The Mike Toole Show -The Other 100 Best Anime Movies of All Time, Part 1by Mike Toole,
When I see articles like Paste's Top 100 Anime Movies of All Time, I grit my teeth a little, because I know what to expect, and it's hard not to get a little frustrated. List articles, so-called “listicles,” are the junk food of the internet—they're fun and easy to read, and from a writer's standpoint, fun and easy to create, so the supply of them is limitless. Before I even clicked on the link to the article, my brain exploded in visions of Studio Ghibli's oeuvre dominating the top 25. In that respect, the Paste list lived up to expectations – it dutifully included every single Ghibli film minus three (two of them being Goro Miyazaki movies), as well as a trio of notable pre-Ghibli Hayao Miyazaki outings, plus all of Satoshi Kon's films and most of the filmographies of Mamoru Oshii, Makoto Shinkai, and Mamoru Hosoda. That alone makes up for no less than 39 entries. So right from the start, almost 40% of the list was sort of a gimmie, a fat stack of well-known favorites that'd be really easy to write about.
Of course, it's still a pretty good list, a nice point of reference that showcases the power of the medium in broad strokes. As a writer myself, I couldn't help but scrutinize it and think, “You know, I could make a better Top 100 than this one.” On Twitter, I made a joke about doing a completely separate top 100, one that omitted the obvious choices entirely. One of my online pals suggested that doing this would be an ordeal, a real chore, and I'd end up scraping the bottom of the barrel. Ahhhhh, shit! I love this kind of challenge, and before I knew it, I was mentally making that list, and it filled up fast.
On this list, I've raided the entire 60-year-plus span of modern anime history for some lesser-known, lesser-loved classics. The Paste list includes quite a few OVAs, but I've tried to be a little more selective. (Man, I could do a pretty good list of Top 100 OVAs…) Short OVAs that ran in theatres are fair game, I think.
Full disclosure: About 20 of the selections on my list are currently available on DVD (and in some cases, blu-ray) in North America from Discotek Media, a company for which I do some freelance production duties. I'd feel more conflicted about this if it wasn't for the fact that rescuing and preserving classic, important films like these is a vital part of Discotek's mission. Also, fourteen of Discotek's releases are on the Paste list, too. There's no escaping Discotek if you like great anime films, is what I'm saying. Now, let's start the countdown!
I had to start the trip here, aboard a sailboat in space. A long time ago, my peers and I regarded Odin: Photon Space Sailer Starlight as something of an endurance test – if you could sit through its monstrous 140-minute running time without going stir crazy, you were one tough anime nerd. But after repeated viewings and discussion with other fans, my cohort started to appreciate what the filmmakers had accomplished. Odin was originally planned as a big-deal TV series, but producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki's ambitions proved a little too great. He enlisted the help of Space Battleship Yamato director Eiichi Yamamoto and Nikkatsu great Toshio Masuda (who'd also helped cut together the theatrical versions of the Yamato stories) to get the project finished, and while the resulting movie meanders a lot, narratively, it's consistently and compellingly beautiful to look at, a curio in which the famed producer tries to replicate his Yamato success, right down to the large cast of characters and the boat in space. Odin is filled out by a charmingly goofy soundtrack by metal band Loudess and a series of unintentionally hilarious story beats, involving an unlikely hero (“He seems like an idiot,” one crewmember remarks, “Let's bring him aboard!”) and a stoic captain who secretly wants his crew to mutiny so the can go chasing off after the origin of the gods. Odin is not, strictly speaking, a good movie, but it's a pretty great one. (“Great,” meaning large or immense; I don't necessarily mean it in the pejorative sense!)
Rintaro's reputation as a chameleon-like director who's just as likely to turn out a dud as he is a smash hit is richly deserved; for every sumptuous Galaxy Express 999, there's a thudding, strange Peacock King. On paper, Harmagedon sounds great – the director adapts a popular science fiction tale from Kazumasa Hirai and Shotaro Ishinomori, collaborating with the famous manga artist Katsuhiro Otomo, who turns in character designs. The film itself, concerning a diverse team of ESP users that must band together to fight an evil alien and prevent the end of the world, limps along gamely from a narrative perspective, plagued by a number of dull moments and odd left turns. What elevates Harmagedon is its utterly spectacular animation: with scenes created by animation wizards like Koji Morimoto and Yoshinori Kanada, Harmagedon turned out to be hugely influential, an animation signpost guiding the way for the great action animators of the 80s and 90s. It was also a commercial success, and no doubt helped give Katsuhiro Otomo the credibility he needed to get his Akira film project rolling. It's not Rintaro's best film, but Harmagedon is absolutely worth remembering.
