MIND MELD: Anime Film Favorites (+ The Top 14 Anime Films of All Time!)
This week’s topic comes from Madeline Ashby:
Read on to see the picks of this week’s illustrious panelists.
[Note: Following the responses will be a completely unscientific (but fun) list of The Top 14 Anime Films of All Time!]
I’ll peg my faves as being:
- Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Asks some interesting questions about identity that pick up where the first GITS movie left off. Honourable mention also goes to GITS and GITS: Stand Alone Compex.)
- Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki can do no wrong. It was this, or Princess Mononoke, or Howl’s Moving Castle, or …)
- Haibane Renmei (Haunting, weird exploration of self-discovery, death, and the loss of innocence via allegory)
- Akira (Just Because. Okay?)
- Serial Experiment Lain (More on identity and communication — you’re probably detecting a theme here, right?)
- Ghost in the Shell
- Serial Experiments Lain
- Princess Mononoke
- and while I’m tempted to put Spirited Away or something else at #5, for its influence on my young mind, and my love of Lupin the 3rd, I’m going to put: The Castle of Cagliostro,
It takes a bit of thought — there are so many worthy choices. I would have to say that these are my top 5 anime films of all time:
- Ghost in the Shell
- Revolutionary Girl Utena
- My Neighbor Totoro
This was so hard! I would also include Spirited Away and Akira, if I could!
- Transformers: The Movie (1986, dir. Nelson Shin) – What better way to begin such a list than a debate on the nature of anime itself? Does Transformers: The Movie “count” as anime? It certainly does if we look at the animation itself, which was created by Japanese studio Toei Animation. However, since it was not an entirely Japanese production intended for Japanese audiences, some would say that this film does not fall into the “anime” category. Regardless of how you classify it, the film has held up remarkably well during the last 20 years. The scenes at the beginning right before the near-apocalyptic Decepticon attack, and through the battle, are still some of my favorite pieces of animation. The emotional and sensorial kick to the gut the film gave to my 9-year-old self continues through to this day.
- The End of Evangelion (1997, dir. Hideaki Anno) – Two years after the Evangelion television series aired in Japan, director Anno came out with this rewrite of the final two episodes. Or is it a rewrite? Some would say that it’s an alternate take on the exact same events as in the television series. Only this time, instead of abstract animation and quiet psychological self-interrogation, the audience is presented with a vortex of violence and surreal images. Not that this really clears anything up, mind you. However, the film is such a fantastic rush of images and caused such a controversy among fans when it came out that it had to be in my top five.
- Summer Wars (2009, dir Mamoru Hosoda) – This is the newest film in my top five list, but I think time will show that it undoubtedly deserves to be here. Director Hosoda presents a convincing view of the near future with regard to the ways people interact with and rely on online communities, while at the same time portraying a contemporary Japanese extended family and how they relate to one another. As a big science fiction fan, I was surprised to find myself being drawn in more by the family dynamics than the crisis going on in the online world that drives the main plot. This isn’t to say that there in something lacking in the online scenes, but rather testifies to the strength of the film throughout.
- My Neighbor Totoro (1988, dir. Hayao Miyazaki) – I generally like Miyazaki’s films well enough, but for some reason the contrarian in me keeps me from going wholeheartedly along with all of the praise he receives. I personally think he put out a number of great animated films up through Princess Mononoke (1997), but has been in decline ever since. My Neighbor Totoro, one of his earlier films, is a synthesis of a number of wonderful elements – beautiful images of the Japanese countryside in the years following World War II, the interactions between individuals in a loving family, and a great furry mascot that would soon become so iconic he would be on the logo of Miyazaki’s animation company Studio Ghibli. Most of all, this is a wonderful, captivating movie about everyday life (albeit a rather fantastic version of it) without some contrived, climactic evil to battle in the end.
- Patlabor 2 (1993, dir Mamoru Oshii) – My temptation at first was to fill my list with all films directed by Mamoru Oshii, who is one of my favorite directors and the subject of the book I wrote. But I will restrain myself and list the one film that I think is his most well-balanced work. I certainly could have chosen Ghost in the Shell, which is probably the film for which he is the most famous. But I kept thinking of how Oshii incorporates the right amount of pathos and comedy (yes, comedy – Oshii can be a funny guy when he wants to) into this futuristic techno-thriller and I kept coming back to this second film in the Patlabor franchise. (There are also two OVA series, a TV series, and two other movies.) The dialogue-free scenes of the Japanese army occupying Tokyo has to be some of my favorite moments in all of anime.
