Anime began at the start of the 20th century, when Japanese filmmakers experimented with animation techniques pioneered in France, Germany, the United States, and Russia. The oldest known anime in existence first screened in 1917 – a two-minute clip of a samurai trying to test a new sword on his target, only to suffer defeat.
The success of The Walt Disney Company’s 1937 feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs influenced Japanese animators. In the 1960s, manga artist and animator Osamu Tezuka adapted and simplified many Disney animation-techniques to reduce costs and to limit the number of frames in productions. He intended this as a temporary measure to allow him to produce material on a tight schedule with inexperienced animation staff.
Give the head back now? Come on, boy. Don’t be silly. Now, when the sun’s about to come up? Look! He’s a brainless, life-sucking god of death. At sunrise he’ll vanish like a bad dream.
The 1970s saw a surge of growth in the popularity of manga – many of them later animated. The work of Osamu Tezuka drew particular attention, he has been called a “legend” and the “god of manga”.
In the 1980s, anime became more accepted in mainstream Japanese cinema (although less than manga), and experienced a boom in production. Following a few successful adaptations of anime in overseas markets in the 1980s, anime gained increased acceptance in those markets in the 1990s and even more at the turn of the 21st century. This started in 1988 with the film Akira which was the first anime that made the west sit up and take note. Anime flourished for a few years but soon went out of focus with slow distribution and limited availability. The big breakthrough came with the introduction of Studio Ghibli and the films of Hayao Miyazaki, starting with Princess Mononoke which has been followed with several other quality films. This combined with the increased distribution has made anime films a force to be reckoned with and has given the large western animation films something to think about.
Pop singer Mima decides to swap her successful singing career to become an actress. She lands a role in a sexually charged murder mystery, but this does not sit well with some of her fans who don’t like the pop princess’s squeaky clean image tainted by her portrayal of a rape victim. This is especially true of her stalker who takes a particular dislike to the new role. Mima soon becomes paranoid, and reality and hallucinations become blurred. Combined with the deaths of the some of the people responsible for her new role we have the makings of a perfectly constructed murder mystery.
A brilliantly constructed thriller, Yoshikazu Takeuchi’s novel is brought to life by Satoshi Kon’s directing and special advisor Katsuhiro Otomo’s visually stunning portrayal of one woman’s dissent into a nightmarish dream world which grips the viewer from the outset.
A personal favourite of mine, this film is more true in style to Japanese manga, with its ultra violent action scenes and hentai (sexually explicit scenes). Many versions have been cut, and some scenes changed by the BBFC and other certification boards. Finding an uncut version is a must.
The plot concerns a world split into three parts: the world of the man beasts (the Jyujinkai), the humans, and the nightmarish realm of the monster demons (the makai). The demons gain power from the bodies of human girls. There is a prophecy that every 3000 years comes the ‘superfiend’ – the ‘chojin’ – who is destined to unite the worlds. The hero Amano is on a mission to find the chojin but when he realises that the united world will be a place of horrendous violence and uncontrollable lust he must try to stop it.
Probably not a film many of the purists would put in their top 10’s but for me it is what an anime film can do that could never be done in live action film. It allows us to see just how creative the human mind can be.
The 1986 film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki is the first film created and released by Studio Ghibli. Laputa: Castle in the Sky (as it was titled on its UK release) won the Animage Anime Grand Prix in 1986. The film is a perfect example of one of Miyazaki’s loves – flying machines – with a story set around the legend of a floating city lost in the clouds.
According to legend, humans were fascinated with the sky; therefore they created increasingly sophisticated ways of lifting aircraft from the ground. This eventually led to flying cities and fortresses. Over time, the cities came crashing back to earth, forcing the survivors to live on the ground as before. One city, Laputa, is said to remain in the sky, concealed within the swirling clouds of a violent thunderstorm. While most people consider it to be fictional, some believe the legend is true and have sought to find the ancient city.
With homage to Jules Verne and Jonathan Swift the film is packed with wonder and extraordinary machines. Miyazaki takes us on a journey with our two hero’s Pazu and Sheeta who meet sky pirates and some sinister government agents and a giant robot. This is a terrific adventure film that is full of Miyazaki’s wonder and invention and the colourful characters make the whole film enjoyable.
7. Memories (Morimoto, Okamura, Otomo, 1995) – IMDB – BUY
Memories (also Otomo Katsuhiro’s Memories) is an anime produced in 1995 by artist/director Katsuhiro Otomo based on three of his manga short stories. The film is composed of three episodes: “Magnetic Rose”, “Stink Bomb” and “Cannon Fodder”.
“Magnetic Rose” follows the story of a deep space corporate freighter that is called upon to investigate a distress signal from a supposed derelict space station. Unbeknownst to the space freighter pilots, the space station is run by a deranged artificial intelligence.
“Stink Bomb” is a lighter story, its tone more attune to comedy than horror. It concerns a young man who works at a bioresearch facility. One day he turns up with flu. A colleague tells him to take some medication which the young man does. However, these pills turn out to be part of a biological weapons program. Amusingly, the man develops a deadly body odour becoming a walking weapon of mass destruction.
“Cannon Fodder” finds a city walled in and continually at war. Everyone’s lives and livelihood depend upon maintaining and firing the cannons: millions of cannons, all of different sizes. The entire city is made up of cannons. The story essentially concerns itself with a young boy and his father.
For me Cannon fodder is the pick of the three: a tale that shows the way that people can just live without questioning the bigger picture as long as they have hope.
