Most people either have a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what anime is. Many make the sin of calling it a genre, which is false in every conceivable way. Anime is a medium, much like how paintings, live-action film, or photography are other mediums of art. The anime films on this list are ones that have been chosen because of how universal the themes in them are and how easy it is to get sucked into them. With few exceptions, films from an anime franchise will, for the most part, be omitted. With each film, your mileage may vary, and you might or might not like some or any of these films. That said, you should still see them regardless because you might be depriving yourself of having an enriching experience. Full disclosure: some of these choices are on here for historical purposes, because, like with any thoughtful analysis of a given medium, it is important to call attention to markers in the history of Japanese animation for the purposes of comparing stages in the development of a medium. I hope you all find this list useful; happy viewing!
Here are some explanations and context as to why the entries are there.
The following are explanations as to why these works made the list.
• #’s 1-15 are works by Studio Ghibli. These films were made under the talents of Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and more. What more needs to be said? Seriously?
• #16: Akira: If ever there were an anime film that kicked off the idea that anime weren’t stupid cartoons as most Americans are likely to believe, this is it. It also introduced the world to the name of Katsuhiro Otomo who is still a beast to some extent in the industry. This kicked off the first true generation of anime fandom in North America. One of the few undeniable masterpieces of anime and a must-see by anyone who appreciates film beyond the notion of it being simple entertainment.
• #‘s 17-24: Once upon a time, Mamoru Oshii was one of the most visually innovative creators in the anime industry. I say was, because in recent years he has completely sworn off anime and has retreated purely to live-action. Anyway, Oshii is a firm believer of the “show not tell” philosophy of filmmaking, the end result of this being some of the most visually sumptuous and thought-provoking anime films ever made. To go off on Ghost in the Shell for a minute; it was the next big hit in America after Akira dominated American culture. Also worth mentioning is that it is the film that directly inspired The Wachowskis to create The Matrix (to the point that they screened this film for potential studios saying they wanted to make something a live action equivalent of Ghost in the Shell).
Stick only with his animated films and completely ignore his live-action films. If there is one thing that I think can be said with certainty, it is that live-action is not Oshii’s medium and every time he visited it, he fell on his face. Now that is all he will be giving us, so unless he shows that he can make a decent live-action film; he might be better off returning to his animated endeavors.
• #25: Metropolis: Although not a Katsuhiro Otomo project outright (he only wrote the screenplay) he is the one usually brought up first when referring to this adaptation of the God of Anime/Manga’s (aka Osamu Tezuka) original manga of the same name. It is directed by Rintaro who is a notoriously love or hate anime creator. He either made abortions or masterpieces (more of the former unfortunately). It is an emotionally powerful film that must be seen. It will also make you think of Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You” in a new way forevermore.
• #‘s 26-30: Makoto Shinkai is a director of anime who has very recently been getting wide notice not just in Japan, but America as well; and with good reason. His works often strike an emotional chord with people from all walks of life that is often identifiable in real-life and very palatable. Very emotional and beautifully composed both in characterization and visual design. With the exception of Children Who Chase Lost Voices, the first three are very much rooted in teenage love stories which you’re either gonna like or dislike. Lost Voices is more like Castle in the Sky II, and I mean that in the most complementary way possible. Must see.
• #‘s 31-34: Satoshi Kon was a genius. I don’t anyone could EVER argue with that. If ever there were a person who could have taken on the throne once Hayao Miyazaki kicks the bucket (which might be sooner than most would be comfortable with), it would have been him. If ever there was a single creator whose films would scream that they could not have been made in no other medium, it would have been Kon’s. It was a dark day on the face of not just anime, but animation in general when he was unfairly taken away from the world by pancreatic cancer. He was an irreplaceable treasure that represented the next generation of creators. RIP Kon-san, you shall be sorely missed.
• #‘s 35-39: Mamoru Hosoda’s four standalone films are, for the most part, absolutely spectacular and amazing revolutions in a stagnant, risk-averse and rigid industry at present. The race is still on for who will end up taking the baton Miyazaki left behind as Japan’s top anime director. Although Satoshi Kon is tragically not with us any longer, I think Hosoda might be a strong candidate for carrying that baton. If he keeps making them as resonant and beautifully as he has at present, he might be The One.
