Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: The Ten Best Anime Movies

I am by no means an anime expert, but I do enjoy the art form. With most American studios solely concentrating on computer animation these days, it is nice to know that there are still some places making traditional, hand drawn animation in the world. A few weeks ago, the undisputed master of anime Hayao Miyazaki released his latest film, Ponyo, it is another great one, so I decided to make a list of my ten favorite anime films. I did decide to limit the number of Miyazaki films on this list to 2, since otherwise, he could have easily taken up half the list (Satoshi Kon, who in my mind is quickly becoming Miyazaki’s equal also has two on the list, as does Yoshiaki Kawajiri). But since I gave him the number 1 and 2 spots, I think he’s well represented. Anyway, here’s my list.

10. X (Rintaro, 1996)
X is perhaps the most visually stunning film on this list. I am told (by my wife, who knows a lot more about this stuff than I do), that it is because the film is done by Clamp, who masters in this genre. There is a pervasive dreamlike atmosphere for the entire film, and the action sequences, full of gruesome violence, are simply spectacular. So why does X not rank higher on this list? Simple. I have no idea what the hell is going on in the movie. Apparently, if you read the manga series, or watch the animated television series that goes along with the movie, you know who the three main characters are, and what sort of apocalypse is happening in the film. But for a casual viewer like me, I simply gave up trying to follow the plot, and simply marveled at the imagery. It is certainly a technical masterwork.

9. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 2000)
The original 1985 anime film is also quite good, but for me, the sequel is better than the original in almost every way. D is a half-man, half vampire (whose father may in fact have been Dracula) who is now a vampire hunter (kind of like Blade). The film owes a debt to John Ford’s great The Searchers (which is one of the most influential films of all time), as D is hired by a nobleman to get his daughter back, who was kidnapped by a vampire, or kill her if she has already turned. What is not known is that the woman herself is in love with the vampire, and simply wants to be with him. The film is bloody and action packed, all of it handled very well by director Yoshiaki Kawajiri. The only thing that mares both Vampire Hunter D movies for me, is the parasite who lives in D’s hand, which talks to him all the time. It is a little annoying, and unnecessary, but it’s a minor knock on a great movie.

8. Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii, 1995)
There is a reason why Ghost in the Shell is one of the most well known anime movies to Western audiences – it is one of the best. It is an intelligent science fiction/action movie. In the film, people’s minds can be “ghosthacked” filling them with false memories, and making them do things that they would never otherwise do. The ghost in this case is essentially the human soul. The film also involves cyborgs, who are now completely robotic, but still seem to have a soul, or ghost, inside of them. Ghost in the Shell is an incredibly complex, intelligent movie – it puts most live action movies to shame with the intricacies of its plot and character development – and in the hands of director Oshii it is also visually stunning. The 2004 sequel to the film is also quite good, but cannot live up to the original, which is simply amazing.

7. Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006)
Dreams are a big thing in anime, and in Paprika director Satoshi Kon does something quite different and new with them. The film is set in the near future, where a new tool is available to psychologists – one that allows them to enter their patient’s dreams to help figure out what is wrong with them. Dr. Chiba is the first to use this new device – the DC Mini – even though it has not been approved yet. She takes the form of a girl known as Paprika, to help her patients (including a cop) discover what is bothering them. When three DC Minis go missing, Chiba has to try and get them back. Whoever stole the device, is using them to infiltrate people’s dreams, and drive them to do insane acts, like trying to kill themselves. Eventually, the dream world and reality merge, threatening to destroy reality with a powerful man’s dream of becoming omnipotent. Kon’s film is visually alive and interesting, the film has a strange, dreamlike tone to it (much like X), and the film is a complex rumination on both the good, and evil, that technology can do. With this film, along with another on this list, Satoshi Kon has proved himself a worthy successor to Miyazaki, should that master ever decide to stop making movies.

6. Akira (Katsuhiro Ôtomo, 1988)
While Akira was certainly not the first anime film of all time, it is responsible for bringing anime to the masses in the Western world. Otomo’s groundbreaking action film, set in a future world where Tokyo has all but been destroyed and is now ruled by biker gangs, is certainly one of the best films anime has to offer. It is more than just another action film however, as it is actually a rather intelligent movie, delving into themes of identity, power, envy and greed. The film is magnificently well animated – being more than 20 years old, yet it still looks as good as anything made today – Akira was groundbreaking at the time, and remains a must see to this day.

