Over the last few months, we’ve been compiling a list of the must watch Japanese anime series of all genres.
We were going to include films to it. Working on it, however, I felt Japanese anime movies deserve their own article, because there are so many which I believe everyone, whether they know they are into anime or not should watch. Every month, about five to eight big anime movies come out in Japan, so there’s no lack of quantity, while not all are perhaps of amazing quality.
Picking Japanese anime movies was really hard for a few reasons. First, I’m really picky. It’s really easy for me to hate a movie within the first few minutes and quit. Second, so many great directors have made countless great movies, and it would have been way too easy to make this with Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon, and Mamoru Hosoda only. I tried to avoid that. Now, of course some figure a couple of times, it would be a crime to have only one Hayao Miyazaki movie, for example. Third, is trying to find a balanced list. I tend to like most things done well, but I do have a soft spot for story-driven anime, over action ones.
So, here it is, my best attempt at the 15 Japanese anime movies you can watch right now, and should.
Mitsuha, a high school girl living in the fictional town of Itomori in Japan’s countryside is bored of life there and dreams of moving to the city. Taki is a high school boy living in Tokyo and working part-time at an Italian restaurant. One day, they wake up having switched bodies with each other. As time goes by and they switch back and forth, they start coordinating by leaving each other notes on chores to do, on appointments, on what they missed, and more importantly, help each other out in their respective lives.
When Your Name came out, it took the world by storm. It became not only the highest grossing Japanese anime, but also the highest grossing Japanese movie of all time both domestically, and internationally (until Spritited Away’s Chinese release in 2019).
Your Name is made by Makoto Shinkai, who since Miyazaki’s retirement, has become in most people’s eyes the best Japanese anime director in Japan. Every so many years, he comes out with gorgeous looking movies, with compelling stories, and each more successful than the previous one. Shinkai is especially known for his visuals. They are crisp, clean, and gorgeous. Your Name is no different. The visuals are breath-taking. If there is only one Japanese anime movie you should see from the last decade, it’s arguably this one.
- A Silent Voice
- 5 Centimeters per Second
- Your Lie in April
In 1988, Tokyo is devastated by the powers of a psychic known as Akira. In 2019, the rebuilt city now known as Neo-Tokyo is in shambles with constant gang violence and anti-governmental terrorism. There, Shoutarou Kaneda leads a group of bikers known as “the Capsules” who are in constant conflict with their rival gang “the Clowns”.
After a series of events, Tetsuo Shima, a member of the Capsules is involved in an accident with Akira. Soon after, Tetsuo develops abilities of his own, prompting the government to act in order to avoid another catastrophe.
Akira is the Japanese anime movie that changed everything. One could describe the anime industry as pre-Akira, and post-Akira. It’s the anime that caused the explosion of popularity of Japanese animation west of Japan. Not only did it bring attention to Japanese animation, it changed the view of what animation is. It showed to the west that it’s not limited to children’s stories, that it could be a serious, mature medium, with complex plotlines and experimental angles.
Akira was made in the 80s, which is known as the “golden age” of anime. It’s a period when Japan was in the middle of an economic boom, resulting in a flourishing film and anime industry. Within the anime industry, it especially meant a boom in the number of animated movies, with significantly larger budgets, more competent teams, and a willingness to experiment with non-traditional animation techniques, and stories. In this era, Japanese anime embraced adults as a market a lot more. Akira, coming out in 1988, during the peak of that era, is the culmination of all of that.
Akira is especially interesting in that it is based on a manga written by the same person that directed the film adaptation, which was much more common in that time. Katsuhiro Otomo was mangaka, director, and screenwriter all at once, and a pretty good one at each of those, I might add. Akira, beyond its impact on the anime industry as we know it today, is a pretty good movie in its own rights. The story, animation, artistry behind the cinematography, all a lot closer to perfection than most films I’ve seen. It’s a shame a lot of those newer to Japanese anime never watched it.
- Ghos in the Shell
- Neon Genesis Evangelion
Upon his arrival in purgatory, a boy is informed that because he has committed a terrible sin. Until he can remember what that in is, he cannot be reincarnated. In the meantime, he is placed in the body of a boy name Makoto who has committed suicide three days prior. Instructed to live Makoto’s life, he quickly struggles with his current situation. Makoto did not have any friends and had issues with his family, whom the boy quickly also learns to despise. Despite this, he has six months to figure out his sin, as well as what led Makoto to commit suicide.
