In Western culture, anime is largely known for frenetic action sequences and ridiculously powerful characters. I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest fan of fighting anime, although I’ve covered one before. But anime is a medium, and it’s used to tell all kinds of stories, including high school dramas and romances—dramatic anime tend to pique my interest far more than Super Saiyan antics. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a mix of teen drama, harrowing tale of personal responsibility, time travel story, and a bit of understated but very significant romance that was a joy to watch. Directed by Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars, Wolf Children), this is based on a popular series of novels in Japan that had actually seen numerous film adaptations, and this film is actually more of a sequel than an adaptation, as the protagonist of the original series is actually the aunt of the protagonist in this film, and the film references her stories a bit. It’s an interesting film that does drama well and really captures the awkwardness of the teenage years in a way that even non-anime fans will probably relate to.
Please be aware that there will be some big spoilers in this review, as I think an explanation and interpretation of the film and its ending is necessary for talking about why I liked it.
“Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim!”
Most animated feature films are adventures of some sort. We have toys trying to get back to their owner, a lion fleeing his country and then returning to save it, an ogre trying to save the homes of fairytale characters, and even embodiments of emotions trying to get through a brain to set things right emotionally. The adventure formula of having a character or group of characters set out on a quest to accomplish something is well-known and well-loved. In my opinion, though, there’s no better animated adventure than Finding Nemo. Directed by Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, A Bug’s Life) and Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3, Coco), this is a bit unique for an animated feature not only because it’s about fish, but also because there’s not really a villain. Most Disney and Pixar films will be a man-versus-man plot, with a principal character trying to accomplish something and an antagonist trying to stop them. This film sets the principal characters against nature and fate, which prove to be just as cruel and powerful a foe as any villain ever was. I think this helps the adventure formula, which I’ll get into below. But audiences agreed: this film surpassed The Lion King to become the highest grossing animated film of its time. It’s a great adventure film, and truly one that just about anyone in the family can enjoy.
“What if there were some mistake and the progression went wrong and something like an amoeba was given power like a human’s?”
I wouldn’t describe myself as an anime fan. I like some of the better movies and series, but there’s a lot of the genre I don’t particularly enjoy. The few other anime on this list, I’ve described as being different than your typical anime—full of rich drama and characters that will appeal to movie-watchers who wouldn’t normally get into anime. Akira, on the other hand, is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from an anime: a psychic guy attacks a futuristic city and it’s up to a teenage boy to stop him. This seminal anime film is written and directed by Katsuhiro Ôtomo (Steamboy, Mushi Shi: The Movie), and the fact that this feels like a lot of other anime is a testament to how influential it was in 1988, before the typical anime really existed. This film was huge in Japan, and it opened the door to the Western world for anime, where the genre had previously gone largely unnoticed. Is it good? Well, yes, it’s very good. It’s got a great sci-fi plot, a gritty dystopian setting, and action that’s entertaining without being so over-the-top that it’s ridiculous. It feels a bit like a cross between an action movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 1984. Again, I wouldn’t describe myself as an anime fan, but this is one of the best movies the genre has to offer, and it’s endured as a classic for a reason.
“The dream I must have had, I can never recall. But… the sensation that I’ve lost something lingers for a long time after I wake up.”
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I’m typically not a fan of anime, just like I’m typically not a fan of horror movies. But some movies, like Psycho and The Shining, are so good that they rose above the trappings of the horror genre. Your Name is a movie that rises way, way above the trappings of your typical anime. Directed by Makoto Shinkai (The Place Promised in our Early Days, 5 Centimeters per Second), this is the only anime movie to out-gross Spirited Away, which was a classic I’ve reviewed before. It’s one of the best love stories I think I’ve ever seen. There is a touch of the supernatural in this, but rather than that being the focus, it serves to enhance the drama and romance in the film that remain the focal point. This is a beautiful story beautifully told, and the fact that it’s an anime actually makes it better—that format tells the story better than any other would. Anime skeptics take heart: you will probably like this film.
I’m reluctantly a fan of some anime, but I’ll admit, the medium has been really hit or miss for me. There are some brilliant stories and a lot of stuff that’s just not for me. But when I heard about an anime film that shows World War II through the eyes of two orphaned Japanese children, I knew I had to give it a shot. Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) who was a colleague of Hayao Miyazaki, is a moving and heart-breaking story about the horrors of war and the importance of family in a setting that American viewers don’t often think about. I’ll warn you now: it’s quite sad, and your soul will undoubtedly die a little bit as you watch this. But it’s still a beautiful story that I’m glad I experienced. And if you’re wondering, there is an English dub and it’s pretty decent.
Think back to the Disney movies you probably watched as a young child. There was that sense of wonder and enchantment, like you were swept away into a new, magnificent world that just seemed so magical. I don’t really get that feeling from Disney movies anymore, nor do I from most movies. That’s one of the sad parts about growing up. Spirited Away, directed by Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle), brings me right back to that place of magic and wonder. Miyazaki is often described as the Japanese Walt Disney, but that’s not a fair comparison. Miyazaki’s work is often more mature, a little darker, and even further into the realm of fantasy. And this film may be his best work. It’s the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan, and the only anime film to be nominated for—and win—an academy award. It rightfully earns its place among the best animated films of all time.
“Be careful with that gun! This ain’t no cartoon, you know!”
Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that asks, What if cartoons were real? These are usually cute and funny—for instance, Space Jam answers the age-old question of how well cartoons can play basketball. The original, though, is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and it tells a very different story. Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) and starring Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a film noir that asks what happens when a cartoon murders someone. It follows the classic film noir formula, but injects it with classic cartoon gags and logic. The result is a darkly funny and unabashedly unique mystery-comedy that’s unlike any other movie out there.
“We’re all different. Especially him. But there’s something kind of fantastic about that, isn’t there?”
Fantastic Mr. Fox is a stop-motion animated film written and directed by arthouse darling Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel), based on a book by Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach), and packing an all-star cast including George Clooney, Jason Schwartzman, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, and many more. The writing is clever, the art direction is stellar, and the characters are charmingly quirky. It’s suitable for kids, but smart enough for adults, and accessible to just about everyone.