Anime is a broad term that covers a variety of Japanese animation, both hand-drawn and computer-generated, from fantasy epics and thought-provoking sci-fi to intimate dramas and gritty realism. It has been around for over 100 years, but really exploded in popularity in the second half of the 20th century to become one of Japan’s most important cultural exports.
The genre has continued to produce innovative, engaging films in the 21st century. Hayao Miyazaki and his heirs at Studio Ghibli delivered classics such as Spirited Away and When Marnie was there. Artists from outside of Japan have also explored anime with success, such as a Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit with his film The Red Turtle. Not to mention, Makoto Shinkai catapulted to the forefront of anime with its charming sci-fi love story Your name. All of this indicates that anime will remain a hub of creativity for years to come.
‘Tokyo Grandfathers’ (2003) – IMDb: 7.8/10
Tokyo Grandfathers is an adventure film from the director Satoshi Konwhich also made Paprika and Perfect blue. It follows three homeless people in Tokyo who find a baby in the garbage on Christmas Eve, so they set out to find the child’s parents.
It is Kon’s most realistic film, with no magic or sci-fi elements. It doesn’t have the crazy energy to it Paprika, but it’s funnier and more sentimental. The three main characters are all absurd and likable, creating a charming story about finding family.
‘Ghost in the Shell 2.0’ (2008) – IMDb. 7.9/10
The 1995s Ghost in the shellbased on the manga by Masamune Shirow, is a cult classic and one of the most influential anime films of all time. It follows a cyborg police agent (Atsuko Tanaka/Mimi Woods) and her partner (Akio Otsuka/Richard Epcar) while investigating an incident where sex robots were hacked and made to attack humans.
It was re-released in 2008 with new footage and updated animation, along with a remixed soundtrack. Purists may prefer the 1995 version, but there is no doubt that the re-release is visually superior. However, the film’s main appeal remains the way it explores themes of identity in a world of advanced technology, where the line between human and robot is increasingly blurred.
‘When Marnie Was There’ (2014) – IMDb: 7.7/10
Anna is a 12-year-old girl who suffers from asthma, so her foster parents send her to live with their relatives at their home by the lake. While exploring the wetlands there, Anna comes across a dilapidated mansion and the girl who appears to live there. Anna befriends the mysterious blonde Marnie, but many questions remain. What is Marnie’s story? Is she a ghost? A memory?
When Marnie was there is a Ghibli film from Hiromasa Yonebayashwho also directed Arriet’s secret worldy. It’s a heartwarming story told through the gorgeous 2D animation that Ghibli does best. It received critical acclaim and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
‘The Wind Rises’ (2013) – IMDb: 7.7/10
The wind increases is the last film directed by anime legend Hayao Miyazaki. It is one of his more realistic films and tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi, the engineer who designed many of Japan’s fighter planes used during World War II. In particular, the film explores how the talented and idealistic Horikoshi was exploited by the country’s militaristic leaders.
The animation is beautiful, as you would expect from a Ghibli film, and the landscapes of pre-war Japan are depicted almost like a fantasy world. The sequence showing the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is particularly well done.
‘Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance (2009) – IMDb: 7.9
Evangelion: 2.0 is the second entry in Rebuilding Evangeliona series of four films retelling the events from Neon Genesis Evangelion performance. That series followed the conflict between humans using giant mechs and a race of beings known as angels.
Neon Genesis Evangelion has been cited as one of the most influential anime series ever made and has also been referenced in many western animated series such as Steven Universe and Gravity Falls. Wes Anderson has even admitted to being a fan of the series. For those who want to try it Rebuild Movies are a good place to start.
‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’ (2013) – IMDb: 8.0/10
A bamboo cutter discovers a tiny girl inside a bamboo shoot, and he and his wife adopt her. The girl, whom they named Princess, is growing fast and appears to have magical powers. Princess and her new parents move to the capital, where many suitors try to win her hand, but she remains sad and lost. To find her place in the world, the princess must first uncover the mystery of her past and where she comes from.
Chloe Grace Moretz does a great job as the titular princess in the English dub. She will join Darren Criss, James Caan, Lucy Liu, and Beau Bridges. Impressively, the film currently holds a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
‘Wolf Children’ (2012) – IMDb: 8.1/10
Wolf child centers on young mother Hana (Aoi Miyazaki/Colleen Clinkenbeard) who is struggling to raise her two children, Ame (Yukito Nishii/Micah Soluso) and Yuki (Haru Kuroki/Jad Saxton), after their werewolf father died tragically. The cubs must learn to manage their half-wolf nature, while keeping it a secret from society.
This turns out to be easier said than done. Yuki in particular finds it difficult to tap into his wolf side, and even snaps at one point, injuring a classmate. Despite this supernatural premise, Wolf child is essentially a family drama and coming-of-age story. The characters are cute and well designed, thanks to the artist Yoshiyuki Sadamotowho also worked with Neon Genesis Evangelion. But the main appeal is the writing and voice cast, who play these characters with real emotion.
‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ (2004) – IMDb: 8.2/10
Howl’s Moving Castle is a Miyazaki film based on the beloved children’s book by Diana Wynne Jones. It takes place in a fantasy world where two kingdoms are at war. An evil witch curses young Sophie (Chieko Baisho/Emily Mortimer), making her an old woman. Sophie sets out to lift the curse and teams up with a young wizard named Howl (Takuya Kimura/Christian Bale). The two soon become embroiled in the war.
Alongside the magical surroundings, Howl’s Moving Castle explores anti-war themes. Miyazaki was reportedly inspired to make the film due to his opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In 2013, he named Howl’s Moving Castle as his favorite of his own films. “I wanted to convey the message that life is worth living, and I don’t think that has changed,” he said.
‘Your Name’ (2016) – IMDb: 8.4/10
Your name follows two Japanese high school students living in separate parts of the country who inexplicably begin switching bodies. Some mornings they wake up in the other’s body and have to live a day in their life. They struggle to understand the situation and the strange connection between them, and in the process form a close bond.
This might sound like an anime Terrible Friday, but it’s actually a surprisingly emotional story about loneliness and connection. The voice cast is great and the visuals are always beautiful. Not for nothing, Your name grossed over $380 million at the box office to become the third highest-grossing animated film of all time. Director Makoto Shinkai is set to release a new fantasy adventure film early next year.
‘Spirited Away’ (2001) – IMDb: 8.6/10
Spirited Away centers on ten-year-old Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi/Daveigh Chase), who discovers a world inhabited by magical spirits. Many of these entities are friendly, but some are dangerous. Indeed, the witch Yubaba (Mari Natsuki/Suzanne Pleshette) enslaves Chihiro and turns her parents into pigs. In secret, Chiro begins to plan a way to save his parents and escape from the spirit world. It’s another film directed by Miyazaki, and probably his most famous work.
It is based on techniques he pioneered My neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke. The film is visually striking, with many memorable characters and creatures, from the dragon Haku to the masked ghost No-Face. However, the main appeal is the story and characters. They are realistic and complex, helping to lift this fantasy adventure into a mature drama. With it, Miyazaki set an exceptionally high standard for anime films entering the 21st century.
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