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It is common knowledge that Japan is a country which churns out a number of traditionally hand-drawn animated movies on a yearly basis. It is also easy to shun animated films from Japan because they are not traditional Disney fare. But go beyond that initial discomfort and you will find some of the most beautiful films.

Here is my Top 10 list of Japanese animated films.  To make it clear – I do not have an absolute favourite.

Therefore, in no particular order, here is my list of best Japanese animated films (anime movies) and it is in no manner exhaustive:

1. My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari No Totoro) 

This brilliant 1988 animated film made by anime legend Hayao Miyazaki, is one of the purest and most innocent animated films I’ve come across. The story is about 2 children who move to a rural area in Japan with their professor father so that they can be closer to their sick mother, who is in a hospital nearby. In this idyllic place, they meet the guardian spirit of the forest, Totoro, and discover the joys of childhood and the love for nature. This film not only makes you remember your childhood, but subtly puts across strong environmental messages.

2. Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru No Haka)


When was the last time you cried for an animated film? Isao Takahata’s 1988 film on the struggles of two young children in wartime Japan not only opens the tap of tears you never knew you had, but really makes you look at human suffering in a more neutral manner. Never thought animated films could be about serious subjects such as this? Well time for a rethink. This is one of the most poignant and heartbreaking films I’ve watched (animated or live-action), so if you plan on watching this, leave all your preconceptions behind and get a whole box of tissues.

3. Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-Hime)

Miyazaki’s 1997 animated film broke all previous box-office records in Japan, becoming the highest grossing film (animated or live-action) in the country, before Titanic stole its glory. This fantastical historical epic is as stunning as anything you’ll ever see. A prince, from a tribe (that is on the brink of extinction), is cursed by a boar god when he kills it to save his village. He travels to the west to find answers and finds a huge war that is being raged between the forest spirits and a woman who is cutting trees for industry. This is the quintessential environmental film, which explores all sides of environmental questions in the subtlest manner possible. Epic on every scale, Princess Mononoke is packed with action, emotion, breathtaking imagery and beautiful music (composed by Joe Hisaishi).

4. Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro No Kamikakushi)


This 2001 fantasy animated film, directed by (guess who, no duh), Miyazaki (again!), won the Oscar for best animated feature the following year and knocked off Titanic from the spot of highest grossing film in Japan. This is a story of a girl named Chihiro, who is moving with her parents from one place to another. However, when her parents take a detour, they all end up in an abandoned fair. Seeing delicious-looking food kept in empty stalls, Chihiro’s parents proceed to eat it, while she stays away. Before she knows it, her parents are magically turned into pigs and will become food in the spirit world (which is what this isolated fair is actually). In a desperate attempt to free her parents from their fate, Chihiro enlists herself as a slave in the spirit world and learns about values such as patience, kindness and acceptance in the process.

5. Only Yesterday (Omohide Poro Poro)

Isao Takahata’s underrated 1991 masterpiece is one of the finest films I’ve seen and it really deserves a spot on the top. This realistic animated film is about Taeko, an unmarried 27-year-old who works in Toyko but decides to visit her sister’s in-laws in a rural area in Japan so that she can assist with the Safflower harvest there. It also gives her a chance to get away from hectic city life. On her journey, she reminisces about her childhood, which will inevitably make you think about your own. Nostalgic about her days as a child and remembering the dreams she had then, make her wonder if she has actually been truthful to her childhood dreams. She then wonders what sort of person she really wants to be, and if she has ever pursued that path. This poignant film will make you ponder about your own life and your own aspirations by increasingly taking the form of a book of memories.

6. Millennium Actress (Sennen Joyû)

Often hailed as Miyazaki’s successor, Satoshi Kon left a brilliant legacy behind him before succumbing to prostrate cancer, aged 46. His demise at such a young age last year is definitely lamented, but there is absolutely no chance that his genius will ever be forgotten. Kon’s 2001 film, Millennium Actress is one such testament of his brilliant mind. The film goes through the life of the sensational actress Chiyoko Fujiwara (she doesn’t exist if you are wondering if she is real), oftentimes switching from her real life to her reel life. Intense drama, profound emotions, visual poetry and pulsating music (composed by Susumu Hirasawa), make this film one of the most amazing movie experiences you are likely to have.

7. Whisper of the Heart (Mimi Wo Sumaseba)


This delightful Studio Ghibli (Miyazaki and Takahata’s studio) animated feature, was directed by Yoshifumi Kondō in 1995. This brilliant film made others believe that Yoshifumi Kondō would be the next Miyazaki or Takahata, but unfortunately, Kondō passed away in 1998, aged 47, leaving behind Whisper of the Heart for fans of his work. While the film is quite different from normal Ghibli films, it is in no way inferior (Miyazaki wrote the screenplay for this one by the way). The story follows a young schoolgirl Shizuku, who notices a pattern on all the library books she issues. They have all been signed by someone called Seiji Amasawa. No – this isn’t a mystery movie and we soon find out who that is. This is essentially a coming-of-age story. We watch Shizuku as she confronts her fears, deals with love triangles, and finds her true talent.

8. 5 Centimetres Per Second (Byōsoku Go Senchimētoru)

Makoto Shinkai, the director of this 2007 film, can be considered a one-man institution. From a virtually unknown animator, Shinkai has created his own style of animation that is now being hailed by animation lovers worldwide. This film is divided into 3 segments,  following the story of 2 childhood friends (a boy and a girl). The first story talks about their friendship in elementary school. However, once they are done with elementary school, Akari (the girl), informs Takaki (the boy) that her family is shifting somewhere else. Knowing that once she shifts there permanently, he will not be able to see her, Takaki travels by train to see Akari, and intends to give her a letter containing his feelings. However, he loses that en route. They meet, share their first kiss and Takaki leaves. The other two segments chronicle their lives apart and their eventual choices brought about by distance. Watch out for the astoundingly beautiful artwork. Like a reviewer said, every frame looks like a wallpaper.

9. My Neighbours the Yamadas (Hōhokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun)


Isao Takahata’s 1999 feature became the first Ghibli film to be traditionally animated using a computer. This brilliant film is not your conventional movie. It is like the day-to-day account of a family – in this case – the Yamada family. This film has a comic-book feel to it and is divided in chapters, which usually end with a very appropriate Haiku. Though the events are not really chronological and do not seem to follow a coherent order, you will never grow tired of watching the 6 members of the Yamada family going about their work. From the parents, Takashi and Matsuko to Shige (Matsuko’s mother), to Noboru (Takashi and Matsuko’s son), to Nonoko (their daughter), and Pochi (the family dog), the adventures and misadventures of the Yamadas may not seem as action-packed as Hollywood fare, but they are perhaps the most realistic and therefore strangely hilarious sights you’ll ever see.

10. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Toki O Kakeru Shôjo)

I was really tempted to put Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle in this spot, but I had to take it out, not because it is undeserving, but because I wanted to put some variation in this post. Mamoru Hosoda’s 2006 feature is a highly interesting film – and hilarious at times. It is about a schoolgirl named Makoto who learns from a mishap that she has an ability to go back in time. Though this exciting discovery becomes a tool with which she settles some unwanted occurrences in her normal life, she finds that tampering with time has its own side effects. When she also discovers that there seems to be a limit on the number of times she can go to the past, she has to learn how to make most of her new power.

Woah! That was pretty difficult. Yes I know there are a number of films missing in this post, but as I made it clear, this post is not conclusive and therefore does not contain ALL films that I think are deserving of being in the Top 10. Besides, I need to go find myself other anime movies to watch. Ciao!