10 Gateway Anime Movies For Studio Ghibli Fans

gateway anime movies

(Welcome to Let’s Get Animated!, a column that spotlights the best of film animation. In this edition: the best anime movies to watch if you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli movies.)

It felt like a big, gaping hole was left in the animation industry when Studio Ghibli temporarily shuttered its doors in 2014. The game-changing studio’s co-founder and the greatest animation director of this generation, Hayao Miyazaki, had just retired (again). And with that, Disney was back to dominating the animation market, with quality alternatives few and far between.

For years, Studio Ghibli was an animation titan that not only offered a refreshing foil to Hollywood’s frenetic, action-packed animated movies, but was a genre unto itself. Fans of the works of Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Hiroyuki Morita, Gor? Miyazaki, and Hiromasa Yonebayashi didn’t have to say they liked anime — they liked Ghibli. Which is a shame, because Japan’s anime industry has so much more to offer.

Now, you could wait for Ghibli to re-open its doors when Miyazaki goes through his third un-retirement with his upcoming feature film, How Do You Live?, set for release in 2020. Hell, you could hop on over to Japan right now to see Miyazaki’s new short film Boro the Caterpillar. But I assure you, there’s more to anime movies than Ghibli.

Anime as a catch-all genre is kind of daunting, to say the least. But have no fear. If you’re a Studio Ghibli fan who wants to dive into anime, here are a few stellar gateway anime movies that you will love.

The Boy and The Beast

For fans of: Spirited Away, The Cat Returns

For the first 15 minutes of The Boy and the Beast, this Mamoru Hosoda fantasy adventure seems to trace an exact parallel of Spirited Away, right down to the strains of the tripping orchestral score. Kyuta, a young boy who runs away to live on the streets of Shibuya after his mother dies, accidentally stumbles into a fantastical world populated by beasts and spirits. He sees all manner of strange sights before he runs headlong into Kumatetsu, a churlish warrior bear who reluctantly takes him in as a pupil. The two hotheads clash immediately and frequently, but eventually strike up a wary but trusting relationship — teaching each other how become better people and fighters over the course of nine years.

Yes, this movie takes place over nearly a decade — and by the time we reach its second half, Kyuta is barely a boy anymore. And the movie has already taken countless twists and turns from the wacky “lost boy” action-adventure it first appeared to be.

How to describe The Boy and the Beast? Shades of The Karate Kid and The Lion King proliferate the film as much as Hayao Miyazaki’s works inform it — who Hosoda credits with sparking his love for the craft. But ultimately, buried beneath the splashy fight scenes and soaring visuals, The Boy and the Beast is a deeply felt parable about fatherhood. The interplay of Kyuta’s fantastical found family and his real-life broken family speak powerfully to issues in current-day Japan, and ultimately, feels more rooted in reality than many of Miyazaki’s films.

Your Name

For fans of: From Up on Poppy Hill, Castle in the Sky

I’ve written plenty about Your Name (it was on my best of 2017 listtwice), but let me rave about it again. A quirky body-switch comedy, a wistful coming-of-age romance, and a metaphysical celebration of life all at once, Your Name is one of the best anime films to come out of Japan in the past decade. It’s also the only anime film that has ever unseated the highest-grossing Studio Ghibli film at the Japanese box office.

Your Name follows a two high school students — one a city boy from Tokyo and the other a girl living in the countryside — who suddenly wake up to find themselves in the other’s body. Confused and annoyed at first, the pair eventually grow used to the random body swaps, even finding ways to help each other with grades, chores, or local crushes. They soon fall in love and set out to finally meet — until tragedy strikes.

Your Name is both Makoto Shinkai‘s most accessible film yet and his most impressive. Balancing his penchant for bittersweet missed connections with wacky hijinks, Your Name effortlessly flows from one genre and one emotion to another. While it touches on the universal pangs of first love or first heartbreak, Your Name manages to challenge your perceptions of time and reality in a stunning third act that few live-action films would dare to tackle.

Tokyo Godfathers

For fans of: Porco Rosso

I can’t talk about anime films without mentioning the other master: Satoshi Kon. A visionary filmmaker whose impact has reached Hollywood auteurs like Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan, it seems almost unfair to include him on a list of anime upstarts. But few people outside of hardcore anime fans and cinephiles know of his works — and maybe those who have read Aronofsky’s gushing interviews leading up to Black Swan. Throughout his short but illustrious career, Kon tested the limits of editing and timing in animation, pouring so much information onto the screen that it threatened to overwhelm the viewer. But while he’s most known for his trippy and cerebral dream adventure Paprika, we’re going to pare it back a bit with one of his most underrated films, Tokyo Godfathers.

Loosely based on Peter B. Kyne’s novel Three Godfathers Tokyo Godfathers is a Frank Capra-esque dramedy that follows three homeless people — a depressed alcoholic named Gin, a trans woman named Hana, and a runaway teen named Miyuki — who discover an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve. Armed with only a bag of clues leading to the parents’ identity, the trio decide to find the baby’s parents. Tokyo Godfathers is an unrelenting exploration of the seedy underbelly of Tokyo and its homeless — worlds away from the warm fantasies of Ghibli films. But Tokyo Godfathers does have one thing in common: it’s bursting to the seams with empathy. The film doesn’t sacrifice the harrowing visual flairs that Kon is known for, but it may be his most sentimental movie. As a movie that’s all about the miracle of Christmas, how could it not be?

5 Centimeters Per Second

For fans of: Whisper of the Heart, Only Yesterday

For fans who shed tears of happiness at the end of Your Name, prepare to be utterly crushed by 5 Centimeters Per Second, Makoto Shinkai’s elegiac, unassuming predecessor to his hit 2016 anime film. The 1-hour film will be one of the most stunning pieces of animation you’ll ever see — each setting immaculately rendered in photorealistic detail. But the story is astonishingly ordinary, and probably the only film on this list that doesn’t have a fantastical twist or conceit.

5 Centimeters Per Second is a love story told in three vignettes. Takaki and Akari are elementary schoolmates who become fast friends until Akari moves away upon graduation. Though the two write letters to each other constantly, promising to see the cherry blossoms together again, they start to drift apart and — after one fateful meeting as teens — never see each other again. 5 Centimeters is a lilting ode to loss and regret, one that feels like it plays out in the real-time trudge of life. It’s a movie that washes over you, until you’re borne along on a wave of melancholic nostalgia.

Here is Shinkai unleashed, not bothering to make the film accessible or even satisfactory to his viewers. Some may accuse 5 Centimeters Per Second of being more style over substance, but it is perhaps the most substantial in how tragically mundane it is.

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