One of the great joys and frustrations of anime is its sheer volume and variety. While most animation in the U.S. is aimed at children, in Japan it serves a variety of audiences. Anime can be television series or feature films with theatrical releases.
1. Akira- The cyberpunk anime Akira was released in 1988 and became one of the most influential anime in history, gaining a cult following in the West. The film introduced a generation of Americans to anime. Akira is dark and twisted and while most of the characters are adolescents, they are amoral juvenile delinquents who have been abandoned by a Japanese society on the verge of collapse. The spectacular production values signaled a new era in anime that moved away from low-quality, quickly produced animation. The Matrix directors the Wachowski brothers are fans of Akira. Watch it and you'll see how it influenced their filmmaking.
2. Spirited Away- It would be difficult to talk about anime without mentioning famed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki (Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Tottoro). Miyazaki's work is widely popular in Japan, making him one of the most successful directors in Japanese cinematic history. His work also favors well with international audiences and regularly secures U.S. distribution. Spirited Away centers around a young girl named Chihiro who finds herself in a magical world where she must save her irresponsible parents from a dangerous witch. With a mixture of modern technology and traditional folklore, the film takes its audience to a steampunk setting that is disturbing yet completely engrossing. Spirited Away proved Miyazaki immense popularity within Japan but it was the string of international awards (including an Oscar) that showed the growing popularity and critical approval of anime in the global market.
3. Astro Boy- Famously recognized as the first anime, the television series about a robot boy battling against evil hit the small screens as Might Atom in Japan in 1963. The series was retitled for American audiences as Astro Boy the following year. Astro Boy was created by Osamu Tezuka, famed manga and anime artist, who became a seminal figure in Japanese culture and often referred to as the "God of Manga." As he was influenced by the work of Walt Disney, a viewing of his Kimba the White Lion will reveal his influence on Disney's The Lion King.
4. Princess Mononoke- This film involves a young prince named Ashitaka who becomes injured when defending his people against a gigantic boar, only to realize the dying animal has placed a curse on him. Ashitaka finds the source of his curse when he comes upon Iron Town and discovers a war between humans and animals. The people of Iron Town are ravaging the natural world around them by mining for iron for weaponry and in order to save their home, the animals of the forest have fought back. With more than his one life at stake, Ashitaka tries to bridge the gap between these two groups and see if peace is possible. Like much of Miyazaki's work, Princess Mononoke takes a definite stand on the devastating effect that modernity has on the environment.