This article contains discussions of suicide and violence.
For many years anime has captivated audiences with its unique visuals and imaginative storytelling and the creative possibilities of the medium are endless.
Often dreamy and fun, anime can transport audiences to a new world. It can also explore dark topics, real-world issues, and human emotions. The entries in this list, based on Owen Shapirofrom the Letterboxd list, do all of the above. But, they stand out. As Shapiro Explain. “This list explores Japanese animation works that push the medium to its limits and beyond.”
11 Noiseman Sound Bug: 3.3/5
Set in the futuristic city of Cahmpon, the science experiment Noiseman steals music and turns it into crystals and a group of children fight against it.
In 15 minutes, Noiseman Sound Bug packs a mighty punch. Directed by Koji Morimoto, the short moves at lightning speed, wraps in mesmerizing visuals and a big statement. The colorful metropolis and dumping ground, Cahmpon is beautiful and the high-energy techno music that accompanies it is mesmerizing. As a Letterboxd user Ryan McSwain written, the series has “dreamy pastel colors, smooth animation, and frantic musical action”. This innovative short may not be easy to unbox, but it’s unique and exciting enough to engage any audience.
ten A piece of phantasmagoria: 3.6/5
Shigeru Tamura’s film is a collection of 15 short episodes that depict the realm of Phantasmagoria. A piece of fantasy has a simple animation style, but stands out for its unique storytelling and dreamy settings that include diamond towns and shooting star minefields.
The characters in the shorts live ordinary lives, frequenting coffee shops and having a drink served by a star-faced bartender. As C_Mill24 writing, “[It has] such a calm and calming atmosphere with some of the most creative visuals I’ve seen in a long time.”
9 The Lullaby of Death: 3.6/5
A boy with a protruding underbite is bullied by a group of three boys. His mother is also sick and he is constantly alone and isolated. by Harada The Lullaby of Death is a moving film that explores topics such as violence against children, industrialization and pollution.
The film’s art style is rough and cluttered, which adds to the overwhelming anger felt by the main character. It also includes real live footage which adds to its sense of urgency. As Laurie writes, “It’s a very raw, furious slice of animation that’s truly a world away from the googly-eyed, cutie-filled material that has come to define Japanese animation.”
8 Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful dreamer: 3.9/5
Ataru and his friends prepare for the annual Tomobiki High School Festival, but soon realize that they are living the same day over and over again. Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer, directed by Mamoru Oshii, is the second installment in a film franchise based on the original television series.
Like movies and series, beautiful dreamer is a comedy with whimsical and colorful animation, but Oshii adds an element of existentialism that sets it apart. The characters are familiar, but their surroundings are desolate and decaying. As a critic TheNinthHeart abstract, “[Oshii uses] the Urusei Yatsura series and all of its playful, exciting, non-fantasy quirks to create something truly amazing and deadly serious.”
seven Mind game: 4.1/5
Nishi has a crush on his childhood sweetheart, but after he is killed by the Japanese mafia, he is sent to heaven and embarks on a strange journey of self-discovery. At Masaaki Yuasa Psychological game is an experimental and mind-blowing film that combines many styles of animation. Yuasa disregards the conventional use of a linear plot, which is evident in the opening sequence.
With imaginative storytelling and bright colors, this movie feels more like an experiment. Audiences experience the same existential fear and disorientation as Nishi, after his death. As Thomas describes it, “Psychological game is an imaginative, absurd, experimental psychedelic journey and sensory overload.”
6 Revolutionary Girl Utena: Utena’s Adolescence: 4.1/5
An adaptation of the 1997 television series, Ikuhara’s film follows the strong female protagonist, Utena Tenjou, a transfer student at Ohtori Academy. Utena is captivated by the Rose Bride, Anthy, and confronts those who bear the “mark of the rose” for her heart.
Utena’s teenage years is a visually stunning film that pushes animation capabilities. Utena, although connected to the series, works well as a standalone part. As Kino Review writing, “[The film is] a sensory blast of style AND substance.” Ohtori Academy, for example, is beautifully illustrated with floating staircases, columns that don’t seem to connect, and large arches. The characters and storyline are well developed, and it also explores important themes of gender norms and identity.
5 Angel egg: 4.1/5
A little girl, Angel, wanders through a desolate world carrying an egg. She meets a mysterious man and they confide. Directed by Mamoru Oshii, angel egg features intricate animation, and Oshii paints a dark, eerie world full of grayscale lines and vast empty spaces.
The characters discuss philosophical topics and the ending is open to interpretation. The lack of plot may not be for everyone, but the atmosphere created by this film is unlike any other. The angel egg is well summarized by the reviewer Olivierwhich says, “it is a surreal, blurry masterpiece, swirls of air and light, filled with angst and barren wasteland that cannot be fully explained, only felt.”
4 Paranoia Agent: 4.2/5
Seemingly random muggings by a boy with a golden bat happen all over Tokyo, but it turns out the victims’ lives start to look up after the mugging. Two detectives try to solve the cases.
paranoia agent is a mini-series created by Satoshi Kon, best known for his movies perfect blue and Paprika. The series mixes reality and fantasy, delving deep into human insecurities, societal pressures, and the stress that everyday life can bring. It is a dark and surreal experience. Kon knows how to mix reality and fantasy to get the audience to reflect on themselves and the world they live in. Thomas writing, “paranoia agent is a mature, complex, imaginative and atmospheric puzzler.”
3 Haibane Renmei: 4.2/5
Rakka dreams of falling from the sky. She wakes up in a large cocoon that hatches. She meets Reki and the other Haibanes who have wings and halos. Created by Yoshitoshi Abe, Haibane Renmei is a delicate, slice-of-life anime series.
Rakka finds himself in a new world filled with green fields and cobblestone roads. Haibanes are kind and happy with the role they play in their world, but there is always a hint of darkness beneath the surface. The series presents questions about life and death in a subtle way, which makes it special. As YIT writes, “a beautifully animated series with a mellow atmosphere, but steeped in existential dread with an air of mysteries hovering over it.”
2 Serial experiments: 4.4/5
Lain is introverted and a stranger to her peers. When one of her classmates dies by suicide, she is prompted to log on to The Wire, a virtual reality website. Written by Chiaki J Konaka, Serial Experiments Lain is a single-season animated series that highlights the dangers of the internet and the human need for connection.
Lain’s reality is blurred by disorienting hallucinations that manifest on screen in psychedelic tones and oversaturated visuals and the series defies anime standards with its mind-bending storytelling and visuals. As a critic Haru writing, “[The film is] an avant-garde expressionist tale that deals with technology, religion and existentialism.”
1 Revolutionary Daughter Utena: 4.5/5
When Utena was a child, she met a prince and decided she would become one herself. Now she attends Ohtori Academy where she meets Anthy. Utena fights with student council members to protect Anthy. Revolutionary Girl Utena is a classic television series known for its beautiful animation style and well-written characters.
Everything is on a grand scale. There are floating castles, endless spiral staircases and intense battles. The character designs are also very well done. But what sets this anime series apart is its LGBTQ+ representation. As Dawn writing, “[This series is] a highly symbolic and layered examination of gender norms…and the ensuing cycles of trauma, which not only mark the current generation, but also serve to haunt subsequent generations.”
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