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10 Japanese Animated Movies That Will Leave You Broken

Updated on June 5, 2015

It’s not a secret that Japan’s animated movies are not exclusively targeted towards kids. Many of their animated movies tackle mature subject matter and take on genres that are not fit for impressionable kids. However, there are a number of Japanese animated movies that went far beyond simply tackling adult topics, to the point where they can leave you sad, depressed, or just downright broken. Here are 10 ten of them:

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#1 Akira

Synopsis

Set in a dystopian post-World War III world, Akira is a cyberpunk thriller that focuses on teenage biker Shotaro Kaneda and his friendTetsuo Shima, who is revealed to possess psychic capabilities similar to the legendary young Esper that wiped out Tokyo, AKIRA.

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What Makes it Unique

  • Tetsuo and Kaneda’s friendship is genuine, to the point where they almost consider each other as brothers. However, there is still friction between the two caused by Tetsuo’s insecurities over not being as skilled as Kaneda. This insecurity is partly responsible for Tetsuo abusing his newfound powers – now that he has discovered the power to wipe out civilizations, Kaneda’s pleadings are seen are nothing but further attempts to hold him back from his true potential.
  • Not to spoil the ending, but Akira is a bleak, depressing anime both in its portrayal of a world torn asunder by man’s propensity for warfare and by beings that literally have the power to recreate the Big Bang. What makes it even more jarring is that the movie successfully uses this big backdrop to tell the story of the small, normal people trapped in the middle.

#2 The Secret World of Arriety

Synopsis

The Secret World of Arriety follows a family of tiny people who live in the spaces between the walls and floors of a household, called The Borrowers due to their practice of “borrowing” items from the owners of the house in order to survive.

What Makes It Unique

You sort of get the impression that The Secret World of Arriety can be a metaphor for the age old issue of a more advanced (or more powerful) culture ruining another while thinking that they are saving or guiding them towards progress. However, the true aspect of Secret of Arriety that will leave you broken is the fact that it ends without providing a clear positive ending: we never know if Sho survived the operation, and we never know what happened to the Borrowers, we just know that their kind is disappearing and that they left Sho’s house (bear in mind that the Disney dubbed version fixed this by adding a monologue at the end that reveals Sho and the Borrowers’ fate.)

#3 Laputa Castle in the Sky

Synopsis

The story deals with what used to be flying cities inhabited by humans, which all fell to the ground after an unspecified catastrophe, save for one: Laputa, which is concealed within a powerful thunderstorm. The key to finding Laputa and unlocking its secrets rest on a mysterious girl named Sheeta and her amulet.

What Makes It Unique

The unique thing in Laputa: Castle in the Sky has to do with the floating cities, and Laputa in particular. There is a jarring disconnect between the beautiful and lush environments they once were, and the truth under the surfer (literally). The floating cities are not natural and only made to float using advanced technology, and the lack of life is what really drove the settlers away. This, plus the crystals that power them and its destructive capabilities, make Laputa a beautiful, yet unseemly concept.

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#4 Whisper of the Heart

Synopsis

Whisper of the Heart follows 14 year old girl Yuko Harada, who dreams of becoming a writer, her longtime friend Seiji, who dreams of becoming a master luthier, and an antique shop run by a man named Shiro Nishi, and a unique cat statuette called the Baron.

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What Makes It Unique

While the protagonists of the film are Yuko and Seiji, the best – and most likely heartbreaking – part is the story behind The Baron: It was originally half of twin statuettes that were bought by Nishi and his first love, Louise. The female statuette had to be repaired, and was under the care of Louise. The two lovers promised that the two cat statuettes would reunite at a later time, but the lovers were separated during World War II and never saw each other again.

#5 From Up on Poppy Hill

Synopsis

Set in Yokohama, Japan, during the early 60s, the movie follows high school girl Umi Matsuzaki and school newspaper club’s member Shun Kazama as they try to save the school’s clubhouse, Quartier Latin, from being demolished and redeveloped by school chairman and businessman Tokumaru.

