1. The Spider and the Tulip
Masaoka Kenzo, 1943; on DVD
An early pioneer of Japanese animation, Masaoka Kenzo advanced the art and craft of anime across 27 films from The Sea Palace (1927) to Tora-chan and the Insect (1950); he was the first to use both cel animation and recorded sound. His skills are on wonderful display in this 16-minute adaptation of Yokoyama Michiko’s fairytale, his greatest work. With a visual style borrowed from both Disney and Fleischer Studios (the home of Popeye and Betty Boop), this simple story of a ladybird attempting to evade the clutches of a hungry spider – with the aid of the titular Tulip – is genuinely entertaining comic fare, reminiscent of Tom and Jerry cartoons. But like some of its contemporaneous Western counterparts, it’s also an uncomfortable watch in racial terms – the spider that menaces the angelic Japanese ladybird is a distinct African-American caricature.
— Darren Ashmore
2. Momotaro: Sacred Sailors
Seo Mitsuyo, 1945; on Blu-ray
As Japan turned in the 1930s to militarism, then war, its nascent animation industry was mobilised as an organ of state propaganda. The armed forces funded a run of productions, culminating in Momotaro: Sacred Sailors (aka Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors), the country’s first animated feature. The technical achievement, pulled off amid the privations of war, is remarkable (and inspired the young Tezuka Osamu to work in animation). The story is a racist, triumphalist justification for Japan’s empire: the folkloric character Momotaro leads a unit of animals in liberating a Pacific island from the dastardly British. The film came out in April 1945, in the chaos of the war’s endgame, and was little seen; presumed lost after defeat, it was rediscovered in 1983. Having never really reached its intended audience of wartime children, it is now watched by scholars and fans with an interest in the history of anime, in which it unarguably has a place.
— Alex Dudok de Wit
3. Panda and the Magic Serpent
Yabushita Taiji, 1958; on Amazon Prime
In Panda and the Magic Serpent (Hakujaden aka The Tale of the White Serpent et al), the scholar Xu-Xian falls in love with the bewitching lady Bai-Niang, unaware that she is the human form of a snake spirit he once saved as a boy. The lovers are separated through the machinations of a Buddhist priest, but Xu-Xian’s panda servants reunite them. Exposed as a shape-shifter, Bai-Niang reverts to her true form, but gives up her powers to live as a human mortal.
Toei Animation’s first colour feature, directed by veteran animator Yabushita Taiji, offered a Chinese legend to compete with Disney’s European tales. ‘White Snake Legend’, the film’s Japanese title, seems deliberately evocative of ‘White Snow Princess’, the Japanese title for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Other elements, particularly among the animal supporting cast, draw on the slapstick of Warner Bros cartoons, and inject a somewhat sinister menagerie of cartoon animals, including a gangster pig, a scheming duck and two fearsome weasels.
But Panda and the Magic Serpent is also an orientalist fantasy of a country still largely closed to the filmmakers, who even had trouble securing reference photographs of pandas. Some of the scenes, particularly a parade sequence, hence form an animated travelogue in an imaginary China. It was good enough for the Monthly Film Bulletin reviewer in September 1961, who wrote: “The sequence of the Chinese feast day, all bursting fire crackers and bright sideshows, is full of vivid local colour.”
The film’s production was a tense test of producer Okawa Hiroshi’s training scheme, and his ambitions to out-Disney Disney. It was the subject of putsches behind the scenes as the veteran animators from Nichido fought against a newly arrived group of manga artists with no appreciation of the mechanics of animation. Its release, however, marked the re-emergence of Japanese animation as an ongoing business concern, rather than a mere side-show in graphics, shorts and advertising.
The film received a subtitled festival screening in London as White Snake Enchantress in 1959, thereby becoming the first Japanese animation in UK cinemas. But animator Mori Yasuji was so despondent about its level of achievement that he threatened to shave off all his body hair if it won a Kinema Junpo award, given by Japan’s oldest film magazine. Astro Boy creator Tezuka Osamu scoffed that, in its Disney-inspired use of rotoscoping (at least as claimed by the publicity), the film made the mistake of imitating life, whereas animation’s achievement should lie in sketching or exaggerating it. But one young viewer was transfixed: “I was hooked when I first saw Hakujaden,” wrote Miyazaki Hayao, “and I wound up choosing to be an animator because of it.”
— Jonathan Clements
Shirakawa Daisaku & Yabushita Taiji, 1960; the US re-edit titled Alakazam the Great! is on Amazon Prime
For its third feature, the Toei studio again optimistically tapped Chinese legend, commissioning manga artist Tezuka Osamu to storyboard Saiyuki (Journey to the West), a retelling of the story of the Monkey King. Tezuka was swiftly at odds with Toei animators such as Yabushita Taiji, who objected to his wide variation in tone, his episodic storytelling, and his introduction of an all-new character, the hero’s girlfriend Lin-Lin, whom Tezuka wanted to kill off.
It was a seminal moment in the pre-history of TV anime, tempting Tezuka to start his own studio free from interference, and confronting Toei with the labour-saving advantages of his economy of line. The 1961 US re-edit added a number of Frankie Avalon songs and claimed ‘Alakazam’ had outwitted the wizard Merlin, and been forced by King Amo and Queen Amas to guard Prince Amat on a quest.
— Jonathan Clements
5. Little Norse Prince
Takahata Isao, 1968; on Amazon Prime, iTunes, DVD
Released at the height of global counter-culture, Little Norse Prince (aka Horus: Prince of the Sun) has a celebrated artists-versus-studio history. Left-leaning troublemakers, including director Takahata Isao and Miyazaki Hayao, fought to make a film outside the Disneyfied strictures of the factory-like Toei Animation. Prince begins as a hero’s adventure, as the fur-clad wild boy Hols defends a village from creatures sent to plague it by an ice-skinned tyrant. Then Hols encounters a mysterious girl, Hilda, who swiftly takes over as the main character: she’s a tormented ‘villain’ who beguiles everyone with her malign lullabies, but is consumed by emptiness.
Reviews often play up the comparisons to Miyazaki’s later films (and there are many), but the bold mid-point shift foreshadows Takahata’s readiness to complicate story structures in his own work. Prince is uneven – dynamic and exciting in places, leaden in others – but it’s utterly fascinating.
— Andrew Osmond
6. The Wonderful World of Puss ’n Boots
Yabuki Kimio, 1969; on Amazon Prime
Few films exemplify Toei Animation’s openly stated ambition to be seen as the ‘Disney of the East’ more than this animated action comedy. Based on Charles Perrault’s classic fairytale, with elements of Cyrano de Bergerac and Cinderella and a handful of musical numbers thrown in for good measure, its anthropomorphic antics certainly fit the shoe as far as similarities in style and storytelling go.
Swashbuckling puss Pero is forced to flee his hometown for flouting its rules by saving the life of a rodent, and makes his way to a bustling big city. There he attempts to marry off the miller’s son, whom he has befriended en route, to a beautiful princess looking for suitors. Any comparative lack of finesse is more than made up for in pep and panache, and certainly the film has historic interest, in that credited among the ranks of its key animators is Miyazaki Hayao.
— Jasper Sharp
7. A Thousand and One Nights
Yamamoto Eiichi, 1969; on Vimeo, Blu-ray, DVD
They say if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t there. A Thousand and One Nights (Senya ichiya monogatari) is a hallucinogenic slice of psychedelia that captures the decade for those who missed out, a tale that touches on the oppression of women and the corruption of absolute power, while betraying a total ignorance of Islamic culture.
Released in 1969 by Tezuka Osamu’s Mushi Production, the film had three purposes: to retell classic stories through formal experiment, to bring adult anime back into focus and to boost the floundering studio’s finances. It succeeded; its two successors failed. By then Tezuka had stepped down and formed a new studio; Mushi collapsed in 1973.
