This list serves as a continuation of my previous post’s topic. Check that out here.
For those who maybe aren’t quite ready to take on a television series, a film would probably be more suitable for an introduction into anime.
Note: As far as dub or sub is concerned, I have included my preferences at the bottom of this post.
Porco Rosso (1992)
To fail to mention the works of Studio Ghibli in a list like this would mean not having a list at all. Ghibli’s filmography contains not only some of the best anime films ever created, but some of the best films ever created. From the haunting rendition of displaced, starving Japanese children in the WWII drama Grave of the Fireflies, to the fantastical charm of Spirited Away, the studio’s body of work is as varied as it is remarkable. Having seen all 20 of their feature films, the one that stole my heart is actually one of their lesser known entries.
Porco Rosso refers to the film’s primary character, Porco, an anthropomorphic pig making a living as a bounty hunter in the Adriatic Sea. Porco, originally a human, was somehow cursed into his porcine predicament. While it is speculated that his time as a fighter pilot in WWI had something to do with it, the curse itself is not important, and I think that’s something a number of people get hung up on when viewing the film. Porco Rosso is a story about how a lost soul, broken by his experiences in war, learns to become human again. His salvation comes in the form of a spunky 17-year old girl named Fio. The two meet when Porco visits Fio’s grandfather to have his plane repaired. Fio ends up working on his plane and a friendship blossoms between them. Their rapport is Porco Rosso’s greatest strength.
Out of the 1500+ films I’ve seen, there are very few that I can say make me genuinely happier after a viewing. Porco Rosso is one of those films. Throughout our lives, we all have moments like Porco. We’re broken, beaten and need someone to lift us up. Fio’s unadulterated belief in Porco’s goodness results in one of cinema’s most life-affirming tales. I love this film with all my heart, and I hope you do too.
Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999)
Now then, away with all that talk of hope and happiness. Let’s look at something grim and depressing!
Jin-Roh takes place in a 1950’s, alternate history Japan. The country has adopted a totalitarian system of government, and civil unrest is at an all-time high. A group called “the Sect” attempts to create change through violent methods such as bombings, riots, etc. When Fuse, a member of the Capital Police’s Special Unit, has a traumatic experience involving the death of a Sect member, he finds himself caught in a web of backroom politics, betrayal and life-threatening situations.
It’s all too rare to see an anime tackle such an uncompromisingly dire tale with this level of maturity. Jin-Roh can sometimes move at a rather slow pace, a quality which I appreciated as it lent a real sense of urgency and weight to the film’s infrequent, albeit graphic moments of violence. Technical aspects like score, sound design and cinematography really shine. The sound design is especially praiseworthy. At the time of this film’s release, anime wasn’t generally known for creating powerful, effective audio tracks. Jin-Roh was one of the exceptions. It features a thunderous 5.1 mix. Gunfire and explosions feel authentic and Hajime Mizoguchi’s beautiful score is given ample room to breathe.
The only place where Jin-Roh may falter is in its use of Little Red Riding Hood as a motif. I can’t decide if it was implemented well or if its use came at the sacrifice of valuable opportunities for character development. Nevertheless, this is an underrated gem that is absolutely worth your time.
Perfect Blue (1997)
A strong horror film in the realm of animation is an incredibly rare sight. In fact, I can’t think of any genuinely disturbing entries save for one: Perfect Blue. Satoshi Kon, the director of this feature, unfortunately passed away in 2010 due to pancreatic cancer. At the time of his death, he had only directed four films and one television series. But with those five pieces of anime, he reached heights that most directors never come close to reaching. Perfect Blue, Kon’s directorial debut, arguably left the biggest impression on critics and filmgoers.
The film follows Mima, a teenage singer looking to shed the pop idol image and become an actress. After having to perform in a highly unsettling scene for a murder mystery show called Double Bind, Mima’s sanity begins to unravel. Meanwhile, one of Mima’s most ardent fans, frustrated with her career change, starts to monitor her every move.
Perfect Blue is one of the most suitable films for watercooler discussion ever created. It’s a fascinating, psyschosexual thriller tailor-made for debate and analysis. Kon stuffed his debut with such a high degree of visual detail that I actually took notes on my second viewing. You can learn so much about Mima just by examining her room. When a location feels like a natural reflection of a character’s personality, you know the director has a grasp on the material.
Perfect Blue also features one of the best uses of color in a film, animated or otherwise. AnimeEveryday, a YouTube channel, has already analyzed it far better than I could ever do it justice. I’ll include a link of the video at the end of this mini-review. It’s not often that you see color play a role in aiding the viewer with discerning a character’s nature, and Perfect Blue uses the idea to great effect.
The animation quality is certainly indicative of the film’s age and budget, but it works perfectly with the subject matter on display. Pop songs performed by Mima’s group are catchy while the rest of the score is extremely unnerving. The English version also dubbed the pop songs into English and the results are surprisingly good.
