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Categories: Features

Sammy Ward shares her 5 favorite anime movies, from “Ghost in the Shell” to “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time”.

Japanese animation, known as anime, has grown in popularity vastly over the past decade. Partly due to many TV shows such as Dragon Ball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh!, children and adults have had exposure to this brilliant form of animation. They’re notorious for being over-sexualized and hyper-violent even with child-friendly shows and films, but that’s probably part of what that makes them so popular. Sex and violence sells, after all. Here I look at some of the best anime films from Japan. Sex and violence aside, these are some of the greatest animations, in beauty and in story.

Ghost In The Shell (1995) – Mamoru Oshii

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Originally published as a seinen manga written by Masamune Shirow, Ghost In The Shell (Mobile Armored Riot Police) is now a very popular Japanese franchise. Thanks to screenplay writer Kazunori Itō and director Mamoru Oshii, the science fiction story was brought to life in 1995. Since then, Ghost In The Shell has continued to become a very prominent anime franchise, with a TV series and numerous video games. 

The film is set in 2029, in a world completely run through cyber connection. Humanity has access to a vast network through cybernetic bodies (shells) which integrate with their consciousness, enabling the host to have superhuman abilities. Ghost In The Shell follows a female protagonist, Motoko Kusanagi, a strong-willed human cyborg working for Section 9, a public security agency. Motoko leads a squad on a mission to seek out a very powerful and menacing hacker known only as the Puppet Master. In a technologically-advanced world, the film presents philosophical themes of identity issues such as gender and self-worth. Both Motoko and the Puppet Master are dealing with these issues as they speculate what is organic and real in this synthetic world. 

The film received great critical acclaim for its animation, which was very advanced with well-developed cell animation. The soundtrack also received a lot of praise; the ancient Japanese language of Yamato was used in the opening theme, and Japanese folk music is used which is very harmonious yet eerie. There is a re-edited, updated version of the original film called Ghost in the Shell 2.0 which replaces original animation with more recent digital technology such as 3D. 2.0 includes new audio as well as a new opening sequence, and cuts out a few brief scenes. This new version was created in celebration of the release of Mamoru Oshii’s The Skycrawlers in 2008.

Princess Mononoke (1997) – Hayao Miyazaki

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Hayao Miyazaki is the Walt Disney of anime. One of the founders of Studio Ghibli, a Japanese production company, Miyazaki has created some wonderful characters and magical worlds that enchant both children and adults alike. Like many of the classic Disney films, Studio Ghibli often base their stories on themes like family and friendship, with magic and myth being a tool for narrative.

Mostly, however, Studio Ghibli like to base their stories on subjects such as nature vs man or machine. Sometimes these themes can get rather dark and perilous. Princess Mononoke does just that, with mild scenes of violence and sights of blood. As a mining colony known as Tatara is at war with an enchanted forest, Ashitaka seeks a cure for a curse, believing the forest spirit can help him. Ashitaka is torn and caught up in this war when he meets San (Princess of the Forest), who rides with a pack of wolves as a protector of the forest and resents mankind for destroying it.

Miyazaki created a fantastical medieval Japan, exploring environmental issues and characters with depth. Princess Mononoke was the highest grossing film in Japan 1997, soon after Miramax (a Walt Disney subsidiary) bought the rights for release in America. Weinstein insisted edits should be made to meet requirements for the American audiences, however producer Toshio Suzuki sent a Katana with a message stating “no cuts”. They had the film dubbed with Hollywood stars, but the film did not appear to be as popular in America. Despite this, the film remains well-loved among Ghibli and anime fans around the world and has become a cult Japanese film.  

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001) – Shinichiro Watanabe

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Originally a TV series, Cowboy Bebop is sort of like the Japanese version of Joss Whedon’s Firefly. It is literally about cowboys in space, with nearly every man for himself in a high-tech galaxy.

The film is set between episodes 22 and 23, though it is a standalone film that doesn’t need you to watch any episodes prior. Following the adventures of a bounty hunter crew on board the spaceship Bebop, the team work on capturing a mysterious terrorist plotting an attack on mars with an unknown pathogen. They’re a very lovable bunch of motley characters; Spike Spiegel is a former member of a crime syndicate, whilst Jet Black is a former police officer and owner of Bebop. The two are accompanied by Faye Valentine, who was once a fugitive from bounty hunters, and Ed, a young but very intelligent girl with mad computer skills. There is also Ein, an artificial corgi, to throw in the cute factor, though he also has human intelligence.

The film is extremely witty, with brilliant banter between the main characters. It has wonderful action scenes; you can tell the producers boosted the budget its with film-quality sequences. The story itself has some brilliant plot twists and it is guaranteed to make you fall in love with the concept and characters by the end of it. 

Spirited Away (2001) – Hayao Miyazaki

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Although we’ve mentioned Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli already, he more than deserves to be mentioned again, especially for Spirited Away which is the most famous and successful film to come from Ghibli. It’s a Japanese Alice in Wonderland, but it’s more wondrous and even more imaginative than that. Chihiro is a 10-year-old girl and when she and her parents make a rest stop by what looks like an abandoned amusement park, Chihiro finds they’ve walked into a supernatural realm. Her parents have turned into pigs and she is forced to work in what appears to be a retreat for spirits. Chihiro must find a way to save her parents and escape this magical realm. 

The animation is stunning, based on real Japanese architecture with amazing colours and vibrancy. The music has also gained a lot of accolades for its soft and eerie tones. Once again Disney recognised the talent and skill that went into this film, though initially failed to market it for a American audience. However, after winning Best Animated Feature at the 2003 Academy Awards, the film got a much wider release and finally its brilliance got recognised by Hollywood. Thereafter, Studio Ghibli became more recognised and many of their films got wider sales internationally. 

Spirited Away is a coming-of-age Japanese fairytale which captures a lot of the culture and mythology beautifully. If you’re going to watch any of Ghibli’s films, it should be this one.  

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) – Mamoru Hosoda

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Loosely based off the novel of the same title, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a science fiction romance. Makoto Konno lives in Tokyo with her parents and younger sister. Living a normal life, she likes to play baseball and do other normal things. One day, after a freak incident where Makoto almost dies, her aunt Kazuko Yoshiyama (the main protagonist from the novel) informs Makoto that she has the ability to leap through time. Makoto is overwhelmed and uses her ability rather flippantly, not thinking about the consequences her actions may cause. She soon finds her self in a lot of trouble and putting others in danger. 

It’s another coming-of-age film, teaching the ways of not taking things for granted. Although there are scenes of peril, the style is very bright, with youthful summer vibes. It could be compared to some of the works of Studio Ghibli with its sunny exterior and comic lightness. Mamoru Hosoda does a brilliant job in creating a highly imaginative and engaging story with beautiful visuals and characters with depth and humour. 

What are your favorite anime movies? Share in the comments below!

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As a film fanatic, I love to write/talk about them as well as making short form films. I aspire to host my own screening events and one day make a feature film.

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