Japanese animation, with a few exceptions, has often existed on the periphery of Western popular culture, where even the most successful film by the Japanese equivalent of Disney Studios only ends up playing a handful of North American art cinemas during a limited theatrical run. But make no mistake, anime has been and remains to be hugely influential, usually inspiring many of your favorite directors to either lift moments directly to slot into their own work or to move forward with ill-conceived Hollywood remakes. These are the ten most essential anime films ever made, and are vital to any movie fan's library, whether you're an animation aficionado or a complete newbie.
10. Patlabor: The Movie (1989)
Many of the films on this list are here because they're landmark films for their directors, or that they move the artform of Japanese animation forward in meaningful ways. Patlabor is just a good-ass movie made by a bunch of talented people, including future Ghost in the Shell collaborators Mamoru Oshii and I.G Tatsunoko (the early name for the production company that would become Production I.G). Set in the distant future of 1999, Patlabor's hardboiled sci-fi police procedural explores the connection between humanity and technology, and how we approach law enforcement in an age of automation. Also, this list would otherwise be sorely lacking in giant mech movies - this film has them in spades, and they fight a bunch. It's pretty cool.
9. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)
Studio Ghibli commissioned director Mamoru Hosoda to make Howl's Moving Castle, but sent him packing after rejecting his initial concepts. Hosoda then turned around and directed The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, a bounding and inventive dramedy that's as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. Based on a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, the film follows high schooler Makoto Konno as she learns that she has the power to quite literally leap through time. First, she uses these powers to get good grades, but she quickly learns that her actions have consequences. It's a wildly imaginative slice of life, and marked the emergence of an important voice in animated films.
8. Vampire Hunter D (1985)
Vampire Hunter D is often credited as being one of the first anime films specifically targeted for an older audience, and its success paved the way for many of the films on this list. It's a slow, haunting burn that follows the titular, monosyllabic vampire hunter as he aids and protects a young woman from a demonic menace. Featuring the brooding character design of none other than Final Fantasy concept artist Yoshitaka Amano, Vampire Hunter D is dark glimpse into the maturation of anime as a genuine theatrical artform.
7. Ninja Scroll (1993)
If Akira and Ghost in the Shell were the opening salvo for anime's initial surgence in the West as more than Saturday morning fodder, Ninja Scroll was the knockout punch. Releasing in the West around the same time as Ghost in the Shell, Ninja Scroll is a stylish, hyper-violent flurry of over-the-top battles and geysers of blood. Ex-ninja Jubei is coerced under threat of death by a Tokugawa spy to hunt down and defeat the Eight Devils of Kimon, each one with its own mystical set of powers. In an hour and a half, Jubei fights a dude whose skin can turn into stone, a naked snake lady, a guy who can melt into shadows, and a woman who plants gunpowder in people's bodies and uses them as living time bombs. Ninja Scroll is relentless and requires a strong stomach, but it's a film whose influence is still being felt in modern action films the world over - heck, the Wachowski's were so smitten with it that they even tapped director Kawajiri for two of The Animatrix's short films.
6. Your Name. (2016)
Since the release of his first short film Voices of a Distant Star (which he wrote, directed, and animated by himself over seven months), Makoto Shinkai has been described by multiple critics as the next Hayao Miyazaki. With his most recent film Your Name. (yes, the period is part of the title), Shinkai finally steps out steps out of the shadows of the greats and finds his own voice. To describe it as a mere body-swapping film does it a great disservice, as it finds the humor and humanity in a situation where two young high schoolers find themselves in each others shoes and desperately want to find each other. But then, Shinkai pulls the rug out from under you halfway through and Your Name. turns into a different kind of film entirely. That it doesn't lose its footing or confidence and instead discovers continued meaning and purpose shows that Shinkai is a directorial force to be reckoned with.
5. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Studio Ghibli is perhaps second only to Disney in terms of cultural relevance and worldwide recognition in animation, and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is where it all started. It follows the eponymous young woman as she navigates a post-apocalyptic future where venturing outside small population centers means having to contend with giant insects and a deadly miasma. Here, you will see many of Ghibli's themes on humanity, community, mortality, and environmentalism converge, accompanied by lush hand-drawn animation and swashbuckling action.
4. Perfect Blue (1997)
After working as an animator on other films, Satoshi Kon made his explosive directorial debut with Perfect Blue. It's about a J-Pop idol who leaves behind a music career to pursue acting, and the further she dives into the role, the more reality and fiction begin to blur together. Kon's signature style seems to spring forth fully realized from the first frame, his unique take on magical realism ensuring you never see the seams until he wants you to. Kon's career was cut short due to pancreatic cancer, but his influence can be seen everywhere, including Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan and Christopher Nolan's Inception.
3. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Oshii's adaptation of Masamune Shirow's seminal graphic novel series is simultaneously one of the most influential and enigmatic anime films ever made. There's definitely a plot here, as a team of armored police officers lead by Major Motoko Kusanagi attempt to hunt down a mysterious hacker known as the Puppet Master, but Ghost in the Shell is far more concerned with exploring the philosophical ramifications of its transhumanist themes than it is providing any sort of narrative payoff. It's a strange one to watch, packing a lot information and world-building into its brisk 82 minute runtime, but its length and structure allow for repeat viewings that are as rewarding as the first. And that's not even mentioning the stunningly subdued action sequences, which are still as captivating to watch over 20 years later - scenes that the Wachowskis would basically rip-off wholesale for their 1999 blockbuster film The Matrix.
2. Spirited Away (2001)
If you want a good snapshot of Studio Ghibli's history, first watch Nausicaa, then watch this one. Here is Miyazaki at the height of his craft, using advancements in animation technology to enhance but not overpower an Alice in Wonderland-esque story filled to the brim with strange creatures and imaginative scenarios. It's a coming of age story about a young girl who finds herself lost in a bathhouse for the spirits, interacting with an assortment of fantastical creatures as she attempts to rescue her parents. That Miyazaki still explores the consequences of the convergence of nature and technology shows how timeless and important these themes are.
1. Akira (1988)
Akira is a powerhouse of a film, every frame of animation exploding off the screen with kinetic energy and effortless style. It's based off the first half of Otomo's massive graphic novel series of the same name (the second half created after the film was completed, explaining the wild divergence in plotlines), following a group of delinquent teenagers in Neo-Tokyo decades after the end of World War 3. One of these boys, named Tetsuo, is abducted by a secretive government unit and experimented on, awakening his latent psychic abilities which quickly spiral out of control. What follows is a strange, gut-wrenching landmark of science-fiction, filled with rad bikes and an absurd amount of destruction. Its lavish animation is unrivaled even now, and its tale militaristic overreach and the hubris of unchecked technological progress remains oddly prescient - especially considering that Tokyo will play host to the Olympic games in 2020, just like it did in Akira.