Screenshot from “A Letter to Momo”
It’s time to celebrate all things anime during Anime Month, February 1 – 28! “Anime” is the Japanese word for animation, used by Western fans to refer to animation produced in Japan, which became popular among U.S. audiences starting in the late 20th century. The sophisticated artwork of Japanese anime contrasts with the more cartoonish or Disneyesque style of American animation.
In general, Japanese anime is characterized by vivid color and luxurious detail in every scene, making it feel like you’re watching a painting or a photograph come to life. Anime typically tells serious stories with depth and underlying meaning (i.e. death, spirituality, redemption), often with fantastical / supernatural themes and bittersweet endings.
There is much you can learn about Japan’s history and culture through anime. For that same reason, it’s best to watch the subtitled version if you can, to immerse yourself in the flavor of the original script as written in the Japanese language.
Anime is not for children, but for thinking teens and adults ready to graduate from South Park and The Simpsons to explore deeper and darker waters. If you are new to anime, the best introduction to the genre may be watching an anime movie before getting involved with a long series. Whether you like history, romance, slice-of-life or sci-fi, anime films offer something for everyone. Here are our recommendations:
Barefoot Gen (1983, PG-13, 83 min) – The impact that the atomic bomb had on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was devastating. Often, however, we forget the people living nearby who survived the initial blasts. Barefoot Gen takes a sobering look at the aftermath of these events from the perspective of a young boy. Though the animation style is playful and even cute, the dramatic subject matter is far more serious than you might expect. It’s a disturbing story about the effect of the atomic bomb on a boy’s life and the Japanese people as a whole.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988, PG, 89 min) – Another example of the more human side of anime, Grave of the Fireflies comes to us from Studio Ghibli – arguably the best production studio in the Japanese animation industry. While they’re primarily known for creating fantasy epics, Grave of the Fireflies is probably the studio’s most moving film for its subject matter. It tells the story of a young boy and his little sister as the pair tries to survive in the midst of World War II. Lacking much of the magical elements present in many of Ghibli’s movies, this drama is no less packed with beauty and feeling. However, the story is very sad so have tissues ready.
Akira (1988, R, 124 min) – A secret military project endangers Neo-Tokyo when it turns a biker gang member into a rampaging psychic psychopath that only two teenagers and a group of psychics can stop. The animation in this cyberpunk sci-fi flick will blow you away, but be forewarned that the anime is rated R for graphic violence and brief nudity. Still, it deserves to be on this list because Akira may very well be the most influential anime movie of all time. Both for its art style and animation, the film is heralded as a masterpiece of cinema – and rightfully so, as over 30 years after its initial release, it is still an impressive film to behold. Akira is even taught in film history courses around the world.
Ghost in the Shell (1995, R, 83 min) – In the year 2029 (just ten years from now!), technology has advanced so far that cyborgs are common and human brains can connect to the internet directly. A cyborg policewoman and her partner must hunt a mysterious and powerful hacker called the Puppet Master before he invades victim’s brains. Another cyberpunk sci-fi flick, Ghost in the Shell was a defining film for its imaginative imagery and groundbreaking story. As one of the earliest anime films to cross the Pacific to non-anime fans, it largely influenced The Matrix and even inspired James Cameron’s Avatar. It’s rated R for nudity because the anatomically-correct female cyborg is often shown without clothes. Also, an early scene features a man getting shot in the head so there’s some graphic violence to start with, but other than that it’s mostly just cyborgs getting their arms ripped off.
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001, R, 115 min) – It’s Halloween 2071. A terrorist explosion releases a virus that is killing the citizens of a Martian city, and a team of intergalactic bounty hunters arrive to catch the cold-blooded culprit in this action-packed sci-fi tale. Cowboy Bebop was a groundbreaking anime series that aired on TV in the late 1990s, and it’s still considered one of the best of all time. The movie that came out in 2001 is worth watching to get a little taste of what Cowboy Bebop is all about, even if you’re not familiar with the characters. The stand-alone film boasts the same colorful, slick animation as the television show, and has many of the same themes sprinkled throughout. But it’s rated R for violence, an attempted rape scene, and skimpy outfits revealing cleavage.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006, PG, 100 min) – Sci-fi isn’t all about intergalactic bounty hunters, cyborg samarai, and space aliens. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a more gentle form of sci-fi. Makoto Kanno, a high school girl, is granted the ability to travel through time. She doesn’t use it for malicious purposes, just little things like avoiding embarrassing situations, hanging out with friends longer, and things of that sort. What’s the harm in that, right? If you’d like an introduction to sci-fi anime, but you’re not sure you’re ready to jump into the deep end with something like Akira, this is definitely a good place to start.
