Here at Paste, we strive to create lists whose curation provides a solid starting point and subsequent tour for readers new to a genre, and perhaps a few surprises or suggestions for the established fans. Unfortunately, in the case of anime film on Netflix, that can be a challenge. As rich as the streaming service can be in some arenas (documentary films, for example), Netflix provides viewers a pretty anemic selection of anime titles. In fact, currently there are just fourteen anime titles available on Netflix. Most of them are awful. (We should know, we watched every single one of them—even the Pokémon ones.)
But still, what’s available is what’s available, so we’ve sorted through the chaff and the not-so-chaff to provide readers with a ranking of the films currently available on Netflix (as of September 2016).
(If you would like Netflix to step it up in regards to their anime film selection, feel free to make your voice heard.)
Director: Seiji Mizushima
You’ll be hard-pressed to find an anime film on Netflix more gross, more pandering, and that hews more aggressively to the tired and fetishistic tropes that plague the reputation of the genre as a whole more than Expelled from Paradise. Here’s the elevator pitch: In the wake of a global catastrophe, a majority of humankind have uploaded their minds into a massive simulated reality housed within a space station called DEVA. After being infiltrated by a mysterious hacker who hopes to motivate the populace to explore beyond the planet’s orbit, the system tasks agent Angela Balzac to investigate. She then transfers her consciousness into the body of a buxom, sixteen-year old clone and jets off to Earth to team up with a poncho-wearing sharpshooter in a bowler hat voiced by Steve Blum (Cowboy Bebop), who’s obviously here just to collect a paycheck.
The film is gross—there’s no two ways about it. Whether it’s the opening scene of Angela reclining on a beach chair in a bathing suit that’s just a few strategic swipes away from wearing nothing at all, to the “establishing shot” that luxuriates over her scantily clothed thighs, crotch, midriff and chest as she’s coated in bio-slime upon landing on Earth. Why does her virtual reality avatar feature fully rendered erect nipples? Why does the camera routinely pivot to accentuate her crotch and buttocks in the middle of a heated battle? These are the type of questions you might be asking yourself upon a first viewing. The answer, quite simply, is that there is no reason, which is coincidentally the same answer to the question of why you should watch Expelled from Paradise.
Director: Shinji Aramaki
Shinji Aramaki has made some solid films in the past. This is not one of them. Watching Space Pirate Captain Harlock, an adaptation of Leiji Matsumoto’s 1977 manga series following the swashbuckling adventures of an immortal renegade space captain, is like watching a CG-animated cut scene that overstays its welcome by just shy of two hours. It’s a boring slog with over-the-top action scenes routinely interspersed to distract from the aimlessness of the plot’s trajectory. The animation is impressive with the exception of the actual characters who, in a sub-par attempt to translate Matsumoto’s distinctive art style to photorealism, look like glossy, bobble-headed action figures who are unsure as to how to maneuver their own bodies. The english dubbing is poor, with over-embellished dialogue that regularly leaves characters looking as though they’re either yawning mid-sentence or possessed and clichéd expository narration such as, “Space, was and remains, Mankind’s natural rainbow.” Fire up your engines and set a 180-degree course for anywhere but this one.
Director: Kunihiko Yuyama
I haven’t played a Pokémon game or seen an episode of the show since before the turn of the century. So needless to say, I am not what one would describe as the target audience for the continuing adventures of Ash Ketchum’s Sisyphean ordeal to catch ’em all and/or become the very best like no-one ever was. The continued success of the now twenty-year-old franchise is a double-edged sword of sorts. As the series continues to progress and perpetuate itself through the yearly invention of new species, subspecies, classes, evolutions and regions, much of its initial appeal can be lost in the noise of its excess. That appeal, though, remains unchanged: travel to new regions, encounter and capture evermore powerful pokémon, and train them to battle for supremacy. Also, a story that emphasizes the surmounting power of love and friendship and teamwork, etc.
The seventeenth theatrical installment in the Pokémon franchise is near-identical to the sixteen that came before: Ash Ketchum, his partner PIkachu, and two-or-three rotating secondary characters are tasked with either rescuing/helping/defeating the titular pokémon and by doing so save the adjourning region and/or the world. The sole reason why this and Hoopa and the Rings of Destiny exist on Netflix is to complement the acquisition of the first two seasons of Pokémon: XY. If you’re a fan of the series and have already committed yourself to watching every piece of media in the Pokémon franchise without fail, this is for you. If not, there’s not much else here for you here other than either boredom or confusion.
Director: Kunihiko Yuyama
The eighteenth theatrical installment in the Pokémon franchise and the second to be adapted from the Pokémon: XY series, Hoopa and the Rings of Destiny opens approximately a hundred years in the past, with the malevolent legendary pokémon Hoopa facing off against the combined forces of Kyogre, Groudon, Reshiram, Zekrom and Regigigas. After besting all of them, Hoopa is confronted by a strange wanderer with an Arceus necklace who traps the renegade pokemon in a magical flask. A century later, it’s up to Ash and his cohorts to battle and subsequently recapture the escaped Hoopa and his magical rings before he causes even more havoc and destruction.