My top 5 anime films of all time? Hmmm. While my anime collection is admittedly massive, I’m ashamed to admit that there are plenty of great movies I have yet to get around to (Howl’s Moving Castle, Totoro). On the other hand, while I might be hard-pressed to select “the top 5 best anime of all time”, choosing my five favorites is infinitely easier since I’m basing my picks on a purely subjective response to these films at the time of viewing. Sure, many will argue that there are “better” anime films out there but, so far as I’m concerned, these five left a lasting impression:
Grave of the Fireflies
The greatest anti-war movie ever made. An incredibly poignant account of the struggles faced by two young orphans following the firebombing of Tokyo in World War II. Heartbreaking and haunting.
Again, I’m sure there are those who’ll say there are better Miyazaki films but, for me, Spirited Away is the ideal example of the director’s wild inventiveness: colorful characters, bizarre scenarios, and marvelous visuals all steeped in rich Japanese tradition.
Aachi & Ssipak
The sole non-Japanese entry to this list is a South-Korean scifi spectacular that positively revels in gratuitous depictions of squash-and-stretch violence, sexuality, and bodily functions. Truly amazing.
Akira was the first anime movie I ever saw and it honestly didn’t do much for me, simply cementing my belief that Japanese animation offered little outside its cryptic post-apocalyptic offerings. And then I watched this marvelous epic and was instantly won over by its intriguing story, clever characters, and stunning visuals.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
A smart and sweet coming-of-age tale about a young girl, her ability to leap through time, and the unintended consequences and surprising revelations her newfound abilities bring.
I am by no means a big anime fan, with my preferences being for realistic art style adult science fiction. So somewhat picky in what I am likely to be interested in as far as this topic goes.
- Akira – The first anime movie I saw, and blew me away. The biker gang chase visuals on through just getting weird and weirder as it tried to pack a ton of stuff in from postnuke cyberpunk to crazy ESP. One of the very few movies I have ever paid to see more than once in a cinema.
- Vampire Hunter D – A simpler story of kill the vampires, maybe save some people in the process in the process with enough weird (and swords) to make it interesting.
- Ghost In the Shell – A cyberpunk outing, with both androids and humans involved.
- Space Adventure Cobra – Trippy, fun and tragic space pirate space opera.
- The Castle of Cagliostro – Lupin and a counterfeit caper and its aftermath that is very entertaining.
Any time you limit someone’s choices of favorite Anime films to five, you’re asking that person to commit blasphemy. I expect to get torn to shreds for leaving out Akira or some of Miyazaki’s “better” films like Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro (unless I’m overestimating the zeal of the Anime community). In any case, my top five are as follows:
- Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki)
I know it has serious flaws in its pacing and plot, but the first time I saw this movie I fell in love. The way the world develops and sucks you in is hard to find in any film, let alone an English-dubbed Anime. But, Howl’s Moving Castle does just that: the second you realize what kind of world you’re dealing with, you can’t escape; you’re drawn in until the end.
An aside: I’m sure it helps that the story is rather heartwarming too.
- The Cat Returns (Hiroyuki Morita)
I have a special place in my heart for this one. I don’t remember when I saw it the first time, but anyone who has been reading my Catnip Pete stories and has seen this film should be able to put two and two together. It’s silly, it’s cute, and it’s fun. Musa rules!
An aside: I have actually gone to an Anime convention and dressed up in those fuzzy cat ears and tails they sell in the dealer’s room. Yes, I consider myself an Otaku.
- Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii)
Cyberpunk at its finest. The Japanese are really where it’s at in terms of the cool science fiction ideas, and they have been for a long while. The problem is that so little of their written SF has been translated into English, leaving us with a lot of dubbed or subbed films, and manga (both of which are great, but there’s a huge literary tradition we’re not seeing, and it ain’t fair).
Ghost in the Shell is a classic because it’s all that is wonderful about good science fiction wrapped up in one beautiful package.
An aside: The second movie isn’t too bad either; if anything, it deepens the story and mythos established by the first movie in ways nobody ever expected.
- Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki)
This is the first Miyazaki film I ever saw and it blew me away. The imagery is amazing, the story is brilliant, and the characters are fascinating. Honestly, I can’t imagine any list of Anime movies that doesn’t contain at least one Miyazaki film. The man is a genius for a reason (even his older films, all of which are terribly flawed, are unique and wonderful). Princess Mononoke is, in my opinion, the best of them all.
An aside: Going on a Miyazaki movie binge is good for your health.
- The Place Promised In Our Early Days (Makoto Shinkai)
I’m personally a fan of complicated, not-quite-love stories. PPOED is such a story set in a an odd and confused future that you really have to see to understand. And it is one of those films that grabs me on an emotional level and really hits the message home, without having to be too flashy or too overwhelming in order to do it. I still cry at the end. I still feel for all the characters and find myself falling in love with the story all over again when I re-watch it. It’s a beautiful movie that succeeds where so many movies with bigger budgets never can. Dare I say that it may be a…perfect Anime movie?
An aside: It’s okay to cry at the movies. You don’t get beat up for it anymore.
And there you have it!
My Top 5 Anime of All Time:
- My Neighbor Totoro (1988) A warm, touching film about two young sisters who have recently moved to the countryside and their amazing encounters with one of the forest gods. Miyazaki proved you can make a great kid’s film without talking down to your audience. Also, that a kid’s film could be just as emotionally rich and complex as any ‘serious adult film’. My Neighbor Totoro is filled with the innocence and wonder inherent in childhood. It’s a delightful film that washes the soul clean and reinvigorates any adult that watches it. The legendary director Kurosawa is rumored to have listed My Neighbor Totoro among the ten greatest films ever made. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll understand why that’s not hard to believe.
- Grave of the Fireflies (1988) Perhaps the most depressing film every made, Grave of the Fireflies opens with the death of a young boy, Seita, from malnutrition. Set in the final months of World War II, the movie chronicles the events that lead up to Seita’s tragic death. This film has more than a simple anti-war message. It offers a harsh critique of Japanese self identity. Takahata condemns the imperial government for letting it’s citizens starve to death to save its military pride. He exposes the Japanese hypocrisy of calling each other by familial names like ‘older brother’, ‘aunt’, and ‘grandmother’ while letting children starve to death. It’s not a pleasant film to watch. Just writing about it gives me a lump in my throat.
- Millennium Actress (2001) Most of Kon’s films explore the shifting boundaries between reality, our perception of reality, and the fictional realities we create. Millennium Actress embodies this exploration perfectly as retired actress Chiyoko Fujiwara reflects on her life and career. Fujiwara’s memories of her real life blend in with the characters she played. We see how her real world experiences helped her as an actress and how the roles she played helped her as a wife and mother. Kon seamlessly moves between these realities keeping the audience thrilling off balance. The animation is gorgeous and the movie needs a Blu-ray release.
- Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) I’m sure others would nominate the original Ghost in the Shell, but I find this to be the better movie. A new model of pleasure cyborgs are killing their owners than committing suicide. Batou and Togusa from special investigations unit Section 9 are put on the case to investigate. Innocence is a mix of exciting action sequences and philosophical pondering on what it means to be a person and can cyborgs become autonomous people. It leaves you with a lot to think about when it’s over. This is the most beautifully animated film I’ve ever seen. You’ll need to see it on a full-sized movie scene to truly appreciate all the details. This is a must buy on Blu-ray.
- Princess Mononoke (1997) This was the first anime film I saw in a movie theater. It sealed my anime fandom permanently. Ashitaka has been cursed by a dying boar god. He travels west in hopes of finding a cure. There he encounters two incredible women on opposite ends of a fundamental battle. Lady Eboshi is trying to establish a town that gives the disenfranchised and outcast in society a place to find honest work and to be treated with dignity. However, she is carving her town out of the ancient forest which brings her in conflict with San, a young girl raised by the wolf gods. San is a protector of the ancient forest and wants to preserve them as they’ve always been. This is Miyazaki’s most mature reflection on his competing commitments to humanism and environmentalism. The film’s unresolved ending is an honest reflection of Miyazaki’s own inability to find a workable balance between the two. Princess Mononoke offers a lifetime of reflection on these issues to guide us as we continually struggle to find a way to preserve our planet and create liveable space for humans at the same time. A film that will remain timely for generations to come.
