There can surely be few people nowadays unfamiliar with the term ‘anime’. Still, it’s easy to forget it was not so long ago that any discussion of Japanese animation was almost invariably introduced with the ‘east is east’ caveat that while commercial animation in the west has traditionally been viewed as an entertaining diversion, and mainly the domain of children, in Japan they do things differently.
Nowadays anime’s international audience has expanded considerably from the niche ‘otaku’ fanbase of the 1990s, first hooked on such titles as Akira (1988) and the Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-96) series. Animation and its cross-market tie-ins of video games, manga comics, trading cards and other collectibles currently rank among Japan’s top cultural exports.
A whole new generation has now grown up with franchises like Pokémon, Digimon and Doraemon. In the meantime, the works of such feted directors as Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii and Satoshi Kon have been discussed with a critical seriousness unimaginable even a decade ago. Hollywood too has played its role in anime’s mainstreaming with, for example, the animated homage contained within Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003) and The Animatrix (2003) anthology released straight-to-video to tie in with the Wachowskis’ The Matrix Reloaded (2003).
But what exactly is ‘anime’? It’s clear that the term broadly refers to something quite distinct from a catchall term for ‘Japanese animation’, yet still intrinsically Japanese. The breadth in anime style and subject matter makes the field such a fascinating one to explore – but where to even start?!
We cast our eyes over 10 emblematic examples of big-screen anime easily available in the UK.
Little Norse Prince (1968)
Director: Isao Takahata
Studio Ghibli’s two founding directors, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, first met while working at Toei Animation during the 1960s, the studio whose establishment in 1956 effectively marks the beginning of animated feature filmmaking in Japan. With both serving their time initially on cheaper-to-produce television animation, it’s interesting to note that it was Takahata who was first given the opportunity to direct a full-length theatrical animation, some 10 years before his more widely-hailed confrere. Little Norse Prince was also the first time Miyazaki worked alongside Takahata, here in the role of key animator.
It’s unsurprising, then, that the hallmarks of the Ghibli style are so clearly visible in this tale of a young Norse prince’s quest, along with his talking pet bear sidekick, to free his ancestral village from the demonic clutches of the evil sorcerer Grunwald. Along the way he encounters avalanches, giant pikes, plagues of rats and his nemesis’ fearsome army of snow wolves, before rallying enough troops from among the villagers to take up arms against their destructive oppressor.
Although Takahata clearly achieved his aim in creating something more spectacular, more dramatic and more cinematic than the typical kids-oriented fare his employers at Toei were then focusing on, the over-budget production and disputes within the company due to the pair’s involvement with the labour union resulted in only a minor release for the film. Miyazaki and Takahata left Toei in 1971 to work in a number of companies producing television animation, although fortuitously within the next 10 years both would get another crack at the big screen.
Barefoot Gen (1983)
Director: Mori Masaki
Adapted from Keiji Nakazawa’s semi-autobiographical 1973 manga comic of the same name, about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as seen through the eyes of his fictional six-year-old alter ego Gen Nakaoka, this invocation of the horrors of war anticipates Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988) for Studio Ghibli, and is just as powerful.
The film opens with an almost documentary approach, an off-screen narrator providing the historical context to the dying days of the Pacific war before introducing us to Gen’s family. The early scenes of wartime hardship unfold in an almost whimsical fashion, with a focus on the various scrapes Gen and young brother Shinya get themselves into. However, an oppressive air of anticipation lingers over this early section, before the dark shadow of the Enola Gay crawling sluggishly over the horizon signals the end of the calm before the storm. While a trail of ants crawl prophetically back into his house, as the bomb detonates, Gen is caught frozen in the act of picking up a stone from the street outside.
The subsequent sequences are disturbing in the extreme, sparing none of the gory details of eyewitness accounts of the bombing. A sequel, Barefoot Gen 2, directed by Toshio Hirata, was released three years later.
