Top 20 Must-see Japanese Animation Movies

  • Instead of looking for an anime series to know more about Japanese culture as well as to spend your spare time like a real otaku, I’d recommend spending your weekend with these animated movies. These films are not just movies produced by the well -known Studio Ghibli, but also from many others studios.

    Are you excited? The 20 movies below are ready for you to watch with both Japanese and English subtitles that can be found easily!

    20. The Cat Returns (Hiroyuki Morita, 2002)

    Studio Ghibli. IMDb: 7.3

    The movie is about Haru, an unfortunate girl in most aspects of her life. After helping a cat that got stuck in a lorry, she finds herself involuntarily engaged to a cat prince in a magical world where her only hope of freedom lies with a dapper cat statuette, which also comes to life in the story.
    While the movie doesn’t have the beauty and depth of some others from Ghibli, it’s still a breezy and entertaining film with a fun, adventurous plot that children would love.

    19. A Letter to Momo (Hiroyuki Okiyura, 2011)

    Production I.G. IMDb: 7.3

    Since her father’s recent death, a little girl named Momo and her mother move from the crowded town of Tokyo to the remote island of Shio. While still confused by an unfinished letter of her father’s, Momo also has to get used to the new living environment and make new friends. At that time, bizarre events occur inside Momo’s house, including strange whispers come from the attic. Because of her mother’s refusal to believe these strange events, Momo throws herself into an odd adventure to discover the source of the weirdness, which leads her to the trio of troublesome spirits and together, she and those spirits figure out that her moving to this island is somehow connected to her father’s unfinished mysterious letter.

    The movie depicts a lovely story of friendship. It also has high quality visual effects and sound editing. It has a slow pace at the beginning, some humorous moments in the middle, and really touching scenes at the end that could make you shed some tears while watching!

    18. From Up on Poppy Hill (Goro Miyazaki, 2011)

    Studio Ghibli. IMDb: 7.4

    Unlike many other Miyazaki movies, this film has no trace of sparkling fantasy, though it still keeps the flawless visual effects of Studio Ghibli. It also has a simple story about a group of Yokohama students looking to save their school’s clubhouse from the wrecking ball in preparations for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

    I personally think elderly people will have nostalgic feelings when watching this movie, as it reflects the lives of Japanese students as well as residents during 1963-1965.

    17. Children Who Chase Voices From Deep Below (Shinkai Makoto, 2011)

    CoMix Wave Film. IMDb: 7.3

    A coming of age story involving young love and mysterious music, coming from a crystal radio left as a memento by an absent father, that leads a young heroine deep into a hidden world.

    Although the rating is not what I expected, the storyline about the characters who have to deal with difficult issues (for instance, loss of loved ones, independence and life changing decisions) make it interesting. This movie is another product of the same producer of ‘Five Centimeters Per Second’, therefore, it’s easy to understand the stunning beauty of the animation!

    16. The Place Promised in Our Early Days (Makoto Shinkai, 2004)

    CoMix Wave Film. IMDb: 7.3

    The story takes place in an alternate postwar period, where Japan is divided into the Union-controlled North and the US-controlled South. A tall tower was built on Hokkaido, which could even be seen from Tokyo. In the summer of 1996, three middle-school students make a promise that they’ll cross the border and unravel the tower’s secret, but their project was abandoned after one girl, Sayuri Sawatari, became mysteriously ill and was transferred to Tokyo. Years later on the brink of another war, a boy named Hiroki Fujisawa finds out that Sayuri had been in a coma since then, and he asks Takuya Shirakawa to help him find a way to wake her up, so as to fulfill the promise between the trio.

    The film’s pace is a romantic reflection of loneliness and bittersweet affection. Even though the romance was not impressive to critical viewers, the music and story telling style made up the rest of everything.

    15. Steamboy (Katsuhiro Otomo, 2004)

    Sunrise. IMDb: 6.9

    In the middle of the 19th century, before the world’s first Expo, an invention called the “Steam ball”, has been sent to Rei – a young inventor, from his grandfather Roid in the US. Rei then finds himself caught in the middle of a deadly conflict over a revolutionary advance by an organization called Ohara Foundation. Meanwhile, the Ohara Foundation has sent men to acquire the Steam Ball so that they can use its hidden power towards their own illicit ends.

    14. The Secret World of Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2010)

    Studio Ghibli. IMDb: 7.7

    14-year-old Arrietty and the rest of the Clock family live in peaceful anonymity as they make their own home from items that they borrow from the human inhabitants’ house. However, life changes for the Clocks when a human boy discovers Arrietty.

    13. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Mamoru Hosoda, 2006)

    Madhouse Production. IMDb: 7.9

    You must have wondered what’s so special about a girl has the ability to time travel? Just watch the movie and you’ll know because Japan never fails to amaze you!

    12. Into the Forest of Fireflies’ Light (Midorikawa Yuki, 2011)

    Brain’s Base. IMDb: 7.9

    Every summer, little girl Hotaru comes back to the countryside for a summer trip. Once, she is rescued by a spirit (named Gin) when she gets lost in a forest. The two become friends, despite the spirit revealing that he will disappear if he is ever touched by a human, and this relationship develops as Hotaru finally reaches her teenage years.