Lensman was supposed to be another signature accomplishment for its studio, Madhouse. The movie was the directorial debut of a talented young action animator named Yoshiaki Kawajiri, who would work together with the veteran Kazuyuki Hiroikawa. It used state of the art 3D computer graphics to help tell its adaptation of the classic space opera tale by E.E. “Doc” Smith, and its sponsors treated like a real event, with trailers on TV, toys at the stores, and a frothy, buoyant pop theme song by popular rockers THE ALFEE. It was eagerly anticipated in the west, too, where it debuted at the 1984 WorldCon. But fans who knew Smith's books well were puzzled – here, square-jawed model galactic patrolman Kimball Kinnison is replaced Kim Kinnison, a starry-eyed farmboy who dreams of adventures in space. His allies are given odd facelifts as well, and while the story as a whole has familiar elements, like the struggle of the valiant Arisians against the galactic crime bosses of Boskone, it had little in common with its source material. Turns out that the rights to Lensman were acquired not via Smith's heirs, but through his publishing company. Despite the drastic departures from Smith's books, Lensman remains a wonderfully fun, quirky space opera. You just need to step away from the source material in order to see it. Since its release, the movie (and a fairly mediocre TV series spinoff) has sank out of sight; Smith's estate don't care for the movie and have been trying to get a Lensman Hollwood movie off the ground for decades, so who knows when we'll see this version of the Galactic Patrol again?
Here's another adaptation of western source material, a theatrical take on the famous friendly troll characters of Tove Jansson. Jansson's Moomin books and comics received the anime treatment several times, with notably mixed results, but it's this movie that feels the most Moomin-like, since it's a very straightforward adaptation of the author's second Moomin book. Comet in Moominland does more than just port the 1992 TV series to the big screen – art director Jirou Kouno, a sometime partner of the great director Osamu Dezaki, infuses the proceedings with a gentle, watercolor-like visual luster. The story is a great point of entry to the Moomin saga, as it introduces a number of new friends for the shy, good-hearted Moomintroll, like the itinerant Snufkin. Story-wise, it's about a threatening comet, a trip to the observatory to get a closer look, and a frenzied rush to a nearby cave to wait the disaster out. There's been renewed interest in Jansson's creation recently, including a decent 2014 version of Moomins on the Riviera. That movie looks more sophisticated, but this one's a better film.
Here's a “movie” that's essentially a set of OVAs re-edited and stapled together; it won't be the last on this list. Armitage III: Polymatrix succeeds for a few reasons. First and foremost, it rips off Blade Runner with the kind of panache not seen since Bubblegum Crisis, depicting a future society in which ordinary humans are deeply suspicious of “Type-3” androids that are almost indistinguishable from regular people. One of those suspicious humans is Ross Syllibus, a detective who's fled Earth for Mars to outrun a troubled past. Naturally, he's paired with Naomi Armitage, an accomplished and outspoken Type-3, and it's not long before they're confronting mysteries both conventional and unconventional. This theatrical cut is a durable and enjoyable sci-fi yarn, and it's really helped out by the interesting contrast of its lead actors in the dubbed “international” version, which went as far as using Hollywood stars. Elizabeth Berkeley's warm, engaged performance as Armitage contrasts against Keifer Sutherland's bored, confused Ross, but it works surprisingly well.