Colorful is Japanese slice of life, everyday life drama storytelling at its best. The soul lives Makoto’s day to day life, dealing with family, relationships, school, as Makoto’s old life is slowly uncovered and the true “colors” of those in his life reveal themselves.
The art is really fitting for this type of story. The character design is as close to reality as you’ll see in any Japanese anime. No exaggerated features, and a realistic ambiance. As the title itself might suggest, the movie is colorful. There is a carefully calculated use of bold colors, switching to dark and neutral in bleaker moments to portray depression.
Overall, Colorful is a powerful, emotional story, with stunning visuals, as is in my opinion one of the most underappreciated anime movies in the last decade.
- Summer Days With Coo
- Kuro no Sumika: Chronus
- Natsume's Book of Friends
THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME
Makoto Konno is a senior in high school, but has no idea what she wants to do with her future. She spends most of her time hanging out with her two male friends. One day, she discovers she has the ability to leap through time. At first, she uses her mew found powers for small, everyday stuff, but she quickly finds that any action, no matter how small, can lead to grave, sometimes lethal consequences.
The director, Momoru Hosoda, along with Makoto Shinkai are probably the two most prominent directors in Japanese anime, now that Miyazaki has retured. Hosoda, interestingly worked for Ghibli and was supposed to be the director for Howl’s Moving Castle. He left the project because of artistic differences with Ghibli who absolutely wanted him to make it as Miyazaki would. Nonetheless, I’m glad he didn’t stay there. He has gone on to create real gems with Madhouse. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is one of them.
At first, it’s a standard shojo slice of life anime. At its core, that’s what it is. Just it does that very well. The drama and humor merge seamlessly to create a movie which is both light hearted, but where characters each have a realistic psyche, and where actions have real consequences. Unlike Shinkai who makes really slow paced, moody films, Hosoda likes up-beat ones. This movie is a perfect representation of that. It’s a ride from start to finish.
In typical Madhouse style, the animation is very well done. Seamless action, great color palette, and character design on point. If you want a happier anime with great visuals, characters, and story, give this one a go.
- A Silent Voice
- Whisper of the Heart
- Summer Wars
In the near future, all aspects of life are tied to the virtual world known as Oz. It is not only a virdual game, but also allows shopping for real life items, plays a role in infrastructure management, etc. In short, it plays a major role in everything. Kenji, a high school student and a moderator of Oz is randomly asked by Natsuki, a fellow school mate, to do a job for her. The job consists in going with her to her hometown and pretending to be her fiancé.
While trying to fit in with Natsuki’s eccentric family, he receives a math problem anonymously. Fond of math, he solves the problem and submits the answer to the anonymous source. Kenji quickly discovers that he helped someone gain control of Oz, disrupting both the virtual world, and its real-life dependencies.
Like the entry above, Summer Wars was also directed by Mamoru Hosoda. It can be seen in the way the story while not being shallow, is also upbeat and transitions seamlessly from happy, to sad, to comedic. Summer Wars is very layered as far as the plot goes. On the one hand there is the issue with Oz and its impact on national security, but also on its impact on individual people who have invested a lot of their time and money on the platform. Then there’s Natsuki’s family dynamics. Each member does not interact with two other members the same way, as in any real-life family. Some have issues with each other but hide them for the sake of the festivities, some blindly ignore the misdoings of others, the same way a real parent would their child, etc. Then there’s the dynamics of Kenji and Natsuki, as Kenji is dealing with Natsuki’s hectic family. Lots of layers.
The animation and sound are also proper. Oz looks amazing, and the visuals aged amazingly well. I love how the colors are bold, yet matte, which has become a trend since in Japanese anime.
- The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
- Digimon Movie 2: Bokura no War Game
Genya Tachibana ex-employee of Ginei Studio, which is set to be demolished decides to commemorate the studio by creating a documentary on Chiyoko Fujiwara, who was its star actress throughout the years.
On the day of the interview, the secluded retired starlet tells her tale which shapes into a journey through Japan throughout the centuries, blending real life and movies and addressing life and the search for love.
Millennium Actress is directed by the late Satoshi Kon, who is my favorite Japanese anime director of all time. Everything he has touched is gold as far as I’m concerned. Millennium Actress is a trip of a movie. You’re never sure at what point the actress is portrayed in her real life, or in a movie. Scenes blend into each other and you’re never certain where one ends and a new one begins. It’s pure cinematic trolling. This movie toys with your senses.