The film’s irreverence and silliness distract from some ambitious shots and its ability to shift from pantomime characterisation into human impact and back without warning. Its use of live-action footage and model shots, dated now, was unusual in Japan at the time.
— Helen McCarthy
8. The Flying Ghost Ship
Ikeda Hiroshi, 1969
Ikeda Hiroshi’s The Flying Ghost Ship (Soratobu yureisen, aka Flying Phantom Ship), a riff on Ishinomori Shotaro’s hit manga, is remembered by a few Western fans for the work on the giant robot sequence by Toei Animation staffer Miyazaki Hayao. It deserves more respect. Ishinomori’s
The Flying Ghost Ship made no pretensions to be anything other than a rip-roaring romp, a mixture of heroism, betrayal, invasions, monsters and tanks in downtown Tokyo, with a flying wreck of a ship transforming into the kind of super hi-tech submarine any child would love to command. Ikeda’s unpretentious film sent children home from the cinema wanting more: not high art, but definitely good business.
— Helen McCarthy
9. Belladonna of Sadness
Yamamoto Eiichi, 1973; on iTunes, Blu-ray, DVD
An outlier from the moment of its conception, Belladonna of Sadness is a psychedelic watercolour trip that is as lurid as it is tragic. Born in the midst of Japan’s ‘pink film’ boom – when directors brought creative titillation to the arthouses – it was the third in an informal trilogy of adult anime conceived and produced at Tezuka Osamu’s Mushi Production studio, marketed under the ‘Animerama’ banner and all directed by Yamamoto Eiichi, a Tezuka collaborator since the days of Astro Boy (1963-66) and Kimba the White Lion (1965-67). The leap from such family fare to animated erotica might seem jarring, but Tezuka himself was no prude, spending the 1970s exploring adult themes in manga such as The Book of Human Insects (1970-71) and MW (1976-78). That said, neither the more traditionally cartoonish A Thousand and One Nights (1969) nor Cleopatra (1970 – released in the US a couple of years later as Cleopatra: Queen of Sex, a week after Fritz the Cat became animation’s first-ever X-rated feature) gave much hint of the out-there artistry of Belladonna.
Set in feudal Europe, it begins on the wedding day of dreamy peasant couple Jean and Jeanne. That night they’re summoned to the castle of their lordship, a skull-faced seigneur who demands Jeanne’s virginity as his right. Jeanne herself is mortified at her own helplessness and further by her husband’s shame. It’s then that she’s offered a deal with the Devil, who appears like a phallic guardian, set on awakening her rage and, subsequently, her own power to free herself and the women around her from subjugation through a series of satanic trysts.
Jeanne’s fortunes in the town wax and wane – she first attempts to gain power within the system through capital as she works as a tax collector – only to be outcast, then finally harness her strength as a sexually emancipated ‘witch’ who can cure the plague ravaging the countryside.
Even in 1973, Belladonna of Sadness was regarded as just too weird – its box-office failure was the final nail in Mushi Pro’s coffin. For starters, with some set-piece exceptions most of it is minimally animated, the narration running over panning shots and close-ups of – admittedly beautiful – watercolour art inspired by Klimt and tarot illustrations, in keeping with the European setting. (A final image settles on Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.) Dialogue is also limited to some key scenes; in short it’s self-consciously experimental and arty, far from the cartoon or ‘anime’ norm.
After a festival premiere at Berlin, the film remained largely obscure in the West until a restoration and rerelease in 2016. Today, we can recognise Belladonna of Sadness for its many qualities: it is psychedelic, erotic, beautiful and essentially feminist. It asserts that there is power within female sexuality and that only by harnessing that power can women regain their rightful spot as leaders of a revolution both for themselves and for a just society, morality be damned.
— Lynzee Loveridge
10. Ringing Bell
Hata Masami, 1978
Made the same year as Watership Down, Ringing Bell (aka Chirin’s Bell) is the fable-like story of Chirin, a lamb living happily on a farm with his mother. Like Watership Down, however, the film soon takes a horrifying turn as a lone wolf, Woe, attacks Chirin’s home and kills his parents; even more unexpectedly, the lamb’s response is to confront the wolf and demand to be trained in the ways of a predator. One 1970s martial-arts training montage and a series of fights with snakes and bears later and little Chirin has grown into a formidable killer ram, who claims his home is now on the plains with the wolf.
An adaptation of a children’s book by Yanase Takashi, the creator of the Anpanman superhero picture book series, this curiously hard-edged, lavishly animated family film was made by the Sanrio company – of Hello Kitty fame – during the corporate rush to multimedia production in the 1970s. It’s a red-toothed oddity.
— Rayna Denison
11. Taro the Dragon Boy
Urayama Kirio, 1979
This colourful and endearing fantasy from Toei Animation is based on a folktale from Japan’s mountainous Shinshu Province, published as a children’s book by Matsutani Miyoko in 1962. It’s the tale of a lazy and gluttonous whelp, orphaned as an infant, whose subsequent solicitation by a long-nosed tengu – forest goblin – to defeat a local demon inaugurates a series of adventures.
Urayama Kirio is best known for Foundry Town (1962), a socio-realist drama co-scripted by Imamura Shohei about a young woman’s attempts to break from her impoverished roots in an industrial slum town, which played in Competition at Cannes. He is among a number of live-action directors who temporarily turned their hands to animation, including Masuda Toshio (Space Battleship Yamato, 1977), Obayashi Nobuhiko (Kenya Boy, 1984) and Suzuki Seijun (Lupin the Third: Legend of the Gold of Babylon, 1985).
— Jasper Sharp
12. Arcadia of My Youth
Matsumoto Leiji & Katsumata Tomoharu, 1982; on import Blu-ray or DVD
Manga and anime series creator Matsumoto Leiji is best known for his space operas, starting with his work as director on Nishizaki Yoshinobu’s pioneering Space Battleship Yamato (1974-75) and continuing with the manga and anime projects Space Pirate Captain Harlock (on screen in 1978, its character then spilling into myriad further series and works), Galaxy Express 999 (1978-81) and Queen Millennia (1981-83).
The feature film Arcadia of My Youth, made with director Katsumata Tomoharu, is not the only origin story for the beloved freedom fighter Captain Harlock in this ‘Leijiverse’ of interlocking works, but it’s the grandest in scale and narrative, a Wagnerian hero’s journey with an unfashionably measured pace that weaves in sombre elements of defeat and genocide. As the conquered captain of the Earth Defense Force painfully claws his way through trials both external and internal, we’re drawn along amid the rich colours and magnificent soundscapes of Japanese animation in its first heyday. Space opera, indeed.
— Darren Ashmore
13. Barefoot Gen
Masaki Mori, 1983; on DVD
Based on Nakazawa Keiji’s semi-autobiographical 1973 manga, Masaki Mori’s Barefoot Gen vivifies the horrors of war in a manner that hits just as hard as Takahata Isao’s similarly bleak Grave of the Fireflies. Though best remembered for its gruesome central sequence viscerally depicting the immediate effects of the bombing of Hiroshima during World War II, it is the subsequent scenes that linger longer in the imagination.
After the impact, six-year-old Gen finds himself surrounded by devastation, forced to fend for his family amid immediate danger and an uncertain future. A straightforward, sparse film with some striking visuals, memorable characters and a resonant emotional core, the fortitude of the film’s protagonist is what ultimately stands out. Gen embodies the solemn resilience it takes to be able to stubbornly claw back some semblance of a life after reaching a point where such a thing seems unimaginable.
— Matt Turner
14. Night on the Galactic Railroad
Sugii Gisaburo, 1985; on Import DVD or Blu-Ray
This metaphysical tale – also known as Night Train to the Stars follows an anthropomorphic blue cat on a journey through the black void of the Milky Way. It’s a strange, beautiful, tranquil film, trembling on the edge of nightmare. You remember spare elements long after: Giovanni’s solemn cat-face; the echoing rumble of the train; a clock suspended from nothing over a sun-drenched platform, its pendulum clacking loudly as New World Symphony plays.