In 1988, I spent a semester in Japan as a high school exchange student. While I’d grown up in the U.S., a country where animation was seen as fit only for children, I’d always had a deep love of the genre. And even as a teenager, I knew American animation was stuck in the limitations Disney had long established as the illustrated line down the middle of the road.
But even in the pre-internet world of my teenage years, I’d heard rumors about Japanese animation. So during my exchange, I sought out every anime I could. To my great fortune, Akira premiered while I was there and I saw it in the original Japanese, even though my poor language skills left me with almost no grasp of the plot or dialog. Still, I was blown away. I mean, here was an animated film with stark, amazing colors depicting vivid violence and drug use. Disney would have choked on his little Snow White ass.
In the years that followed, I discovered new anime films, which showed the power to be gained by combining the singular illustrations and vision of master animators with deep seated human emotions. To me, this is what the best anime films always do.
My favorites are:
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind: One of Hayao Miyazaki’s best, even though the technical animation isn’t up to his later standards. But the story, characters, and pastel color schemes are still a wonder to behold, as is his world creation. Miyazaki’s manga of the same story is rightfully put forth as one of the all-time best graphic novels, and the film and manga should be experienced together for a true glimpse into the mind of this storytelling master.
- Ghost in the Shell: As with many anime franchises, there are multiple versions of Ghost in the Shell to experience. The second film Innocence is good if extremely experimental, while the Stand Alone Complex TV series are a wonderful way to dive deeper into the world of cyborg Motoko Kusanagi and her covert operations division. But for pure animated poetry, nothing beats the first movie. The scenes where Kusanagi chases the hacked garbage man through the river district, or where Kusanagi battles the tank in the abandoned science museum, possess a surreal reality and grace all their own.
- Tokyo Godfathers: Satoshi Kon has become the patron saint of artsy anime, and with good reason. But while Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue are good, they simply can’t match the emotional impact and visual beauty of Tokyo Godfathers. This is a movie I watch several times each year, and it never fails to inspire me. For more on this film, please see my recent SF Signal review.
- Battle Angel OVA: This anime is nothing to write home about in turns of its animation, which is good but not amazing. But what carries this short film is its perfect tale of love and dreams. When the female cyborg Alita (called Gally in the film) expresses her dreams for the future to her true love–who himself despairs over ever reaching his own dream–shivers run your artificial spine, which in the story are an often stolen commodity. This is an amazing story which mirrors the initial story arch of Yukito Kishiro’s classic manga. But where Kishiro eventually lost sight of this emotional power in the endless violence which followed his first story arch, in this film the story remains perfect and tragic. There’s a reason James Cameron has talked of a CGI remaking of this anime being his follow-up to Avatar. Combine Titanic‘s tragic love story with Avatar‘s world creation and you would indeed have an amazing film called Battle Angel. But never forget you first saw the story in this touching little anime.
- Princess Mononoke: Where Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind shows Hayao Miyazaki at the beginning of his career, Princess Mononoke shows him at its height. The story is breath-taking, the world creation perfect, and the animation never better. While Spirited Away is the film with earned Miyazaki his first Oscar, Princess Mononoke helped break through to dense American audiences about that special thing called Japanese anime.
Any Top-n list is a hard thing to tackle. Naturally exclusion will take place during the process and things will land on the cutting room floor. This task was no exception. I’ve had my favorite anime film in top spot for the better part of 15 years even though the rest seem to shuffle around. But after thinking long and hard, my top 5 settled into the below list, none of which really surprised me–they’re all special in their own way and have been a huge influence on my writing.
I tried to limit these to “films” and not series or compilations, but truth be told, most anime is manga-driven and episodic by nature.
- Battle Angel
- Vampire Hunter D
- Ghost In The Shell
- Bubblegum Crisis
Honorable mention: Ergo Proxy
Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer
A 1984 movie adaptation of Urusei Yatsura, Rumiko Takahashi’s classic nerdy manga series about an obnoxious teenage boy and the hot alien girl in a tiger-striped bikini who is in love with him. Weirdness ensues. There were several Urusei Yatsura movies, but this is the only great one, because of the script by Mamoru Oshii which starts out a bit like Groundhog’s Day (the local high school students notice that the same day keeps endlessly repeating) and then blossoms into big themes of love and illusion and reality. Takahashi was apparently not a fan of the script, feeling that it went too far from the slapstick love comedy she had intended. But it’s a sweet film, and it’s one of Oshii’s most accessible movies; I find most of his films (Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor) to be simply too cold, heavy and emotionally disengaged to keep my attention, despite their nice animation and hard sci-fi crunchiness.