Movies like BIRTH are why some people complain that anime looks great, but makes no sense. BIRTH is the signature work of the late, great Yoshinori Kanada, an animator and animation director who was one of the first to really introduce innovation to super robot cartoons in the 1970s—Toei's earlier stuff was great fun to watch, but guys like Kanada infused their work with style and weight, and really pushed the medium forward. In the realm of goofy robot cartoons, his work really stood out. Of course, characterizing BIRTH as a Kanada project is a bit unfair to its director, Shinya Sadamitsu, not to mention other collaborators like mecha designer Makoto Kobayashi, but it's Kanada's sense of style and action that helps BIRTH rise above its utterly rudimentary, forgettable story. It's about a kid on a planet who finds a magical sword and is pursued for it, but like I said, the story doesn't matter – this movie is all about style and action, a series of high-tech Roadrunner vs. Coyote jokes that keeps upping the ante of absurdity. In spite of that weakness, BIRTH is an animator's playground; mad geniuses behind classics like Cowboy Bebop and Magic Knight Rayearth also worked on this movie. In spite of its flaws, I could still watch this film over and over again.
Here's an unabashedly strange film, one that, based on its trailer and campaign poster, appears to be an action film about the great samurai Musashi Miyamoto. But it's actually a documentary, a lecture given by a funny little CG professor. The lecture, which delves into both Miyamoto's philosophy and his views on military tactics, is a framing device for a series of awesome vignettes about key moments in Miyamoto's life, including his legendary showdown with Kojiro Sasaki. Musashi is a movie I find enjoyable in spite of its peculiar format and notable visual weaknesses; it's got great action animation, a boffo theme song, and it really paints a vivid picture of the legendary swordsman and scholar.
Takashi Nakamura is another underappreciated name in anime. Animation nerds will invoke Koji Morimoto's name for his bold style, but Morimoto was following in the footsteps of Nakamura, who was his boss on the Tatsunoko cartoon Gold Lightan. Nakamura worked as a key animator on important 80s films like Harmagedon and Robot Carnival, and eventually got his own project: Catnapped. Catnapped is pretty great, an unabashedly weird family comedy about how we sometimes forget to treat our pets well, and what we'll do to win them back when they go astray. In this case, a kid named Yasuo (his bratty sister calls him Toriyasu) fails to pay attention to his pet dog Papadoll, who wanders off to the mysterious land of Banipal Witt. The two kids are soon drawn to this magical land by its feline inhabitants, who present them with a serious problem – their pet dog has turned into a monster, and they have to stop it somehow! Nakamura created the story and characters of Catnapped, but you can also see the fingerprints of horror scribe Chiaki J. Konaka all over this movie. It's an enjoyably strange film, one that kinda tries to evoke that Ghibli family movie feeling, but is too cheap and weird to pull it off.
These days, it's all the rage to adapt popular light novels as anime TV shows, but here's a stand-alone story adapted from a single book. Jun Shishido's film, about a pilot making a long perilous journey with his top-secret cargo, a princess, puts the action front and center, with plenty of nifty CG dogfights and airplane chases, but it's the characters in this film that will win you over. The tension between princess Juana del Moral and her pilot, Charles Karino, is a bit Wuthering Heights – he's the product of a checkered background and an unhappy childhood, and she's a kind but spoiled aristocrat – but together the two of them make solid action movie partners and a fun romantic couple. The Princess and the Pilot is a charming, effective, one-and-done little movie.
Oh right, here's one of those Kenji Miyazawa stories where the main characters are cats. Only I'm not talking about the 2012 film by Gisaburo Sugii, but the 1994 film by Ryutaro Nakamura. The late Nakamura, who'd later give us the excellent Serial Experiments Lain, created this film at Studio Animaru-ya. Unlike Sugii, Nakamura's version of Miyazawa's fantastic story uses soft, cartoonish human character designs. The cat style has merit, but I think that this approach is even better—it hangs a human face on Miyazawa's title character, a deeply decent person who overcomes tragedy at his home in Iwata to go out in the world, connect with others, and work hard for the common good in spite of his personal hardships. The Gusko Budori story is a great vessel for the author's gorgeous, otherworldly idealism, and Nakamura's film is an effective adaptation, one that's been long out of print. I wish it was easier for people to find.
