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My All-Time Favorite Anime Movies

Updated on May 29, 2013

Nearly every anime series has additional movies and OVAs in addition to the show's main episodes. But there are also many, many anime movies that aren't connected to any particular series. With so many anime movies out there, it can be hard to find the best of the best. I know that anime fans vary widely in personal taste. Certainly, my list of my all-time favorite anime movies would probably not be exactly the same as that of someone else. However, I tried to use objective standards in determining what made this list.

First, I was choosing movies that were both meaningful and entertaining. That is, they weren't merely longer versions of an episode of their respective series', but films in their own right. They have to be coherent and logical, without requiring that someone who watches the film be familiar necessarily with the anime series (if there is one).

In addition, I like to see unique and innovative art and storytelling techniques, compelling and complicated characters, and what I want to see in every movie: an intriguing plot that gets resolved in a satisfactory manner (this doesn't mean it has to end in sunshine and rainbows, only that all logical questions arising from the movie's introductory premise are resolved). In fact, I do not want to say that movies with sad endings are bad, because I feel that they cause the viewer to reflect on the tragedy, which is powerful and important for some films to do.

Oblivion Island

This 2009 hit movie from Production I.G. was everything I like about anime. It had wonder and joy, taught a lesson without being overly preachy, and truly has the right blend of good storytelling and good visuals.

Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror is animated in 3-D computer animation, which is a development that hasn't taken over animation in Japan as much as it has in the west. I personally perceive 3-D computer animation as usually less effective than good ole cellulose, because I feel that some of my favorite old-time animated films, such as Dinsey's "The Fox and the Hound"m would have been impossible to re-create visually using modern methods. Despite my prejudices, however, I found that Oblivion Island possessed stunning, amazingly detailed, beautiful objects and scenery. It manages to look life-like when it needs to and cartoon-like when it needs to as well, which is something animated works sometimes struggle with.

Oblivion Island is a story about growing up, but not in a way you might expect. Haruka, the main character, is a run-of-the-mill little girl in modern-day Japan. Her mother died when she was younger. The movie is about growing up and realizing how important it is for her to cherish her mother's memory and learn to cut her father a little more slack. It's a movie that radiates warmth and humanity at every turn.

The plot revolves around Haruka's mother's mirror: one of the few things Haruka has that reminds her of her mom. However, as she gets older, she stops caring about the mirror and neglects it, and then eventually forgets about it altogether. Then shinto fox spirits come and take her mother's mirror, because they take anything humans have neglected. When Haruka gets in a fight with one adorable little fox boy over the issue, she gets sucked with him into a spirit realm. In it, she must disguise her human-ness and blend in among a bunch of spirits in order to take back what's hers. Over the course of the story she learns important lessons about what truly matters in life.

Sounds familiar? Yes, an avid anime watcher will notice similarities between the plot of this movie and that of Spirited Away. But a lot makes Haruka's journey different and unique, and the world the two movies take place in are still very dissimilar. Yet, they both have strong girl heroines embarking on a quest to get something back that was taken by supernatural means.

One part about Oblivion Island that I found interesting was when Haruka got re-united with an old lamb stuffed animal from her early childhood. (I thought, combined with Toy Story, the younger generations are going to be so paranoid to the point of terror about throwing away old toys!) This part was about how growing up sometimes means that we abandon childhood things that were once very special to us. Haruka re-unites with her lamb toy, making up for the guilt she feels when she sees that she abandoned a sentient being. (I would be freaked out, too, especially since I had lots of stuffed animals and Pokemon cards that I lost or gave away!) This movie is at it's core about the nature of time and moving forward with life, how we should be able to do that without neglecting or ignoring what's important to us from the past. I think that is a Japanese sentiment the west could really stand to listen to.

Spirited Away

Like Oblivion Island, Spirited Away is a girl's coming-of-age story told within a framework of Japanese beliefs. While Oblivion Island is about growing up without forgetting things that were important or special in childhood, Spirited Away is simply about growing up. Through it, you see the main character, Chihiro, struggle as she tries to work to earn a living, get along with diverse and sometimes annoying characters, resist greedy impulses, and learn to carry herself with more confidence and self-assurance. There are many excellent movies from Studio Ghibli. But Spirited Away is my favorite, with its large array of varied characters, moral complexity, character development, and a compelling plot.

This is frankly as close as I've ever come to finding a perfect movie. It has an innocent first love, moral development, great friendships, excitement, good visual and sound effects, compelling characters in a unique fantasy setting that combines the spiritual with the mundane in a beautiful way.

