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The 20 Best Japanese Animated Movies of the 21st Century

22 February 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Melinda Gemesi

spirited away picture

Japanese anime are often about children, but they are certainly not primarily for a young audience. These films offer an insight into the subconscious of Japanese society. A country that during the Second World War believed in the irrefutable military power of the state and the myth of the “divine wind” –the self-sacrifice of the kamikaze pilots. However, after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan had to face the truth that there was a bigger power than its god-like emperor–the United States.

The most remarkable pieces of the previous century, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, The Grave of the Fireflies, and Nausicaa from the Valley of the Winds were in one way or another, engaged with the nightmare of the Second World War, the shadow of which was overcast on Japan’s national identity, as well as the responsibility humanity played in the invention of weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, the self-reflective topic of a hyper-technocratic society also emerged, setting the question whether the quick absorption of Western technology will lead to the birth of a new demon to finally demolish what once was the Land of the Rising Sun.

While some of the anime produced after the millennia appear to be a resumption of this topic (Metropolis, The Wind Rises, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence), the bigger picture offers more hope than the movies of the ‘80s and the ‘90s. The children of these anime, the representatives of the Generation Y, appear to be fighting a different battle from that of their ancestors.

Their greatest challenge is to find a way to cope with the problems of everyday lives: the loss of a father (Wolf Children, A Letter to Momo), the uncertainties of teenage life and lack goals (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, 5 Centimeters Per Second), or the difficulties of finding one’s own identity (Spirited Away, The Cat Returns). While these problems might seem banal compared to the annihilating monsters of earlier movies, this is the generation who carries the difficult task of finally shaking off the shadows of the war and finding a way to live on. This list features the twenty best films of the Generation Y.

 

20. A Letter to Momo (Hiroyuki Okiyura, 2011)

A Letter to Momo

The experience of loss, life in the metropolis compared to that in the countryside, and the little demons of Japanese folklore are compulsory ingredients of a good Japanese animation for all ages. Sure enough, A Letter to Momo features all these, with a good amount of humor and emotional moments in addition.

The scary-looking, but friendly ghosts definitely provide a few good laughs while they help Momo cope with the loss of her father. For those who are able to appreciate slower paced movies, it is touching to see how Momo gradually realizes that she isn’t the only one who has suffered and that her relationship with her mum needs to be reconciled.

Although this anime does not compete with the magical perfection of Spirited Away, in the shadow of some purely funny and entertaining American animation, it is delightful to find gems like this, where wit is combined with a heartwarming, humane story. Nothing proves this better than the selection of awards A Letter to Momo won between 2012 and 2014: Tokyo Anime Award, Awards of the Japanese Academy, Asia Pacific Screen Awards and Annie Awards.

 

19. From Up on Poppy Hill (Goro Miyazaki, 2011)

From Up on Poppy Hill

Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro Miyazaki failed to prove his talent with Tales from Earthsea, his directorial debut in 2006, which, to put it mildly, was not a great success. His second film, however, is the work of an already matured director, a beautifully entertaining Ghibli production that is in line with the studio’s best movies.

From Up on Poppy Hill is set in the past and is the story of a group of school kids who try to save their clubhouse from closing down. As an adaptation of an ‘80s shoujo manga, the film deploys the best elements of the genre: the happy moments of youth, budding love, and a generally invigorating atmosphere.

In contrast to the magical world of his father, Goro Miyazaki positions himself closer to reality. His heroine, Umi, is much closer to Isao Takahata’s characters in the Graves of the Fireflies than to any of the half-magical Miyazaki heroines, although her grace and strength can be compared to that of Naisicaa or Chihiro. Generally speaking, From Up on Poppy Hill is the best historical shoujo anime as of today, with great character design and Satoshi Takabe’s excellent score.

 

18. The Cat Returns (Hiroyuki Morita, 2002)

The Cat Returns

The Cat Returns started as a short animation commissioned by a theme park. Although the commission was cancelled, Hayao Miyazaki didn’t give up on the project, and extended it to a sort of test film for new Ghibli directors to be overseen by Hiroyuki Morita. Over time, the film expanded and based on Morita’s storyboard, The Cat Returns emerged as a playful, experimental anime. As an homage to the old Ghibli directors, the movie features Baron Humbert von Gikkingen and Muta, the fat cat, from Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart (1995).

