The Essential Japanese Anime Films You Need To See
Japanese anime has taken over America over the past few decades, and that’s an incredible feat considering the art form is only around 50 or so years old. Sure, there are many television shows like Dragonball, Pokemon, and Yu-Gi-Oh that took Americans by storm, but these movies really set the bar for kids and adults alike.
When I was in about 5th grade (I’m 31 since the end of February), I got into a show called Dragonball Z. It distanced itself from the normal cartoons that I watched because it was so well drawn, had a wildly imaginative story, and I happened to catch it on the first episode. I watched it all the way through 53 episodes until it abruptly stopped. This was before the internet really took, so I had no way of understanding what happened. The same 53 episodes kept playing over and over again. Every time that 53rd episode played, I was always expecting the next episode to show up. This went on for a year or so. Eventually, the internet really got moving which allowed me to look around and I ended up getting the entire series subtitled in the mail. It was a bit more violent and uncut versus the American dub, but it didn’t matter, I was hooked.
Fast forward to the present, I can’t even watch that show without laughing at myself. The Japanese did re-edited the 290+ episodes down to 100 eps to make it more tolerable. The show was being animated simultaneously as it was being released as a manga. This meant that the show had to stretch one battle sequence into 7 episodes. If you ever hear jokes about characters “powering up” for multiple episodes, that was because they were stalling for time.
When I started getting into the more mature anime, I pretty much left that anime behind, even though I list of movie from the series in this list because it’s just a straight-up fantastic action film with some great choreography and battle scenes. The list below is some of the essential Japanese anime films that have been produced. I know there are many more, but these are the ones that I can go back to whenever I want and be fascinated all over again.
Premise: Kaneda is a bike gang leader whose close friend Tetsuo gets involved in a government secret project known as Akira. On his way to save Tetsuo, Kaneda runs into a group of anti-government activists, greedy politicians, irresponsible scientists and a powerful military leader. The confrontation sparks off Tetsuo’s supernatural power leading to bloody death, a coup attempt and the final battle in Tokyo Olympiad where Akira’s secrets were buried 30 years ago.
In 1988, Katsuhiro Otomo brought the world one of the most revolutionary animated films of all time. Not only is it one of the best animated films of all time, it’s probably one of the best science fiction films of all time. The beautiful animation about biker gang battles, government oppression, drug use, and psychic abilities in a futuristic Tokyo will make you watch it awe as you wonder how it was animated and not made with computers. When it comes to bringing Japanese animation to a world audience, Akira crossed the ocean to North America and gave way to what we all know today. If it wasn’t for this movie, I probably would’ve never gotten into anime at an early age, but this movie was and is everything you could want in a movie of any genre.
Ghost in the Shell
Premise: The year is 2029. The world has become intensively information oriented and humans are well-connected to the network. Crime has developed into a sophisticated stage by hacking into the interactive network. To prevent this, Section 9 is formed. These are cyborgs with incredible strengths and abilities that can access any network on Earth.
Ghost in the Shell is a movie that still has people questioning what it means to be human or machine. When do the two blend into where there is no difference between the two? Ghost in the Shell influenced movies like The Matrix in so many ways that when you watch the film, you might think to yourself that The Matrix ripped it off. From the green digital rain, the plugging in, the camera angles, and the plot, this film really went a step further in Japanese anime. Sure, there is a lot of nudity in the film, but what you do see is sorta or genre neutral since the characters have no reproductive organs. That is a major point that is touched upon in the film. Do you really exist if you can’t reproduce? Is there another way to get your memories and experiences to transcend yourself? This movie is really deep.
Howl’s Moving Castle
Premise: A love story between an 18-year-old girl named Sophie, cursed by a witch into an old woman’s body, and a magician named Howl. Under the curse, Sophie sets out to seek her fortune, which takes her to Howl’s strange moving castle. In the castle, Sophie meets Howl’s fire demon, named Karishifâ. Seeing that she is under a curse, the demon makes a deal with Sophie–if she breaks the contract he is under with Howl, then Karushifâ will lift the curse that Sophie is under, and she will return to her 18-year-old shape.
Hayao Miyazaki is known as one of the most legendary Japanese anime directors of all time. He will be mentioned on this list more than once, and if I really wanted to, this entire list would be him. Howl’s Movie Castle was not Miyazaki’s original idea since it was adapted from a novel of the same name, but he made it his own. Since most of his films came from him, this film caused a bit of a controversy among fans who felt disappointed it wasn’t solely his work. However, the Howl’s brilliant animation, music and imagery makes for a film no anime fan should miss.
Premise: While protecting his village from rampaging boar-god/demon, a confident young warrior, Ashitaka, is stricken by a deadly curse. To save his life, he must journey to the forests of the west. Once there, he’s embroiled in a fierce campaign that humans were waging on the forest. The ambitious Lady Eboshi and her loyal clan use their guns against the gods of the forest and a brave young woman, Princess Mononoke, who was raised by a wolf-god. Ashitaka sees the good in both sides and tries to stem the flood of blood. This is met be animosity by both sides as they each see him as supporting the enemy.
Another one of Miyazaki’s groundbreaking films was Princess Mononoke. It broke records in Japan and managed to mix special effects and hand-drawn animation to the point that you couldn’t tell the difference. It told the story of a doomed warrior that is exiled from his home where he encounters a different world. Beyond the story of the movie, it really shows the battle between industrial humans fighting against nature. Miyazaki can turn a magical world like this into a metaphor for the growing human presence in the world that threatens to damage our environment.
I can remember seeing this movie in an art theater that required a 45 minute drive. It further interested me into all things anime. It’s one of those movies that will make you want to watch it again and again. Each time you appreciate something new. The soundtrack to this movie sounds like you’ve known it all your life.