Earlier, I branded BIRTH as Yoshinori Kanada's signature work. This movie is Mori Masaki's signature work! Masaki's another legend of the medium, a production and storytelling hero from back in the era when MADHOUSE was a creative dynamo. Time Stranger isn't actually his best film – I'll reveal that one later in the list—but it's his best-looking movie, and for my money one of the best-looking anime movies ever made. The critic Roger Ebert was fond of using a phrase for movies that were weak on story, but looked great: persistently watchable on the visual level. Time Stranger has that quality in spades. Admittedly, its story isn't that bad – it's a meditation on the inflexibility and persistence of time, a look at the mysterious and compelling Oda Nobunaga, and a story about the conflict between two men from the future with very different ideas of how the world should be. It's also a completely silly adventure tale about some kids in an ugly van who get hijacked by a fugitive time-traveler. Teko, the pretty girl of the group (and she really is pretty, designed by Moto Hagio no less!), seems to fall in love with every handsome man they encounter, and the overall behavior of the characters is a little unintentionally hilarious and abrupt—for a bunch of 80s kids, they're very accepting of the notion that they're hurtling backwards in time and might not be able to return to their era! I got to see this movie in the VHS fansub era, but for most fans, it's a classic waiting to be discovered.
Right smack in the middle of an endless wave of 30-minute featurette movie tie-ins involving super robots and magical girls, Toei came up with this film, a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Unlike their other “Manga Matsuri” fare, this film is far more in keeping with original studio chief Hiroshi Okawa's notion of Toei as a feature animation powerhouse. Okawa died in 1971, and his successor was more interested in prospering by way of churning out inexpensive toy tie-in cartoons, so this film is a surprising departure. Perhaps it was a reward for director Tomoharu Katsumata, a company man who'd done plenty of good work on TV in the years prior. The film itself is colorful, winsome, and ultimately tragic, just like the original fairy tale. It doesn't look that much like the later, more famous Disney version of the tale – its heroine is a blonde girl named Marine, for starters – but it unquestionably influenced it – just look at the mascot/sidekick characters! Katsumata's movie is stately and focused, and enough of an emotional gut-punch that fans who saw it on TV or cheapo home video as kids still seek it out.
Before he found a comfortable girls-with-guns formula at Bee Train, Koichi Mashimo was an innovator. He directed the colorful and action-packed Dirty Pair: Project EDEN, he helmed the consistently hilarious Irresponsible Captain Tylor, and he directed this oddity, a 1986 feature film about powerful psychics who do battle over the fate of a mysterious young girl named Ai. The movie opens with a frenetic chase scene, as a group of hoodlums (including a lady in a bunny girl suit) pursue our hero and his charge. In the background, a peppy pop song blares, describing, in halting English, all of the things that are happening onscreen. Later, we'll learn that the heroic Kei is a “Headmeter,” a psychic warrior so powerful that the total value of his power is displayed on his forehead, increasing dramatically as he fights. Ai City is strange, disjointed, hilarious and totally exciting. I wish more movies had its fearless sense of adventure.
Back in the late 70s, Tezuka Productions routinely participated in a 24-hour telethon called Love Will Save the World by producing a series of 90-minute telefilms. They made several movies in this fashion, and Marine Express is the finest of them all. Taking place in the future year of 2002, Marine Express is a massive crossover involving all of Tezuka's “star system,” including Astroboy, Kimba, and Princess Knight. It's science fiction that involves an undersea train line and a lost civilization, but it's also a rollicking murder mystery, as the detective Shunsaku Ban must team up with the dark doctor Black Jack to solve the mystery of who killed his client. Creator Tezuka didn't direct this movie, but he did iInsist on drawing every frame that Black Jack appears in, since this is the popular character's debut as a leading man. Marine Express is great fun – it's got a bumpin' Tommy Snyder theme song and Tezuka's signature persistent sense of zany fun, in spite of the serious stakes.
I'm not just putting Urotsukidoji here because it's an infamous film that introduced the mainstream to the idea of hentai anime – it's a genuinely lurid, exciting, apocalyptic action movie! It just also has copious amounts of creepy tentacle rape. Anyway, this film—another experiment in patching together OVAs, only in this case all of the raunchiest material is left on the cutting room floor to make the movie a tiny bit more palatable—is about a trash-talking, blue-haired half-demon named Amano Jaku. His mission is to figure out which handsome college boy is the Overfiend, the legendary demon who'll unite heaven, hell, and earth, in disguise? Is it the class clown, or the jock? This project is another work from infamous producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki, and it doesn't lack for his usual ambition – it's full of spectacular action scenes, and functions just as well as a monster movie as it does a hentai movie. The cast is peppered with actual well-kown seiyuu (the English dub stuck to pseudonyms), and… well, at least they got the music guy from Giant Robo. Anyway, if you can take its extreme sexual violence, the movie cut of Urotsukidoji is worth seeing.
