Enter the World of Anime With These Essential Classics
Is there any more wide-ranging subgenre than anime? Anime movie fans once had to wait for occasional imports from Japan, but now there are hundreds of movies to choose from, and more TV series and OVA (original video animation) options than we could possibly catalogue. All of which means that choosing a starting point for anime movies can be a daunting task.
And while the term "anime" is applied to virtually any animation that is produced in Japan — and even animation from other countries made in the Japanese style — anime is as varied and diverse as live-action movies. There's drama, science fiction, fantasy, horror, comedy, and every possible combination of those genres. So where do you begin? Here are seven anime movies that are absolute classics to guide your entry into the amazingly huge world of anime.
Macross: Do You Remember Love?
[Image Credit: Toho]
This movie version of the popular TV series "Macross" (aka "Robotech") is a great example of the beauty of hand-drawn animation, which is now rarely used as a technique for entire movies. DO YOU REMEMBER LOVE is also a good way to address how anime can seem daunting for beginners. A simple question like "what do I watch first?" doesn't always have a simple answer. DO YOU REMEMBER LOVE?, for example, is a retelling of the original "Macross" TV series, about a conflict between humans and aliens which is fought with two weapons: planes that transform into robots, and pop music. Much of the show's drama is heavily condensed for this movie version, but the original voice actors are all on board and the animation is simply astounding. This is perhaps the best entry point to the wide-ranging Macross Saga.
Grave of the Fireflies
[Image Credit: Studio Ghibli]
Many of the great anime movies, especially those produced before 2000, deal with Japan's involvement in World War II — and with the horrific ways the war ended for many Japanese citizens. GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES does so directly and without any veneer of sentimentality or fantasy. Two children, Seita and his younger sister Setsuko, are orphaned by the firebombing of Kobe in 1945, and they must fend for themselves in an attempt to survive. Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, who wrote and directed based on an autobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, focused on the personal experience of the plight, and in doing so he created one of the most devastating stories in anime.
Ghost in the Shell
[Image Credit: Manga Entertainment]
This hardcore sci-fi story outdoes BLADE RUNNER when it comes to exploring the question of what makes someone human. Major Motoko Kusanagi is a security officer on the trail of an elusive hacker; she's also a cyborg, with a "ghost" consciousness that resides in her technological shell. As Kusanagi gets closer to the hacker, she gathers clues that suggest several uncomfortable truths. GHOST IN THE SHELL is one of the most forward-thinking science fiction movies, period, and it is animated with stunning images.
[Image Credit: Rex Entertainment]
The late Satoshi Kon directed only four feature films but he was seen as one of the most promising filmmakers of his time — in and out of anime — before his life was cut short by cancer. PERFECT BLUE was his first movie, and it is a stunning piece of work that dives fearlessly into adult themes as it expertly blurs the line between reality and fantasy. Mima Kirigoe enjoys stardom as a member of an idol group but tries to leave her on-stage life behind to pursue acting. Tormented by a stalker and frightened by a string of murders, Mima's life takes one dark turn after another in this razor-sharp thriller.
[Image Credit: Toho]
It's not easy to combine wondrous escapism and a grounded relationship story but that combo is one of many tricks writer/director Makoto Shinkai pulls off, seemingly without effort, in YOUR NAME. The story introduces two high schoolers, Mitsuha and Taki, who are complete strangers until they switch bodies one n ight. Their swap happens again… then again, and the pair devise ways to communicate and soon form a bond. As Mitsuha and Taki try to bridge the distance between them, they discover the surprising truth about the space between them — and about their connection. YOUR NAME. was an Earth-shaking hit in Japan, and for good reason: It represents the best of modern anime.
[Image Credit: Toho]
On the anime timeline there are two major phases: Before AKIRA and after. Manga writer/artist Katsuhiro Otomo directed this adaptation of his own epic comic book and the result is a major cinematic landmark. The manga and movie both follow the same story outline: Two childhood friends, bold Kaneda and withdrawn Tetsuo, have turned into high school hooligans, and their friendship diverges after an encounter with a strange figure unlocks Tetsuo's latent psychic powers. As Tetsuo's power surges to astonishing levels, he and Kaneda lock horns in a conflict rooted in Japan's own past — and its possible future. Thanks to AKIRA, the popularity of anime began to surge outside Japan, changing the form forever.
[Image Credit: GKids / Studio Ghibli]
Pre-teen Chihiro and her parents stumble into a bridge between the world of humans and a spirit world. When her parents become trapped in this new realm, Chihiro goes to unusual lengths to free them so the entire family can go home. SPIRITED AWAY is wildly imaginative and visually beautiful at every turn, with a massive collection of unusual spirits and supernatural creatures which all feel real, thanks to the empathetic storytelling of writer/director Hayao Miyazaki. In truth, this entire article could just be a list of his movies. Is SPIRITED AWAY the best movie by Miyazaki? MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO is better for younger audiences, NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND is formative for anime as a whole, and THE WIND RISES is an incredible personal epic for adults. But SPIRITED AWAY transcends all limitations to stand not just as one of the greatest achievements in anime, but in all of cinema.