Nausicaä: Valley of the Wind (1984)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
After years focusing on the design aspects of the projects he worked on, Miyazaki came relatively late to actual animation directing, first assuming this role on the NHK TV series Future Boy Conan (1978), with his theatrical debut Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro released the following year.
The real turning point, however, came with this adaptation of his own long-running manga, which unfolds in a world laid waste to by an atomic war a thousand years beforehand. An undisputed landmark in animation history, Nausicaä: Valley of the Wind put its director’s name firmly on the map, its success leading directly to the founding of Studio Ghibli for the production of Miyazaki’s next film, Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986). It also introduces many of the motifs familiar throughout his body of work: environmental concerns, anachronistic combinations of futuristic and medieval technology, a focus on the liberating power of airborne motion, and an adolescent girl at the heart of the drama, the hook of so much of his work. In this respect, it can be regarded as a prototype for Princess Mononoke (1997).
Perhaps what most impresses is Miyazaki’s ravishing evocation of his world, particularly in an early scene set in a moonlit forest clearing, full of bulbous coral-shaped fungal outgrowths, the air heavy with glowing gas spores and giant snake-like insects buzzing overhead, in which the solitary figure of Nausicaä comes across the discarded shell of an Ohmu, one of the gigantic worm-like crustaceans that occasionally threaten the inhabitants of her valley.
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Katsuhiro Otomo’s iconic animated adaption of his own 2,000-page manga series (published from 1982 and concluding in 1990, after the film’s release) takes place in an alternative future, 31 years after World War III ended in 1988 with the atomic blast that destroyed the nation’s capital. But the rebuilt and rebranded Neo-Tokyo has nonetheless seen better days: politicians lock horns with military officials while the garbage-strewn streets teem with the homeless, doomsday cults, terrorist groups and unruly biker gangs. One gang member is teenage hothead Teruo, whose psychic powers soon single him out for special attention from the powers that be.
The complex, thought-provoking narrative, dynamic and detailed visuals and covert political subtext about a new generation holding the key to Tokyo’s destruction and rebirth challenged all assumptions about what was possible within the medium of hand-drawn animation. For an entire generation, it was their entry point into this brave new world of otaku fandom, and can be counted as the most influential Japanese film of its era, animated or otherwise.
Many a subsequent anime would present a similarly explosive vision, including Otomo’s own Steamboy (2004), which did for industrial-revolution-era Manchester what this earlier work had done for 2019 Neo-Tokyo, or his script for Metropolis (2001), whose dystopian vision references Fritz Lang’s classic silent film of the same name.
Macross Plus: The Movie (1995)
Director: Shoji Kawamori and Shinichiro Watanabe
Alongside the Gundam and Patlabor franchises, Macross represents a perfect example of the mecha sub-genre, featuring giant battling robots which, in this case, morph from supersonic jet-fighters that are part-controlled by the brainwaves of their humanoid pilots.
The genealogy of the various Macross instalments, beginning with the 36-episode Super Dimension Fortress Macross in 1982 and including the numerous later entries that unfold in parallel universes, is a rather complex affair. The main links are the inevitable line of toy and model kit merchandising and the presence of series designer Kawamori, who prepped this second theatrical release from the previous year’s four-episode, Macross Plus, originally directed by Shinichiro Watanabe.
Still, this second self-contained theatrical outing is as safe an entry point as one could hope for, requiring no real knowledge of what has passed elsewhere in the Macross universe. On the planet colony of Eden in 2030, two boyhood friends living out their childhood dreams as test pilots of the new state-of-the-art Stealth Valkyrie fighter planes for the Ministry of Defence, take their grievances to the sky Top Gun-style when a former girlfriend of both returns to Eden after seven years away. Her own youthful dreams of becoming a singer have been reluctantly abandoned, and she now acts as manager for the most successful teen idol in the known cosmos, a virtual reality pop idol named Sharon Apple, whose onstage moves she controls like a puppet master.
In true apocalyptic fashion, both software and hardware inevitably take on lives of their own in a lusciously coloured near dreamlike climax as Sharon breaks free from her managerial reins, and the imagery moves into the realms of the near abstract as the pilots attempt to subdue her.
