Top 7 Anime for the Art House Crowd

Here’s the first Top 7 list of 2021! Woohoo! It’s been a long time since I’ve made an anime-themed list even though I’ve mentioned various movies or series in some of my previous lists in 2020. My blog attracts anibloggers and people who like anime, so it makes sense to have a list that relates to a subject that gets a lot of attention on Iridium Eye.

I’ve been someone who has enjoyed Japanese animation for a good portion of my life. Ever since I discovered Teknoman when I was a child, to checking out what was on Toonami at a friend or relative’s house since I didn’t have cable then, or seeing DVDs during my teens, I was exposed to so many different movies and series out there. One thing that I love about anime is that there are projects that one can actually take seriously with their stories and even as works of art. Seriously, if anyone thinks that all anime is nothing but Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon, Sailor Moon, or god forbid anything related to hentai, then they seriously need to slap themselves. I would argue that the Japanese animation scene had a far more diverse set of stories, animation styles, and types of characters than I’ve seen with Western animation. Yes, there’s a ton of garbage which I certainly won’t deny and I’ve reviewed some abysmal works on this blog. But when it’s good, it can be very good. For this list, I managed to think about the artsy person in mind. As one knows, I’ve reviewed art house and experimental films multiple times, so I thought to myself about which series or movies could someone more highbrow than myself find enjoyment in watching?

Real talk, this is one of the toughest Top 7 lists I’ve ever written because I could make a case for a Top 10 or a Top 20 list for anime series and movies that have a canny amount of artistic merit. It did pain me to axe a few projects off this list. Here are my guidelines:

-The anime must be intentionally artistic and/or experimental in it’s presentation.

-I’m limited to only one “tie” situation (you’ll see why in this list).

-I have seen it before and in it’s entirety. Mushi-shi would’ve been on the list had I known about the sequels and side stories sooner. Sorry to all the fans of that particular series.

Now that I got that out of the way, here’s my Top 7 list of anime for the art house crowd.

7: Roujin Z

This one may surprise you, but in my humble opinion, this is easily one of the most underrated anime movies and is lowkey one of Katsuhiro Otomo’s best works. Roujin Z is certainly a weird movie, but I could see the art house hipster who enjoys dark humor with some sharp social commentary about the medical industry as well as elder care. There’s a great mix of witty writing, some animated experimentation, biting satire, creative animation, and is way more cerebral than one would give credit for. Sure, people may only know the creator for Akira and Memories, but I’m sure this audience who like thought to their sci-fi as well as sharp humor and unique animation should definitely check this movie out.

6: Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo

Maybe I’m wearing my nostalgia goggles, but this was one of my favorite series when I saw this in my teens. However, I can definitely see adults who like unique animation will dig this anime series. Gankutsuou is a futuristic retelling of Alexandre Dumas’s famous story and it is a very creative take on the story. It’s well paced, has original character designs, and one of the most unique animation styles I’ve ever seen. Yes, I do admit the CGI does get a bit dated, but the level of detail in the characters, backgrounds, and worldbuilding is exquisite. Any scene could be paused and it would feel like a piece of art ready to be framed in a gallery which is something I can rarely say about an anime TV series. This is easily one of Gonzo’s most artistic works and one could see this as a trend of them making sci-fi takes on other stories like Romeo X Juliet and Samurai 7 in particular. The mix between sci-fi, avant-garde, action, and classical literature is amazing as well as it being surprisingly faithful to the original story despite the aliens, mecha, and the count being a vampire of sorts. Trust me, this is the real deal.

5: Kino’s Journey (2003)

Philosophy is an art in itself and few are better at that subject in anime than the original Kino’s Journey series. While the animation isn’t pristine all the time, the storytelling and cerebral writing are really top notch. There’s a good amount of creativity with all the countries that Kino travels to and there’s definitely some experimental and artsy vibes in more episodes than not. This is a more episodic series compared to one with a continuous story, but each individual episode has their own moments that are quite fascinating. The dialogue is quite intelligent, there’s good music (both theme songs are great), and it’s one anime you don’t want to turn your brain off. Kino’s Journey totally destroys the stereotype of shonen heroes or fan-service pandering protagonists. This is a great series that is understated and will make someone think.

4: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

I’d feel like such an ignoramus if I didn’t put at least one Ghibli movie on this list. That was really tough with so many quality films to choose from, but much like my pick for Gankutsuou, if there was one movie from that studio that looks like art, then it was Princess Kaguya. This film just looks gorgeous and is easily the most adventurous animated production that Ghibli has done in a LONG time. The whole movie was intentionally animated to look like a living traditional Japanese painting which has to be seen to be believed. The story and characters are powerful as to be expected from this acclaimed animation company. It is a longer watch at just over 2 hours, but it’s well worth it. The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is a magnificent take on a Japanese fairy tale that is just beautiful with the voice acting, animation, music and story.

