The 5 Best Anime Movies of All Time

Anime, a form of animation that originated in Japan, has been around for decades and has become increasingly popular in recent years. Characterized by complex plots with an adult focus and artistic 2D animation , anime has become one of the most respected genres of filmmaking.

With such a long and rich history, it’s no surprise that there are so many great anime movies out there. But, what are the best anime movies of all time?

From heartwrenching dramas to mind-bending sci-fi, here are 5 anime films you cannot miss.

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Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies) – Isao Takahata, 1988

best anime movies: graveyard of the fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies, via Pinterest.

Set during the final months of World War II, Hotaru no Haka follows the story of two orphaned siblings, Seita and Setsuko, as they try to survive in war-torn Japan. Without food or shelter, the two children must rely on their own resilience and resourcefulness to make it through the devastating conflict.

Grave of the Fireflies is widely considered to be one of the best –if not the best– anime movies of all time. The film was a commercial and critical success upon its release, winning multiple awards, including the Animage Anime Grand Prix prize.

Cultural Focus

Because the film is set during World War II, it provides a unique look at the Japanese experience of the conflict. It is an unflinching look into the devastating consequences of the air raids on Japan, which destroyed entire cities killing more than 241,000 people.

This heartwrenching film is an account of an aspect of World War II that we don’t often see in cinema. But more importantly, it’s an opportunity to reflect on the consequences of violence on innocent civilians.

Mononoke-hime (Princess Mononoke) – Hayao Miyazaki, 1997

best anime movies: princess mononoke

Princess Mononoke, via Pinterest

Set in the late Muromachi period of Japan, Princess Mononoke follows the story of Ashitaka. Ashitaka is a young prince who is cursed by a demon. In pain, he must find a way to break the curse before it kills him. His journey takes him to the forests of the Great Boar God, where he meets San, a human raised by wolves who has been dubbed “Princess Mononoke” by the villagers.

Then, Ashitaka must find a way to remove the curse, a difficult enough task. But he must also stop the humans from destroying the forest and its animal inhabitants.

Princess Mononoke is one of Hayao Miyazaki’s best-known films, and it is easy to see why. The film is visually stunning, with beautiful animation that brings the lush forest to life. In addition, the film deals with complex themes such as environmentalism, war, and human nature.

Princess Mononoke is a great film for anyone interested in learning more about Japanese culture, as it provides a glimpse into the country’s history and mythology.

Culrural Focus

Furthermore, the film is also a great opportunity for advanced learners of Japanese to learn some new vocabulary. Like some of the best anime movies, it contains many words and phrases that are specific to the impressive Muromachi period. Examples include 山伏 (yamabushi), which refers to a type of mountain ascetic monk, and 戦国 (Sengoku), which is a word meaning “warring states.” In fact, the term mononoke, or もののけ, is not the girl’s name. It is a term that refers to mystical creatures who can transform their shape and lead people to suffering, disease, or even death.

Pāfekuto Burū (Perfect Blue) – Satoshi Kon, 1997

best anime movies - perfect blue

Perfect Blue, via Pinterest.

Perfect Blue is a psychological thriller that follows the story of Mima Kirigoe, a member of an all-girl J-pop idol group. Despite her enormous succes, Mima decides to leave the group to pursue an acting career. As she tries to adjust to her new life, Mima comes face-to-face with an obsessive fan. Misteriously, she begins to experience strange hallucinations.

It soon becomes clear that someone is out to destroy Mima’s life, but who is it?

Perfect Blue was a commercial and critical success upon its release. The film is a groundbreaking achievement for its use of rotoscoping. This technique in which real-life footage is traced over frame by frame beautifully creates the illusion of realistic movement. This and a feverish blend of fantasy and reality make Perfect Blue one of the best anime movies of all time. And certainly one of the most disturbing ones!

Cultural Focus

The film also provides a great opportunity to learn about Japanese pop culture. And fascinating look into the world of J-pop idols and the fans who obsess over them.

The idol industry in Japan is fascinating to explore because it is so different from the idol industries in other countries. In the United States, most pop stars start out as adults and then gradually transition into more mature roles. But in Japan, many young girls become idols at a very young age, and they maintain their childish image throughout their careers.

Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away) – Hayao Miyazaki, 2001

best anime movies - spirited away

Spirited Away, via Pinterest.

Spirited Away is the story of Chihiro, a young girl who gets lost in the spirit world and is forced to work in a bathhouse for the spirits in order to find her way back home. Along the way, she meets a cast of colorful characters, including the handsome demigod Haku and the greedy witch Yubaba.

Spirited Away is one of Miyazaki’s most popular films, and it won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003. The film is a humorous, masterful story with characters that are both lovable and relatable.

Culture Focus

The film is also a great opportunity to learn about Japanese culture and mythology. More than any other film on this list, it’s full of references to Shinto and Buddhist traditions. For example, the bathhouse in the film is based on a real-life bathhouse in Japan called Tsubaki-yu. This impressive place is said to be cursed by the spirit of a woman who died there. In fact, the title ‘Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi’, comes from a Japanese Shintu belief that refers to the mysterious death and disappearance of a person after they have angered the kami (gods).

If you want to watch Chihiro for language-learning purposes, we have some good news to share. Since the film is available on Netflix, you can watch it with English or Japanese subtitles depending on your current level, and stop the film whenever you want to focus on a specific word or expression.

Kimi no Na was (Your Name) – Makoto Shinkai, 2016

best anime movies - your name

Your Name, via Pinterest.

Mitsuha is a young girl who lives in a small town in the mountains, and she dreams of living in the city one day. Taki is a young man who lives in the city, and he dreams of living in the country one day. One day, they both suddenly find themselves living each other’s lives, and they must figure out how to return to their own lives without disrupting each other too much.

Your Name was a huge box office success in Japan. Even in 2023, it is one of the best anime movies of all time. The film is a beautiful love story that will make you laugh, cry, and everything in between.

Cultural Focus

What’s more, the film is full of references to traditional Japanese festivals and customs. For example, there is a scene in which Mitsuha and her friends celebrate Hinamatsuri (Girls’ Day), which is a holiday in Japan that celebrates the traditional feminine arts.

But the learning doesn’t stop there. If you are not very fluent in Japan and you would like to use this wonderful film as a language-learning resource, you can watch it with English subtitles, stop every time you find a great quote (the movie is positively full of them), and play the scene again with Japanese subtitles to write down the line in its original language.

In my case, the line I always think about when I start talking about Your Name is this one:


Keiken o taisetsu ni. Mezameta nochi, yume wa kiete ikimasu.

“Treasure the experience. Dreams fade away after you wake up.”

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