Sometimes the scenes in the bathhouse can seem like sensory overload, contrasting with other more quiet, dark, and private scenes involving just a few characters. This story shows a wide range of personality types. It gives Chihiro a vast world to inhabit. This movie also manages to pull at one's heartstrings in a way few movies are genuinely able to do without being over-the-top, fake, or cheesy about it. This is Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki-san at their best: evoking powerful emotions in the audience and telling a great story in a beautiful way, but without having to be too melodramatic. Spirited Away combines the real and the magical in a stunning, impactful way.

This is from the 1975 TV anime version, but the animated film is based on this and as such looks very similar.
This is from the 1975 TV anime version, but the animated film is based on this and as such looks very similar. | Source

The Dog of Flanders

The Dog of Flanders was a movie I got into because the advertizement for it played at the end of my Pokemon VHS tapes back in the day. A Dog of Flanders is a European tale, a novel written by an English woman named Marie Louise de la Ramée in 1872, that's more or less forgotten in Europe, yet beloved in Japan. As such it has been adapted into film and anime form numerous times.

The version of The Dog of Flanders I'm referring to, however, is an anime film that came out in 1997. It's very low on the radar. Not many people know about it, and it doesn't seem as popular as many of the other titles on this list. I think that this might be because it's a very emotional, sentimental, heart-wrenching story. When people think of anime, they think of something very different, usually, and that is the mindless violence seen in most shounen series. This isn't that at all.

The story is about Nello, a poor boy living in, well, Flanders (modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands, specifically, the story takes place in Antwerp, Belgium) during the 17th century. Inspired by the work of Peter Paul Reubens, one of the most significant Dutch artists of his day, Nello sets out to become an artist. Along the way, he rescues Patrasche, a dog, from an abusive owner. Nello endures many brutal hardships but never loses his spirited determination.

Spoiler Alert! What follows discusses the ending. Turn back now if you haven't watched it yet!

The ending for this movie is extremely sad. Sometimes I wonder if the trend is that current American audiences hate the tragedy genre and always seem to insist, somewhat childishly, that every story have a fairytale ending. Perhaps that's why this film did poorly here. However, Americans also love their dogs. In the end, this tale is not much different than many, many of the books that young Americans do enjoy that are tragic and emotional, such as the Outsiders or Old Yeller. I'll admit that I like this for sentimental reasons, being a lover of art as well as dogs. Patrasche is a faithful, loving dog, despite being abused by a former owner, and the relationship that develops between boy and dog is very touching. So although you may have read many books like this in school, I still think the story is unique and timeless enough to stand on its own.


Fullmetal Alchemist: Conqueror of Shamballa

Although I enjoyed the other FMA movie: Sacred Star of Milos, it didn't make the list because it wasn't as interesting to me. It felt like just another episode of Brotherhood, albeit with an interesting narrative and a dark twist ending.

But Conqueror of Shamballa was amazing, it really took my breath away.

For those of you unfamiliar with Fullmetal Alchemist (I will find you), the show follows the lives of two brothers who are trying to reverse their terrible losses they accidentally inflicted on themselves by using forbidden alchemy to bring their dead mother back to life, and failing horribly. The older brother, Edward, lost an arm and a leg in the accident, and these were replaced by metallic limbs called automail, courtesy of his mechanically savvy childhood friend, Winry. The younger brother lost his entire body, and exists only as a soul attached to a large suit of armor. The pair struggle to learn more about alchemy so that they can get their bodies back, and perhaps even get their mom back some day as well. To this end, Edward becomes an alchemist for the military.

Overall, the show is well-written, providing deep, complex, and interesting characters, that quirky humor that is quintessential to anime, and themes that very much apply to the real world.

Conqueror of Shamballa takes the characters and places them in the real world. In the 1930's, in Germany, to be exact. Now, the show has hints at nazi-ish stuff, they are a militaristic people known for having blue eyes and call their leader "the Fuhrer". In addition, the main characters often get caught up in the machinations of malicious scientists, and human experimentation, especially on ethnic minorities, is an issue often brought up by the show. So it was interesting to me to see them actually create a parallel Ed and Al, living in that world, as innocent German teens who have no idea the direction their country is going in. The movie-makers obviously did the research; Hitler was fond of occult studies. However, Hitler himself doesn't make an appearance, he is replaced as the main antagonist by a blonde woman named Dietlinde Eckhart. Eckhart is the leader of a group that is trying to make contact with Shamballa, their name for the "alchemy world" in which the events of Fullmetal Alchemist take place. Her group is trying to open a gate to the alchemy world, to control and use alchemy for the nazis' purposes.

Some of the main homunculi villains are able to move between the worlds. However, some of them take different forms. My favorite part about this was Envy taking the form of a humungous dragon.

