If you watch movies at all, you’re probably familiar with the wholesome, heartwarming films of animation studio Studio Ghibli. From the beloved family flick My Neighbor Totoro to the gritty, environmental allegory Princess Mononoke, there’s a Ghibli film for everyone.
The Japanese production house found its way to international acclaim with filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 coming-of-age tale Spirited Away. It was Japan’s highest-grossing film for nearly two decades, the first hand-drawn film to win an Oscar for best animated feature, and arguably opened the eyes of film critics to the magic of Japanese animation.
But there’s more to anime than just Studio Ghibli. Beyond the warm, fuzzy tales that often cater to a younger audience, other film directors of note have been using animation to explore adult themes, pose philosophical questions, and push the visual boundaries of cinema without the limitations of live action.
So, for the uninitiated, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most iconic, non-Studio Ghibli anime films to binge on. This list is not exhaustive, and we’ve narrowed it down to movies that have somehow influenced mainstream pop culture, gained international acclaim, or just earned buttloads of money.
So you want to watch… a sci-fi anime movie
The most iconic science-fiction film would have to be director Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 cyberpunk action film Akira, which is a cult classic for a reason. Set in a dystopian Neo-Tokyo, the film features a young gang of bikers who stumble upon a shady government project involving telekinetic children.
If that sounds familiar, you’re not imagining things. Eleven from the nostalgia-packed sci-fi Netflix series Stranger Things was directly inspired by Akira. Other mainstream films including Midnight Special, Chronicle, and Inception also draw from the film classic. Meanwhile, Kanye West has repeatedly said that he loves Akira, with his music video for “Stronger” even heavily referencing the film.
Akira was arguably the first animated film to engage with Western audiences on a grand scale, paving the way for shows like Pokémon, Naruto, and Dragon Ball to become their own cultural phenoms. The famous “motorcycle slide” has been referenced time and again in various animations and movies in the west. And 34 years after its release, it remains a relevant part of pop culture.
Watch this if you’re… fed up with greed, corruption, and government secrets; into psychic battles.
You’ll dig this if you like: Blade Runner, Inception, Mad Max: Fury Road, Nausicaä: Valley of the Wind
Watch list: Metropolis, Steamboy, Patema Inverted, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade
So you want to watch… a mindbender
Satoshi Kon’s 1997 psychological thriller Perfect Blue is what you’re looking for. It breaks away from our traditional view of anime—fun, family-oriented, adventure-packed—and explores markedly grown-up themes. It’s also a great case study of Kon’s signature fast and disorienting editing that leaves you slightly perturbed.
This film follows Mima, a retired singer who “sheds her ‘good girl’ image to further her career.” Stalking, murder, and deception are involved as Mima tries to navigate the pressure and anxiety that come with being a “perfect idol,” flip-flopping between how her fans see her and how she sees herself. This leads to a terrifying plotline that will have you, the viewer, looking into the mirror asking, “Who are you?”
Many people compare Perfect Blue to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which involves a ballerina whose mental state declines under the pressure of her own ambition. While Aronofsky declines purposely drawing inspiration from Perfect Blue, he does recreate the anime’s bathtub scene nearly frame-by-frame in his 2000 film Requiem for a Dream.
Watch this if you’re… in the mood to feel slightly paranoid, definitely disturbed, and empty by the end of it.
You’ll dig this if you like: Black Swan, Fight Club, Old Boy, Death Note, Code Geass
Watch list: Paprika, Millennium Actress, Mind Game, Genius Party
So you want to watch… an existential crisis embodied
Director Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film Ghost in the Shell follows cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi as she hunts down a mysterious and powerful hacker called “the puppet master.” Along the way, she begins to question her own makeup and identity, being a robot body with a human mind.
Some fans claim that Ghost in the Shell is “not only one of the greatest anime films ever made,” but also “one of the best science fiction films of all time.” It explores the concept of artificial intelligence and poses philosophical questions about the nature of existence, and humankind’s evolving relationship with technology.
It has influenced major cinematic movies, including The Wachowskis’ The Matrix. Its sequel, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, is the first anime to compete for the Cannes’ Palme d’Or—the highest prize awarded at the film festival. (Of course, there’s also the live-action adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson, but let’s not talk about that.)
Watch this if you’re… afraid of cyborgs taking over the world; afraid of cyborgs taking over your job; afraid of becoming a cyborg for your job.
You’ll dig this if you like: The Matrix, Ex Machina, Her, Metropolis, Tron
Watch list: Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion, Psycho-Pass: The Movie
So you want to watch… a feel-good romance with a twist
Director Makoto Shinkai is a veteran in this category. His films usually share a few common themes. A lot of them are love stories between couples separated by obstacles and insurmountable distances. There’s usually some sort of fantastical element to it. And more often than not, love prevails.
But among his repertoire of films, his 2016 film Kimi no Na wa, or Your Name, is probably his biggest success to date. It was the first anime film to surpass the classic Spirited Away in box office earnings (for a time), and it also won several international awards.
Kimi no Na wa follows the lives of Mitsuha and Taki in modern Japan, as their fates are mysteriously entwined—literally. The two regularly swap bodies, discovering more about each other as they go through the other’s daily routine, and cultivating feelings somewhere along the way. But one day, the swapping stops.
We follow Taki’s journey to find Mitsuha in spite of the improbability of it all, only to discover a gasp-inducing plot twist.
Watch this if you’re… looking for a not-your-regular love story, but a cool love story.
You’ll dig this if you like: The Time Traveler’s Wife, Whisper of the Heart, Spirited Away
Watch list: Weathering with You, 5 Centimeters per Second, Voices of a Distant Star, I Want to Eat Your Pancreas, Her Blue Sky, Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop
So you want to watch… a tried-and-tested shonen movie
Demon Slayer—Kimetsu no Yaiba—The Movie: Mugen Train might be just the thing.
If Kimi no Na Wa broke box office records in 2017, Demon Slayer took things one step further in 2021 by becoming the highest-grossing anime film worldwide with over $440 million in gross sales. The film did well locally, too, raking in over 10 billion yen ($100 million) within just 10 days of its release.
Demon Slayer is not a standalone film. It’s a continuation of the Demon Slayer TV series’ 26-episode first season. The series follows teenager Tanjiro Kamado who comes home to discover that his family has been slaughtered by a demon. The movie centers on Tanjiro’s efforts to save the lives of passengers aboard the Mugen Train.
Watch this if you’re… a fan of the Demon Slayer series. Or not.
You’ll dig this if you like: Train to Busan, Snowpiercer
Watch list: Jujutsu Kaisen 0, My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising, The Boy and the Beast, A Silent Voice
So you want to watch… something family-oriented
Director Mamoru Hosada is no stranger to wholesome family-oriented or coming-of-age films with a magical twist. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, for instance, features a high school girl going through adolescence while flitting back and forth in time. Wolf Children is about half-human, half-wolf children who come to terms with their mixed identities. His 2018 flick Mirai is no different.
While Mirai is not the highest-grossing Hosada film out there, it's the sixth anime and only non-Ghibli anime film to receive an Academy Award nomination for best animated feature. The film follows 4-year-old Kun who has to reckon with the arrival of his new baby sister, by meeting the future version of her. It’s a heartwarming family tale that relishes the innocence and mischief of youth.
Watch this if you’re… not an only child but you wish you were.
You’ll dig this if you like: Hugo, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, My Neighbor Totoro, When Marnie Was There
Watch list: Wolf Children, Summer Wars, Children Who Chase Lost Voices, A Letter to Momo, Tokyo Godfathers
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