The best anime movies ever: a beginner’s guide to the wonderful, overwhelming genre

Got some spare time all of a sudden? Wrap your head around this lot...

Not sure where to start with anime movies? You won’t be alone – the genre can be as overwhelming as it is beguiling. Well, with most of us in coronavirus-induced lockdown, we’ve all got plenty of time right now, so grab a blanket and some snacks and let’s get wholesome, shall we?

Ninja Scroll (1993)

Why it’s great: The diligent Kibagami Jubei – a sword-swinging mercenary – and his duelling partner Kagero attempt to slay the Eight Demons of Kimon. Expect plight and plot-twists aplenty, while the action-packed fight scenes and Jubei’s wise remarks are a winning combination. You’ll be on edge with the draw of every sword.


Best bit: When little ol’ Jubei slays a demon with just a few strikes of his sword. Gory and hyper-real, it has all the components of a classic anime fight scene.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)

Why it’s great: This coming-of-age story follows Makoto, a teenager who develops time-travel skills. In a movie that explores friendship, love and typical adolescent growing pains, Makoto develops from a stereotypical (and slightly selfish) schoolgirl into a more thoughtful character.

Best bit: The movie is laced with so many witty one-liners that it’s a challenge to pick just one. Early on in the movie Makoto races through her school, attempting to time-leap and failing miserably. Better luck next time, Makoto!

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

Why it’s great: Arrietty is one of many adaptations of the classic 1952 British novel The Borrowers. This is one centres on the heartwarming friendship between Shō and his pint-tiny bestie Arrietty, who go through all manner of trials and tribulations together. Crucially, they must both ensure that the titular character isn’t discovered by other humans. Despite the element of peril, this is anime at its most charming.


Best Bit: No spoilers but the ending is a knockout.

Dragon Ball Z: Broly – The Legendary Super Saiyan (1993)

Why it’s great: Many remember Dragon Ball Z as a children’s show, but this film’s complex tale weaves a dark web of power and family. Plus, Dragon Ball Z: Broly – The Legendary Super Saiyan is filled with iconic fighting fantasies. Come for the drama, stay for the supernatural punch-ups.

Best bit: One of Dragon Ball Z’s most loved characters, Broly, transport into a Super Saiyan – a kind of super-powered warrior – with eye-popping results.

The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya (2010)

Why it’s great: This brilliant, 162-minute detective film is one for those curious minds out there. Young Kyon is on the hunt for the titular character, head of the mysterious SOS Brigade. But as we dig deeper into this thrilling drama, it becomes apparent that the Brigade isn’t all it once seemed. What begins a straight-up mystery turns in to a complex existential quest.

Best bit: The SOS Brigade plan a Christmas party, Kyon’s reserved nature at odds with Haruhi’s exuberance. There’s something deeply touching – and oddly comic – about this small observation of human nature.

Your Name (2016)

Why it’s great: Everyone a favourite rom-com (yes, even you, deep down). Given that this is the highest-grossing anime film of all time (it took in a whopping $359 million at the box office), it’s fair to assume that this emotional beast – love! Body swapping! Friendship! – takes that title for a lot of fans.

Best bit: The first meeting between the two protagonists – complicated by a hefty dose of anime fantasy – will bust your brain and melt your heart.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Why it’s great: Set in the Muromachi period (Japan in the 1300s to the 1500s), this tale follows an Emishi prince named Ashitaka, who is searching for a cure to a curse that is deteriorating his body. The antidote, it transpires, lays in an evil forest filled with demonic spirits. So that’s a bummer. Luckily Ashitaka enlists a little helps from a wolf princess named San.

Best bit: Watching San and Ashitaka realise how much they need each other. Cute!

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Why it’s great: It’s a timeless classic – end of. Sorceress-in-training Kiko moves to the seaside town of Koriko and gets down to what she does best: witching. Soaring through the sky on her broomstick, she delivers packages to others – an enterprising but surprisingly effective approach to running a small business.

Best bit: Watching Kiki hone in on her witchy skills, particularly when she learns – clumsily, at first – to ride a broom.

A Silent Voice (2016)

Why it’s great: A Silent Voice really shows us the power of our actions and words. The film follows teenage boy Shoya’s relationship with a deaf girl named Shouko. He once bullied her, but learns the error of his ways and sets about putting it right. There’s a lesson in that for all of us.

Best bit: Shoya calms Shouko down with a beautiful speech that’s one of the most masterful pieces of scriptwriting ever – and just in anime.

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001)

Why it’s great: Preceded by an amazing and hugely popular ’90s TV series, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie had big shoes to fill – and it delivered big time. The futuristic odyssey, set on Mars, is kind of like Doctor Who and Codename: Kids Next Door rolled into one and set in 2071.

Best bit: Evil assailant Vincent and our heroic hunter Spike go at it on a train. It’s a departure from a typically lavish anime fight scene, with no onlookers in sight.

