Japanese animation has a storied, yet surprisingly unheard history. For instance, you’ve probably watched Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the first major animated feature film, numerous times. It is less likely, however, that you’ve even heard of Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors, released seven years later in 1944.
Momotaro’s was Japan’s first animated feature, a tale about a monkey, bear, puppy, and pheasant who leave their families to fight in a war. You can watch the entire 70-minute classic with English subtitles here on YouTube. Propaganda at its finest, the undeniably cute (though equally dark) tale encouraged young Japanese citizens to enlist and fight in World War II. On a more pleasant note, the film also inspired a generation of Japanese animators, including Osamu Tezuka.
If Walt Disney is the godfather of animation in the U.S. (and he is), Tezuka is his counterpart in Japan. Before moving to the big screen, he created Astro Boy, contributing over 150,000 pages of work to Japanese comics, or manga. In 1960, Tezuka transitioned to film with The Journey to the West, which he followed with over 60 different films and shows. His work was incredibly influential on artists both in manga and Japanese animation.
Today, “anime” is more popular than ever, with television series and films reaching wider audiences and receiving high levels of acclaim. For both the Miyazaki-buffs and foreign film illiterate, the stylized and often traditionally hand-drawn animations continue to captivate people young and old.
Here are our picks for The 14 Best Japanese Animated Movies.
Honorable Mentions: Belladona of Sadness, My Neighbor Totoro, Tales from Earthsea, A Letter to Momo, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Ponyo, known as Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea in Japan, is an animated film released by Studio Ghibli in 2008. The film marked anime legend Hayao Miyazaki’s 10th feature film, and his 8th with Studio Ghibli. If you are unfamiliar with either, note that they will appear frequently on this list; for those familiar, it comes as no surprise. In Ponyo, the plot centers on the eponymous goldfish who, after falling in love with a human boy named Sōsuke, desires to be a human girl. It’s not among Miyazaki’s or Ghibli’s greatest works (see below) but it has all the charm fans have come to expect after a track record as solid as golden age Pixar. Similarly to their own Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro, the film takes place in a world similar to our own, that borders on one far more fantastical. In this instance, Liam Neeson voices Ponyo’s father, an sea sorcerer, who provides the magic that allows Ponyo to have a Little Mermaid-like adventure with her five-year-old pal.
Ghibli films have long-been dubbed in English by the folks at Disney Animation, thanks in part to close friends of Miyazaki, Pete Docter and John Lasseter. For years Disney has gotten A-list talent to provide the voices in Ghibli films and Ponyo is no exception. Neeson was joined by Matt Damon, Betty White, Cloris Leachman, Tina Fey, and Cate Blanchett among others.
Ponyo is a delight from start to finish, but it a technical marvel as well. Animators drew 170,000 separate images, breaking the record for a Studio Ghibli film. The majority of the waves in the ocean were drawn by Miyazaki himself, because as the director, he knew exactly what he wanted. Ponyo is a great anime to share with younger film buffs and cartoon fans alike.
13. 5 Centimeters per Second
Far more adult than the previous entry, 5 Centimeters per Second is a love story in three parts. The three segments: “Cherry Blossom,” “Cosmonaut,” and “5 Centimeters per Second” reach about an hour of run-time total. Set in Japan, the story begins in the 1990s and ends in the present day, tracking the life of a young man named Takaki Tōno.
The film is directed by an up-and-comer in the anime world, Makoto Shinkai. Shinkai was notably inspired to get into animation by the Miyazaki film Castle in the Sky (below). Unlike typical Ghibli films and Shinkai’s previous work, 5 Centimeters per Second does not feature fantasy or sci-fi elements. Instead, it chooses to tell a fairly straightforward tale about coming-of-age in modern Japan and loves lost and found along the way. The film was released in 2007, and a manga follow-up was released later the same year.
12. Howl’s Moving Castle
In 2004, Studio Ghibli found themselves with the rights and script for Howl’s Moving Castle but no one to direct it. So Hayao Miyazaki returned from retirement.