Perfect Blue (1998)
Director: Satoshi Kon
When Mima Kirigoe decides to leave the all-girl J-pop trio CHAM! to embark on a solo career, many of her fans aren’t happy. When her endeavours as a media idol see her branching out from singing into acting in a TV drama in which she is soon coaxed by her producers into shedding her clothes and her dignity, Mima herself begins to have her doubts, manifested through the admonishments of a hallucinatory doppelganger of her earlier CHAM! incarnation. Dead bodies start cropping up all around her, while her most private thoughts find themselves aired publicly on her ‘Mima’s Room’ website. But who is responsible? A disgruntled fan, the duplicitous management steering her career for their own means, or maybe even Mima herself?
The impact of Satoshi Kon’s feature debut was as much due to its unconventional (for animation, at least) psycho-thriller subject matter as its slick visuals. As Roger Corman put it in the film’s pithy publicity pull-quote, “If Alfred Hitchcock partnered with Walt Disney they’d make a picture like this” , although the Master of Suspense was never this bloody.
Up until his premature passing due to pancreatic cancer in 2010, Kon would demonstrate a similarly mercurial approach to the anime genre across his output, which includes an exploration of an alternate Japanese film history in Millennium Actress (2001), a reworking of Three Men and a Baby featuring homeless characters in Tokyo Godfathers (2003), and Paprika (2006), about a machine that allows psychiatrists to record the dreams of their patients – the common thread being a concern with dreams, reality and representation.
Director: Rintaro (a.k.a. Shigeyuki Hayashi)
“God of manga” Osamu Tezuka has been a hugely influential presence in Japan, both in his prolific output of graphic novels and in his critical involvement with the animation world. His 1949 manga was not explicitly modelled on the 1927 Fritz Lang classic of the same name, but rather reimagined from stills of the film the author had seen in movie magazines during his childhood. Nevertheless, its imaginary creation of a perfectly functioning urban utopia, whose majestic façade masks tensions between the humans and the robots who keep it in operation, covers similar ground.
Directed by Rintarô, another towering force in the anime biz woefully underrepresented by overseas releases, this 2001 adaptation kicks off when Tima, the robotic figurehead intended by the city’s ruler, Duke Red, to grace the top of the towering ziggurat that dominates the city, goes astray. When she becomes lost in the labyrinthine warren beneath the city, Tima forges an immediate emotional connection with the young adolescent Kenichi, the first human being she has ever encountered.
Five years and the equivalent of $15 million in the making, in terms of the quality of its animation (embellished with a judicious use of CG) this is right at the top end of the market. The 1920s inspired art-deco cityscapes and the New Orleans Dixieland jazz soundtrack are a wonder. Metropolis was unfortunately not a commercial success on release, but this is about as good as Japanese animation gets, and heartily recommended.
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)
Director: Oshii Mamoru
Mamoru Oshii’s first film based on the characters of the anti-cyber terrorist division, Section Nine, created by Shirow Masamune in his Ghost in the Shell manga series, caused a massive stir internationally when released in 1995. Its tale of a rogue computer virus that has evolved an intelligence of its own – in a world whose inhabitants are all varying degrees of man-machine hybrids, where all economic and political transactions are conducted over vast electronic networks – put forward a complete redefinition of life for the electronic age.
Its sequel, Innocence, pushed these esoteric concerns even further – perhaps a little too far into the realms of metaphysics for some, with its lead protagonist from the first film, Major Kusanagi, having long disappeared into the electronic ether, periodically descending like a guardian angel to assist her former partner Batou. Meanwhile, as Batou and his new buddy Togusa investigate a series murders conducted by “ghost-hacked” gynoid sex dolls, their buddy-movie banter is conducted in the form of cryptic Buddhist Koans or abstruse philosophical teasers.