This movie was done very well, coming from someone whose seen a lot of badly researched or ridiculous movies that have tried to portray this monumental period in history. I also think it's interesting for the Japanese to do a WWII movie from what they imagine to be a German youth's perspective. I think that the addition of the parallel "real" or "scientific" world to the Fullmetal Alchemist narrative gave it a whole new level of depth and sophistication. It also raised the stakes, intensifying the drama, and (SPOILER)

this made the triumphant conclusion all the more satisfying. It's hard to find a good World War Two historical movie, and it's even harder to find a good movie based on a mega-popular shounen franchise.

It's also a movie that compares the perspective of magic (alchemy) with that of scientific realism. The show does this by making the alchemy itself a science, but it was very interesting to contrast alchemy with what is known as science in this world.

Plus, I felt like somehow, all the characters were at their best in this movie. Rose as a gypsy, Al as an idealistic young rocket scientist, Winry being at her peak in terms of caring and supportive, the military characters being heroic, the villains being truly monstrous, etc. In contrast, I felt that Sacred Star of Milos didn't allow all the characters to really shine because the struggles of Ed, Al, and the new characters were more the focus of the film. In this movie, everything is on a grand scale, a battle between worlds. In Milos, everything is about saving one small city in the middle of nowhere that has no real relation to anything in the rest of the series.

Blood: The Last Vampire

Blood: The Last Vampire is of course one of my all-time favorite movies, and a good treat on Halloween in particular. I would almost call it the perfect horror movie. It has it all; suspense, mystery, the primal fear of the unknown.

The movie takes place in a high school at a U.S. military base in Japan. Saya is a vampire with a human appearance, who is being told by a U.S. military organization to pose as a high school student in order to hunt down these monsters that have been sighted around the base. Saya takes her work very seriously, and the corpses of the large, demonic creatures soon pile up. However, Saya by the end Saya is left doubting if she made the right choice, and (SPOILER ALERT)

the movie ends on a bittersweet note, with her feeding one of the creatures her own blood as it lays helpless after being torn up by an airplane propeller. After all the monsters are presumably slaughtered enough, Saya vanishes without a trace, leaving her poor, kindly old teacher alone to brood over the horrible events that have taken place. It's then revealed that there is a photograph of Saya from the Victorian era, looking very much the same then as she does now.

The movie is deep and thought-provoking while also managing to be interesting from an action perspective as well. And it is really good at building the suspense and drama necessary to pull off a good horror movie.


The Animatrix

The Animatrix is an animated prequel to the Matrix trilogy. A series of animated vignettes start off by showing humanity's last stand, then flip back in time to document the rise of the machines, the matrix, and also to showcase what some individual's went through in various matrix-controlled dreams, also showing how they were called from outside the matrix. Since the majority of scenes take place in individual people's matrix-projection dreams, the animation is well, really trippy in a fun but often dark way. Reality in this movie is constantly changing.

The problem might be a lack of connection between the stories, since the characters in each scene don't interact with each other. However, what I like is that each scene is animated differently, signifying an individual's personality and mind. I also like that it explores the deeper historical roots of the matrix, even making the viewer feel sympathy for the machines, which were just monstrous in the original Matrix trilogy. This movie is top on the list for anyone who likes a good old-fashioned mind screw.


Ghost in the Shell & Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

I couldn't really decide which I like more, because I'm a big fan of Ghost in the Shell because it deals with transhumanism, and the ethical implications of new technology, some of which might be more than hypothetical in the very near future. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is a great anime series, combining philosophical quandary, political turmoil, and gripping action.

Both of the movies were strong, but seem more subdued than the anime. They're willing to be bolder in their material for the movies too, exploring the notion of robots being used for sex, which is an issue Stand Alone Complex only mentions here and there in passing. Stand Alone Complex is in some ways less mature than the movies.

My personal favorite would be Innoccence, only because it explores the feelings of Bato more in depth. In the series, Bato is a strong, silent guy who keeps it all bottled in. In the movies, especially in Innocence, his past and feelings are brought to the surface. Being the only other full-cyborg member of Section 9 besides Motoko, and Motoko's closest confidant, makes him an interesting character and I'm glad that he was put in the spotlight. Too often in the show, Bato is simply back-up for Motoko, and a mentor figure for Togusa. In the movies, his relationship with Motoko, both as cyborgs and fellow cops, and as man and woman, are more thoroughly explored.

I prefer the art style of the movies to those of Stand Alone Complex. The colors are more earthy and realistic. In a movie, a filmmaker can show more detail and complexity than in an animated series for television. The lighting is also more interesting, varied, and subtle. The visuals often convey mood in a really strong way. I liked the parts of the movies that were dark, contemplative, and directed inward.

