indulge all your futuristic and historical sweet spots. In this short film, half a dozen historical figures are forced to intermingle, form alliances, and struggle within the confines of a steampunk-based city. In a bit of wish-fulfillment, the mayhem is started by a timid librarian and a secret agent with supernatural powers.
Alternate futures are always at their most interesting when we can push the cutoff date a little bit further. Steamboy is a great example of this. Set in an 1863 that has achieved things that 1963 hasn’t, it tells of the of the intrigue and betrayal that follow the discovery of the world’s only pure mineral water, which is believed to be a powerful and infinite resource for steam machines.
It doesn’t matter if now we know it is not. Kashuri Otomo’s 2004 film shows exactly how far we are willing to go when confronted with the possibility of infinite power and money.
If Christopher Nolan’s Inception took dreams as an excuse to bend the limits of reality, Satoshi Kon’s Paprika completely breaks them by eliminating live-action altogether. In this trippy anime, a medical researcher is forced to become a nocturnal vigilante and detective to protect a device created to help children with psychiatric disorders – but that could easily break healthy minds if modified just right.
Redline keeps to anime’s techniques and colorful applications, but is, in reality, a joint production by Japan’s Takeishi Koike and New Zealand’s producing film Madhouse. Redline feels a bit like the result of giving Transformers to the underground racers of The Fast and the Furious – with a side dish of intelligent social commentary and ethical dilemmas.
Studio Ghibli’s most astonishing commercial success, Spirited Away was originally released in 2001 and is one of the few anime movies that was firmly given its own shrine in mainstream Hollywood.
During a family trip, 10-year-old Chihiro is accidentally transported into the spirit world while her parents overindulge at a roadside diner. After being tricked by a soul harvester who is intent on making her forget her own name, Chihiro manages to earn her way back with tenderness and curiosity.
This 2016 release directed by Makoto Shinkai is the newest work on the list, but there is little hesitation as to whether it will truly go into history as one of the genre’s most revolutionary successes. In Your Name., two high school students (an urban boy and a rural girl) begin swapping bodies at will via mysterious spirit magic. What could have turned out an animated spin off of Freaky Friday became, instead, a fascinating love story that pushed at the boundaries of society’s expectations and became Japan’s fourth highest-grossing film ever.
Robots and cyborgs always have great potential to become an economically viable franchise. Any 80s kids who collected action figures knows this a bit too well. The Gundam Wing universe was one of the most successful Japanese iterations of this concept. The 1998 film steers clear of philosophy and avoids the dangers of taking itself too seriously. Instead, it offers thrilling battle sequences and a captivating plot. What else do you really need?
In this 2013 historical drama, a nearsighted kid is faced with the harsh prospect that he will never become a pilot – and instead aims to design his own planes. As World War II approaches, he will have to deal not only with the initial failure of his designs, but with the horrors brought on by his successes. Caught between his desire to do good and his eagerness to please his own country, he will have to test the limits of personal responsibility before being allowed to sleep restfully at night.