In the United States, cartoons are primarily meant for young children or raunchy (and politically incorrect) comedians. Abroad, animation has different connotations — specifically, in Japan. Ironically, in the East, anime fans (sometimes known as otaku) are treated with widespread disdain, criticized for their self-imposed social isolation and escapist tendencies. In the USA, enthusiasts of Japanese cartoons have formed vibrant sub-cultures with idiosyncratic aesthetic sensibilities but still remain ostracized — despite anime’s influence on high fashion and streetwear.
It’s a shame that anime evokes such negative associations, considering the artistic audacity and complexity of these movies and anime series. While surrealism and the avant-garde are praised in Western artistic products, when these qualities come from Japanese pop artists, they’re often derided as infantile or perverted.
We’re taking a close look at some of the most essential anime movies ever made to help budding enthusiasts get familiar with this style. And since some of the most iconic Japanese films have already appeared on our lists of the best sci-fi movies, we’re spotlighting some lesser-known classics and absolute can’t-miss movies.
A reinterpretation of Fritz Lang’s allegorical German expressionist masterpiece from 1927, Metropolis (2001) takes the original text’s warnings of a techno-fascist regime more literally than its black-and-white source material. Written by Katsuhiro Otomo (the creator of the ultimate anime masterpiece Akira), this movie reimagines the original text as a metaphor for segregation and oppression: In a vast and anachronistic megalopolis, robots fight for political autonomy as a doomsday device is prepared by nefarious forces. The immense cityscape and retro-futuristic setting are beautiful realizations of an immensely powerful imagination.
Clamp is an all-female manga group known for their delicately drawn and girlishly romantic fantasy stories that were wildly popular in Japan and the USA in the mid 1990’s and early 2000’s. X/1999 is a bit of a departure from their more childish fare: it’s an apocalyptic tale about a magical messianic figure with the power to either save or destroy the world. The movie shortens a multi-volume manga into a densely packed hour and forty minutes. The baroque design style of Clamp remains intact, but is taken to high-octane extremes with beautiful and strange fight scenes.
Revolutionary Girl Utena was a 26-episode television series that originally ran in 1997 — a sort of deconstructed magical girl story about a student council association bent on world destruction, filled with incomprehensible avant-garde imagery. The emotional drama of the various romantic entanglements of its gender-bending main character were difficult to understand but impossibly enthralling. The 1999 film, a sort of alternative timeline for the series, is equally obscure and impossibly beautiful. It may or may not function as a stand-alone film, but the exquisitely strange imagery and jaw-dropping visuals garnered the movie a rabid cult following.
If you’re an older millennial, you might remember seeing snippets of Interstella 5555 played on late-night MTV: this adorable sci-fi film scored and inspired by French house duo Daft Punk was broken up into a series of music videos and beamed into homes around the world. There’s no dialogue in this miniature animated space (rock-)opera directed by Kazuhisa Takenouchi, which tells the story of an intergalactic pop band stranded on Earth, trying to return to their home planet. The film in its entirety is a triumph of early 90’s experimentalism and a fun visual feat that hasn’t been replicated by any musical group since. By the way: Discovery, the album on which it’s based, still slaps.
Kaze To Ki No Uta is an early example of yoai, a Japanese romance sub-genre primarily depicting youthful homosexual male love stories (usually meant to be consumed by young heterosexual women). The ethereal, androgynous schoolboys of this difficult-to-find OVA would lay the groundwork for several cultural tropes about gay courtship that would eventually gain popularity in the United States amongst queer subcultures. There’s a heartbreaking tragedy at the center of this fanciful film, but it’s hard to see past the frail elegance of its protagonists.
The Cowboy Bebop TV series is critically viewed as perhaps the greatest sci-fi show ever made: A jazzy neo-noir set in outer space, the program tracked the misadventures of the impossibly charming yet misanthropic bounty hunter, Spike Spiegel, and his ragtag crew of eccentric misfits. The movie functions as a semi-stand-alone side-story of the series (technically set between episodes 22 and 23) — you don’t need to have watched the whole show to follow along, but it’s definitely more rewarding if you already have a sense of the protagonists. Either way, it’s pretty much a perfect little short story — filled with impeccably animated action, heartbreak, and vaguely existential themes. Perfect for science fiction enthusiasts looking for a clever spin on the space western sub-genre.
Satoshi Kon is a master of postmodern filmmaking and his entire oeuvre can be understood as a thesis on the loss of reality and identity in an increasingly schizophrenic world. Perfect Blue is his most quintessential film: in it, pop star Mima Kirigoe tries to reset her career by quitting her band and becoming an actress — but what happens when the movie she’s set to star in takes over her world? And is she being stalked — or going insane? The multi-layered mystery of Perfect Blue went on to inspire — or, some say, was stolen by — Darren Arronofsky (specifically with Black Swan) and several other American auteurs.
Predating the contemporary anime explosion in the U.S. by several decades, Belladonna of Sadness paved the way for avant-garde experimentalism in Japanese animation. The psychedelic and sexual watercolors of the film were created in 1977, but were only recently remastered and re-released for Western audiences. A provincial fable set in Medieval France, Belladonna explores the corruption of youthful beauty by dark, demonic forces. The plot doesn’t matter so much, it’s the ravishing, hand-painted art that makes this a standout.
Both erotic and action-packed, Ninja Scroll is a perfect example of early 90’s anime in that it is exquisitely adult and gorgeously crafted. Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, this ultra-violent fairy tale tells the story of mercenary swordsman Kibagami Jubei and his eternal fight against demonic warriors bent on overthrowing the Shogunate. The exquisitely animated action went on to influence countless filmmakers, including the Wachowskis, who cite it as inspiration for The Matrix. It is widely credited as bringing attention to the stunning artistry of Japanese animation in the United States and around the world.
Although pretty much all of director Hayao Miyazaki’s films are essential, Spirited Away is his clear masterpiece. A sort of Japanese Alice in Wonderland, this Oscar-winning film tells the story of the forlorn Chihiro, who becomes trapped in the spirit world’s biggest bathhouse and needs to find her way home — but not before meeting some tricky ghosts, dragons, and witches. Despite the childish plot description, this is an existential coming-of-age story, and the surreal imagery of the movie is breathtakingly beautiful. Most of the film is hand-drawn, an increasing rarity in the CG era — and Spirited Away demonstrates the beauty of this fading medium.
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