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What Makes it Unique

If you watch a lot of Japanese movies and TV dramas, the complex and conflicting issues regarding incestuous relationships are frequently tackled, but From Up on Poppy Hill is one of the few non-adult targeted films to address the issue: Umi and Shun fall for each other, but find out that they may have the same father. How the movie addresses this (and the sad truth about Shun’s true identity) is one of the biggest twists of the movie, so watch it instead of getting spoiled.

#6 Howl’s Moving Castle

Synopsis

Howl’s Moving Castle follows Sophie, who is an 18 year old hat maker cursed by a witch and turned into a 90 year old grey-haired woman, the powerful wizard Howl, a magic castle, and the various creatures living within.

What Makes it Unique

  • Like many of the films on this list, Howl’s Moving Castle uses a war between countries as the backdrop for a more personal story. However, the difference is that this time around, the fantasy elements are tightly woven into the narrative instead of being flavor. Many of the important plot points were only made possible through magic.
  • Another thing that makes the film unique is the emphasis on sacrifice – many of the characters have had to let go of some parts of themselves in order to achieve a greater good, whether it’s to protect a loved one or to stop a war, or even just to achieve personal freedom from an old grudge.

#7 Kiki’s Delivery Service

Synopsis

Kiki’s Delivery Service is about the titular young witch-in-training, who leaves home with her talking black cat and moves to the port city of Koriko. In order to afford rent, Kiki accepts delivery jobs from a kindly baker owner, using her flying broomstick as a means of transportation.

What Makes It Unique

Kiki’s Delivery Service starts out as an innocent look into the life of a happy go lucky apprentice witch, but on the latter half of the film the tone slightly dips towards being somber as she loses her powers as a form of artist’s block, and it is revealed that her happy go lucky nature has made her lose sight of her purpose in life, so she must find a new one.

#8 Princess Mononoke

Synopsis

Princess Mononoke is a fantasy film that follows the young warrior Ashitaka and her involvement in an epic war between forest gods and humans who consume the forest’s resources.

What Makes it Unique

  • While there is mutual affection between Ashitaka and San (the titular Princess Mononoke), the latter’s distrust of humans and her commitment to the forest that has adopted her meant that they will not be together towards the end, as Ashitaka has to remain in town and help rebuild it into a better one.
  • There’s a lot of violence and death in Princess Mononoke, not just in humans but even the forest gods themselves fall to curses and mortal wounds. It’s normal for a person to feel unnerved by the movie if they’re expecting a sugary sweet fantasy film.

#9 Spirited Away

Synopsis

Spirited Away follows 10 year old Chihiro Ogino, who accidentally enters the spirit world while moving to a new neighborhood. When her parents are transformed into pigs by the witch Yubaba, she takes a job at the witch’s bathhouse in order to find a way to undo the curse and return to the real world.

What Makes the Film Unique

While not exactly a horror film, Spirited Away has a lot of scary creatures that could give nightmares to children. From a masked spirit who eats greedy people, to a spider yokai and even the sight of a dragon being violently attacked by paper shikigami, there are a lot of disturbing visuals for an animated film. However, the true unique part of the film that could leave you broken is the sense of hopelessness that the protagonist gets when she loses her parents, is lost in an unfamiliar world, and forced into servitude. What makes things worse is that she is under time pressure as well as she will be trapped forever if she can’t undo all the trouble in time.

#10 The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Synopsis

Serving as the loose sequel to the 1967 novel of the same name, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time follows the young girl Makoto, who accidentally gains the power to travel through time. She then uses the power to visit different points in time in an effort to fix problems.

What Makes It Unique

Almost every single story about time travel addresses the perils of messing with time and events. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is no different, and it is where it shows its most unique (and heartbreaking) parts: Makoto eventually has to choose between letting a couple of friends die or losing a loved one forever. She did find a good compromise – that of saving the friends while only losing contact with the loved one for an indeterminate amount of time. Nobody died, but it’s still a sad ending that hammers home the point that you can’t have everything at once, or even if you do, you have to make compromises.

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