After last week’s Opinion Battle, I noticed that many movie reviewers perhaps have not had much exposure to anime beyond the few Studio Ghibli films that have gained acclaim outside Japan. Thus, I thought my next list would cover my favorite anime (which is just another word for a Japanese cartoon. Cue debate.)
I myself have had a varied history with anime. I grew up with the usual kids’ stuff like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! and Dragon Ball Z, but it just blended into all the animated TV shows I watched and never stood out to me as something different. Then came Spirited Away, and when it won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2002, my parents and I decided to watch it pay-per-view. Nothing had prepared us for just how bizarre and, well, foreign it was (seriously, green decapitated heads rolling around?), and though I don’t recall my exact reaction other than “it was weird,” my parents totally turned their backs on anime overall. They still haven’t fully recovered.
It wasn’t until years later that a review of Grave of the Fireflies prompted me to give anime another try, and its moving and realistic story contrasted so greatly with Spirited Away that it gave me a new respect for what this genre could accomplish. A marathon of Ghibli films followed, and now I have enough favorite anime to make up a list like this. I don’t know how many like me there are, but I’m one of those people who would sooner watch an animated movie than a live-action one, and anime fits into that category. While it’s not my favorite genre, it’s among my most watchable.
I will say that I’m rather particular about my anime, and the kind I watched as a kid with all the yelling and exaggerated faces and reactions no longer appeals to me. None of the films below nor any Ghibli film I’ve seen carry these clichés, and I think they are better for it. Thus, here are my top twelve anime, and I hope that someone adventurous out there will give them a try as I did. You might find a new favorite too.
#13/Runner-Up: Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, directed by Hayao Miyazaki
This is another film that I was not prepared for, in particular the violence. No other Ghibli film is like it and very few reviews mention how violent it is so I was shocked when heads and limbs started flying. However, when I eventually looked past this graphic element, I saw the story and artwork are amazing, and that the actual violence is a small part of the long running time. I cannot think of another animated film that I could easily call an epic, but Princess Mononoke fits that mold, as it follows Prince Ashitaka on a quest to cure a demon’s curse and restore peace to warring humans and forest gods. The pagan mythology is heavy, but the engrossing action and ambiguous characterization are exactly what made Miyazaki so famous. If only he’d left out the unnecessary violence…. (The English dub includes Claire Danes and Billy Bob Thornton.)
#12: Time of Eve (2010), Studio Rikka, directed by Yasuhiro Yoshiura
A more recent watch that displaced by previous #12, Time of Eve is a six-part web series that was combined into a thought-provoking movie about androids in the near-future. A high school student named Rikuo has always taken robots for granted as nothing more than appliances, but when he discovers a café where robots and humans are treated the same, this legal and moral gray area and its diverse patrons make him question his preconceptions about androids. Episodic and subtle, with much of the bigger picture left to the imagination, this sensitive drama will keep viewers pondering its themes long after the credits roll.
#11: Patema Inverted (2013), Purple Cow Studio, directed by Yasuhiro Yoshiura
While its premise may seem similar to the 2012 live-action film Upside Down, Patema Inverted is still a dazzling piece of work. After an experiment with the earth’s gravity goes awry and sends much of the world’s people falling into the sky, a colony of survivors live underground, despised as “inverts” by the “normal” people above…I mean, below…I mean…you know what I mean. The uncertainty of what’s up and what’s down is part of its appeal. Incredible shifting perspective shots give the viewer an idea of what different characters are seeing, and the core romance between two oppositely gravitated kids provides the heart of this sci-fi. Even if certain aspects are hard to understand, thinking about them exercises the mind (or at least it did mine). I haven’t seen Upside Down, but I’ve heard it didn’t fulfill its potential; Patema Inverted does.
#10: The Wind Rises (2013), Studio Ghibli, directed by Hayao Miyazaki
While Miyazaki’s work has been universally praised, it’s all much more appealing to the eyes and imagination than to the heart. He changed that with his final film, The Wind Rises. More down-to-earth than his fantasy films, it nonetheless flies high as it depicts the life and dreams of Jiro Horikoshi, the real-life designer of the Japanese Zero plane. The film carries some real emotional weight as Jiro falls in love and is forced to balance his engineering goals with the inevitable tragedy of loss. It’s one of the sweetest anime romances I’ve seen and an example of how creativity can lead to destruction. (The English dub includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt.)