It really makes you wonder what it would feel like to give up your humanity and become a cyborg, and what it means to be human. If we placed our minds in new bodies, how would we change? What would we be giving up?

Tenchi Forever!

This movie, a birthday present from a friend, was my introduction into the Tenchi Muyo universe. I knew said friend mostly liked it because "OMG CABBIT", but I wasn't sure about it. I guess you could say my feelings toward Tenchi were that of a little kid's towards broccoli, I had a sneaking suspicion that I'd hate it, even though I hadn't tried it. The series is one I would describe as "fluff", shallow, unintellectual comedy, whose mass appeal is fueled by the average fangirls love of cute things (OMG CABBIT is a common cry), and romance, and the protagonist, and by the average fanboy's sexual wish fulfillment. It's probably the most iconic harem genre anime series to date, and has stood the test of time reasonably well. One thing that makes Tenchi different from other harem series is their use of science fiction and fantasy elements, which I did find to be an appealing aspect of the show. And at the end of the day, it still has very likable characters, even if their romantic attraction to this kid (who is kind of related to most of them!) merits many a wtf.

But Tenchi Forever! is a movie that is very different in overall tone from the more lighthearted anime series. The movie introduces a new character, Haruna, an alien lady who was Tenchi's grandfather's lover. Haruna kidnaps Tenchi and traps him in an alternate reality where he grows older and more mature, and forces him to forget all memories of his past whatsoever.

The two top duelists for Tenchi's heart, Ayeka the stuck-up princess, and Ryoko the sloppy space pirate, set out to rescue him. It's not easy and takes several months, but they eventually track him with help from gramps and from Washu, who is assisted by Mihoshi. However, Washu, Mihoshi, and Sami take a back seat in this one. The overall drama is about Tenchi's grandfather and his past escaping from Jirai to Earth. Haruna, unlike the main protagonists, doesn't want Tenchi for Tenchi; she wants Tenchi only because he looks like his grandfather, for whom she's been longing for over the course of many decades. So the plot becomes less "guess who's walking in on who in the shower" slapstick, and more sentimental, romantic drama.


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    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 4 years ago from Illinois

      Yeah, I think if you were disappointed by Sacred Star, Shamballa is much better.

    • Hikapo profile image

      Seet 4 years ago from California

      I am thinking about watching Fullmetal Alchemist: Conqueror of Shamballa. Any thoughts?

      I am actually disappointed with Sacred Star.

    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 4 years ago from Illinois

      Well I flat-out don't like time travel plots. They always end up resolved unsatisfactorily because there's always more you can do with time travel than make one person's petty personal problem go away. I also don't like it when there isn't much of a logical explanation and the time travel is clearly a plot device pulled from thin air.

    • David Trujillo profile image

      David Trujillo Uribe 4 years ago from Medellin, Colombia

      Ok, if its like Alice I´ll give it a try. Its just that I saw "The Girl That Leapty Through Time" (or somenthing like that) and regreted it.

    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 4 years ago from Illinois

      Yeah. Well, Obivion Island isn't a love story in any way. It's more of a coming-of-age story, but it's told in a beautiful and interesting way. It's boldly theatrical, a lot like the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland.

    • David Trujillo profile image

      David Trujillo Uribe 4 years ago from Medellin, Colombia

      Spirited Away introduced me to the Gibli Universe. I loved it, as I love any fantasy story like "The Never Ending Story" type. I´m OK with the magical themes and worlds, its the teen love stories that bore me.

    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 4 years ago from Illinois

      Spirited Away and Oblivion Island are more geared towards girls, I suppose, but they're still quality films. In particular, Spirited Away is always thrilling, and they both have that element of paranormal exploration, of venturing into the unknown. I guess I would recommend Spirited Away a bit more because Oblivion Island gets kind of video game/pixar looking.

    • David Trujillo profile image

      David Trujillo Uribe 4 years ago from Medellin, Colombia

      Gonna come back to this list and download some of the films. The first ones seem like girl flicks, are they really enjoyable? I´m not into teen stories like "Th Girl Who Traveled Through Time". It has perfect quality but I´m not into these kinds of themes.

    • EJ Lambert profile image

      EJ Lambert 4 years ago from Chicago, IL

      I would, since it the best of the bunch.

    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 4 years ago from Illinois

      I've never seen it but I've seen almost every other Studio Ghibli movie, but I might have to watch it at some point.

    • EJ Lambert profile image

      EJ Lambert 4 years ago from Chicago, IL

      There is no question in my mind that My Neighbor Totoro is perhaps the most beloved and impactful Anime film of all time. Full grown adults with jobs still reference it in cartoons over here.