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10 Great Animated Movies That Introduced Anime To The West

21 October 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Dan Smith

Anime has a major place today among popular films and TV series, but much of its popularity in the West has mostly grown in the last few decades.

Commercial animation in Japan began in the early 20th century, and began to take on a characteristic anime style by the 1960s with series like Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, an adventure story about a boy android.

As was the case with Astro Boy, many anime TV series and films have originated as manga novels and later been adapted into animated stories. It has been common for anime titles to bear close resemblance to the manga they were based on, and for the original storylines or creators to be part of their adaptation.

Due in part to this relationship to manga, early anime titles sometimes used artwork nearly identical to that from the pages of manga, and animation styles which could be somewhat static and only emphasize full movement in the most important scenes. With the blossoming in popularity of anime over time, the animation began to take on a life of its own, and hit films began showcasing state-of-the-art techniques in traditional animation or 3D special effects, supported by large production teams.

Stylistic features of anime that have persisted throughout its history include a strong basis in science fiction, myth, and the supernatural, dramatic action and adventure plotlines, heroic characters with superhuman abilities, and characters with distinctive personalities, costumes, and features like flowing hair or gem-like eyes. Anime has branched out into every genre today, including categories such as romance, drama, slice of life sitcom, sports, and horror.

The surge in popularity of anime culture in Japan and the West has allowed hit franchises to expand into new manga and TV series, films, video games, toy line merchandise, and more. Continuations and re-boots of anime titles like Pokémon and Neon Genesis Evangelion now occur in a similar way to hit comic book movies in the US.

From the late 1970s to early 2000s, certain anime films in particular made in impact in the West that helped develop a growing mainstream fan base. The following films varied greatly in style, subject matter, and intended audience, allowing anime to filter into the public consciousness with the different groups of viewers each movie resonated with.


1. The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

The iconic gentleman thief character Arsène Lupin the Third was first created for a manga series in the 1960s by the artist Monkey Punch. He modeled the Lupin character after the thief of the same name featured in French author Maurice Leblanc’s series of novels, who he is said to be the grandson of.

The plot follows a notorious master thief as he goes on high-stakes theft missions with his partners and enemies, each of which tend to result in antic chases and showdowns. In addition to its action and adventure, the anime is given a comedic and light-hearted tone by the jokes and mischief of Lupin and his acquaintances.

The Lupin franchise manga into a TV series in the early 1970s before the release of the Castle of Cagliostro in 1979, which is one of the first and most well known of its films. In the movie, Lupin’s thief adventures lead him into a small and mysterious country where he gets the chance to help a princess escape an arranged marriage gone wrong.

The film was directed and co-written by Hayao Miyazaki, one of the most famous anime creators of all time, known for films such as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, and Spirited Away.

Lupin III animated series, some of which remain ongoing to present, have been among the earliest well-known anime releases in the West.


2. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)


In contrast to the focus on fantasy worlds in many anime stories, The Grave of the Fireflies represents an early work that has been praised for its realistic depiction of a family’s hardships during historical wartime events. Director Isao Takahata made the film for the animation production company Studio Ghibli he co-founded with Hayao Miyazaki, and has gained comparable acclaim to Miyazaki, who he has collaborated with on some projects.

Grave of the Fireflies is based on the 1967 semi-autobiographical short story of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka, which described events that take place near the end of the Second World War in Kobe, Japan. The film follows a young brother and sister, Seita and Setsuko, as they struggle to survive in the wake of firebombing raids that leave them homeless and without food. The movie was influential for showing that the medium of animation can portray dramatic and serious stories.


3. Akira (1988)

Akira movie

Director Katshuhiro Otomo’s edgy science fiction epic Akira proved to be another groundbreaking film for anime in the late 1980s. Its story revolves around childhood friends Kaneda and Tetsuo who grow to become enemies in a post-apocalyptic world fractured by gang violence, war, and social unrest.

Tensions heighten in the rivalry as one of the characters gains latent psychic abilities that offer him god-like power to control others and attain any vice he seeks, making for an unforgettable tale that brings to mind the colossal conflicts of comic book superheroes and Greek myths.

Akira’s success as a hit animated film for mature audiences, in combination with its excellent animation technique for its time, made it a cult classic that helped change the way Western audiences thought about what is possible with the medium of animation.

