Anime is the simple word that encompasses the enormous world of Japanese animation. While some may see it as similar to mainstream American animation, the two couldn’t be more different. The majority of American animation is aimed squarely at children, with only the most advanced films or shows giving a wink towards the over-ten age bracket. Anime, on the other hand, is very much adult.
Anime is the fusion of the traditional with the modern. Taking classic Japanese tales and blending them with cutting edge visuals; steeped in tradition and yet pushing the boundaries at every opportunity, Anime is the ultimate in duality, something that fans of Anime (and the Otaku community) revel in.
It’s an arduous task to narrow down generations of fantastic works of art into a small best-of list, something made even more difficult by the recent Anime explosion into the mainstream in America. One only needs to examine Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill or Samuel L (the man) Jackson’s Afro Samurai to see how much of impact Anime is having on popular culture.
For most fans, Anime begins with stand-alone masterpieces; films or single OVA’s (Original Video Animation) that encompass all the best elements of the genre in one single hit. Akira is, for many, the stepping stone for not only Japanese Anime but Japanese culture. It is a mind-blowing tale of a neo-Tokyo despotic future that gave outsiders a glimpse into the psyche of a country still not over being bombarded by atomic weapons. Recently referenced by Kayne West’s Stronger music video, Akira is a landmark in modern cinema that few, if any, features can rival.
Ghost in the Shell is the brainchild of anime pioneer Mamoru Oshii, who created a world so complex and vast that it would take years, sequels and a massively popular series (Stand Alone Complex) for it to be expressed fully. The film was years ahead of it’s time in it’s portrayal of cybernetics and the gulf between humanity and being human.
Ninja Scroll is perhaps the pinnacle of ninja-related films (although some might argue that title lies with the almost as impressive Samurai X, its mind-blowing action is complimented by brilliant characters and brazen sexuality. Following along with a similar level of violence as Ninja Scroll is the iconic Street Fighter 2 movie, based upon the video game of the same name. A billion times better than the Jean Claude Van Damme atrocity, Street Fighter 2 the movie, is a delicate story of bone-crushing action that comes staggeringly close to replicating the energy of the game.
Yet the most successful Anime films all come from the hands of one studio and mainly through the mind of one director: Studio Ghibli and master craftsman Hayao Miyazaki. Spirited Away is the seemingly simple story of a lost little girl who stumbles upon a bathhouse for spirits. The film is still the highest grossing Japanese movie of all time and beloved around the world for its elegant story-telling and heart-warming characters.
Miyazaki is also responsible for Howl’s Moving Castle, Nausicaa Valley of the Wind, Laputa, My Neighbour Totoro and The Castle of Caglistro; an amazing output of wonderful family films that capture a few Hollywood films could even dream to replicate.
Anime is even more popular as a TV series, hundreds of shows run into thousands of episodes in Japan, creating entire legions of sub-genres. From the classic Astro Boy and Speed Racer shows to modern favourites Fullmetal Alchemist and the Melancholy of Harumi Suzuki; Anime has seen explosive growth through the adoption of Otaku culture in the west.
But since this is a personal best-of, I’m distinctly biased when picking the best of the best and as such one title that glides to the top of the list is the space-western Cowboy Bebop. Light years before Joss Whedon’s Serenity brought the two staples together, Cowboy Bebop showed just what you could do with Bounty Hunters and a cool dog.
No list of Anime could be complete without the much maligned and adored Dragonball Z. Probably the most confusing series in the history of entertainment, DBZ (as fans call it) is key in bringing Anime to a whole new generation of fans, getting them ready to graduate onto more adult oriented titles.
One of the most enduring and beloved franchises in Anime history revolves around GUNDAM and its countless spin-off shows (Gundam Seed Destiny being the latest NZ version). Gundam stores litter the urban metropolis of both Tokyo and Osaka and the Gundam theme park has just unveiled a life-size replica of the iconic robots. Yet when it comes to the sub-genre of giant, Japanese flying robots, Gundam doesn’t actually sit at the pinnacle; that position rests with the greatest of all Anime series: Neon Genesis Evangelion.
The importance of the Evangelion series in breaking Japanese anime into the western world cannot be underestimated. It arrived at a time when the internet was first dominating homes and information could be disseminated far quicker than ever before. Revolving around the classic Anime (and western) staple of an ordinary boy tasked with saving the world, Neon Genesis Evangelion was perhaps the most daring and complex series ever committed to animation, challenging almost every basic principle and philosophy in life and layering them upon fantastic action and adventure. With the recent theatrical release of re-envisioned versions of the Evangelion mythos, the greatest Anime out there isn’t going away any time soon.
This is merely a skim of the surface of the Anime ocean; a deep blue place where the creative process has exploded into a billion different rippling possibilities and where innovation can never be drowned by the tidal wave of financial pressure. There’s never been a better time to dive in!