Based off the novel by British author Diane Wynne Jones, Howl’s tells the story of a young girl transformed into a 90 year-old woman. After Miyazaki took the director’s chair, he made many changes to the story, but his adaptation is perhaps even more beloved than the original story. After the curse is placed on her, the “old woman” enlists the help of a crazy wizard and his castle-on-legs to turn her back into a girl.
The English dub was written by Pete Docter and featured the voice talents Christian Bale as Howl and Billy Crystal as a fire demon called Calcifer. Howl’s Moving Castle blurs the lines between children’s film and a darker fantasy tale: there’s death, war, and very high stakes.
11. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie
Based off the popular 1998 anime series, Cowboy Bebop: Knocking on Heaven’s Door was neither a prequel nor direct follow-up to the show. Instead, due to the ambiguous ending, the show took place in between episodes (“sessions”) 22 and 23. The film was made due to high-demand from the fan-base that the characters’ stories continue, as it was released in 2001.
Much of the cast and crew that worked on the show returned for the film, including director Hajime Yatate and the English and Japanese voice casts. For those unfamiliar, Cowboy Bebop follows the adventures of space bounty hunters on the ship Bebop, as they seek fortune for their future and are haunted by their past. The show is known for its phenomenal jazz soundtrack composed by Yoko Kanno and her band, the Seatbelts.
Knocking on Heaven’s Door involves terrorist plans to destroy the population of Mars with an unknown pathogen, and is an entirely stand-alone story from the show. However, an appreciation (or devotion) to the series will only boost your enjoyment. Stylistic and action-packed Cowboy Bebop is a must-see for the mature animation buff.
10. Princess Kaguya
Princess Kaguya is the only Ghibli film to make this list not directed by Miyazaki, but instead by Isao Takahata. Takahata is no stranger to directing, having lent his talents to Grave of the Fireflies in 1988, an earlier Ghibli effort. Kaguya is based on the Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter and tells of bamboo cutter who discovers a girl in a shoot of bamboo. The girl grows rapidly and the man and his wife decide to raise her as their own.
The film tells and beautiful and pleasant story and is accompanied by stunning visuals. Almost the entirety of Kaguya is hand drawn in water color paintings, and the effect is mesmerizing. Thanks in part to the talents of James Caan (the Bamboo Cutter) and Chloe Grace Moretz (Princess), the film manages to overcome a simple premise and cement itself among some of Studio Ghibli’s best.
9. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Based off the 1967 novel of the same name, this 2006 film follows a girl who learns she has the power to travel through time. The movie differs from the novel in several ways, namely the main character: in the book the protagonist is Kazuko, but the film follows her niece Makoto. After the teenage Makoto discovers her powers, she starts to use her time-leaping abilities for frivolous purposes.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was directed by Mamoru Hosoda, the original director of the Miyazaki film Howl’s Moving Castle (above). Hosoda was taken off the project earlier in development after failing to come up with a pitch that satisfied Studio Ghibli. We are pleased to say that his directorial effort is equally enjoyable. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a satisfyingly simple romp, like a better, Japanese animated version of Adam Sandler’s Click.
8. Castle in the Sky
We’ve mentioned Studio Ghibli numerous times, but haven’t said much about their origins. The company was founded after the success of the Miyazaki-directed Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind in 1984. The first film produced under the Ghibli banner was Laputa: Castle in the Sky and was again directed by co-founder Miyazaki.
The tale is inspired in large by Gulliver’s Travels; it gets the name Laputa from the novel. However, due to the negative meaning of a similar word(s) in Spanish, the title became Castle in the Sky in US and European markets. Castle in the Sky follows two kids, Princess Sheeta (Anna Paquin), and an aviation-obsessed boy named Pazu as they try to reach the last floating city in the sky. They are pursued by sky pirates who seek the treasure of the long-abandoned fortress.
