This is all Karandi’s fault. She recently wrote a post about the top 5 anime films that she’s actually watched; and when I commented on that post about two of the five she had chosen, instead of complimenting me on my erudition and insight, Karandi asked me what other anime films would I include on such a list. So, naturally, I felt obliged to write a post on that subject.
Except, of course, I then had to work out the five films that would feature on my list. Which is no easy task, given the strong field of contenders and, frankly, the fact that my “top five” would change on any given day along with my mood and how I viewed each film in comparison with others. So the first thing I will say is that this “top 5” list is strictly provisional; ask me another day in different circumstances, and I might give you another five. Or maybe not. It just depends. The thing you should take away from this is that my “top five” are in no given order and are definitely subject to change.
That being the case, the second thing I will say is that it is only proper that I begin this post with a list of “Honourable Mentions”. This is not a list of “also rans” – any of these films could appear in my “top five”. They just didn’t this time. That is all. And so, without any further ado…
Top Five Anime Films: Honourable Mentions
Ghost In The Shell
Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade
Flavors of Youth
5 Centimetres Per Second
So that’s the list of Honourable Mentions. Remember, any of them could – and do – make my top five. They just didn’t this time round. But which ones did? Well, it’s funny you should ask…
1. The Garden of Words
Makato Shinkai’s 2013 masterpiece barely squeaks into the category of “feature film” at only 46 minutes in length. But for the whole of that time, the audience is saturated in the gorgeous visuals with which Shinkai illustrated this engaging coming-of-age tale. The opening scene, in which rotoscoping is deployed to depict rain falling and collecting in pools on the ground of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Gyoen National Park, is nothing less than breathtaking. The fact that Shinkai also managed to insert two linked tanka poems from the ancient Manyōshū collection as keystones for the narrative reflects both his skill as a story-teller and his understanding of the deep roots of human sentiment. “The Garden of Words” may not be as commercially successful as “Your Name” or as critically acclaimed as “5 Centimetres Per Second” – but it’s where my love for Shinkai’s mastery began. Hence its place on this list.
2. A Silent Voice
Released only two days before Shinkai’s blockbuster “Your Name”, “A Silent Voice” was based on the manga by Yoshitoki Ōima and directed by the acclaimed Naoko Yamada. The beauty and power of “A Silent Voice” resides, not in the fact that one of its central characters has a disability, but that this character is portrayed as a three-dimensional human being as flawed and vulnerable and gracious and compromised as every other character. In doing so it enables a conversation about disability that doesn’t objectify or dehumanise people who also happen to be disabled. The carefully unfolded narrative, gorgeous visuals, and brilliant soundtrack deservedly earned Yamada and “A Silent Voice” both critical acclaim and huge commercial success – an extraordinary achievement given the competition. Profoundly moving and reconciling, it makes this list as easily one of the best things in anime in the last ten years.
3. Spirited Away
Released in 2001, “Spirited Away” is undoubtedly Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s magnum opus, bringing together Japanese folklore and human drama to produce an extraordinary tale that works on multiple levels. The story of a bratty child griping about having to move from the town where she has grown up, it quickly gathers pace as an Alice-in-Wonderland quest in which our heroine has to grow up fast and – to borrow from Paul – work out her salvation in fear and trembling in order to both rescue her parents and return to the “real” world. Hard lessons are delivered gently and without didactic moralising; the pathos of the human condition is illustrated by some of the more inhuman characters; and the antipathy for the main character with which one begins this film quietly turns to compassion and care over its duration. And there are some genuinely spooky moments thrown in for some extra frisson. Deserving of the critical acclaim, the huge commercial success, and the Academy Award it received, “Spirited Away” likewise deserves a place in my heart and on this list.
4. In This Corner of the World
Based on Fumiyo Kōno’s acclaimed manga, Sunao Katabuchi’s 2016 wartime drama (what a year that was for Japanese anime!) has often been compared to “The Grave of the Fireflies” and “Giovanni’s Island”, but is actually less about the war itself than it is about the preceding years. Through its gentle pacing and gradually unfolding narrative, we come to learn about the small hurts and little joys of growing up in a world where tradition still rules but is threatened by unseen forces. The animation is deceptively simple but conveys a world of emotion and aesthetic sensibility; and the characterisation delivers believably human lives whose realities transcend the bounds of culture, language, and political persuasion. Beautifully and understatedly working the trick of revealing deep human truths, “In This Corner of the World” is both specific and universal, and not for nothing regularly appears in lists of the best films of 2016. That’s why it appears in this list, too.
5. Perfect Blue
Everything Satoshi Kon produced was arguably a masterpiece – but if I had to pick one that out-mastered them all, it would be his 1997 offering, “Perfect Blue”. The brilliance of this work not only resides in its depiction of the dark side of the idol industry at a time when the Japanese manifestation of this manufactured culture was largely unknown in the West (and before “American Idol” and “X Factor” and their various international iterations overran prime time TV), but in its depiction of the malevolent influence of the internet – again, at a time when social media was unknown and the ‘net itself still barely registering in our lives. Moreover, Kon correctly predicted the way in which mass communications media would make the general public complicit in the dehumanisation and objectification of entertainment, in which vulnerable young lives are reduced to consumer commodities and exploited accordingly. Hitchcock-esque in its disruption of identity, reality, and perception, “Perfect Blue” is a truly prophetic piece that could not be left off this list.
So there you have it – my top five anime films that I’ve actually watched. If you were to come back in twelve months and ask me if the same films were still on my list, I’d say probably. Or possibly not. I will have seen a few more features in the intervening time, and may have changed my mind. Or, then again, I might not. It depends.
And, if you don’t like or disagree with my selections – well, as I said, this is Karandi’s fault. Talk to her.
© Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2021. All rights reserved.