3: The House of Small Cubes

This may feel a bit strange putting a short film on this list, but dang it all…The House of Small Cubes totally deserves it. This has to be the least anime-looking Japanese animated work I have ever seen in my life, but this work from Robot Communications has so much artistic expression and poignant storytelling in just 12 minutes. It had such an amazing sense of worldbuilding even if everything was so tragic once more of the story is revealed. Despite it being a silent film, the emotions from the main character and all of his memories just speak for themselves. Trust me, The House of Small Cubes will hit you in the feels so much and I’ve heard some people say that they cried while watching it. As much as I give The Academy tons of crap for the Oscars being a glorified popularity contest, I will give them props for giving this short animated work from an unknown Japanese animation studio the award for Best Animated Short in 2009 (TAKE THAT, DISNEY AND PIXAR!). It’s streaming on Netflix and it’s a short watch, so what do you have to lose?

2: Tie between Haibane Renmei and Texhnolyze

Raise your hand if you think I wasn’t going to put anything involving Yoshitoshi ABe…

PUT YOUR HAND DOWN THIS INSTANT!

I had a really tough time thinking which should be higher on the list, but I would strongly recommend both for anyone who likes artistic forms of animation.

Haibane Renmei is a foregone conclusion for a list like this given the experimental fantasy aesthetic as well as having lots of artistic elements with the animation style, music, and the symbolism of the whole series. I really don’t want to come across as such a fanboy, but this still blows me away with how much effort was put into making this series and just how different it is compared to so many animated series Japanese or Western. Seriously, I DARE an American studio to make something like this. The characterization is paramount, it has one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in animation history, and there’s a dream like quality that is quite enrapturing.

Texhnolyze is the avant-garde cyberpunk/action/post-apocalyptic/crime drama that the world didn’t know it needed. The fusion of so many genres felt so natural compared to other works that just mish-mash different things while being too obvious about it or not handling the tone consistently (Oh hi, Angel Beats!). While Haibane Renmei is a peaceful series, Texhnolyze is the polar opposite. While it gets graphic with the violence, it’s never used as thrilling and it is quite terrifying with how characters are brutalized. There is a cerebral and very tragic story (especially the ending!) while at the same time having a very artsy take on such dark genres. The animation is amazing and easily one of Madhouse’s most slept on works. The production has barely even aged and is ABe’s best looking series out there. The first episode alone feels like an art house work with the abstract shots and how there’s no dialogue for the first half of the episode. Texhnolyze is an apt combination of innovation, art, and pure grit all throughout it’s 22 episode run.

1: Milennium Actress

Satoshi Kon, FTW!

I could make a case for so many other animated works he directed, but his artsiest movie is by far Millennium Actress. While I’m guilty of talking about Perfect Blue and Paprika a ton (especially with Inception straight up stealing from the latter), Kon-sensei’s 2nd film is my favorite. Any other person would make a story like this pretty mundane, but this director turns it into a heart-wrenching story with an aged actress as she re-lives her life through her filmography and her interviewers become a part of her imagination in such unique ways as it flips between Jidaigeki period pieces (think Akira Kurosawa’s samurai flicks), tokusatsu, slice-of-life dramas, and sci-fi in such a brilliant and metaphorical take that doesn’t underestimate it’s audience. I would even argue that it might be the safest bet of Kon’s work before “graduating” to his more mature films and I’m not saying it because it only got a PG. This is one director who I wish was still alive since I know he would’ve made so many great films over the past decade. Also, this entry in my list is a full circle thing because Kon actually was a writer for Roujin Z before he got into directing!

Whew! This was such a tough list to write because I could make a case for so many more movies or series. Which anime would YOU recommend to an artsy kind of person? Were any of my choices ones you like? Feel free to comment on here.

All photos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws.

The image of the art gallery is from Coconuts.

Roujin Z is property of Katsuhiro Otomo and A. P. P. P. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of Manga UK.

Gankutsuou is property of Funimation. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of Gonzo and Mahiro Maeda.

Kino’s Journey is property of ADV Films/Sentai Filmworks. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of A. C. G. T, Ryutaro Nakamura, and ADV Films

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is property of GKIDS and Universal. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli, GKIDS, and Universal.

The House of Small Cubes is property of Kunio Kato and Robot Communications. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of Kunio Kato and Robot Communications.

