Western culture has relegated animation to the world of children’s entertainment and adult humor. These designations have closed many people off to the rich world that can be explored through what we affectionately think of as cartoons. In Japan, the ability to marvel at the human condition and look deeper into the psyche is a huge part of what drives their anime productions, which are as rich and varied a tapestry as anything to be found in live action films. Using the medium of drawn characters, they’ve tapped into an ability to capture some of the most powerful emotions we all have in way that is often more real than the bland reality we see around us.
From profound love, intense violence, horrific loss, sweet and sensual sexuality, heroic tales, and beautiful worlds, everything can be found in anime if we only know where to look. For those who wish to see life through this unique and special art, here’s 18 Japanese anime films and shows you must experience.
Revolutionary Girl Utena
A young woman who longs to be a handsome prince adopts the role of a young boy so that she can one day grow up to rescue a damsel in distress. Then she does save a woman from her abusive partner. Tackling themes of gender identity, socially constructed roles, the nature of love, and being true to one’s self in the face of dissension, it’s a powerful message for anyone who has ever felt different.
Going far deeper than the film Avatar, Princess Mononoke tells the tale of a greedy, ambitious woman who is destroying the natural world and exploiting its resources. The titular princess is a woman raised by a wolf god who must fight against the encroaching industrialization in an attempt to save the forest. A young man finds himself caught between these two factions and attempts to negotiate peace between the two sides and stem the flow of bloodshed.
Bunny Drop is a surprisingly engaging family drama in which a young bachelor adopts his grandfather’s illegitimate daughter, though she is reviled by the rest of his family. As the two grow closer together, the message of how to love and give freely of one’s self breaks through, showing how joy and acceptance can be found in the most unlikely of places.
Get ready to really saddle up, space cowboy. Bebop is a short-run story of a set of bounty hunters traversing the galaxy, forever looking for enough money to eat, and escape from the pain of their own pasts. At once playful and fun, then disappearing into thoughtful and severe, the melding of plot and action is a masterwork of the anime genre.
Clannad is a coming of age drama that follows young Tomoya as he looks to waste away his high school years engaging in every delinquency known to man. Then he befriends a group of young women struggling through the trials of ordinary life, and begins to see the suffering that being average can do to us all. Expect tears to be jerked.
A psychological thriller, Paranoia Agent begins with a boy attacking a woman with a bat. This single act catalyzes a strange and surreal journey into the spread of trauma throughout a society as gossip and media fuel a version of reality that may or may not be true. It challenges us all to ask if what we know is actually real at all.
Attack on Titan
Walking Dead fanatics should put this on their list. A massive race of braindead Titans has nearly exterminated humanity by eating them. Rather than consuming people for sustenance, they do it for the sheer joy of harm, an inexplicable bloodlust. Once the last bastion of humanity is breached, a young boy and his foster sister declare a personal war on the cannibalistic Titans, vowing to destroy every one of the marauding giants.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
On the surface, Evangelion is a Pacific Rim-style story about giant robots fighting “Angels” which are a massive, destructive creatures that have annihilated much of the Earth. Through the cataclysmic combat, the real story is about the effect war, depression, family, hate, and religion have on the psyche of people thrown into their midst.
More poignant now than ever, Code Geass is about a rebellion against a racist and oppressive system by two factions who wish to stop a ruling class from holding their people down. One side seeks to do this through cruelty and violent insurrection, while the other wants to find a path to peace and equanimity. The result is a three-way clash of ideologies wherein no one is right, nor is anyone wrong.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Technically part of the “Magical Girl” anime genre, Puella Magi Madoka Magica looks more at the nature of the human soul than at sparkly, spritely females doing battle. A grim reflection on what fighting evil does to a person, and how painful it can be to stand against the forces of darkness, this entire series is a Nietzschean stare into the abyss.
A man opts to save the life of a young boy instead of the town’s mayor. This sole act ends up having dire consequences as murders begin to cast doubt on whether or not he did the right thing, or unleashed something worse onto the world by trying to do what he thought was best.
A sci-fi western, TriGun is about a goofy gunslinger who refuses to kill anyone, often causing more harm to himself in the process. As he’s faced with an increasing number of horrors, humanity begins to look less and less like a race of beings worthy of salvation and more like a disease that must be eradicated.
Ghost in the Shell
In a future where cybernetic implantation is common among police and criminals alike, the difference between human and machine becomes blurred. A hacker begins altering people to do his bidding, while the cybernetically altered agent Maj pursues him, learning more about both her humanity and lack thereof as the Blade Runner question of “What makes someone a person?” is asked again and again.
Following a plot similar to that of Inception, but far less confusing and more driven by the power of the subconscious, a therapist must delve into a dreamscape to stop a lunatic intent on wiping out the personalities of others to fuel his own nefarious ends.
The ultimate story of a government project gone awry, Akira is a hideous reflection of what human science can do when abused. Strange, violent, and fantastical, Akira is reason enough for man to avoid playing God.
Artfully executed and thoughtful, there’s little action to be had as the plot tracks Ginko, a man learning about creatures of pure life, known as the Mushi. Capable of causing both great benefits and unfathomable destruction, this visual treat is not for the easily bored, but intensely reflective for anyone who wants to look closer at what life is.
Stretching beyond Dr. Who for a look at what time travel could mean, Steins;Gate supposes technology that allows texts to be sent into the past. The fallout from this is unexpected and often unusual, seen through an array of outcast characters who feel human in ways that are exceptional and disconcerting.
The Guardian Of The Sacred Spirit
An ancient witch hunt wherein a powerful man capable of stopping droughts is accused of possession by an evil spirit and sentenced to die. His lone ally is a formidable female mercenary seeking to save his soul against an empire that would destroy him, and themselves in the process.