Must Watch Japanese Anime Films

Edited by Brittany Butters


For quite some time now people have been asking me for my recommendations on all things anime.  So I decided to go ahead and write a post about my favorite anime films.  There are so many I could write about and this list would be so long if I included all the ones I enjoy!  To be honest it's really difficult to not include a lot of Studio Ghibli movies on this list.  So I decided to only include my top picks for Studio Ghibli as well.  That being said... for the interested anime seeker, I present to you my MUST WATCH ANIME FILMS!  


1) Akira (1988)


Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, this is one of the first anime films to reach major success both in Japan and on the worldwide scene.  It is one of the most influential anime films and considered a landmark in Japanese animation.  Also it was released the year I was born...  So yeah, kind of a big deal!  Akira has also had a huge cult film following since its early theatrical release.  

Now, let me set the scene for you.... Neo-Tokyo, 2019, many biker gangs inhabit this now dystopian-like city.  The story focuses mainly on one gang called, "The Capsules".  Kaneda, the leader of the Capsules, and his fellow members fight another biker gang at the start of the movie.  During the fight, Kaneda's best friend/fellow Capsule member, Tetsuo, is involved in a freak accident and shortly after gains psychic powers.   After a series of events combined with a lifetime of suppressed emotions Tetsuo reeks havoc on the city.  Kaneda and others then try to prevent Tetsuo from causing more destruction and releasing the imprisoned psychic, Akira.  

So there you have it...  That in a nutshell is the legendary AKIRA!  I highly recommend this movie because of its superb animation, cyberpunk feel, plot and for the fact that it is one of the most influential/ important anime films in history.  Seriously.... WATCH IT!



2) Ghost in the Shell (1995)


Ghost in the Shell should honestly need no introduction.  Directed by, Mamoru Oshii, this is the film that inspired the Wachowski siblings to create The Matrix.  

The story: Major Matoko Kusanagi and her partner Batou are part of Public Security Sector 9, who are investigating the crimes of a genius hacker called the Puppet Master.  Kusanagi struggles with her consciousness throughout the film, pondering if she is still human due to her cyborg body.  The search for her true human ghost and the Puppet Master collide as the hacker brings to light many suspicions.  Any more back story would take away from the film in my opinion.  So I'll leave that up to you to discover the rest...

Besides Ghost in the Shell being one of the most iconic anime films of our time, Major Kusanagi is one of my favorite characters in all of anime.  She is simple, yet complex.  She is beautiful, yet handsome.  She is incredibly strong due to her converted cyborg body, yet her human soul still remains... or does it?  



3) Perfect Blue (1997)


Now, if the above pictures did not intrigue you... your loss.  Perfect Blue was directed by the one of a kind and incredibly talented Satoshi Kon.  This is one of the darkest, mind twisting anime films I have ever seen.  Described as: "if Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch collaborated on an animated film this would be the result."

The story: Perfect Blue follows Mima, a Japanese pop idol, who decides to leave her group and try her luck in the world of acting.  Shortly after the transition she begins to be threatened by a stalker known as "Me-Mania".  The technology age plays a big part in this film as she discovers her stalker via a website called "Mima's Room", which features public diary entries that seem to be written by her since it delves into her life in immense detail.  The plot only thickens from there.

This is another favorite of mine since it is a psychological thriller/horror film.  Perfect Blue is in a class of its own since few anime can pull off this level of intensity.  A friend introduced me to Satoshi Kon many years ago and I have fallen in love with his films ever since.  I've recommended this film before and will continue to do so since almost everyone I have introduced it to has been blown away. 



4) Summer Wars (2009) 


Summer Wars was directed by Mamoru Hosoda and is one of my favorite anime movies.  This film is more light hearted than the ones I have mentioned previously in this post.  The animation is beautiful and the story is unique, which seems to be a rare combination these days.

The story: Junior high student Kenji Koiso is taken by his fellow upperclassman Natsuki, to her great-grandmother's 90th birthday party in Ueda.  There he discovers her real intentions for bringing him along.  While dealing with Natsuki and her family he discovers a much bigger problem.  He is falsely accused of hacking into a virtual world called Oz by an a.i. named... wait for it... Love Machine.  Kenji's fight to restore peace, prove his innocence and stop Love Machine from taking over then ensues. 

