Animation is a relatively niche medium for TV and film. Though it seems popular now, it still isn’t quite as popular or as widely accepted as live-action formats. Part of this is because of how expensive animation can be (looking at you, Arcane and Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse).
An even bigger chunk of it is the stigma that’s tied to animated shows and films as a whole. Because of its associations with children’s media, animation carries the stigma of being “childish” regardless of the ability of shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s ability to grapple with serious themes in a way that few “adult” mainstream shows have.
Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s not hard to find an animated film that can show you a different view of the collective human experience. Whether it’s broad, larger-than-life problems like war and climate change, the quiet sorrow of aging, a post-college quarter-life crisis, or the not-so-magical struggles of raising children, this list of classic anime movies will resonate with you.
1. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Grave of the Fireflies is a Studio Ghibli film released in the same year as the more child-friendly My Neighbor Totoro. The renowned animation studio managed to release two feature films in the same year thanks to the dual leadership of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.
Miyazaki worked on Totoro while Takahata sat at the helm of Grave of the Fireflies. The two films look completely different from the surface, but they’re ultimately linked by the way that their events are both shaped by World War 2.
In Grave of the Fireflies‘ case, WW2 itself is the setting of this classic anime film. A stark contrast to many war films that depict war as a heroic or, at least, action-packed struggle against a faceless mob of enemy soldiers, Grave of the Fireflies is a heart-wrenching reminder of the true victims (and heroes) of war: children.
The film’s two protagonists, siblings Seita and Setsuko, are only 14 and 4 years old, respectively. Though the film starts with them waiting with their mother for their father to return from the war, their little family is shattered following an incendiary bomb attack.
What follows is a series of events that can only be described as a falling domino chain of doom for the siblings. And it’s not just a snowball of bad decisions. The disregard that the siblings are treated with is enough to make you feel anxious for them. Other than the cruelty of war, it’s the sheer indifference throughout the film that makes it so horrifying.
2. Millennium Actress (2001)
This classic anime movie starts towards the end of its lead character’s life.
The movie opens with a pair of journalists looking to make a documentary on the now-defunct Ginei Studios. Ginei Studios, which used to be one of the premier film studios in Japan, is now bankrupt.
There’s little information available about what it was like to be part of the studio in its heyday, but fortunately for the team, they’re able to track down none other than Chiyoko Fujiwara, the studio’s former star actress.
After leaving the industry, Chiyoko disappeared for 30 years, living life as a recluse. Perhaps realizing that the end is near for her, she agrees to give the two an interview, a brief insight into her career at the studio.
This is where Millenium Actress starts to feel like a Satoshi Kon film. The movie blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction. We’re watching a film about a documentary’s production while its very creators are pulled into Chiyoko’s memories which in turn are melded with the films that Chiyoko starred in. After a while, you get a sense of why it’s called Millenium Actress — the movie spans all of Chiyoko’s lifetimes in film and in real life.
Don’t be intimidated. While the movie does sound like one of those hard-to-watch art films on paper, it’s an intensely personal and grounded tale about moving on, living in the moment, aging, and everything else you’ll interpret from the movie itself when you do finish watching it.
3. Wolf Children (2013)
You’ve probably never heard of this one. Wolf Children rarely, if ever, makes it to classic anime movies’ lists which makes sense since it isn’t really one of those movies that are typically considered classics.
But it’s a beautifully made film with a touching narrative that’s straightforward for even the least analytically inclined audiences. And no, that’s not shade. Some of us just like our movies like that and that’s cool.
Wolf Children is a rare anime film for one main reason: it’s about motherhood or, to be more specific, single motherhood.
The movie begins with a college student named Hana who falls in love with a mysterious man who turns out to be a werewolf. Everybody from Twilight can pack their bags because this werewolf man is an actual ideal man. He’s not creepy, is completely supportive of his wife, and does his best to prepare for the birth of their kids.
For a while, it almost feels like they’ll live happily ever after together. But when he dies in an accident, Hana is left to raise her half-werewolf children while trying to put herself through college.
All in all, Wolf Children is a simple movie about a poor single mother trying to raise two half-breed children in a world that poses a ton of dangers for them simply because of what their other half is all while she tries to make peace with the fact that she can’t protect them forever.
4. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Here’s a classic anime movie for young adults who are feeling a little lost in life.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is a coming-of-age story about a 13-year-old witch who leaves home with her pet cat, Jiji, to work in the city of Koriko. Kiki might be a little young, but her story is reality for many young adults who are starting out in the world.