But the content, form and meaning are inextricably interlinked in this masterful navigation between the organic, the mechanical and the virtual, rendered using a pioneering hybridisation of hand-drawn and computer generated techniques. The visual dimensions are never anything less than dazzlingly beautiful, but with Kenji Kawai’s majestic score laid alongside them, the end results are nothing short of transcendental.
Director: Michael Arias
The eclectic, inventively surreal and largely unheralded invention of Studio 4°C’s aptly-titled wildcard Mind Game (2004) is considered such a gem of movie by those in the know, quite why it has never received any sort of release outside of Japan is an utter mystery. You can be sure that if it were, it would be top of any list of must-sees. Still, at least we have Tekkonkinkreet as an example of the studio’s rather unique approach. It follows the adventures of two tearaway street urchins, who eke out a feral existence on the tumbledown streets of Treasure Town, until the arrival of a yakuza boss about to clean up the area for redevelopment forces them into a corner.
Directed by Michael Arias, the American whizz kid who played an instrumental role in introducing CG techniques to Japan and who produced The Animatrix (2003), this adaptation of Taiyo Matsumoto’s popular manga shuns the traditional anime aesthetic. The trademark doe-eyed character designs are replaced by large-bodied pin-headed gangsters with Frankenstein scars and eyes like pinpricks, their bodies drawn in jagged outline, teetering around on feet as dainty as pig trotters.
Similarly, reversing the post-Blade Runner trend of bathing the city in neon and gloom, Treasure Town appears like an early Showa-era theme park of wooden houses, warrens of winding streets and covered markets, garish shop and advertising hoardings, the roads teeming with constant streams of traffic. Fittingly, given its director’s background, these are largely executed as intricate hand drawing mapped onto 3D models, allowing for the dynamic freewheeling camerawork best showcased in the film’s startling opening, one-minute flyover of the city.
Summer Wars (2009)
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
A former alumni of the Digimon franchise at one time touted to direct Howl’s Moving Castle for Studio Ghibli, Mamoru Hosoda has sprung to critical attention over the past decade with works such as The Girl Who Leapt through Time (2006) and Wolf Children (2012) that manage to achieve that perfect balance between intelligence and accessibility.
Summer Wars is a perfect example of this, with a plot dealing with the same schism between the real and the virtual worlds that has proven such an enduring trope within anime directors, but without the impenetrable self-referentiality of the more cerebral practitioners in the field like Mamoru Oshii or Satoshi Kon.
The real-world drama – of a maths prodigy, Kenji, who agrees to accompany his high-school crush, Natsuki, while masquerading as her boyfriend on a visit to her family home in the countryside – works brilliantly as a compelling and neatly observed rite-of-passage narrative. However, alongside the social awkwardness arising from spending time living with someone else’s family, Kenji also has to contend with fending off a catastrophe of more global proportions evolving in the parallel world of the internet, when he locks horns with a malevolent artificial intelligence developed for the US military that has gone awry. Witty, touching and gripping by turns, and beautifully realised, Summer Wars is proof that in a post-Miyazaki world, the future of anime is in safe hands.
- Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)
- Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006)
- Mind Game (Masaaki Yuasa, 2004)
- Angel’s Egg (Mamoru Oshii, 1985)
- Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)
- Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon, 2001)
- Tokyo Godfathers (Satoshi Kon and Shogo Furuya, 2003)
- Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (Hiroyuki Okiura, 1999)
- Belladonna of Sadness (Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973)
- Night on the Galactic Railroad (Gisaburo Sugii, 1985)
There came lots of support for anime master Satoshi Kon when we asked you on Twitter and Facebook what we’d missed from this list. We’d represented Kon with the 1998 classic Perfect Blue, but the same director’s Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers and Paprika were all among the most suggested titles. Narrowly pipping Paprika to the post, however, the most popular film in the poll was Isao Takahata’s heart-rending Second World War drama Grave of the Fireflies, about a brother and sister struggling for survival after their home is destroyed by a bombing raid. Takahata’s masterpiece is included in our feature Studio Ghibli: 5 essential films.
Stream hand-picked cinema
A free trial, then £4.99/month or £49/year.Get 14 days free