The world of anime is vast and infinite, as Motoko Kusanagi would say. If you’ve been hearing about the medium a lot more in the past 5 years and it’s now worn you down to finally check out what all the fuss is about, it can be daunting. Where to start? Why are there so many genres unique to anime? What’s a shounen, a shoujo, an isekai? Don’t worry, I know it’s a lot to take in but your helpful Senpai is here to guide down the yellow brick road of the best anime you can check out if you’re new to the medium.
These are the 5 anime you need to see before you die and if you don’t watch them, Onii-chan’s coming for that soul. Again, don’t worry, it’s only 5 movies for the sake of
mandatory word count brevity, TV shows, OVAs and specials are a list of their own for another time.
Somethings to note going forward, I’ve tried to pick titles that maybe aren’t so much in the pop culture of anime, this is because I want to avoid the overhyped nature that occurs with say, a Studio Ghibli movie which can set false expectations when everyone and their dog is telling you to watch something. cough
The Wire cough, sorry, seems like I had something stuck in my throat there. Also, everything on this list is licensed and available via official means in the UK, except one but it can be imported from the US.
Now, on with the show.
The second movie in a franchise and third entry overall might seem like a strange place to drop you in but this movie almost entirely stands alone from all its predecessors. Stripped of most of the main characters from the original OVA and first movie, instead pulling focus to Kiichi Goto and Shinobu Nagumo the captains of Special Vehicle Second Command, a special unit that deal with crimes involving the titular Patrol Labors (Patlabor, for short,) as they find themselves wrapped up in an underhanded attempt to stage a false war in Tokyo.
The movie is director Mamoru Oshii’s criticism of the Japanese government’s handling of military affairs post-WWII, with the opening of the movie being an allegory for the 1992 United Nations Peacekeeping operation in Cambodia, where the lives of two Japanese officers were lost but the operation ultimately declared successful by the Japanese government.
Deeply routed in Japanese politics of the time, Oshii has always worried that foreign viewers may not be able to understand some elements of the movie. But I’m of the opinion that the themes of false peace, just wars and the political stubbornness to deny anything is wrong are universal to everyone. It’s a movie that has only become more thematically relevant as time has gone on.
If you like the movie and want to know more about its historical context, UnderTheScope made this great video. The video features heavy spoilers so don’t watch it before the movie.
You can find both the Manga and Beez DVD releases of Patlabor 2 at CeX (though they seem to be sold out online for the time being, probably because of covid.) The complete collection containing the original OVA, all three movies, TV series and second OVA on Blu-Ray is also available from UP1 and RightStuf, this version is only Region A, however. Links not affiliated.
Have you ever wanted to journey through space? Who hasn’t. What about on a train, with no tracks and an unknown destination? Well that’s basically the idea behind Galaxy Express 999 (Pronounced Three Nine because… well, it just is,) not to be confused with the TV series of the same name but they are based on the same manga written by Leiji Matsumoto. The movie sees the young protagonist Tetsuro on the hunt for revenge against the illusive Count Mecha who killed his mother when he was young. The only way he can find Count Mecha though, is by boarding the Galaxy Express 999, a space faring steam train. No one knows its destination but it’s said that if you reach the end of the line, you can live forever.
With a wonderful pre-Star Wars sensibility towards the Sci-Fi genre, GE999 takes a rather out there concept and manages to ground it with very human characters, interesting locations and an explosive finale. The soundtrack of the movie also elevates the fantastical feeling of the film and emphasises it’s emotional core, plus the insert and ending songs performed by Godiego are catchy as hell.
It’s really a shame the sequel, Adieu Galaxy Express 999, didn’t just fail to avoid the post-Star Wars boom of influence but fully leaned into it with a plot that feels like a greatest hits of the first film, a Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader dynamic for Tetsuro and new character Faust, and a soundtrack heavily influenced by John Williams, with the main theme of the film unapologetically ripping off the Superman theme. If you like the first film and Rintaro’s strong visuals, then Adieu is worth watching for it’s animation alone, even if it’s a bit of a slog.
Galaxy Express 999 is available from UP1 and RightStuf. Links not affiliated.
I mentioned in the opening of this article that one movie was only available as a US import and it’s this one, so do note that if you buy it, it is a Region A/1 disc.
The thing that will immediately grab you about this movie is that it tells you exactly what’s going to happen at the start. The lead girl, Sakura, is going to die and she had something wrong with her pancreas. From there, it’s a nice play on the boy meets girl formula, as Haruki doesn’t exactly choose to be friends with Sakura. That’s what makes this movie stand out for me, it’s a genuine friendship that blossoms from the most unexpected of circumstances, and doesn’t feel like it has to make the characters fall in love. And just like the cherry blossoms of spring, the friendship is blown away all too soon, as we see Haruki navigate his grief over losing a friend too early.