The source story is famous in Japan, by author and poet Miyazawa Kenji (1896-1933), who deployed Christian symbols from his perspective as a devout Buddhist. Although similar imagery is used in other anime, the film feels like little else, though its sense of the numinous and resemblance to a handcrafted picture book recall the work of Russian animator Yuri Norstein.
— Andrew Osmond
15. Angel’s Egg
Oshii Mamoru, 1985
Anime legend Oshii Mamoru’s mysterious and surreal debut feature will baffle many on first viewing, but there’s no missing the beauty, desolation and existential terror of its post-apocalyptic setting – a war-ravaged landscape filled with the husks of European-style buildings, through which a mysterious young girl carries a large egg. Featuring work from celebrated artist and character designer Amano Yoshitaka, the film is light on dialogue and devoid of exposition; but it needs neither to evoke feelings of immense loss and decay, as the girl cradles what might be the one new piece of life bursting forth from the scorched remains of civilisation. There’s an overpowering sadness in this world’s proximity to utter extinction, but Oshii’s mixture of biblical symbolism and thorny philosophical musings provoke thoughts about the potential of rebirth, even at the end of the world.
— Kambole Campbell
Yasuhiko Yoshikazu, 1986
This mostly forgotten epic retells Greek mythology far more ambitiously than Clash of the Titans (1981). The title hero is enticed into the Underworld as a child by the shaggy-haired god Hades, who makes him his pawn, training him to fight other Greek gods. Later Arion becomes cursed, with shades of the Orestes legend. The gods are quasi-human rulers, fighting wars using soldiers and chariots, though there are monsters too. Arion fights an aerial battle on the back of a Moebius-style monster bird; another confrontation takes place in the fleshy red womb of an evil mother goddess.
The narrative can feel directionless, and the nominal heroine is a suffering cipher. Yet the film starts and ends splendidly, lifted by a terrific score by Joe Hisaishi. Director Yasuhiko Yoshikazu is best known as one of the fathers of the giant-robot Gundam franchise, but he also wrote manga about Jesus and Joan of Arc.
— Andrew Osmond
17. Wings of Honneamise
Yamaga Hiroyuki, 1987; on Blu-ray, DVD
The singular feature debut of Studio Gainax, formed by a university collective of sci-fi anime fans in the early 1980s and now internationally famous for series from Gunbuster (1988-89) and Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (1990-91) to Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-96), this alternative-world space-race drama follows the odyssey of slacker space pilot Shirotsugh, taken under the wing of an evangelical young woman called Riquinni, to become his world’s first astronaut, overcoming doubt, disorganisation and political skulduggery on the way.
A manifesto for Gainax’s future-progressive ideology, the film boldly asserts the power and potential of the human spirit. Stylistically, too, it highlights all the qualities that its ragtag group of creators have become famous for: writer-director Yamaga Hiroyuki’s story is brought to life by Sadamoto Yoshiyuki’s beautiful character animation and Anno Hideaki’s immersive mechanical designs, while Sakamoto Ryuichi’s soaring, inspirational soundtrack provides polish and cohesion. From the epic panning vistas to the intense spectacle of a shuttle launch, every element is remarkable.
— Samantha Ferreira
18. Robot Carnival
Omori Hidetoshi, Kitakubo Hiroyuki, Kitazume Hiroyuki, Otomo Katsuhiro, Morimoto Koji, Mao Lamdo, Nakamura Takashi & Umetsu Yasuomi, 1987; on import DVD or Blu-ray
Robot Carnival, arguably the finest example of 1980s anime, presents an anthology of shorts by some of the world’s finest anime artists. Top names such as Otomo Katsuhiro, Umetsu Yasuomi and Kitazume Hiroyuki were each tasked with directing a short film that would become a segment of the full-length feature. The only limit imposed on them was that they had to include robots. The result is a dazzling parade of surreality as nine experimental films come together to paint a world that’s as brilliant as it is eerie.
A gritty and powerful Pinocchio tale, a moody dissection of a robot’s existence, a bombastic tale of a young girl and a robot saving the day – each is brought decadently to life with the help of an extremely generous budget and a little help from Studio Ghibli’s regular composer Joe Hisaishi.
— Samantha Ferreira
19. My Neighbour Totoro
Miyazaki Hayao, 1988; on Netflix, Blu-ray, DVD
Full disclosure: My Neighbour Totoro is my favourite film. I would not change, add or remove a single frame. It is perfect as it stands, a shining moment in the career of a great director when everything was at its peak. Miyazaki Hayao’s skills in almost every aspect of animation are justly renowned, and nothing showcases them better than this film, so beautiful that every frame could hang on the walls of a gallery. (Many have done so, more than once.) Studio Ghibli produced this at the same time as Grave of the Fireflies (1988), a pair of masterpieces on childhood and innocence exploring memories from the directors’ pasts. Miyazaki made some beautiful films after Totoro, but none would ever capture so honestly and precisely the glorious, unfathomable, heartbreaking fragility of a child’s world.
Totoro is among the simplest of films, one of very few with the courage to tell a child’s story from a child’s viewpoint at a child’s pace. Time is intensely important, but not fixed; it is measured by adult things, like watches or bus schedules, or by the movement of light across childhood afternoons. Two young sisters move with their father to the country to be near the hospital where their mother is being treated for a nameless illness that never quite goes away. The hospital is named for the one where Miyazaki’s mother was treated for spinal tuberculosis when he was a child. There is no villain, only the tiny conflicts all children experience. The girls discover the magic of nature and the unobtrusive kindness of the rural community. The older sister learns that death is not a man in a black hat, an enemy to be fought, but a fact of life that changes it forever, although its beauty endures.
This is a film in which everything that will ever be important happens without anything much happening at all. Every frame is packed with life – intensely observed, scrupulously presented, passionately loved. Totoro’s forest remains evergreen because there is more intensity and passion invested in any given frame than some franchises muster across an expensive multi-part run. The film’s initial lack of box-office success gave way to a long run as Ghibli’s biggest earner, largely by turning that dedication and commitment to making something beautiful into a delightful range of merchandise.
The woods, valleys and small farms that Miyazaki documents with such a depth of tenderness have now been built over, swallowed by the expansion of Tokyo. Totoro, however, endures, a remembered dream flying across a sky of perfect blue in a landscape that will never fade or die. If Miyazaki had never made another film, he would still be one of the greatest of all directors.
— Helen McCarthy
20. Grave of the Fireflies
Takahata Isao, 1988; on iTunes, Blu-ray, DVD
Locked in to a Studio Ghibli paradigm, anglophone commentators sometimes discuss this film as if it were Takahata Isao’s first, but the director of such an exquisitely controlled drama did not spring fully formed out of nowhere. By then, his résumé already included three characterful animated features and three well-regarded TV series based on Western literature, starting with Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974). This body of work spearheaded a new sensibility in anime that privileged psychological complexity and social commentary.
Takahata hesitantly joined his longtime collaborator Miyazaki Hayao in setting up Ghibli, with no particular plans to direct anything at the studio. That changed when the chance arose to adapt Nosaka Akiyuki’s semi-autobiographical novella Grave of the Fireflies, which follows the teenage Seita and his infant sister Setsuko as they lose their home, parents and lives in the dying days of World War II. The story resonated with Takahata’s own memories of the war, which he drew on when staging the film’s searing firebombing scenes. As he’d done with the Western settings of his series, he meticulously researched the particulars of 1940s Japan, which the film evokes in sober, detailed backgrounds. Anime, which tended to favour foreign locales and the ambiguous realms of fantasy and sci-fi, had never really depicted its own country like this before.
The naturalism extends to the characters, who are realistically designed and animated with restraint. The film is light on plot and rich in moments of subtle characterisation that flesh out the doomed, quasi-romantic love between brother and sister. Seita behaves less like an archetypal hero than a real person, complete with flaws and idiosyncrasies, and at every turn the story raises a dreadful counterfactual: had he made wiser decisions, would he and Setsuko have survived? The film has the contours of a melodrama, but the plausibility and nuance of a neorealist masterpiece.
