Belladonna of Sadness
If you’re fond of surreal imagery that is dreamily composed, violent, and erotic, Eiichi Yamamoto’s Kanashimi no Beradona (Belladonna of Sadness) is a visual paradise. Loosely based on Jules Michelet’s sympathetic tome La Sorcière — about the plight of witches during the Middle Ages — this early anime tells the emotional story of a repressed woman in Feudal Japan who is tricked by the Devil. Animator Gisaburo Sugii later went on to direct the Street Fighter television series, and illustrator Kuni Fukai is best known for another psychedelic project — the mythological Metamorphoses. The imagery and story can be graphic and disturbing, but the animation is truly beautiful. Fukai’s style for Belladonna resembles traditional Japanese watercolor paintings focused through a psychedelic, art nouveau-esque lens. Sadistic scenes are set to Masahiko Satô’s somber grooves.
Director Satoshi Kon broke into animation after working as a Manga artist and directed his first film in 1997 — the fractured mind-bender Perfect Blue. Often compared to the works of David Lynch, especially Mulholland Drive, Kon shows us how a teen pop idol with dreams of becoming a movie star copes with her obsessive fans. The increasingly dizzying shifts in perspective, and the ominous presence of a mysterious stalker twists the tale further. Hazy paranoia and dreamlike fragments make the taut thriller an intense, moody experience.
Clearly, we’re big fans of Satoshi Kon, which is why his 2006 adaptation of Yasutaka Tsutsui’s 1993 novel of the same name gets a spot in our roundup. One Kon movie just isn’t enough. (Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers should also be added to your watch list.) The futuristic sci-fi anime posits that in the future, psychiatrists can enter their patient’s dream worlds, but the therapy also invites malicious clinicians. Christopher Nolan was inspired by Paprika for his own take on psychic espionage, Inception. Kon’s skewed, kinetic story spins a fascinating mythology, offering more magic and eye candy than a run-of-the-mill thriller.
Ghost in the Shell
When the Wachowskis prepared their sci-fi favorite The Matrix, they looked to Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell and attempted to make the Japanese filmmaker’s world of cyborg cops, computer hackers, and science a reality. “In anime, one thing that they do that we tried to bring to our film was a juxtaposition of time and space in action beats,” the directing duo said in an interview. This was one of the first films, animated and otherwise, to question the effect of technology’s rise on human identity and evolution.
Any film by acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki deserves a spot on our list, but we adore the imagery in the filmmaker’s story about a young girl who wanders through a surreal, supernatural world of gods and monsters — inspired by ancient Japanese mythology. The parallel universe is often compared to the one Alice navigates in Lewis Carroll’s classic novel. Both symbolically explore the passage from childhood into adulthood and all the complex fantasies and anxieties the journey entails. Animation giant Studio Ghibli, which Miyazaki co-founded, creates stunning works of art, and Spirited Away is one of the company’s brightest stars.
Fritz Lang’s 1927 German expressionist classic Metropolis influenced the foundation and design for a 2001 retelling. It’s hard to imagine retro-style anime (modeled after the 1949 manga that also inspired the movie), a Dixieland soundtrack, and robots mingling harmoniously, but it works. Rintaro’s heavily stylized take on the sci-fi story brings the sprawling, futuristic city to life. Familiarity with the narrative may make this version of the dystopian saga more accessible to anime newbies.
Grave of the Fireflies
We named Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies an “essential Japanese film,” and we can’t sing its praises enough. Two siblings during World War II embark on a journey for survival in Takahata’s moving portrait about the effects of war. For those who complain that anime feels soulless, this movie will change your opinion about the genre forever. Heartbreaking honesty and visual poetry like this is rare to find even in live-action films, and the beauty and tragedy of Fireflies haunts forever.
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie
Director Rian Johnson looked to the beloved anime series Cowboy Bebop when he crafted his hardboiled high school noir starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brick. With characters and settings like Bebop‘s, it’s easy to see why. Fans of the series were elated and skeptical when it was announced that the starship bounty-hunting crew would be motion picture stars, but all (ok, many) fears were put to rest when Shinichirō Watanabe directed a 2001 film version of the existential anime. What resulted was a large-scale extension of the series that took Bebop‘s dynamic characters on a thrill ride full of humor, drama, and non-stop action. The frenetic space opera seems tailor-made for a Tarantino remake.
The Wonderful World of Puss ‘n Boots
Japanese studio Toei Animation is an industry powerhouse, responsible for starting the careers of the genre’s greatest animators and directors. Their cat logo comes from one of the earliest anime works, The Wonderful World of Puss ‘n Boots. The 1969 musical movie — inspired by fairy tale writer Charles Perrault’s French fable about a heroic, trickster cat — is a colorful example of traditional anime that employed several well-known leaders in the genre: Hayao Miyazaki, Yasuo Ōtsuka, Reiko Okuyama, Sadao Kikuchi, Yōichi Kotabe, Akemi Ōta, Akira Daikuhara, and Yasuji Mori. If you want to steep yourself in classic animation and love the goofy exploits of vintage cartoons, the purity and style of Puss ‘n Boots is a fun excursion.
Chances are, even if you don’t know a thing about anime, you’ve heard of Katsuhiro Ôtomo 1988 landmark movie, Akira. The cult classic is set in post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo where a biker, Tetsuo, develops psychic abilities after the government uses him as a test subject during a military operation. Intense action, motorcycle chases, and gritty violence follows. The movie’s animation style was a profound influence on the genre and manga illustrators, elevating anime from mere cartoons (perceived, anyway) to engaging entertainment. The cult of anime fandom can be traced back to Akira, which is why Hollywood studios have been angling for a Western remake since 2002. Stars like Andrew Garfield, James McAvoy, Zac Efron, and Ezra Miller (yes, please!) have all been attached to the role of Tetsuo in the project that has languished in development hell for over a decade.