If you live outside of Japan, there’s a very high chance that the first piece of Japanese animation you ever saw was Spirited Away. Or else maybe Kiki’s Delivery Service or Princess Mononoke. Point is, that in addition to ubiquitous TV shows like Pokémon or Dragon Ball, Studio Ghibli films are one of the most common entry points into the “anime” world for Westerners. And because there are so many Studio Ghibli films, you can hang out in the magical, melancholic realms of Ghibli for a very long time. But what happens when you run out? Where should you go next?
I put “anime” in quotes because, famously, Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki absolutely despises the term. What’s more, he hates it when his films are called “anime.” But, unfortunately for Miyazaki, it happens all the time. These other directors are, at least to my knowledge, not quite so allergic to the term. Here’s a vaguely ordered countdown of the best anime films that are not from Studio Ghibli.
I’m also trying not to repeat directors. If there’s a film where the director has done other films you should watch, I’ll list them.
8. Promare (2019)
Promare is a film that, even though it’s only a few years old, has a kind of cult following. While I am not part of this cult, I would recommend Promare mostly as a way to check out one of the most ubiquitous anime studios, Studio Trigger. Trigger is especially hot right now, thanks to Cyberpunk: Edgerunners. But they’re behind quite a few iconic series, like Kill la Kill.
Promare, to me, reads as a primer to the ways of Studio Trigger. Mechs, a general feeling that clothes are overrated, queerness, stakes that suddenly escalate into world catastrophe levels, stunning animation—it’s all here!
7. Night Is Short, Walk On Girl (2017)
Maasaki Yuasa is quite possibly my favorite anime director, but he typically does TV. You can thank him for gems such as Devilman Crybay, Keep Your Hands Off Eizoken!, and Ping Pong the Animation. Night Is Short, Walk On Girl actually takes place in the same universe as my favorite of his shows, The Tatami Galaxy, but it’s by no means necessary pre-viewing. It’s recommended because it’s excellent, but not necessary.
Upon its release, Night Is Short, Walk On Girl made its round at all the film festivals. It’s that kind of film. Beautifully animated, artfully done, tastefully weird. Its plot just follows what this college-aged woman is up to wandering around Kyoto one night.
Other films by Maasaki Yuasa: Ride Your Wave is basically Ponyo and is just okay, but a fun watch nonetheless. If you like this, check out the TV shows listed above.
6. The Rebuild of Evangelion Films (2007-2021)
Neon Genesis Evangelion is, hands-down, one of the greatest anime series ever made. But it was made in the 90s on an extremely tight budget. When the series became popular, director Hideaki Anno decided he wanted to retell the story with updated animation and a different ending. (Me? I think the OG looks fantastic, thank you.)
The four Evangelion films (1.0, 2.0, 3.0, and 3.0+1.0) retain what’s excellent about the original series, which makes it great for old and new fans alike. Because who doesn’t love a totally mind-twisting mech series that’s actually about depression and the greed of mankind?
If you’re wondering how this could possibly tie in with Ghibli: Anno was one of Miyazaki’s favorite animators before he left to form his own company. The bond was so tight that Anno returned to voice the main character in Miyazaki’s supposedly-last film, The Wind Rises.
NOTE: The End of Evangelion is the end of the show! Don’t watch that if you’re watching these! But you should also watch the show and that!
5. Ghost In The Shell (1995)
Perhaps you’re noticing that, once you exit the Ghibli Zone, a lot of anime films are very fond of messing with your brain. Ghost In The Shell is definitely not an exception to this. But it’s an iconic film. You might even remember the super cringy Hollywood adaptation featuring Scarlett Johansen as the (Japanese) main character.
Ghost In The Shell boasts both beautiful animation and a deeply creepy and thought-provoking meditation on artificial intelligence. A truly dizzying number of sequel films and series flowed forth from the original film. I’ve heard the series Stand Alone Complex is good, but my personal opinion is that this film is incredible just by itself.
Other films by Production I.G: Not a film, but I highly recommend the completely tonally different, utterly frenetic ride that is FLCL. It was created in collaboration with Anno’s Gainax.
4. Wolf Children (2012)
I’m guessing that, if you like Studio Ghibli, you are down to have a good cry during a movie. Wolf Children is 1000% a film that will make you cry. It intermingles a very Ghibli-like magical fantasy with the also very Ghibli-like touch of personal trauma. The film centers around a human mother forced to raise two half-wolf children by herself after tragedy strikes. It takes the struggles of solo parenting to an extreme. It’s a beautiful, breathtaking film.
As a whole, Studio Chizu is probably the closest studio to a “modern Ghibli” that has launched in the last couple decades. Studio director Mamoru Hosoda has an interesting history with Ghibli, too. Miyazaki was his inspiration for becoming an animator, but he initially got rejected from Ghibli and worked at Toei instead. He was later tapped to direct Howl’s Moving Castle, but left the project due to creative differences.
Other films by Studio Chizu: There’s not a bad one in the lot. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars (my personal favorite), The Boy and The Beast, Mirai, and Belle are all great. Hosoda’s directorial debut, a One Piece film called Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island, is also phenomenal.
3. Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
If you know the name of one other famous Japanese animation director, it’s probably Satoshi Kon. Kon became famous around the world for his beautifully animated films, which completely mess with your brain and concept of reality. Some of his movies are almost Lynchian—the kinds of films college kids love to talk about.
Tokyo Godfathers is a huge exception to the famous Satoshi Kon vibe. It’s…a Christmas movie. In which three homeless characters find a baby and try to figure out how to return them. Notably, the film is also way ahead of its time by featuring a transgender protagonist to whom the film is fully sympathetic to.
Other films by Satoshi Kon: Completely different, but Millennium Actress, Paprika, and Perfect Blue are all magnificent. Paprika famously inspired Inception.
2. Your Name (Kimi no Na Wa) (2016)
Makoto Shinkai is maybe the closest thing in reputation to Hayao Miyazaki (that we’re going to get in the current generation). You’ll know Shinkai’s films immediately because they are all breathtakingly beautiful. Pure candy for the eyes, dazzling to look at.
But it’s a testament to how incredible Your Name is that it’s not coasting near the top here on its visuals alone. This film has everything: humor, romance, the pains of growing up, and a nice dollop of (not fully realized) queerness. I remember coming out of seeing this film in the theaters screaming, “IT WAS A PERFECT FILM!”
Your Name was also the first film to break the box office records set by the almighty Spirited Away. They have since been broken again by the almighty trio of Mugen Train, Jujutsu Kaisen 0, and (probably) One Piece Film: Red.
Other films by Makoto Shinkai: Take your pick, aside from his very first film! Weathering With You, Garden of Words, and 5 Millimeters Per Second are all wonderful.
1. Akira (1988)
I’m going to be honest up front: Akira is my all-time favorite film. Not “favorite anime film.” Just “favorite film.”
Why? For one, the animation is incredible: every cel is painted by hand, in a huge production effort that famously put the film way over budget. There’s also the music by the experimental composers collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi, which blends gamelan, Japanese matsuri chants, and all sorts of other sonic treats. It’s my favorite film score of all time. Try this on for size.
It’s also the kind of movie you have to watch many, many times before you fully understand what’s going on. I read the graphic novel as well, and I felt like I could fully explain what’s going on in Akira after my fifth viewing. I also think Tetsuo is a brilliant character. Ahem, I mean: TETSUOOOOOOOO!!!
Image credit: Makoto Shinkai
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