Surprising absolutely no one, I was a pretty big fan of anime when I was in high school. I remember hanging out with my friends at lunch and discussing everything from Madoka Magica to Yuri!!! on Ice. At some point during high school, this excitement and love for the medium faded away, and aside from rewatching some favourites like Tokyo Mew Mew and Princess Tutu every so often, I more or less stopped watching anime.
And then the world started falling apart and I decided to put on Ponyo, a movie that I had loved as a child. And once that was finished I put on Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away, two more childhood favorites who were soon joined by movies I hadn’t seen before like Princess Mononoke and Paprika. Through delving back into anime movies I rediscovered my fondness for anime and while not as intense as I used to be, I’ve started watching anime again. And not just ones I’ve seen before. Below are some of my favourites; either ones I’ve loved for years or ones I’ve just recently seen. Check them out even if you don’t especially love anime, you might be surprised.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), dir. Hayao Miyazaki
Howl’s Moving Castle is one of my favourite Studio Ghibli movies. Where do I even start? It’s gorgeously animated (as is the norm) and the backgrounds are beautiful (also the norm.)
It’s about a girl named Sophie Hatter (Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons in the english dub) who, after encountering an (allegedly) heart-eating wizard named Howl (Christian Bale), is cursed by a witch (Lauren Bacall) who turns her into an old woman. In an effort to break the curse, Sophie leaves home and sets off to find a cure in a wasteland aptly called “the waste.” While there she encounters a living scarecrow who she names Turnip Head and finds Howl’s moving castle. After entering it without invitation she meets Howl’s apprentice Markl (Josh Hutchinson) and Calcifer (Billy Crystal), a fire demon whose magic powers Howl’s castle. When Howl finally arrives home, Sophie tells him that she’s a cleaning lady who Calcifer hired.
Howl’s Moving Castle is absolutely a love story but it’s also very much an anti-war movie. Sophie’s country of Ingary is at war with a neighbouring country following the disappearance of Ingary’s Crown Prince. As a result, all of Ingary’s wizards have been drafted to fight, something which requires them to quite literally lose their humanity and transform into monsters, losing the ability to turn back in the process. Miyazaki has never been subtle when it comes to his distaste for war, he did after all refuse to attend the 75th Academy Awards because he “didn’t want to visit a country that was bombing Iraq”. It’s a recurring theme in his works and it’s one that really works well here.
Perfect Blue (1997), dir. Satoshi Kon
(CW: Perfect Blue contains depictions of both simulated and attempted sexual assault)
Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue is the story of Mima, a retired idol who is pursuing an acting career. Over the course of the film, Mima becomes the victim of stalking and loses her grip on reality.
Today, Perfect Blue feels like a prescient film about the (buzzword warning) dangers of parasocial relationships and the effects they have on both ends as well as having so much to say about the ownership that (typically male) fans feel they have over female creator’s bodies. It’s been almost 25 years since Perfect Blue was released and even though the technology in it is out of date, the plot remains as vital as ever.
Madoka Magica: Rebellion (2013), dir. Akiyuki Shinbo & Yukihiro Miyamoto
Rebellion is the conclusion to Madoka Magica, a 2011 magical girl anime that follows a group of girls who make a contract with a cat-like being named Kyubey. In return for granting a wish, Kyubey requires the girls led by Madoka Kaname to become magical girls and fight witches. Over the course of that series, Madoka and her fellow magical girls Sayaka, Mami, Kyoko, and Homura learn the real cost of being magical girls.
Rebellion is the third and final movie and the only one to be made up entirely of new material; the first two Beginnings and Eternal serve as recaps of the ten-episode series. Rebellion, meanwhile, picks up after the events of the series and follows Homura Akemi as transfers to a new school in Mitakihara where she meets Madoka, Sayaka, Mami, and Kyoko. Homura and the rest of the girls, joined by Mami’s familiar Bebe, fight creatures called Nightmares as magical girls. Everything is happy and nobody dies. Or do they. Who can tell for sure? I know I won’t be telling you here, you’ll just have to watch it for yourself.
Akira (1988), dir. Katsuhiro Otomo
(CW: Akira contains sequences of flashing lights)
Set in the far-off future of 2019, Akira is simply put, fantastic. Everything in it connects to make something incredible; the lighting, the colours, absolutely everything works together perfectly to create genius.
I was a concert band kid in school and because of that scores tend to stick out to me. Akira’s score is, at times, haunting. It feels both mechanical and like a living, breathing thing all at once. Sometimes with literal breaths like in “Battle Against Clown”. The composer, Shōji Yamashiro, drew from Indonesian gamelan music and Japanese noh music while creating the score and the juxtaposition of elements of traditional music with the futuristic setting is fantastic.
Akira’s cultural impact is impossible to deny; without it, franchises like Pokémon and Naruto may never have grown as popular as they did outside of Japan. As well, it kicked off a wave of Japanese cyberpunk works like Cowboy Bebop and Tetsuo: The Iron Man.
Belladonna of Sadness (1973), dir. Eiichi Yamamoto
(CW: Belladonna of Sadness contains graphic depiction of sexual assault and sequences of flashing lights)
I struggled over whether or not to include Belladonna of Sadness, it’s a very heavy film due to the nature of the inciting incident and it’s never been especially easy for me to figure out how to talk about it (my review of it on Letterboxd took several days for me to write as I navigated how to discuss both the subject matter and the beauty of the animation.)
Belladonna of Sadness is a 1973 erotic anime film directed by Eiichi Yamamoto (Astro Boy) and inspired by Jules Michelet’s non-fiction book La Sorcière. The final part of the Animerama trilogy, a trilogy of adult anime films, is the only one of the three that Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, Buddha, Princess Knight) had no involvement in. It follows Jeanne, a medieval French peasant woman who, after being sexually assaulted by nobles on her wedding day, turns to witchcraft to seek revenge.
I love this movie for two reasons: the soundtrack and visuals. Belladonna of Sadness was first described to me as “an erotic prog-rock musical” which is not untrue, that is what it is. The soundtrack, composed by Masahiko Satoh, is fantastic. I’ll often throw it on in the background while I’m working on things and it isn’t an uncommon occurrence for it to get stuck in my head for days on end. Beyond the soundtrack, the visuals are incredible. Inspired by the works of Gustav Klimt and Tarot illustrations as well as the art of Aubrey Beardsley and Harry Clarke, Belladonna of Sadness consists mostly of panning shots of still watercolour paintings and it’s gorgeous and absolutely unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.