Standalone anime movies are becoming an increasingly popular medium for anime, even though they’re not exactly a new format. Studio Ghibli made a name for itself by producing high-quality movies, however, most of them are aimed at children. While many anime franchises eventually get a movie or two, it’s still not easy to find a standalone anime movie that you can just watch without reading the manga, or watching prequels or sequels, and that can be intimidating.
If you’re a new anime fan or just becoming interested in anime movies, then this list is perfect for you. It contains some of the classics, as well as recommendations for interesting movies you could watch or may have missed. So, strap in, and hopefully you’ll find something that you’ll enjoy!
Akira is one of the classics you’re probably familiar with. First aired in 1988, this movie by TMS Entertainment went on to gain a cult following even among non-anime fans. Set in a dystopian, cyberpunk world the story follows a biker gang led by Kaneda. Kaneda makes a living by doing petty crimes while using his bike to evade the police. His friend Tetsuo is also a part of the gang. However, one day Tetsuo crashes into a mysterious child, and a series of events no one could have predicted unfolds…
Akira is based on a manga of the same name by Katsuhiro Otomo, who also directed the movie. Otomo also wrote the screenplay for the movie, alongside Izo Hashimoto. Shoji Yamashiro did the music for the movie, forever marking Akira OST as one of the best soundtracks in anime. At the time of its making, Akira was the most expensive anime movie ever, with a production budget of 700 million (around 6.4 million USD).
One could say that Akira is overhyped, but that doesn’t deny the fact that its legacy is still present in anime today. Undeniably, it left an unforgettable mark and played a big role in popularizing anime overseas. What’s interesting is that Akira creator himself, Katsuhiro Otomo, initially thought the movie would fail due to lackluster animation and story costs made because of time constraints. However, we can safely say that the animation combined with iconic visuals and breathtaking music won’t leave anyone disappointed.
The good news for the fans of the manga is that there is a reboot series by studio Sunrise in the works. Not a lot of details are known at the moment, however, it does spark hope.
Watch Akira on Funimation.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
This list wouldn’t be complete without Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies. The movie is based on a short story by Japanese Akiyuki Nosaka, who loosely based it on his childhood experiences during World War 2. If you aren’t familiar with the storyline, do keep in mind that it’s a pretty sad movie.
Most Ghibli works have that pure energy, filled with child-like curiosity, colorful scenes, and fun characters. While Grave of the Fireflies manages to retain some of those things during certain moments, it’s still a much darker movie. It manages to capture the ugly truth of war and human nature, as well as sacrifices made of innocent bystanders.
Seita and Setsuko are siblings who are trying to survive a war neither of them understands. Seita’s actions will either save them both or be their downfall. While there are many arguments about Seita’s behavior in the story, there is a simple fact we can’t forget – he was only 15.
It’s important to point out that the director Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata, said that the movie isn’t meant to be an anti-war story, but instead, a story about two children who were failed by society.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Another one of the classics, this 1995 movie was the beginning of what became a worldwide known franchise. Production I.G. animated the movie, which was directed by Mamoru Oshii. What makes Ghost in the Shell great, besides the story and the animation, is the music. Kenji Kawaii composed the OST and it’s definitely not something you’d expect to hear in a Sci-Fi cyberpunk movie, but it adds so much to the atmosphere.
Set in a futuristic society where humans can become cyborgs, the story follows a special unit tasked with catching a dangerous criminal who can hack into people’s minds. The movie poses some interesting philosophical dilemmas that keep the movie in the viewer’s memory for a long time after.
Ghost in the Shell is based on a manga by Masamune Shirow. However, the 1995 movie spawned a whole franchise. From Stand Alone Complex and Arise to Netflix’s Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045, it has managed to keep the old fans entertained as well as attract new ones. Don’t forget the direct sequel to the 1995 movie, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. If you dislike the “old-style” of animation, check out Ghost in the Shell 2.0 from 2008, a remake with slightly better animation but the same story. Still, the original can be considered a standalone anime movie, since it contains everything you need to know.
Ghost in the Shell was also (un)fortunate enough to receive a Hollywood adaptation, starring Scarlett Johansson.
Perfect Blue (1998)
Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue is a rare gem in the anime movie industry. A psychological thriller that first premiered in 1997, it follows the story of a young idol musician turned actress. As Mima adapts to her career change, weird things begin happening, and the lines of her reality blur. Psychological thrillers of this kind are still quite rare in anime, and it’s even rarer to see something this well made.
The plot is based on a novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi, but Kon and Sadayuki Murai (the screenwriter) ended up making changes to it. While the basic plot remains roughly the same, the novel offers more insight into side characters which the movie only mentions in passing and doesn’t explore their motives. The movie adaptation also removes some of the gore and violence found in the book. This is not to say that it still doesn’t have some absolutely chilling and disturbing scenes.
Perfect Blue movie was originally supposed to be live-action, but after budget cuts, it ended up being animated. Studio MADHOUSE produced the movie and managed to create some iconic scenes in the process. Every segment of this movie, from plot and animation to characters and music is very carefully thought out and planned. The way Satoshi Kon approaches his characters gives the plot another layer of complexity, and even though the run time is just 80 minutes, it feels like you’ve known them for way longer. Even if psychological thrillers aren’t your thing, definitely give this one a go.
You can watch Perfect Blue on Amazon Prime.
Tokyo Godfathers (2004)
Another Satoshi Kon/MADHOUSE movie on the list, except this time it’s a Christmas movie with completely different undertones. Three homeless people find an abandoned baby during a cold December evening and decide to try and return her to her mother. However, they don’t have a lot to go on so the task might prove harder than they thought it would. They embark on a wild journey, filled with various bizarre situations and troubles.
Tokyo Godfather is completely different from Perfect Blue, seeing as it’s a fairly heartwarming drama with hints of comedy. Each of our three heroes has their own past and issues. Gin is a retired racer who fell on hard times, Hana is a transgender woman and Misaki is a teenager who ran away from home. Three of them have seemingly nothing in common, yet they manage to come together and create a makeshift family for an abandoned child.
Keiko Nobumoto, the scriptwriter for Cowboy Bepop, co-wrote the script with Satoshi Kon, who also directed the movie. Kon’s legacy is full of amazing works, his passing a true loss for the anime industry. If there’s a movie we should try to remember him by – it’s Tokyo Godfathers.
You can save Tokyo Godfathers for the holiday season, or you can watch it now on Amazon Prime.