If you want to see some movie masterpieces, you need to check out anime movies. Japan has produced some of the most beautiful animated works covering a huge range of subject matter- from cyberpunk to fantasy to historical wartime tragedy. The movies range from kid-friendly to stuff that you definitely should not take your kids to.
Below, I’m going to list some of the greatest movies anime has to offer. Please note I won’t be including movies that are a followup or spinoff of an anime series- though I will be including a few stand-alone alternate-continuity retellings of existing work.
What’s your favorites on the list? Do you have anything to add? Say so in the comments!
Any Miyazaki Movie
From Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Hayao Miyazaki is probably the best known anime director in the West, and for good reason. His body of work is breathtaking, combining beautiful animation with well-told narratives full of heart and warmth. Miyazaki’s first feature film was the 1979 adventure comedy Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, based off the famous manga, featuring a master thief who finds himself having to stop an evil count.
His 1984 film Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (featuring a young princess in a post-apocalyptic wasteland who befriends some giant mutant bugs and decides to stop a kingdom from eradicating them) is frequently cited as one of the best anime movies of all time.
From Princess Mononoke
He went on to co-found his own studio, Studio Ghibli. His following film was 1986’s Castle in the Sky, focusing on a young girl and boy searching for a legendary city in the sky, then 1989’s My Neighbor Totoro, an adorable tale about two young girls who befriend some forest spirits. In 1990 we got Kiki’s Delivery Service, about a young witch moving to a new city and 1993 was Porco Russo’s tale of a WWI pilot who was cursed to look like a pig. In 1997 he directed Princess Mononoke, a historical fantasy epic about a conflict between forest gods and humans.
From Spirited Away
2003’s Spirited Away, about a young girl who finds herself trapped in the spirit world after her parents are turned into pigs, won the Academy Award. 2004’s Howl's Moving Castle, based off the Diana Wynne Jones novel, tells of a cursed girl who meets a strange wizard in a moving house. 2009’s Ponyo is a loose retelling of The Little Mermaid involving a five-year-old girl named Ponyo who turns into a fish. 2013’s The Wind Rises is about WWIII aircraft designer losing his way.
Miyazaki’s works are often have themes of flying, pacifism, environmentalism and tend to feature independent, self-possessed female leads. He’s influenced animators like Pixar’s Pete Docter, Disney’s Glen Keane (who says Miyazaki’s work was an influence on the past 20 years of Disney in general) and works like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Final Fantasy.Advertisement
Akira is a landmark anime film considered by many critics to be the best sci-fi film of all time. The film takes place in dystopian cyberpunk future. Tokyo was destroyed by a nuclear bomb in 1988 and a “Neo-Tokyo” gripped with gang violence has risen in its place. On top of that, there are psychic children (espers) who have escaped from labs where they were experimented on by the government. Shotaro Kaneda is a local gang leader who comes to discover just how deep the dark underbelly of his city runs when his best friend, Tetsuo, is discovered to have dangerous psychic powers and pursued by the government as a result.
Akira was wildly influential even in the West and has been cited as a big inspiration for films like The Matrix and Looper
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Warning: do not watch this movie unless you are prepared to be sad and cry a lot. The Grave of the Fireflies is a story about two children who are orphaned after the bombing of Kobe during World War II. They eventually end up homeless and struggle to survive. Suffice to say it’s not a happy story. Roger Ebert has called it one of the greatest and most powerful war films ever made.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Based off the 1989 manga, Ghost in the Shell tells the story of futuristic cyberpunk Japan where technology rules and it’s common to have cybernetic body parts. The protagonist is Motoko Kusanagi, a full android with a human brain and the team leader for an elite public-security agency. She gets involved in an incident with a mysterious hacker and starts to doubt her very humanity.
Ghost in the Shell is a very philosophical film and very influential one, inspiring films like The Matrix. Another must see for fans of sci-fi.Advertisement
Whisper of the Heart (1995) and The Cat Returns (2002)
Studio Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart is a movie that will be relatable to any writer or young person struggling with their dreams- a heartwarming, sweet tale about a girl who struggles to be a writer while unsure she’s chosen the right path. Cat Returns is a sort-of sequel- it’s intended to be a story the main character of Whisper wrote. This fantastical tale shows a girl being transported into a world of talking cats. It’s loads of fun.
Any Satoshi Kon Movie
Satoshi Kon’s movies are beautiful animated masterpieces that are often characterized by surrealism, psychological drama and examination of the thin line between reality and fantasy. They are definitely a must-see for any animation buff. Kon's movies do tend to feature intense scenes of attempted rape and other dark subject matter, so watch out for that.
