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 animated films 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.
You go into Your Name expecting a simple body-switching teen romance between a high school girl in the country and a high school boy in the city. Makoto Shinkai’s 2016 box office hit goes far beyond that, however, transcending space and time itself.
Your Name, though fantasy, grounds itself with the beautiful and detailed animation Makoto is renowned for, coupled with a cohesive story line that binds everything together like the symbolic musubi, or threads of fate, in the film.
Actors: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi, Masami Nagasawa, Etsuko Ichihara
Initial Release: 2016
Directed by: Makoto Shinkai
What’s tougher than being a single mom? Apparently, being a single mom of half-human, half-wolf children. In this 2012 film by Mamoru Hosoda, we follow the story of Hana, a woman who moves to the countryside with her two hybrid children, Ame and Yuki, after the death of their werewolf father.
The film enraptures you with the gorgeous greenery of the countryside, as well as Hana’s struggle to raise children with dangerous wild sides. Viewers are also treated to Ame and Yuki’s own pubescent woes, as they try to figure out which side of their bloodline is more in line with their identity.
Actors: Aoi Miyazaki, Megumi Hayashibara, Bunta Sugawara, Takao Osawa, Kumiko Aso, + more
Initial Release: 2012
Directed by: Mamoru Hosoda
A lot of embarrassing things can happen in high school, but what if you could go back in time to fix it? 17-year-old Makoto gets this chance in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time after an accident grants her the ability to literally “leap” back in time (with progressively larger jumps sending her further back in time).
Though she initially has a lot of fun, she learns there is a limit to her leaps, and that her warping of the past can affect those around her. The 2006 sci-fi film put Mamoru Hosoda on the map for many anime fans, and this is a great introduction to his films. It’s a fun and energetic study of youth, and there's a surprising twist at the end involving the origins of the time-leaping power.
Before manga creator Midorikawa Yukiko's beloved series Natsume's Book of Friends, she wrote Hotarubi no Mori e, or Into the Forest of Fireflies. The short 2011 film directed by Takahiro Omori depicts a young girl named Hotaru who, one summer, befriends a masked forest spirit named Gin. However, Hotaru learns that her new friend cannot be touched by a human or he will disappear.
They promise to meet every summer after that, and the movie explores their friendship despite their limitations and Hotaru's growing feelings. The ending is touching, heartrending, and still somehow hopeful. It really comes at you as quickly and surprisingly as it does for Hotaru and Gin. Heads up, you might need some tissues for this one.
Initial Release: 2011
Directed by: Takahiro Omori