#9: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), Tokyo Movie Shinsha, directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Here we jump from Miyazaki’s last film to his first. The Castle of Cagliostro may seem dated compared with other more popular anime, but its entertainment value outweighs much of the competition. The James-Bond-style adventure follows the exploits of gentleman thief Lupin III as he infiltrates a European castle and crosses a dangerous count to rescue a princess and uncover a counterfeiting operation. Just one among many Lupin films, Cagliostro stands out thanks to Miyazaki, who made the main characters more likable and exhibited his early craftsmanship.
#8: Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001), Bandai Visual Company/Sunrise/Bones/Destination Films, directed by Shinichiro Watanabe
Cowboy Bebop is hailed as one of the greatest anime shows ever, and its follow-up movie delivered more of the same awesomeness. Set between episodes 22 and 23 of the show (right before plot threads started wrapping up), the film fits into the episodic nature of the show as just one more adventure for the futuristic bounty hunters aboard their ship, the Bebop. Thus, it’s fairly accessible to newcomers and doesn’t require prior knowledge of the characters. When a terrorist releases a biological weapon on heavily populated Mars, the astronomical bounty on his head attracts Spike, Jet, and Faye to follow his trail. With elements of film noir and crime thrillers, this film boasts stylish action and music, despite its intermittent frank violence. Just watch the opening scene to get an idea of the coolness that is Spike Spiegel.
#7: The Girl Who Leapt through Time (2006), Madhouse, directed by Mamoru Hosoda
A favorite among viewers branching out from Studio Ghibli, The Girl Who Leapt through Time is a sensitive coming-of-age tale mixed with the perks of time travel. When Makoto Konno has the worst day of her life, including being hit by a train (a reeeally bad day!), she awakes to find she has the ability to leap back and forth through time. Juvenile antics give way to unfortunate consequences, and even if plot holes abound, the film excels in both its romance and sci-fi aspects. The end of this film always leaves me with a happy feeling.
#6: Wolf Children (2012), Studio Chizu/Madhouse, directed by Mamoru Hosoda
A darling among many anime reviewers, Wolf Children is an undeniably sweet family drama, one that balances cuteness with the pains of growing up. Combining the joys and trials of parenthood with werewolves may not have been an obvious mix, but Hosoda did an excellent job here. Despite the werewolves, the story is in no way a horror; after a college student named Hana falls in love with a mysterious man, and even after she learns he is half wolf, they share a brief but touching romance reminiscent of the beginning of Up. Most of the film, though, is about how Hana raises their two children Ame and Yuki, trying to hide their wolf side while wishing only the best for them. The ending may be rather disappointing, but the majority of Wolf Children is beautiful.
#5: Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011), CoMix Wave Films, directed by Makoto Shinkai
I don’t care for much of Shinkai’s past work (e.g. 5 Centimeters Per Second), but once he stopped focusing on abstract feelings and actually told a worthwhile story, he hit this one out of the park. Also known as Journey to Agartha, this movie combines all the best elements of Studio Ghibli’s films into an exciting and occasionally moving adventure. After young Asuna meets an enigmatic boy named Shun, she embarks on a quest to a fantasy world deep under the earth, led by her progressively obsessed teacher in search of lost love. The whole film is about saying goodbye in different ways, and it features subtle morals, thrilling action, and some of the most gorgeously detailed animation I’ve come across.
#4: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Topcraft/Tokuma Shoten/Nibariki/Hakuhodo, directed by Hayao Miyazaki
This is the film that skyrocketed Miyazaki’s career and directly led to the formation of Studio Ghibli. Nausicaä is both a slightly preachy cautionary tale about pollution and an intriguing post-apocalyptic adventure. Nausicaä herself is a princess, whose peaceful valley is threatened by rival kingdoms vying for both power and a way to halt the spreading of a poisonous forest and its humongous insectoid inhabitants. A lot happens and a lot isn’t fully explained because the story is just part of Miyazaki’s much longer manga (Japanese comic), which he wrote specifically so he could convince producers to finance this film. It was a hit and remains an anime classic with one of my favorite movie scores. (The English dub includes Uma Thurman and Patrick Stewart.)
#3: Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), Studio Ghibli, directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Miyazaki’s very next film manages to edge out its more acclaimed forerunner. Laputa: Castle in the Sky (or just Castle in the Sky) was the first film after Studio Ghibli’s formation and my favorite of Miyazaki’s. Set in a high-flying steampunk landscape, it joins likable engineer’s assistant Pazu with young Sheeta, who floats down from the sky with a glowing crystal. Fleeing from air pirates and government agents intent on obtaining her crystal, they race to the ancient floating island of Laputa and the secret power it contains. The score is phenomenal, the characters endearing, and the setting and action stunning. Even my anime-despising mom said it was “pretty good”; Castle in the Sky is a perfect introduction for Studio Ghibli newbies. (The English dub includes Anna Paquin and Mark Hamill.)
