Tokyo Godfathers by Satoshi Kon
I wouldn’t make any claims that Tokyo Godfathers is anime’s high-water mark. For that, you’re better off with something from Studio Ghibli. But I figured there’d be plenty of kudos for that studio’s output. And it’s always more fun to point to a movie people may not have heard of. Tokyo Godfathers is also nice for this project because it highlights why anime is worth watching in the first place.
Anime is distinct from American animation in that, while it often deals in children and animals, it also features adults and grown-up themes. Tokyo Godfathers is a movie about three homeless people: an alcoholic gambler, a 16-year-old runaway, and a cross-dressing homosexual. But don’t let that scare you off, as the movie does a beautiful job of humanizing these characters while never overlooking the poor choices they’ve made. In fact, that’s the whole movie — understanding why people do what they do.
On Christmas Eve, the trio stumble upon an abandoned baby. They spend the rest of the movie trying to find its parents. In the process, they learn why the baby ended up in a garbage heap, and we learn why these three ended up there, too. The theme of parents and children is rich, as the movie’s revelations build in intensity.
And this gets at the advantage anime has over live-action movies. On the surface, the story of Tokyo Godfathers is outlandish, with coincidence piling on top of coincidence. An audience watching this tale with real actors in a real setting would have trouble suspending disbelief. But we have different standards for an animated movie. We expect the fantastic so we’re not thrown off by the quick shifts in tone, as exaggeration is part of an animated film’s code. So when one character bumps into his long-lost daughter at the hospital, my eyes welled up with tears whereas they might’ve rolled at a live-action film. And when the same thing happens again to another character, well, that seems like the perfect conclusion to this beautifully told melodrama. — J. Robert Parks
Several Studio Ghibli titles have already been mentioned, but I’ll just add a few more because, really, you can never have too much Studio Ghibli, they’re that good. Spirited Away is a truly fantastical fable whose imaginative visuals are matched only by its emphasis on grace and compassion. Princess Mononoke is Ghibli’s darkest and bloodiest film, but its moral complexities and sweeping vistas are something to behold. Castle in the Sky is a rip-roaring fantasy adventure complete with sky pirates that older kids will love. Only Yesterday is a poignant, nostalgic coming-of-age melodrama. And finally, Whisper of the Heart is another fine coming-of-age story with remarkable insights into both the life of an artist and young love… and it also features a great John Denver cover.
Satoshi Kon has also been mentioned earlier, and really, all of his movies are worth checking out if you’re feeling a bit adventurous. But 2006’s Paprika is his crowning achievement, a mind-blowing tale of dreams and madness that makes Inception look like child’s play. Or, as Grady Hendrix put it, “Because he’s an animator, and has to draw every sigh, every piece of garbage, every blink of an eye, Satoshi Kon scrutinizes real life more closely than most directors and he doesn’t take anything for granted… He pulls reality so tightly that when he plays it, it sings.” Sadly, Kon died in 2010 from cancer, and with his death, anime lost one of its true visionaries.
Cowboy Bebop is probably the closest we’ll ever come to an animated Firefly — or, more accurately, Firefly is the closest we’ll ever come to a live-action Cowboy Bebop (since Shinichirō Watanabe’s title came first). In any case, this thrilling, stylish, and oftentimes hilarious tale of down-on-their-luck bounty hunters packs a surprising emotional punch once it gets going, and though its ending is tragic, you can’t possibly imagine it ending any other way. Oh, and it features one of the greatest opening themes ever (below), courtesy of Yoko Kanno’s genius.
If you’re looking for an excellent example of world-building in anime, it doesn’t get much better than Last Exile. Set in a world of warring nations, bizarre technology, and daredevil pilots, Last Exile is one of my favorite anime series. The storyline is solid, with intriguing and enjoyable characters, but the animators did an excellent job of creating an animated world that you can actually believe in, mixing alien technology, steampunk, Victorian-era gadgets, and retro styling in a way that feels coherent and fully inhabitable. However, stay far away from the sequel, Last Exile: Fam, the Silver Wing, which is a complete waste of time.
Anime is largely dominated by sci-fi and fantasy, but it’s home to plenty of more “mundane” titles. Take, for example, Kids on the Slope, a high school melodrama set in 1966 Japan. As a high school melodrama, it has romantic triangles and teen angst to spare, but it’s as much a love letter to jazz as anything. Yeah, that’s right… jazz. And as such, the series positively swings while it’s pulling the ol’ heartstrings. Kids on the Slope also featured my favorite action sequence that I saw in 2012, in which two jazz-loving hip cats unleash a musical barrage of epic proportions.
Speaking of high school melodrama, I would be remiss to not mention His and Her Circumstances. Overall, it’s a complete mess of a series to be honest — the last third or so can probably be skipped entirely — but at its best, it’s a hilarious portrayal of the tensions and tortures that are high school, and the emotional roller coaster that one experiences when falling in love for the first time. I often found myself moved one moment, and the next, laughing hysterically at the characters’ antics or how certain plotlines played out. There’s one scene in particular, where the female protagonist’s family plays Uno, that might be worth watching the entire series for.
As I mentioned before, anime features a plethora of sci-fi titles. One of them is Crest of the Stars, a long-running series set in the distant future where humanity is under threat by a vast quasi-alien empire. The series (there’s actually 3 of them, plus several movies and OVAs) is noteworthy for several reasons. First, the aforementioned empire is not necessarily the series’ villain, neatly upending the expected narrative. Second, the series puts a heavy focus on its main characters — one a princess and the other a newly appointed noble — and their complex relationship. And finally, though featuring plenty of space battles, Crest of the Stars takes a more technical approach to starship combat. You won’t see many Star Wars-style dogfights, but rather, tense, claustrophobic scenes more reminiscent of Das Boot or The Hunt for Red October, which can make for a nice change of pace.