My favorite Hayao Miyazaki film is the Tintin-esque steampunk tale Laputa: The Castle in the Sky. Princess Mononoke has a confused message and succumbs to the easy apocalyptic “blow everything up” ending; Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is good but just not my favorite. However, Spirited Away combines a charming, classical plot — a girl captured and enslaved in fairyland, forced to work in a sort of bathhouse for mythological gods and monsters — with incredible animation which updates Miyazaki’s character designs with gorgeous digital colors and sparing use of CG. Basically, a lovely film.
Night on the Galactic Railroad
A beautiful adaptation of a beautiful novella by Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), a Japanese fabulist whose work reminds me a bit of Franz Kafka’s. Two young boys stray away from the village festival one starlit night and end up on a mystic train which passes through all the wonders and darkness of the cosmos, on an allegorical journey expressing Miyazawa’s Christian-Buddhist religious beliefs as well as his scientific fascination with astronomy, geology and everything in between. All the characters are drawn as cats, since it was based on the designs of manga artist Hiroshi Masumura, who drew a manga adaptation of the same novella. The colors evoke early 20th century painting, and the symphonic score is also great; this is an anime which is a coherent, engrossing artistic statement.
I love Satoshi Kon’s films for daring to use animation to replicate reality. This may seem like a weird statement, but one of the things I always liked about anime is that it *doesn’t* insist that, simply because something is drawn, it must be exaggerated into a cartoon. Animation is still the ultimate control-freak medium — every line and image in Kon’s film is deliberate — but he manages to make it look real and effortless, so that the moments of unreality stand out. As for Perfect Blue, its giallo-esque slasher-movie plot (based on the novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi) reminds me of the works of Dario Argento, and paved the way for the more elaborate psychological fantasies of movies like Kon’s Paprika.
Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise
Most of Studio Gainax’s best work has been TV series and OAVs: Otaku no Video, Gurren Lagann, Neon Genesis Evangelion (the movies don’t stand on their own unless you watch the TV series too). But this great big 1987 extravaganza, their most serious film, is still great. In brief, it’s the story of the first manned space flight on another planet, another world inhabited by apparently human beings but with a different religion, different cultures, different technology. The level of science-fiction worldbuilding is impressive, but the personal story of the very human and flawed astronaut — and his connection to those on the ground — is what really makes this movie stick in your mind.
Top 5 Anime Films:
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- Princess Monoke
- Any of the Inuyasha movies
- Escaflowne: The Movie
- Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children
First would have to be Akira. I think it was probably the first anime I ever saw and it completely blew me away. The post-WWIII Japan is wonderfully thought out with a vivid back-story barely hiding behind the action.
Next would be Ghost in the Shell. A cyberpunk classic, with beautiful visuals, set in a world where the line between man and machine is getting thinner all the time. Believable characters and some deep questions on humanity. Oh and BIG guns =D
The next three can come in any order. So, Oedo_808 is another cyberpunk about three criminals allowed to work off their sentences by combating computer crime. Each of the three has their own, very individual chapter. Really just an action anime, but a good one.
Devilman offers great action in a horror/demonic/superhero mix which is just brilliant. The series is from the 70’s which is notable in the animation, but not really a detriment.
Last but not least would be .hack//SIGN a must for anyone who like MMORPGs. Not nearly as much action in this one but a lot of good dialogue. This series is definitely has the slowest pace of the five and you really need to be in for the long haul (26 episodes). In a world where every computer system not running a certain OS is destroyed by a virus people play an online game called The World. The story centres around a boy who is trapped in the game. (actually let’s make this an honorary number 2 )
My list is of necessity not that of a connoisseur; I’m sure there are many fine Anime films that I’ve yet to see. Of those I have, these are the ones that have made the biggest impression on me, in no particular order:
- Spirited Away (Hiyao Miyazaki, director, 2001) Just unbelievably charming. Few films can transport you to another world like this one.
