Those out there with any kind of knowledge of Anime beyond years old will no doubt be wondering why I even bothered to put an article of such glaring obviousness together, and there may indeed be no reason for you guys to read any further, as I can’t promise that anything will be discussed that you don’t already know.
No, this article is aimed at the novices in the world of anime fandom; those who may love Naruto, Death Note and Latter Studio Ghibli, or even mangaised Stateside output such as Avatar and the recent Thundercats reboot, but have no sense of the medium’s history. Take note too, all who live for such things as mind expanding story telling, first class action, ultra-violence, innovation and benchmarks in film history, as my selected choices contain many or all of these factors and are most definitely for you.
The selections are feature films only, were (and remain) massively influential and are endlessly entertaining. I can’t imagine that there is much room for disagreement, but feel free to comment and discuss. Let us begin.
Akira (1988): Based on his own comic series, writer/director, Katsuhiro Otomo, tells the story of a post World War 3 Neo Tokyo where young biker gangs run rampant and engage in turf wars while the government try to harness and weaponise the power of psychically endowed youngsters. When the young Tetsuo displays abilities he is taken into custody, but his friend, Kaneda, aims to get him back, setting off a series of events that could lead to catastrophe.
Ostensibly THE anime film of choice, Akira, bar none, would appear on any enthusiast’s ‘essential’ list. There might be points of argument with my other selections, but not Akira, it did nothing short of create a new league for animation quality, introduce an unsuspecting world to Japanese animation and birthed cyber-punk as we know it. Groundbreaking in every conceivable way, it maintains breakneck action while exploring high intellectual ideas on the nature reality with an air of ambiguity comparable to the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Also recommended is the complete graphic novel series, which tells a story the film can only touch on, in a fashion that is in no way ambiguous.
My Neighbour Totoro (1988): Two young girls move into a country home with their dad while their mother is in hospital. Soon enough one discovers that they are sharing a garden with a family of fuzzy forest sprites and embark on a series of adventures, learning small life lessons along the way.
Any essential anime list worth its salt needs to represent with an offering from the legendary director Hayao Miyazaki, and the most obvious choice is My Neighbour Totoro. Whether it’s you favourite of Studio Ghibli’s output or not, so popular was the film in its native Japan that the titular character became the studio’s logo image and a merchandising phenomenon the likes of which few films will ever see. Released in the same year as Akira, Totoro is its spiritual pole opposite. It is squarely aimed at youngsters, but its honesty and observation of childhood renders its execution simply magical, and is perfect viewing for children of all ages.
Ninja Scroll (1993): Ronan for hire, Jubei, is blackmailed by a government agent to track down and kill the fearsome Shogun of the Dark, along with his team of mystically gifted ninja, before they can overthrow the government and bring terror to the land.
Pushing the boundaries in neither originality nor narrative, Ninja Scroll blazes a trail in pure, balls out action and violence. Cool as hell in its stylised character design and combat choreography, animation studio, Madhouse, made its name and set the standard for all future action orientated animation, a standard that none have since surpassed.
Growing up, not being of the age to appreciate stories of a more intellectual bent, Ninja Scroll was always my favourite anime, and it’s still right up there.
Ghost in the Shell (1995): In a near future where humans are enhanced bionically in both body and mind, and where wireless access to computer networks is as simple as having a thought, the most dangerous type of criminals are the cyber-criminals. Tasked to police cyber-crime are The Major and her team, Section 9, who may just have met their match when faced with a hacker who is so skilled that they are taking control of people wholesale.
Though made some years after Akira, Ghost in the Shell took the baton of thought provoking sci-fi and ran with it. It was heavily inspired by the busy visuals of Blade Runner, sported pioneering cell and CG animation that made the quiet conversational scenes, as well as the badass bursts of intermittent action, crackle with glowing dynamism. The story moves along slowly but is years ahead of its time, throwing out theories on cyber networking and crime that make it an easier watch now than it ever was in the nineties; a rare attribute indeed. The spin-off series, Stand Alone Complex, is pretty great too.
Perfect Blue (1997): Pop star turned actress, Mima Kirigoe, happens on a website that is chronicling every detail of her life in the first person. But when friends and colleges around her start turning up dead, her very sanity is put to question as her real life begins to merge with both the role she is playing and that of the online blogger, who is growing more and more intrusive.
Writer/director, the late Satoshi Kon, made a career of animating stories that with more ease could have been shot live action, but, as with Perfect Blue, used the medium to put you instantly on the back foot, he also has no problem keeping you there as this paranoia inducing, psychological thriller keeps you guessing as to the leads sanity until the nail biting climax. Mixing a mastery of the genre akin to the best of Hitchcock with the unflinching hard edge of David Fincher, Perfect Blue is incomparable to any animated film before or since.
These films are truly the cream, and devastatingly great starting points for anyone wanting to jump on the anime train, so, as usual, if you feel your interest stirred, click on the titles and give the trailers a watch, and I assure you it’s all uphill from there.