Michael has a passion for animation and has extensive knowledge and experience with Japanese anime.
I grew up with conventional American cartoons. The first time I was exposed to Japanese anime, it was like falling in love with animation all over again. I became obsessed with getting my hands on more of it. This was two decades ago, back when it was a challenge to get a hold of the stuff.
Today, it's easier than ever to track down the best anime out there. Here are the top 10 films from the medium of Japanese animation.
Best Japanese Anime Movies
- Ninja Scroll
- Princess Mononoke
- Spirited Away
- Grave of the Fireflies
- Vampire Hunter D
- Perfect Blue
- Ghost in the Shell
- Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade
- Cowboy Bebop: The Movie
In my own humble opinion, Akira is one of the most creative masterpieces in storytelling that has ever been seen in animation. Released in 1988, it was created and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, an accomplished manga artist and renowned anime producer in Japan.
The animation is what you'd expect from the late '80s. But make no mistake, Akira is one of those movies that every hardcore anime fan has on their list of recommended viewing. It has plenty of rewatch value; I've just about watched it over 20 times.
The story is engrossing and the characters are relatable and woven together seamlessly throughout the film. Be warned, this movie is definitely not for children or the squeamish. But if you're an anime fan, you owe it to yourself to check out Akira.
2. Ninja Scroll
Ninja Scroll is certainly one of the most visually gratifying and entertaining films I've ever seen. The story is about a mysterious warrior named Jubei who masterfully slashes his way through feudal Japan. There's a bit of a love story if you're into that.
The dynamic characters were created by Yutaka Minowa. The film was created and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, one of the superstars of Japanese animation.
From a visual standpoint, the scenes are very creative. Special mention has to go to the action sequences; you'll be rewinding them to see them again. I hate to say it, but this movie is definitely not for young children. I'd say it falls somewhere between a PG-13 and R rating.
3. Princess Mononoke
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, one of the greats in the anime industry, Princess Mononoke was the highest-grossing movie in Japan before it was dethroned by Titanic. It was released in 1997 and utilized some computer animation to enhance the traditional cel art.
The film opened in many countries and was highly praised by both fans and critics. The story follows Ashitake, the prince of Emishi village. After saving his entire village from a demon, he sets out on a quest which leads him to a conflict between the forest and a town that produces iron.
The story is compelling and a unique treat for the eyes. Unlike the previous great classics, this one is relatively family-friendly.
4. Spirited Away
Yet another family-friendly addition to this list, Spirited Away is another gem of the genre.
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This award-winning film was directed by Hayao Miyazaki. You know he's good when he appears on the list twice.
This tale is about a young girl named Chihiro who gets thrown into another world. She is on a quest to find her parents before it's too late. The film came out in 2001 and is a revered classic. It is the only anime film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
5. Grave of the Fireflies
Released in 1988, Grave of the Fireflies tells the story of two orphans, Setsuko and her older brother Seita, as they try to survive the ruins of post-war Japan.
The movie was written and directed by Isao Takahata. It was adapted from the semi-biographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka. The story and film are largely based on Nosaka's own experiences during the post-war period.
The tragic story shows the many struggles that arise from warfare. Grave of the Fireflies, while not visually stunning, is definitely something I can watch more than once. It has a raw reality that is gripping and easily appreciated by casual viewers.
6. Vampire Hunter D
Vampire Hunter D was a critically acclaimed hit when it was released in 1985. It's based on the novel series written by Hideyuki Kikuchi. It delves into a world of darkness and despair where humans strive to survive in a world dominated by vampires. The setting is a post-apocalyptic future, specifically the year 12,090 A.D.
This movie is definitely not for young children or the squeamish. It is quite violent with loads of decapitations and gore. I prefer these kinds of titles, but to each their own.
7. Perfect Blue
Released in 1997, Perfect Blue weaves a complex story involving a famous pop star named Mima Kirigoe, who aspires to become an actress. To her bewilderment, she discovers personal diary entries on a site called Mima's Room. She has suspicions of her mentor, Rumi. Things quickly turn grim with the addition of a killer.
The animation throughout the movie is quite beautiful, including the attention to details in the characters. It was based on a novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi.
This film is a must-watch for psychological thriller junkies. I have to mention the voice acting, which was very well done. I would say that this entry may not be suitable for young children.
8. Ghost in the Shell
Directed by Mamoru Oshii and released in 1995, Ghost in the Shell falls under the genre of science fiction and mystery. The film takes place in the future that is not much different from our world today. The setting has seen a breakthrough in technology. Governments employ cybernetically-enhanced humans for clandestine missions.
The main protagonist of the movie is Major Motoko Kusanagi. She is an enhanced human who finds herself in the midst of espionage and mistrust. Her goal is to track down a super hacker known as the Puppet Master. There's a lot of very realistic action with gun battles and vivid explosions. The visual details seen here are mind-blowing.
9. Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade
This film is an emotional roller coaster. Released in 1999 and directed by Hiroyuki Okiura, Jin-Roh was adapted from a manga series that also saw some live-action adaptations. The story revolves around a romance that is built by mutual respect but hindered by pride and stubbornness.
There's a murky darkness in the film and it's one the most morbid anime I've ever watched. But this is a masterpiece that you have to watch from start to finish.
This is one of the last great hand-drawn anime features; it took over three years to create. This title is rich in depth and is catered to the intelligent viewer. Additionally, it has one of the best soundtracks I've ever heard.
10. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie
Directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is an action title with loads of humor and drama. It's based on the acclaimed TV series, which is famous for its intense action sequences and moments of comedic relief.
The story revolves around a few rag-tag bounty hunters. Some may disagree with me, but the action always kept me on the edge. It is quite engaging. I can watch this film over and over again. It would make a strong addition to any anime library.
Thank you for making it through my top 10 list of the best Japanese anime movies. If you have any suggestions for this list, please do not hesitate to voice your opinion. I'd love to hear it.
© 2014 Michael Kismet
Michael Kismet (author) from Northern California on April 04, 2018:
Thank you for your suggestions, Fred. I’ve been planning to write another article on the most “dramatic” anime, so I’ll definitely be checking those titles out!
I personally like dramatic anime, they’re good at evoking certain cathartic emotions. Again, thank you for the suggestions and opinion.
Fred Heiser on April 04, 2018:
I think "Your Name" could be up there.
I don't know if you used a minimum run-time as a requirement. "The Garden of Words" is the most beautiful and deep anime movie I've ever seen. Alas, it is but 46 minutes!
"Summer Wars" could be up there.
My personal favorite Miyazaki is "From Up on Poppy Hill". No magic, no action, just humanity and drama.
Anime fan on September 10, 2017:
Kalafina on February 25, 2016:
Interesting picks but I think you should have kept with only one choice from Studio Ghibli. There are so many awesome films by them it´s best to just make a whole seperate list. Other than that Interesting picks although Grave in the Fireflies was so incredibly sad it made me never want to watch it again.