- Trailer: Fan-made trailer
- What it’s about: Fate has a sense of humour. As a samurai-in-training during the turbulent Japanese Sengoku era, Jin dreamed of an unbreakable steel body and unbending heart. And, after his death, his wishes are granted – via re-incarnation in the modern age as a Korean coffee vending-machine. With his enemies long since passed and a body unsuited to his ambitions, Jin struggles to find meaning in his new life, until a college student, Hemi, drunkenly carts his steel frame up to her room one night.
- Why you should watch it: It’s a somewhat avant-garde short film, but the story it tells is ultimately quite simple. That’s actually one of the major draws of the piece. That, and the bizarre, almost dream-like fantasy setting that the characters seem to take almost completely in stride. The show is more or less an ongoing conversation punctuated by the occasional action scene – it feels almost like an indie European animation, really. In all, Coffee Samurai is a charming, whimsical story of love and evil polar-bear ninjas. If you want a relaxing fairy-tale, something a bit out-of-the-norm, give it a try.
- Caveats: At times, it just feels a little empty. The minimalist soundtrack, the introspective dialogue, and the rambling nature of the story come together in an odd fashion. Not necessarily bad, but odd.
- Themes: Growing out of dreams and finding new ones. Love sprouting from the strangest places.
- Similar works: Cencoroll and several of Makoto Shinkai’s movies, such as The Place Promised in Our Early Days.
- Trailer: HD Trailer
- What it’s about: Every five years, the various alien races of the galaxy are brought together by their love of racing, with the infamously deadly and spectacular *Redline* race. “Sweet” JP, a rockabilly racer with a fondness for driving a Transam souped up by his childhood friend and mechanic Frisbee. But is the clean weapons-free driving he gained his nickname for going to be enough to survive the upcoming Redline race, which is to be held in the territory of a hostile military power?
- Why you should watch it: Many sports series use the genre as a jumping off point to expore other themes. Not Redline. This is a racing story through and through. The biggest draw of the film by far is its animation, which is unlike anything seen in anime before or since. It draws heavily on Western graphic novel styling, all bright colours and harsh shadows. The common anecdote is that it took six years to complete, and it really shows. It’s a non-stop adrenaline ride where the characters and plot are there to serve the spectacle, and not the other way around. That’s not to say that either are bad, it’s just a film that knows its strengths and plays to them. This is not a movie that would benefit from overly complex character progression or plotting.
- Caveats: If there’s any anime out there where you don’t want to skimp on resolution quality, it’s Redline. Don’t resort to fuzzy garbage-level streams; use a premium service or just go and buy the DVD – it’s not that expensive.
- Themes: Nothing particularly deep here. Doing what you love and sticking by the people you care about.
- Similar works: Not much, really. There’s Trava, which is a side-story exploring the background adventures of another of the Redline racing pairs.
- Trailer: English dubbed version
- What it’s about: Some years ago, something strange happened. Across the world, the force of gravity suddenly flipped, and thousands of lives were lost as people and buildings “fell” into the open sky. Of those affected by the inversion, only a handful – those who were lucky enough to be in shelter – survived, and have since retreated underground. They live their lives upside-down, knowing that only a thin skin of earth separates from from the gaping void below.
- Why you should watch it: This is science fiction as it should be – an imaginative, speculative concept made real and put on the screen for all to see. The animation and background art are gorgeous, with particular attention paid to shots of the sky that’s so terrifying and mysterious to both halves of the cast. But it’s the cinematography that’s most intriguing. The movie really can be watched with your monitor flipped upside-down as, even within the story, the perspective regularly changes to get the audience to focus on a particular character’s viewpoint. The plot itself is a nicely-executed adventure story with a tinge of action and romance, and it’s involving enough that the hour and a half run-time will pass in a flash.
- Caveats: I wish that the same effort put into the landscapes had been lavished on the character designs. That’s not to say that they’re bad, by any means. Rather, they’re just standard when the world around them is a step above.
- Themes: Prejudice, rebellion against authority. Seeing things from a different perspective.
- Similar works: The Time of Eve and Pale Cocoon. If you want something a bit darker but with the same sci-fi dystopian vibe, Ergo Proxy
- What it’s about: Since he was little, Makoto has been able to perceive something that others cannot. Whenever a person is about to die, dark figures begin to gather until they can claim the departing soul. Knowing that convincing anyone of the truth of what he sees is futile, Makoto strikes an uneasy peace with the figures – he’ll ignore them so long as they ignore him in return. But one day, one of the figures turns up at his school, demanding to speak with him.
- Why you should watch it: Chronus is one of the two stand-out entries in the Anime Mirai 2014 competition, the other being Harmonie. It’s a brooding drama and an understated romance. The muted colour palette and shadowy backdrops fit in perfectly with the general flow of the story, and the show makes full use of the small amount of time it’s allotted without overstaying its welcome or cutting short the story. In short, it’s a well-crafted tale and well worth spending half an hour on.
- Caveats: Few, really. It achieves what it set out to do. The plot isn’t that original, but it’s a solid execution.
- Themes: Finding something worth fighting for, despite the odds.
- Similar works: Colorful.
What it’s about: The world is overrun with mysterious spirit creatures called “phantoms”. These ethereal creatures cannot be communicated with, and they kill with the merest touch. All human survivors are gathered in a handful of megacities, trying to live on as best they can. Against this backdrop, Aki Ross, a scientist specialising in the phantoms, has made it her quest to find out as much as she can about the creatures in the hopes of finding a way towards peaceful coexistence, though others are searching for a more…final solution.
Why you should watch it: The animation quality was utterly groundbreaking at the time of its debut, being the first completely CGI movie to attempt photorealistic characters. While things have moved on in the CGI-film department, it’s still pretty damned impressive. It’s a summer blockbuster and it shines through in every aspect – from the soundtrack to the action set-pieces to the cast assembled for the English dubbing. The latter is particularly impressive, with an all-star roster including Steve Buscemi, Donald Sutherland, Ving Rhames, and Alec Baldwin.
Caveats: You don’t need any familiarity with the Final Fantasy franchise to enjoy the film. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t, as you won’t have any expectations going in. The story itself is pretty standard fare. It’s told well enough, but it’s not anything you haven’t seen before.
Themes: Environmentalism. Tolerance versus xenophobia.
What it’s about: Konno Makoto, a girl nearing the end of high school, is worrying about what the future holds when she discovers a bizarre power – she can literally “leap” backwards in time, reliving past experiences and trying to avoid dangers and uncomfortable situations. She starts off relatively small, enjoying breakfast over and over again, but the scale of her actions gradually increases until she, inevitably, gets in over her head.
Why you should watch it: Clean and simple are the best two words to describe this work. That applies to its character design and animation, its plot, and its execution. At its core, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a lighthearted and heartwarming story. A thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half.
Caveats: None, really. The protagonist can be annoying, but that’s kind of the point.
Themes: Moving on, looking to the future. The unforeseen consequences of even small actions
Similar works: Summer Wars. Outside of anime, Groundhog Day
- Trailer: DVD trailer
- What it’s about: What it’s about: A computer system has been developed to aid in psychotherapy, allowing trained therapists to accompany patients into their dreams and explore their subconscious issues. But there’s a problem. It seems one of the units has gone missing – an unsecured system that allows anyone to hack into the dreams of anyone else. The story follows a scientist and her dream-avatar Paprika as they try to track down and contain whoever has the rogue system.
- Why you should watch it: The visuals on Paprika are stunning – there’s no other word for it. Satoshi Kon is one of the true masters of video editing and blending one scene into the next for a dreamlike experience – Western directors like Christopher Nolan have been cribbing from his work for years. The plot of Paprika is relatively simple but maintains its momentum throughout. All in all, it’s a psychedelic experience, a good trip in every sense of the phrase.
- Caveats: As mentioned, it’s a fairly simple story, but certain elements can be confusing.
- Themes: Dreams and the nature of reality.
- Similar works: Anything by Philip K Dick. The movie adaptation of A Scanner Darkly is particularly apropos. Within anime, any of the other works by Satoshi Kon such as Paranoia Agent or Perfect Blue. The guy has a very distinctive style of editing and storytelling.
- What it’s about: After seeing a demonstration of magic by the lowbrow entertainer-witch “Shiny Chariot”, Akko Kagari has one ambition – to grow up to be just like her! Little Witch Academia is a one-off (for now) short movie showcasing the adventures she gets into after enrolling in the Magic Academy.
- Why you should watch it: Little Witch Academia the closest you’re ever going to get to an anime version of Harry Potter. It’s also the most talked-about entry to ever have come out of the annual government-sponsored “Young Animator Training Program”. Animated by Trigger, it’s lighthearted, funny, and most of all fun to watch. On top of that, until the long-promised sequel comes out, it’s only a half-hour long from start to finish, and it’s definitely worth the investment
- Caveats: It’s short, and if you enjoy it at all you’re almost certainly going to want more.
- Themes: Pursuing your dream. Resisting peer pressure.
- Similar works: Well, start out by watching the other shorts that have come out of the Young Animator Training Program. They’re all wildly divergent in style, but I can whole-heartedly recommend Death Billiards and Ojii-san no Lamp.
- Trailer: English dubbed version
- What it’s about: Kenji receives an invitation from the most popular girl in school, Natsuki, to take a working vacation with her to her family’s home over the summer. What he isn’t told is that the “job” involves pretending to be her successful, brilliant boyfriend. At the same time, the online world of Oz is facing a grave crisis as a hacker seeks to topple the system from within.
- Why you should watch it: It’s a fantastic family film; both in that it’s got appeal for a wide demographic base and that family serves as the central theme to the whole work. The “real-world” scenes are full of charm and fun, while the “online” scenes pack in gorgeously fantastical visuals and a strong soundtrack, as well as some very unique character designs. The writers tie in the two halves of the film brilliantly, with tension building and crossing between the two until it all comes together in the finale.
- Caveats: The “online” world makes absolutely no logical sense whatsoever, so it’s probably best to pretend that it’s just straight-up magic rather than a vision of the future of the internet. You’ll have less of a headache and enjoy the spectacle a lot more if you just roll with it.
- Themes: Social networks, both online and offline. The importance of both family and tradition.
- Similar works: Eden of the East. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is by the same studio and has a similar vibe to it. If you liked the virtual end of the movie (and its associated visuals), I’d heartily recommend Paprika
- Trailer: English dubbed version
- What it’s about: The final years of the Second World War – things are turning against Japan. The story follows a pair of siblings who survive a firebombing raid as they try to put their lives back together. But reality isn’t a land of sunshine and rainbows, particularly in Japan towards the end of the War. The elder brother, Seita, soon discovers the difficulties of taking care of a child in a country where pity and compassion are as harshly rationed as the food.
- Why you should watch it: It’s one of the most emotional turbulent movies out there in *any* medium, let alone in anime, and regularly gets high marks even from critics in both Japan and the West. Takahata and Studio Ghibli bring their usual level of skill to writing and animation, bringing the tragedy to life. From the opening narration through the trials and tribulations that the children face, it’s a harrowing journey to watch. Grave of the Fireflies is one of those films that will leave a lasting impact, whether you enjoy it or not.
- Caveats: This is not a happy story. At all.
- Themes: The cruel and petty nature of humanity under stress, particularly war.
- Similar works: Anything by Studio Ghibli – try Princess Mononoke first. Outside of that, Tokyo Magnitude 8.0. Outside of anime entirely, The Road or Schindler’s List.