Establishing the best anime movies can be tricky. After all, despite now being one of the most ubiquitous cultural properties of the 21st century, anime, thanks to over a century’s worth of the medium’s evolution and reinvention, is especially difficult to define. From the five-minute shorts of Oten Shimokawa in 1917, to the feature-length animations produced during World War II, to the pioneering production cycles of Tezuka in the ’60s and the auteurist innovations of the likes of Miyazaki and many others towards the latter half of the last century, anime has morphed through countless phases. Amateur efforts, nationalist propaganda fodder, niche cultural export turned eventual global phenomenon: Each iteration conforms to the shape of the times in which it was produced. Television expanded the medium during the 1960s, birthing many of the essential genres and subgenres that we know today and forming the impetus for the anime industry’s inextricable relationship to advertising and merchandising from the 1970s onward. The arrival of home video catapulted anime to its commercial and aesthetic apex, fanning outward from island nation of Nippon to the far shores of North America and back, before again being revolutionized by the unprecedented accessibility of the world wide web throughout the ’90s and early aughts. Anime film owes much to the evolving means of production and distribution throughout the late 20th century, the breadth and audacity of the medium’s content widening and contracting along with its running time to cater to the emerging palettes of audiences both new and old, at home and abroad. But where does one begin to tackle the aesthetic and historical precedent that anime film has left on pop culture and global entertainment in the last century?
This list is an attempt to do just that: to create a primer of 100 of the most influential and essential films that Japanese animation has produced, and to offer a thorough aesthetic, technical and historical breakdown of why these film matter. With that aim in mind, Paste is proud to enlist the curatorial talents of Jason DeMarco, on-air creative director of Adult Swim and co-creator of Toonami, whose unique role in anime’s emerging popularity in the West has helped to hone this list. Given the shared evolution between anime film and television and the aforementioned significance of the home video revolution, this list includes not only traditional features but also original video animations made for home video (OVAs) and anthology films— with the stipulation of each entry having at some point premiered in theaters. It is our hope that in creating this list we have created an entry point for both the expert and the layperson to trace the rich history of anime’s legacy on both film and popular culture, and to offer newcomers a comprehensive guide through to learn, rediscover, and explore the fullness that the genre of Japanese animation has to offer now and into the future.
100. The Boy and the Beast (2015)
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Mamoru Hosoda is championed as one of the greatest anime directors working today. That reputation is owed in no small part to him being touted as the heir apparent to the cinematic legacy of Hayao Miyazaki, who formally retired from directing following the release of his then-final film The Wind Rises in 2013. Despite this glowing association, few of Hosoda’s handful of films have managed to graze the same strata of cinematic accomplishment and canonical enshrinement that typifies the storied career of the Studio Ghibli luminary.
Such is the case with The Boy and the Beast. The story follows that of Ren, an orphaned boy who, after stumbling through an Alice in Wonderland-style passageway into a world of mythical creatures, is adopted as a pupil by the brash and indolent swordmaster Kumatetsu, who vies to become the lord of all beasts. All of the surface components of a great film are there, with stunningly crisp animation, charged fight scenes, and a tasteful use of computer graphic imagery to accentuate these sequences. However, The Boy and the Beast is hamstrung by an over reliance on supporting characters narrating the emotional arcs of the protagonists instead of letting them speak for themselves, and a weak grasp of story structure and character motivations exemplified by a ponderously sporadic middle-half. In spite of these shortcomings, The Boy and the Beast remains a visually impressive and entertaining film to watch that puts all of Hosoda’s abilities and indulgences as a director on display, for better or worse.