Watch this film! It's a great feel-good movie and like I said earlier the animation is spectacular. If you do like this film the director has made other great films as well. Strongly suggest looking up Mamoru Hosoda. 



5) Princess Mononoke (1997)


Princess Mononoke is one of the most nostalgic anime films for me.  The year it was released my grandmother took me to go see it at an independent theater and I'll never forget it.  Thank you grandma!!  I would say it was this film that launched my love for Studio Ghibli and for anime in general, unknowingly of course, since I was young and had no idea Japanese animation was its own genre.  To this day I remember the feeling it gave me, the serious tone/message, the unique drawing style and my crush on Prince Ashitaka, don't laugh... I was 9 years old. 

The story: Due to a curse placed on him by a demon, Prince Ashitaka and his traveling companion Yakul are forced to leave the village and its people, never to return.  Ashitaka later encounters San (the wolf girl), Lady Eboshi from Iron Town and many others.  The film follows the prince on his journey for a cure, only to discover the struggle between the gods of the forest and the humans who are trying to take over the land.  

The music is incredible and the characters really draw you into their imaginary world.  This is a masterpiece by Miyazaki and it will always hold a special place in my heart.  If you don't like this film, we can't be friends...  So serious.  Watch it.  Love it.  That is all.



6) Millennium Actress (2001)


Millennium Actress might be a contender for my all time favorite anime film.  If you remember I mentioned a movie directed by Satoshi Kon earlier on this list.  Well, he strikes gold again with this story.  Millennium Actress is so captivating and unique that there are few movies that can even compete on its level.  

The story: Genya, a TV interviewer,  tracks down a once famous actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara, who has become a recluse since she retired around 30 years ago.  Genya presents to her a key, but this is not just any key.  This "gift" causes her to reflect on her life and her career.  Genya and his cameraman are sucked in as they take a journey through her past and discover why this key is so important to her. 

This film is filled with lots of laughs, some tears, love, anger, and war as it takes you through the different eras.  I highly suggest this film for its unique plot and because it has alllll the "feels"!  



7) Spirited Away (2001)


Spirited Away is one of the most famous Studio Ghibli movies and for good reason.  Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, it's hard for anything that he touches to not be incredible and this film is no exception.  Spirited Away was the first anime to win an Oscar for "Best Animated Film" beating out popular titles like Lilo & Stitch and Ice Age.  To be honest I don't think either of those films can even compete with Spirited Away. 

The story:  Chihiro, a whiny young girl, moves to a new town with her family.  Along the way her dad decides to take a short cut and ends up at a dead end.  Upon further investigating the hidden gem they come across by accident,  Chihiro and her family discover the truth the hard way... The world they have found is ruled by gods, witches and spirits with no place for humans.  Chihiro is lucky enough to barely escape the first time, but now she must find a way to save herself and her family.

Magical and spectacular in every way you can imagine is how I would describe this film.  From the music (Joe Hisaishi is a genius)  to the animation, everything is superb.  This movie is another very nostalgic Ghibli film and I remember watching it again and again when it was first released on DVD, to the point where I  pretended to be sick so I could stay home from school...  Sorry MOM!  It was just that good!  So yes, highly recommended!



8) Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011)

New Title: Journey to Agartha  (星を追う子ども)

Directed by the talented Makoto Shinkai, Children who Chase Lost Voices is a beautifully animated film with lots of action and adventure.  Makoto Shinkai is known for his attention to detail in his art style so I couldn't leave him off this list.  

The story:  Asuna is a young girl whose father died and whose mother works long hours as a nurse.  Forced to grow up quickly due to her solitary lifestyle and lack of parenting, Asuna leaves home and discovers a hidden realm called Agartha.  On her journey she searches for the Gate of Life and Death, which can bring people back from the dead.

Many anime viewers are in love with some of Shinkai's other works more so than this one, but I personally think this one is his best.  Some of his other films, while undeniably beautiful, lack in plot depth.  This film for me has a good combination of both.



9) Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001)

(カウボーイビバップ 天国の扉)

Most people know the show Cowboy Bebop, but in 2001 they released Cowboy Bebop: The Movie.  While watching the series wouldn't hurt... and you should watch the series!  This movie stands alone, which means it doesn't require you to have watched the series beforehand.  

The story:  The bounty hunting squad is back at it, but this time they are trying to save the human race on Mars.  There is a terrorist who is trying to destroy life on Mars using an unknown pathogen.  It's up to Spike and Jet's crew to try to take down the terrorist and discover the source of the pathogen before it's too late.

I typically prefer to listen to the Japanese voiced version of shows and films as I prefer Japanese voices to their English dubbed counterparts.  However, as with the show I prefer the English dubbed cast.  Cowboy Bebop wasn't the first show to do dubbing, but it certainly put voice acting in anime on the map.  Steve Blum's dub is quite possibly one of the most famous dubs out there.  So once again in the movie he voices him as well and it's amazing.  Watch it, you won't regret it, especially if you liked the show. 



10) Grave of the Fireflies (1988)


This is another film done by Studio Ghibli, but directed by Isao Takahata.  This one I debated about putting on the list because it is so sad.  However,  it is undeniably moving and is a great depiction of the struggles during World War II in Japan.   Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most powerful war films and that's why I think it deserves to be seen and recognized by more people. 

The story:  Setsuko and Seita, two siblings living in Kobe, try to desperately learn how to stay alive after they have been orphaned by their mother.  Their mother dies after being badly burned when incendiary bombs are dropped on their town.  Suddenly thrown into a war torn nation, Seita must learn how to take care of himself and his sister during a time of poverty and starvation.

The film shows the struggles of a young boy and his sister to the fullest extent.  I watched this on my own many years ago and of course it was upsetting, but it is a definite must watch at least once.  Some people refer to Grave of the Fireflies as an anti-war film, but I'll leave that up to you to decide.



11) Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) 

( 風の谷のナウシカ)


This film is a Miyazaki classic and one that doesn't get enough love since it can be over shadowed by some of the bigger named Studio Ghibli titles.  One of Miyazaki's earliest creations with Studio Ghibli is Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

The story: Many years ago an apocalyptic war broke out and destroyed the human population.  The war and destruction gave birth to the toxic jungle which now contains giant mutant insects that seem to want nothing more than to harm humans.  Many years pass and then comes along a young girl named Nausicaä who is trying to protect her people as well as the planet.  She finds herself trying to bring peace between the warring nations and the toxic jungle.  

The music in this film is incredible, Joe Hisaishi collaborates with Miyazaki in this classic and it seriously takes my breath away.  The anime, the music and the strong female protagonist are all worth witnessing.  On a side note, I have a book of all the drawings Miyazaki did for this film and it really is amazing his views on her character and the story. 



12) Paprika (2006)


So I just want to make one thing clear, if you haven't noticed already... Satoshi Kon is an amazing director and I love his work!  It really is unfortunate that he died, but he was a creative genius and his films are worth recognizing as some of the best.  Now, I present to you, Paprika, another Satoshi Kon film that has a completely different feel from the other two I mentioned previously.  

The story:  This somewhat Inception-esque film revolves around a machine called, the D.C. Mini.  The device allows therapists to enter their patient's dreams.  A thief steals the device and uses it to enter people's minds when they are awake, and distract them with their own dreams and those of others.

Paprika is filled with so much chaos that you find this 90 minute film goes by in the blink of an eye.  In fact Christopher Nolan's film, Inception, was inspired by this anime.  So go ahead and take in the world of Paprika.



I hope you enjoy the recommendations that I provided.  Also like I said earlier on in this post, there are so many fantastic Studio Ghibli films that there is no way I could include them all on this list.  That being said, there are many movies out there that are unique and spectacular done by other studios and directors that deserve to be recognized!  So please do your research and I promise you will not be disappointed.  

If you want more suggestions feel free to contact me directly or leave a comment and I'll be sure to give more recommendations! 


If you have any questions or comments, you know what to do....