There’s an adorable Iron Giant-style robot, a wonderful score and, if you aren’t convinced yet of what a gem of a movie this is, know that Mark Hamill voices the villain. Special shout-out to Joe Hisaishi, who composed the enchanting score for this film, along with almost every other Studio Ghibli picture.
Paprika may sound familiar to those that watched a Christopher Nolan movie in 2010. Released four years earlier in 2006, the movie is not an Inception rip-off, but rather based on the novel of the same name by Yasutaka Tsutsui. The novel was released even earlier, in 1993. So unless Tsutsui “incepted” into Nolan’s dreams, the English director must have drawn at least some inspiration for his blockbuster meme-ruining epic from the Japanese animated film.
Paprika is about the creation of a device that allows therapists to enter their patients dreams. The device, called the DC Mini, is stolen leading psychiatrist Dr. Atsubo Chiba and her dream alter-ego Paprika on a wild chase for the thief. Yes, it isn’t “exactly” Inception, but the underlying premise is certainly similar.
6. The Wind Rises
In 2013, Miyazaki announced that he was retiring once more, and this time, for good (apparently). His swan song came out that same year, a meditative journey called The Wind Rises. In stark contrast to his previous films, it is a biopic of Jiro Horikoshi (1903-1982) the designer of the aircraft used by Japan in WWII. Never one to simply adapt a story, Miyasaki combined elements of the 1937 novel The Wind Has Risen by Hori Tatsuo and stories from Horikoshi’s life. Miyazaki avoided fantasy entirely in his final film, a fact which upset many of his devotees.
However, The Wind Rises is actually one of his greatest films, featuring a maturity unmatched by anything previous. Though the love story leaves something be desired, the themes of grief and guilt are handled expertly; Miyazaki is unafraid to discuss the darker side of aviation. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt leads a stellar cast that truly bring the script to life, adding color to its pages almost as vibrant as the movie itself.
A controversial choice (at least this high up on the list) The Wind Rises divided fans as Miyazaki’s last-but-hopefully-not-last film. Stripped of magical elements, it is Miyazaki at his most vulnerable, and certainly worth a watch or re-watch. We are just happy that we got The Wind Rises and not the planned Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea 2, Miyazaki’s original bow-out.
5. Porco Rosso
Miyazaki’s second film Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, was based off of his manga. Because while Miyazaki eventually settled in the feature industry, his first love was drawing comics. He returned to adapting his own work in 1992, with Porco Rosso. Based on his Hikōtei Jidai, a three-part watercolor manga, the plot revolves around an Italian WWI ex-fighter ace, now living as a freelance bounty hunter. But this is Ghibli film, so he is not a normal pilot; an unusual curse has transformed him into a pig.
The bounty hunter is called Porco Rosso, Italian for “Red Pig.” He soars the skies, defeating pirates and seeking redemption. Like The Wind Rises, the film is for the most part realistic – aside from the whole pig-curse – and largely involves Miyazaki’s own obsession with aviation. Porco Rosso does many things that his final feature does, only to slightly better effect. Featuring a character with cloudy (pun-intended) morals, played expertly by Michael Keaton, and an adult narrative, it stands out as one of Miyazaki’s finest efforts.
4. Ghost in the Shell
Japanese animation is known for its fantasy creatures, specifically those of Ghibli fame. However, the medium has also given us several superb science-fiction films, including those mentioned previously on this list, and Ghost in the Shell. Hugely inspirational to the Wachowski’s The Matrix (specifically the digital rain sequence), Ghost in the Shell is a seminal cyberpunk film. There’s a reason we are getting a white-washed live-action American remake.
The original 1995 film is based off the manga by Masamune Shirow and follows a female cyborg, Motoko, searching for meaning in her existence. On her journey of self-discovery, Motoko seeks out the villainous hacker, the Puppet Master. The film uses digital generated animation (DGA), which combines cel animation – including original drawings – and computer graphics. Unique lighting techniques and thermo-optical camouflage were also incorporated to create a distorted, dark, and psychedelic appearance to the picture. Along with its arresting visuals, Ghost in the Shell has a hypnotizing soundtrack from master composer Kenji Kawai (Ring, Ip Man). Kawai even used the ancient Japanese language Yamato in the scoring of a climatic song in the film.