The inhabitants of the Cat Kingdom represent the rest of the cast, and Haru, the (partially) human girl, receives the unwanted reward of having to marry the cat prince Luna after she saved his life. Haru’s journey to the Cat Kingdom is similar in some ways to that of Chihiro from Spirited Away; in order to find their real selves, they first have to lose themselves. Haru turns into a cat, while Chihiro loses her name and becomes Sen, and they can only retrieve their original forms once they are in possession of the knowledge of how to keep their integrity in the everyday life.

Because of this similarity and the two cameo characters, The Cat Returns is often treated as a weak alloy of Spirited Away and Whisper of the Heart; however, it is a beautiful and playful instructive tale on the complicated Japanese culture of exchanging favors.

 

17. Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)

Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

Although not the best Miyazaki film of the twenty-first century, Howl’s Moving Castle deserves a place on this list. The moving castle itself is one of the most graceful Miyazaki creatures. As a medley of organic and steampunk shapes, it embodies the ideal unison of nature and the technical world. Meandering in the Wastes between two hostile countries, Howl’s castle is the place where the cursed Sophie seeks refuge as an old lady.

Some elements of this anime recall the story of The Wizard of Oz, especially the character of the Witch of the Waste, who puts the curse on Sophie out of jealousy, and Turnip Head, the scarecrow she encounters on her way to Howl’s castle. Although this universe is home to several Western fairytale characters, it also features the demon of the military power, which is most evident in the scene where giant bombers leave a city behind in flames.

As he turns the wicked witch into a harmless old lady, Miyazaki’s statement is that of transnational pacifism. He does not seek a party to blame or a stronger enemy to beat the opponent, but reconciles East and West in a transnational fairytale.

 

16. Short Peace (Hiroaki Ando, Hajime Katoki, Shuhei Morita, Katsuhiro Otomo, 2013)

Short Peace

Short Peace is a collection of four short films. Katsuhiro Otomo, who managed the project, collaborated with three remarkable anime artists. Two of them, Hiroaki Ando and Shoei Morita, worked with the director before, on Steamboy and Freedom Project, respectively, but none of them had directed a feature film as of yet.

Morita’s short, Possessions, features a samurai who has to mend various symbolic items on order to escape from a shrine. Otomo’s Combustible evokes the style of traditional Japanese paintings, but the starting shots also resemble a computer game. Hiroaki Ando’s Gambo also features painting-like visuals, enhancing the importance of traditional animation in opposition to the more prominent CGI. The beauty of these three shorts lies within their reference to Japanese religion and classic art, but Combustible is the one that manages to be the most innovative in its visual style.

In contrast, to the three stories about the past, Katoki’s Farewell to the Arms is a dystopian sci-fi. The longest, and also the best, in its animation technique, the most notable about this episode when compared to other sci-fi anime is the complete lack of the metropolis. In place of the city there is only decay as the war of men and machines reaches a new level. Short Peace is a great demonstration of what the most innovative animators of the time are capable of, and hopefully Ando, Katoki, and Morita will soon get a chance for a full-length directorial debut.

 

15. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Mamoru Hosoda, 2006)

The Girl Who Leaped Through Time

A lighthearted coming-of-age movie about a girl, Makoto, and her two male friends, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is not a sci-fi anime, as the title might suggest. In this anime, Mamoru Hosoda does what is his strength: depicting the simple beauty of life in modern Japan.

Although some fans tend to presume the problem of time travel makes the film more complicated than it seems at first glance, there is no need to speculate over the nature and theory of time travel to enjoy this movie. Moreover, the fact that some characters can transport themselves back in time is secondary to the plot, since the main focus is on how Makoto will be able to preserve her friendship with the two boys and find a purpose to her life other than just having fun.

 

 

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  • Daniel

    Amazed by such an amazing list! However, saddened to not see Summer Wars, Mind Game or Garden of Words on it.

    • Urai Fadillah

      summer wars, i like it very much

  • Maximo Cunillera

    Nausicaa, Akira, ghost in the shell one, grave of the fireflies, must be in any anime list but thanks!

    • Ricardo Lazaro

      They are great, but they are not from the 21st century

      • Maximo Cunillera

        You are right my bad.

  • Kirielson

    Eh, list was okay but could be better.

    • Justin Steinmetz

      what is the list missing?

