This year’s Oscar nominees for best animated film include Kung Fu Panda 2, Rango and some French flick about a cat. Japanese anime films, however, have been absent since 2005’s nomination for Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Meanwhile, Spirited Away remains the only Japanese film to have won the award since its creation in 2001.
It’s our loss. American animation has amazing works like The Incredibles and Beauty and the Beast, but it retains a belief that feature-length animated films are for children by default. In Japan, directors make animated films for all ages, and have no reason to use kid gloves with violence and dark themes. More so, these films go unknown in America outside of anime clubs.
Plenty of anime films have made their mark as stirring pieces of storytelling. Here are a few lesser-known gems.
Akira is the H.P. Lovecraft of the anime world — it inspired pretty much every sci-fi film after it.
Set in dystopian Neo-Tokyo, a delinquent biker gang roves the streets and causes trouble. The plot thickens when the government captures the angry teenager Tetsuo and discovers he has psychic powers similar to those that destroyed the first Tokyo. The film takes a visceral look at corruption, maturity and the reactions to a nuclear holocaust.
Akira appears dated in its style, and elements of its story have become tropes in anime, but it’s fascinating to see one of the chief influences of anime.
Porco Rosso (1992)
Hayao Miyazaki, considered the Walt Disney of Japan, has made his mark with films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Porco Rosso remains one of his more obscure works but undeservedly so.
Set after World War I, an Italian fighter pilot freelances by battling pirates with guns and witty repartee. The catch is he bears a curse — the head of a pig. The film has more overt political undertones than Miyazaki’s other works and that makes it interesting. It also features an American villain, which might account for its lack of American theatrical distribution.
Regardless, it’s full of Miyazaki’s gentle charisma and unsentimental sweetness.
Millennium Actress (2001)
People who dislike typical romance stories should check this out. Millennium Actress contains many stories within a story. Its outermost layer follows a small film crew as they interview an old, reclusive actress. She tells her story from her teenage years, before World War II, to her sudden departure from the film world. Within that, her life story is reflected in her films — the audience and film crew jump from ninja fights in feudal Japan to desperate voyages to outer space, sometimes not knowing if they are watching her life or her films. The actress’ motivation comes from a one-time meeting with a young rebel, and her illustrious film career is only a side effect of her lovelorn search.
Millennium Actress is an ode to film storytelling — it sweeps from action to romance to keening sadness but remains a beautiful ride. Just remember your hankies.
Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2001)
Anime has its tropes and flaws like any genre. Though many people think of objectified females and absurd physics, another annoyance is devolution into torrid melodrama.
Japanese films and series can get very dark, but tend to jump from happy-silly cuteness to soul-crushing, puppy-kicking tragedy without much middle ground. The best anime avoids this conceit, but the standard remains in many series.
Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust crafts a surreal, gray story set in a future where vampires fight bounty hunters. D — half-human, half-vampire and all stoic badassery — is hired to track down a young woman abducted by a vampire noble. Bloodlust surpasses the tepid first film and stands on its own. Alongside gorgeous artwork, the story is a wavering shade of gray that embraces the dark, romantic trapping of vampires, without turning it into a silly love story or a cheap harlequin tragedy.
Sword of the Stranger (2007)
Anime and samurai go together like elves and archery, but Sword of the Stranger makes a name for itself among the scores of feudal Japan stories.
The film has several layers despite its simple premise: a boy on the run from the Ming Dynasty; a quiet ronin who refuses to draw his sword; and a Westerner swordsman obsessed with finding a worthy opponent. The fight scenes are some of the best in animation, with a painstaking fluidity that never takes glossy shortcuts. Equally fascinating are the interactions between the Japanese and Chinese characters.
Though not well-known outside anime circles, it’s a must-see film.