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The Top 20 Must-See Japanese Animation Movies of All Time

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Although many great movies have come from American superpower businesses such as Hollywood, Warner Brothers, and Disney, Japan has its fair share of cinematic masterpieces that should not be skipped over by movie enthusiasts. If you are interested in learning the Japanese language, watching TV shows is a great way to improve your listening skill. Anime is a popular choice; it comes in many genres, and there are many English versions for more popular shows such as PokemonAttack on TitanNarutoDeath NoteBleach, and others.

However, watching an entire anime series takes up a lot of time. Therefore, why not check out a movie instead? We recommend spending your weekend with these 20 fantastic animated movies. These films are not just movies produced by the well-known Studio Ghibli, but also from many others studios. They have been selected for their great storylines, popularity, and the writer’s personal experience. Are you excited? The 20 movies below are ready for you to watch with both Japanese and English subtitles that can be found easily!

20. The Cat Returns (2002)

Studio Ghibli
IMDb: 7.3
Director: Hiroyuki Morita

The movie is about Haru, an unfortunate girl in most aspects of her life. After helping a cat that got stuck in a lorry, she finds herself involuntarily engaged to a cat prince in a magical world where her only hope of freedom lies with a dapper cat statuette, which also comes to life in the story.

While the movie doesn’t have the beauty and depth of some others from Ghibli, it’s still a breezy and entertaining film with a fun, adventurous plot that children would love. This is a great film to check out with your family, and for cat lovers, too!

19. A Letter to Momo (2011)

Production I.G.
IMDb: 7.3
Director: Hiroyuki Okiyura

Since her father’s recent death, a little girl named Momo and her mother move from the crowded town of Tokyo to the remote island of Shio. While still confused by an unfinished letter of her father’s, Momo also has to get used to the new living environment and make new friends. At that time, bizarre events occur inside Momo’s house, including strange whispers come from the attic. Because of her mother’s refusal to believe these strange events, Momo throws herself into an odd adventure to discover the source of the weirdness, which leads her to the trio of troublesome spirits and together, she and those spirits figure out that her moving to this island is somehow connected to her father’s unfinished mysterious letter.

The movie depicts a lovely story of friendship. It also has high quality visual effects and sound editing. It has a slow pace at the beginning, some humorous moments in the middle, and really touching scenes at the end that could make you shed some tears while watching!

18. From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

Studio Ghibli
IMDb: 7.4
Director: Goro Miyazaki

Unlike many other Miyazaki movies, this film has no trace of sparkling fantasy, though it still keeps the flawless visual effects that Studio Ghibli is so well-known for. It also has a simple story about a group of Yokohama students looking to save their school’s clubhouse from the wrecking ball in preparations for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

I personally think elderly people will have nostalgic feelings when watching this movie, as it reflects the lives of Japanese students as well as other residents during the years of 1963-1965.

17. Children Who Chase Voices From Deep Below (2011)

CoMix Wave Film
IMDb: 7.3
Director: Shinkai Makoto

This coming-of-age story involving young love and mysterious music coming from a crystal radio left as a memento by an absent father, that leads a young heroine deep into a hidden world.

Although the rating is not what I expected, the storyline about the characters who have to deal with difficult issues (for instance, loss of loved ones, independence, and life-changing decisions) make it interesting. This movie is another product of the same producer of Five Centimeters Per Second‘, therefore, it’s easy to understand how they achieved the stunning beauty of the animation!

16. The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004)

CoMix Wave Film
IMDb: 7.3
Director: Makoto Shinkai

The story takes place in an alternate postwar period, where Japan is divided into the Soviet Union-controlled North and the US-controlled South. An enormously tall tower was built on Hokkaido, which could even be seen from Tokyo. In the summer of 1996, three middle-school students make a promise that they’ll cross the border and unravel the tower’s secret, but their project was abandoned after one girl, Sayuri Sawatari, became mysteriously ill and was transferred to Tokyo. Years later, on the brink of another war, a boy named Hiroki Fujisawa finds out that Sayuri had been in a coma since then, and he asks Takuya Shirakawa to help him find a way to wake her up, so as to fulfill the promise between the trio.

The film’s pace is a romantic reflection of loneliness and bittersweet affection. Even though the romance was not impressive to critical viewers, the music and storytelling style made up everything else. It is a fascinating dystopic look at the postwar era and definitely worth a watch.

15. Steamboy (2004)

IMDb: 6.9
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo

In the middle of the 19th century, before the world’s first Expo, an invention called the “Steam Ball”, has been sent to Rei, a young inventor, from his grandfather Roid in the US. Rei then finds himself caught in the middle of a deadly conflict over a revolutionary advance by an organization called Ohara Foundation. Meanwhile, the Ohara Foundation has sent men to acquire the Steam Ball so that they can use its hidden power towards their own illicit ends.

