At the risk of sounding controversial, I must say this: I think that motion picture anime is significantly better than most television anime. I say this because the latter often relies too much on filler and fanservice. A lot of the most popular anime shows don’t hold up over time (it becomes very obvious that they were made only for specific audiences; I may have loved InuYasha and Sailor Moon as a teenager but now I can only see the flaws). Not to say all anime shows are bad (Hunter x Hunter 2011 is fantastic and the original Death Note anime is considered a masterpiece), but I feel like a lot of anime’s negative reputation comes from the abundance of low quality anime churned out at a higher pace than the shows with actual effort and meaning.
Film anime, on the other hand, is able to put more effort into the production and writing, creating some real works of art that have an almost timeless feel to them. So let’s take a look at some of them today.
First off is arguably the most famous anime director outside of Japan, Hayao Miyazaki.
Often called the Walt Disney of Japan (though I think maybe calling him the Steven Spielberg of Japan is more appropriate), Miyazaki is famous for creating many classics, most notably the Academy Award winning Spirited Away. His works range from family friendly slice of life films (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Ponyo) to tightly-plotted action films with lots of themes and lore (Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke). Growing up now, I think I enjoy the latter more, but that doesn’t mean the former are still good, even great, in their own right. His films have their own distinct style: cute, simplistic looking characters against gorgeously detailed settings. Most of his films take place in European inspired fantasy lands (allowing him a chance to show off his love of stylized aircraft) or ancient and contemporary Japan. I recently re-watched some of his films and was blown away by them again, and was able to notice his themes more. In most of his films, he makes one thing perfectly clear: War is Not Good. He is highly critical of the military, depicting them as overly violent and corrupt in a lot of his works. In Princess Mononoke, there’s a big battle between the boar gods and the humans that is not shown, save for a brief moment to depict the actual horror (rather than the thrill or action). Some of his earlier works have more black and white view of the world, while his later works start to show more nuance and grey morality for both the protagonists and antagonists. Another thing he makes very clear is the importance of preserving the environment, as in a lot of his films he takes a moment to reflect on the beauty and value of nature. A lot of his films deal with heavy themes; Princess Mononoke, which I have recently bestowed the honor of being the best animated film of all time, explores industrialism vs environmentalism, peace in times of conflict, greed vs survival, dying Indigenous groups, social structures, and so much more. But he usually ends his movies on a positive, optimistic note.
Isao Takahata, the other major director of Studio Ghibli, takes a slightly more pessimistic approach. Whereas Miyazaki puts a lot of emphasis on the wonders of the world, Takahata tends to look more at the struggles. In a lot of his films, characters have to make serious sacrifices at the end of their movies. All his films are strictly rooted in Japan, and they have varying art styles. I think in some respects, Takahata might actually be a better director than Miyazaki; while Miyazaki definitely makes you feel things, Takahata actually got me to bawl my eyes out not once, but TWICE, with The Tale of Princess Kaguya. These two have made Studio Ghibli a master class of animation companies. While Disney is certainly the most prolific animation company, Studio Ghibli is arguably the greatest.
Not to say they’re the only anime legends out there.
The late Satoshi Kon only made four films, but they all have gotten lots of praise. His films are set in modern Japan and tend to deal with the psychological and the blending of fantasy and reality. Perfect Blue almost feels like a live action film, extremely grounded in reality and looks at the objectification of women by fans and by executives. Mima starts her career as a pop idol dressed in childlike attire meant to appeal to older men; when she tries to switch to a more serious career as a drama actor, she faces backlash by her former fans (including a dangerous stalker) and is disrespected by her higher ups (being forced into filming a rape scene and later having to take naked photographs). Mima’s agent feels ugly and worthless in her older age and tries to “replace” Mima (that’s about as much as I’ll spoil). Kon is known for a masterful editing style, with rapid cuts and transitions to fool the audience into thinking we’re witnessing one thing and reveal it’s something else altogether (you can learn more about it in the video “Satoshi Kon – Editing Space and Time”. Satoshi Kon’s films are character studies, exploring their psychological states, their dreams, and their fears. You can get a brief glimpse of his themes HERE.
To close the post off for now, let’s give a quick mention to Katsuhiro Otomo’s cult classic Akira.
This film is basically the polar opposite of anything Miyazaki makes. It’s extremely violent, very male-dominated, almost Kubrickian in style, and has a colder, harsher point of view and animation style set in futuristic Japan. I couldn’t watch the whole thing (it was very hard to follow, some of the visuals crossed the line from gorgeous to grotesque, and had too much stuff going on at once for me) but I did find the climax meaningful. It’s basically about a friendship torn apart by power and corruption. Put-upon Tetsuo is bestowed with psychic powers and ends up deteriorating both physically and mentally, losing everyone in the process. It’s a cynical look at the dangers of playing god, and an exploration of post-WWII paranoia.
Directors like these prove that anime doesn’t have to be just harem or long winded manga adaptations. They can be artistically stunning, thoughtful, and unique, and still be a success. I know the anime industry has a lot of problems plaguing it (lack of audience appeal, overworked and underpaid workers, lack of affordability and accessibility of merchandise), but I think (hope) that its future lies in something like this. If television anime proves to be a bust, maybe film anime can be saved. Allow artists to take enough time to make their vision come to life and promote it. Let it pick up traction overseas. Make it available on all streaming services. Show the world that anime is capable of interesting and even amazing art.
(While you are here, please read the updated version of a previous post on how the anime and manga industry is in trouble).