99. Mobile Suit Gundam F-91 (1991)
Director: Yoshiyuki Tomino
Set 30 years after the events of Char’s Counterattack, Mobile Suit Gundam F-91 is a strange anomaly in the Gundam universe, yet not an unwelcome one. The story happened because Yoshiyuki Tomino had decided to begin a new Gundam story set a full generation after the hard-won peace achieved at the end of Char and Amaro’s final battle. Originally set up as a series, Tomino recruited a “greatest hits” of his former collaborators for the project, including Yoshikazu Yasuhiko and Kunio Ookawara. It’s unclear exactly why, but somewhere in the early stages of the production, internal conflicts resulted in the series being shelved. Not wanting to abandon the project (approximately 13 episode scripts had been written), Tomino decided to condense the story he had been developing into a movie. The result, Mobile Suit Gundam F-91, is a messy but very worthy entry in the Gundam canon. The story revolves around an attack by a separatist group, the Crossbone Vanguard, against the unsuspecting earth colonies after years of peace. Amaro analogue Seabrook Arno and his Gundam, F-91, are the heroes around which the plot revolves. Of particular note here are the sleek Gundam designs—Tomino wanted much smaller Gundams for this entry that felt more like “Mobile suits” and less like giant robots—and some of the most brutal fight sequences in any Gundam project. Starting off like most Gundam tales, with clean divisions between factions and a clear focus on key characters on either side of the conflict, things get messy by the third act, coming to a somewhat clumsy and unearned happy ending. Yet like most of Tomino’s other work, the action sequences are thrilling, the characters are vibrant, and the Mobile Suits are … well … mobile. Mobile Suit Gundam is a somewhat underappreciated stab at a reboot, but one that’s worth checking out and one that doesn’t require any foreknowledge of the Universal Century timeline to enjoy. Suit up. —Jason DeMarco
98. The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Mary Norton’s 1952 classic The Borrowers is one of the most oft-adapted children’s books of the 20th century, with feature-length renditions from the likes of such directors as Walter C. Miller, Peter Hewitt and Richard Carpenter. So what exactly can a modern animated adaptation set in contemporary Japan hope to mine from a premise that, however enchanting, has all but been exhausted by previous iterations? That was the task set to Hiromasa Yonebayashi for his directorial debut. Spiritually faithful to that of its source material, Arrietty’s story is focused on 12-year-old Shawn’s chance discovery of a nymph-like creature while staying at his mother’s childhood home and the evolving friendship. It’s typical Studio Ghibli fare, with impeccably rendered matte backgrounds, empathetic characters, a great score, and all of the requisite high-profile voice performances that befit a Disney-licensed production. All in all it’s a satisfactory debut, an average entry in Studio Ghibli’s otherwise stellar filmography with no especially high moments but a serviceable portrayal of a well-loved story that’s sure to play well with children.
97. Ah! My Goddess: The Movie (2000)
Director: Hiroaki Goda
A sequel to a five-part OVA from 1993, based on a popular manga, Ah! My Goddess: The Movie is the very rare example of a film based on an existing anime/manga franchise that’s superior to the original source material. A self-contained story revolving around college student Morisato Keiichi and the Goddess Belldandy, the film finds ways to inject more drama and urgency into the typically light-hearted romance of the original story, while the longer run time allows more room for character development and deepened motivations for all of the main cast members. Putting Belldandy at the center of a plot to hack the Yggdrasil computer in the heavens (long story) and forcing Keiichi to grapple with what Belldandy has come to mean to him places the romance and sweetness that was always the heart of this series in the foreground. The animation quality is very high, with some well integrated CGI allowing Fujishima’s wilder concepts to finally reach fruition in a way the more limited OVA budget couldn’t. Ah! My Goddess: The Movie was well-received by both critics and audiences, and spawned two later TV series that were similarly well regarded. In the wake of today’s popular fantasy seinen/shonen titles, Ah! My Goddess now feels somewhat ahead of its time. Either way, this sweet, fun romance is worth checking out. —J.D.
96. Dallos (1983)
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Of the many films that Mamoru Oshii has directed, Dallos is inarguably his worst. With a subpar space opera plot that’s been described by anime historians such as Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements as “an unremarkable rip-off of Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” and an animation style that could only be charitably described as low budget, showing little to nothing of the mark of its director who later become known for the likes of Patlabor 2 and Ghost in the Shell, there’s a reason why Dallos occupies the darkest unknown corners of Oshii’s oeuvre. So why is it on this list? Because despite its overall lackluster production, that quality is all but eclipsed by the sheer magnitude of its historical significance. Simply put, Dallos was the first anime to be marketed and sold as a multi-part home video production, introducing a new format free of the restrictions of conventional theatrical and televised animation and opening anime up to the west That might ring as somewhat faint praise now in the year 2016, but were it not for the precedent of Dallos’ release, the means through which anime would have found its international audience during the 1980s would not have existed.