Premise: During her family’s move to the suburbs, a sullen 10-year-old girl wanders into a world ruled by gods, witches, and spirits, and where humans are changed into beasts.
Yet again, another Miyazaki classic film. This one got the ultimate recognition in the US by winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards. It also became the highest grossing films in Japanese history. Not only is it a good film, but it really shows you what it’s like to be a child in a world full of things you don’t understand. There is really no villain in the film, but it also seems that everyone in the film is a villain. Young Chihiro has to navigate a fantasy spirit world to find her parents. I will go no further than to tell you that. Anything more would be depriving you from such a beautiful piece of art.
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie
Premise: The year is 2071. Following a terrorist bombing, a deadly virus is released on the populace of Mars and the government has issued a 300 million woo-long reward, the largest bounty in history, for the capture of whoever is behind it. The bounty hunter crew of the spaceship Bebop; Spike, Faye, Jet and Ed, take the case with hopes of cashing in the bounty. However, the mystery surrounding the man responsible, Vincent, goes deeper than they ever imagined, and they aren’t the only ones hunting him.
The anime, as well as this movie, is just bad ass. Where some of the movies above are epic fantasy, this movie just oozes cool all over the screen. It’s the future where space pirates are out to make some cash just to power their ships and head to the next adventure, but sometimes they also have to bite the bullet and help people out. It’s sort of like the television show Firefly, but way more entertaining. The fights, the western/opera/jazz fueled music, and action packed flow of the story will have you go back and watch the entire series after watching this. Maybe you should watch the series first. Yeah, do that, then watch the movie.
Premise: Rei is a young inventor living in the U.K. in the middle of the 19th century. Shortly before the first ever World Expo, a marvelous invention called the “Steam Ball”, behind which a menacing power is hidden, arrives at his door from his grandfather Roid in the U.S. Meanwhile the nefarious Ohara Foundation has sent men to acquire the Steam Ball so that they can use its power towards their own illicit ends.
From the director of Akira comes a Steampunk lovers dream. What makes this anime different is that it’s based in the UK in during 19th century, but it’s also based in an alternate universe where steam can power everything from aircraft, tanks, boats, and mega-castles. Rei is in the middle of a family battle between his Grandfather and Father. Not only they want what he has to offer, but many different players come into the fold as well. I don’t have to tell you that this movie is good since the director is Katsuhiro Otomo, so I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it… and then get really into the Steampunk culture. It’s some pretty cool alternate reality culture.
The Wind Rises
Premise: Jiro dreams of flying and designing beautiful airplanes, inspired by the famous Italian aeronautical designer Caproni. Nearsighted from a young age and unable to be a pilot, Jiro joins a major Japanese engineering company in 1927 and becomes one of the world’s most innovative and accomplished airplane designers.
A lot of controversy was given the Hayao Miyazaki over this film. It was due to the subject matter of a Japanese plane designer who was tasked to design planes for the Empire of Japan before and during World War 2. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but what it does show is a kid with a dream of designing airplanes that are not used for war, but are used for peaceful things. The film portrays early 20th century Japan, a devastating earthquake, a love story, and more of Miyazaki proving his talent as a director. It’s sad that this is his last film that he is going to direct, but he really went out on top with The Wind Rises.
Dragonball Z: The World’s Strongest — CONTROVERSIAL PICK
Premise: The evil Dr. Kochin uses the dragon balls to resurrect his mentor, Dr. Wheelo, in an effort to take over the world. Dr. Wheelo, his body having been destroyed by the avalanche that killed him fifty years before, desires the body of the strongest fighter in the world as his new vessel. Believing Roshi to be the world’s strongest warrior, Dr. Kochin abducts Bulma and forces Roshi to surrender himself to save her. When Goku hears of their abduction, he goes to their rescue.
There’s not much to say about this film other than it kicks ass. In the video posted above, it showcases just some of the fighting scenes that are superbly drawn. It portrays all of the things I loved about Dragonball Z when there was really a lot going on in the anime. A lot of the show was childish in parts, and then it would cut to an entire arc of very serious stuff. This film deals with a genocidal maniac who wants to transfer his mind into Goku’s since he’s the best fighter in the world. He has to go through a gauntlet of seemingly unbeatable androids before he can face off with the evil Doctor and save his friends. It’s pretty much a really fun video games that you can play over and over.
Premise: Three scientists at the Foundation for Psychiatric Research fail to secure a device they’ve invented, the D.C. Mini, which allows people to record and watch their dreams. A thief uses the device to enter people’s minds, when awake, and distract them with their own dreams and those of others. Chaos ensues. The trio – Chiba, Tokita, and Shima – assisted by a police inspector and by a sprite named Paprika must try to identify the thief as they ward off the thief’s attacks on their own psyches.
If you thought Inception was mind-blowing, you haven’t seen anything compared to Paprika. Look at the premise. It sounds an awful lot like Inception, doesn’t it? Except this movie is a bit older, and even more trippy. The beginning of Inception has 4 dreams that blend, but Paprika has 6, and they all blend into one another. The match cuts in this movie are particularly crazy.
Here’s an example of a match cut in a film:
And here’s the opening 2 minutes of Paprika:
Paprika will get into your brain and scramble it from those 2 minutes until the end. Director Satoshi Kon really delivers an anime that he planned out frame-by-frame.
Follow Jeff Sorensen on TWITTER
Jeff Sorensen is an author, writer and occasional comedian living in Detroit, Michigan. You can look for more of his work on The Huffington Post, UPROXX, BGR and by just looking up his name.