      • Kirielson

        Not necessarily missing, just some arrangements.

        • Justin Steinmetz

          so how would you improve it?

          • Kirielson

            I think a lot of the people mentioned it, but a lack of Summer Wars or the Children Who Chase lost voices should be there. Would drop Metropolis. I would add Pokemon The Movie 2000 because of how well executed it was for kids, as well as The Disappearance of Haruhi.

  • Seif

    The Tale of Princess Kaguya?

  • Stephus

    Ghost in The Shell II is not that good, and Tale of Princess Kaguya should’ve been on the list.

    • this bear is tops blooby

      Def agreed. GITS: Innocence in some parts is barely comprehensible since they made it overly convoluted. The first GITS treaded that fine line between digestibility and obfuscation.

    • SammeTheTortoise

      Princess Kaguya wasn’t released in the author’s country of residence at the time; it’s on the list of keen-to-see next though 😉

    • Elisabeth White

      Ghost in the Shell II was a big disappointment for me

    • Gosia ES

      Kaguya is amazing. It’s a piece of art.

  • Jérôme Blanchet

    I would easily replace Wolf Children by Red Line (2009). Wolf Children is just a clone of the Ghibli universe while Red Line propose 6 years of hand drawing in the making and underground animation like no other.

    • this bear is tops blooby

      Redline was a nice retro blast that deserves to be on this list.

  • Steve Brandon

    My top anime film of the century would be THE DISAPPEARANCE OF HARUHI SUZUMIYA for being everything I already liked about the series but with a movie budget to turn the already great for television animation up to 11.

    But half my list would be series-based films as I’m just someone who prefers anime series to standalone anime films.

    • ransom78

      Totally agree. Disappearance is incredible.

  • BinaryMind

    What? Metropolis the second best anime movie? Barely watchable if you ask me.

    • Steve Brandon

      Yeah, I saw METROPOLIS in theatres 13 years ago and I remember finding the animation quite lovely but, otherwise, I was bored stiff.

    • Yeah I don’t either understand how movies are rated like i just watched Birdman which has won many many awards but it was like i don’t know…

  • Allister Cooper

    Bravo for focusing on the works of the 21st century. May it be a far more interesting and entertaining list.

  • Patrick Drazen

    My only changes would have been to lose the two films by Makoto Shinkai. They’re both good but his “Children Who Chase Lost Voices” is superior to both of them on the list. You really should not have neglected Mamoru Hosoda’s “Summer Wars”–just as good as “Girl Who Leapt Through Time”, if not better. Also; was “Jin-Roh” out of consideration because it had its world premiere in France in November 1999? I say that’s a judgment call. One more thing: “The Cat Returns” is a nice movie and a nicer pun; the word “ongaeshi” in the title literally means “returning an obligation”, so perhaps a better translation of the title would be “The Cat’s Payback”. That said, it’s a great list with a strong start to the century in anime.

    • this bear is tops blooby

      Summer Wars is certainly a good one!

  • this bear is tops blooby

    The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is one of my personal favorites with The Place Promised In Our Early Days a close second.

    And Spirited Away will always have a special place in my heart since it was the very first anime I ever watched that got me into anime, slowly but surely.

  • Guest

    PRINCESS MONONOKE !!!

    • Xanian

      1998 if I am not mistaken.

      • Nacho Rockatansky

        irrelevant, it got released prior to the 21st century

        • Xanian

          That was my point.

    • Benas Bačanskas

      You got 9 likes for this useless comment? Princess Mononoke was released in 1997.

  • Howl’s Moving Castle was not dreamed up by Hayao Miyazaki (as much as I love his original works). It was originally a book by Diana Wynne Jones:http://www.amazon.com/Howls-Moving-Castle-Diana-Wynne/dp/0061478784

    It’s actually one of three books set in the same universe. The others are: “House of Many Ways” And “A Castle in the Air” . If you liked the movie, you should try the book too.

  • Levon Schroider

    Summer Wars should have been here!

  • Julian Flores

    Where’s Totoro?

  • DJ_BobbyPeru

    For those who liked Tekkonkinkreet, the same studio did a film called Mindgame which is equally awesome, but more of a comedy than Tekkon.