95. When Marnie Was There (2014)
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
David Foster Wallace
once said that every love story was a ghost story. He easily could have have been describing the spirit of When Marnie Was There, the second film directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and the last Ghibli production before the studio’s hiatus following Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s retirement in 2013. Twelve-year-old Anna Sasaki is a melancholic introvert with a deep distrust of both other and herself. After collapsing at school from a fit of asthma, Anna’s foster parents send her to stay with her adoptive aunt and uncle at their idyllic rural seaside home adjourning Kushiro to help her condition. There she meets Marnie, a mysterious young girl whose friendship helps Anna to grow and open up and whose troubled story may in fact be inextricably linked with Anna’s own. Although its revelatory conclusion is overpacked with details that could have been better paced along the film’s prevailing mystery, When Marnie Was There is an emotionally affecting depiction of female friendship that cruises along patiently like a quiet boat trip across a moonlit lake.
94. A Dog of Flanders (1997)
Director: Yoshio Kuroda
Yoshio Kuroda’s finest work is perhaps second only to Grave of the Fireflies as one of the saddest anime ever made. Based on the 1872 Flemish novel of the same name, A Dog of Flanders is the tale of a young boy, Nello, and his dog, Pastrache. The story is set in Belgium, and is episodic in nature—mostly concerning Nello’s struggles to rise above the poverty into which he was born, and his persecution by an upper-class member of his village, who wrongly accuses Nello of a terrible crime. The film is ultimately a simple class tragedy, but remains a compelling story that has stood the test of time. In adapting the feature from his TV series of the same name, Kuroda mostly restrains himself from going too “big” with animation flourishes, working carefully to recreate the feel of Industrial Age Antwerp, and servicing the story with quiet, beautiful artwork and scenes that take their time to unfold. The American release, from Pioneer, has an excellent dub for the time, but removed 10 minutes of story with some very choppy edits, so the subtitled version is preferable. Don’t expect a happy ending—this is a three-hanky classic. —J.D.
93. Fullmetal Alchemist the Movie: The Conqueror of Shamballa (2005)
Director: Seiji Mizushima
Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist is one of the most critically successful manga and anime series of the early 2000s. Premiering in 2001 and spawning two long-running television adaptations, Fullmetal Alchemist follows the adventures of Edward and Alphonse Elric, two prodigiously talented young men whose respective limbs and bodies are taken from them in a grisly alchemic accident. Becoming state-appointed alchemists, they search for the mythical philosopher’s stone as a means of restoring their bodies to their original state. Conqueror of Shamballa picks up from the conclusion of the 2003 anime series, with Alphonse’s body fully restored though his memory erased and Edward stranded on the other side of a portal leading to a strange yet familiar world teetering on the cusp of a world war. With an intriguing alternative history story that intermingles key figures such as Karl Haushofer and Fritz Lang and events such as the infamous Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, as well as an impressive series of destructive final fight scenes storyboarded by Yutaka Nakamura, Conqueror of Shamballa is a satisfying if irresolute capstone to the original anime and far and away the best Fullmetal Alchemist film to date.
92. The Restaurant of Many Orders (1991)
Director: Tadanari Okamoto
The Restaurant of Many Orders is remarkably unique compared to nearly every other film of its era that has gone on to shape the aesthetic template of Japanese animation. Created in 1990 by Tadanari Okamoto, who in the ’70s and ’80s established himself as one of Japan’s preeminent animators, the film was originally conceived as a warm up in preparation for his planned feature debut Hotarumomi. Unfortunately, Okamoto would pass away that year from liver cancer and the film was later finished by his close friend and fellow animator Kihachiro Kawamoto. Based on the short story of the same name by the much-adapted poet and children’s author Kenji Miyazawa, The Restaurant of Many Orders is story of two hunters who happen upon a mysterious inn deep in a secluded forest while stalking wild game. The two enter thinking that they’ll be treated to a decent meal and warm place to rest, only to later discover that this restaurant is anything but what it appears to be. Okamoto’s charcoal copper-plate aesthetic is the film’s most distinctive trait, emulating the artistry of veteran animator Reiko Okuyama and achieved through the use of acrylic gouache paint to render the foreground and background of each cell inseparable from one another. Winner of the prestigious Noburo Ofuji Award for Excellence and Innovation, The Restaurant of Many Orders is a beautiful parting gift from one of the most undersung innovators of Japanese animation.