Ghost in the Shell is a must-see for science-fiction fans, often ranked alongside Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Though it was released in ’95, a remastered version with improved CGI is available. Check it out before Scarlett Johansson brings it back to the States.
3. Princess Mononoke
As noted earlier, Miyazaki’s second film was Nausicaa, based off his manga. The plot concerned a young girl torn between two worlds: the industrial and the environment. These were themes that Miyazaki would visit years later with 1997’s Princess Mononoke.
The plot does not concern a girl named Princess Mononoke; in fact, mononoke means monster or spirit. Instead, the movie is set in the late Muromachi period (approximately 1336 to 1573) of Japan and follows a young Emishi warrior, Ashitaka. For those unfamiliar with feudal Japanese history, the Muromachi period was a tumultuous time, where warring tribes fought over resources that grew exponentially in value. The Emishi were a more primitive people, that chose to rely on nature’s offerings over technology.
Back to the story: Ashitaka is pitted between the forest gods and the humans who deplete the forest’s resources. Luckily he is aided by his friend San, a young woman raised by wolves (the Princess Mononoke). Miyazaki wonderfully balances spiritual elements with heavy themes (deforestation) in a young adult story for the ages. His use of a frontier-inspired town and the beautiful hand-drawn forests, along with incorporating computer graphics for the first time, make Princess Mononoke one of the best-looking Ghibli films.
The American voice cast includes Claire Danes and Billy Bob Thornton, working on a script from Neil Gaiman. Mononoke became the first animated film to win Japan’s version of an Academy Award for Best Picture and was the highest grossing movie of all time in Japan (until Titanic, released that same year). One of the most lauded works of Miyazaki, it was a even adapted into a stage production in 2013 in the UK.
The year is 2019. A psychic explosion has ravaged the dystopian Neo-Tokyo. This is the story of Akira.
Katsuhiro Otomo wrote the manga, co-wrote the screenplay, and directed the adaptation of his most famous work. Akira is about a teenage biker, Tetsuo and his mission to release the imprisoned psychic Akira. Along the way, he encounters the rest of his gang The Capsules, a crazed terrorist, and practically the entire Tokyo police force.
For a Japanese animated film, Akira had a huge budget, used to increase the detail of facial expressions and movement along with the lighting and shadows of the city of Neo-Tokyo. Along with Ghost in the Shell, Akira is one of the most buzzed-about sci-fi films of all time, most recently inspiring Rian Johnson’s Looper. The gritty visuals of the futuristic metropolis, realistic character designs and intense action-packed story make Akira one helluva ride.
1. Spirited Away
Taking our #1 spot is the only Japanese animated film to win the Best Animated Feature Oscar, Studio Ghibli’s and Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. The coming-of-age tale tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl who enters the spirit world after taking a stop on the way to her new home. She starts to work for the witch Yubaba, in the hope of freeing herself and her parents and returning to the human world.
The conception of the story for Spirited Away began when Miyazaki started to visit his friend Seiji Okuda and his ten-year-old daughter. Realizing there were no great stories with heroes for the young girl, he began to develop the bones of the film. During production, Miyazaki realized the film as it stood in his script, would be over three hours long, and had to cut out large chunks of the plot and numerous characters and creatures.
Though Ghibli’s previous film, Princess Mononoke, held the title of highest-grossing held the title for only a short while, Spirited Away absolutely reinvigorated the Japanese box-office, trumping the sales of even James Cameron’s Titanic. Featuring Miyasaki’s most enduring story, jaw-dropping hand-drawn animation, and beautifully realized characters, Spirited Away deserves top honors on our list.
Can you think of any other Japanese animated movies that should be on this list? Let us know in the comments!