Ranked: The 50 Best Anime Movies, According to Critics

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From Hayao Miyazaki's early work through to recent hit 'Your Name.' Studio Ghibli

Anime—the catch-all word that, in English, refers to the Japanese animation tradition—is a little difficult to define. Japan has been producing animation since the turn of the 20th century, and, like animation from the West, there’s a huge variety of styles, themes and genres across anime’s history.

However, Japanese animation does tend towards certain traits which have become well-known to Western audiences. It was 2002’s fantasy drama Spirited Away, the story of a young girl who wanders into a strange world inhabited by talking frogs, hungry ghosts and ruled over by a sly witch, which brought anime to mainstream attention, even winning an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

The movie, directed by master animator Hayao Miyazaki and produced at the famed animation group Studio Ghibli, encapsulates the surreal, fantastical themes, moral ambiguity, brain-bursting creativity, strong female characters and rich visual style which many people now associate with anime.

Outside of Studio Ghibli, which relishes these imaginative, surreal fairy tales, anime has also tackled densely-plotted science fiction dystopias in movies such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell. Meanwhile, directors such as Satoshi Kon were spinning dark, psychological tales of troubled women, which had more in common with Hitchcock than Disney.

Evaluating anime’s long history through the lens of Western film criticism certainly has flaws. English-language critics were embarrassingly slow to appreciate, or even engage with, movies coming out of Japanese animation studios.

On reviewing 1988’s Japanese war animation Grave of the Fireflies as late as 2000, legendary critic Roger Ebert was shocked—“[It] is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation,” he wrote. “Since the earliest days, most animated films have been ‘cartoons’ for children and families.” His baffled response speaks volumes about the prevailing attitudes of Western critics at the time, who were unaware that in Japan, cartoons were certainly never just for kids.

This kind of reception means that there are plenty of early anime films which critics missed the first time and are waiting for a re-release so they can enter the English-language cultural canon. This list favors newer movies, which are ever more likely to be given wide release and critical attention in Western media. Think of this as an entree into Japanese animation, rather than a comprehensive list.

Using data from critical review aggregation websites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, as well as user-submitted reviews from IMDb, we’ve listed the 50 best anime feature films, according to critics.

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50. The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004). Directed by Makoto Shinkai, Steven Foster. Total score: 67.5%
Metacritic score: n/a. Rotten Tomatoes score: 64. IMDb score: 71.

Summary: A pair of best friends build a plane together while they were in school. They are also both obsessed with a girl named Sayuri. When they become adults, the world is teetering on the brink of a cataclysmic world war, and the only way to save the world is to fly that old plane toward a tower...an act that will directly impact Sayuri.

What the critics said about The Place Promised in Our Early Days : "By any standard it's impressive anime; as a feature debut it's a remarkable achievement"—Seattle Times
CoMix Wave Inc.
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49. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000). Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Total score: 67.7%
Metacritic score: 62. Rotten Tomatoes score: 64. IMDb score: 77.

Summary: When a girl is abducted by a vampire, a legendary bounty hunter is hired to bring her back.

What the critics said about Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust : "Brooding, violent, and steeped in its own lore, the film is a genre pastiche that's fun to watch"—Philadelphia Inquirer
Madhouse
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48. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001). Directed by Shin'ichirô Watanabe, Tensai Okamura, Hiroyuki Okiura, Yoshiyuki Takei. Total score: 67.7%
Metacritic score: 61. Rotten Tomatoes score: 63. IMDb score: 79.

Summary: Set in the late 21st century, it jumps into the series' story line just prior to its conclusion, with the bounty hunting crew of the interstellar craft Bebop chasing a hacker aboard a tanker into a major city on Mars.

What the critics said about Cowboy Bebop the Movie: "Even those unfamiliar with the good ship Bebop will enjoy the high-intensity action and witty dialogue"—Arizona Republic
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47. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004). Directed by Mamoru Oshii. Total score: 68.3%
Metacritic score: 66. Rotten Tomatoes score: 63. IMDb score: 76.

Summary: In the year 2032, Batô, a cyborg detective for the anti-terrorist unit Public Security Section 9, investigates the case of a female robot--one created solely for sexual pleasure--who slaughtered her owner.