- Tekkon Kinkreet (Michael Arias, director, 2006) Based on the popular manga Black and White, innovative in its storytelling and use of 3d in cell-shaded animation.
- Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, director, 1988) Violent, dark, and trend-setting. Has to be included.
- Ghost in the Shell (Mamoro Oshii, director, 1998) A perfect piece of cyberpunk. It hits all the notes, and suffers only from bad voice acting in the English translation.
- Castle in the Sky (Hiyao Miyazaki, director, 1986) I can’t defend this choice. I just like it.
Madeline’s Top 5 Anime Films
Note: To narrow my focus, I tried to pick my favourite SF anime films. I also tried to avoid too many films that were context-dependent on television series. But one look at the release dates of each of these films will inform you of my bias: my education in the “old school” anime canon is pitifully lacking. You won’t find Belladonna of Sadness on my list, or even Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories. Now that I’ve explained myself, here is my list. As you’ll see, I broke all the rules I set.
- Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997)
With all the hype surrounding James Cameron’s Avatar (not the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which despite a few failings was still miles better than the film of the same name), it might be hard to recall that there was another, finer film that told the same story with more thorough characterization and worldbuilding and far deeper drama. This is one of Miyazaki’s most mature films, more violent and disturbing than the child-oriented films that followed it, or the beloved classics that preceded it.
Like Cameron’s recent film, Princess Mononoke revolves around a disfigured man, Ashitaka, who journeys to a distant land populated by sentient forest spirits and falls in love with their princess, San, while simultaneously running interference between the old gods of the land and the new economic realities of a nearby mining town. These events are painted on a backdrop of shifting political fortunes in medieval Japan. The story offers no easy answers: San is little better than a terrorist, constantly bombing the mining town, and Lady Eboshi, the miners’ employer, is a progressive who offers secure jobs to lepers and former prostitutes. Ashitaka, mortally wounded by a demi-god driven mad by one of Eboshi’s bullets, struggles to reconcile both women’s competing values while defending the observable-but-unknowable Forest Spirit (Daidarabocchi) that Eboshi wants to kill so she can expand her mining operation. While the story is ultimately a triumph of the human spirit, it first interrogates the value of humanity itself. Moral and ethical ambiguity pervades the film; its most evil figure is the distant and nameless shogun who instigates the armed conflict that ends the story, and its kindest characters are the tiny, creepy kodama whose rattling skulls guide lost travelers through the woods. The tensions at play still come through in the English translation, which was adapted by none other than Neil Gaiman.
In terms of animation, Princess Mononoke is neither Miyazaki’s most epic effort nor his most imaginative. His restraint is deliberate and masterful: this is not the explosion of colour or characters that defined Spirited Away or Ponyo. The gods of this film are both majestic and dirty, divine and bloodthirsty. The animation renders them as what they are: terrifying intrusions of an ineffable force into an irredeemable world. While the film doesn’t feel like a stretch of the animation medium, it does exactly what animation does best: seamlessly integrating the unknown into worlds we think we understand. If you haven’t yet, watch it soon.
- The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Hosoda, 2006)
Makoto Konno is in the middle of an idyllic high school life: she has two male friends who act as her loyal yojimbo, meeting her every afternoon for a game of baseball; an artist aunt who acts as her mentor; parents who give her a full fridge and no criticism, and no particular aspirations whatsoever for life after graduation. Then, on the same day that she finds a strange walnut-like object, Makoto somehow avoids being killed by a train that was about to hit her. After waking up from her near-death experience on the morning of the day that she has just survived, Makoto determines that she has the ability to leap through time. She then uses her ability on frivolous pursuits: she cheats on tests, she lives through the same karaoke session for hours on end, she eats the same dessert over and over. Granted the ability to move through time, Makoto continually chooses to adjust the timeline back toward the mean — to preserve her perfect present, rather than improve her ambiguous future.
Naturally, it all falls apart.
In SF and fantasy, it’s easy (and common) to use time travel as a metaphor for coming of age. As Makoto’s aunt says of the time leap, “This kind of thing happens at your age.” In high school, every mis-step feels like a life-or-death scenario, and in Makoto’s case it’s true. Each time she leaps backward to the start of her own personal Groundhog Day, Makoto finds a new detail to change that she hopes will maintain the carefree lifestyle she’s enjoyed so far. But each time, the inevitable happens anyway: there’s an awkward confession of love, her friends move on, and in one version, people die. In many ways, Makoto’s stubborn refusal to mature is her (and her friends’) undoing. The film brings this point home powerfully when we learn that not only are the time leaps limited, they belong to someone else. Makoto has been closing the door on another’s future by forestalling her own.