• #40: Sword of the Stranger is an excellent movie that should be shown to anyone. More importantly, it is not a film that is tied to any preexisting franchise or what-have-you, which is what the bread and butter of most anime is today. More of these need
• #’s 41-43: If ever there were a poster child for surrealism and deeply symbolic storytelling in anime, look no further than the works of Masaaki Yuasa. It is very hard to speak about his work since so much of it is so visually encoded in such a sophisticated way. All I have to say is please watch his work; your mind will be blown.
• #‘s 44-47: These are films that are made by Sanrio Films, a former offshoot of the mega-corporation of Sanrio. Although Sanrio is largely known for its character mascots (Hello Kitty being the most well-known), their short period of producing feature animation from the early seventies to the late eighties is exemplary and astonishing even by today’s standards. Keep in mind, a lot of these films are made for families (not so sure on Ringing Bell though because of its ability to traumatize very young children) so they may seem childish at times; but what counts about these films are their impeccable craft and jaw-dropping visuals (especially in the case of The Sea Prince and the Fire Child).
• #‘s 48-52: Isao Takahata came up near the beginnin0g of the list, but now he comes up again in a special series of entries. These films are works he made before the founding of Studio Ghibli, oftentimes with Hayao Miyazaki working alongside him in a variety of roles. What must be said is that Isao Takahata was already a well-established animator in the Japanese animation industry before ever meeting Hayao Miyazaki. These works represent the rise to power of both Miyazaki & Takahata. The only entries in this swatch of entries that did not involve any directorial power from either of them are Puss in Boots and Flying Phantom Ship. Little Norse Prince is Takahata’s first film and, while coming off dated today, is still very entertaining as a film (not to mention a complete bomb in theaters). Panda Go Panda! can be seen as a precursor to My Neighbor Totoro in multiple ways, and Gauche the Cellist is an atmospheric and very light film that was based on a Kenji Miyazawa short story (P.S. another work of his shall come up in the next entry). I would add the Heidi: Girl of the Alps (still one of the most famous anime series in all of Japan to the point that virtually everyone from a certain generation has seen it), 300 Leagues in Search of Mother, Anne of Green Gables, Lupin III: Part I, and Future Boy Conan; but since MUBI is not a TV centric site, such is not possible.
#‘s 54-57: A director who does not get as much recognition as he deserves is a man named Gisaburo Sugii. Although most of his output is very obscure by today’s standards, many of the films he has made stand on their own as special. His greatest contribution to the medium was in a legendary animated film called Night on the Galactic Railway. This was based on an unfinished Kenji Miyazawa novel (apparently the script was adapted by a Japanese playwright who cobbled together a screenplay based on four unfinished drafts of the novel). The most striking detail about NotGR is the fact that every main character is a cat. The reason for the cats being present at all is that, if you over specify where the film takes and exactly who the story takes place to; something is lost in the process. It is a film that requires the audience to not be able to get to close, because the atmosphere is so ethereal and akin to a moody black magic. It is the kind of film to watch alone on a quiet night, in a dark room, with all the windows/shades closed/up. Because of this film’s success, the vast majority of anime that was further based on Miyazawa’s work further employed the use of cats. They are Spring and Chaos (otherwise known as Kenji’s Spring). The other is a fairly recent film called The Life of Gusko Budori, that needs to be seen to be understood as describing it does not do the film justice. The only other Sugii film on this list is his most mainstream and accessible film: Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie. The only notable thing about this film is that it is possibly one of the only video game anime that is not complete garbage and is still entertaining to watch even today.
#58-65: Although Katsuhiro Otomo’s name (who was discussed near the beginning) shows up on several of these entries; he is the not binding theme that all seven of these films share. These are all anthology films: showcases of animated shorts helmed by different directors all revolving around a unified theme. Once somebody who wishes to curate anime to a potentially new viewer gets through the beginning films (i.e. all Ghibli, Mamoru Hosoda, Satoshi Kon, etc); another step that should be taken is to break the anime stereotype in people’s minds. Most people who are unfamiliar with anime or only know of the Shonen Jump variety of anime should be sat down and made to watch these anthology films. Perhaps moreso than any other kind of anime, anthology films are useful in that they demonstrate the breadth and scope of the medium of anime, just due to the nature of them being helmed by different directors. Robot Carnival is a classic film that was overseen by Otomo shortly after Akira and might as well be Japan’s version of Fantasia, in that all but two of the shorts in this collection are silent and include robots in them…to be continued.Read less