14. The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

Studio Ghibli
IMDb: 7.7
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

14-year-old Arrietty and the rest of the Clock family, four-inch-tall creatures secretly living in a human house, live in peaceful anonymity as they make their own home from items that they borrow from the human inhabitants’ house. However, life changes for the Clocks forever when a human boy discovers Arrietty.

13. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)

Madhouse Production
IMDb: 7.9
Director: Mamoru Hosoda

Are you wondering what could be so special about a girl has the ability to time travel and tries to use that ability to solve problems? Just watch this movie, loosely based on the novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, and you’ll know because Japan never fails to amaze you!

12. Into the Forest of Fireflies’ Light (2011)

Brain’s Base
IMDb: 7.9
Director: Midorikawa Yuki

Every summer, a little girl called Hotaru comes back to the countryside for a summer trip. One day, she is rescued by a spirit named Gin when she gets lost in a forest. The two become friends, despite the spirit revealing that he will disappear if he is ever touched by a human, and this relationship develops as Hotaru finally reaches her teenage years.

The forest, its spiritual surrounding, and the summer festivals represent an important part of Japanese culture, which are shown clearly in this 40-minute movie. This movie has a sad, romantic story and you will feel refreshed after watching it, if a little sad!

11. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Studio Ghibli
IMDb: 8.2
Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Howl’s Moving Castle is a love story between an 18-year-old girl named Sophie, cursed by a witch and living in an old woman’s body, and a magician named Howl. Under the curse, Sophie sets out to seek a reverse for her condition, which takes her to Howl’s strange moving castle. In the castle, Sophie meets Howl’s fire demon, named Calcifer. The demon makes a deal with Sophie – if she breaks the contract which means he is under Howl’s command, then he will lift the curse, and she will return to her 18-year-old self again.

In my opinion, this is an excellent movie, from the music to the plot. The characters are wonderful and their characteristics are described significantly. It is a movie you simply can’t miss!

10. Colorful (2010)

IMDb: 7.5
Director: Keiichi Hara

A sinful spirit is granted the opportunity to prove he is worthy for rebirth by inhabiting the body of a student who killed himself. With a second chance at life and a neutral spirit watching over him, the spirit has a second chance at life to come to terms with his past sins and figure out what drove the student to commit suicide.

This movie is based on the novel of the same name by Eto Mori and has some stunning animation.

9. Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008)

Studio Ghibli
IMDb: 7.7
Director: Miyazaki

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea tells the story of an adventure of a five-year-old boy, Sosuke, and his relationship with Ponyo, a goldfish princess who longs to become a human after falling in love with him.

This movie reminds me of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. It is a romantic fantasy that portrays Miyazaki’s style very well, and if you have children, they will be sure to love it, too!

8. Wolf Children (2012)

Madhouse Production
IMDb: 8.2
Director: Mamoru Hosoda

A college student named Hana falls in love with another student who turns out to be a werewolf, and he dies in an accident after the birth of their second child. Hana moves to the countryside where her husband grew up to raise her two children, who are half-wolf and half-human. Hana’s daughter, Yuki, longs to fit in with humans and leave her wolf identity behind, whereas her son, Ame, wants to live as a wolf.

This movie is absolutely delightful from the beginning till the end. The story was really touching and emotional, the animation was beautiful and the music was really pleasing. It is a charming movie that touches identity issues.

7. Asura (2012)

Toei Animation
IMDb: 6.7
Director: Keiichi Sato

Abandoned in the barren wasteland of Kyoto, a savage, enraged orphan named Asura does whatever it takes to survive in the wild. When he crosses paths with civilization, he must learn to tame the beast within.

Despite the relatively low score from IMDb, this film is a well-told story about human beings and their nature. It made me feel sad for Asura as he has to suffer although it is not his fault. I feel sorry for all of the characters, even if they did horrible things to each other, as it is mostly because of the harsh situation of life that forces them to behave that way. If you want to immerse yourself into deep feelings about human nature, you should watch this movie.

6. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

IMDb: 8.5
Director: Isao Takahata

Grave of the Fireflies is a tragic film telling the story of a young boy and his little sister’s struggle to survive in Japan during World War II after the death of their mother and the unknown fate of their father. After having quarreled with their aunt, they leave her house and make their home in an abandoned shelter. The two must depend on each other to survive.

This movie is a lesson for anyone who wants to unleash war on the world without thinking about what happens to ordinary people, and those who are often forgotten. Despite the sadness in the story, the Japanese candy, Sakuma Drops, is loved by the little girl in the movie, giving us a nostalgic feel.

