Animation has come a long way in the past 3 decades, with Japan leading the way. After classics like Akira and Ghost in the Shell, Japanese animation has influenced animation studios and directors alike all of the world. Ghost in the Shell, for example, is what influenced the Matrix series. The Japanese continue to lead animation with their unique plot lines and beautiful art styles of anime films. Just look at Studio Ghibli. Hayao Miyazaki has taken the world by storm with his hand-drawn masterpieces including: Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Howl’s Moving Castle. The following list is 13 Japanese animated movies that are stunning art pieces and often under-appreciated. They are in no particular order, and I decided to avoid including Studio Ghibli films because (1) it would take over the list and (2) they are already famous and well-loved throughout the world. I also tried to choose a wide range of styles and genres. I hope that there are some here that catch your eye.
1. Wolf Children (PG)—Fantasy, Slice of Life:
I known I said that the movies were not in any particular order, but this one is probably one of my favorites. The movies spans a time period of thirteen years, and explores the theme of love between a parent and her children, despite what life throws at them. It is very sweet and family friendly. I would strongly recommend this film to anybody.
2. Sword of a Stranger (R)—Action, Historical, Samurai
This is a fictional-historical samurai movie that follows the story of a young boy, his dog, and a samurai-for-hire. Both the art and music are just gorgeous. It’s known for its amazing and intense fight scenes. This is a great movies if you want to feel a little emotional, but also want to see some heads fly.
3. Tsumiki no Ie (le Maison en Petite Cube) (PG)
This is a 12-minute short silent film, so it’s quite different from the other movies on the list. I had my doubts when I started watching it, but the art is so unique and the story is very deep and moving. A beautiful piece. You can easily find this one on youtube.
4. Children Who Chase Lost Voices (PG-13)—Adventure, Fantasy, Romance
This is another beautiful movie. Though the art style is different, the atmosphere and fantastical nature of the film reminded me of Miyazaki’s films. Asuna, a young girl, is dragged into a adventure leading to a new world called Agartha, that holds the key to life and death itself. During her journey there she struggles with the idea of saying "farewell" to loved ones.
5. Hal (PG-13)—Romance, Slice of Life
The happy life of Kurumi and Hal suddenly ends by a plane accident. In order to recover Kurumi's willpower to live, the android Q01 is provided as "robot Hal". This is another pretty film with themes of romance and the hardships of life. It’s only 45 minutes, and the movie really surprised me at the end! You should see for yourself!
6. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (PG-13)—Adventure, Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi
Both hilarious and tear-jerking, this a classic. It came out in 2006 but is still well loved by many. After a fated event, Konno Makoto’s life takes a turn for the extraordinary. This is a story about how she discovers that changing the past to help herself can have drastic consequences on others.
7. Paprika (R)—Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, Psychological, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Let me warn you upfront, this one is a little crazy and confusing. I would not be surprised if Inception got most of its ideas from this movie. When someone begins controls people’s dreams, it spells trouble for everyone as the reality and the dream world collide. It has themes of discovering your true personality and the art it just fantastic. Directed by Satoshi Kon, the psychological genius behind Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress (both of which I recommend if this is our style).
8.Summer Wars (PG)—Comedy, Sci-Fi, Romance
By the same director of The Girl Who Lept Through Time (Mamoru Hosoda) Summer Wars is another fun, family-friendly movie that will leave you experiencing emotional from both ends of the spectrum. When Kenji Koiso, a high schooler and math genius, is helping his crush with a summer job at her family's house, he receives a math problem on his phone that he can't resist to solve. As it turns out, the solution to the mysterious equation causes Oz, the program that controls nearly every aspect of life, to be hacked into. It's up to Kenji and his new "family" to stop the hacker before it's too late.
9. Into the Forest of Fireflies’ Light (PG)—Drama, Romance, Supernatural
Another 45-minute movie. It has a beautiful yet simple story that follows a little girl who gets lost in an enchanted forest where apparitions reside. There she meets Gin, a spirit, that she befriends, but cannot touch or else he’ll disappear.
10. 5 Centimeters Per Second (PG)—Drama, Romance, Slice of Life
The art in this movie and is unparalleled on too Garden of Words, which was created by the same studio several years later. Both of these films are breathtaking. 5 Centimeters Per Second is beautiful but sad story about two friends that are forced apart when one moves away. It touches on issues of letting go and growing up. Both this one and Garden of Words are slower paced films, but truly pieces of art.
11. Patema Inverted (PG-13)—Sci-Fi, Romance
Another one of my favorites. I loved the concept of this movie! It was really unique and wonderfully executed. In the future, when scientists attempt to use gravity as an energy source, things go haywire and cause gravity to reverse. Now there there are "humans" and the "inverted" that live separately from one another.
12. Tokyo Godfathers (PG-13)—Comedy, Drama
Another Satoshi Kon piece, but the trailer doesn’t do this movie justice! It was a real treat to watch. When three homeless companions—a runaway girl, a transvestite, and an alcoholic—find an abandoned newborn on Christmas Eve, they do everything they can to find it's parents. Along the way they confront reminders of their own lives that they have abandoned.
13. Colorful (PG-13)—Drama, Slice of Life, Supernatural
This movie won several awards in Japan when it was released. A dejected soul, reaching the end of his life, gains a second chance and is placed in the bod of a 14-year old who just committed suicide. It deals with some of the pressures on school children as they come up to graduation before entering college or university. In addition, most of the backgrounds in the film are rotoscoped, where photos and film have been realistically traced.
Many of these movies can be found on Youtube, and most offer both Japanese subtitles and English dubbed versions to suit both preferences. So sit back, pick a few, and enjoy the adventure!