On a final note, this film was originally going to be live-action but became an animated project due to budgetary concerns. I am so thankful that ended up being the case. Perfect Blue is an anime treasure worthy of its acclaim, making a strong case for animation’s potential in the horror/thriller genres.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
When it comes to this film and the franchise as a whole, let me be clear. Ghost in the Shell can be esoteric at times, and I make no attempt at hiding my lack of understanding in regards to some of the series’ philosophical underpinnings. But here’s the thing; I want to understand. Every once in a while, I’ll come across a piece of entertainment that is abstruse to the point of being alienating. This is not the case with Ghost in the Shell. While I have yet to sit down and do extensive research on the series, I leave each entry wanting to learn more. My hope is that, by saying this, you’ll see that this is not a franchise meant to leave you completely baffled. You’ll more than likely get the gist of it and then consult other resources to broaden your understanding.
Originally starting as a manga, Ghost in the Shell received its first adaptation via the 1995 film. I’d say that this film, along with Ninja Scroll and the next title on this list, really helped catapult anime into the public eye of Western audiences (as far as anime that isn’t Ghibli-related). In fact, Ghost in the Shell had a notable influence on the renowned Matrix trilogy. In short, the film was an ambitious undertaking and critics and audiences recognized that.
The primary character of this film, and the majority of the series, is Motoko Kusanagi, an agent working for public-security agency Section 9. In this entry, Motoko and her fellow agents are in pursuit of an enigmatic hacker known only as the Puppet Master. Set in 2029, Motoko belongs to a dystopian society. Technology has become a pervasive force and the majority of citizens, like Motoko, use cybernetic bodies to access the network that connects all of society. Throughout the film, Motoko questions her identity and place in the world.
Ghost in the Shell is like Jin-Roh in that it features action scenes that, while limited in number, are superbly crafted. The film’s two action scenes demonstrate a keen understanding of the importance of worldbuilding. Not only do they feature gorgeous cinematography and a strong use of score, but they also give us a better grasp on the history of this city. I don’t wish to spoil anything but you’ll see what I mean upon viewing the film.
They’re also fairly restrained, and that goes for the entirety of the film as well. Ghost in the Shell tends to shy away from the theatricality associated with anime, letting viewers form their own interpretations. It’s an admirable quality considering most studios probably wouldn’t have taken that route.
If you’re looking for a film that engages the mind, consider watching Ghost in the Shell. It’s arguable that it can be a tad pretentious and it’s certainly guilty of technobabble at times, but the positives far outweigh the minor negatives. This was a milestone for anime and it’s definitely worth your time.
For almost 30 years now, Akira has enjoyed an enduring state of reverence, having even earned a spot on Empire’s “The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time” list. And after having viewed the film for the first time back in the summer, I can definitely see why.
Akira bears some similarities to Ghost in the Shell in terms of setting and style. The film takes place in a dystopian version of Tokyo in 2019, 31 years after old Tokyo was destroyed by a psychic singularity, initiating WWIII. A young biker named Shotaro Kaneda must stop his fellow biker gang member Tetsuo Shima, a boy with psychic abilities, from destroying Neo Tokyo.
It’s important to note that the films on this list were all drawn by hand. This traditional style of animation is both physically and mentally taxing on the animators, requiring a great amount of dedication and attention to detail. I suspect that’s at least one reason why the runtime of a hand-drawn animated film is generally 90 minutes or less. But not this film. Akira is over two hours long and contains more than 160,000 animation cells. Even if you dislike the film, it’s hard not to appreciate the mammoth amount of effort that went into its creation.
The level of craftsmanship is perhaps best showcased in the film’s opening scene: a motorcycle chase through the streets of Neo Tokyo. There’s a frenetic quality to this sequence that most live-action film chase scenes fail to match. Composer Tsutomu Ōhashi’s tribal-sounding piece “Kaneda” is used to great effect here, adding to the sense of wonderment when seeing the scale of this dystopian city for the first time.
Akira is essential viewing not only for anime fans, but for fans of cinema in general. It’s a staggering achievement in hand-drawn animation and will continue to be viewed as a reference point for anime’s evolution.
Honorable Mentions: Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Memories, Children Who Chase Lost Voices
+ Anything created by Studio Ghibli
Dub or Sub:
Porco Rosso: Dub
Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade: Sub
Perfect Blue: Sub
Ghost in the Shell: Sub
Where to Find: Akira and Ghost in the Shell are both available to rent via Amazon and other rental services. The other three, to my knowledge, are not. However, all five films are available on DVD and Blu-ray.
This concludes my list of the ten anime titles worth watching even if you’re not into anime. If you watch one of these titles based on this list, feel free to let me know your thoughts. And check back regularly for more film, television, and game-related content.