5. 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007)

CoMix Wave Film
IMDb: 7.9
Director: Makoto Shinkai

Takaki and Akari have been classmates since elementary school and they become close friends. Their relationship is tested when Akari moves to another city because of her parents’ jobs. Both of them struggle to keep their friendship alive through letters, and time and distance slowly pulls them apart. When Takaki finds out that he is moving even further away, he decides to visit Akari one last time.

With stunning animation and visual effects, beautifully emotional piano pieces, and a slow-paced storytelling style, there is only one word to summarize this movie: flawless! Watch this if you fancy a romantic tale.

4. Millennium Actress (2001)

Madhouse Production
IMDb: 7.9
Director: Satoshi Kon

A TV interviewer and his cameraman meet a former actress and travel through her memories and career, where she initially became an actress to track down a man she was in love with. With the drama of her personal life and the colour of her working life, the line between fiction and reality becomes blurred.

Millennium Actress is slow-paced, simple, flowing, and full of memoirs with a charming storyline and a rather sad ending.

3. Princess Mononoke (1997)

Studio Ghibli
IMDb: 8.4
Director: Miyazaki Hayao

Princess Mononoke is set in the Muromachi period (1336-1573). On a journey to find the cure for a curse that has inflicted and will eventually kill him, Ashitaka, the last Emishi Prince, finds himself in the middle of a war between the forest gods and Tatara, a mining colony, this leads him to meet a human girl named San: Mononoke “Hime”, or princess.

Between the forces of humans and the gods of nature, peace is the way. This is another moral lesson for human about appreciate and live peacefully with nature. This movie is thought-provoking of how human development affects nature.

2. Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Madhouse Production
IMDb: 7.9
Director: Satoshi Kon

On Christmas Eve, three homeless people, a young girl, a transvestite, and a middle-aged alcoholic, living on the streets of Shinjuku, Tokyo find a newborn baby among the trash and set out to find its parents, with many adventures along the way.

1. Spirited Away (2001)

Studio Ghibli
IMDb: 8.6
Director: Hayao Miyazaki

During her family’s move to the suburbs, 10-year-old girl Chihiro and her parents accidentally stumble upon a magical land in their car. Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs, leaving her to wander the world ruled by gods, witches, and spirits, where humans are changed into beasts.

She is found by a mysterious boy named Haku, who promises to help her. He gets her a job working in a bathhouse for the thousands of Japan’s gods and spirits. Though the work is hard and the people are strange, she does as well as she can. Her parents, however, are still waiting in the hotel’s stockyard, and Chihiro must find a way to break the spell on them before they end up as the main course of some guest’s dinner.

This movie won an Oscar and another 51 award wins and 22 nominations. It is one of the most celebrated animated movies of all time. Experience it yourself and you’ll see why!

So, here is a list of 20 great must-see anime movies from Japan. There are countless more, and it is fair to say that Japanese anime has become internationally recognized over the decades and continues to be a significant channel of cultural expression in Japan. But what is the significance of anime, and why has it gained so much international attention?

Significance Within Japan

Anime has been popular in Japan for decades. It really started to gain a mainstream following in Japan during and after the Second World War, when it was used to encourage a sense of national pride and unity at a time of struggle. Early anime movies depicted brave Japanese soldiers being strong and victorious over their enemies.

Since that time, it has now become a mainstream form of communication, entertainment, and culture. Fans will invest in a series’ or movie, buy its merchandise, play its games, and follow anime franchises intently. Anime has become a channel for reflecting Japanese ideas, societal issues, political issues, and communicating meaningful messages.

Global Significance

Anime has a global following, and this seems to have steadily increased over the decades. From its appearance on the international stage from the 1970’s onwards, Japanese anime movies attracted a relatively small but extremely loyal following. It became a subculture, but also influenced western animation too.

If you talk to Japanese anime fans about why they like it so much, the reasons are many. These can range from the effort put into good animation with beautiful scenes and characters, the ability to relate to anime characters on a personal level, the difficult issues anime movies have been known to confront, and the sense of imagination and creativity embedded in many anime movies.

Perhaps there is also the escape from reality that anime can provide. Many of the movies listed above are pretty surreal in their landscapes, dealing with real ideas and themes but presenting them in a metaphorical and otherworldly way.

With these 20 fantastic animated movies, you will be spoilt for choice when it comes to next time you settle down to watch a Japanese film. Whether you’re studying the language or you just want to lose yourself in an entirely new story, these movies are sure to give you what you are looking for. Rent one or more of these great films and get some friends over, get pizza and some drinks, and enjoy the animated magic these masterpieces have to offer.


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