5. Ninja Scroll (Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1993)
Ninja Scroll is perhaps the most violent, most disturbing anime movie I have ever seen. Set in feudal Japan, the film opens with a group of Samurai on their way to a remote village who are ambushed and slaughtered, leaving only one woman alive. She is almost raped by the killer, before being saved by the films hero, who kills the attacker. But this is not the end of things – the killer is part of a mercenary gang known as the Devils of Kimon, who will stop at nothing to avenge the death of their comrade. They continue to come after the hero again and again, who is forced to team up with the girl he saved, and a mysterious stranger, to try and fight off the Devils of Kimon. Ninja Scroll is a movie of almost non-stop violence and action – a lot of it graphic and disturbing. But it is extremely well animated, the characters well developed. This is certainly not a children’s cartoon, but it as exciting as anime gets.

4. Perfect Blue (Satoshi Kon, 1998)
Perfect Blue is a rare anime film, in that it is not science fiction, action or fantasy. It is instead an intense psychological thriller. Mima is a pop idol who decides to give up her singing career and become an actress. This angers many of her fans, including a stalker known as Me-Mania, but Mima goes through with it anyway. She accepts the lead role in an intense new movie where she will play a stripper and rape victim. Her manager Rumi warns her that this will ruin her reputation, but she accepts anyway. Then people involved in the movie start being murdered, and Mima finds evidence that she herself maybe the killer. Because she has come to identify with her role in the movie too much, fantasy and reality for her are merging, and she doubts her own innocence. Perfect Blue is a wonderful thriller, intense, violent and disturbing, but it also more than that. The three main characters in the movie – Mima, Me-Mania and Rumi – are all delusional in one way or another. All of them have trouble telling the difference between fantasy and reality. Perfect Blue is a great thriller – an anime version of Alfred Hitchcock, mixed with a little David Lynch. A truly great film, and the one that proves that Kon is the real deal.

3. Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)
Like Perfect Blue, Grave of the Fireflies is different from most anime films, as it is a straight drama, not a genre film of any kind. In the closing days of WWII, two orphans – Seita, around 12, and his toddler sister Setsuko. Their mother is killed in the firebombing of Kobe, and the two children are left to fend for themselves, after being abandoned by their extended family, in the closing days of the war. As food starts to run out, Setsuko begins to hallucinate due to hunger, and slowly begins to starve to death. The film is grim in the extreme, which may make it seem to some to be unsuitable for animation, but in actuality, the animation is perfect for this film. By using animation, the film is able to focus on the pain and suffering of a toddler – something that you could never do properly in a live action film. Here is a film that is more emotional and resonating than almost any live action film could ever hope to be. A masterpiece.

2. Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)
Princess Mononoke is the first anime film that I ever actually fell in love with, and as such, it will always have a special place on a list like this. Before I saw this film, I knew virtually nothing about anime, or its master Hayao Miyazaki. But Princess Mononoke, with its wonderful mixture of fantasy and history, it’s amazing animation and it’s fully realized characters made me see the possibilities for this genre. The film centers on Ashitaka, who in a fight with a boar demon, has his armed wounded. In order to heal the curse of the wound, he must travel west, to the area where the boar came from. He comes across Irontown, a prosperous town which is at war with the surrounding forest. In order for Irontown to remain as rich as it is, it needs to continually destroy the forest that surrounds them, angering the animals and spirits who call it their home. Princess Mononoke is an utterly gorgeous film to behold – among the most beautiful ever made really. Every frame is full of imagination, and the film addresses the environmental concerns that always play a role in Miyazaki’s masterpieces. Princess Mononoke also contains some of the best action sequences in anime history. All in all, Princess Mononoke is a masterpiece of any genre.

1.Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
Ask me on another day, and I may switch this one with Princess Mononoke as Miyazaki’s best film, and the best anime film ever made. But most days, I would go with Spirited Away, which is a truly magical film. Less concerned with action than anime other films, Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a 10 year old girl who enters a magical city in the hopes of saving her parents, who quite literally made pigs of themselves. While in the city, Chihiro discovers that not everything is as it seems, as the evil Yubaba, a witch who runs the spa, likes to steal people’s names to keep them in her service forever. The film is a technical marvel – full of images that haunt the viewer for long after the movie is over. The movie casts its spell over the viewer, who cannot shake the film. The film is Miyazaki’s most perfect mixture of fantasy and his environmental concerns – one of the most memorable sequences involves a polluted river who comes to the spa to get clean. This is the film in which all other anime films will be measured against – the only one ever to win the Oscar for animated film, and one of the most gorgeous films ever made.

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