Anime is a genre that has been around for a long time. But some films and series were released before anime made its way to Western screens. So this means that an array of old shows and movies that were overlooked for a long time changed the way Japanese anime works on the big screen. And while a lot of these films have seen releases in the US, there was a stigma around anime fans at the time, and the movies got little exposure due to the dubbing of the genre as ‘uncool’. Now that the genre is more appreciated for what it has to offer, some fans might want to explore what led to the massive success of the industry by exploring some of the older anime movies produced.
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In the light of a new year, it makes sense to reflect on the past. So naturally, this article will look at the most popular and best older movies from Japan’s anime genre. The list will include a lot of work from Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, as they essentially changed how anime is viewed with the absolute masterpieces they keep producing.
And as mentioned above, quite a few older movies capture the essence of anime in its purest forms. And therefore, it cannot be easy to find a selection of movies to indulge in, as there are just too many to choose from! So below you will find a list of the sixteen best old anime movies to watch as you head into the new year:
And as a side note, this list will not double as a ranking as all the films included are good in their respective natures, genres, and sub-genres. Some audiences may have differing opinions on a particular movie, so the list will remain neutral on all entries to avoid any conflict.
16. Princess Mononoke (1997)
This film received a 93% score on Rotten Tomatoes and was praised for its compelling story and beautiful animation. Said to be a landmark in the anime genre, this movie is worth a watch. The film’s narrative has a two-hour runtime that explores the life of an Emishi prince, Ashitaka, as he gets dragged into a supernatural adventure involving a battle between the gods of the forest and humans. “Mononoke” is not a name as the title suggests but a term used to describe supernatural beings that can shapeshift and cause suffering, disease, and death by possessing human beings. Hayao Miyazaki directed this film.
15. My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
A Studio Ghibli classic, and another work by Hayao Miyazaki, this old anime movie received widespread critical acclaim for its ability to capture the simple nature of childhood so effortlessly. The movie received a 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes and is considered one of the greatest anime films of all time by many sources. The film is set in the 1950s in Japan and follows the story of sisters Mei and Satsuki as they move closer to their terminally ill mother. Their new house is inhabited by house spirits who lead one of the sisters to a camphor tree. Here she befriends Totoro, a large friendly spirit who ultimately befriends the two girls. This is a must-see for fans of anything Studio Ghibli.
14. A Thousand and One Nights (1998)
Directed by Satoshi Kon and based on the Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi, the film received an overall positive review, scoring 83% on Rotten Tomatoes. And although there were some bad reviews, the film made its way onto multiple lists that detailed the top anime movies of the time. The story follows Mima Kirigoe, who decides to leave the J-pop idol group she is a part of to pursue acting full-time. She goes on to discover that she is being impersonated and stalked by one of her fans, leading to a downward spiral for her mental health due to anxiety and paranoia. The film features some uncomfortable things that add to the psychological atmosphere of the film even more. However, this serves as a trigger warning that there will be mention of and enactment of rape within the film.
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13. Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
Although not as old as the other anime movies on the list, this is still considered a classic as it is almost a decade old. Directed by Isao Takahata, the film follows the narrative of Sanuki no Miyatsuko, a bamboo cutter that discovers a tiny girl inside a glowing bamboo shoot. Reminiscent of the fairytale of Thumbelina, the bamboo cutter’s wife decides to raise her as her daughter, believing her to be a divine presence. She then fittingly names the little girl ‘Princess’. This film received a score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and then earned the title of the highest-rated movie for the 2010s. The film went on to receive universal acclaim for its visuals and storytelling.
12. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Another film by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli has received critical acclaim and is seen as one of the most influential anime films in the developing anime genre. The film then received universal acclaim through its weighted score on Metacritic. This beautiful fantasy adventure film offers fantastic animation and a compelling story, although it does feature quite a bit of violence and gore.
The film is set in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world where a good majority of the world’s ecosystem has been devastated, and barely any humans are left. Instead, the remainder of humanity lives in a somewhat hospitable environment known as the toxic jungle. Nausicaä, the film’s main protagonist can communicate with the giant insects that reside in the toxic jungle. And with help from Lord Yupa, she attempts to bring peace back to the planet.
11. Fist of The North Star (1986)
Written by Susumu Takaku and directed by Toyoo Ashida, this is another anime classic that is a must-see. However, the film has received mixed reviews and some criticism due to its violent nature of the film. But the movie was translated well to fans of the genre that enjoy this sort of media, with a good example being actor and wrestler John Cena, who revealed that the film is his favourite anime movie. The film’s plot follows the heir of a unique set of martial-arts skills as he wanders a wasteland in the post-apocalyptic future. He uses his newfound abilities to protect the weak and innocent. This is the perfect film for fans of martial arts-orientated anime.
10. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
This film by Hayao Miyazaki (you were warned that he dominates this list) follows the story of a thirteen-year-old witch in training as she moves to the seaside with her talking cat. She has to spend a year alone per the rules of her village tradition if she wants to become a witch. And as the title suggests, she begins a courier service once she learns to control her broomstick. With a 98% score on Rotten Tomatoes, it should not be surprising that the film received universal acclaim for its beautiful animation and great moral. This is a heartwarming film perfect for the entire family.
9. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
You knew it was coming because how could there ever be a list of anime oldies without the inclusion of this masterpiece?