This is what makes it so uncommonly sad. It’s de rigueur for those who have seen it to admit they cried. The film’s sheer emotional force has propelled it into the canons of both animated and war cinema – a rare distinction – and helped shape a whole genre of anime about children suffering in wartime. But Fireflies outstrips them all in ambition. It expects us to reflect critically on Seita’s actions and those of the adults around him. There is a complex statement here about how civilians react to crises, and how the weaknesses in our social fabric are exposed in such times. Through their tears, relatively few viewers perceive this aspect, taking Fireflies instead as a straightforward tale about the tragedy of war. Were the film not so absorbing, so empathetic in its portrayal of its two young protagonists, its message might have shone through more clearly.
— Alex Dudok de Wit
Otomo Katsuhiro, 1988; on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Blu-ray, DVD
Akira is an unusual film in many ways: its ¥1.1 billion (approximately $9 million) budget made it the most expensive anime film produced at the time; its 327-colour palette included 50 colours mixed exclusively for the production; and an unusually high proportion of it was animated at 24 frames per second (also known as ‘on ones’). All of that, and enough other achievements to fill a book on their own, would be enough to warrant the film a place on this list.
But the film is also an emblem of an era. Its success at American film festivals paved the way for the Western anime boom of the 1990s; it left its thumbprint across a generation of homages through every medium; and like any good horror movie, its tale of biker gangs, post-nuclear anxiety and a lost generation reflect the social anxieties it was steeped in. The aesthetic of Neo Tokyo drips with a combination of cyberpunk neons and biological rot, every element conjuring up both sepsis and decay.
Based on a manga that was still being written when the film was made, it feels inevitable that the actual plot details of Akira break down at a certain point. Characters and storylines are nudged to the side, and the visual symbolism charges far ahead of the narrative logic by the time the third act unfurls. The bones of it remain: there is a military conspiracy; there is science that has dabbled in realms that it oughtn’t to have done; but most importantly, there are the children trying to live under the weight of their apocalyptic circumstances, told to revere an older generation with no interest in their welfare. In some ways the battle between former childhood friends Kaneda and Tetsuo is rendered mythic by the broad strokes the film is forced to operate on, but it also finds raw pathos in unexpected places.
At heart, Akira is a story about toxic masculinity poisoning the friendship between its leads, with Tetsuo so warped by his desire to achieve strength and recognition that he becomes a literal monster. It’s only during a quintessentially ‘anime’ journey back to their childhood selves – when we witness the shared vulnerability that initially connected them – that the apocalyptic storm becomes a momentary calm. It’s a tale that skimps on narrative detail to get at a powerful emotional core and demands a willingness to see past its archetypal story beats to find the real substance within. While the manga, completed in six phonebook-sized volumes, offers an arguably more cohesive science-fiction narrative, the film stands proudly alongside the greats of 1980s horror and science-fiction across the globe and becomes no less accessible a story with age. It’s a true classic.
— Vrai Kaiser
22. Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend
Takayama Hideki, 1989; on DVD, import Blu-ray
If you didn’t see Urotsukidoji: The Legend of the Overfiend in the 1990s, when it first arrived in the West and kicked up controversy wherever it went, then watching it today would be a strange experience. It’s not that it appears tame by today’s standards, as you might expect – its graphic scenes of demonic rape still have the power to shock, even with Western censors’ efforts to minimise the experience by strategically zooming in on the frame to obscure some of the more explicit details. But it’s a peculiar artefact when compared to anime as we now understand it.
The film, which is actually three stitched-together OVAs (original video animations, straight-to-video projects whose production values sit somewhere between those of a TV episode and a cinema release), is considered a classic of the hentai pornographic – genre. It is particularly noteworthy for its use of tentacles as penis substitutes (original creator Maeda Toshio, now considered the godfather of hentai manga, has said he wants his headstone engraved with ‘Tentacle Master’). But it also has a plot, albeit not a very good one: every 3,000 years the titular Overfiend is reborn to unite the three worlds of humans, demons and man-beasts, but as the day approaches, some from the demon world seek to prevent this through strategic rape and ultra-violence. As porn plots go, it’s not quite as gossamer-thin as many other hentai titles, including Maeda’s other works (he also created La Blue Girl, which was infamously refused certification by the BBFC in the UK on the grounds that the number of cuts required to attain an 18 certificate would render it unwatchable).
There’s also no denying that, despite its sexual content, it’s very much a horror movie, with moments of visceral body horror that recall Tetsuo’s monstrous transformation towards the end of Akira. But it’s also incredibly silly, with its excesses of sex and gore, the annoying comic relief sidekick Kuroko and the dodgy English dub performed by actors who used pseudonyms rather than have their real names attached to the project. It all makes the film rather tricky to parse. Is it good? Is it bad? Perhaps the answer is simply that it’s an experience.
There were other titles released in the 1990s that did similar things – Iida Umanosuke’s Devilman: The Birth (1987) and Negishi Hiroshi’s Judge (1991) both feature amiable losers who turn out to have monstrous ties to the supernatural, while Kondo Nobuhiro’s The Adventures of Kekkou Kamen, Part 1 – Naked Justice (1991) was famously subjected to heavy BBFC cuts for sexualised violence. But none boast the long-term infamy or the fan devotion of Legend of the Overfiend. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying its impact.
— Leah Holmes
23. Porco Rosso
Miyazaki Hayao, 1992; on Netflix, Blu-ray, DVD
Miyazaki’s flying pig movie probably shouldn’t be your first brush with one of the wildest filmographies in all cinema, but between the poles of My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Princess Mononoke (1997), his songs of innocence and of experience, we need a nod to his romance with European landscapes and with flying machines. Alpine trainee-witch story Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) is the perfect coming-of-age fable and definition of uplift, but this serio-comic fantasia and tribute to the freelance pilots of the post-World War I Mediterranean (as well as their plane designers), centred on a war ace turned porcine loner, is the signature curio that’s as heartfelt as it is whimsical.
Its aeronautical hijinks look back to the comic-book action-adventure of Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986); its intimations of rising militarism anticipate Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and The Wind Rises (2013); and its once-bitten love story and paean to professionalism carry the silver-screen antics of a Howard Hawks drama onwards and upwards. As for the lapsed hero of the title: Miyazaki knows like no one knows that the point of animation is to make pigs fly.
— Nick Bradshaw
24. Midori: The Girl in the Freak Show
Harada Hiroshi, 1992
Realised singlehandedly over five years by a voluntary outcast from the mainstream animation industry, Midori: The Girl in the Freak Show (Shojo Tsubaki, aka Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freakshow) is an infamous underground title – the embodiment of the garish aesthetic ethos known as ‘erotic grotesque nonsense’, which first emerged in the late 1920s, when its story is set.
Adapted from the 1984 cult manga by Maruo Suehiro, itself based on a kamishibai play (a form of one-man illustrated storytelling) from the pre-war period, it tells of a young flower seller, forced into poverty by her father’s disappearance, who winds up with a group of itinerant circus freaks. It’s by turns absurdist, sensationalist, carnivalesque, horrific and, by some standards, pornographic. There has never been a legitimate home video release anywhere in the world.
— Jasper Sharp
25. Ninja Scroll
Kawajiri Yoshiaki, 1993; on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Blu-ray, DVD
Kawajiri Yoshiaki’s samurai slashfest had a rather dismal reception in its home country but the novelty of its explicit sexuality, hyper-violence and gripping sword fights helped catapult it to home-video popularity in the West. It follows stoic swordsman-for-hire Jubei as he rescues female ninja Kagero from an impossibly large and lecherous demon only to find himself blackmailed to defeat seven more of these supernatural Devils, all part of a plot by the Shogun of the Dark to overthrow the feudal military government.
