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 in 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 ax a few projects off this list. Here are my guidelines:
-The anime must be intentionally artistic and/or experimental in its presentation.
-I’m limited to only one “tie” situation (you’ll see why in this list).
-I have seen it before and in its 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 of 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 boasts 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 in all the countries that Kino travels to and there are 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 its 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 of 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 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 its 22-episode run.
1: Millennium 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 its 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 the ones of my choice you personally like? Feel free to comment 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.