A Beginners Guide to Anime
For decades, to the Western world anime was a form of movie watched by die-hard fans or niche audiences. Today however its a different story as expanded licensing has brought anime to the masses, from Netflix’s ever-growing collection to the string of Hollywood live-action remakes.
Whilst animated films in the Western world have falsely been regarded as children’s viewing, in Japan, anime has long been a culturally accepted and standard form of entertainment for adults. The genre spans a multitude of disciplines from horror to action, often featuring complex plots and tackling deep topics including Japan’s history with war, and human psychology.
Images Left Miyazaki, H. (2001). Spirited Away. Studio Ghibli., Right Sotozaki, H.(2020). Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train. Ufotable,
So what exactly is anime? To reduce it down to its simplest form, anime is the term used to refer to animation made in Japan. It can also be used more broadly to describe any animated movie or television show that features defining characteristics of Japanese animated styling, such as exaggerated physical features or dramatic panning.
As anime continues to grow increasingly popular with worldwide audiences, we’ve dug through the archives to bring you 10 must see anime movies to help you discover all that anime has to offer.
The Latest Releases Worth Watching
Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train is a 2020 dark fantasy film based on the shōnen manga series by Koyoharu Gotouge. The film, which is a direct sequel to the 2019 series, follows Tanjiro, Nezuko, Zenitsu, and Inosuke as they board a train to assist the Flame Hashira Kyōjurō Rengoku as he hunts for a notorious demon.
As of April 9, 2021 the movie has grossed over $429 million worldwide, making it the first Japanese film and anime film to reach the milestone of $400 million at the worldwide box office. The movie has also become the only R-rated anime film to break multiple box office records, and became the 4th highest grossing movie of 2020.
Your Name is another relatively new film to make the list and centres around 2 teenagers; a boy in Tokyo and a girl in rural Japan. As a comet approaches the earth for the first time in a 1,000 years, strange happenings begin to take place leading the pair to begin to inexplicably swap bodies.
The poetic tale has been praised for its emotional resonance and became a low budget phenomenon. At the time of the film’s release, Spirited Away still held the title of the highest-grossing anime movie, but Your Name began to be viewed by many as the uncrowned king of anime.
You don’t have to be an avid anime watcher to have heard of Dragon Ball; it’s up there with Pokemon in the anime series hall of fame. The franchise creeps into this list with the release of the 2018 feature film Dragon Ball Super: Broly. The film follows the main protagonists from the TV series, Goku and Vegeta as they encounter a powerful Saiyan (extraterrestrial lifeform).
Dragon Ball Super: Broly was met with an overwhelmingly positive reception upon its release, leading to it quickly becoming the highest grossing Dragon Ball movie (out of 20), as well as the highest-grossing anime film of 2018. Unlike animated movies such as Demon Slayer, Dragon Ball Super: Broly is the perfect film for family viewing and is jam-packed with aliens, spaceships, and enough action to sink a ship.
The Classic Must-Sees
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki and animated by Studio Ghibli, Spirited Away has achieved cult classic status becoming one of the most famous anime movies of all time. The narrative follows 10-year-old Chihiro and her parents as they stumble across what seems to be an abandoned theme park, but little do they know they’ve entered the world of Kami (spirits of Japanese Shinto folklore). After her parents are transformed into pigs by the witch Yubaba, Chihiro descends into the supernatural realm, encountering a host of characters as she strives to free herself and her parents.
Originally released in Japan on 20 July 2001, the film received widespread critical acclaim, grossing $383.4 million at the worldwide box office. Spirited Away became the highest-grossing film in Japanese history generating a total of ¥31.68 billion, a record it held until 2020 when it was surpassed by Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train.
The cyberpunk movie Akira takes place 31 years after an explosion led to the start of World War III, and tells the story of Shōtarō Kaneda, the leader of a biker gang, whose childhood friend acquires telekinetic abilities after a motorcycle accident. It was written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, and based on his 1982 Manga series of the same name. Produced during the Cel animation days, the film was made without the use of computers, instead created by layering intricately detailed paintings upon one another.
The film had a production budget of $5.5 million, making it the most expensive anime movie at the time, and went on to have a huge cultural impact that is still being felt today. Akira is now frequently cited as one of the most influential anime movies of all time, inspiring a host of works, including Netflix’s Stranger Things.
Another movie on this list animated by Studio Ghibli, My Neighbor Totoro tells the story of a professor's two young daughters (Satsuke and Mei) as they move into a new house to be closer to their mother who is in hospital. As the sisters explore their new surroundings they encounter friendly wood spirits, most notably Totoro, a giant rabbit-like creature who they befriend.
The film and the titular character have become cultural icons, leading Totoro to become the studio mascot and one of the most popular characters in Japanese animation of all time. You don’t need to be an avid anime viewer to recognise the cuddly figure, which has led to the movie generating $1.142 billion from licensed merchandise sales alone. My Neighbor Totoro was ranked #3 in Time Out’s list of the 100 greatest animated films of all time, and ranked 41st in Empire magazine's "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010.
Dubbed as one of the saddest anime movies ever made, Grave of the Fireflies is a meditation on the human cost of war. The 1988 Studio Ghibli production tells the story of two siblings Seita and Setsuko, as they struggle to survive during the final months of World War II.
The narrative is semi-autobiographical, loosely based on writer Akiyuki Nosaka experiences before, during, and after the firebombing of the Japanese city of Kobe in 1945. Studio Ghibli originally released the movie as a double feature alongside My Neighbor Totoro, with the former providing an escapist fantasy world after Grave of the Fireflies’ harrowing narrative.
Directed by Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell is a 1995 cyberpunk anime movie set in 2029 Japan. The plot centres around Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg public-security agent, on the hunt for ‘the Puppet Master’, a hacker who illegally manipulates the computerised minds of cyborg-human hybrids. As well as primarily being an action movie, Ghost in the Shell explores rich philosophical notions, such as the nature of consciousness, with Oshii wanting to explore the “influence and power of computers” and how this could evolve over time.
The movie initially received a mixed reception; critics praised the film's narrative, score, and visuals but overall it didn’t perform well at the box office. However, this all changed when Ghost in the Shell gained cult prominence after its release on home video, with the movie quadrupling its box office budget. It went on to inspire films such as The Matrix, and a live-action remake starring Scarlett Johansson was released in 2017.
Howl’s Moving Castle is set in a fictional kingdom where magic and 20th-century technology co-exist, and follows Sophie, a young girl who is cursed by a witch. Sophie then meets a wizard by the name of Howl and becomes entangled in his resistance to fight for the king in an ongoing war.
Unsurprisingly, the movie contains strong anti-war motifs, heavily influenced by writer and director Hayao Miyazaki's opposition to the United States' invasion of Iraq, which happened a year prior to the film’s release. Whilst Miyazaki had reservations surrounding the film’s reception in the US, given its anti war agenda, Howl’s Moving Castle was a box office smash and went on to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature at the 78th Academy Awards.
Jubei is a highly skilled ninja who is coerced into slaying his own clan of warriors, leading to him becoming a roving hired assassin. Whilst on his travels Jubei comes face to face with a group of demonic killers who are plotting to take power of Japan's government.
The film blends graphic slice-and-dice action with sex, so this is definitely not one to watch with the kids. Like many of the films on this list, Ninja Scroll has been cited as a pioneering anime feature, and alongside Akira and Ghost in the Shell, had a huge impact on the popularity of adult-oriented anime outside of Japan.
Text: Sam Pennington