The story itself is not special, dialogue wise. The genius of this movie is how the animation carries the story and shapes it into a visual storytelling which somehow is more detailed, and says more than many more dialogue-oriented films. Much of the movie is the actress telling her life and answering to questions, which in any other case would be boring, but as she tells her story we are violently thrown into the middle of them in a way which is surprisingly not only intriguing, but refreshing. Satoshi Kon does not assume the audience are idiots who need everything explained to them. He trusts that we are able to pick up on details without being spoon-fed useless details, and in turns, serves us pure delight.
- Tokyo Godfathers
- 5 Centimeters per Second
GHOST IN THE SHELL
In 2029, advances in technology have advanced to the point where cybernetic enhancements are commonplace. These range from having limbs replaced, to entirely robotic bodies. In addition, cyberbrains, which allow the brain to have advanced features and be connected to the internet are also commonplace.
Major Mokoto Kusanagi is a member of Niihama city Public Security Section 9, which is in charge of fighting terrorist and criminal threats. She is at the forefront of a case involving a hacker known as the “Puppet Master” who hacks into victims ghosts and erases their memories.
While Akira which came out seven years earlier was definitely the catalyst behind anime’s popularity beyond Japan, Ghost in the Shell definitely had the longer lasting impact. It played an essential role in inspiring Hollywood classics such as The Matrix, and has its very own Hollywood adaptation (I will not vouch for its quality), as well as sequel anime movies, and anime series based on the manga. All due to the massive popularity of the movie. Often, people complain that the manga is superior to the adaptation. I dare anyone to fight me on this, but having read Masamune Shirow’s manga, the movie is the superior entity.
Ghost in the Shell asks some very important questions which are relevant to the reality of the setting. Some of the same questions I could see myself wondering about, were I in the same situation. How can you be certain your memories are real, if they can be hacked, constructed, made up, and does it really matter since you may never know? What defines a human, in a world where living forms are mainly silicon? These are becoming more and more relevant, as we are rapidly developing ourselves when it comes to AI technology. GitS is until now, one of the finest Japanese films, not just anime wise, and Mamoru Oshii transformed the source material into so much more than it was in manga form, which is to be expected from such a skilled director.
- Serial Experiments Lain
- Battle Angel Alita
When a demon boar attacks an Emishi village, the young prince Ashitaka is forced to kill the beast. Before dying, the demon laid a curson upon Ashitaka, giving him demonic powers that drain his life over time. He decides to travel westwards to the homeland of the spirit to find a cure. On his journey, he arrives at the Iron Town, Tatara. There he finds the locals, led by Lady Eboshi, who is constantly promoting the increasing use of rest resources, in an all-out war against Princess San and the forest spirits who’ve had enough of the destruction of the forest. While battling his own demons, literally, he vows to help both sides find an understanding and put an end to the struggle between modernization and nature.
This is the first Hayao Miyazaki film in the list, and not the last. For the five of you in the world who don’t know, Hayao Miyazaki is essentially the godfather of modern Japanese anime. He’s the figurehead behind the renowned Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki, who is now retired, is behind quite possibly the most popular Japanese anime movies of all time. If we were to list anime films by popularity, every single film he’s made with Ghibli would probably figure in the top 20.
Princess Mononoke is probably one of my favorite Miyazaki movies. Like all its movies it has a strong female lead, and manages to intertwine Japanese folklore within the story, but this time, in a slightly more mature way. While some of his previous films were watchable to all, they were obviously aimed at a slightly younger crowd. Princess Mononoke is more seems to aim for those a bit older. It’s more nuanced, relies more on showing rather than telling, doesn’t portray good or evil, but shows the struggle within people between the good in them, and the evil in them.
Princess Mononoke is more recent than the last two anime above, and that can be seen. There is a dramatic switch in art style, animation is more fluid, and character designs have changed to fit the trends in anime and manga in the late 90s, and early 200s. It looks a lot more like today’s anime. As always, the music is on point, as well.
- Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
- Wolf's Rain
A SILENT VOICE: THE FILM
In elementary school, Shouya spent a lot of time being bullying and being cruel to Shouko, a deaf girl. As it kept on going on, Shouya became ostracized from the rest of the class. Years later, Shouko had transferred, and Shouya is still ostracized. Older and feeling remorseful, he seeks out to find Shouko to apologize.
A Silent Voice is the best Japanese anime movie of 2016 in my opinion. Yes, 2016 is also the year Your Name. came out. I’ll fight anyone on this. This movie is a masterpiece. What initially sounds like a really basic simple-ish story has been packaged into perfection and delivered to us lowly humans who did not deserve it.