If any of that made sense to you, give this one a watch. If not, you’re probably better off just watching the show or giving this one a hard pass altogether.
Director: Kenichi Takeshita
Much like in the case of Diancie and the Cocoon of Destruction and Hoopa and the Rings of Destiny, Yu-Gi-Oh! Bonds Beyond Time feels like a movie that was acquired as a packaged deal with the series from which it is based off of. It’s like Netflix lowered a mechanical crane claw into a slush pile of direct-to-video releases and just pulled out whatever was most affordable. Such is the case with Yu-Gi-Oh!, a franchise so hilariously convoluted that Bonds Beyond Time, no joke, feels the need to give the viewer a ten-minute history lesson on the series out of its one-hour running time.
Three of the series’ former protagonists: Yugi Muto, Jaden Yuki and Yusei Fudo must combine their joint card-battling forces against a mysterious time-hopping Duelist named Paradox in order to stop him from destroying the time-space continuum. All of this is what happens when one hinges the world’s entire economy, culture, infrastructure, and existential stability on the singular influence of a collectible card game. If you consider yourself a past or present fan of the series and would like to see how Yugi would interact with Yusei or whether Jaden would win in a duel with Yugi, this one’s right up your alley. Otherwise, this one’s a dud. The only reason why this film is ranked above the two Pokémon ones is because it at the very least has the self-awareness to offer audiences the courtesy of a series recap so as to be reasonably accessible to those who may not have been following the series since 1998.
Director: Tomohisa Taguchi
One of the most frustrating tendencies of Netflix’s license acquisition policies is that, with its rotating roster of expirations and renewals, it often leaves films that are meant to be experienced as parts of a greater whole to be orphaned in the process. Such is the case with Persona 3 The Movie: No. 2, Midsummer Knight’s Dream.
I’m not going to even bother to summarize the plot because, much like Andy Dwyer from Parks & Recreation, I have no idea even after having watched the film and at this point I’m too afraid to ask. I have no clue why these teenagers are shooting themselves in the head with gun-shaped “evokers” in order to summon what appear to be tarot card characters in order to battle supernatural creatures in an alternate dimension. The whole experience of watching Midsummer Knight’s Dream, the middle chapter in a four-part series, without its preceding chapter feels like watching a latter-half non-sequitur episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion, albeit with admittedly beautiful animation, bizarre slice-of-life humor, and entertaining fight scenes. If you’re already a fan of Persona 3 and don’t mind jumping into the middle of a larger overarching story, have at it. For everyone else, why not give the game that it was based off of a shot?
Director: Joji Shimura, Ahn Tae-kun
Let’s not mince words here: Blade of the Phantom Master is a terrible film, though not an entirely unwatchable one. The film’s production is historically significant for being the first anime feature co-produced by a Japanese and Korean studio, Oriental Light and Magic and Character Plan respectively. But aside from this interesting factoid, the film itself is thin on appeal and bereft of much of any enjoyment aside from on a basic, emphasis on basic, level.
Blade of the Phantom Master follows Munsu, a former general of an army of supernatural phantom warriors turned itinerant anti-hero who journeys on a quest to avenge his fallen kingdom and kill the man responsible for murdering his best friend. One gathers the impression on watching the film that it was created with the intention of soft-launching a subsequent anime series, with much of its story culminating as less of a narrative and more of a loose assemblage of causally tangent episodes. The CGI is ho-hum, the dialogue is trite, the fight scenes are mildly entertaining though whose outcomes ultimately come across as pre-ordained and inconsequential, and the costume designs, particularly in the case of Munsu’s semi-mute rescuee-turned-bodyguard Sando, appeal to the lowest common denominator of fetishized pandering. It’s as fun to watch as it is to write about, which is to say you could bear doing it once but you’d be hard-pressed to argue a reason to do it again.
Director: Kazuchika Kise
Much like Midsummer Knight’s Dream, Ghost Tears is a part of a larger whole. In this case, the third in a tetralogy of films set in an alternate timeline of the Ghost in the Shell continuity that follows the career of a young Major Motoko Kusanagi as she moves from being an independent investigative liaison to the Japanese department of Public Security to her inevitable ascent to becoming the chief commander of Public Security Section 9. In Ghost Tears, Motoko and her team are tasked with hunting down a mysterious body-jacking hacker that goes by the alias “Scylla.” Meanwhile, Niihama Prefecture Detective Togusa (who will eventually become a member of Section 9) investigates the murder of a man whose prosthetic limbs were produced by a shady manufacturer. How do the two cases converge? That’s up to Motoko and Togusa to find out.
Ghost Tears works as a film because it’s capable of standing on its own as an individual, albeit incomplete, segment of the larger scope that is the Arise series. It explores new, relatively untapped dimensions of some of the main character’s lives and backstories, in particular Motoko’s love-life as a cyborg, while offering up the requisite political intrigue, conspiracies, and action that make Ghost in the Shell what it is. Not entirely recommended for those looking for a entry point into understanding the franchise, though you could do far worse than give this one a watch.
