I must confess that once (and I emphasis on the ‘once’) I was an anime nerd. A big one. I’d watch anything and everything to do with anime, read tons of manga, became obsessed with the Japanese culture, and attended yearly conventions to meet like-minded people who were just as obsessed as me - and also couldn’t string a coherent sentence together without shouting ‘Kawaii’ and various other Japanese phrases.
Thankfully, that time has long gone (and it’s good to get it off my chest too) but something that has remained with me are some of the select anime’s that I watched in my phase (a few being from many years before) that are powerful films in their own right.
Rather than opting for the doe eyed, big chested and short skirted heroine of many anime shows and films nowadays with the same romantic comedy storyline, these anime’s take on darker and haunting roots. From Hitchcockian style themes to a cyberpunk head spinner, here is my run down of the Five Essential Anime Movies...
5: My Neighbour Totoro (1988, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
The term should not be used lightly, but I’m sure that next-to-everyone will agree that Hayao Miyazaki is a genius. He’s created modern day fairytales that will, and have been able to stand the test of time. From his breakout into the mainstream audience with the Alice in Wonderland inspired Spirited Away, to his delightfully fluffy fun Porco Rosso, the tale of Pilot cursed with the appearance of a Pig, Miyazaki has a backlog of top-notch work, all of which should be seen – post haste.
Studio Ghibli’s 1988 hit My Neighbour Totoro, a marvellously told childhood story of curiosity, cracks into the stiff competition of the top 5 must-see anime at No.5.
Moving to a new home with their father closer to the hospital where their mother is suffering from an unnamed illness, sisters Satsuko and Mei try to pass the time and ignore the worries they have for their mother’s health by setting into their new rural neighbour and exploring their home. Playing without her sister outside one day, younger sibling Mei follows two magical creatures who take her to the domain of another worldly mythical being Totoro, whom she quickly befriends.
Twenty years on, My Neighbour Totoro still possesses the ability to tell a story sensitively with a hint of poignancy, proving how important the power of imagination is for every child’s childhood.
4. Ghost in the Shell (1995, dir. Mamoru Oshii)
One of the many inspirations for The Matrix comes in the form of cyberpunk movie Ghost in the Shell, another landmark film out of the five featured in this list. Cyborg officer Major is assigned the duty, with partners Bato and Togusa, to track down the Puppet Master, a computer hacker who infiltrates the minds of humans, leaving false memories in their place.
Adapted from his own manga, like one of the other films coming up on the list, Mamorou Oshi manages to infuse the general themes of Ghost in the Shell’s original form of art, into something colossally spectacular, a work that questions are existence and what is really humanity – themes that run through blockbuster hits The Matrix and Inception. Spawning a great sequel and a not-so-good T.V. series, this is the Ghost in the Shell you should really check out. The one that turned the sci-fi genre upside down and influenced many of the films you love.
James Cameron digs it too.
3. Grave of the Fireflies (1988, dir. Isao Takahata)
This is the second turn from Studio Ghibli in the list, but surprisingly, not a Miyazaki creation. Well, it’s not all that surprising once you see the beauty of Grave of the Fireflies – there is no fairytale like qualities about it. It’s a hard-hitting World War II drama that will kick you right in the stomach and have you blubbering like a baby.
With their father fighting for his country and losing their mother through the horrific firebombing of Kobe, we follow Seita and his little sister, Setsuko, in their quest for survival as they are handed down to uncaring relatives and forced to fend for themselves through one of the most humanely disastrous years in Japanese history.
War films have the knack for being slow and tedious, trying to shove a message of goodwill down your throat, but Grave of the Fireflies takes on a subtle approach to say the least. The war is just a backdrop for their misfortune, as the real story lies in the relationship between two siblings - where the elder has to step into adult shoes in order to survive, something no child should have to succumb to.
2. Akira (1988, dir. Katsuhiro Otomo)
Regarded as one of the greatest Japanese films of all time and the landmark of anime (that has been hard and almost impossible to reach), Akira has held onto its rightful place as a cult classic and a cinematic masterpiece.
World War III hit Tokyo in 1988 with devastating consequences, leaving the capital in a mess and forming Neo-Tokyo, an anti-government society built on Tokyo Bay where gangs run riot and terrorism is a common occurrence. Confident teenager Kaneda leads his biker gang, the Capsules, through war-torn Neo Tokyo, with his best friend Tetsuo in tow, as they find themselves in a gang fight between rival bikers, led by Joker, the Clowns.
Tetsuo, trying out his new bike, shifts into full speed, unaware that a child, Takashi, is crossing the highway. When Tetsuo spots Takashi, he crashes his bike and it explodes, injuring both him and the child. A government aircraft docks on the highway, and as Kaneda and co. are arrested, Tetsuo is taken on board with Takashi and flown out of sight. When running tests on Tetsuo, Colonel Shikishimi and Doctor Onishi, members of a secret government project, discover that he possesses a similar mind to Akira, the real culprit responsible for destroying Tokyo decades ago.
Akira is mind-blowing; there is no doubt about it. On first viewing, the confusion may get to some, but the set pieces and animation are in a different league compared to most films produced today. You’ll be swept up in the Tokyo landscapes that have envisioned a decadent world that has yet to be triumphed and hopefully one we will never have to experience.
An American remake has been on the cards for quite some time, and the plan, as of yet, is to have the directors who took on The Book of Eli to helm the project and for the focus to be more on the Otomo’s very own six volume manga from which Akira was loosely adapted from. Let’s hope that it’s another doomed Hollywood production that’ll find its way to the bottom of the slush pile.
1: Perfect Blue (1998, dir. Satoshi Kon)
Number one was the tricky toss-up between Akira and this film. Akira has been my favourite film for seven years, and still remains on top (tying 2010’s The Illusionist and Tokyo Story), but oh isn’t this one a good ‘un and it goes by the name of Perfect Blue, the late Satoshi Kon’s directorial debut – one of the most haunting pieces of art you’ll ever bear witness to.
Chronicling the downfall of singer-turned-actress Mima as she takes on a risqué television role to up her acting cred and get rid of her innocent pop idol image, Perfect Blue manages to wield Hitchcock’s masterful craft of suspense and mould a product David Lynch would have been proud to call his own.
As shown with his later work (particularly in the mindboggling T.V. show Paranoia Agent) Satoshi Kon’s psychotic, creepy direction marked him as one of the best in the business – not just an influential anime director, but an influential filmmaker - and one that hasn’t gotten the credit he so dually deserves.
Maybe with his passing, more will discover what a craftsman of film he truly was, and that’s why Perfect Blue sits on top at No.1.
Agree? Disagree? We'd love to hear your thoughts on the list and please feel free to tell us your own picks...
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