Japan's Finest: Exploring the Top Anime Movies of All Time

by Nana Young
Figure of Naruto, the character from the Japanese famous series

Since the 1990s, anime has taken global entertainment to a whole new level, garnering die-hard fans from every nook and cranny of the world. In the midst of long-running and fully fleshed-out shows like Naruto and One Piece lies the fast-paced masterpiece that is the anime movie.

Over the years, anime movies have thrilled millions with their ability to tell complex stories within a limited runtime. In this post, we’ll reveal the very best anime films of all time and explore masterpieces in different genres. Let’s dive in!

Introduction to Japanese Animation: A Cultural Phenomenon

Japanese Girl Anime WarriorJapanese

Anime is a Japanese term for hand-drawn or computer-generated animation. Overseas, anime is a mainstream term used in reference to any kind of Japanese animation. It’s an umbrella word that covers all manner of animated TV shows, movies, short films, and even video game footage.

Japanese animation has several distinct art styles that set it apart from other animation forms. It’s the pioneer of limited animation, which involves reusing frames of the same character. This allows the creators to focus on the art quality, which is the most important aspect of traditional anime. Japanese animation uses cinematic effects that allow studios to produce realistic, camera-like shots. Also, Japanese studios are notorious for creating the animation before the voice acting.

By combining these visual art techniques with unique characters and story lines, anime has become a cultural phenomenon in Japan and the rest of the world. These animated media showcase traditional Japanese values such as hard work, respect, and loyalty. They also serve as cultural ambassadors, introducing global audiences to Japanese traditions and social norms that they would otherwise never understand or appreciate.

Evolution of Anime: From Origins to Global Stardom

Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Specter

Before the first ever animated film in Japan, the country already had multiple forms of entertainment that blended colorful imagery with storytelling. Emakimono (illustrated handscrolls) and kagee (shadow puppetry), two of these entertainment forms, were popular in the 11th and 17th centuries, respectively. Ukiyo-e prints, a form of woodblock print art, used projected figures for storytelling and flourished between the 17th and 19th centuries. In the early 20th century, manga became mainstream in the country. It relied heavily on film elements and was a great inspiration for early animations.

In 1917, The Dull Sword, Japan’s earliest anime, was released. Inspired by Western cartoons, Ōten Shimokawa, Seitarō Kitayama, and Jun'ichi Kōuchi released several works soon after this, and today they’re known as the “fathers of anime.” During World War II (1939–1945), the Japanese government relied on animated propaganda films to spread political ideas. Anime and its creators would eventually gain massive fame in the 1970s with the creation of several classics, including Astro Boy and Lupin. At the time, most of these popular shows and films were adaptations of manga series.

The industry continued to flourish well into the 1980s, when anime became mainstream in the country. The boom saw the likes of Dragon Ball, Akira, and Gundam receive critical acclaim locally and internationally. And as the years rolled by, several anime movies and shows won prestigious filmmaking awards and the industry became a global entertainment powerhouse. The 2020s saw the medium experience another great boom globally due to the impact of Covid-19 pandemic and anime’s availability on Netflix and other streaming services.

Diving into the World of Anime Movies: Understanding the Appeal

Demon Slayer The Movie: Mugen Train is a huge box office hit in Japan.

The unique qualities of anime movies serve as tools to captivate audiences worldwide. By offering features that Western animation studios like Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks can't, these films have endeared themselves to our hearts forever. For one, anime movies have plots that are a lot more complex than other forms of animation. The intricate storytelling in some of these films is enough to leave you glued to your seat for hours. It’s not just the plots that are complex, but the characters too, as they tend to exhibit different layers and traits throughout the film’s runtime.

As you might guess, all of these complexities are better appreciated by adults, which brings us to another reason people love the medium so much. Anime movies have different genres, some of which cater to children. However, the majority of them have adult themes, such as the blood-filled scenes in Vampire Hunter D.

When it comes to stunning visuals, anime movies offer unrivalled value. They even trump anime shows in this aspect, as their animators tend to have more time to deliver and a larger budget per minute to work with. These animators realize that consumers don’t care for perfect realism; hence, they’re free to go overboard with combat scenes, physical features, colors, and expressions if it makes their work more interesting.

Unveiling the Best: Defining the Top Anime Movies

Studio Ghibli - Spirited Away

With thousands of entries, it would take something truly exceptional to make it on a list of the top 3 anime movies of all time. Selecting the best was extremely difficult, as there were several truly special works of art to consider. However, we believe we made the right choice, thanks to our strict criteria for identifying the top anime movies. The movie's critical success (including awards and ratings), its enduring popularity from the time of its release to the present, and its cultural influence on a global scale were some of the factors we took into account. We also considered uniqueness, making sure to avoid movies that relied on cliche backgrounds, character styles, and storylines. So let’s find out the top 3 anime movies of all time.

  1. Spirited Away (2001): The number of critics who would consider Spirited Away the best anime movie ever made is staggering. Directed and written by Hayao Miyazaki, the movie tells the tale of a 10-year-old girl on a journey through a supernatural realm. Spirited Away has won several accolades, including the 2003 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. It’s also the highest-grossing anime film of all time, earning over $383,883,823 worldwide.

  2. Grave of the Fireflies (1988): Based on a short story of the same name, this anime movie touched millions of hearts after its release in 1988. In the film, two war orphans struggle to survive the dangers of World War II. It’s not only one of the greatest anime movies but also one of the greatest war films to ever exist.