What the critics said about Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence: "The elegance, attention to detail, the invention and expertise all ensure that the movie's never less than visually breathtaking"—Time Out
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46. A Letter to Momo (2014). Directed by Hiroyuki Okiura. Total score: 68.3%
Metacritic score: 65. Rotten Tomatoes score: 67. IMDb score: 73.

Summary: Moving with her mother to the remote Japanese island of Shio, Momo soon discovers three yokai living in her attic, a trio of mischievous spirit creatures that only she can see and who create mayhem in the tiny seaside community as she tries desperately to keep them hidden.

What the critics said about A Letter to Momo: "Despite the hand-drawn film's supernatural edge, one of Okiura's lyrical strengths is acquainting a viewer with the poetry of the real - animated reflections of ordinary, beautiful things we see in everyday life without actually noticing them at all"—Seattle Times
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45. Summer Wars (2010). Directed by Mamoru Hosoda. Total score: 69.7%
Metacritic score: 63. Rotten Tomatoes score: 71. IMDb score: 75.

Summary: When Kenji solves a 2,056 digit math riddle sent to his cell phone, he unwittingly breaches the security barricade protecting Oz, a globe-spanning virtual world where millions of people and governments interact through their avatars, handling everything from online shopping and traffic control to national defense and nuclear launch codes.

What the critics said about Summer Wars: "It's a sugar rush of candy-colored images, a beautifully drawn tale of family tradition and a bracing brain tonic about the Internet's charms and vulnerabilities"—Denver Post
Madhouse
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44. Tekkonkinkreet (2007). Directed by Michael Arias. Total score: 70%
Metacritic score: 65. Rotten Tomatoes score: 68. IMDb score: 77.

Summary: A pair of feisty young street urchins attempts to protect an unnamed metropolis from a diabolical villain whose plans to raze the urban landscape on the behalf of malevolent real-estate developers threatens to destroy the very soul of the city.

What the critics said about Tekkon kinkurîto: "By the end of this phantasmagorical journey, I was as wrapped up in the precarious fate of these two wounded kids and the honorable yakuza warlords of Treasure Town as I've been in any film all year"—Salon.com
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43. Barefoot Gen (1983). Directed by Masayuki Mori, Mori Masaki. Total score: 70.5%
Metacritic score: n/a. Rotten Tomatoes score: 71. IMDb score: 70.

Summary: An animated drama about a family's struggle to survive in Japan during the waning days of World War II.

What the critics said about : "A human story of resilience and stubborn hope in the face of annihilation, and hopefully can be looked back upon as a sobering reminder of the costs of unremitting warfare and what we all still have to lose if we were to forget the lessons of the past"—Paste Magazine
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42. Mary and The Witch's Flower (2018). Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Total score: 70.7%
Metacritic score: 75. Rotten Tomatoes score: 69. IMDb score: 68.

Summary: A young girl named Mary discovers a flower that grants magical powers, but only for one night.

What the critics said about Mary and The Witch's Flower: "A gentle, sweet story, told with painterly artistry"—Seattle Times
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41. The Cat Returns (2002). Directed by Hiroyuki Morita. Total score: 71%
Metacritic score: n/a. Rotten Tomatoes score: 69. IMDb score: 73.

Summary: After helping a cat, a 17-year-old girl finds herself involuntarily engaged to a cat prince in a magical world where her only hope of freedom lies with a dapper cat statuette come to life.

What the critics said about The Cat Returns: "[Director] Morita has a slightly cruder, more realistic sense of the world and its looniness than does Miyazaki, and you can see where The Cat Returns moves on a different track even as it pays homage to Japan's current animation master"—Denver Post
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40. Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise (1987). Directed by Hiroyuki Yamaga. Total score: 71.5%
Metacritic score: n/a. Rotten Tomatoes score: 69. IMDb score: 74.

Summary: The story of a group of would-be astronauts on a planet that is not Earth -- but not unlike Earth. While an eager young pilot named Shilo dreams of making his nation's space program a success, his leaders are not sure of the project's viability, and shortages of money and technical know-how threaten to keep space flights on the ground. Will Shilo and his friends buck the odds and take their ship to other worlds?

What the critics said about : "Ambitious and daring in its seamless melding of color, depth and detail"—Washington Post
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