Making a list of the best animated films is difficult because it can easily be dominated by one person and one animation company: Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. There is an argument to be made that the 10 best animated films of all time could be composed entirely of Miyazaki’s work – that’s how unprecedented he is in the world of Japanese animation. But for the sake of this list, we’re going to do our best to feature only Miyazaki’s most important and influential work in order to get other great titles on the list. That being said, here are 10 classic animated movies that everyone should see at least once.
1. Abducted as if by magic (2001)
Abducted as if by magic is written and directed by legendary Hayao Miyazaki and should be everyone’s first stop when it comes to checking out his illustrious list of films. The film follows Chihiro Ogino, a 10-year-old girl who enters the spirit world where she must save herself and her parents from the witch Yubaba. With beautiful animation from Studio Ghibli and some of the most inventive characters in Miyazaki’s career, there’s a reason Abducted as if by magic became the first Japanese animated film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
2. Akira (1988)
Akira deserves a place in any discussion of the best animated films of all time. Set in a dystopian version of Tokyo built after a cataclysmic psychic explosion decades earlier, Akira tells the story of a teenage biker named Tetsuo. Tetsuo has psychic powers and seeks to free the imprisoned medium Akira. Written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, and based on Otomo’s manga of the same name, the film’s cyberpunk styles influenced countless animated and live-action films in the years that followed.
3. Princess mononoke (1999)
While Miyazaki was already a big name in Japan in 1999, it was not until Princess mononoke was released that he became a household name the world over. The film tells the story of a prince who finds himself caught in the middle of a fight between a forest princess and a mining town that destroys the environment. Princess mononoke is particularly different from the majority of Miyazaki’s other films as it targets mature audiences (it’s rated PG-13 in the US) with a darker tone and violence. So if his kids movies get you thinking, take a look at this one first.
4. My neighbor Totoro (1988)
Named by director Terry Gilliam as his favorite animated movie, My neighbor Totoro is one of the most influential films in Miyazaki’s career, with the character of Totoro being one of his most iconic. The film revolves around two young girls who discover that their new home is in a magical forest and with the help of Totoro, go on a series of adventures that help them understand the complicated nature of life. The film features all of the elements that have defined Miyazaki’s career, including the rare gift of being able to mix a wide range of emotions to tell a story that will appeal to children and adults alike.
5. the Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
the Grave of the Fireflies is a famous animated film by writer and director Isao Takahata and hosted by Studio Ghibli. The film tells the story of two siblings who struggle to survive during the final months of World War II after their mother died in an American bombing raid and their father left for the Japanese Navy. Don’t expect the kind of whimsical melancholy you get from a Miyazaki-Ghibli movie – it’s a war drama that just happens to be animated. The film features breathtaking imagery that is as powerful as it is sad, and is among the best war films ever made, animated or not.
6. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is one of the most important films of Miyazaki’s career because it represents the starting point of everything he has done since. The film follows the adventures of a young princess named Nausicaä and her attempts to stop the kingdom of Tolmekia from wiping out a jungle of giant insects using an ancient and powerful weapon. While the cinema Cagliostro Castle was Miyazaki’s first director five years earlier (based on the Lupine III manga from Monkey Punch), Nausicaä was adapted from the acclaimed Miyazaki manga of the same name and produced by the animation company soon to become Studio Ghibli.
seven. Ghost in the shell (1995)
With a live Hollywood version of Ghost in the shell along the way (along with a few controversial castings), now is the perfect time to check out the animated film that influenced countless filmmakers including Lilly and Lana Wachowski and their Matrix trilogy. Based on the manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow, the film revolves around Major Motoko Kusanagi’s attempts to hunt down a hacker known as Puppet Master in a futuristic world where everything is interconnected via an electronic network. The film is celebrated for its animation and action as much as for the ideas it explores, including gender identity and sexuality in a futuristic society.
8. Perfect blue (1997)
Recognize this image? If you’ve seen Darren Aronofsky Requiem for a dream, and in a lesser extent Black Swan, you’ll immediately notice the tributes to Satoshi Kon’s animated psychological thriller, Perfect blue. Aronofsky constantly emphasized Perfect blue as an influence in several of his films – and you can certainly see the parallels between the film and Black Swan. Perfect blue tells the story of a singer from a group of Japanese pop idols who decides to leave the group to become an actor. But when she becomes a victim of harassment, she sinks deeper and deeper into a role that threatens to overwhelm her.
9. Paprika (2006)
The most recent movie on this list, Paprika is based on the novel of the same name by Yasutaka Tsutsui and was directed by Satoshi Kon of Perfect blue – something that should give you an idea of what to expect here. Paprika tells the story of a psychology researcher Atsuko Chiba who uses a revolutionary device to capture patients’ dreams in order to help them. She soon finds herself embroiled in a complicated plot that threatens her existence. It was Kon’s last film before his death in 2010. If you’re a fan of Christopher Nolan Creation, then Paprika definitely worth a visit.
ten. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001)
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie arrived three years after the end of the famous animated series Cowboy Bebop and brings back all the key members of the series, including director Shinichirō Watanabe, writer Keiko Nobumoto, character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto, animation director Hiroshi Osaka, and composer Yoko Kanno. Taking place between the 22nd and 23rd episodes of the series, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie revolves around a terrorist who plans to use an unknown pathogen to decimate the population of Mars and the bounty hunter crew who are trying to stop him. While film spinoffs can sometimes suffer under the pressure of TV series, the engagement of Cowboy Bebop: The Movie a talented team and an increased budget, make this film worth the detour even if you haven’t seen the series.
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