Let’s face it, Hollywood is no stranger to remakes. Especially when it comes to making English language versions of brilliant moments in Asian cinema. Sometimes, the Hollywood treatment does a good job – like when Scorsese turned Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs into his Oscar-winning The Departed. Then, there are the times it doesn’t go so well – like Spike Lee’s completely unnecessary remake of Park Chan-wook’s South Korean revenge masterpiece Oldboy (although watching Josh Brolin chew the scenery for 104 minutes is not without its charm).
That critical gaze spans across the anime genre, too, thanks to live-action remakes of Japanese classics like Ghost In The Shell and Netflix’s Death Note. But what of the source material? Sure, you’re acutely aware that anime is more than “just Japanese cartoons” and that it’s a diverse, poetic, and deeply artistic branch of cinema and TV. As with any art form, however, it’s not all amazing work, but how the hell do you cut through the crap and find the gold? Well here’s a list to get you going.
Ghost In The Shell (1995)
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Might as well start with the obvious. Long before Scarlett Johansson was gracing our screens, this tale was being told in print form as a serialized manga starting in 1989 (you’ll find that that’s a somewhat recurring theme here). The 1995 animated feature film is an adaptation of said manga.
A gorgeous, futuristic, dystopian crime thriller in which a cyborg policewoman hunts for a sinister hacker known as The Puppet Master.
While the synopsis could fall flat on paper through the cynical eyes of the present, this noir-ish vision of a cybernetic future formed the basis of inspiration for elements of both The Matrix and Avatar. The sequel, Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence, is similarly worth your time.
Director: Katsuhiro Ôtomo
Neo-Tokyo is about to explode. So sayeth the trailer for the 1988 iconic masterpiece Akira. Without even digging deep into the semantics of the storytelling, Akira has all the makings of an iconic film.
In a cyberpunk future, Neo-Tokyo is endangered after a secret military project turns a member of a biker gang into a psychopath with murderous tendencies and psychic abilities.
I mean, if that’s not enough to get you interested then you’re probably dead inside – but beyond the surface coolness, Akira shines as a monument of superior animation, with visuals so classic that even a total newcomer will feel like they’ve seen these things referenced elsewhere.
It’s also a powerful nuclear allegory – a catharsis for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks years before and an urgent unease around the looming shadow of the cold war.
Perfect Blue (1997)
Director: Satoshi Kon
Proving that anime isn’t all space, disaster-futurism and explosions, Perfect Blue is a brooding hybrid of genres, telling a story that is as human as it is supernatural.
Part of this is because the story was originally written to be a live action movie, but when financiers pulled out before production could start, it was reconceived as an animation.
A dizzying, paranoid story about a retired pop star who decides to make a go of acting before falling victim to a deep invasion of privacy.
Haunted by stalkers, ghosts of her past and a seemingly endless onslaught of confused humiliation, the film acts as a tense and gripping indictment of celebrity whilst allowing the hypnotic visual pace question every aspect of the reality you’re presented with.
Rather than being any sort of outright remake, Metropolis stands as a wonderfully realized blind interpretation of a classic piece of cinema. You certainly can’t escape the fact that the source material for this movie is Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction classic of the same name.
However, this 2001 animated version comes to us by way of a 1949 manga novel that was only ever inspired by author Osamu Tezuka’s childhood imaginings of what the movie could be about, having only seen stills of it in magazines.
The resulting tale, written by Akira director Katsuhiro Ôtomo, is one of adventure rooted in human relationships. Tima, a robot designed to rule the city, goes missing and is found wandering the slum-like streets at the bottom of the towering skyscrapers by Kenichi.
Being the first human being Tima has ever encountered, the two strike up an intimate friendship. Incredible advances in animation make some of the large, sweeping cityscape sequences absolutely jaw-dropping.
Nausicaä: Valley of the Wind (1984)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Let’s face facts: you can’t talk anime without talking Ghibli. The legendary animation studio has created some genre defining pieces of work over the years, and we’ve covered them before in our Intro to Studio Ghibli piece, but we’ll try to mention a couple of alternatives here, starting with Nausicaä: Valley of the Wind.
This is the film that started the Ghibli empire – director Hayao Miyazaki found his feet in this incredible tale adapted from his own manga series.