91. Golgo 13 The Professional (1983)
Director: Osamu Dezaki
Directed by Osamu Dezaki, known as the innovator who created the now common “Postcard Memories” technique, Golgo 13: The Professional is both a remarkable time capsule of ’80s grimy crime fiction, and true to the manga from which it is drawn. Golgo, the titular assassin, is basically an evil character who exemplifies alpha male toughness to a ridiculous degree. He is, above all, a Professional. Think Lee Marvin in Point Blank, or Charles Bronson in The Mechanic, or Steve McQueen in … well, anything. Where Golgo charms is in the glorious, fluid animation, the sophisticated cinematic techniques used by Dezaki (including very early usage of CGI), and the tense and incredibly violent action sequences. Filled with gratuitous nudity, violence and rape, this unrated film is not for the faint of heart. Yet Golgo 13: The Professional presents a quintessential example of the Japanese alpha male character, and somehow we root for him, even as we know he’s nothing more than a killer. —J.D.
90. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000)
Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
The follow-up to Toyoo Ashida’s 1985 classic, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust is lauded for its comparatively higher production values and exquisitely rendered set pieces courtesy of Yuji Ikehata and Madhouse’s host of talented in-house background artists. A loose adaptation of Demon Deathchase, the third installment in Hideyuki Kikuchi’s long-running Vampire Hunter D visual novel series, Bloodlust follows the titular half-human vampire hunter as he is hired to rescue the daughter of a wealthy benefactor after she’s abducted by Baron Meier Link, a powerful vampiric nobleman with shadowy intentions. The film comes across as a retread of sorts for Kawajiri, doing little to differentiate itself from the journeyman premise of his work on Ninja Scroll or to build on the mythology of Ashida’s original aside from emphasizing the series’ gothic western sci-fi aesthetic. Still, with character designs by series illustrator Yoshitaka Amano of Final Fantasy fame and a number of visually memorable and impressive settings and showdowns, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust is a visually exhilarating action film that seldom fails to satisfy on a moment-to-moment level.
89. Short Peace (2013)
A multimedia project consisting of four animated shorts plus one videogame, each representing a different period in Japan’s history, Short Peace is a delightful grab bag. With Otomo at the helm guiding the project, and providing one of the shorts, this project pulled together a ton of talent, all in the service of some gorgeous animated short films. The unifying concept barely hangs together, but each of the tales are so singular and stunningly rendered, this is a minor concern. The most singular of the bunch is “Possessions,” was nominated for an Oscar, and it’s easy to see why. The visual technique and seamless rendering of CG/2D animation is absolutely captivating. Otomo’s own contribution, “A Farewell to Weapons,” based on his manga, is the other centerpiece and closes out the collection. It remains true to many of Otomo’s extant themes—mainly, the effects of technology on humanity, and the inability of man to escape his patterns of tribal violence and conquest. The designs are incredibly detailed and well-thought out, like all of Otomo’s work, and the animation is of course hyper realistic. Overall, Short Peace is an excellent modern entry in the hallowed tradition of great collections of anime short films, even if the feast it provides is a bit more for the eyes than the brain. —J.D.
88. Momotaro: Umi No Shinpei (1945)
Director: Mitsuyo Seo
Long before Tezuka Osamu laid the foundation for the signature aesthetic behind anime and the medium’s stylistic maturation in the mid-’80s opposite its ascendancy as a global cultural export, the roots of modern japanese animation were born from format in which most if not all animation originated in the early 20th century: as propaganda films created in order to win hearts and minds and spur their respective nation’s youth to take up arms and fight for, what was at the time thought to be, “the good fight.” Momotaro: Umi No Shinpei, known to western audiences as Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors, holds the distinction of being the first feature-length animated film produced in Japan. Believed lost for decades before being rediscovered in 1984, Momotaro is invaluable touchstone in the history of Japanese animation, transporting viewers back to a time of startlingly different attitudes and sensibilities.
