The imagination exhibited through Japanese animation often dwarfs other styles of film-making, with visionaries such as Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Satoshi Kon and Makoto Shinkai having crafted vibrant, deep worlds and narratives that couldn’t exist using any other method.
The best of these films are brought to life with intelligence, perseverance and a strong connection with storytelling, and offer stunning visuals to match their ambition. Below are 10 that represent the best the genre have to offer.
Plot summaries from IMDB. Words by Jordan
10. 5 Centimetres Per Second (2007)
Written and Directed by Makoto Shinkai. CoMix Wave Films
Told in three interconnected segments, we follow a young man named Takaki through his life as cruel winters, cold technology, and finally, adult obligations and responsibility converge to test the delicate petals of love.
Attempting to hold onto a temporal moment in time can stir irrepressible feelings in an almost unequalled way, as explored through the eyes of Takaki while the past and present he’s known make way for an uncertain future. Backed by delightful artistry, 5 Centimetres Per Second is a careful, articulated statement on the pangs of letting go.
9. Paprika (2006)
Directed by Satoshi Kon. Based on a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui. Madhouse/Sony Pictures Entertainment
When a machine that allows therapists to enter their patients’ dreams is stolen, all Hell breaks loose. Only a young female therapist, Paprika, can stop it.
It’s an impressive feat that Paprika can retain its feverish energy while getting less and less decipherable as it progresses, ultimately being savoured for its bold, dreamlike approach to a complex idea and captivating central character. Satoshi Kon was a director unconcerned with taking risks, and his creative approach in tackling such layered material produced a film quite unlike any other.
8. When Marnie Was There (2014)
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Based on a novel by Joan G. Robinson. Studio Ghibli
Upon being sent to live with relatives in the countryside, an emotionally distant adolescent girl becomes obsessed with an abandoned mansion and infatuated with a girl who lives there – a girl who may or may not be real.
Hiromasa Yonebayashi is proving himself the heir apparent to Miyazaki, with When Marnie Was There being the last Studio Ghibli film to date and his upcoming Mary and the Witch’s Flower the first from Studio Ponoc. Based on the novel by Joan G. Robinson, When Marnie Was There is rich in artistry and powerfully captures the strong feelings of emotionally isolated youth, as well as the essence of family and how the past shapes us. Its a delight.
7. Wolf Children (2012)
Written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda. Studio Chizu
College student Hana falls in love with another student who turns out to be a werewolf, who dies in an accident after their second child. Hana moves to the rural countryside where her husband grew up to raise her two werewolf children.
Wolf Children is a heartfelt, earnest depiction of the joys and struggles of single-parenthood, heightened by an astonishing music score by Masakatsu Takagi and delicate direction by Mamoru Hosoda (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars). Seeing Hana’s children grow and learn while she devotes herself to allowing them the happiness she and their father promised them is nothing short of wonderful, with the paths they take true to the different natures we’re born with.
6. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Directed by Mamoru Oshii. Based on the comic by Masamune Shirow. Bandai Visual Company
A cyborg policewoman and her partner hunt a mysterious and powerful hacker called the Puppet Master.
Ghost in the Shell provides a thought-provoking insight into a mass-information future, where the complicated, nuanced nature of crime has brought about Section 9: cyborgs with the ability to access any of Earth’s networks to prevent it. Sharing similarities with both Blade Runner and to an extent The Matrix, Mamoru Oshii’s science fiction classic is the pinnacle of animated technological thrillers.
5. Your Name (2016)
Written and Directed by Makoto Shinkai. CoMix Wave Films
Two high school kids who’ve never met – city boy Taki and country girl Mitsuha – are united through their dreams.
few films survey the landscape of love and fate like Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, which presents a narrative that assimilates the idea of interwoven threads of time while also introducing two likable characters whose interactions range from light-hearted to deeply moving. Funny, surprising and totally captivating, this is one of the best films of recent years.
4. Perfect Blue (1997)
Directed by Satoshi Kon. Based on the novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. Madhouse
A retired pop-singer-turned-actress’ sense of reality is shaken when she is stalked by an obsessed fan and seemingly a ghost of her past.
Centering on the idea of an identity crisis taken to the extreme, Perfect Blue is a psychological thriller that harnesses a timely distrust of information technology and shatters any preconceptions of animation being unable to convey serious themes. Though the struggle of aspiring actress Mima, Satoshi Kon presents how truth and fiction can become horribly blurred in a world of unchecked moral ambiguity and paranoia.
3. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Directed by Isao Takahata. Based on the novel by Akiyuki Nosaka. Studio Ghibli
A young boy and his little sister struggle to survive in Japan during World War II.
Grave of the Fireflies is perhaps the finest film you’re likely to only see once, instilled with moments of personal tragedy amidst a bleak landscape of war. Isao Takahata directs with a soft touch however, capturing the moments of hope and optimism and lingering on them for longer than those of loss; aware that Seita and Setsuko represent an innocence and determination that cannot be extinguished. Harrowing viewing.
2. Spirited Away (2001)
Written and Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Studio Ghibli
During her family’s move to the suburbs, a sullen 10-year-old girl wanders into a world ruled by gods, witches, and spirits, and where humans are changed into beasts.
Like My Neighbor Totoro and other Ghibli films, Spirited Away begins with a families change of environment and the fantastical imagination harnessed by the child to cope. The imagination on display though, through characters and locations vividly imbued with Japanese culture and wholly striking (as well as undoubtedly frightening at times) is at a level here above anything else.
1. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Written and Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Nibariki Production Company
Warrior/pacifist Princess Nausicaä desperately struggles to prevent two warring nations from destroying themselves and their dying planet.
The success of Hayao Miyazaki‘s second feature film lead to the creation of Studio Ghibli, with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind itself not technically part of the studio’s output, though it embodies all the great hallmarks that have earned it tremendous respect. The Princess Nausicaä is one of the most courageous and spirited of all animations, being closely tied to nature and the peace for which it aspires to achieve while also yearning to protect her valley. She is cherished by her people, and adored by Miyazaki’s fan base as the finest aspect of a film overflowing with passion and ideas.
Picking a top 10 was no easy feat, so here in no particular order are others that deserve to be mentioned alongside the very best: