ROUJIN Z (1991): Roujin Z is an underrated little film with quite the pedigree. It was directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo (Robot Carnival, Blood: The Last Vampire) and written by Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) which is a formidable team-up indeed. Japan has a problem with a significant portion of the population being elderly and this film takes a satirical look at the issue. Scientists build a machine called Z-001, which is a fully autonomous robotic encasement that can take care of an invalid senior citizen without any outside help. They test it on a cute little old man named Kiyuro Takazawa; unfortunately he doesn’t take kindly to being stuck in a robotic butt-wiping mecha suit and explosive high jinx ensue. The animation is top-notch and it’s also hilarious to boot. Side note: I saw this for the first time way back in the day when the Sci-Fi channel used to have Anime Saturday.
PORCO ROSSO (1992): Another best of list, another Hayao Miyazaki film. Do you like awesome high-flying plane acrobatics? Do you like talking pigs with cool mustaches?! Porco Rosso has all of these things and more! Besides the whole “WWI ace pilot that has been cursed to live his life as an anthropomorphic pig” angle, the film is set in a realistic time period with lots of attention to detail from that era. The plane mechanics and battles are gorgeously realized and flying enthusiasts will be in heaven. As is always the case with Miyazaki movies, the production value is high and the story is whimsical. For some reason, this film doesn’t register on many Miyazaki film fan’s radars but it’s one of his better efforts.
NINJA SCROLL (1993): Ninja Scroll is one of those anime films you can use to hook people into the fandom. “Oh, you don’t like anime? Borrow this flick, man. It has ninjas and boobs and stuff.” While it does have plenty of ninjas and boobs, it also has slick character designs, incredible fight choreography, amazing animation, a great musical score and a thrilling story. Brought to you by Madhouse and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (who also made one of my favorite films, Wicked City), Ninja Scroll is a beautiful and bloody sex-filled experience that has become an iconic classic. My little thirteen-year-old mind was blown the first time I saw it and it definitely left a lasting impression on me.
STREET FIGHTER 2: THE ANIMATED MOVIE (1994): We all know about the abomination that is the live-action version of Street Fighter (thanks for nothing, Jean-Claude Van Damme) but did you know there is a Street Fighter film that is actually good?! Street Fighter 2: The Animated Movie is a faithful adaptation of the beloved fighting game franchise and just a pretty awesome movie in general. It’s worth the price of entry alone for the kick ass fight between Vega and half-naked, out-of-the-shower Chun-Li. This film had an interesting release history in the US; it was edited for nudity and cursing and given a crappy nu-metal soundtrack to replace the superior original score. It wasn’t until 2006 that we finally got a fully unrated version.
GHOST IN THE SHELL (1995): This film isn’t just the best of the ‘90s; it’s one of the greatest anime films ever made. It transcends being just an animated film and crosses over into being a genre defining event. In my opinion, this film and Blade Runner are tied for being the best cyber-punk film of all time. Ghost in the Shell was directed by Mamoru Oshii (Patlabor, Jin-Roh) and based on the prolific manga by Masamune Shirow. The story concerns the investigation of a mysterious hacker by a beautiful female cyborg named Motoko Kusanagi. There is a lot of deep symbolism in this film if you care to look for it but if that’s not your bag, it is still visually appealing and dynamic. Kenji Kawai’s haunting and ethereal score takes the film to the next level and the somber color pallet of the film adds to the melancholy feel.
MACROSS PLUS (1995): I’m cheating with this film a bit as Macross Plus was originally released as a four-part OVA (Original Video Animation) and then recut into a feature length film. I prefer the OVA series version as it is paced much better and fills in more of the plot than the movie version. This movie can be seen as a bit of a Japanese version of Top Gun; you have two rival pilots pitted against each other, the rash bad-boy Isamu Dyson and the reserved and stoic Guld Bowman. There is also a love triangle, and a side plot involving a pop-singer hologram named Sharon Apple who becomes self-aware, which actually isn’t that strange in the world of Macross. The animation is a mix of CGI and traditional animation and it has aged pretty well considering when it was made. The aircraft flight sequences are some of the most exhilarating ever animated and the orchestral-techno pop soundtrack by Yoko Kanno is out of this world.
MEMORIES (1995): I always enjoy film anthologies because you get some many different styles and stories in one place. In Memories you get three different vignettes based on manga stories from Akira author, Katsuhiro Otomo. All three parts have different art styles and directors with animation produced from different companies. Some of the stories are sad and some are more thoughtful; all of them are excellent. My personal favorite is the third short, Cannon Fodder, as it has the craziest look and musical score (with a neat one-take shot effect). It’s fun to see how varied all the different animation studios really are.
THE END OF EVANGELION (1997): When Neon Genesis Evangelion ended; there were many fans who were not satisfied with the somewhat ambiguous nature of the last two episodes. Series creator, Hideaki Anno, decided to remake the controversial episodes as a feature length film, but interestingly enough the fans didn’t quite get what they were expecting. I fully believe that The End of Evangelion was Anno’s middle finger salute to annoying fanboys everywhere. You know the ones, those entitled whiners who demand that a creator make art that conforms to their expectations. Anno took everything beloved about Evangelion and decimated it in this film.
He destroys everything in a glorious and batshit insane fashion; the last thirty minutes of this film have to be seen to believed. What makes it even better are the insanely high production values; you get to see your dreams being crushed with smooth animation and epic set-pieces. I am one of the few people who adored the original ending to the TV series, but I love this version too because Anno wrestles his vision back from the greasy mitts of fanboys, stomps all over it and throws in back in their face. You've got to respect that, if anything else.
PERFECT BLUE (1997): Satoshi Kon essentially made an animated David Lynch film with his mind-bending thriller, Perfect Blue. The plot centers on pop-star turned actress Mima Kirigoe and her increasingly bizarre interactions with a crazy stalker. There are some nods to Hitchcock in some scenes and everything becomes more surrealistic the farther you go. Since it’s animated they can go farther than you can in a live-action film which adds to the nightmarish atmosphere in the movie. These types of films are what make Japanese animation so special; they use the medium for all different genres of film, not just stuff aimed at children.
PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997): One of Hayao Miyazaki’s darkest films, Princess Mononoke is a tour-de-force. It is unlike any other movie in Miyazaki’s filmography and is actually quite gruesome in parts. The titular character, Mononoke herself, is a wild-card; raised by wolves and with a fiery hatred for her own kind. It takes place in a mystical forest where the animals can speak and there are forest gods roaming around. Studio Ghibli provides their usual sumptuous animation and the character designs are simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. Princess Mononoke was the highest grossing film in Japan in 1997 and with good reason. It’s a refreshing change of pace from Miyazaki’s other, cutesier works.
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