Director: Akiyuki Shinbo
When it first premiered in 2011, Puella Magi Madoka Magica was widely celebrated by fans and critics alike as one of the original short series of that year. The series follows the titular Madoka, an ordinary eighth grade student who forms a pact with a cutesy cat-like alien named Kyubey to become a magical girl, a superpowered hero charged with defending her hometown of Mitakihara, Japan, from a host of monstrous interdimensional entities known as Witches. Without saying too much, things quickly take a turn for the worse and not everything is as it seems. Don’t let the series’ bubblegum pop aesthetic dissuade you on a first impression, Madoka Magica is to the “Magical Girl” sub-genre what Gainax’s Neon Genesis Evangelion is to the “Giant Fighting Robot” sub-genre of anime: a postmodern reconfiguration of genre tropes rife with plot twists and existential malaise on a cosmic horror level.
Beginnings and Eternal take the original twelve-episode run of the television and split them down into two feature-length installments. If you’ve heard great things about the series and have always wanted to sit down and watch it but for some reason haven’t been able to will yourself because of time commitment, Beginnings is as good as any way to get you started. It’s a lean, well-paced and focused summation of the series’ first half that recounts all the major characters and plot points in a digestible format.
Director: Akiyuki Shinbo
Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie is the only complete anime film series on Netflix. As such, it is highly recommended that that you watch Beginnings before Eternal, as the latter film is a recapitulation of the series’ second half and finale. The strength of the film is in its running time, summarizing six half-hour episodes into just shy of a two-hour running time with few compromises to the core story of the series. The drawback, such as it is, is that Eternal adds nothing to the Madoka Magica series aside from its role as a recap. Put simply: if you watched and enjoyed Beginnings, you should watch Eternal.
Director: Yukihiro Miyamoto
Rebellion is the final installment in the compilation trilogy of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, taking place directly after the events of Beginnings and Eternal (i.e., the original series). In the intervening years since the film’s initial critical and commercial success both in in 2013, Rebellion has retroactively garnered a somewhat lukewarm reputation among fans of the series who criticize it for being conceptually derivative and ultimately, thematically antithetical to that of the original. What you can’t contest however is that the film is drop-dead gorgeous, with strong art direction, dazzling visual effects, masterful fight scenes, and solid music. Whether you’re a Madoka die-hard, a first-time viewer, or disaffected critic, you’re bound to get something out of Rebellion at the very least on a raw audio-visual level.
Director: Kazuya Murata
Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos follows state alchemists Edward and Alphonse Elric in their pursuit of an escaped criminal whose mysterious powers may present a lead in their dogged personal quest to find the fabled Philosopher’s Stone and restore their bodies to normal. What they find instead is themselves inadvertently pitted between two warring factions vying over a legendary artifact whose power might prove catastrophic to the security of the world.
Though significantly less polished and entertaining than its theatrical predecessor Conqueror of Shamballa, the series’ first film adaptation, The Sacred Star of Milos has terrific large-scale fight scenes and a serviceable-if-cliché plot, more than enough to make its one-hour-and-fifty-minute running time worth a watch for fans and newcomers alike.
Director: Yoh Yoshinari
Little Witch Academia: The Enchanted Parade is the crowd-funded immediate follow-up to Studio Trigger’s 2013 runaway hit. The Enchanted Parade follows the trio of apprentice witches from the previous film, Akko Kagari, Lotte Yanson and Sucy Manbavaran, following a harrowing incident during their transfiguration class. As punishment for their involvement, the girls are tasked with orchestrating their school’s annual Enchanted Parade. But when Akko’s overzealous efforts to revamp the Parade’s image inadvertently drive a wedge between her and her friends, can the trio make it out in one piece and out of trouble? Beautiful animation, sharp humor, elaborate action sequences, and a heartwarming conclusion, the only thing wrong with Little Witch Academia: The Enchanted Parade is that it’s only an hour-long and not a full-length series. At least, not yet anyway!
Director: Yoh Yoshinari
When Little Witch Academia premiered in March of 2013, it was met with widespread critical acclaim from both animation fans and general audiences alike. And for good reason—it’s one of the most memorable, charming and enjoyable shorts to come out in recent memory. The brainchild of Yoh Yoshinari, a former animation director for Gainax’s immensely popular Gurren Lagann series, and written by Masahiko Otsuka, one of the former directors of Neon Genesis Evangelion and FLCL, Little Witch Academia is a powderkeg of personality packed with skillful animation, likable characters, and an action-packed finale that’s sure to win over anyone sitting on the fence by the end of its 20-or-so-minute duration. Little Witch Academia and its accompanying sequel are hands-down the very best that Netflix has to offer in the way of anime film. The full-length series can not come soon enough.
Toussaint Egan is a culturally omnivorous writer who has written for several publications such as Kill Screen, Playboy, Mental Floss, and Paste. Give him a shout on Twitter.