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10 Japanese Animated Masterpieces You’ve Probably Never Seen

Now, anime is a regular part of the daily pop culture diet, with live-action remakes, sequels, and spinoffs always available on a variety of streaming services. There's some really great anime that falls under the radar just because of sheer volume. Others were from a bygone era and never really got their chance to shine in theaters outside of Japan.

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There are a few Studio Ghibli selections on the list, but these titles and directors might be new to you. Others were obscure in their time but experienced a resurgence much later when home video and pay-per-view made foreign movies more accessible for North American audiences. Some of these films are vintage while others are brand new, and the list includes movies that use both hand-drawn animation and sophisticated CGI. Here are Japanese animated masterpieces you've probably never seen.

10 Blade Runner Black Out 2022 (2017)

A short film that's part of a series of three, this is the only one that is animated. They fill out some of the gaps in the lore of the Bladerunner universe, giving the audience some dramatic background into the passage of time between the end of the original 1980s cult classic and the beginning of the modern sequel, Bladerunner 2049. The animation is stunning, a perfect mix of a variety of styles that includes CGI and hand-drawn sequences, and even if we don't know the larger story we can still understand the events of this short clip.

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The director of Bladerunner 2049, Denis Villeneuve, is an admirer of Shinichiro Watanabe's work and personally asked him to handle this short link in the chain of events that leads to the modern full-length movie. It'll take less than an hour to watch all three short films, so it's definitely worth your time.

9 Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Nausicaa was way ahead of her time. You can see similar characters in apocalyptic and dystopian franchises like Mad Max or Terminator, and the world she lives in is surprisingly dark compared to other Studio Ghibli movies. Although this movie pre-dates the official formation of the studio and was released in collaboration with Toei, Hayao Miyazaki wrote and directed both the movie and the anime on which it is based and it is considered a Ghibli film. This is part of the reason it didn't see a lot of publicity outside of Japan.

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This epic story makes some heavy environmental statements and contains a chilling warning against fascism and militant states, another tough marketing angle. It's also just short of two hours long, an epic saga especially by 1984 standards.

8 The Last Unicorn (1982)

You might have heard of this cult classic that stars famous voices like Christopher Lee and Angela Lansbury, but did you know it was anime? The script and characters were developed by Peter S. Beagle, the author of the original novel. It was animators at the Japanese studio Topcraft, many of which would go on to make up the staff of Studio Ghibli, which brought us the stunning visual story.

In the meantime, they did work for American companies like Rankin-Bass. Often described as "Japanese-American animation" this used to be a rare combination. Now it represents almost half of the animated selections on any cable, pay-per-view or streaming service.

7 Memories (1995)

A collection of three short films, which is one of the reasons it tends to fly under the radar, Memories was buried under a variety of other anime properties that exploded into North America in the mid-1990s. It was produced by Katsuhiro Otomo and is based on his own manga. Ghost in the Shell and the updated Macross Plus are just two examples of the big titles that brought anima into the mainstream in 1995, so there wasn't a lot of room for more abstract and artistic offerings like Memories.

All three films explore different kinds of science fiction, from space exploration to dystopian post-war societies. This one is tough to find as part of an online service but it is available on DVD, which is why it's experiencing some new-found popularity.

6 Redline (2010)

redline

It's no less than one of the most visually intense things you'll ever see, plus there's a great story to get into if you can tear your eyes away from the crazy animation. There's actually a name for this style: i's called "hyperrealism" and director Takeshi Koike is notorious for it.

It was originally intended for release in 2009, but delays pushed back the premiere and it came out a year later instead, pushing it into obscurity even as the production studio, Madhouse, recognized it as a strong feature film and marketed it as such. Most reviews will point out how unique this film looks, as the trend in anime tends to be on less movement, and this one does the opposite with the central plot revolving around a high-speed space race complete with elaborate weapons and other flashy toys.

5 The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004)

Translated directly from Japanese, the title of this movie is, "Beyond the Clouds, the Promised Place." The focus of the film is on the microcosm of a personal friendship and the macrocosm of much larger political issues. This is a society where war is a constant threat but an actual conflict has yet to materialize.

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As it does, the tension between the two main characters seems to follow, culminating in an adventure that has been waiting for them since they were children. The plot mixes realistic drama with science fiction and fantasy and is visually stunning. Created almost entirely by Makoto Shinkai, this was his first feature film, but he made some beautiful short films and we've also put another one of his creations our list.

4 Porco Rosso (1992)

Porco Rosso, Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki

It's a funny and heartwarming story that takes place in war-torn Europe and features a main character who may or may not be an actual pig. The magical-realism that Studio Ghibli uses to depict a hedonistic Mediterranean seashore that manages to keep partying even as the Nazis are breathing down their necks is an inspiring one, and the character that gives the film its name embodies this spirit.

Porco Rosso, Italian for "Red Pig" and the only real clue we ever get to the actual setting of the story, is a hotshot pilot who enjoys lounging on the beach and shooting down enemy planes. However, it might have been too soon to introduce the abstract style to international audiences, which is why this movie is overshadowed by other Ghibli Movies from the 1990s like Princess Mononoke and Whisper of the Heart.

3 Voices of a Distant Star (2002)

This short film was made by Makoto Shinkai, the same artistic talent behind The Place Promised in Our Early Days. The important difference here is that Shinkai made this movie entirely on his own over the weekend using a Mac, so it has a good excuse for only being 25 minutes long. This actually makes it the second-shortest film on this list, with Blade Runner Black Out 2022 clocking in at only 15 minutes.

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It includes everything you love about anime, including mecha pilots, science fiction, exhilarating visuals and believable, compelling drama. You won't notice that it was made by one guy from start to finish.

2 Macross: Do You Remember Love (1994)

If you've seen the visual and audio spectacle that was Macross Plus then you already have a general idea of what this movie is about. The 1994 four-part series was an OVA that continued but also retold the story of Macross: Do You Remember Love. The OVA was more popular, released to North American audiences by Manga Entertainment along with other big titles like Ninja Scroll and Ghost in the Shell. 

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The 1984 movie is a film adaptation of the original series and is popular with fans of the Macross franchise, but few other fans of anime have seen it. Even if you're not into the big giant robot genre, this is the movie that started a tradition of great music, romantic storylines and amazing visuals that the modern series and spinoffs have continued.

1 Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

tokyo godfathers poster

A fairly new entry, this title is obscure for a few reasons. Unlike most of the other entries on this list, there aren't a lot of bright colors or beautiful heroes in Tokyo Godfathers. It's an unapologetic tale about the rougher side of life in affluent Japan, and the lack of any aliens, spaceships, or robots is why this film is not more well known. This is a mix of Japanese animation and American literary genius, similar to classics like The Last Unicorn.

The film is directed by Satoshi Kon and the script is loosely based on Peter B. Kyne's novel Three Godfathers. The movie is funny, tragic and somehow totally believable despite the crazy adventures the three godfathers have while tending to the mysterious Kiyoko, a baby they found while rooting through the trash on Christmas Eve. The ending is a stark reminder that everything you do comes back to you.

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