    The forest, and its spiritual surrounding, also summer festivals represent an important part of Japanese culture, which are shown clearly in this 40-minute movie. This movie has a sad, romantic story and you will feel refreshed after watching it.

    11. Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)

    Studio Ghibli. IMDb: 8.2

    A love story between an 18-year-old girl named Sophie, cursed by a witch and living in an old woman’s body, and a magician named Howl. Under the curse, Sophie sets out to seek a reverse for it, which takes her to Howl’s strange moving castle. In the castle, Sophie meets Howl’s fire demon, named Calcifer. The demon makes a deal with Sophie – if she breaks the contract which he is under with Howl, then he will lift the curse, and she will return to her 18-year-old self again.

    In my opinion, this is an excellent movie, from the music to the plot. The characters are wonderful, their characteristics are described significantly. A movie you simply can’t miss!

    10. Colorful (Keiichi Hara, 2010)

    Ascension (animation) and Sunrise (production). IMDb: 7.5

    A sinful spirit is granted the opportunity to prove he’s worthy for rebirth, by inhabiting the body of a student who killed himself.

    9. Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Miyazaki, 2008)

    Studio Ghibli. IMDb: 7.7

    An adventure of a five-year-old boy Sosuke and his relationship with Ponyo, a goldfish princess who longs to become a human after falling in love with him.

    This movie reminds me of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”. It’s fantasy that portrays Miyazaki’s style very well, and if you have children, they will love it!

    8. Wolf Children (Mamoru Hosoda, 2012)

    Madhouse Production. IMDb: 8.2

    College student Hana falls in love with another student who turns out to be a werewolf, and he dies in an accident after the birth of their second child. Hana moves to the countryside where her husband grew up to raise her two werewolf children.

    Absolutely delightful from the beginning till the end. The story was really touching and emotional, the animation was beautiful and the music was really pleasing.

    7. Asura (Keiichi Sato, 2012)

    Toei Animation. IMDb: 6.7

    Abandoned in the barren wasteland of Kyoto, a savage, enraged orphan “Asura” does whatever it takes to survive in the wild. When he crosses paths with civilization, he must learn to tame the beast within.

    Despite the low score from IMDb, this film is a well-told story about human beings and their nature. It made me feel sad for Asura as he has to suffer although it’s not his fault. I feel sorry for all of the characters, even if they did horrible things to each other, it’s mostly because of the harsh situation of life that forces them to. If you want to immerse yourself into deep feelings about human nature, you should watch this movie.

    6. Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)

    Toho. IMDb: 8.5

    A tragic film covering a young boy and his little sister’s struggle to survive in Japan during World War II after the death of their mother and the unknown fate of their father. After having quarreled with their aunt, they leave her house and make their home in an abandoned shelter. The two must depend on each other to survive.

    This movie is a lesson for anyone who want to unleash war on the world without thinking about what happens to those often forgotten. Despite the sadness in the story, the candy which is the little girl in the movie loves also became my favorite after watching the movie, Sakuma Drops.

    5. 5 Centimeters Per Second (Makoto Shinkai, 2007)

    CoMix Wave Film. IMDb: 7.9

    Takaki and Akari have been classmates since elementary school and they become close friends. Their relationship is tested when Akari moves to another city because of her parents’ jobs. Both of them struggle to keep their friendship alive through letters, as time and distance slowly pull them apart. When Takaki finds out that he is moving further away, he decides to visit Akari one last time.

    Stunning animation and visual effects, beautifully emotional piano pieces, and a slow-paced storytelling style. There’s only one word to summarize the movie: Flawless!

    4. Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon, 2001)

    Madhouse Production. IMDb: 7.9

    A TV interviewer and his cameraman meet a former actress and travel through her memories and career.

    Slow-paced, simple, flowing, and full of memoirs!

    3. Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki Hayao, 1997)

    Studio Ghibli. IMDb: 8.4

    On a journey to find the cure for a Tatarigami’s curse, Ashitaka finds himself in the middle of a war between the forest gods and Tatara, a mining colony, this leads him to meet San – Mononoke Hime.

    Between the forces of humans and the gods of nature, peace is the way. This is another moral lesson for human about appreciate and live peacefully with nature.

    2. Tokyo Godfathers (Satoshi Kon, 2003)

    Madhouse Production. IMDb: 7.9

    On Christmas Eve, three homeless people (a young girl, a transvestite, and a middle-aged bum) living on the streets of Tokyo find a newborn baby among the trash and set out to find its parents, with many adventures along the way.

    1. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

    Studio Ghibli. IMDb: 8.6

    During her family’s move to the suburbs, 10-year-old girl Chihiro, in order to rescue her parents, who are turned into pigs, wanders into a world ruled by gods, witches, and spirits, where humans are changed into beasts. She is found by a mysterious boy named Haku, who promises to help her. He gets her a job working in a bathhouse for the thousands of Japan’s gods and spirits. Though the work is hard and the people strange, she does as well as she can. Her parents, however, are still waiting in the hotel’s stockyard, and Chihiro must find a way to break the spell on them before they end up as the main course of some guest’s dinner.

    This move won 1 Oscar and another 51 award wins and 22 nominations. No further explanation needed! Experience it yourself and you’ll see!

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