No, you immediately followed the entry about a supernatural sex demon with one about a magical girl cartoon for little kids! I'm not just name-checking Pretty Cure, though. The fact is, there aren't enough female anime creators and directors represented on this list. Institutional sexism has kept ladies out of the director's chair for a long time – I'll discuss this a bit more in a later entry – but that's eroding, and this movie is a great example of the talent that's emerging as a result. A lot of good animation directors come out from the bowels of Toei's TV anime production unit, and one of the best in recent years is Rie Matsumoto, who cut her teeth handling episodes of Pretty Cure, Kyousougiga, and of course, Saint Seiya Omega. This movie is a pretty rote story about the Heartcatch girls (this time, they use magical perfume to transform!) and their trip to Paris being interrupted by a friendly-but-conflicted werewolf and a bad guy called Baron Salamander, but what makes it shine is Matsumoto's highly developed flair for action. The movie is full of eye-catching transformation and cool fight scenes, climaxing on a big battle in front of the Arc de Triomphe. It takes a good director to turn a sales vehicle for toys into a truly compelling film, and here Matsumoto works a lot of magic to create an exciting and enjoyable action movie.
This film isn't the first east-west coproduction on the list—the Moomin movie had foreign investment, too—but it's the first between Japan and the Soviet Union, created from a partnership between Toei Animation and Soyutzfilm. It's still anime through and through, created by animation greats Yugo Serikawa and Kimio Yabuki, with original character designs by no less than Osamu Tezuka. (If you ask me, his work is changed pretty drastically for the movie. Still looks good, though!) The film itself is a simple fairy tale: young Anja has been set up for failure by her wicked stepmother, who hopes the kid will freeze to death in the forest while gathering flowers for the queen. But Anja is saved by the twelve months of the year personified, who use their seasonal powers to thaw her out. Serikawa's take on the story is an austere, restrained, but beautiful movie, with fantastic music by Vladimir Kristov. Few international co-productions turn out as well as this one.
I've got a soft spot for this movie, because it was one of the first full-length anime films I saw after I'd learned that anime was a whole medium unto itself. Its mix of breakneck-paced comedy and action was still like nothing I'd ever seen, even though it was pretty common at that point. The movie faithfully follows the big-deal shonen movie formula, opening with one of Ranma ½'s trademark giant chase scenes before shifting the action to China, where the hotheaded martial artist Ranma Saotome must save his (and occasionally, her) fiancée from no less than the Seven Lucky Gods themselves. The movie is rounded out by the pretty Lychee, playing the role of the cute girl who only appears in this film. This is a solid action-comedy and a good, well-rounded example of the appeal of Ranma ½.
Once upon a time, a greeting card executive named Shintaro Tsuji decided that he wanted to produce really great animated films. Fortunately, his company was Sanrio, the Hello Kitty people, so he had plenty of access to money and talent. One of Tsuji's first projects was an adaptation of a children's book by Takashi Yanase, the famous creator of the beloved hero Anpanman. But this story was notably darker – it was about a lamb who watches his mother die at the fangs of a wolf, and can only come to one conclusion: to survive, he has to become stronger, more vicious, and more ruthless than the wolf! So he becomes the wolf's understudy. It seems silly, but the wolf, who understands his role in the food chain all too well, warns Chirin that he can become a fearsome predator—but only at a terrible moral cost. The film is directed by the legendary Masami Hata, who also created the excellent Sea Prince and the Fire Child and rescued the troubled Little Nemo film from the woodpile. Ringing Bell is compelling and genuinely disturbing in parts, both a potent source of childhood nightmare fuel and an impressive study of good and evil.