When Marnie Was There

Why it’s great: Exploring the complexities of being a young child in care, When Marnie Was There is a moving tale about Anna, a 12-year old whose adventures around the town of Kissakibetsu prove to be more than they seem. Watching little Anna figure out who she is, you’ll be left with the niggling question: who are you?

Best bit: The truly bewitching scene where Anna meets the titular Marnie for the first time. Shivers.

Wolf Children  

Why it’s great: Raising kids is hard, but even harder when they’re – checks notes – wolves. After the untimely passing of her werewolf lover, human Hana guides her wolf children Yuki and Ame through the world. Ultimately it’s about the kids coming to terms with themselves, so, for all the fantastical elements, there’s plenty to relate to here.

Best bit: When Yuki transforms into a wolf to show her closest friend, Sōhei, her true nature. It’s a movement moment of pride in one’s self.

The Tales of The Princess Kaguya (2013)

Why it’s great: Not all stories start off with a bamboo cutter finding a small girl in a bamboo shoot. But things settle down after this bizarre opening, as the mysterious Princess Kaguya’s battles between her beloved country life and the big city she finds herself thrust into. This is an epic tale of family and status.

Best bit: When Kaguya is accepted as the noble princess her father always wanted her to be, she runs away to the country life she yearns for. It’s a short and simple scene that speaks multitudes.

Spirted Away (2001)

Why it’s great: This Academy award-winning anime veers to the artsier end of the genre.

Chihiro’s parents have been been turned into pigs, of course, by a local witch, so she embarks on a mission to reverse the curse. The characters are wildly imaginative, the story eccentric – even by anime standards – making this 125 minutes of sheer escapism.

Best bit: For every Spirited Away fan, it’s surely that train ride. Chihiro takes a train that stops off at mysterious stations, letting off ghostly figures along the way. Where are they going? What does it mean? It’s eerie, there’s no dialogue and the scene has become a big talking point about the movie.

5cm Per Second (2007)

Why it’s great: 5cm Per Second is a beautifully written tale that tugs at the heartstrings as we watch the childhood sweethearts, Akari and Takaki, being forced to move apart even as they keep hope in their hearts. A story full of unrequited love, this is one for lovesick dreamers.

Best bit: Two words: Takaki’s monologue. As she waxes lyrical about the world and its freedom, her small but profound speech will make you reminisce on your own personal boundaries.

From Up on Poppy Hill

Why it’s great: Offering an optimistic view of Japan after the Second World War, this period drama explores the budding relationship between Umi, a hardworking schoolgirl, and Shun, a keen writer for the school newspaper. With classic anime visuals and an impeccable script, it’s a beautifully crafted film in all respects.

Best bit: When Shun and Umi’s relationship takes a sudden turn (no spoiler, but it’s a doozy).

Ponyo (2009)

Why it’s great: Ponyo is a family movie reminiscent of The Little Mermaid. Here, though, the action centres on the titular goldfish princess, who spills some dangerous elixirs, meaning a young boy named Sosuke must attempt to save his village from peril. It’s lighthearted, the screen often filled with beautiful blue oceans. A tonic for the eyes and soul.

Best bit: When Ponyo, who (spoiler alert) has adopted human form – this is anime, after all – goes for dinner around at Sosuke’s. Everyone remembers having a friend for dinner as a kid; it’s pure nostalgia.

Pokémon 3: The Movie: Entei – Spell of the Unown (2000)

Why it’s great: Everyone on the planet has watched or at least heard of Pokémon, so you’ve got to have a classic one queued in your anime marathon. Although the franchise consists of 22 films already – and counting: Detective Pikachu 2 is on the way –  the third Pokémon movie truly shows the best of friendship and resilience, themes that have been part of its universe from the start. Main character Ash and friends discover the Unown, a place where mystical rare Pokémon roam; it’s like discovering your love of the franchise all over again.

Best bit: Ash’s arch nemeses Team Rocket rescue him from peril. You’re basically watching Superman and Lex Luther have a cup of tea together. WTF?

Paprika (2006)

Why it’s great: Dr. Atsuko Chiba, scientist by day and dream detective – she uses a device that enables therapists to enter patient’s dreams – investigates a strange case of a criminal who sort of downloads themselves into brains at night to terrorise them.

Best bit: There’s a parade where men have phones for heads and a catfish-human hybrid for a mayor. If you’ve ever seen anything like it before, you’ve lived a richer life than us (or you’ve watched a lot anime).

Fairy Tail: Dragon Cry (2017)

Why it’s great: The magazine anime series Fairy Tale has been made into two movies, with this being the most recent (Fairy Tail the Movie: Phoenix Priestess came out in 2012). Here were meet some of the most relatable characters in animation, even though the film itself is about some wizards looking to retrieve a stolen staff. Are you endearing kook Lucy or fierce fighter Natsu?

Best bit: Happy, a teal cat, steals every scene he’s in. As the name suggests, he’s a happy-go-lucky chap, though has a hidden talents: he can breath fire, as one initially terrifying dog soon discovers.