87. Venus Wars (1989)
Director: Yoshikazu Yasuhiko
Adapted from Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s own original manga series in 1989, Venus Wars is a spectacular sci-fi action war film filled with terrific animation, surprising depth, and a delightfully hammy soundtrack courtesy of Joe Hisaishi. Taking place on, you guessed, the second planet in the solar system nearly seventy following a terraforming event, Venus Wars follows a group of teenage monobike racers-turned-freedom fighters after their home of Aphrodia is occupied by the forces of Ishtar, their neighboring rival to the North. With mechanical designs courtesy of Makoto Kobayashi, a notable experimental use of live-action footage to simulate Venus’ barren terrain, and a creative staff that consists of a veritable “who’s who” of 1980s anime icons, including character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto of Cowboy Bebop fame, Venus Wars is a memorable film that delivers as a pulp sci-fi adventure on a visual level but manages to be a thoughtful exploration of what it means to watch one’s home transformed into a police state during a time of war.
86. Origins: Spirit of the Past (2006)
Director: Keiichi Sugiyama
What Origins: Spirit of the Past lacks in the way of a compelling story, it makes up for it in the way of gorgeous backgrounds, sweeping action sequences, and likable characters with simple, identifiable arcs. As far as first-time feature productions go, studio Gonzo’s is serviceable if unsurprising. The film’s plot is prime mid-’90s JRPG fodder: situated in a post-apocalyptic future in the wake of an ecological disaster, there is an enigmatic young girl from the past who’s inextricably linked to a cure-all mcguffin, an enigmatic antagonist with ambitions of hubristic grandeur, and a courageous youth who embarks on a journey of self-discovery and sacrifice to realize his potential and save the world. Unspectacular though thoroughly competent, Gonzo’s Origins: Spirit of the Past is an entertaining pulpy sci-fi journey flick that makes for an entertaining watch despite its shortcomings.
85. The Cat Returns (2002)
Director: Hiroyuki Morita
A spiritual successor-of-sorts to Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart, The Cat Returns is a playful romp that combines Studio Ghibli’s signature brand of magical realism imbued with a fresh perspective courtesy of director Hiroyuki Morita. When Haru Yoshioka, a shy and absent-minded schoolgirl, rescues a mysterious cat while on her way home from school, she realizes she possesses the latent ability to talk to cats. Her life is then turned upside down as the cat’s father, the king of cats, showers her in bizarre tokens of gratitude and orders her betrothal to his son as “reward” for her kindness. It’s then up to her seek out the fabled Bureau of Cats to find the one person who might be able to save her: the dashing gentleman-noble Baron Humbert von Gikkingen. Naoya Tanaka’s art direction and Satoko Morikawa’s character designs are the real draw that distinguish the film’s look and feel, and with a simple yet whimsical story built around likable personalities and beautiful settings, The Cat Returns easily warrants mention alongside Studio Ghibli’s very best.
84. Giovanni’s Island (2014)
Director: Mizuho Nishikubo
One of the most appreciable qualities of Japanese animation is the readiness in which they are willing to relate and contextualize their history as a country and as a people through a medium which is too often looked down upon as inherently trite and childish. Case in point: Giovanni’s Island. Set in the aftermath of World War II, the film follows the stories of Junpei and Kanta, two young boys whose home island of Shikotan is quickly occupied by Soviet allied forces in the wake of Japan’s surrender. As their world is irrevocably by the intrusive hardships and indignities of the real world, the boy grasp to a solitary thread of hope through their imaginative love of Kenji Miyazawa’s novella Night on the Galactic Railroad, a book from which their names are inspired. Directed by Mizuho Nishikubo, who served as the esteemed animation director of Oshii’s Patlabor 2, the film touts simplistic though beautifully expressive character designs and dynamic settings featuring distinctive jagged outlines and shadows. The film’s fantasy sections are wonderful as a well, rendering the allusions to Miyazawa’s novella with such modern imaginative fidelity that it easily sits beside that of Gisaburo Sugii’s masterful 1985 adaptation. Akin to Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, Giovanni’s Island is an affirming if tragic story of the resilience of a family living through the end of a World War, but it’s also something all its own. It’s a story of the intrinsic human persistence to forge connections and friendships in the face of seemingly unassailable differences. An excellent film about history, family, language, and hope.