From a skirmish with a blind swordsman in a bamboo forest to Jubei’s final battle, each fight is more outlandish than the last, cementing Ninja Scroll’s status in anime memory. Kawajiri had already caught attention with his sci-fi horror Wicked City (1987), and his reputation for elaborate action choreography won him gigs in the West via the Wachowskis’ The Animatrix anthology (2003) and the animated Highlander: The Search for Vengeance (2007).
— Lynzee Loveridge
26. Whisper of the Heart
Kondo Yoshifumi, 1995; on Netflix, Blu-ray, DVD
An in-demand animator and long-term collaborator of both Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao, Kondo Yoshifumi would be traded back and forth between the two Studio Ghibli titans on projects from Grave of the Fireflies (1988) to Porco Rosso (1992) – but in 1993, Miyazaki conceived of a project that would serve as his protégé’s debut as director. “Wholesomeness so powerful it could blow away reality” was the brief, and this adaptation of Hiiragi Aoi’s shojo manga – traditionally targeted at female teens – is a dazzling example of Ghibli magic enlivening the everyday.
While its slice-of-life teen romance doesn’t rock the genre boat, Whisper of the Heart is elevated by beautiful and inspiring set pieces that stand shoulder to shoulder with the studio’s most memorable, from a suburban jaunt in pursuit of a mysterious cat to an awkward, endearing performance of John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’.
But this romance is tinged with tragedy: Kondo died in 1998, leaving behind this exquisite gem in the Ghibli crown.
— Michael Leader
Morimoto Koji, Okamura Tensai & Otomo Katsuhiro, 1995; on DVD
After directing Akira (1988), manga artist, writer and director Otomo Katsuhiro executive-produced this anthology adaptation of three of his manga short sci-fi stories, dividing directing duties with two younger colleagues.
By far the standout is Magnetic Rose, a tale of death and madness in the far reaches of space, written by the late, great Kon Satoshi and directed by Morimoto Koji. It follows two members of a salvage ship who follow a distress signal to a seemingly abandoned space station. Inside are the remnants of the opulent living quarters of one Eva Friedel, a well-known opera diva and suspected murderer. Visions of her begin to appear everywhere and she has no intention of letting the two men return home. (Kanno Yoko’s Madame Butterfly-inflected score is a key component of the film.)
Though less striking, the other two films, Stink Bomb and the Otomo-directed Cannon Fodder, offer enough sci-fi food for thought to make this trio essential viewing.
— Lynzee Loveridge
28. Ghost in the Shell
Oshii Mamoru, 1995; on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Blu-ray, DVD
I saw Ghost in the Shell on its first limited cinema release in Britain, with a flatly delivered American dub. Back then, I thought it was dull despite its beauty. Rewatching Ghost with subtitles helped, as did seeing its anime precursors. Oshii Mamoru’s political drama Patlabor 2 (1993) established much of Ghost’s sensibility. It contained a sequence that’s a wordless poem in pictures, showing Tokyo patrolled by the military, yet beautified by snow.
In Ghost, the equivalent sequence involves the film’s main character, Major Kusanagi. She’s an Internal Affairs agent, with a synthetic body but a human brain. In a city modelled on Hong Kong, Kusanagi hunts down a criminal, the Puppet Master, who hacks into people’s machine-meshed brains.
Ghost’s central sequence, wordless like the one in Patlabor 2, has Kusanagi passing along a canal through anonymous crowds. The images suggest a mire of decay (broken bicycles in mud) and disposability (Kusanagi glimpses replicas of her mass-produced body, including a mannequin in a shop window). Then rain falls, like a deus ex machina: at once everything is quickened, reanimated. Earlier, a voice out of nowhere whispered to her, quoting Saint Paul. “For now we see through a glass darkly.”
About a third of Ghost’s budget was provided by Britain’s Manga Entertainment, hoping for a spectacle like Akira (1988). Indeed, Ghost serves up ear-ringing gun battles, exploding heads and a heroine who dives down a skyscraper. The story has elements of Blade Runner (1982) and cyberpunk fiction. Amusingly, Ghost opened just as cyberpunk was being declared dead in Hollywood, thanks to the flops of Johnny Mnemonic and Strange Days (both 1995).
But Ghost’s intellectual detachment feels more Kubrickian. Near the end, there’s a perspective trick with a mirror, recalling the obelisk in the hotel in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Ghost’s humanity comes from Kawai Kenji’s increasingly passionate score, and from the lead Japanese voice actors, who play seasoned secret agents with occasional glimpses of vulnerability. Kusanagi was voiced by Tanaka Atsuko, already established as the dub voice of Nicole Kidman. Tanaka later dubbed Scarlett Johansson in the Japanese release of the live-action Ghost in the Shell remake (2017), an enjoyable travesty.
The compact anime, only 85 minutes long, had been skilfully arranged from select chapters of the source manga by Shirow Masamune. The strip was massively dense, but it had none of the sobriety Oshii brought to the film. However, viewers might have needed to have read Shirow’s manga to catch some of the story’s oblique points. In one scene, there’s an unexplained raid at a mansion. The manga clarifies this belongs to an exiled foreign colonel who the Foreign Ministry wants deported, which is the secret reason for all the action and carnage in the film’s first act.
— Andrew Osmond
29. Princess Mononoke
Miyazaki Hayao, 1997; on Netflix, Blu-ray, DVD
Princess Mononoke marked a turning point in the international reputations of Miyazaki Hayao and Studio Ghibli. Their first American release under a deal with Disney, it received a high-profile translation, with Neil Gaiman brought in to script and Gillian Anderson, Claire Danes and Billy Bob Thornton among the star voices used to translate Miyazaki’s complex historical imaginary for overseas audiences. Received with some initial consternation for its adult-orientation and occasionally violent content (though it paved the way to an Oscar for Miyazaki’s next film, 2001’s Spirited Away), Princess Mononoke has since been embraced by audiences, particularly for its feminist heroines. In Japan, meanwhile, it opened to rapturous reviews and massive box-office success. Not just another in Studio Ghibli’s by-then reliable run of wonders, it was recognised for the major artistic inflection point in Miyazaki’s career that it is.
Flipping the focus of the director’s love of the pastoral and natural, Princess Mononoke looks at the obverse side, leaning in to the damage wrought by Japan’s – and humanity’s – abuse of its environment. Returning to the themes of his post-apocalyptic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) but foregrounding the live destruction and exploitation, the film mixes magical woodland scenes with genuinely terrifying scenes of animal slaughter and rage. Male protagonist Ashitaka, a member of Japan’s long-lost
Emishi ethnic group, is cursed at the beginning of the film and forced to embark on an epic quest to find the source of pollution that is angering Japan’s animal gods. He finds himself thrust into the middle of a dispute between some of Japan’s most marginalised historical figures: an iron-smelting community led by Lady Eboshi, who has gathered around her Japan’s unwanted, from ex-prostitutes to lepers; and, on the other side, representatives of the natural world that Eboshi is destroying, not least wolf-goddess Moro and her adoptive human daughter San, the titular princess. (Mononoke are the vengeful spirits of Japanese folklore and literature, and from the writhing, worm-infested boar gods to the delicate beauty of the deer-like Shishigami, Miyazaki’s animations are among his most beautiful and grotesque, anticipating the world of Spirited Away.)
Making his sympathies for both groups clear, Miyazaki upends the balance of power in Japan’s historical or jidaigeki film genre, whose traditional samurai heroes he recasts as Mononoke’s scheming villains, as the Emperor’s spies press Eboshi to kill the Shishigami forest god. In Japan Princess Mononoke has been compared to Kurosawa’s historical epics, both using the period form to critique their cultural moments. Miyazaki’s reworking of this well-trodden Japanese genre into something progressive and environmentally focused made Princess Mononoke a high point in the history of Japanese cinema.