Mamoru Oshii brings the original manga written by Masamune Shirow to our screens. Critics and fans hold it in high regard, and it has done a lot for the genre. The Wachowski brothers say they got their idea for The Matrix from this film.
The story can labor in parts and there are a lot of shots of the future city which although slow the story they are incredible beautiful and seamlessly blend computer and cell animation. This was one of the first films to bridge the East-West gap and get a release in America. It brought anime to mainstream American and European audiences, introducing us to what Japanese animation could do. Another massive factor in the success of the film is the haunting, eerie score.
The story focuses on Major Motoko Kusanagi – an officer in the security services sector 9 division and a cybernetic agent – with her team Batou (a cyborg) and Togusa (the only humanoid in the team). They set off to pursue the Puppet Master – a talented data thief with a skill for infiltrating the consciousness of others and getting them to commit criminal acts while he remains in the shadows. The mysterious section 6 then get involved and Kusanagi begins to realise that there is a vast political conspiracy behind what has been going on.
5. Ninja Scroll (Kawajiri, 1993) – IMDB – BUY
Set in feudal Japan, Jubei is a wandering samurai with fearsome skills. He gets drawn into a fight with some of the most dangerous warriors who are plotting to overthrow the government. At the head of this group is Jubei’s nemesis, a warrior he believed to be dead. Jubei teams up with a strange ninja master who leads him to the female ninja Kagero, a warrior with the ability to cause death by touch.
Ninja Scroll is a tale full of incredible characters and ultra violence. It features some of the best fight scenes I have ever seen. Another film that has been cut by the BBFC so look out for an uncut version to get the full experience.
My second Hayao Miyazaki film, and one of the biggest grossing Japanese films of all time. The story is a loose take on Alice In Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, as it follows Chihiro, a young girl who is moving to a new town with her parents when they take a detour to explore a mysterious tunnel. They find what seems to be a deserted theme park but they have actually crossed into the spirit world. A world of ancient gods and magical beings ruled by the sorceress Yubaba. After entering the spirit world Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs and held captive. Chihiro must overcome her fears to rescue her parents with the help of Haku, a young boy with a secret. Throughout the film Chihiro has to try and remember her true name so she doesn’t forget who she really is.
The film won the Oscar for best animated film in 2003. It is full of magic and adventure and one of the most visually stunning films I have had the pleasure to watch. It is both thrilling for adults and children to watch. This film has some of the most strange and amazing characters, each bringing something new to the story.
3. Barefoot Gen (Masaki, 1983) – IMDB – BUY
For me one of the most heart wrenching and emotional films I have ever seen. Some may question whether an animated film can produce such emotion, I challenge them to watch Barefoot Gen without feeling for the main character and what he goes through. Writer Keiji Nakazawa’s bases the film on his own experience as a six year old boy when the atomic bomb was dropped on his hometown of Hiroshima in 1945 killing most of his family. This is the only film in the list that is only available in its original Japanese language with English subtitles. According to Anime News Network there is an English dub available but it is not reproduced on the latest DVD releases.
A largely ignored film in the west because of it staying in its native language, it also suffers from dated animation. Most people favour the similar Grave of the Fireflies because its more widely available. The story is that of Gen whose life is turned upside down by the atomic bomb. When the bomb hits he is shielded by a wall. He tragically returns home to find his family trapped and dying. Then we follow his experiences as he wanders the streets finding people affected by the blast. The reason the film hits so hard is that what we see is what Nakazawa saw as a six year old and how people looked to him when he was just a child. Some of the images are haunting and will stay with you. But don’t think this film is anti-American or anti-west – it in fact points the finger towards the Japanese government and their failures. A must see film for anime and non-anime fans.
Most people’s number one, Akira was the first anime to be a success in the west. Released in 1988, writer-director Katsuhiro Otomo based the film on his own manga story. The film is set in a futuristic and post-war city, Neo-Tokyo, in 2019. While most of the character designs and basic settings were adapted from the original 2,182-page manga epic, the restructured plot of the movie differs considerably from the print version, pruning much of the last half of the manga.
The film influenced the genre in Japan, paving the way for Japanese animation to gain notoriety and commercial success in America and Europe.
Released in Japan in 1997 it quickly became the highest grossing film only to be replaced a few months later by Titanic. It was the first Hiyao Miyazaki film to be viewed by a mass western audience and was our first taste of what this genius could do. It also introduced a whole new generation to the wonders of anime. The film shows the clash of the old natural world and the coming of human civilization, mixing in Gods and spirits of the animal kingdom. It has a heavy eco feel yet gives us the point of view of the humans as to why they cause so much destruction.
The story is of a young warrior Ashitaka who battles a cursed beast and receives a wound that will eventually kill him, he is cast out of his village and goes in search of the forest spirit were he encounters the raging battle of the iron workers and the wolf gods fighting over the forest.
This story is very powerful and certainly makes you think about the way we treat the world we live in. Although rated as PG (Parental Guidance) in the UK the film has some graphic scenes of violence. The animation is superb and Miyazaki’s creations are some off the most fantastic and mystical.
Princess Mononoke is number one because the story has a powerful, deep-rooted passion for the human spirit. Amidst the fantastical, Princess Mononoke is a thought-provoking story of love and honour, one that will have you thinking about your own decisions in life. It also has some of the most creative, awe-inspiring moments in anime – the scene with the tree spirits for example is my favourite scene in the film. (see above picture).
Written and compiled by D. Lloyd-Smart
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Blog: AstroNerdBoy Anime and Manga Blog – comprehensive, well-written and researched.
Blog: Hanners Anime Blog – catchy writing, lots of information about less mainstream stuff
Blog: Nyu’s Anime and Stuff