While in Japan anime is used to describe all animation, in the West the term specifically refers to Japanese animation. And while a lot of people in their twenties and thirties grew up with anime through shows like Transformers and Thundercats, feature films still fail to capture those audiences like Pixar’s films do. Understandable, considering the cultural differences that are difficult to translate, but also a shame, because anime has a lot to offer the mature moviegoer. So for the uninitiated, we’ve compiled a small list to introduce this cultural phenomenon and to give a bow to the masters of the genre.
Akira is the first film that comes to mind when the term anime is mentioned and with good reason, as it was the first anime film to be embraced in the mainstream. Katsuhiro Otomo’s masterpiece takes place in Neo-Tokyo in 2019, 30 years after the original Tokyo was destroyed by an nuclear bomb (a theme that surfaces frequently in anime) and tells the story of a young biker who is captured by the military, after which they discover he has special telekinetic powers. But this story is only used as a vehicle to show the power of politics, the nature of friendship and the consequences of human hubris. A gorgeous film to look at that is far more than the sum of its parts.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Another animation film that is aimed at a mature audience is Mamoru Oshii’s philosophical masterpiece Ghost in the Shell, about cyborg police officers who have to track down an elusive hacker called the “Puppet Master”. The animation is beautiful and like the best works of art it dares to ask questions about what makes us human. Besides its qualities, the reason that this film is so great to acquaint someone with anime is the impact it had on films in the West. The story goes that the Wachowskis showed producer Joel Silver this film when they were pitching The Matrix. So understandably The Matrix is riddled with influences of Oshii’s breakthrough film in both theme and aesthetic.
To some lovers of the genre this choice may seem unorthodox considering the controversy surrounding the adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s original comic, but I had to include it, because I consider this the best feature film adaptation of the “father of manga”. Metropolis tells the story of a dystopian society where robots are oppressed and are living in the lower levels of the city. Unlike the manga it is based on, the film also uses some plot elements of Fritz Lang’s 1926 classic. But it also borrows from Tezuka’s most famous creation Astro Boy in questioning the difference between artificial and human intelligence, making it the perfect introduction to Tezuka’s oeuvre.
My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
And now for something completely different. Perhaps Hayao Miyazaki’s most accessible film, My Neighbour Totoro tells the story of a father and two daughters who move to the countryside to be closer to their sick mother and wife. There the children discover a magical spirit which they dub Totoro who shows them around the magical world of the forest. It’s hard to describe the appeal of a film with such an unorthodox plot, but the film is so warm and beaming with optimistic joy that even the most misanthropic amongst us cannot help but smile.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Released as a double bill with My Neighbour Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata, shows that animation can be used for drama as well as fantasy or science fiction. Takahata shows the heart-wrenching reality of a 14-year-old boy and his little sister who try to survive the horrors of World War II. The children flee Kobe after their mother is killed during a fire bombardment and are left to their own devices in a society on the verge of collapse from American attack. History is usually told through the eyes of the victors, so to see a film that highlights the other end of the spectrum is not only refreshing but deepens the tragic reality of war. The great, late film critic Roger Ebert included Grave of the Fireflies in his list of great movies and named it one of the best war films ever made.
Perfect Blue (1997)
Another example of animation used to create a realistic and dramatic story is Perfect Blue, directed by Satoshi Kon, about a pop singer turned actress losing grip on reality because of the pressure of her surroundings. Not a story that validates the use of animation perhaps, but Kon’s style is so poetic and visual that you never wonder why this wasn’t done in real life. The inclusion of the ballerina (also shown in the trailer) is very interesting in hindsight, considering its resemblance to the 2010 Oscar winning film Black Swan. The similarities are so striking even, that a trailer for Black Swan was made with footage from Perfect Blue:
What makes the story interesting however is that Darren Aronofsky, director of Black Swan, owns the rights to adapting Perfect Blue, but denies that the film is a remake. He says that he bought the rights to the animation film to be able to give tribute to it in his break out hit Requiem for a Dream in the bath scene. Whatever the truth may be, the controversy is a sign of the power of Kon’s original. If you liked Black Swan, check it out and judge for yourself.