Akira (1988) Written by Katsuhiro Otomo & Izo Hashimoto Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo
While there are a decent number of science fiction films that could be classified as masterworks, I personally believe it is the rare few that could be called visionary. I use that word in the sense of building a world that feels so unique and real, taking elements of our present and showing them taken to an extreme in the future. Every time I’ve watched Akira, I get that sense; it’s the same feeling I have watching Blade Runner. This is a fully realized world; we just see a small glimpse of a critical moment. Neo-Tokyo is one of the best science fiction settings ever created, and this story captures the best of the science fiction genre, particularly the subgenre of cyberpunk.
Violence Voyager (2019) Written & Directed by Ujicha
Gekimation. A new word for me and one I won’t soon forget. It describes the very unique style of animation seen in the work of Japanese filmmaker Ujicha. Characters are paper cutouts moved & posed in real-time against paper backgrounds. There’s no stop-motion animation here. It’s hard to compare this to any other animated works because it is so unlike anything else. There are hints of early South Park with the DIY-paper aesthetic. Storywise we’re in Junji Ito/David Cronenberg territory, a very retro body horror atmosphere. But Violence Voyager will be a shock to your senses no matter how many things you know inspired it.
Early Summer (1951) Written by Kogo Noda & Yasujirō Ozu Directed by Yasujirō Ozu
As the second part of Ozu’s Noriko trilogy, Early Summer is a more complex examination of post-War Japanese lives across three generations of a family. Setsuko Hara returns to play another character named Noriko, like in Late Spring. Chishū Ryū, who played the father in Late Spring, plays the eldest brother in Early Summer. Once again, a young woman living with her parents and being pressured into marriage is at the forefront of the plot. This time the story has more layers and humor, always remaining tender and empathetic with all its characters.
Early Spring (1956) Written by Kōgo Noda & Yasujirō Ozu Directed by Yasujirō Ozu
Since I became deeply interested in film & filmmakers, Yasujirō Ozu’s name has been one that has come across my radar time & time again. Anytime a piece of criticism would talk about Japanese cinema’s great directors, it was Akira Kurosawa & Ozu. For whatever reason, I’d never sat down to watch an Ozu film, my list of movies piling up while ignoring those listed as essential. Not much about Ozu’s early life stands out, the son of a fertilizer salesman, living a relatively Japanese middle-class life in the 1910s. Things get interesting as he became a young adult starting with his expulsion from his boarding school dormitory after being caught writing a love letter to another boy. While Ozu’s sexuality was never confirmed before his death in 1963, he seemed to at least be questioning who he was attracted to.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) Written by Isao Takahata & Riko Sakaguchi Directed Isao Takahata
When people talk about Studio Ghibli, you will most often hear them talk about it in the context of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. That’s completely reasonable as the studio’s most prominent work started with Miyazaki before becoming a collaborative effort. However, he was only the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, with his partner being Isao Takahata. Takahata was the director behind films like Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, and My Neighbors the Yamadas. Takahata’s take on animation was quite different than Miyazaki, but both men worked to push the medium in ways it never had been, both artistically and thematically.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Howl’s Moving Castle is one of the most financially successful Japanese films ever made. It grossed $236 million worldwide, which is quite a feat for a picture like this. It’s also yet another Miyazaki film that has had heaps of praise for its inventive magical world and characters. However, it’s the first Miyazaki movie in this series that I would rate below everything that has come before. For all of the technical mastery of animation and the fully developed world, I would argue something is lacking to pull all the elements together. Miyazaki revisits some old themes and some new ones, and I think the result is a very confusing picture.
Spirited Away (2001) Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Spirited Away became the Studio Ghibli film that opened the floodgates into the American theatrical market. It was just home video sales of movies like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service had doing well until this picture. However, seeing a Miyazaki movie in a theater was a more challenging experience to find. If you lived in a major urban area, your art-house theater might show them, but it was difficult outside of those venues. That isn’t to say Miyazaki films became marquee pictures in the States. However, from my own experience, it was from this point forward that I knew I could go to my local Regal cineplex; when these animated films reached our shores, they would have them playing on at least one screen.
Princess Mononoke (1997) Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
This is the moment where I met Miyazaki. I can remember going to the theater at the mall near my college. It was my freshman year, and I sort of went along to the movies without really know what was being seen. I believe it was my friend Clint that wanted to see this. I had no idea that is was animated or Japanese; it was merely a Friday hanging out with people I knew. When that Joe Hisaishi score kicked in, and the story began, I was immediately taken away to another world much in the same way Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Ring trilogy felt around the same time. Afterward, I had to know who made that movie.
Whisper of the Heart (1995) Written by Hayao Miyazaki Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo
Despite the marketing art, Whisper of the Heart is not a movie about a young girl and a magical talking cat. Instead, it is a very grounded coming of age movie about the transition from childhood into young adulthood. It was also one of the rare Studio Ghibli films not directed by Hayao Miyazaki. That honor went to Yoshifumi Kondo, who was seen as the natural successor to Miyazaki and was groomed to take over Ghibli when the founder eventually receded into a different role or retired. But that wasn’t to be, and in 1998, Kondo died suddenly from an aneurysm, which led to Miyazaki retiring temporarily from filmmaking. Such tragedy surrounding Whisper of the Heart makes is an even more bittersweet meditation on fragile our lives can be.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Japan often remixes Euro-American fantasy tropes to create incredibly different contexts and characters. This is done with traditional Western witches in Kiki’s Delivery Service. The black cats and flying brooms are here, but the context is changed so that being a witch is passed down from mother to daughter. There are no wicked witches here; instead, the women serve as community healers and advice-givers. This does tie into the Japanese folklore of tsukimono-suji (hereditary witches), but the iconography is most definitely the classic Western culture witch.