Paprika (2006, R, 90 min) – Paprika pre-dated Christopher Nolan’s action-thriller Inception by four years, with a startlingly similar plot and themes. The premise is that technology exists which allows people to share dreams. The technology is used in psychiatry to help better understand and treat patients. But when a machine that allows therapists to enter their patients’ dreams is stolen, all hell breaks loose. Many surreal animation sequences involving dreams are seen throughout the film. It’s rated R for violence (including suicide attempts) and one scene in which a man removes the fully nude soul of a female character from her body.
5 Centimeters Per Second (2007, PG, 63 min) – 5 Centimeters Per Second is the speed at which cherry blossoms fall from the trees, reminiscent of the pace of life as our lives intermingle. Told in three interconnected segments, this animated feature film by Makoto Shinkai is a story about how the passage of time can cause people to drift farther and farther apart. To be honest, the story is nothing to write home about. It’s a romantic tragedy about a young man, Takaki, who journeys by train to see his childhood best friend. However, the artwork is some of the best anime art of all time. You can almost feel Takaki’s emotions superimposed on the gorgeous, heavily researched and impressively animated backdrops of Japan.
Summer Wars (2009, PG, 114 min) – A family drama that takes place in rural Japan and cyberspace! Kenji Koiso is a high school math genius. He spends most of his time hanging out in the online community of Oz. His second life is the only life he has – until the most popular girl in school, Natsuki Shinohara, asks him to come over to her house to help set up for her grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration. While there, he receives a text message containing a problem with a long string of numbers. He solves it and sends his reply. The following day, computer systems everywhere go haywire. Now it’s up to him to go on a virtual adventure to save the world. And yet this isn’t your typical sci-fi anime; it’s actually a heartfelt story about families and what holds them together. Crafted with over 2,500 visual effects, Summer Wars weaves action with Japanese history and folklore into a masterpiece evocative of the classic Robin Hood tale.
Welcome to the Space Show (2011, NR, 136 min) – Here’s a whimsical, family-friendly anime that blasts viewers off into a vision of outer space like no other. After a brief prologue introducing some alien characters, this anime spends a considerable amount of time with a group of kids hanging out during a lazy summer vacation – until they are whisked away to a space colony on the dark side of the moon. It’s an interstellar melting pot with a non-stop parade of alien creatures, jellyfish spaceships, and dragon trains. The imaginative creators really outdid themselves with odd life forms, tech, ships, and landscapes at every turn. Welcome to the Space Show seems to take its inspiration from A Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, making for a wonderful – albeit nonsensical – adventure.
A Letter to Momo (2012, NR, 120 min) – Although this movie was made by the creators of the cyberpunk sci-fi classic Ghost in the Shell, it’s nothing like that one. A Letter to Momo is a wonderful down-to-earth and touching anime about a girl coming to terms with the loss of her father. The last time Momo saw her father they had a fight – and now all she has left to remember him by is an incomplete letter, a blank piece of paper penned with the words “Dear Momo” but nothing more. This one is not rated but it’s a perfectly clean, sweet film.
Patema Inverted (2014, NR, 99 min) – A unique perspective-twisting sci-fi fantasy about two teenagers separated by opposite gravities. Together they set out to discover the secret that keeps their worlds apart. Basically, the story is about prejudice toward people who are different, and how one’s assumptions can be wrong. There are some tense moments as the surface security force hunts the “inverts” – but even though this movie is not rated, it does not contain anything to be concerned about unless you have a fear of falling into the sky!
Your Name (2016, PG, 106 min) – Two strangers find themselves linked in a bizarre way, and they seek a chance to meet in person. Will fate bring them together or will forces outside their control keep them apart? This beautiful masterpiece from the director of 5 Centimeters Per Second was not only Japan’s #1 film of 2016; it’s also the highest grossing anime of all time AND the overall 4th highest grossing film in Japanese history. The intricately detailed artwork, along with rave reviews from critics and audiences alike, makes Your Name the quintessential introduction to modern anime.
Do you have a favorite anime movie that we missed? Leave a comment and tell us!
P.S. And if you’re wondering why there aren’t more Studio Ghibli animes on this list, we decided to save them for next time because they deserve a whole post of their own. 🙂