Anime Films For Anime Haters

So I was watching the One Piece quick look yesterday and I noticed both Dan and Jeff making many of the sweeping generalizations I often hear from people whose experience with anime doesn't extend far beyond the 500+ episode shows generally localized by Viz Media. The problem is that Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, One Piece, Inyuasha, and the various Mech focused anime such as the Bandai made Gundam don't in any way represent the entirety of the medium. In a way it is similar to what non-gamers do when they assume all games are violent murder fantasies like GTA or Call of Duty. I think most people here can name plenty of games that would disprove that belief, but there are many more casual anime fans who want to convince friends to give the medium a chance, but maybe don't have much more experience beyond the shows I just mentioned. Many people point to the films of Hayao Miyazaki when trying to get people into anime, but most of his films are distinctly Japanese and reference Japanese folklore in a way that manages to alienate those who are going into an anime expecting to hate it.

So I challenged myself to come up with a list of anime films that would convince your Otaku hating friends to give anime a chance. I ended up not doing any shows simply because I just couldn't think of any decent shows that didn't at least somewhat feel like what an anime hater would envision an anime show to be. So to be clear, this isn't a list of the best anime out there(although I would include a couple of these films on such a list). It's a list of the best anime that follows none of your standard anime tropes. You'll find no mechs, ninjas, Japanese folklore, or complex sci-fi here. None of the characters in the films listed here have ridiculous proportions beyond the realm of belief. All romances are at least no less realistic than what you would find in an American film. It is exceptionally tough to find anime starring adults. Virtually all of it involves teens in some form or another, and that is even more true when you leave behind the combat focused anime that so many view as the only form of anime out there. So, yes, this list does in fact include quite a few teen focused stories, but I managed to include a handful of films focused on adults as well. I'm going to split these into a couple of genres so you can easily choose a film that will appeal to that anime hating friend of yours. So here we go.

TEEN ROMANCE

The following films involve teens getting their romance on. While these films don't feature explicit sex or nudity, there are some more sexual scenes that those not used to non-American animation might be surprised to see. I'll try to note those films as they come up.

1. Whisper of the Heart

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Yoshifumi Kondô

Summary: This mid 90's Studio Ghibli film was one of the first not directed by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takhata. It is a pure romance involving a girl who connects with a young man through their shared love of books. She learns that he has been checking out every book she has read and being a girl in a romance movie finds this notion romantic not creepy and goes in search of her true love. Features some great American songs including heavy use of John Denver's Take Me Home. A little bit of mysterious fantasy stuff but nothing at all far fetched. This is your standard teen romance film. Well done and occasionally moving and funny. Full American dub is available in the US through the Disney import and is of decent quality. Nothing exceptional, but far better than what you might normally see in Anime. Kondo tragically died after making this film. It is his only film as a director and absolutely worth showing your The Notebook loving girlfriend.

2. The Secret World of Arrietty

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Summary: This film is based on the classic British children's book The Borrowers and tells the tale of a family of pocket sized people living beneath a farm inhabited by a normal sized family. As it so happens the daughter of the small people (called borrowers as they get their home and food by taking the tiny things that the normal sized people won't miss) is a teenager of similar age to the son of the human family. Despite her parents telling her to stay hidden, the daughter doesn't listen and soon the two teens are in love despite the impossibility of any sort of physical romance occurring. This film features absolutely stunning art and animation that has a distinctly British flare. Both an American and British accented dub are available, with Disney doing the American version which includes several big name actors like Will Arnett and Amy Poehler. The dub is solid and the British origins of the story means that it manages to be a bit fantastical but in a way that Westerners should easily relate to. And, again, I can't compliment the absolutely incredible art and animation at work here enough. For those who like a dose of fantasy with their romance.

3. From Up on Poppy Hill

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Goro Miyazaki

Summary: The last Ghibli film for this category (any again not directed by either Miyazaki or Takahata) is a bit more somber of a romance. It takes place shortly after the end of World War 2 and involves a girl whose father died during the war. She lives in a small seaside town and ends up falling in love with the most popular boy at school. Said boy runs the school paper and is also leading the school clubs in trying to save their clubhouse from demolition. I wrote a review of this film which you can read here if you would like more detail. This film is quite well dubbed and acted. It is the only Ghibli film of these three not released by Disney in the US. The honor there went to GKIDS, a distributor any fan of animation should become familiar with thanks to their excellent US releases of foreign animation too mature for Disney to want to touch. For those who want a great plot beyond the romance or who have high school nostalgia.

4. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Studio: Mad House

Director: Mamoru Hosoda

Summary: Based on an acclaimed Japanese young adult novel, this film is not quite as good as the Ghibli films above and should maybe be used as a follow up film after those Ghibli films for teen romance lovers. It is about a girl who can quite literally leap through time and the relationship she forms with a fellow time traveler (that may be a spoiler. I can't remember when we discover that so maybe don't tell your friend that part). It's a sweet romance with writing that maybe isn't quite up to Miyazaki standards (he wrote the three films above despite not directing them) but still well done overall. Great music is the highlight of the presentation which again isn't up to Ghibli standards but is still quite solid. The film was released by Bandai in the US. It features their usual crappy packaging and lack of extras. The film is great but maybe a rental would be smarter than a purchase.

ADULT ROMANCE

The following films are romances featuring people older than 20 and have a more mature and layered tone in general.