While in Koriko, she lives with Osono who lets her stay as long as she helps out with the bakery. The young witch later realizes she can open a delivery service and begins to use her flying abilities to deliver packages throughout Koriko.
This movie could have easily grown to epic, magical proportions, but it doesn’t. Kiki’s Delivery Service focuses on Kiki’s experiences of growing up and questioning her place in the world. She becomes unsure of herself, the strength of her friendships, and even whether she deserves to rest because she doesn’t believe she’s earned it.
5. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is an anime movie based on an older story called The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. In the story, an old bamboo cutter cuts open a bamboo stalk to find an impossibly small baby inside, the size of his thumb.
Together with his wife, the man raises the baby using gold that they find in other bamboo stalks. The girl grows up to be a beautiful woman in just a few months who they then call Princess Kaguya.
Princess Kaguya is actually happy and content to live in the countryside with her parents and friends, but her father thinks she’s too good to be just an ordinary girl. Her mystical origins make it clear that Kaguya isn’t exactly human. Out of a desire to do his duty as her father while still honoring the gods, the bamboo cutter brings her to the city where he builds a palace for her.
Kaguya becomes isolated from the world and increasingly unhappy. As she ages, she feels the restrictions of female gender roles rob her of her childlike innocence and she becomes more jaded about humans and life on earth.
6. Perfect Blue (1997)
Perfect Blue is a movie directed by the same guy behind Millenium Actress, Satoshi Kon. Both movies are about entertainment stars, but Perfect Blue is less about the life and times of the female lead and more about the dark side of Japanese idol culture.
Mima Kirigoe is the lead singer for CHAM!, an idol group that often performs sugary, generic pop songs about love for a mostly male target audience. The film doesn’t shy away from portraying the audience as creepy and outright misogynistic to the CHAM! stars, despite the significant overlap between idol fans and anime fans.
Later on, we start to understand that Mima no longer wants to be confined by her idol persona. She doesn’t want to be Mima-chan, she wants to be Mima Kirigoe again and pursue a career in acting. Her obsessive fans see this as a betrayal and one of them decides to do something about it.
Frankly, there’s a lot going on in this film. While it’s a commentary on parasocial relationships, idol culture, and the Madonna-Whore complex, it’s also a story about identity and what it means to be one’s “self” when others insist on a version of you that you don’t recognize.
Similar to Millenium Actress, the movie shifts wildly between reality, Mima’s perspective and increasingly tenuous grasp of reality, and the viewpoint of someone who I won’t mention to keep things exciting for you.
7. Akira (1988)
If you’ve ever wondered why the cyberpunk genre often features nods to Japanese culture, this is one of the films you have to thank for that.
Akira is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film set after the events of World War 3. The recent war completely destroyed Tokyo City, leading to the construction of Neo-Tokyo using reclaimed land within Tokyo Bay.
Despite the city’s glittering skyscrapers, its problems remain largely the same as that of the world before it, complete with corruption, terrorism, and gang violence. To maintain some semblance of peace, Neo-Tokyo is placed under martial law, much to the detriment of protagonist Shotaro Kaneda and his motorcycle gang.
A violent encounter with another gang puts them on the path of an ESPer named Takashi, inevitably entangling them with a top-secret government project. This leads them down a rabbit hole of discovering what Akira actually is: a nuclear superweapon that triggered the destruction of the original Tokyo.
Akira is a brutal yet breathtaking film about growing up and grappling with discontent and rage at the world, all set in the middle of what is lowkey a contemplation of the horrors of the atomic bombs of World War II.
That might seem a bit redundant since we already have to other war-affected films on this list of classic anime movies. But you’ll find that a lot of Japanese anime is haunted by memories of war which you can read more about here if you’re interested in that kind of thing.
8. Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll (2019)
Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll is a feature-length film based on the Violet Evergarden series. Like the anime series, the movie is centered on the titular Violet Evergarden, a war veteran settling into civilian life while unpacking her feelings about the presumably dead Major she served with.
As a protagonist, Violet is a silent observer of the world around her, a portrayal that’s in line with her job as an Auto Memory Doll a.k.a a letter ghostwriter. That job probably sounds unnecessary to you, but Violet’s job isn’t the mechanical act of writing itself.
What people hire her for is her ability to understand them on a deeply personal and emotional level and use that understanding to help them say what they actually want to say, even if they aren’t aware of what that is.
As the movie continues, Violet develops a friendship with her client, Isabella York who opens up to her about her past and who she wants to write a letter to. This serves as a way for Violet to understand her own feelings about the Major.