Directed by Isao Takahata, this film saw universal critical acclaim and quickly received a score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Ranking as one of the best anime films of all time and also ranking as one of the best war films of all time, this one cannot be missed. It is a beautiful but sad story of siblings Seita and Setsuko, who were just newly orphaned due to the Bombing of Kobe during World War II. Not only that, but they also lost their home in the process and must travel across the war-ridden land of Japan in an attempt to find food and avoid disease. Almost too sad to watch, this film is saved by the inspiring optimism of the two children as they encounter multiple hardships and troubles. Studio Ghibli did everyone dirty in the best possible way with this piece of art.
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8. Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
It is hard to believe that a film released in 2003 will be twenty years old next year. Directed by Satoshi Kon, the film scored 91% on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics consider the film a different take on the classic Christmas film genre and a rather dark take on a heartwarming family film. The film follows three homeless people’s lives as they discover an abandoned newborn while going through the garbage. They attempt to find the baby’s parents but ultimately form a pseudo-family of sorts and bond to overcome their demons. This is a beautiful take on strangers finding comfort in one another and a perfect watch if you are still in the Christmas spirit.
7. Vampire Hunter D (1985)
Directed by Toyoo Ashida, the film has a rating of 7,1/10 on IMBD and a score of 78% on Rotten Tomatoes. It follows the story of D, an extremely skilled swordsman who is part vampire. He is hired to track down Count Magnus Lee, the film’s antagonist. The movie takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where the remaining humans live in a wasteland infested by vampires. Another classic in the anime world, this is an interesting take on the vampire genre and is worth a watch if you enjoy shows like Hellsing: Ultimate.
6. Millennium Actress (2001)
Another film directed by Satoshi Kon follows the story of filmmaker Genya Tachibana as they try to film a documentary on actress Chiyoko Fujiwara. Shy at first, Fujiwara, who is now well into old age, is hesitant to tell her story. But as she becomes increasingly more comfortable with Tachibana, she details her life story from when she was a teenager to full-blown celebrity status. The film earned 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and is praised for its unique take on the anime genre. It was labelled ‘a piece of cinematic art’ by Kevin M. Williams from Chicago Tribune.
5. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Once again, Hayao Miyazaki brought fans a fantastical story that scored 87% on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is praised for its compelling storytelling, beautiful animation, and fantastic world-building. It tells the story of Sophie, a young girl cursed by a witch to turn into an elderly woman. Along with the help of Howl’s friends Calcifer and Markl, she tries to break the spell while getting caught up in a war between Howl and a neighbouring kingdom. Unlike other films on this list, it is the perfect fit for the entire family.
4. Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
With a score of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, this Studio Ghibli classic directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi received overwhelmingly positive reviews for its story and animation. A film that is perfect for children and adults alike, it follows the story of the Clock family, who lives in another family’s home and steals their resources. They live comfortably until their daughter Arrietty is discovered, and they must escape safely.
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3. Spirited Away (2001)
Probably one of the most popular films by Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki, the film earned critical success with a score of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. It is praised for its mystical story elements, beloved characters, and exciting take on what it means to appreciate what you have. The story follows ten-year-old Chihiro as she travels with her parents and ultimately takes a shortcut leading them to a strange tunnel. This tunnel leads the family to an abandoned amusement park that the father insists on exploring despite the protests of Chihiro.
Not long after this, they stumble upon a restaurant with fresh food, and her parents begin greedily consuming it. Chihiro wanders off and is warned by a strange boy named Haku that she should return and cross the riverbed before sunset.
It is too late by the time she returns to her parents, and she quickly discovers that the amusement park is not abandoned after all but inhabited by multiple spirits. She also sees that her parents have been turned into pigs and must figure out a way to escape and free them with the help of Haku. This is a charming film with slightly unsettling themes that will end up on many viewers’ lists of favourites.
2. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, the film earned a rating of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and earned its spot in multiple lists detailing the best anime films of all time. In addition, it was the highest-grossing film in Japan at the time of release and grossed over $34 million worldwide. The story follows the story of 14-year-old Shizuku Tsukishima as she aspires to become a writer when she grows up. She befriends a boy named Seiji, who wants to become a master luthier. Shizuku initially hates the boy as he teases her relentlessly, but she soon forms an unbreakable bond with him. Together, the two go on a journey in a coming-of-age story that shows genuine friendship can help one achieve anything. The film offers a beautiful story and animation and has a sequel film called The Cat Returns.
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1. Akira (1988)
Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, this film is set in the year 2019, when Tokyo was destroyed back in 1988 as a catalyst for a world war. Now, all that remains is a version of Tokyo plagued by gang violence, terrorism, corruption, and anti-government protests. During a violent protest, the film’s main antagonist, Shotaro Kaneda, leads his gang against a rival one and ends up crashing into an esper who has escaped a government laboratory through the help of a resistance organization. This leads the group on a journey in which they must face numerous anti-social elements that are brought on by the vicious nature of the city they reside in.
The film scored 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and an average rating of 7,9/10. The film is praised for its striking animation and the fantastic soundtrack to accompany it. There is also praise for the design of the future technology shown within the film, along with the impressive attention to detail. This latter is praised as there is much accuracy in the designs of things such as vehicles and lab equipment. Furthermore, the film received criticism for its apparent need for more clarity on certain things. One critic stated that it is very complex and expects audiences to read the manga alongside the film to understand the events that are transpiring entirely. This is a strange take on the film as it is, at best, a fun, action-packed science fiction anime film.
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