— Rayna Denison
30. Perfect Blue
Kon Satoshi, 1997; on Blu-ray, DVD
Kon Satoshi’s feature debut plunges us into Japan’s late 1990s pop idol scene, and surfaces with a fractured tale of psychological and physical brutality. Kirigoe Mima is 21 when she decides to leave CHAM!, the J-pop group in which she rose to fame, to pursue what she hopes will be a more rewarding acting career. Mima’s manager Rumi is against the change – as are her fans. For one in particular, an anonymous figure lurking behind the online persona ‘Me-Mania’, that devotion tips into stalking. But for Mima, escaping the cocoon of her cute idol persona is as urgently felt as an adolescent’s yearning for independence. The transition isn’t easy, though, and from limited options she takes a role as a rape victim on a TV show – a part that distresses her in her ‘real’ life. Before long, Mima’s co-stars and collaborators start turning up murdered, and she finds herself haunted by visions of her former self – and increasingly unable to distinguish fact from fiction.
Based on a 1991 novel of the same name by Takeuchi Yoshikazu, though updated to reflect the new digitally connected world, Perfect Blue is not only concerned with how the self is perceived by others but also with the then new creation of online personae. It’s an unsettling work, a psychological thriller about personal identity, fame and reality that is disturbingly prescient about the emboldening anonymity granted by the web. When Mima naively corresponds with her crazed stalker Me-Mania, she has little sense of the danger she is putting herself in – with hindsight, perhaps a lesson for us all.
Perfect Blue was only the first of Kon’s films to blur the lines between dream and reality. His second project Millennium Actress (2001), in which a TV interviewer and his camaraman meet former actress Chiyoko, offers a mosaic-like tale of personal empowerment which is also a homage to classics of Japanese cinema. Leaping to and from the sets of Chiyoko’s decades-spanning career with its unreliable narrator, it interweaves memories with fantasies and desires – in many ways it is a counterpoint to Mima’s odyssey in Perfect Blue.
In 2003 Kon made the underrated John Ford pastiche Tokyo Godfathers, and in 2006 he made an even more head-on attempt at breaking apart the subconscious via the hallucinatory world of Paprika, a film with a matryoshka-doll-like plot in which dreams can be rummaged through to unearth repressed urges and manias (it was reportedly a key influence on Christopher Nolan’s 2010 Inception).
Kon died aged only 46 in 2010, after just one intensely creative decade of making features. But starting with Perfect Blue, he injected a unique vision into anime, and a run of lasting inquiries into the murky regions of the human mind.
— Serena Scateni
31. Neon Genesis Evangelion: End of Evangelion
Anno Hideaki & Tsurumaki Kazuya, 1997; on Netflix
Neon Genesis Evangelion: End of Evangelion is a tricky film to love, as what it does best requires substantial context: first, that it accompanies the far more hopeful ending of Anno Hideaki’s 26-episode Neon Genesis Evangelion TV series, serving more as a what-if or alternative timeline scenario than as a conclusive ending; second, that both series and film were highly auteur-driven and heavily influenced by production woes and mental health issues; and third, that the film was indelibly impacted by Anno’s bruising experience with the series’ fans, including death threats sent to the studio. The end result is a blisteringly caustic film wrapped in hallucinogenic horror, with visuals so potent they’ve stuck with fans for decades. While unsettling and even draining to watch, it’s hard to say – looking, for example, at the behaviour of modern-day comic-book fans – that there isn’t a place for a film so filled with rage.
— Vrai Kaiser
32. Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade
Okiura Hiroyuki, 1999; on Blu-ray, DVD
This Oshii Mamoru-scripted sci-fi drama (his third screen adaptation of his manga Hellhounds: Panzer Cops, following two live-action versions) paints an alternative version of 1950s Japan in which the Special Defense Force has become the militarised arm of a totalitarian regime. The plot centres on a deadly game of cat and mouse between Kazuki Fuse, an elite member of the SDF, and Kei, whose sister he saw detonate in a suicide bombing. Though a peculiar romance kindles between them, such fleeting comforts dissolve into looming horrors as their authoritarian world contrives to push them apart.
Outstanding cinematography anchors this grim fable, steeped in ‘Red Riding Hood’ metaphors. Long, slow shots underscore the fraught conversations, dimly lit pans emphasise the dramatic tension, and the film’s subdued palettes play up the nightmarish contrast of the SDF’s Kerberos units’ black armour and glowing red eyes. It’s a devastating piece of slow-burn political noir.
— Samantha Ferreira
33. Revolutionary Girl Utena: Adolescence of Utena
Ikuhara Kunihiko, 1999; on Funimation
Adolescence of Utena, the 1999 film that followed the 1997 Revolutionary Girl Utena television series, holds a unique place in anime film history. Neither independent of the series nor a good introduction to the television version, it stands alone as a single iteration of a series that is a surreal combination of visual and narrative elements, with multiple versions both as comics and on screen. Its tale of a high-school girl’s quest to win the hand of another female student, the mysterious ‘Rose Bride’, is filled with homages to classic anime and manga that fans will enjoy looking out for. Surreal and vast, with music that has been described as “a magical cookbook on acid”, this story of redemption and freedom from one’s past is an anime movie worth watching over and over on the biggest screen possible.
— Erica Friedman
Rintaro, 2001; on iTunes, Blu-ray
Adapted from ‘godfather of manga’ Tezuka Osamu’s 1949 graphic novel, Metropolis is a delectable deconstruction of what we understand about science fiction. A collaboration between Rintaro (who worked with Tezuka on Astro Boy) and Akira director Otomo Katsuhiro, Metropolis draws from the genre’s entire history in its tale of identity and inequality. Though Fritz Lang’s 1927 film of the same name is its primary influence (Tezuka claimed otherwise, but the similarities are numerous), it’s equal parts retro-futurism and cyberpunk. There are even shades of role-playing game Final Fantasy VII, with its multi-level city where lower-class robot workers dwell in slums beneath the habitations of the rich. Fascinating tension lies at the core of this world, both in the mix of 2D and 3D visuals and in the retention of Tezuka’s cutesy characters amid the squalor. Whether it wants to be or not, Rintaro’s stunning Metropolis is a daring expansion of Lang’s influential project.
— Kambole Campbell
35. Voices of a Distant Star
Shinkai Makoto, 2002; on Blu-ray, DVD
Shinkai Makoto’s plaintive deep-space love ode casts its chamber study of two star-parted teenagers against the backdrop of an intergalactic battle of civilisations, and packs it into a 25minute run-time. The characterisations of top-gun student Mikako and her email-pal Noboru aren’t much to write home about; nor is the distance-making-the-heart-grow-fonder story of their increasingly asynchronous
communication, as Mikako is sent chasing Tarsian enemies to the far reaches of the Sirius solar system, vintage Nokia phone clutched to her breast. But, in just his second short, made almost entirely solo on desktop software, Shinkai’s ability to orchestrate his open-veined feelings on a cosmic scale produces fireworks – he’s still magicking these photo-realist meteorological wonders in his pop hits Your Name (2016) and Weathering with You (2019) – while his focus on 21st-century communication pains marks him as the voice of a new young adult generation.
— Nick Bradshaw
36. Tokyo Godfathers
Kon Satoshi, 2003; on iTunes, Blu-ray, DVD
As a filmmaker, Kon Satoshi was far from conventional, and this third of his four wonderful features might be his most unlikely: an anime Christmas movie. Loosely adapting Peter B. Kyne’s western novel The Three Godfathers (notably brought to the screen by John Ford in 1948 as 3 Godfathers), Kon and co-screenwriter Nobumoto Keiko transplant the story into the bustling Japanese capital, where a trio of homeless people find an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve and resolve to reunite it with its parents. Focusing on marginalised characters, Tokyo Godfathers mines similar thematic ground to Koreeda Hirokazu’s recent Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters (2018), examining family units bound both by blood and circumstance.