  • Elisabeth White

    OK so I love me some Anime.. but I’d watch Ponyo or Howls Moving Castle 10x over Spirited Away.. I know everyone loves it.. but I found it so hard to get into.. then again agree with Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell. classics

  • Julz M

    I’m glad to see my two favourite anime movies, 5 Centimeters Per Second and Wolf Children are on this list. I feel like the only person who didn’t particularly like Spirited Away… ?!

    • zdoc

      that’s because you are the only person who didn’t particularly like spirited away.

  • Gennaro Mancino

    Some of them are not so great and should be replaced with Yuasa’s Mind Game, Oshii’s The Sky Crawlers (way better than Innocence), Hara’s Colorful, Takahata’s Kaguyahime and Nishikubo’s Giovanni no Shima.

  • Isis

    Perfect Blue!!!

  • Esdras Castiliano

    Howl’s Moving Castle is my favorite Japanese film of all time!

  • Gosia ES

    Grave of the Fireflies…. Jin-Roh… Weak list full of Ghibli (not always best) productions… :/

  • You missed a few!!! Wicked City? Ninja Scroll? Ghost In the Shell ?(1 number 2 blows) Akira? Space Adventure Cobra???? The Cowboy Beebop movie is no where as good as most of the tv episodes.

  • Hiram Manrah

    mind game,redline,kara no kyokai are missing
    thanks for putting tekkonkinkreet in top 5
    such a cool and awesome movie

  • Andrew

    Paprika? I love that film.

  • Ivanović Ana

    this list needs when marnie was there.

  • ALEGNA LILIATH

    where is death note?

    • sautron

      movies

  • fack u

    olok

  • Darren Chua

    Does anyone know of a anime involving a kid going over to his grandmother’s house to stay during the vacation and discovered that her grandmother is a spirit hunter or some sort. I remembered talking mushrooms and this demon who escaped from a jar and possessing their house cat or some sort.. :0

  • Jimi LaMort

    Surprised there is no love, even in the comments, for Kei’ichi Sato ASURA from 2012. I thought it was great.

  • Steppenwolf

    Sadly, you all missed Summer Wars, an anime movie released in 2009.
    It is way better than 80% of the movies in this list, but unfortunatelly wasn’t able to get “The western world” interested.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HjLE8BmWfKA

  • mielconejo

    where’s summer wars?, Perfect Blue, Akira (still the best of all), Mindgame, Mononoke Hime, skyCrawlers, Redline, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Howl’s Moving Castle, Garden of Words, and LUPIN THE IIIRD: JIGEN DAISUKE NO BOHYOU?

    • Alyeskas

      ….Howl’s is there; Perfect Blue, Akira, Mononoke, Nausicaa and Lupin are all excluded as they are not 21st Century films. I think Garden of Words was not included as it is more of a short than an actual movie. I would include Summer Wars and Sakasama no Patema actually. I’ll have to check out Redline, everyone keeps mentioning it!!

  • tyler

    wtf you kidding Garden of Words not in list

    • i thought the last part was overly melodramatic which totally ruined the whole movie.

  • Andres Abad

    i dont know if it is a Japanesse release or if it was of the 21 century but.. Animatrix was pretty good combination of different anime styles.

  • Edotamère Lautiste

    You didn’t include Mind Game in the list, I’m a bit disappointed :/

  • Very Good List,,but what about Redline or Dead Leaves!!??

  • Alyeskas

    (Note to the commenters: remember this is a list for films produced in the 21st Century!! So don’t ask for pre-2000 films to be included. Hehe.)

    I love this list, though, and many of my favorite animated movies are on it. For the people who’re suggesting Kotoha no Niwa/Garden of Words, maybe it could be classified more as a short than a full-length feature? And I do agree that Summer Wars should have been included over Wolf Children or The Place Promised. Also Sakasama no Patema/Patema Inverted — BRILLIANT visuals and story. Excellent social commentary as well.

  • LORDLANZ

    STAND BY ME DORAEMON!

  • Rodrigo Tgz

    Ghost in the Shell II it’s not for kids.

  • Hide

    Attack on titan would be a great anime
    http://suzukisetsubi.jp

  • Elena Tav.

    Wolf Children is such a beautiful anime in so many aspects, it grows inside you more and more as the story flows effortlessly and the drama is following happiness but not in a conventional way, I saw it with a couple of male friends and in the end they were crying like babies, because it is so liberating and heart-warming at the same time.