The Akira story first began as a manga series in the early 1980s, also written and illustrated by Otomo, which is now collected in six volumes. The title achieved a cinematic quality for its highly detailed, sprawling illustrations, explosive combat scenes, and complex web of characters.


4. Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Ghost in the Shell

By 1995 the popularity of anime was beginning to grow larger in mainstream audiences in the West. The philosophical and action-packed Ghost in the Shell was a breakthrough hit in cyberpunk films, and went on to influence popular US films like The Matrix.

Ghost in the Shell was directed by Mamoru Oshii and is based on an earlier manga title by Masamune Shirow. Its female protagonist, Major Matoko Kusanagi, is a beautiful and highly skilled combat specialist who has both human and artificial machine qualities. She is often depicted nude or in tight-fitting combat suits, similar to characters in Shirow’s erotic art works such as Galgrease. Oshii helped contribute to the surreal and philosophical aspects of the story, a trademark he is also known for in films such as Angel’s Egg.

Ghost in the Shell follows a heavily armed security group as they investigate a series of hacking-based murders in their technologically advanced city. The pursuit opens up questions about the identity of the criminal as well as the differences between human and artificial intelligence, and culminates in ever-more-spectacular battles scenes.

The Ghost in the Shell franchise has expanded since the first manga and film to include recent TV series and films such as the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Ghost in the Shell: Arise.


5. Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (1997)

The End of Evangelion

The mecha franchise Evangelion is an example of an anime series that came before manga rather than vice versa. The original TV series and films were written and directed by Hideaki Anno, and are closely connected.

Anno was previously known for the anime series Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, a story inspired by Jules Vernes’ Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. He commonly uses post-modernist themes in his work, and among other things explores religious symbolism and Freudian psychology in Neon Genesis Evangelion.

The 1995 – 1996 anime series tells the story of a team of young characters who pilot massive Evangelion mecha suits in the style of Gundam or Transformers to defend Earth from monstrous attackers called Angels. A pessimistic or existentialist tone pervades the series, and in between the battles the main character Shinji expresses doubts about who his meaning and identity in life, and why he must fight.

The Evangelion series ended with some surprising plot twists, and in 1997 the movies Death & Rebirth and End of Evangelion were created to encapsulate the highlights of the show in a film version and to create an alternate ending for the series. Death & Rebirth was the first half of the movie and borrowed much of its material from the TV series. End of Evangelion was more distinctive in that it used new material for a new ending and finale to the series.

More recently, a Rebuild of Evangelion film series has begun which also borrows from the original storyline and creates new material and endings (2007 – present).



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  • Ninja Scroll for me.

    • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga


    • Count This

      Yep… Definitely Ninja Scroll. In my opinion it’s the most underrated Anime both in Japan (Most Japanese have never heard of it) and the rest of the world.

    • Carlos Felipe Soto Cortés

      for me too, and DBZ movies

  • lilyboosh

    “The West” meaning the United States? I grew up watching anime in South America in the 1980s and I’m pretty sure they watched anime in Europe at the time as well, in France and Spain for example. Can we try not to filter everything through the US’ experience please?

    • KeepinIt Real

      It might behoove you to make a list yourself. You can’t expect people who are from the U.S. to write as if they aren’t from the U.S. The result would marred, like a white person trying to write about the lives of minorities as if they know best. It would just look like an attempt at appropriation. Demanding something without trying to provide it yourself kind of reeks of entitlement, tbh.

      • lilyboosh

        Myself making a list would be useless to address the point I just stated, as we’re talking about *this* list and its stated scope. It says “The West” and “The West” is not merely the United States. Beyond whether such a distinction is useful or not, there was a “West” before the US existed.

        • KeepinIt Real

          Right, I can agree on that. My point had to deal with you requesting that everything not be through the U.S. perspective/experience. That’s why I said that it might do some good if you made a list. This would help add other perspectives to the mix – perspectives that you deem to be lacking according to the last sentence of your original statement.