  3. Your Name (2016): When two young people inexplicably swap bodies, their lives become intertwined as they try to find answers. Your Name takes viewers on a journey through drama, romance, and fantasy.

Timeless Classics: Anime Movies That Stand the Test of Time

Princess Momonoke

One defining trait of quality anime films is their ability to earn enduring acclaim and continuously resonate with audiences decades after their release. If they were released today, they would be just as successful, if not more. A lot of the movies released in the late 1980s and 1990s fit this criteria. Let’s take Akira as an example. The cyberpunk action movie was released in 1988 but is still relevant 36 years later. Set in a dystopian take on Tokyo, it was one of the first anime to appeal to a Western adult audience. The plot focuses on the fight against greater powers that are hell-bent on oppressing and silencing the common folk, which is a subject that the average young man or woman can relate to today.

Ghost in the Shell (1995), Perfect Blue (1997), and Princess Mononoke (1997) are three other movies that we can call timeless classics because of their captivating plots and relevant life lessons. Despite being decades old, these animated films still look fantastic, even when compared to some recent releases.

Modern Masterpieces: Recent Hits Redefining the Genre

Evangelion EVA-01 in Fukuoka

Though most of the best anime movies were released a long time ago, there are still recent entries that could turn out to be classics for future generations. Three great films come to mind when we think of recent anime movies that have garnered critical acclaim and set new standards for excellence in storytelling and animation. The first is Suzume, which was released in 2022 and follows a young woman on her quest to save Japan from impending doom.

The First Slam Dunk (2022) is another modern masterpiece. It’s centered on basketball, one of the most popular sports in the world right now. But the list wouldn’t be complete without some sci-fi, a popular genre in modern times. Hence, we need to include Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time is the fourth film in the Rebuild of Evangelion series and one of the longest anime movies ever.

Iconic Characters: Memorable Heroes and Villains in Anime Movies

Studio Ghibli - My Neighbor Totoro

Where would anime movies be without their unforgettable characters? Some of these characters are fan favorites that have become icons of Japanese animation. Tetsuo Shima from Akira has to be one of the most iconic characters in anime film history. Voiced by Nozomu Sazaki, the young boy is one of the main characters of the movie, alongside Shotaro Kaneda. Tetsuo’s gradual descent into madness is one of the most complete character developments you can find in any movie. Another great example of a fully fleshed-out character is Chihiro from Spirited Away. The movie perfectly portrays her transition from a spoiled brat into a mature and brave young girl in its 2-hour runtime.

In terms of kawaii sweetness and cuteness, Totoro from My Neighbor Totoro is arguably the most adorable character. Then there's the bad guys—characters who are up to no good but still captivate audiences with their motivations and story arcs. The noble Lady Eboshi (Princess Mononoke) is a great example, as she has logical reasons for the acts of evil she commits. Yubaba (Spirited Away) is more like the typical villain one might expect. However, the evil witch is one of the most creative spell-casters you’ll ever see.

Behind the Scenes: Insights into Popular Anime Studios

Studio Ghibli's Kiki's Delivery Service

Anime studios are responsible for bringing these captivating stories to life through an elaborate creative process that includes storyboarding, character design, and voice acting. Many of these studios are independent from the writer, director, and producer. Rather, they’re often hired on freelance contracts.

Some of the most popular anime studios are Madhouse, Studio Ghibli, Kyoto Animation, and Studio Bones. Madhouse, in particular, is responsible for several timeless classic anime films, including Perfect Blue (a pop singer struggles to deal with her stalker) and Paprika (a young female therapist tries to recover a stolen machine that allows people to enter dreams). 

Fan Favorites: Anime Movies That Have Won Hearts Worldwide

Akira - Poster

Not every anime has to garner praise from critics to be successful. Sometimes, all they need is to give the fans exactly what they want. Let’s showcase anime movies that have gained widespread popularity and acclaim among fans, both in Japan and internationally. Check out our curated list below:

  1. Princess Mononoke (1997): Intriguing action, enchanting characters, great storytelling, and stunning visuals make Princess Mononoke a favorite among many anime fans.

  2. Akira (1988): This R-rated movie is partially responsible for creating the first set of anime fans from abroad.

  3. Ghost in the Shell (1995): This is another action-packed fan favorite. It tells the story of the cyborg policewoman and her partner in their quest for justice.

Anime Movies for All Ages: Family-Friendly Entertainment

Studio Ghibli - Howl's Moving Castle

Even though the majority of modern anime caters to an adult audience, there are still tons of family-friendly releases suitable for viewers of all ages. The following movies provide wholesome and entertaining experiences for families to enjoy together:

  1. Wolf Children (2012): A woman struggles to raise her supernatural children alone after her werewolf lover unexpectedly dies.

  2. Howl's Moving Castle (2004): An unconfident young woman must rely on an insecure young wizard to break a terrible curse.

  3. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989): A young witch operates an air delivery service to make money.

  4. My Neighbor Totoro (1988): Two girls embark on adventures with fascinating forest spirits.

Looking Ahead: The Future of Anime Movies and Their Global Impact

The future of anime movies appears as bright as ever. With streaming services looking to pick up adaptations of smaller manga series, there should be enough creative inspiration for producers and studios to create new masterpieces. No doubt, anime movies will continue to evolve and shape the landscape of global cinema for decades to come. 

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