1. 5 Centimeters Per Second

Studio: Comix Wave

Director: Makoto Shinkai

Summary: This romance follows a couple over the course of several decades as they drift together and apart. The title is in reference to the speed at which cherry blossoms fall and as is typical for a Shinkai film, this film involves the effects of time and distance on a couple. Unlike Shinkai's other films which mix romance with fantasy or sci-fi, 5 Centimeters Per Second is set in modern day Japan. It's maybe the most visually impressive film on this entire list. Shinkai is a master background artist, and his work here is as stunning as usual. Character work isn't as solid, but there is great music and a solid dub. This is another Bandai joint, so I would again maybe suggest a rental for this. It's a great film, though.

2. Only Yesterday (Europe, Australia, and Asia Only)

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Isao Takahata

Summary: This film, which has sadly never seen an official US release is a fantastic late-bloomer coming of age story from Ghibli master Isao Takahata. While his films are far from your standard anime, most focus very heavily on Japanese folklore or pop culture, making them difficult for those outside of Japan to understand. This film, though, is a romance about a woman in her 30's who goes on a summer vacation to the countryside. A city dweller, she ends up finding herself in the peaceful farmlands and also manages to find love. It's truly tragic that Disney won't release this film (or at least surrender the rights so someone else can) as it is an incredible piece that is distinctly Takahata and distinctly unlike the films of any other anime director out there. There is a British dub for those who don't mind importing but note that this film does contain nudity. It is not sexual in nature (it is a bath scene featuring a child) but, again, for Americans any sort of adult content in an animated film can be a bit of a shock so be prepared for that.

Drama

The following films don't involve romance at all. They are simply real world dramas.

1. Tokyo Godfathers

Studio: Mad House

Director: Satoshi Kon

Summary: Before losing a battle with cancer, Satoshi Kon made some of the most unique and fascinating anime out there. This film is maybe the most unique of the bunch but also the most approachable. It is about three homeless friends who find an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve. The friends include a transvestite who immediately wants to mother the child. The three form an unlikely family and protect the child. For parents with open views about sexuality (the transvestite also suffers from AIDS) this film is actually pretty family friendly and ends with a great message about Christmas spirit and about how God views all of us as his children, despite sexual orientation. It's truly a great film that feels like it could have been made in Europe. For those who want something completely out of left field that will convince even the most cynical that anime has a range larger than combat and terrible teen romances. Highly recommended. Features a great dub and was released by Sony in the US.

I'm not going to put it here as it is a little too strange for this list, but once you have your friend indoctrinated you might want to follow some of these films with Kon's excellent film Perfect Blue. It's a murder mystery that is a little too obtuse to be a first foray into anime but is absolutely worth watching.

2. Grave of the Fireflies

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Isao Takahata

Summary: It's fitting that the only director with two films on this list is one of the most unique directors in anime history. With films unlike any others, Takahata uses animation to express his concerns with Japanese society and nowhere does he do it better than in the devastating Grave of the Fireflies. If your friend loves dark, tragic war drama than this film is for him or her. It's about two children orphaned during a fire bombing of their village towards the end of World War II. It's maybe the most powerful cartoon ever made. Roger Ebert claimed it also was the greatest war film of all time. It's truly mesmerizing and packs a greater punch than most any other war movie out there. For those art house cinema buffs you know who consider anime trash show them this and then ask them what they think of anime. It is a masterpiece and not only one of the greatest anime ever made, but one of the greatest films ever made no qualifiers needed.

Upcoming

So you've gone through this list and are looking for more? I wanted to highlight three films that have yet to be released on DVD or Blu-Ray in the US(and one I just haven't had a chance to see)

1. The Wind Rises

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Summary: I couldn't end this list without at least mentioning a Miyazaki film, and his latest film is probably the most approachable for the non-anime fan. It's a true story about the man who designed Japan's fighter planes during World War II. It mixes this drama with romance and Miyazaki's usual dose of social commentary. I have yet to see the film so I can't comment personally on its quality, but the film got an Academy Award nomination, and was awarded at numerous film festivals and year end award shows throughout the world. It will be out on DVD shortly.

2. The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Isao Takahata

Summary: This film is based on a classic Japanese folktale and I couldn't tell you how easy it will be for westerners to understand as it has only recently been released in Japan. I wanted to highlight it because instead of your standard anime art style the film instead attempts to mimic the look of classic Japanese paintings. This is absolutely not the place to start, but for those who think anime has only a single art style I have a feeling this film will at least be a bit more approachable than Takahata's My Neighbors The Yamadas which also looks nothing like your standard anime but makes virtually no sense to anyone outside of Japan.

3. Garden of Words

Studio: Comix Wave

Director: Makoto Shinkai

Summary: This film has been released in the US I just haven't had a chance to watch it yet. It is a romance between a young man and an older woman. He is an apprentice shoemaker and in standard Shinkai form time and distance both draw the lovers together and threaten to separate them. Unlike most other directors on this list Shinkai does not have a flawless track record. His films are just as often duds as they are great. So view this at your own risk.

4. When Marnie Was There

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Summary: And we'll end with a film not even released in Japan yet. It's a ghost story based on a British novel and that is about all I know about it. So look forward to knowing more about that.

And that brings us to a close! Hope this helps you find an anime film for that anime hating special someone in your life.

EDIT: Edited to fix some grammar and spelling errors.

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