#2: Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Studio Ghibli, directed by Isao Takahata
Though other 1988 films like My Neighbor Totoro and Akira seem to get more attention, Grave of the Fireflies is the standout anime of the year and the decade. It’s strange to rank it among my favorites since it’s a deeply depressing tragedy that tears me up inside every time. I used to cry at the drop of a hat when I was younger, but Fireflies is the only film that still makes me sob bitterly. It tells the story of siblings Seita and Setsuko, orphaned after a World War II bombing, who must survive on their own and ultimately fail. It’s not a spoiler since the first scene reveals this fact, but the recounting of how it happened is utterly heartbreaking. Grave of the Fireflies is an emotional powerhouse about the loss of innocence and the cost of war.
#1: Whisper of the Heart (1995), Studio Ghibli, directed by Yoshifumi Kondō
My #1 is probably no surprise for anyone who saw my choice for last week’s Opinion Battle, and I highly doubt that many others would rank it as I would. This is a strictly personal choice (my parents didn’t see its appeal); certainly everyone has a film that speaks to them, even if it’s to them alone, and this one spoke to me. It’s simple and a bit slow, without the fantasy of other Ghiblis, but its realism is part of its appeal. Schoolgirl Shizuku develops a gradual relationship with Seiji, and the two of them encourage each other to follow their dreams and talents. Shizuku wishes to be a writer, and the inspiration she receives has encouraged me as well. Between the creative use of “Country Roads, Take Me Home” (one of my favorite songs) and the gentle, youthful drama, Whisper of the Heart is one of my go-to films for inspiration. (The English dub includes Brittany Snow and Cary Elwes.)
Akira (1988), directed by Katsuhiro Otomo – Definitely not for kids and a bit weak on characters, but the influential animation is still amazing all these years later.
Brave Story (2007), directed by Koichi Chigira – Not a lot of explanations, but this likable video-game-style quest features elements of Spirited Away and Children Who Chase Lost Voices.
The Boy Who Saw the Wind (2000), directed by Kazuki Omori – Clearly drawing inspiration from Mizazaki’s films, this adventure fantasy also seems like an influence on Avatar: The Last Airbender.
The Cat Returns (2002), directed by Hiroyuki Morita (Ghibli) – Somewhat of a follow-up to Whisper of the Heart, like a story that Shizuku would write; I’d like it even more if the connection had been made plainer.
Colorful (2010), directed by Keiichi Hara – Like Ordinary People meets Quantum Leap.
From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), directed by Goro Miyazaki (Ghibli) – Young romance mingles with a defense of knowledge and the past in this period piece.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), directed by Hayao Miyazaki (Ghibli) – Imaginative fantasy about a cursed girl and a self-centered wizard with a great voice cast (Christian Bale, Billy Crystal) and the best Ghibli animation yet IMO
Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem (2003), directed by Kazuhisa Takenouchi – An extended Daft Punk music video that wears thin over time but will easily please Daft Punk fans
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), directed by Hayao Miyazaki (Ghibli) – Sweet and simple tale of a young witch coming of age
Millennium Actress (2001), directed by Satoshi Kon – A slightly confusing journey through Japanese cinema and the search for the unattainable; so-so animation but a beautifully evocative ending
Ponyo (2008), directed by Hayao Miyazaki (Ghibli) – Inspired by The Little Mermaid; a cute fantasy for the younger set
Porco Rosso (1992), directed by Hayao Miyazaki (Ghibli) – An old-school story of a hard-boiled pilot in the 1920s cursed with the head of a pig
Paprika (2006), directed by Satoshi Kon – Imaginatively surreal and moderately disturbing, this was a clear forerunner of Inception, and at least one elevator scene seems to have been directly borrowed from this mature sci-fi
The Secret World of Arrietty (2010), directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Ghibli) – Simple but endearing tale based on The Borrowers
Spirited Away (2001), directed by Hayao Miyazaki (Ghibli) – Yes, I saw it again and liked it more, but it’s still very weird and not for anime newcomers
Steamboy (2004), directed by Katsuhiro Otomo – Weak on story but spectacular with the detailed steampunk visuals and much more family friendly than Akira
Summer Wars (2009), directed by Mamoru Hosoda – An entertaining balance between extended family drama, digital smackdowns, and social commentary on our Internet culture
Also, a special mention for My Neighbor Totoro, a family film that has many fans, though I’m not one of them. Its lack of plot just isn’t for me, but anyone exploring anime should still give it a try.
Now that I’ve gotten this list out, I can get off my recent anime kick, but I hope that someone out there finds a new favorite here.