Establishing the best anime movies can be tricky. After all, despite now being one of the most ubiquitous cultural properties of the 21st century, anime, thanks to over a century’s worth of the medium’s evolution and reinvention, is especially difficult to define. From the five-minute shorts of Oten Shimokawa in 1917, to the feature-length animations produced during World War II, to the pioneering production cycles of Tezuka in the ’60s and the auteurist innovations of the likes of Miyazaki and many others towards the latter half of the last century, anime has morphed through countless phases. Amateur efforts, nationalist propaganda fodder, niche cultural export turned eventual global phenomenon: Each iteration conforms to the shape of the times in which it was produced. Television expanded the medium during the 1960s, birthing many of the essential genres and subgenres that we know today and forming the impetus for the anime industry’s inextricable relationship to advertising and merchandising from the 1970s onward. The arrival of home video catapulted anime to its commercial and aesthetic apex, fanning outward from island nation of Nippon to the far shores of North America and back, before again being revolutionized by the unprecedented accessibility of the world wide web throughout the ’90s and early aughts. Anime film owes much to the evolving means of production and distribution throughout the late 20th century, the breadth and audacity of the medium’s content widening and contracting along with its running time to cater to the emerging palettes of audiences both new and old, at home and abroad. But where does one begin to tackle the aesthetic and historical precedent that anime film has left on pop culture and global entertainment in the last century?
This list is an attempt to do just that: to create a primer of 100 of the most influential and essential films that Japanese animation has produced, and to offer a thorough aesthetic, technical and historical breakdown of why these film matter. With that aim in mind, Paste is proud to enlist the curatorial talents of Jason DeMarco, on-air creative director of Adult Swim and co-creator of Toonami, whose unique role in anime’s emerging popularity in the West has helped to hone this list. Given the shared evolution between anime film and television and the aforementioned significance of the home video revolution, this list includes not only traditional features but also original video animations made for home video (OVAs) and anthology films— with the stipulation of each entry having at some point premiered in theaters. It is our hope that in creating this list we have created an entry point for both the expert and the layperson to trace the rich history of anime’s legacy on both film and popular culture, and to offer newcomers a comprehensive guide through to learn, rediscover, and explore the fullness that the genre of Japanese animation has to offer now and into the future.