Animation is a flexible medium that allows creation of dreamscapes and experimentation with images difficult to achieve in live action films, at least without a gigantic budget. Japan has a rich animation tradition, anime being one of the country’s biggest cultural exports. Anime bears a certain stigma. Though it's popularity has expanded over the last decade, the medium suffers from stereotypes that put some viewers off. Taken as a whole, anime does contain tropes that play right into these assumptions. But tentacle porn, fan service, sub-normal IQ heroines with saucer eyes, and battle sequences in which characters power up for three episodes are not all there is to anime.
Anime movies are made in as wide a range of genres and styles as live action movies. The number of series and films can be overwhelming for a viewer who doesn’t participate in a related fandom. It’s easy to encounter something driven by a distasteful trope or just poorly made, and that can sour a new viewer’s opinion of the medium as a whole. On top of that, many, myself included, don’t want to dedicate time to a show with 300 episodes. Fortunately, there are plenty of great one shots out there.
So, here is a list of five great animated films, each a good place to start if you've previously watched little or no anime. I’ve banished Studio Ghibli (Totoro, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, etc.) from the list because Miyazaki's work is familiar to many people these days, and while his movies appeal to all ages, I want to focus on films specifically targeted towards adult audiences. I’ve tried to cover a range of genres – hopefully everyone can find something that appeals to their taste!
If you enjoy cozy, quirky family dramas, try Summer Wars. It’s available subtitled on youtube.
A heartwarming slice of life family film, Summer Wars depicts a tense battle for the fate of the world within a social media platform. It features huge cast of well developed characters. Somehow director Mamoru Hosoda weaves what should by all rights be a mass of trailing threads into a gorgeous tapestry of animated story.
Math genius Kenji is strong-armed by his classmate Natsuki into visiting her family estate to celebrate her 90 year old grandmother’s birthday. While there, a malevolent AI hacks OZ, a global social media platform through which much urban, national, and military infrastructure is run. Kenji, Natsuki, and the whole family must work together to stop the AI while dealing with the inevitable drama of gathering five generations of an ancient samurai family for a summer jubilee.
At first charming and cute, the film accelerates into a gripping battle while still dipping into humorous interludes and character driven drama. Summer Wars is a well rounded story told with impressive skill that should appeal to a broad range of ages and tastes.
Bonus suggestion: If you enjoy Summer Wars, check out Hosoda’s Wolf Children (Ookami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki), a story about the trials and tribulations of being a single mother when your children are literally wolves. There’s a reason Mamoru Hosoda has been called the next Hayao Miyazaki.
If you’re into star-crossed romance, watch Into the Forest of Firefly Lights (Hotarubi no Mori e). It’s available subtitled on various video streaming websites.
Happy and heartwarming not your thing? Into the Forest of Firefly Lights is quintessential mono no aware, a Japanese term for the aesthetic appreciation of the transience of things and the enduring yet gentle sadness that arises from recognizing this impermanence as the reality of life. The film hits this tone with a lovely subtlety and only a hint of cheese.
When six year old Hotaru becomes lost in the forest, she meets the masked, not-quite-human Gin who leads her out. Despite Gin’s warning that if a human touches him, he will disappear forever, the two build a deep friendship over the summers of the ensuing years. As Hotaru approaches Gin’s apparently unchanging age, romance and its difficulties bloom.
At about 45 minutes in length, the story takes just as much time as it needs. The slow pace and careful use of light evokes the hazy, sourceless melancholy of an empty summer day without tipping into the maudlin. This film broke even my cold, blackened heart just a little, but in the most enjoyable way.
If you like brooding dramas, try 5 Centimeters Per Second (Byousoku no Senchimeetoru). It’s available dubbed on youtube though the quality of the English voice acting leaves something to be desired.
Takaki and Akari become fast friends in primary school, united by their families’ restless backgrounds and their shared interests. When Akari’s family moves to a distant town, she begins writing Takaki regularly. His family soon plans a move as well, to the opposite end of Japan. Realizing he will soon live too far away to visit, Takaki makes a long, wintery journey to see Akari one last time.
Mono no aware too restrained to fuel for your mope? 5 Centimeters Per Second is a sad yet realistic gem of understated angst. It’s a story about leaving told in three parts, the first a wrenching portrayal of the agony of waiting done so well that it’s compellingly watchable. It doesn’t hurt that the animation is lovely to behold, especially the space themed second section and the end song montage.
If you’re into psychological, horror-laced thrillers, check out Perfect Blue. It’s available subtitled on youtube.
A trippy horror-thriller by legendary director Satoshi Kon, Perfect Blue explores the porosity of the border between imagination and reality. After leaving her lead position in a J-pop group to pursue acting, former idol Mima Kirigoe finds herself stalked by an increasingly creepy and violent fan angry about her career move. Discovering an uncannily detailed online diary that claims to be written by herself, Mima’s grip on reality loosens. Then the bodies start to pile up.
Mima’s slide from sanity into confused paranoia is portrayed as a gradual process that ensnares the viewer in a world of grey madness as well.
This one’s pretty dark, so if you’re disturbed by violence/rape you might want to try Kon’s Paprika instead. It deals with similar themes and has an even wilder reality-bending style but contains less violence (still a little violent, no rape). Plus it has a sweet soundtrack if you’re into demented circus music.
If you like sci-fi and action movies, see Akira. It’s available subtitled or dubbed on youtube.
A classic tale from 1988 played out against the stark backdrop of Neo Tokyo, still as watchable today as it ever was. Bike gang leader Kaneda loses friend and fellow gang member Tetsuo to a shady government organization after encountering a strange child on the motorway one night. As Kaneda navigates a web of anti-government terrorists, secret military projects, and the underbelly of a corrupt and struggling society in an attempt to rescue his friend, Tetsuo undergoes genetic experimentation that releases psionic abilities with a terrible price.
Akira builds its aesthetic and world through suggestion, demanding the viewer work out intrigues alongside the main characters. The film moves restlessly through an urban landscape, crumbling, shimmeringly postmodern, and sterile by turns. The action is both tense and fun, underscored by a fantastic soundtrack.
Bonus suggestion: If you like Akira, try the original Ghost in the Shell movie, another dystopian sci-fi with a great soundtrack – plus a kickass heroine and more robots than you can shake a stick at.