  • MD Mahasweta

    Great list!
    But I think the following films should be included in any list of Japanese animated films worth its salt :
    1) Summer wars
    2) My neighbour Totoro
    3) The tale of princess Kaguya
    4) When Marnie was there
    5) Perfect blue
    6) Summer days with Coo
    7) The grave of the fireflies
    8) The garden of words (mainly for the art)
    And also, I couldn’t help but notice that the image given with the entry on The place promised in our early days is actually from 5 centimeters per second. A tiny mistake, but as a big fan of Makoto SHinkai’s work I was compelled to point that out.

  • stewnwt

    I admit I never understood the massive nerd boner everyone has for Spirited Away. For me it was a rather inconsequential story that didn’t have greater thematic reverberations and the Chihiro character was just plain annoying. Personally preferred Princess Mononoke or Castle in the Sky by a wide margin

  • shukagari

    Great choices!! Although Sword of the Stranger and Princess Kaguya would definitely be on my list 🙂

  • Verus

    Mais quelle liste de merde

  • Pedro Rabaçal

    I only watched six of these movies… 🙁

    Well, guess it shows life still has some goals to achieve and I already have another 14! 🙂

  • Aferim. Spirited Away’i ilk sıraya koyarak küfür yemekten kurtulmuşsun.

  • Utkarsh Tripathi

    It is a wonderful list but I particularly like to go with this list here which has a few surprise candidates as well :http://www.instalively.com/post/best-anime-movies-of-all-time

  • Stefan Adams

    WHERE THE FUCK IS AKIRA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Arya Adarsha Gautam

    The picture used for #12 The Place Promised in Our Early Days is actually from 5 Centimeters per Second.

  • EXC3Lsi0R

    Where the f*ck is Akira?

  • Dillip Mohanty

    I am not getting the torrent files of Grave of fireflies,The Place Promised in Our Early Days!! wer can i get it??

  • Pepé Le Pew

    Children Who Chase Lost Voices Makoto Shinkai?

  • alex yong

    Metropolis (Rintaro, 2001) doesn’t deserve to be at the no.2 spot.. lousy movie..

  • Martitta Black

    AKIRA ?!

    • Freshmaker

      Should be number 1. It made anime popular in North America.

  • Mitique

    Nice list! Watch my top of animation films in my blog: http://bommaucinefilo.blogspot.pt/2016/03/top-30-filmes-de-animacao.html

  • Vaibhav Agarwal

    GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES?????

  • Gouri Saini

    Hotarubi No Mori E was amazing, it depicted such a beautiful story in only 45 minutes. Good lost anyway.

  • Yuriko Haruka

    Hotarubi no more e too!
    Oh well…

  • Usagi Tsukino

    What is that one anime like grave of the fireflies about the little girl who was sent away to her aunts and her parents died in the bombing by america?

  • Binuriki Cliean Jay

    where is mononoke and grave of fireflies? and resurrection of F?

  • Binuriki Cliean Jay

    i couldnt understand spirited away and moving castle, one time they are enemies, then they are friends. much like WWE, become allies without explanation

  • a4lbi

    While I’m probably only 1 of 5 fans of GITS2, I’m surprised it made the list. That movie is very… polarizing, to put it nicely.

  • Akshaya Kannan

    The image of “the place promised in our early days” is wrong, that image is of “5 centimeters per second” just putting it out there…

  • isThatASin

    Interesting read but in some you’re wrongly assuming the director of the animation film is responsible for the original story.

    Paprika is a novel I happen to like that was made into an animation, written by 筒井康隆 in 1993, who also wrote 時をかける少女 in 1967

    Tekon is a manga written by 松本大洋. He is responsible for how the faces are depicted closer to how the Japanese actually look, not the film director. There are MANY manga that have faces like that.

    Lastly, Howl is also based on a novel, so it’s not a Miyazaki original like many of his other films.

    You’re making east/west comments too easily. Should at least know where the story came from before making easy comments. But still a nice list!

  • Some great choices there. Here’s my own Top 10 Manga Movies: http://www.inceptional.com/2016/04/01/my-top-10-manga-movies/

  • Carlos Monge

    A lot of great titles for sure but, A LOT of missing titles as well… Ghost in the Shell: Innocence before the original Ghost in the Shell, and is not even in this list… the people who worked on this list need to see more anime 😀