It’s rare to see anime looking to the New Testament for inspiration, rather than pilfering iconography from the Old, but what really makes Tokyo Godfathers stand out – and makes it feel more ahead of its time with each passing year – is its empathetic depiction of the ‘drag queen’ transgender character Hana, whose desperate dreams of being a mother come true, at least for a while.
— Michael Leader
37. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
Oshii Mamoru, 2004; on Amazon Prime, Blu-ray, DVD
The first Japanese animation to play in Competition at Cannes, Innocence should be viewed as much more than a mere sequel to an international breakthrough anime title. Oshii Mamoru pushes the possibilities of computer-graphics technology mixed with traditional hand-drawn animation much further than the original Ghost in the Shell (1995). Its plot follows the Section 9 cyberterrorist agents’ investigations into a string of murders committed by ‘gynoid’ sex dolls who have turned on their clients due to a mismatch between their hardware and illegally-transplanted software consciousness.
The result is an esoteric and provocative work that is not only visually stunning, but uses its hybrid form to explore such questions as where the division between the organic and inorganic lies, and the issues involved in representing reality in a moving-image medium in which everything is created from scratch. Its metaphysical musings on the mind-body duality and wherein we might locate the soul in a networked virtual world arguably align the film more with the arthouse than the manga and anime crowd.
— Jasper Sharp
38. Mind Game
Yuasa Masaaki, 2004; on import Blu-ray or DVD
A mind-bending film made by one of anime’s most prolific, prodigious talents, Yuasa Masaaki’s Mind Game defies both categorisation and summarisation. When a manga artist sees his already short, sad life prematurely curtailed, he cuts a deal with higher powers to avoid death. Finding himself thrown into the belly of a whale, he must overcome a series of surreal challenges in order to escape this limbo space and restart his life.
Bright, bold and impressionistic, this deliberately unhinged, aggressively idiosyncratic film switches visual styles with every encounter, keeping things continually visually interesting while blasting through the borderline-incomprehensible story at breakneck pace. Yuasa’s scrappy yet spectacular debut feature signalled a visionary director unafraid to take creative risks and do things differently. His much loved work also includes the TV series Ping Pong: The Animation (2002) and Devilman: Crybaby (2018), and the film The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl (2017).
— Matt Turner
Michael Arias, 2006; on Blu-ray, DVD
This adaptation of Matsumoto Taiyo’s sprawling manga serial packs in a similarly panoramic view of its city setting, the future-decadent Asian mega-city of Takaramachi (Treasure Town) – even mimicking the warp of anamorphic fisheye lenses for its gorgeously hand-drawn, CG-manipulated images of urban grime. The main protagonists are a hardboiled pair of street orphans, angry, cynical Kuro (‘Black’) and dreamy, possibly psychic Shiro (‘White’), who vie with a corporate yakuza boss who plans to replace the slum with a theme town. The film also looks deeply into their inner worlds via a series of distorting visions, from an older yakuza character’s sepia-toned memories to Kuro’s dark, abstracted CG nightmares and Shiro’s child-like, pencil-drawn dreams of living by the sea with Kuro. Nostalgic references to post-war anime and yakuza films offer a refracted history of post-war Japan, while Michael Arias looks ambivalently toward the CG future.
— Rayna Denison
40. Summer Wars
Hosoda Mamoru, 2009; on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Blu-ray, DVD
In little time, Hosoda Mamoru has achieved a lot. Working initially as a key animator, he then co-directed Digimon: The Movie (2000) for Toei before being scouted by Ghibli, to direct Howl’s Moving Castle – a collaboration that ultimately fell through over creative differences. Since then he’s made a number of successful independent features, including the Oscar-nominated Mirai (2018).
Summer Wars – made just before he started his own studio, Chizu connects the two phases of his career, reworking some of the internet dystopia-orientated ideas he was exploring in Digimon within the sort of family drama that is a fixture of his later films. In it, the film’s teen has to defeat a rogue artificial intelligence, while making a good impression on his newfound family. It is imaginatively animated and ingeniously plotted, featuring an ending with remarkably high stakes.
— Matt Turner
41. Mai Mai Miracle
Katabuchi Sunao, 2009; on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Blu-ray, DVD
Set amid the fields and farm life of of Hofu in southwestern Japan one magical post-war summer, with boisterous Shinko befriending a shy transfer student called Kiiko and corralling a motley gang of nature explorers, Mai Mai Miracle looks at first like a Studio Ghibli pastiche – Takahata Isao’s 1991 Only Yesterday comes to mind. But even more than Takahata, this magic-realist adaptation of Takagi Nobuko’s novelised memoir introduces the emerging township multidimensionally – via an archaeological dig and history lessons from Shinko’s grandfather, and through Shinko’s imagination, in which she and Kiiko commingle with local tenth-century princess Nagiko. Katabuchi’s film offers delicate hints at the fallout from World War II, with Shinko and her friends confronting family upheaval and loss through fantasy. It’s a keenly felt, joyous adventure.
— Rayna Denison
42. The Tale of The Princess Kaguya
Takahata Isao, 2013; on Netflix, Blu-ray, DVD
A beautiful and elegiac retelling of classic Japanese folklore that feels like it contains entire lifetimes – both the life arc of the magical title character, delivered to a woodcutter in a stalk of bamboo, and the life’s work of the late Studio Ghibli co-founder Takahata Isao. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was always intended as a swan song, and it’s fitting as such – its introduction of fantasy into mundane lives feels of a piece with the filmmaker’s Only Yesterday (1991); the formal experimentation echoes My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999); its tragedy, which feels both inescapable and needless, recalls Grave of the Fireflies (1988). The minimalist watercolour backgrounds lend it the quality of a dream or memory, as Takahata reinvents a traditional tale as a melancholic reflection on the preciousness and fleeting nature of childhood, pitting the desires of the heart against the will of the world.
— Kambole Campbell
43. Giovanni’s Island
Nishikubo Mizuho, 2014; on Blu-ray, DVD
Nishikubo Mizuho has been an anime stalwart since the 1970s, working on TV titles such as Gatchaman II (1978-79) and The Rose of Versailles (1980), as well as films like Ghost in the Shell (1995) for Production I.G., which also made Giovanni’s Island. Always a measured director, he tends towards subjects that allow for ambiguity and pathos, qualities abundant in his fourth feature, a coming-of-age story set on the small northern island of Shikotan under post-war Russian occupation.
Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is an obvious touchstone, though the film also tips its hat to Miyazawa Kenji’s classic fantasy novel Night on the Galactic Railroad, an emotional prop for the story’s two young brothers as their families confront separation and exile, buffeted by the impersonal forces of history. The film was originally conceived by co-writer Sugita Shigemichi as a live-action period story, but the richly detailed backdrops and more malleable foreground characters are a beautiful example of how animation can render memory’s impressions of the past.
— Darren Ashmore
44. The Case of Hana & Alice
Iwai Shunji, 2015; on DVD, import Blu-ray
The first animated work by cross-media pop-cultural stylist Iwai Shunji, who made an impact in 1990s Japanese cinema with Love Letter (1995) and Swallowtail Butterfly (1996), is a standalone prequel to his live-action Hana & Alice (2004), which itself originated as a series of online shorts promoting a well-known confectionary brand.
This introductory backstory sees Arisugawa Tetsuko (‘Alice’), newly arrived in small-town suburbia with her divorced mother and bullied by her classmates, finding an unlikely chum in Hana, the reclusive weirdo who lives in a house bedecked with flowers next door. The style, as they embark on a series of wild suburban escapades, is intriguing, with its rotoscoped characters voice-acted by the now adult performers originally cast a decade before. It is, arguably, not really animation, but it does a wonderful job of expressing the vulnerability, social awkwardness and friendship of two young women exploring a new world of emotions.