Featuring themes that would become the foundations of later Ghibli works such as flight, nuclear war and the environment, Nausicaä will go down in history as a landmark piece of animated cinema.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Director: Isao Takahata
We’re still on the Ghibli train, and this time it’s devastating. Grave of the Fireflies played as a double feature with another Ghibli classic, My Neighbor Totoro, upon its initial theatrical release in 1988, and you really need the pick-me-up of Totoro after this one.
A harrowing World War II tale directed by Miyazaki’s counterpart Isao Takahata follows two young siblings as they try and navigate a world destroyed by war.
Vampire Hunter D (1985)
Director: Toyoo Ashida
Yeah, sure it’s another post-apocalyptic-nuclear-holocaust movie made in the ’80s and set in the future but this time there’s vampires! It says a lot about the consciousness of the time with just how prevalent a nuclear wasteland is in these narratives, but it’s used as a foundation for some incredible storytelling.
Vampire Hunter D is a horror/sci-fi hybrid about the daughter of a deceased werewolf hunter who tasks the eponymous Vampire Hunter with killing the vampire who bit her. Also, it’s set in the year 12,090 A.D. Tell me that doesn’t sound insane!
Your Name (2016)
Director: Makoto Shinkai
The newest film on this list, but it’s here for damn good reason. Adapted from the director’s novel, Your Name is a low budget phenomenon that became a critical and commercial success worldwide – a gorgeous, poetic tale about high school students (a boy in Tokyo and a girl in rural Japan) who swap bodies.
Lauded critically for its spectacular animation and emotional resonance, the film has gone on to become, according to The Hollywood Reported, the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time. So it’s probably worth your time.
Death Note (2006-2007, Animated Series)
The first in a trio of TV series to grace this list, although there are feature films in the Death Note cannon, the original 2006 animated series is the definitive watch to get you acquainted.
Told over 37 episodes, we follow high school student Light Yagami who, with the help of a supernatural notebook called – you guessed it – Death Note, tries to rid the world of evil.
It’s a simple concept; you write someone’s name in the book and they die. Of course, that leads to some pretty intense and complicated consequences. Gathering a cult following in the US after the series screened late nights on Adult Swim, Death Note is getting the live action feature film treatment from Netflix later this year.
Cowboy Bebop (1998-1999, Animated Series)
Another animated series that gained cult success stateside thanks to Adult Swim, Cowboy Bebop is a neo-noir space western (and of course it’s set in the future, c’mon, at this point it’d be weird if it wasn’t) and some consider it to be one of the most accessible series for the anime medium.
So yes, it’s the future, and yes there’s been some sort of planet-altering catastrophe rendering the solar system a lawless wasteland occupied by rival bounty hunters.
The series redefined where narrative and stylistic convention could go to in anime – it was dark, it was cool, it was definitely not for kids! Its influence was far-reaching, with Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson listing it as a major visual influence on his debut feature Brick (it doesn’t take a genius to figure that somebody responsible for sprawling noir-ish space opera The Expanse or the legendary space western Firefly might have been watching Cowboy Bebop at some point in the past).
Fullmetal Alchemist (2003-2004, Animated Series)
You can accuse anime of a lot, but you could never accuse the medium of hosting straightforward plotlines. Fullmetal Alchemist is nothing short of convoluted on paper: In a universe in which alchemy is not only a scientific technique, but the scientific technique, two brothers use alchemy in an attempt to bring their mother back from the dead, but it all goes horrifically wrong – their mother stays dead and they both lose their bodies.
In order to get their bodies back, they need to find the philosopher’s stone. Definitely the most famous story created in the last 20 years involving the Philosopher’s Stone, right? Right?! Over 51 episodes in length, it manages to become a powerful and compelling weekly drama (and it’s a bit of a break from all that nuclear holocaust dystopia too isn’t it?).
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Another day, another Ghibli. There’s a reason they dominate the anime landscape with seemingly little effort, and it’s because of their tonal scope and narrative ambition.
Far from the whimsy and childlike wonder of other efforts, Princess Mononoke is a sprawling fantasy epic. Set in a hyper-realistic version of the late Muromachi period (a 300-year-era in Japan that saw the rise of Zen Buddhism and the failed attempt by Jesuits to introduce Christianity to the country), Mononoke is an incredible tale that meditates on both spirituality and the environment.