Anime movies aren't just always movies. Sometimes they're OVA series re-edited as films, and sometimes they're condensed versions of TV shows. This film is the latter, a director's cut of TMS's classic TV series created for its 10-year anniversary. What makes it stand out so much is the director, the great and accomplished Osamu Dezaki. I could make a good top 15 or 20 using nothing but Dezaki films. Here, what starts off as a seemingly average, obvious adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel is quickly elevated by one thing: Dezaki's vision of Long John Silver. Dezaki's Silver is one of the medium's great heroes; the director's version of him sits somewhere between Robert Newton's memorably rougish performance from the 1950 Disney movie and an idealized, dashing father figure. Works like Treasure Island would build the foundation for Dezaki's later accomplishments, and this edit has all of the TV show's best parts in one place.
Here we go with Kenji Miyazawa and the cats again! But this isn't an adaptation of one of the author's stories—it's a biography of his life, by Macross co-creator Shoji Kawamori. Kawamori focuses on Miyazawa's life as a teacher, and his attachment to his infirm sister—the writer is depicted as a mysterious, inspiring figure to his students, and a devoted sibling who just isn't strong enough to turn aside fate's march. What's compelling about this OVA (one that ran in theatres) is Kawamori's depiction of Miyazawa's flights of fancy, the bursts of inspiration that would lead him into poetry and short stories, as pure synaesthesia. This feature would make a good companion piece to Night on the Galactic Railroad.
The other Toei films on this part of the list are well-crafted, straightforward fairy tales. But this movie, from the same era, is a revelation. It's about a kid whose pet dogs save the life of a scientist, so the scientist returns the favor by turning the dogs into a pack of powerful cyborg pups who transform into vehicles. Then, they all team up and fight aliens. This movie is run through with astonishingly colorful visuals and boasts a cheerfully bizarre, try-anything plot; I live to discover films like this. Yugo Serikawa helped create this film, but it was directed by Takeshi Tamiya, who also directed the enjoyably weird talking-train cartoon movie Kikansha Yaemon D51.
Keiichi Sato gets a lot of credit for creating The Big O, but he's gone on to build an impressive career since then, helming fare like Karas and the recent GANTZ: O film. Here, years before the recent Berserk TV series would shock us with its ungainly mixture of 2D and 3D CG animation, Sato uses a similar approach to tell the story of a feral child who takes revenge on society. Think about feudal Japan. Are you picturing rolling mountains and rice paddies? No, try a burnt-out land ravage by war, drought, and famine. Its this landscape that gives rise to Asura, a murderous cannibal who fights to survive against an insensate society. The movie is kind of like The Revenant, only the whole world is the antagonist and it's way les cheerful in general. Asura is a savage, compelling action movie, and one that was almost completely overlooked upon its release in 2012. I think it's time to dig this one back up.
Yeah, it's a weird Hollywood tie-in. It doesn't matter. The Highlander anime, directed by the great Yoshiaki Kawajiri, is still either the best or the second-best Highlander anything, depending on who you ask. (I think the original movie is a little better.) But this animated film easily beats out the Highlander film sequels, the TV spinoffs, and the cartoon version. Plotwise, there's not much there, just some gobbedlygook about a post-apocalyptic future and a virus. But at its root, this film is a Highlander movie, so it's really about an immortal swordsman named MacLeod, and his slow roll through time, dueling endlessly with a similarly immortal adversary. What makes this movie worthwhile is Kawajiri's virtuosic use of the Highlander storytelling device to set up outlandish sights like a sword duel on the wing of a flying B-29 bomber. The film's writer, David Abramowitz, has said that Kawajiri shocked the producers and himself by rewriting the script without permission. I bet he improved it.
Keiichi Hara's 2007 movie about a young family's discovery of a curious orphaned kappa trapped in a fossil is a winner, a sweet and pretty story full of expressive character animation. What I appreciate most is the attitude of Koichi and his family upon finding Coo, the kappa—they're surprised, but not shocked, because after all, they grew up reading stories about yokai like him. Coo, for his part, is happy and engaged with his human friends, but troubled— he can't remember his name, and there are old taboos forbidding humans and kappa to live together. His kappa family was wiped out by humans, so those taboos are there for a reason. I caught this film at a festival back in 2008, and I remain forever angry that we got Colorful, a pretty good movie, released here, and not this, a pretty great movie. This is a fine family film in the vein of My Neighbor Totoro and Letter to Momo.
That's all for now - we'll see you next time with the next 25 entries!
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