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The 20 best anime movies of all time

Maybe you’ve heard about Spirited Away, but there’s so much more to the best anime movies from Japan’s finest artists

Joshua Rothkopf
Written by
Joshua Rothkopf
&
Time Out contributors
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Once you’ve consumed every classic Disney and Pixar film, the world of anime is typically the next stop for any budding anglophone animation connoisseur. And what a wondrous place it is to explore. Japan’s best animated films are as smart and sophisticated as any live-action drama, using breathtaking visuals and ingenious universe-building to tell stories that are often fantastical and thrilling but pack deep emotional punches.

Crucially, they frequently have both adults and kids in mind - a film from the famed Studio Ghibli might star adorable forest sprites, but those creatures are used to deliver an impactful message about environmental calamity. Not all of them are child-friendly, though. For a novice, it can all be a bit overwhelming to jump in, so here are 20 excellent movies to start with. 

Recommended:

✍️ The 100 best animated films of all-time
🐭 The 50 best Disney movies for family night
🤖 The 10 best Pixar movies
🌏 The 50 best foreign films of all-time

Best anime movies of all time

  • Film
  • Animation

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland shot through with revealing economic anxieties, Hayao Miyazaki’s smash hit—the most commercially successful movie (animated or otherwise) in Japanese history—is dense enough to fuel a dozen dissertations. Thankfully, it’s also a blast: warm, witty and wild.

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Akira (1988)
  • Film
  • Animation
Considered one of anime’s masterpieces by the genre’s fans, this apocalyptic vision looks a lot like Speed Racer, but don't hold that against it. The movie is undeniably attention-grabbing, both for its visuals and its ideas.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
  • Film
  • Animation
One of the best-known Ghibli films, this somber drama examines the aftermath of WWII, following the plight of two orphaned kids seeking their family and a meal.
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Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
  • Film

Three homeless people find an abandoned baby wanted by yakuza, and vow to protect her by any means necessary. Satoshi Kon’s tribute to John Ford’s 3 Godfathers was a departure from his usual psychedelic kitchen-sink aesthetic, and is easily his most accessible film.

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Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
  • Film
  • Animation

Possibly the best-known anime feature apart from Spirited Away, this charming comedy about a teenager who leaves home to try her luck as a witch was Japan’s highest-grossing film of 1989.

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Paprika (2006)
  • Film
  • Animation

When a device that allows scientists to root around in their patients’ subconscious falls into the wrong hands, dream detective Atsuko Chiba, AKA ‘Paprika’, must race to get it back. Where Tokyo Godfathers marked a departure from the psychedelic freakouts Satoshi Kon is known for, Paprika found him back in his trippy wheelhouse. It could be his defining work. 

Porco Rosso (1992)
  • Film
  • Animation

A decorated WWI pilot finds his head transformed into that of a pig in this truly bizarre cartoon. You’ve gotta hand it to the Japanese—they don’t just make the same damn film over and over.

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Pom Poko (1994)
  • Film
  • Animation
It’s raccoons against humans—actually, raccoons disguised as humans against humans—in this wacky battle for the forests outside Tokyo. Jeez, not another metamorphosing-raccoon flick, for crissakes!
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
  • Film
  • Animation

Best leave the young ones at home—Mamoru Oshii’s cyberthriller (one of the few anime features to get a wide theatrical release in the U.S.) features gore aplenty. Adults will find existential questions à la Blade Runner and other sci-fi dystopias.

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Castle in the Sky (1986)
  • Film
  • Animation

Flying ships, airborne pirates, damsels in distress and government agents fighting the good fight—no offense, Jude Law, but this is how to do the whole sky captain thing right.

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Perfect Blue (1997)
  • Film
  • Animation

Well, perfect may be stretching it. But anime fans swear by this thriller-cum-philosophical-treatise, in which ruminations about the nature of reality offer an excuse to indulge in a bit of the old animated ultraviolence.

Neo Tokyo (1987)
Madhouse

16. Neo Tokyo (1987)

A stunning quick-hit anthology film comprising three shorts from three of Japan’s brightest anime talents of the ’80s - Rintaro, Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Katsuhiro Ôtomo - Neo-Tokyo packs a lot into its 50-minute running time. The best of the three is Ôtomo’s ‘Construction Cancellation Order’, about a white-collar worker attempting to shut down the construction of a factory in a remote part of South America who runs afoul of the robots programmed to complete the job by any means necessary.

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Millennium Actress (2001)
  • Film

A documentarian tries to uncover the reasons why a famed actress disappeared from the spotlight 30 years earlier. Yes, it doesn't quite sound like an animated film, so prepare to have your mind blown.

  • Film
  • Animation

The title contains multitudes. On an unusually rainy night in Tokyo, a high-school freshman runs away from home and meets a young girl with the ability to control the weather. A brilliant confirmation of the visual and narrative talents of fast rising writer-director Makoto Shinkai. 

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Steamboy (2004)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

It took Katsuhiro Ôtomo 16 years to follow up the genre-defining Akira, but he made the wait worth it. A sweeping steampunk epic, Steamboy was one of the most expensive and laborious anime films ever at the time of its release, requiring more than 180,000 drawings to tell the story of a young inventor in 19th century England on the run from powerful enemies.  

The Wind Rises (2013)
  • Film
  • Drama

Hayao Miyazaki’s final film before entering ‘retirement’ – he’d come out of it only four years later – is a fantastical biography of the creator of Japan’s World War II-era Zero fighter plane, which Miyazaki presents as a poignant allegory for what happens when reality corrupts one’s dreams. 

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