His work includes: 1997’s Perfect Blue (An idol-turned-actress slowly loses her grip on reality as she is stalked and the pressures of the acting industry bear down), 2001’s Millenium Actress (Some documentarians interview a retired actress and the line between her reality and the movies she made quickly becomes blurred), 2003’s Tokyo Godfathers (an eclectic group of homeless people- a drag queen, an alcoholic man and runaway girl- find an abandoned infant) and 2009’s Paprika (A device that was created to dive into people’s dreams for therapeutic purposes is stolen and the scientist in charge of the treatment tries to find the thief).
Kon died in 2010 before his film Dreaming Machine could be finished, however studio Madhouse plans to finish it someday.
Kon’s movies are speculated to have inspired movies like Inception and The Black Swan.
The Adolescence of Utena (1999)
The Adolescence of Utena is an alternate retelling of the anime series Revolutionary Girl Utena. It is a lot easier to understand if you see the anime, but holds up on its own as an incredibly surreal story that examines fairy tales, love between women, misogynistic systems and the false innocence of childhood. It focuses on a girl named Utena who attends the stately Ohtori academy aiming to be a prince- only to get caught up in a mysterious system where her fellow students “duel” for possession of a girl named Anthy. The story features implied rape a couple times as well as other dark themes.
Princess Arete (2001)
Princess Arete is a tale of a princess who has been locked in a tower by her father, told to wait to be married. However, she often sneaks out of the castle to learn things and attempt to get a job (though she is denied on the basis of her gender). She becomes sympathetic to creatures like dragons and interested in the witches who are said to have died out. She sees through the suitors trying to impress her and her handlers begin to think she’s uncontrollable- then an wizard comes along and promises to make her submissive…
Though slow paced, the story is a beautifully told tale of retaining individualism in the face of adversity and forging your own destiny, which turns many fairy tale tropes on their head. Based on Diana Coles’ The Clever Princess, scholar Hideko Taniguchi says the film is generally perceived in Japan as being one of the country’s most well-known feminist anime.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, directed by Mamoru Hosada, is the story of a young girl who gains time travel powers, only to discover using them recklessly has unforeseen consequences. The film is a sweet-yet-dramatic, imaginative coming-of-age story that should not be missed.
Rebuild of Evangelion
Rebuild of Evangelion is a movie retelling of the Neon Genesis Evangelion series. It spans three movies with a fouth set to come eventually and tells the story of post-apocalyptic Japan where children piloting giant robots have to fight mysterious creatures called Angels. But the biggest threat might be their own psychological problems. You can find more information about the series in this article.
Summer Wars (2009)
Another Mamoru Hosada movie, Summer Wars combines slice-of-life family film with futuristic sci-fi digital adventure. It tells the story of an 11th grade boy who pretends to be the fiancé of the girl he has a crush on for the sake of her grandmother at her family’s summer home- only to be framed for illegal hacking. The film is warm and fun with a great theme of family coming together.
This science fiction film focusing on a giant interstellar car race is a wacky story full of adventure, but what really sets it apart is the breathtaking animation. The film took seven years and 100,000 drawings by hand and it really shows in the final product. It’s one of the most visually impressive films of this century so far. It’s a bit raunchy, so if you’re not cool with seeing some gratuitous naked boobs, watch out for that.
The Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Movies (2010-Present)
The three Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha movies released so far are a well animated retelling of the Nanoha anime. A fourth film is set to come eventually. The story blends magical girl and mecha in an interesting way, focusing on a young girl granted magical powers. You can fine more information about the series here.
The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki (2012)
Another Mamoru Hosada film, Wolf Children focuses on a young woman who falls in love with a werewolf and is left to raise two half-wolf children. Though you wouldn’t expect it from the premise, the film is a sentimental, touching and occasionally very sad one that focuses on a family growing up together and navigating difficult social issues. It focuses heavily on the plight of single mothers and children who grow up “different”. It’s a well-told tale that really tugs on the heartstrings and has a surprising air of maturity.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
The Studio Ghibli Kaguya film is breathtakingly beautiful and complex movie. Based on the classic Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, the movie expertly tells the tale of a princess who comes from the moon and craves freedom, only to be quickly stifled by her oppressive, paternalistic society. The style of animation is beautifully reflective of the watercolor-style Japanese paintings common during the 10th century during which the movie is set. The style and attention to detail in the movie make it unforgettable.