— Jasper Sharp
45. Your Name
Shinkai Makoto, 2016; on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Blu-ray, DVD
In one of anime’s great success stories, director Shinkai Makoto went from wannabe to world conqueror in just shy of 15 years. Developing his voice from the 25-minute self-animated Voices of a Distant Star (2002) through the ambitious feature debut The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004), shorts anthology 5 Centimeters per Second (2007), feature-length fantasy Journey to Agartha (aka Children Who Chase Lost Voices, 2011) and hyper-realistic experimental short Garden of Words (2013), Shinkai is now an undisputed master of stacking genres, high-concepts and convoluted plots on top of a solid foundation of industrial-grade teen melodrama, all polished to perfection with each frame gleaming, hyped-up and hyper-real.
Not content with being yet another boy-meets-girl romantic comedy, Your Name introduces a body-swap conceit that finds its young protagonists experiencing each other’s lives without ever meeting. Teenage lad Taki is driven to distraction by his temporary female anatomy, while his counterpart Mitsuha makes a much better fist of flirting with his coworker during her short stints at the helm than he does.
They resolve to meet, but our leads soon find themselves on the opposite sides of multiple divisions: not just male/female, but city/rural, modern/traditional and also… well, that would be telling. Such are the subjective, melodramatic pleasures of Your Name that its twists and turns might best be experienced unspoiled. With proceedings impeccably orchestrated so that each lens flare-filled montage – backed by Radwimps’ yearning, goosebump-inducing soundtrack – raises the heart rate, Your Name is an undeniable mid-career peak for Shinkai.
A popular sensation, it became the highest-grossing anime film worldwide, inevitably adding fuel to those who would position him as ‘the next Miyazaki’, a woolly marketing label Western pundits had long been looking to pin to someone. Even his comparatively less successful follow-up, the climate change-themed romance Weathering with You (2019), reached box-office heights previously only scaled by Miyazaki’s smashes.
Even then, the comparison is somewhat moot. Miyazaki’s ecological fantasies from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) to Princess Mononoke (1997) placed idealistic youngsters in corrupted or decaying worlds, urging his audience to live life amid the devastation from a paternal, metaphorical remove. Shinkai, on the other hand, inhabits the same world and shares the same anxieties as both his characters and his fans. Part of Your Name’s mass appeal in the summer of 2016 was chalked up to its status as the first popular ‘post-Fukushima’ film, but whatever crisis we might face there’s a universal emotional core here: how best to discover ourselves, and each other, in uncertain times.
— Michael Leader
46. A Silent Voice
Yamada Naoko, 2017; on Netflix, iTunes, Blu-ray, DVD
Yamada Naoko’s third feature film as director established her not just as one of Kyoto Animation’s best talents, but also as one of the best animation directors currently working. The studio, one of the most acclaimed in Japan, is known for its high production values, intricately detailed work and focus on ordinary life, with work such as the dramas K-On! (also directed by Yamada) and Sound! Euphonium, and the surreal comedy series My Ordinary Life (Nichijou, 2011), all focused on the everyday plights of girls in high school. The studio is unique for this preference for the personal over large-scale spectacle (though some of its works deliver that too).
Kyoto Animation is also known for creating an environment in which women have been able to thrive, with a substantial number of female animators, all of whom are salaried, unlike the freelancers who make up the bulk of the anime industry. This means that, rather than rush drawings to meet a quota, its artists are given breathing room on every frame. Sadly the studio recently made international headlines due to tragedy, as an arson attack on its Studio 1 building claimed the lives of 36 people and injured 33, while destroying most computers and paper materials, including past work for which the studio only had physical copies. Following an outpouring of national and foreign support, the studio returned to work a month later.
Adapted from the manga of the same name, A Silent Voice was the studio’s first standalone feature film (its other films were developed from its TV series) and is perhaps the best-known example of the KyoAni style – it’s a lavishly animated work that is largely about changing interpersonal relationships. Through evocative imagery and careful editing, it tells the story of Shoya, a boy seeking to make amends for bullying Shoko, a deaf girl, in their youth. Yamada and her team find humour as well as great sadness in the miscommunication between young adults, using an intricate visual language to express Shoya’s inner turmoil, capturing the subtleties of his movements and the uncertainties in his physical actions as he fumbles towards social acceptance. Some of this visual communication is of course born of necessity, as Shoko often talks through sign language or by writing on notepads – but such expressivity, particularly one that focuses on minutiae, still feels rare within modern anime.
Though the film is mostly told from his perspective, Yamada effortlessly looks beyond Shoya’s struggle as the film develops into something of an ensemble piece, each new character wrestling with their own insecurities and self-loathing. Pensive and reflective on ideas of redemption and maturation, A Silent Voice is gorgeous and delicately balanced – charming without being cloying, dramatic without being overwrought.
— Kambole Campbell
47. The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl
Yuasa Masaaki, 2017; on Netflix, Blu-ray
‘Kohai’ is a free-spirited college student floating from one local attraction to the next in Yuasa Masaaki’s superb romantic comedy, which reunited many of the talents behind his 11-epsiode campus chronicle The Tatami Galaxy (2010). What here begins as a boozy pub crawl quickly escalates into a whirlwind adventure across Kyoto as Yuasa unleashes his delightful, often delirious style, turning reality into expressionist suggestion with a masterful command of both colour and mise en scène. Visuals shift according to mood to build a playful, ethereal atmosphere. Characters’ bodies rock comically as they gulp down booze, or morph into day-glow pink silhouettes; woodblock prints come to life; and a wave of nostalgia literally floods a scene. It all feels breezy, dreamlike and utterly delightful.
— Samantha Ferreira
48. Liz and the Blue Bird
Yamada Naoko, 2018; released internationally but not yet in the UK
Yamada Naoko’s fourth feature is a spin-off of the novel, manga and Kyoto Animation TV series Sound! Euphonium, detailing the relationship of two bit characters from that series, but it works perfectly as a standalone feature. Focusing on the symbiotic bond between shy oboist Mizore and more outgoing flautist Nozomi, it overlays their story with that of the musical piece they are rehearsing, in which a young woman called Liz gives away her heart to a blue bird that has taken human form.
Rarely has an anime film been so fluent in the language of yearning and the female gaze. Building on the maturity of A Silent Voice (2017) but freed from its overly explored boy-meets-girl trope, Yamada’s feature is a richly layered coming-of-age story that pays close attention to every detail, from a character’s cheerful gait to her ponytail swaying against the azure sky.
— Serena Scateni
49. Our Sound
Iwaisawa Kenji, 2019; UK release scheduled late 2020
Three high-school deadbeats form a band on the whim of their ringleader, the whacked-out Kenji. No matter that they barely know what a bass guitar is – these bros are all about the feeling. Like its characters, Our Sound (On-Gaku) is indie to the core: it is based on a self-published manga by Ohashi Hiroyuki, and was made outside the studio system on a (partly crowdfunded) shoestring budget over seven years. Unlike the trio, it’s a class act, a triumph of deadpan comic timing, characterful design and freeform animation. As the band develop their sound, the visuals evolve accordingly, veering into rotoscoping then lysergic abstraction during the climactic gig. Chalk much of this up to the vision of Iwaisawa Kenji, who directed the film (his first feature), drew the storyboards, designed the backgrounds and handled much of the animation himself. He’s a true original.
— Alex Dudok de Wit
Imaishi Hiroyuki, 2019; UK Blu-ray and DVD
Studio Trigger has rocketed to stardom over the past decade, drawing acclaim for its distinctive visual style and exuberant over-the-top narratives that prioritise emotion over plot logic. Promare is the jewel in the studio’s crown. Its story about oppressed pyrokinetic mutants touches on systemic oppression and the complicity therein as well as climate change, but the real heart of the story is the queer-coded connection between rebel leader Lio Fotia and naive, forthright Galo Thymos. The film, bathed in breathtaking neon colours and showcasing some of the most cutting-edge CG artistry in the industry, captures the best of what Trigger can do while avoiding its notable pitfalls – namely, a shoddy record with female characters. The conspiracy ultimately matters far less than the passion-powered giant robots, but it’s an unforgettable ride.
— Vrai Kaiser