The story is somehow very realistic. Elementary students can be awful humans for whatever reasons they may have. Those same awful humans grow up to become better, and more compassionate and aware of other people’s feelings. In addition, this is the only anime I’m aware of that deals with deaf-mute people. This is a welcome thing, as other aspects of Japanese society such as depression have been very well commented on in anime already. It’s great to show that these are people that exist, and that they are represented.
The star of the show, though, is the animation. Kyoto Animation, for those who don’t know are god’s gift sent to humanity so that we may know the true definition of beauty. This studio is hands down the best when it comes to the visual aspect of animation. Sometimes the story is lacking, but in this case, they are both perfection. Do yourself a favor and watch this beauty.
- Your Name.
- The Anthem of the Heart
Chihiro is a spoiled, 10-year old poorly behaved girl. On the way to their new house, she and her parents discovered an abandoned theme park and decide to have a look, angering Chihiro. As she ventures through the park, she quickly realizes it isn’t a regular place. She notices ghosts and her parents are turned into gluttonous pigs. She is now trapped in the spirit world and now has to live and work there.
Spiritied Away, while not my favorite Ghibli, or Miyazaki film, is the best Miyazaki film, I must admit. From a technical and story point of view, it is nearly perfect. More so than most Japanese anime movies, and movies, period. Spirited Away is to date, the only Japanese anime to have ever won an Academy award, and while more should have won it, especially in the animation section, if only one had to win it, it would have been this one. It is a surrealist, weird, fast, funny, and at points wholesome film. A must watch for everyone, regardless of age. It’s a cinematic masterpiece, which transcends the world of anime.
- Howl's Moving Castle
- My Neighbor Totoro
- Hotarubi no Mori e
IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD
In 1944, Suzu Urano moves to the town of Kure in Hiroshima prefecture to marry and move in with Shuusaku Houjou’s family. Shuushaku is a clerk at the naval base nearby. She learns to adjust to a new life with her husband’s family, which is even more difficult because of the regular bombing raids by Allied forces. In This Corner of the World portrays the everyday life of a common woman during culmination of WWII in Japan.
In this Corner of the World is my second favorite Japanese anime film of 2016. Yes, that is the year Your Name. came out. Your Name. is neither my favorite, nor second favorite anime movie of 2016. Fight me.
In this Corner of the World his very hard. It’s a movie in which characters are in an unfortunate setting, yet it’s not an overly sad movie. It shows the inherently human ability to find joy in simple things even when times are hard. It also shows, terrifyingly, how quickly people get used to unfortunate circumstances. They go about their lives, nonchalantly hide when there is a raid, and then it’s right back to business as usual as if it were normal. It is normal to them. So often are movies and anime about the famous historical figure and the decision makers, who often have it a bit easier. This is about everyday people, how their lives are affected, how they cope, deal with loss, and much more.
I’ve become a big fan of the director Surao Katabuchi, who is also behind Mai Mai Miracle, which is an amazing coming of age story, yet he somehow outdid himself on this one.
- Grave of the Fireflies
- The Wind Rises
- The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
On Christmas Eve, three homeless people, Hana a transwoman and former drag performer, Gin, a middle-aged alcoholic man, and Miyuki, a runaway girl, find an abandoned baby hidden away in the trash. Despite having nothing themselves, they name the baby Kiyoko and decide to take care of it while looking for the parents using the belongings the baby had with her. In their pursuit of Kiyoko’s parents, they somehow entangle themselves in a series of unfortunate deadly events.
Tokyo Godfathers is also by Satoshi Kon, whom I described earlier as my favorite Japanese anime director. In pure Satoshi Kon style, there is a lot more than meets the eyes. The story goes into unforeseeable paths, as the characters not only look to circumvent the issues in front of them, but also those of their past. While Satoshi Kon very often portrays the worse in humans, Tokyo Godfathers does the opposite. It shows the good in them, as well as the ability to overcome their own vices.
In typical Satoshi Kon, the character design Is realistic in the sense that people are not “attractive”. They look normal, sometimes better than others, sometimes worse than others. Just like in real life. I’ve made it my go-to Christmas movie, and so should you.
- Millennium Actress
- Perfect Blue
NAUSICÄA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND
A thousand years after an apocalyptic event caused by the Giant Warrior, humans live in fear of the Toxic Jungle. The forest is infested with poisonous plants, giant insects, and filled with toxic air. Nausicaa is the princess of a small country known as the Valley of the Wind, which has managed to avoid the spread of the Toxic Jungle. One day, however, one of the Giant Warriors crashes into her country. The following day, soldiers from the powerful nation of Tolmekia invade the Valley of the Wind in an attempt to revive the warrior. Nausicaa vies to find a way to protect her people, as well as the Toxic Jungle, as she believes humans and insects can live in harmony.