Haibane Renmei is property of Funimation. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of Yoshitoshi ABe, Tomokazu Tokoro, Radix Ace Entertainment, and Funimation.

Texhnolyze is property of Funimation. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of Yoshitoshi ABe, Hiroshi Hamasaki, Madhouse, and Funimation.

Millennium Actress is property of Eleven Arts and Shout Factory. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of Satoshi Kon, Studio Madhouse, Fathom Events, Eleven Arts, and Shout Factory.

12 comments

    • Thanks! Feel free to check out these various series and movies. This was probably the toughest list when it comes to choosing different things to watch. Millennium Actress is such a beautiful film. I’m glad you’ve seen it even though I know you’ve watched multiple Satoshi Kon films.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Cool, I guess I’d have ‘Perfect Blue’ for sure – but ‘Millennium Actress’ is hard to overlook 🙂

    I’m trying to guess a few that might have landed in your top 20 for this topic… maybe ‘Angel’s Egg’ and I know you mentioned ‘Mushishi’ already. The ‘Mononoke’ tv series?

    ‘Gankutsuou’ is so dense visually, huh? Still carries a clear literary feel too, yeah.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is such a tough decision because one could make a case for Perfect Blue or most of Satoshi Kon’s work in general, right? Millennium Actress might fit the art house style a bit more, but you can easily see that artistic integrity in his filmography.

      I haven’t seen Mononoke yet. Angel’s Egg and the first Mushishi series (still haven’t seen the sequels yet) would easily be on that potential top 20. Great guesses!

      It certainly is. Gankutsuou had the right mix of literary feeling, sci-fi, and an art house kind of vibe with the visual style.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Was trying to come up with a few more guesses for the Top Twenty but I’ve hit a wall 🙂

        But this list is a great reminder for me to seek out ‘Roujin Z’ once more, I’m keen for a reissue somewhere from someone!

        Liked by 1 person

      • To be fair, even I would really have to think about everything I’ve seen in my life that would fit in that Top 20 list. Maybe A Tree of Palme, Rain Town, and Memories could be on there?

        Yes, please check it out whenever you can. I hope they make a reissue and a remaster, too. This was easily one of Studio APPP’s best works. That’s the same studio that would eventually animate Kurogane Communication.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “or god forbid anything related to hentai” alright, but have you considered arthouse hentai?! I am honestly surprised to not see Belladonna of Sadness on the list given your fondness for Tezuka Productions.

    Jokes aside, I really enjoyed this list and will check out Kino’s Journey and Millennium Actress when I get the chance. I agree with AshleyCapes that Angel’s Egg would have been a rad inclusion, but Tatami Galaxy, the Monogatari series, and Madoka Magica (particularly Rebellion) also fit the “arthouse” label I think. Are you familiar with them?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Nice loophole, Casper. Hahaha! I don’t cover hentai on the blog, so that unfortunately won’t happen. Sorry. I actually haven’t seen Belladonna of Sadness. As guilty as I am talking about Kimba a lot, I actually don’t consider myself that big of a Tezuka fan even though I have seen different series and read some of his manga.

      That’s fine. Angel’s Egg might as well get an honorary #8 position as one would make a VERY strong case for a list like this one. I haven’t seen Tatami Galaxy or Monogatari at all. I also haven’t seen the entirety of Madoka Magica and I haven’t seen Rebellion. Sorry about that.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great list, man! Some of these were already on my radar, but seeing you praise them confirms I need to put them on my must-watch list. I’ve heard great things about Count of Monte Cristo and Millennium Actress in particular, and both sounded fascinating.

    I was going through the list wondering if Haibane Renmei would make an appearance on your list, and I was not disappointed. 😛

    I’d definitely put 5 Centimeters Per Second on my own artsy anime list, as well as—surprisingly—season one of Psycho-Pass (NOT season two though). 5 CM definitely felt like the most artistically thought-provocative Shinkai film I’ve seen (though Place Promised was a close second), and while season two of Psycho-Pass left much to be desired, the first season had a ton of deep philosophy and ethical/moral dilemmas that really made you think, all played out with some deep and interesting characters with well-written arcs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Jeannette! Gankutsuou and Millennium Actress are exquisite works.

      Yeah, Haibane Renmei WOULD be on a list like this if anyone knows about my anime taste. How can anyone not put that anime series much less most works involving Yoshitoshi ABe when it comes to artsy anime?

      Very interesting choice. One can make a case with a Shinkai movie or two (preferably his older works). 5 CM does have artsy elements to it. I haven’t seen Psycho-Pass, so I couldn’t tell you anything, but I heard the first season was better though.

      Like

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