This may sound like a bleak portrait of one person’s inane use of revolutionary technology, but the film is anything but. It’s a sun-dappled love letter to youthful indiscretion that pulses with all the verve and passion of that time. Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s character designs have never been more finely composed, and the animation makes us believe that every breath Makoto takes draws her closer to somewhere special and new. We feel it, each time she runs or cries or skins her knee. Anime specializes in coming of age stories, but Hosoda’s film cuts deep into the scar tissue covering the wounds we earn in youth, and forces us to recall those first and most painful lessons.
- Tokyo Godfathers (Kon, 2003)
It’s difficult to imagine Satoshi Kon, the master of suspense and surrealism who brought us Perfect Blue and Paprika and Paranoia Agent, making a Christmas dramedy. But in 2003 he did, and the canon is better for it. Until this moment in his career, Kon was known primarily for cerebral films that focused on the subjective nature of reality through the lens of the mediated woman: both Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress are about actresses who maintain their personal identities in the face of trauma by claiming greater control over their mediated images. And after Tokyo Godfathers, Kon further explored humanity’s inability to deal with reality — the villains of his latter pieces are dreams and wishes made real, with all the horror that possibility entails.
But in the middle, he teamed with Keiko Nobumoto for a Christmas story about three homeless Tokyo-jin who find an infant thrown in the garbage and decide to locate her parents. It is Kon’s most understated film, his least surreal, and in many ways his most affecting for its lack of affectation. The film follows Miyuki, a surly teenage girl, Hana, a transvestite and former club entertainer, and Gin, a gruff alcoholic on their quest to place their adoptee Kiyoko with her “real” family. Along the way, the lies each of them has told each other about why they live on the street are exposed. The process is slow, painful, comic and at points even transcendent. None of the characters ever dissolve into self-pity, and eventually all three fully acknowledge the decisions which brought them to an old (but cozily Gibsonian) shipping container covered in blue tarp. Above all else, the film is an ode to the families we choose deliberately, and to the potential for love and connection in the direst of circumstances. For screenwriter Nobumoto, whose prior experience includes Cowboy Bebop, this was a triumphant return to those themes.
This is not to say that Tokyo Godfathers is all sweetness and light. Kon’s signature depictions of creeping insanity and swift, brutal violence both appear. With the film is not nearly as bloody or disturbing as his other work, the veneer of fantasy protecting the audience from the film’s sharper edges is much thinner. Kon has never believed in pulling the camera away, and this is a Christmas story which involves madness, mugging, blood, and babies. You’ve been warned.
- Ghost in the Shell (Oshii, 1995)
Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 contribution to the Ghost in the Shell canon looms large over all the other anime films, not least because it is the one anime film that audiences are most likely to have seen. It has dominated critical analysis for years, with scholars debating the film’s ambiguous feminist politics and obsession with simulacra. (Sidebar: can we get some analysis of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, already? Kenji Kamiyama succeeds in all the ways that Oshii fails: characterization, dialogue, depicting the nitty-gritty lived experience of the future. Let’s give him the attention he deserves.) Oshii’s film is the 2001 of anime: a stately exploration of freedom and reality in a world where neither exist any longer. For many, especially those unfamiliar with Miyazaki’s earlier work, it proved what the medium was capable of.
I won’t bother summarizing the plot. It’s derived from a few chapters of Masamune Shirow’s manga of the same name, and even a cursory examination of cyberpunk SF will grant you insight into its elements. What was landmark about the film was not its plot, but rather its tone. For a film with such flawlessly executed action scenes, the pace is surprisingly slow. It is also deeply felt: the soul of the film lies with the victims of a shadowy hacker figure who implants false memories in innocent cyberstanders to advance, of all things, a reproductive agenda. The main characters philosophize at length on the nature of sentience, humanity, memory, and individuality. There are long, beautiful pauses where the film’s fictional city becomes the star, and even if Oshii never explicitly addresses the poverty endemic to this particular future, he at least showcases it in shot after shot.