Nausicaa is the catalyst behind Ghibli. It’s the movie that brought Miyazaki, Takahata and Suzuki together. Its success is what brought them to start Ghibli together and transform the anime industry. In this sense, apart from Akira in this list, it my opinion, it is the second most important anime as far as its role in the history of Japanese anime. Like Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa has a very pro-environmental message at its core.
Fun fact: Nausicaa also launched the career of a unknown animator at the time Hidea Anno, who then went on to direct such classics as Neon Genesis Evangelion.
- Princess Mononoke
- Origin: Spirits of the Past
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
Treasure Town is ruled by gangs of orphans above whom stand “the Cats” who fear no one and know everything that happens in the city. The Cats are in truth two orphan boys, Kuro (black) and Shiro (white).
When the Yakuza start making changes and threaten their dominance, and the lives of orphans in Treasure Town, they struggle and strive to look for a way to bring things back to normal. Having no one but themselves to rely on, as they themselves drift apart, maybe things never will get back to normal.
Tekkonkinkreet is a wild, wild adventure. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. At first, it might seem like an excuse to experiment and showcase artwork. It’s more than that. The story itself is great. It’s easy to follow, yet provides a great commentary on contemporary politics, especially in Japan. It explores the relationship between the government and organized crime, as well as the relationship between the government and corporation, and between corporations and organized crime.
Tekkokinkreet is based on a manga with multiple plotlines. The movie includes all of them in a single one, so it can be a little hard to follow, as there are different groups and individuals, each with their own objectives, beliefs, etc. It’s a movie you understand better the more times you watch it. You begin to catch some things you hadn’t before. In addition, none of the characters, and there are a lot of them, are one-dimensional. They are complex entities of their own, even within their respective organizations. All in all, it’s a layered story that you can watch multiple times and still enjoy.
The art though, the art, my god. Tekkokinkreet’s animation is nothing like most Japanese anime you’ve ever seen. In fact, it’s interestingly directed by Michael Arias, an American-born, Japan-based animator, who is also behind Harmony. If you want an artful anime, which does not let that compromise the story, make sure you watch this one.
- Mind Game
- Dead Leaves
THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA
An old bamboo cutter and his wife found a tiny girl inside a glowing bamboo stalk, next to a sizable amount of gold. Using the fortune he found, as she grew older, the bamboo cutter buys a villa in the capita and pays for tutors to transform the girl, named Kaguya, into a refined lady. As rumors of her beauty spread around the country, wealthy suitors show up one after another, competing for her hand. Kaguya, however, wishes that they could all return to their old lives in the countryside, and that she could be with Sutemaru, the one she truly loves.
Princess Kaguya was Isao Takahata last Ghibli project before his death. Takahata is Ghibli’s co-founder and was the other main director along with Miyazaki. He’s also the one behind Grave of the Fireflies (which you also must watch). Princess Kaguya not winning an Academy Award was theft. It’s been Ghibli’s best movie of the decade to date and one of the best animated films to have ever been made, Japanese and otherwise.
Princess Kaguya is a silent anime movie. There is no dialogue, yet it is such an expressive movie through the melody, the animation, the expressions, the transitions. I know I’ve used this word a lot, but it is a masterpiece. The calligraphic style and water-color palette are jaw-breaking, and it is definitely not for children. It has barely any action, and requires the patience and maturity of an adult.
- Hotarubi no Mori e
- In This Corner of the World
THERE IS MORE JAPANESE ANIME
This list is a comprehensive list that I’ve tried to curate to include a variety of tastes and genres for the average person who may not know what to watch. There is a whole wide world. Japanese anime is just a medium, there are different styles, genres, stories, animation styles, art styles, etc.
If you watch one of the ones in this list and enjoy it, have a look for the “similar anime section” and you’ll probably enjoy the ones listed there.
It’s a great time to be a fan of Japanese anime. It’s as easy as ever to find legal way to access series and films, from Netflix, to Hulu, Prime Video, and most libraries and book stores have the more popular ones. Some anime movies rival Hollywood movies in terms of quality, and Hollywood directors themselves will attest to that, so if you might believe that cartoons are for children, swallow your pride, watch any of the ones in the list, and you’ll change your mind.