What are your favorite anime movies? Spirited Away? Princess Mononoke? My Neighbor Totoro? Eh, I could see that coming. These Studio Ghibli movies are masterpieces. They’re also not the only anime films out there. Crazy, right?
It’s safe to say that Ghibli corners the market for 90-minute escapist anime that makes you feel very nice and good by the end. But there are psychological heights some Ghibli movies don’t hit. Below are my top picks for non-Ghibli films. Many are pretty disturbing. All of them are genius.
This article was originally published 4/14/17 and updated with two more movies on 12/18/17 in addition to the original six.
After seeing Perfect Blue, I went outside to my porch, buried my head in my hands and smoked like five cigarettes. I sat there for nearly an hour. If you’re the kind of person who dug Requiem for a Dream, Perfect Blue is up your alley. Actually, Requiem director Darren Aronofsky bought the rights to Perfect Blue so he could replicate a scene in it.
Perfect Blue is about a pop idol and her stalker. To make the leap from middling idol to noted actress, she’s offered to film a rape scene that could compromise her pure, sweet image. The more famous she becomes, the more boundaries get crossed. Eventually, the boundaries of reality itself melt away.
Your Name is a brilliant, tender film about body-swapping teens. It’s the highest-grossing anime movie ever. And, if you’re quick, you can probably still catch its U.S. run in your local movie theater.
Rural shrine attendant Mitsuha is sick of her boring life. One day, she yells that she wants to be a handsome Tokyo boy. And, in her dreams, she becomes one. Every once in a while, her mind travels to hard-headed Tokyo boy Taki’s body, which she controls for a day. He also body-swaps with her and clumsily takes the role of a teenaged girl. Soon, they fall in love with each other through their swapped lives. Then, a disaster threatens to take everything away.
This movie is a masterpiece. It moves from a gentle slice-of-life to a high-stakes battle for survival. You’ll be invested in every moment.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Skip the live-action movie. The original Ghost in the Shell film is a classic for a reason. Its world-building is superb, and paints the picture of a bombed-out, environmentally-unstable Japanese city where any concept of “nature” is overshadowed by tech. Long, thoughtful pans of the setting break up exciting action scenes. It’s got rhythm.
Protagonist Motoko has a cybernetic body, but a human brain that’s been wiped of its memories. She’s a Major in the Public Security Section of her city and possesses beyond-human fighting abilities. But when the cybernetic hacker Puppet Master threatens the city, Motoko struggles to stay on-mission. She and her enemy have too much in common.
Probably, you’ve seen Akira. Even if you have, it’s the kind of movie you need to watch twice. Its plot is a little hard to wrap your head around the first time. And, it helps that Akira has one of the best anime soundtracks in history. Its action scenes are so grotesque and so well-animated that they’ll stick with you for years.
Akira is iconic. It’s about a teen motorcycle gang in 2019's “Neo-Tokyo” (remember—it was made in 1988). When one of the more unstable gang members develops ESP-like powers, he attempts to release Akira, a psychic force that once destroyed Tokyo. It’s guarded in a storage unit under Tokyo’s Olympic construction site. Drunk on power. he threatens to destroy everything he’s known and lived in the process.
Where have you seen director Masaaki Yuasa’s animation style before? Maybe, that one “Food Chain” episode of Adventure Time? Or a few of the more psychedelic Space Dandy episodes? It’s unmistakable. He mixes bare-bones character designs with real-life textures and undulating, strange environments. There’s nothing like it.
Mind Game is about a loser named Nishi. One day, runs into his childhood crush, who is about to get married. They go to a bar together, where the crush’s fiancee is. There, Nishi gets into a fight with some gangsters. And, after the fight, he transcends into a strange spirit world where his bodily form is liquid.
This movie is an acid trip. If you’re looking for 100 minutes of unforgettable animation, there aren’t many movies that surpass Mind Game.
Paprika isn’t for everyone. It’s a little difficult to understand and its animation really, really busy. It’s maybe my favorite anime movie.
Paprika takes place in the near-future, when psychologists have developed a technology to enter patients’ dreams. That way, they can alter and address their subconscious thoughts from inside them. Paprika is a dream doctor of sorts, a fun and mysterious woman who guides patients through their innermost thoughts. Her practice seems promising until the dream-diving tech is stolen by terrorists. Then, nightmares make their way into the world of the awake.
You just can’t beat that plot. And the animation sequences are fever-dream wild. The dialogue is fantastic and the characters are well-written. My warning: You don’t walk away from Paprika feeling awesome. You will feel disturbed, moved and inspired.
A Silent Voice
A Silent Voice is a movie about a deaf girl and her elementary school bully attempting to find common ground years after they ruin each other’s lives. In trying to understand each other and overcome years’ worth of guilt, the two protagonists battle some nasty demons that end up bringing them closer together. A Silent Voice depicts the cruelty people with disabilities can face and how unselfconsciously children can act out when they don’t understand something.
This movie will fuck you up. Man. I cried, like, twice.
A Silent Voice won a half dozen “anime of the year” awards in 2017, although its successes weren’t as widely sung as Your Name’s. Its animation is simply stunning. Its most climactic moment is conveyed with a spastic series of emotional vignettes, flashing from an egg yolk splashing around a bowl to Ishida’s mother with a stack of pancakes to a burst of fireworks.
In This Corner of the World
World War II insinuates itself on Hiroshima-born protagonist Suzu’s mundane life in this haunting movie about coping with forces beyond your control. Suzu marries a near-stranger in a distant town and takes on wifely duties she’s not naturally accustomed to. As the war escalates, Suzu’s focus shifts from mastering cooking to mastering rice rationing.
In This Corner of the World ping-pongs between a slice-of-life and disaster movie, always focusing on the human victims of war. Yet, it’s pleasant to watch. It’s whimsical, despite its louder and more emotional moments. Its animation has a vintage feel, but innovates in ways I’d never seen before, like melting bombs into splatter paint.