Like Miyazaki and Kon, Oshii specializes in heroines who take total control of their destinies and make difficult choices about identity to in order to expand their power. I wish there were more of these women in English-language films. Motoko Kusanagi, the main character of Ghost in the Shell, is the leader of an anti-terrorist unit, a quick thinker who sets traps for her prey and executes them with grace and cunning. I had been watching SF for most of my life when I saw Ghost in the Shell in high school, but Kusanagi was the first woman in SF that I desperately wanted to be when I grew up. Similarly, this was my first real introduction to hard SF: the film is aggressively detailed, from a biotech sniper system that sets a default heartrate in the shooter to using GPS to anticipate a garbage pickup route. Oshii picks these details up and puts them down just as quickly, tossing away ideas that could be their own short stories with the proper treatment. Ten years after seeing the film for the first time, I still find things to love.
- Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (Watanabe, 2001)
If Ocean’s Eleven were about domestic terrorism, it would look a lot like this. Ironically (and quite luckily), Shinichiro Watanabe’s film based on his television series of the same name was released in Japan on September 1, 2001. For ten days, Japanese audiences could go see a movie wherein the World Trade Center still starred as architecture, the Muslim character was not a jihadi but a former government employee, and the terrorist was a white military reject without any particular ideology, just a lot of hurt feelings. By the time Watanabe’s film was screened in America, his television series had already been censored for American audiences — an episode about a mad bomber was taken off the air, as was an episode about the space shuttle Columbia. This is important to remember, given that the plot of the film closely mirrors the 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system. Despite operating from what is essentially an action movie perspective, Watanabe is clearly in dialogue with an important moment in his nation’s history. And despite being one of the finest science fiction directors in Japan today, I doubt he intended to be so very prescient.
Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (or Cowboy Bebop: The Movie as it was known in its English language release) is where I break my context-dependency rule. I do so because one needn’t have watched the Cowboy Bebop series to fully grasp the film; one is not a sequel to the other. The film functions as an extended episode with enviably deft exposition in the first few minutes that makes the characters’ relationships clear, warts and all. In the television series, those relationships give the story its meat. In the film, they lend it seasoning. Bounty hunters Spike, Jet, Faye, Ed, and Ein (yes, Ein; the dog is invaluable) all know each other by this point, and the film highlights both their unwillingness to come together as a team and their unstoppable power when they finally do. They rant, tease, curse, and literally get on each other’s backs. Watching Cowboy Bebop is like hanging out with people you know, if the people you know happen to kick righteous amounts of ass.
And oh, the ass-kicking.
As a television series, Bebop always had superior fight and stunt choreography. In the film, those elements are breathtaking. From Spike’s use of a broom handle to his piloting his aircraft, there is never an environment wherein he can’t weaponize the nearest available object. There are dogfights, gunfights, and fistfights. It’s a trifecta of fighting awesome. But at the core is a story about two men who can’t let go of the sense that they are dreaming their way through what might be an ultimately meaningless life. This shared sense of futility draws them together as enemies, culminating in a fight so hard that they each have to rest in the middle just to breathe. And although it’s clear that Spike feels no differently about his circumstances in the end, he has risked his life for the safety of others’ and obviously possesses that much more humanity than the thugs he regularly puts down. After watching Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, it’s easy to understand that one of Watanabe’s favourite films was Dirty Harry. Watch it in that spirit, and you’ll be able to return to it as many times as I have with just as much enjoyment.
Because this is what I do for fun, I’ve taken the Anime titles listed above and tallied them. If any title received more than a single mention (No, it’s not very scientific) it made it onto the following list of…
- Ghost in the Shell (9 mentions)
- Akira ( 6 )
- Princess Mononoke ( 6 )
- Spirited Away ( 4 )
- My Neighbor Tototro ( 3 )
- Battle Angel OVA ( 2 )
- Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence ( 2 )
- Grave of the Fireflies ( 2 )
- Howl’s Moving Castle ( 2 )
- Serial Experiments Lain ( 2 )
- The Castle of Cagliostro ( 2 )
- The Girl Who Leapt Through Time ( 2 )
- Tokyo Godfathers ( 2 )
- Vampire Hunter D ( 2 )
Not a bad list for Anime newbies, eh?
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