With solid animation that truly captures the lightheartedness of Sakura and juxtaposes nicely against the later portion of the film. A beautiful piano fronted soundtrack that’s never overbearing and two well formed lead characters that will pull you through the narrative, only to break your heart in the very end. The film is about grief, something that everyone can relate to and in more ways than one, the themes of I Want To Eat Your Pancreas live up to the title of Sakura’s diary; “Living with Dying.”
Writing this reminds me that I really need to check out the novel… something I may just put off for a while longer, no doubt I’ll be watching the movie again after this write up and I don’t think I’m prepared for a double whammy of sadness.
I Want To Eat Your Pancreas is available at Amazon and many other retailers. But it’s pretty cheap on Amazon. Link not affiliated.
A psychological thriller, Perfect Blue examines the danger of the entertainment industry as Mima, a rising pop star decides it’s time for a career change and becomes an actress, much to the dismay of her pop group’s fans. As she’s stalked by a crazed fan, the lines of reality slowly begin to blur until you’re no longer sure if what’s happening on screen is to be believed with Mima descending into a frenzied paranoia.
Another movie that’s become more relevant in our modern era, the criticism of idol culture can be seen as a warning to those of us now living in the social media era. With stalking becoming a far more common occurrence for those who have gained even the most minimal amount of fame.
It will leave you confused and unsettled to your core, Kon’s cinematography creates a sense of claustrophobia and off kilterness through methodical use of POV camera shots, match cuts and quick editing that puts you in the shoes of Mima as she slowly loses grip on her perception of reality.
Not only this movie but the filmography of Satoshi Kon has been influential across the world and that’s why Perfect Blue may look familiar to some, especially if you’ve seen the works of Darren Aronofsky, who tried to make a live action adaption of the movie. Director Christopher Nolan also based the cinematography of Inception on another Kon film, Paprika. To that end, Satoshi Kon is one of the most prolific anime directors of his time but has largely gone unnoticed and unrewarded in the western world aside from those deeply ingrained into the anime niche. A strange link to the previous movie, I Want To Eat Your Pancreas, but Kon passed away in 2010, after a battle with pancreatic cancer, something I didn’t know until I wrote this article.
Content Warning: Perfect Blue is rated an 18, due to animated sequences of graphic violence, graphic nudity, a scene of sexual assault/rape, drug and alcohol use, disturbing and bloody images and for brief language.
Perfect Blue is available at Amazon and many other retailers. Link not affiliated.
Having just moved house, the film follows Alice as she joins a new school before swiftly being wrapped up in an occult ceremony to exorcise the demon of “Judas” that haunts her classroom, or more precisely, the desk she sits at. Oddly specific for a ghost, but as it turns out, the de facto class leader, Moo, was leading everyone on to gain popularity by acting possessed. Maybe it’s a difference in culture but I’m almost certain that had someone tried that at my high school they’d be relentlessly bullied and not revered. After this
not so shocking revelation, Alice takes it upon herself to investigate further and find out if “Judas” truly died. This all leads her to the reclusive neighbour Hana, who spends her days locked in her home, coincidentally, because she believes she’s the one that possibly killed “Judas.” So begins the journey of budding friendship, the tale of an extrovert adopting an introvert but with the nice twist of the introvert leading the extrovert along for a good chunk of the movie.
A prequel to Shunji Iwai’s 2004 live action film, Hana & Alice, this film takes a unique approach to keep the original actresses as the titular female leads. Employing the technique of rotoscoping, the film was shot live and then later painstakingly animated over frame by frame (think Take on Me by a-ha,) this allowed for a much less horrifying de-aging process to be applied to the actresses of Hana and Alice than was used on Robert DeNiro in The Irishman.
The combination of live action and anime marry nicely together to bring a breath of fresh air to someone like myself who has experience a lot of what the medium has to offer. The cinematography has the sensibilities of live action which gives the movie a nice grounding in our reality, with on-set sound that adds a bit of extra weight to everything and beautifully rendered backgrounds that I’m still not sure if someone has drawn over or if it’s just a heavy post production filter. While early in the movie the unique approach to the animation leads to a handful of perspective issues where characters appear to be walking towards a flat backdrop, it finds its stride fairly quickly and the the halfway 2D, 3D look gives a nice 2.5D dimensionality to the movie overall.
Wishing for sequels is usually a fruitless endeavour that usually only results in disappointment with the end product but, I would love to see more adventures with Hana and Alice in this refreshing approach to filmmaking.
The Case of Hana & Alice is available at Amazon and many other retailers, including the distributors own store, AllTheAnime. It’s slightly cheaper direct from their own store this time. Links not affiliated.
So there you have it, the 5 anime you need to see before you die. At least, just the films… dragging it out for more content, wouldn’t be an online creator if I didn’t, joking aside, however. I hope you enjoyed this jaunt down the yellow brick road of anime and just know that there’s no turning back now,
there’s no place like home when this is already your home. If you like what you read here, then you can check out my previous article where I talk about the woes of Space Runaway Ideon’s home video release, linked below. Next time I might discuss the the TV shows, OVAs or Specials you need to see before you die but those feel significantly harder to narrow down.