Ask the average Westerner what the best Japanese animated film is, and you're likely to hear one of three responses: Hayao Miyazaki’s Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, or get away from me you weirdo, what are you even talking about, I'm an adult and I don't watch cartoons. Regardless, Japan is a country beloved for its animation, and there are myriad amazing anime films that aren't Studio Ghibli.
After Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name topped box offices worldwide and took the title of highest grossing anime film from Spirited Away, it’s clear that the best Japanese anime movies are no longer limited to one studio. Studio Ghibli doesn't have a monopoly on childhood innocence or kids discovering themselves in fantastical settings. Other studios also have more freedom to tell darker stories that question technology, gender and identity, or even the existence of God. These films have fans all around the world, and they're definitely worth watching. Perhaps, for some of you, one of these films will be your introduction to a new world of Japanese animation.
Every time it rains, aspiring shoemaker student Takao meets with the mysterious woman Yukino in a park garden. Love grows slowly between them, although few words are spoken during their rainy day meetings.
Like the ancient poetry that inspired it, The Garden of Words focuses on love in terms of longing, loneliness, and distance. These themes are only magnified by the melancholic, nostalgic mood created by the rain, which is so beautifully animated it evokes more of a Platonic ideal than a reality.
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- Actors: Miyu Irino, Kana Hanazawa, Hilary Haag, Blake Shepard, Fumi Hirano
- Released: 2013
- Directed by: Makoto Shinkai
You may already know Mamoru Hosoda’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Wolf Children, but between those works was the incredible film Summer Wars – a story about youth, young love, the importance of family. Oh, and trying to thwart an AI program from shooting a probe into a nuclear power plant using virtual reality.
Summer Wars (2009) ties in tradition with modernity. It parallels the strength of networking in the past through bloodlines and familial connections with the digital connectivity of the world today.
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- Actors: Riisa Naka, Ichirō Nagai, Sakiko Tamagawa, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Ayumu Saito
- Released: 2009
- Directed by: Mamoru Hosoda
This 1995 science fiction film by Mamoru Oshii saw a future in which most of mankind is modified with robotic body parts. Federal agent Major Motoko Kusanagi and her team are hunting down “The Puppermaster,” a black hat charged with hacking into the minds of cyborg-human hybrids. As Motoko delves deeper into this case, her own existence comes into question, as do the questions of what life and identity mean in an age where humanity and technology are one.
Ghost in the Shell feels ahead of its time, with its rich animation, world building, and its vision of technology in 2029. It's easy to forget this movie was made in the '90s. The film’s influence can be seen in numerous film and TV series that followed, and including most notably The Matrix movies.
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- Actors: Maaya Sakamoto, Akio Ōtsuka, Kōichi Yamadera, Yûji Ueda, Shigeru Shiba
- Released: 1995
- Directed by: Mamoru Oshii
Sword of the Stranger is produced by Masahiko Minami, the president of the popular Japanese production company, Bones. They're known for bringing titles like Cowboy Bebop and Full Metal Alchemist.
This film has beautiful artwork and absolutely stellar action scenes. It follows the story of a young boy named Kotaro and his dog, Tobimaru. They are being hunted by a ruthless group of samurai for malicious reasons. Just when Kotaro is about to be captured, a wandering ronin called Nanashi saves him.
They embark on a journey together, their relationship strained from the get-go over different goals.
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- Actors: Maaya Sakamoto, Naoto Takenaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Mamoru Miyano, Kōichi Yamadera
- Released: 2007
- Directed by: Masahiro Andô