83. Sweat Punch (2007)
Director: Mizuho Nishikubo
Sweat Punch is a curious beast that’s a bit hard to track down, but worth the effort. Comprising five animated shorts originally released as a part of Grasshoppa! DVD magazine issues, they were then collected into one release titled Deep Imagination. Deep, indeed, would be one way to describe these shorts, which range across the map both in style and subject matter. The first, “Professor Dan Petory’s Blues,” doesn’t really try to make sense, and is content to simply throw all kinds of wild animation techniques in a blender with some songs and jokes, to kaleidoscopic effect. It only gets weirder from there. “The End of The World” is another standout, concerning the life of a young alien girl named Yuko, who meets a friend at a rock concert, then proceed to go back to her home planet and battle with S&M monsters (no, really). A third, confusingly entitled “Comedy” by Studio 4C, is a dark, gothic tale verging on horror that concerns a young girl, a master swordsman, and the Irish War of Independence. Most of these shorts break not only from traditional narrative, but also from traditional anime art style and animation techniques. These are animation in its purest form, the directors and animators involved clearly just enjoying the riot of color and movement they present to the viewer. It’s pointless to try to explain more, really. Sweat Punch must be seen to be believed, and “understanding” it might be beside the point. —J.D.
82. Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (2001)
Director: Shinichiro Watanabe
When Cowboy Bebop first premiered in North America on Adult Swim in September of 2001, it was one of the great defining moments of anime securing its cultural foothold in the West. Set in the year 2071, Cowboy Bebop was many things: a sci-fi western noir character drama built around the themes of existentialism, identity and loneliness. But above all else it was a master course in cinematic evocation, channeling the ineffable cool of turn-of-the-century jazz, rock ’n’ roll, and film noir and transforming it into something that was unlike anything that had come before or since. With a script penned by Keiko Nobumoto, a score by the inimitable Yoko Kanno, action scenes framed and choreographed by Yutaka Nakamura, and series’ director Shinichiro Watanabe returning at the helm, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door is the anime equivalent of a seminal band getting back together for one last farewell tour after ending off on a high-note and a bang.
81. Genius Party (2007)
If you’re looking for a collection of some of the most eccentric, colorful, and unique animated shorts from some of the most preeminent anime directors working today, you can’t go wrong with Genius Party. Released in 2007, the film serves the purpose of what any good anthology should—putting supremely talented animators on a project and allowing them to throw whatever they want at the wall. And that’s what it succeeds as a whole in doing—to varying degrees of individual success, of course. Shoji Kawamori’s “Shanghai Dragon” is a wild free-wheeling take on Super Sentai hero antics, Yoji Fukuyama’s “Doorbell” is a unsettling and confounding psychological thriller, and Shinji Kimura’s “Deathtic 4” is a bizarre 3D-animated short that’s sure to play well for Tim Burton fans on an aesthetic level. The only dud in this collection is Hideki Futamura’s “Limit Cycle,” which, although having one of the most unique art styles of the bunch, meanders in pop-scientific pontification and pretentious navel-gazing. The crowning jewels of the collection however are Masaaki Yuasa’s “Happy Machine” and Shinichiro Watanabe’s “Baby Blue,” which each exemplify the best defining talents of their respective creators. All in all, Genius Party is a stunning collection of shorts produced by one of the most eclectic production studios operating today and should not be missed.
80. HAL (2013)
Director: Ryôtarô Makihara
In a future not too far ahead from our own, advance robot caretakers are a crucial part of everyday society. When a young man named Hal is killed in a tragic airplane explosion, his girlfriend Kurumi is heartbroken and retreats into a deep solitary depression. Kurumi’s family opts for a daring new form of therapy to coax her into recovery: programming a sentient caretaker named Q-01 with the late Hal’s memories to slowly earn her trust and affection. The two grow closer and gradually begin to learn for themselves what love means to both humans and machines. HAL is anything but a perfect movie. Its characters can come across as thin, its initial story beats as saccharine, and its background story of a world populated by sentient robots feels critically underdeveloped. However, it makes up for this with gorgeous visuals, great music, an enjoyable arc between the two central protagonists, and a third act revelation that turns the film’s entire premise on its head. Don’t be fooled by its kitschy shojo exterior, HAL has everything where it counts: a strong story, sympathetic characters, and unwavering heart.
