Anime has been pushing cinematic boundaries and telling a variety of stories for decades. Many anime fans stick to syndicated series, but the realm of film harbors some of the best examples of the artform. There are numerous movies to chose from, but the movies on this list are all a must-see for true anime fans to watch. Whether it’s for historical purposes, uniqueness in storytelling and/or animation, superb quality, or a mixture of all of the above.
These are 25 essential anime movies for a true fan.
Barefoot Gen (1983)
Japan has the horrific distinction of being the only nation that had an atomic weapon used against it. Japanese culture learned to deal with this horrific event through its fiction. Other than Godzilla, Barefoot Gen might be the best response to this dark historical event. The anime movie follows the life of young Gen Nakaoka and his family in the days leading up to and after the bombing of Hiroshima. It’s a heartbreaking, gut-churning, and necessary piece of anime history that is as touching as it is ghastly.
Fist of the North Star (1986)
Anime gained a reputation for focusing on over-the-top violence in the 1980s and Fist of the North Star is a big reason why. This 1986 film condenses a large chunk of the 1984 anime series and gives you a greatest hits version of the tale. The story focuses on Kenshiro, a skilled warrior who wanders a post-apocalyptic world. It’s delightfully vicious and unabashedly gory in a cartoonishly fun way. It was also immensely important in showcasing to American audiences that Japanese animation was not always kiddie fare.
Neo Tokyo & Robot Carnival (1987)
The anime anthology is a storied tradition. When it comes to picking the absolute best of the bunch, Neo Tokyo and Robot Carnival stand above the rest for sheer creativity and diversity. They are sci-fi focused celebrations of animation that bring together multiple animators and directors at the top of their game. These are also important as they were some of the earliest anime content shown for adults on American television. Specifically, “The Running Man” segment aired on MTV’s Liquid Television and Robot Carnival premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel.
Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise (1987)
This influential sci-fi epic tells the story of Shirotsugh Lhadatt, a young man who dreams of being the first of his people to venture into space. Unfortunately, the two nations of this Earth are teetering on the brink of full-scale war. This feature marks the cinematic debut of powerhouse anime studio Gainax and takes some serious inspiration from Star Wars. The Wings of Honneamise is a gorgeous, thrilling, and moving film that showcases just how much anime can equal or even surpass live-action filmmaking.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Roger Ebert called Grave of the Fireflies one of the best and most powerful war films ever made. How’s that for a recommendation? It tells the story of two siblings and their attempt to survive a war-torn Japan during the last few months of World War II. It’s a haunting film that balances beauty with genuine peril and devastating tragedy. But, it all ends with a stroke of optimism that is sure to leave you crying. The animation from Studio Ghibli is one of their best. The movie has been remade twice into live-action features but neither of them has managed to capture the magic of the original.
No other anime movie has had quite the impact of Akira. This cyberpunk nightmare exploded into the culture and has never really left. The story follows a group of street punk teens who get caught up with a government program involving psychokinetic powers. From there, the movie spirals into the madness of revolution and the phantasmagorical concept of apocalypse. It’s impossible to overstate the influence Akira has had in popular fiction. It was also one of the first anime feature films to make a splash in Western culture and present the art form as something truly unique.
Ninja Scroll (1993)
Much like Fist of the North Star, Ninja Scroll provides the viewer fantastical violence with a sense of gleeful debauchery. The plot follows swordsman-for-hire Jubei as he hunts down eight powerful ninjas who seek to overthrow the ruling power of the land. It’s a threadbare story but it’s all in service of dynamic and awesomely ridiculous fight scenes. Ninja Scroll isn’t full of tons of philosophy or ruminations on the human condition. But, it does excel in fist-pumping excitement in ways other similar anime movies struggle with.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Other than Akira, Ghost in the Shell might be the most influential sci-fi anime film of all time. It was a huge inspiration for the Wachowski’s when they created The Matrix. The film centers around Motoko Kusanagi, a special operative in search of a mysterious hacker known as the Puppet Master. Action and design are at their peak in Ghost in the Shell, and the top-notch animation only helps sell the believability and paranoia of this futuristic world. Ignore the 2017 live-action version and make this a priority if you haven’t already seen it.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (1997)
This one takes some explaining since it’s not exactly a welcoming film for newcomers. After the end of the highly successful series Neon Genesis Evangelion, this feature film attempted to present a more straightforward ending to the series as opposed to the interpretive finale to the show. So, while it does require seeing the series (which you absolutely should), it still has incredible merit as a standalone feature. The End of Evangelion is a stunning display of animation’s potential as well as a thoughtful deconstruction of popular anime tropes like mechas and fantasy. Don’t miss this one.
Perfect Blue (1997)
Anime tends to lean into realms of fantasy, but Perfect Blue blends that approach with psychological horror. It tells the tale of Mima Kirigoe, a retired singer who decides to pursue acting. She becomes the victim of a stalker and her perception of reality begins to disintegrate. Perfect Blue is a harrowing and uncomfortable examination of celebrity and our obsession with blending fiction into our real lives. It’s not an easy watch but it’s an effective one. It also made a significant impact on filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, who has cited it as an influence for his films Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan.
Dead Leaves (2004)
The visual tropes of anime can sometimes put off viewers who feel like all anime movies look the same. That’s where Dead Leaves comes in. It’s a pop art assault of vivid colors and comic book imagery. The story isn’t too concerned with complexity; Retro and Pandy wake up on Earth with no recollection of who they are. They go on a crime spree but are caught and sent to a maximum security prison on the moon. Dead Leaves is more style than substance, but that style is cranked all the way to 11 and it’s a blast. If you like gonzo fare like FLCL or Redline, Dead Leaves needs to be the next anime you watch.
Perfect Blue director Satoshi Kon returns to this list with one of the most dazzling visual anime films ever made. Paprika centers around the idea that a device will allow you to view people’s dreams, and there are certain doctors utilizing this device to perform “dream therapy.” It’s a psychedelic mood piece that offers up some of the most striking imagery ever put into an anime. Many will point to Inception as “ripping off” Paprika, but this anime movie is in a league of its own. Accept no substitutes.
Your Name (2016)
This recent entry ranks because of its enormous reception in its homeland. It’s the highest-grossing anime film in the history of Japan. It’s a seemingly simple story that revolves around a boy and a girl who swap bodies. There is plenty of comedy and heart to wring out of this premise, but Your Name goes beyond that and becomes something very special. Read our review and check out the unbelievable phenomenon.
Basically Everything by Hayao Miyazaki (1979 – 2013)
When compiling this list, the hardest decision was which films by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki were going to make the cut. It was impossible so I decided to just throw in every one of his feature directorial efforts — excluding Conan the Future Boy which is good but not essential — because those 11 movies are basically the anime equivalent of the Disney canon. If you need a top three, I recommend Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro for a good start.
But really, you can’t go wrong with any Miyazaki movie. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a fantasy epic that will leave you breathless. Ponyo is a treat for the eyes. The Castle of Cagliostro is one of the best animated adventure films ever made. The Wind Rises is a thought-provoking meditation that will tug at your heartstrings. If you do nothing but watch Miyazaki films, you’re still doing anime right.