The film marks a dark, violent turn in the Ghibli repertoire, but it in no way suffers for it.
Barefoot Gen (1983)
Director: Mori Masaki
Grave of the Fireflies owes a huge debt to this film released five years earlier. Barefoot Gen tells the story of Hiroshima’s atomic bomb disaster through the eyes of its six-year-old protagonist.
Based on Keiji Nakazawa’s semi-autobiographical manga, we follow Gen as he tries to retain some shred of childhood in a war-torn country. Laced with symbolism and tragedy, this is another important film that shows the narrative power of the animated medium.
Ninja Scroll (1993)
Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Kevin Seymour
This one is up there with Akira and Ghost In The Shell as one of the most influential anime movies ever made. Don’t let that trick you into thinking this is some deep sociopolitical masterwork in the guise of a ninja movie, this is a ninja movie through and through.
Described as simultaneously dumb, sexist, violent and fucking cool, it’s sorta not hard to see why it was popular in the ’90s. This is an astoundingly dumb film, but it’s also an astoundingly gorgeous one – despite its flaws it’s a genre staple.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Think about it – if you were a high school girl and you discovered you could travel backwards in time for some reason, would you help others or use it to benefit yourself? Of course you’d help yourself! Nobody is that selfless, it’s time travel! That’s essentially the plot of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time until our protagonist Makoto discovers that there are consequences to her indiscriminate temporal meddling.
A refreshing change from the constant tales of horror and nightmarish dystopias, this is a magical, whimsical movie exploring the sometimes dreaded “coming-of-age” tale with genuine inventiveness.
Director: Satoshi Kon
The second of three Satoshi Kon movies in this list, Paprika was the final film he made before his untimely death in 2010.
A hypnotic, psychedelic, boundary-pushing animation revolving around a psychotherapist who enters the dreams of her patients to help them, until one day the device allowing her to enter dreams is stolen.
This thing is a visual trip to no end, making Inception feel like child’s play and even making Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind seem unambitious (if such a thing were possible).
The American theatrical release poster for this movie is a hyper-colorful mess that apes the anti-drug ads of the ’80s and ’90s with the simple, brilliant tagline “This Is Your Brain On Anime” and it works so well.
Director: Michael Arias
2006 was a good year for anime – four things on this list were released that year including Tekkonkinkreet. Directed by American Michael Arias, a technology pioneer who helped introduce sophisticated CG techniques to the world of anime (thanks in no small part to The Animatrix, no doubt) the film follow two brothers living on the streets of Treasure Town, a strange maze of alleyways and wooden shacks, in their fight against a local yakuza boss.
Visually distinct to the point of shunning most of anime’s traditional aesthetic trappings, this is a unique take on the medium that could perhaps only be accomplished by Arias’ American sensibility bleeding into his Japanese influence.
Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
Director: Satoshi Kon
Satoshi Kon’s wonderful take on Three Men and a Baby (yeah, somebody did a wonderful take on Three Men and A Baby) follows three homeless friends who find a baby on Christmas Eve and set about hunting for its parents.
Far from being satisfied with a boring set of characters, Kon chooses his three protagonists for maximum variation: An alcoholic, an ex-drag queen and a teen runaway.
An ambitious, smart narrative that hangs drama around the neck of coincidence to great effect. Satoshi Kon was a smart writer and director and there’s a reason three of his films are on this list. He only made four, they should probably all be on here. In fact…
Millennium Actress (2001)
Director: Satoshi Kon
There, it’s done. All four are on the list now. Familiarize yourself with Satoshi Kon. Complex, subtle and beautiful storytelling at its finest.
Summer Wars (2009)
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
After proving his worth with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Hosoda’s next venture was Summer Wars, another coming of age story with a twist. A maths prodigy agrees to be the fake boyfriend of the girl he secretly loves for a visit to her family home.
Once there, he finds himself having to balance the social awkwardness with the much bigger problem of saving the world from Military AI that’s gone rogue and is hell-bent on destruction. As the BFI puts it, Hosoda’s films are essential because they “manage to achieve that perfect balance between intelligence and accessibility” which is all you can really ever ask for, isn’t it?
Now that you’re acquainted with anime, read up on the history of Western adult animation.