79. Summer Wars (2009)
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Summer Wars is pretty much a beat-for-beat remake of Hosoda’s previous work on the second Digimon film, Our War Game, released in 2000. However, when a film is this well-animated and put together, the accusation of unoriginality can be forgiven. Summer Wars is the story of Kenji Koiso, a shy and unassuming math prodigy who works as an admin assistant for OZ, a massive digital network that’s supplanted the internet as the major connective system across the world. When Kenji’s OZ avatar is hijacked by Love Machine, a sentient computer virus hell bent on throwing the entire planet into chaos, it’s up to him and the extended family of his fake girlfriend Natsuki (long story) to band together and go to war. OZ resembles a psychedelic “superflat” dreamscape à la Takashi Murakami thanks to Anri Jojo’s art design, and with impeccable character art by the likes of Gainax veteran Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, Masaru Hamada, and Takashi and Mina Okazaki, Summer Wars is an engrossing big family drama with heart couched inside a candy-coated “Internet of Things” scenario of catastrophic proportions.
78. A Wind Named Amnesia (1990)
Director: Kazuo Yamazaki
On the eve of the 21st century, the collective memory of every living being on Earth was wiped by an inexplicable mass phenomenon, decimating civilization and reducing the human race to roving tribes of scavengers devoid of language, reason or technology. Wataru, a survivor of this worldwide amnesia meets Sophia, a mysterious young woman seemingly unaffected by this worldwide epidemic. The two embark on a journey across the heartland of America in search of answers not only to the question of what caused humanity’s downfall, but what it means to be a human being at all. The film’s animation definitely shows its age in some respects, and when it comes to the thematic ambitions of its subject matter versus its narrative execution its reach more often than not exceeds its grasp, but A Wind Named Amnesia remains a thought-provoking movie and an understated gem in rough of early ’80s animation. Word to the wise: steer clear of the English dub, as it dispels most of the film’s nuance and subtext in lieu of playing it up as a comparatively hollow action adventure.
77. Ponyo (2008)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Of Hayao Miyazaki’s eclectic and universally renowned body of work, Ponyo is arguably his strangest. A modern reinterpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 The Little Mermaid, Ponyo couldn’t be further from an attempt to compete, let alone eclipse Disney’s award-winning 1989 adaptation. Instead, Miyazaki eschews anthropomorphic crabs and garish musical numbers in favor of honing in on the love story between a young boy and a girl-fish who yearns to be human. The film’s aesthetic is straight of out of child’s picture books, with thick solid shapes framed by beautiful bright primary colors. It’s a trippy, kid-friendly film that manages to pack in a surprising amount of thematically heady material with regards to environmentalism and the delicate balancing act between humanity and nature. Ponyo certainly is not anywhere near Miyazaki’s best, but it unquestionably stands among the medium’s best.
76. The Garden of Words (2013)
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Much like his contemporary Mamoru Hosoda, Makoto Shinkai is a director who is frequently championed as the “new” Hayao Miyazaki in conversations surrounding who will succeed him. This comparison however, much like in the case of Hosoda, ends up being frustratingly reductionist in its appraisal of both directors. Shinkai’s films are not light-hearted family adventures or archetypal pillars of anime canonicity, but rather tense melancholic odes to contemporary Japanese society that highlight the ways in which physical, emotional and temporal distance inform the shape and course of human relationships. Such is the case with The Garden of Words, the story of Takao, an aspiring 15-year-old shoemaker, and his chance acquaintance and budding romance with Yukari, a mysterious older woman whom he meets one rainy summer afternoon. Shinkai’s tale of “lonely sadness” is true to its aim, with wistful world-weary dialogue punctuated by quiet montages of incidental imagery and ponderous long takes of tremulous pools of water. It’s more a feature-length meditation than it is a film, with a languid middle and a questionable emotional climax, but The Garden of Words is worthy of a watch if only for the gorgeous visuals alone.