    • cinemaftw

      I think that most of the tiles make sense if your talking about the mainstream, cause even in latin america until Akira came out this was still underground, and 80s anime was not necessarily what we come to understand when talking about anime, AND this a movie list, in the 80s there was just TV shows, ALSO when the Americans found out about anime, is when most anime come to here, causes most dub anime here was a re-dub from there, or at least the rights was buying from there. So yeah kinda understand your point but still, is not like this is a america-center page, is have a very healthy variety

      • lilyboosh

        No, this is certainly not always an “America rah rah rah” page, but the point still stands. If this list had been called “animated movies that introduced anime to the US” I’d have no problem with it, because it’d be correct. However, anime was already quite popular in “the west” before it blew up in the US. Not only my first memories of any cartoon are of an anime (Takahata’s ‘3000 leagues in search of mother’, which was huge at the time) but shoujo and shounen were played regularly throughout my childhood (and that of kids my age) alongside American cartoons. Off the top of my head I remember Sandybell, Candy Candy, Dorvack, Gordian, as well as reruns of classics such as Speed Racer or Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z.
        While it’s true that anime’s explosion in the late 80s and early 90s in the US meant getting a whole lot more of it elsewhere (as well as the popularization of the term “anime”, growing up to me it was ‘japanese cartoons’ or ‘japanese animation’), anime had already been introduced to the West in the late 70s and throughout the 1980s and was well-loved there. It had a huge influence on European animation, for example. Where I grew up there was less sense of a cohesive fandom, but I remember being a big anime fan in elementary school, and I wasn’t the only one.

  • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

    Ninja Scroll, Ghost in The Shell and the first Patlabor and the Fist of the North Star animated movie.

  • Kevin Ice

    No ‘Ninja Scroll’? No ‘Wings of Honneamise’?

    • lilyboosh

      Wings of Honneamise is amazing.

  • Andres Abad

    So…. Why Inuyasha?? DIgimon??? Are they even considered GREAT animation movies from back there? Where is Perfect Blue, Memories ? Devilman? Ninja Scroll (my personal fav)? Spriggan?

  • Arsalan Ahmad

    why no mention of Dragon ball Z

  • Edmund Finegan

    I second ninja scroll. Another great anime from the 90s was Alita Battle Angel. Also, when I was coming through in the mid 90s it was all about the ultra violence and demon sex stuff, like Urotsukidoji Legend of the Overfiend and Wicked City.

    • Andre Troesch

      I agree the kid friendly stuff didn’t come until much later

  • Pedro De Caux Lasneaux

    No metions to the movies of Dragon Ball, Saint Seiya, Yu Yu Hakusho, Rouroni Kenshin (Samurai X), Sailor Moon and Sakura Card Captor that were great hits in the West, in various countries of Western Europe, Latin America and some of them in USA.

  • Cinema Phenomenology

    D Vampire Hunter?

  • Andre Troesch

    I’ve been an anime fan since the mid-Eighties and the animated films that opened the door for anime on TV and in stores were not really the ones listed here but
    Patlabor, Patlabor 2, Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbor Totoro, Wicked City, Demon City Shinjuku, The 2 Ranma movies, Tenchi Muyo the movie, Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer, Akira, Ninja Scroll, Megazone 23, Galaxy Express 999, Space Battleship Yamato, Barefoot Gen, Vampire Hunter D, the Dirty Pair films…. and plenty of others. I personally have never seen the Digimon movie which is actually three mini movies that the US distributors edited into a single film.

  • Saul

    No Robotech?

  • Gogzilla

    I realize this is just movies, but I grew up on such television anime like “Star Blazers” & “Battle of the Planets”. The first time I saw Lupin, was in a laserdisc arcade game called “Cliffhangers”, which used video from “Castle of Cagliostro”. Years later, I saw a video tape with Lupin on the cover, climbing a castle. I said “Ooh! That’s that video game!”, so I bought the movie. To this day, Lupin is my favorite anime character.

  • Phil Rosenthal

    nothing that came out after 1998 should be on this list

  • bobomccoo

    I think the tv series did more to open the west to anime than the movies. Most of the “cartoons” that played on tv during the 70’s were Japanese anime. It’s possible the Europeans got into anime decades before the US. As far as movies are concerned, I think Akira was the big one. It has been credited many times by many publications over the last couple of decades as the anime film that opened the door to the US for anime films. Let’s not forget also the robotec tv series that aired in the mid 80’s and also contributed to getting Americans interested in Anime.

  • johnta

    Ninja Scroll and Vampire Hunter