3. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Anime has something of a reputation for delivering kinetic, fast-paced sci-fi action. Ghost in the Shell has all this in spades and presents it all very satisfyingly, but that’s not what makes it brilliant. Beneath the surface of Ghost’s gun-toting cyborg detectives there are some profound and deeply thought-provoking questions being asked by exploring a philosophy of body and soul, and ultimately what makes us human.
Central character, Major Motoko, follows orders and performs her job well, but deep within her cybernetically-enhanced brain there is a shadow of a person; what this person wants is a mystery that once revealed could change everything. Despite this world of eye-catching technology, the film’s greatest moments come when it looks towards the supernatural; searching for ghosts in computers, or watching crowded streets which, somehow, seem devoid of life. You’ll still have questions by the time it’s finished, but that’s just part of what makes Ghost in the Shell so enjoyable, and why it still feels groundbreaking years later.
4. Perfect Blue (1997)
While anime is great for heart-swelling romances and perplexing philosophical conundrums, it simply wouldn’t be a good introductory list without looking at its dark and twisted side.
Perfect Blue is a thriller like no other (unless, of course, you’ve seen Black Swan, which owes an immense debt to the film). In fact, Perfect Blue, and all of the late, great Satoshi Kon’s work, has had a profound influence on a number of leading directors, including Christopher Nolan (Inception also owes a debt to Kon’s Paprika).
Mima is a pop idol who is planning a change of career, but her decision to become an actress has upset one of her most devout and unhinged fans. Threatening letters and messages are sent, bodies start turning up, and in the middle of all this violent chaos Mima is torn between her new life, her old life, what she wants and what she is expected to be. Kon, fascinated with blending dream, reality, conscious and subconscious, makes the film blur between all aspects of Mima’s life in such a frantic way that it’s almost distressing to watch. It becomes nearly impossible to tell what’s real and what isn’t, but this is key to one of the most terrifyingly fascinating portraits of a psychological unravelling.
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5. In This Corner of the World (2016)
Now we step aside from all the genre and exploitation to instead look at the way animation can heighten realism; how, in its dedication to recreating a certain time and place, it can find magic within nature.
In This Corner of the World is the story of a young woman, Suzu, growing up in pre-war Hiroshima. While the inevitable tragedy does hang over the film, as the story follows Suzu from child to young woman it creates an image of a simple, charming life.
The film’s real appeal is in the details; even as air raid sirens sound, the frame focuses on quiet moments of domesticity; preparing food, digging in the garden, comforting one another. Suzu spends a lot of her time sketching the city, and the film’s animation style reflects this with beautiful water-coloured cels with some of the original pencil marks left in. The whole film feels like a live painting trying to capture a city which tragically no longer exists in that form.