Japanese animation has evolved steadily over the past twenty years, with the integration of new technologies, especially computer animation, the emergence of new masterpieces geared towards the general public or hardcore fanbases, and the appearance of new forms of distribution (Blu-ray and legal streaming platforms). For its twentieth anniversary, Son-Video.com looks back on twenty gems that are representative of this multifaceted evolution.
1 – FLCL (2000)
Although anime often uses the same aesthetic canons, some artists know how to think outside the box and create experimental works that make a lasting impression. FLCL (pronounced Fooly Cooly) is the most famous example since 2000, with a completely crazy and surrealist scenario embellished with memorable moments (notably an animated manga page). The six episodes are available on Blu-ray, allowing you to enjoy every technically perfect sequence.
2 – Spirited Away (2001)
By winning both a Golden Bear and an Oscar in 2001, Spirited Away renewed the image of Japanese animation. Its most famous ambassador, Hayao Miyazaki, barely hides his anti-consumerist message in this coming-of-age story where a little girl has to adapt and work hard in a supernatural world in order to save her cursed parents. Full of details to be (re)discovered in HD, this baroque masterpiece integrates 3D elements, a first for Studio Ghibli!
3 – Fruits Basket (2001, 2019)
In the early 2000s, this title helped feminize anime outside of Japan. Fruits Basket is a romantic comedy/drama that features a young orphan named Tohru Honda who is taken in by a cursed family. When they are embraced by anyone of the opposite sex, the members of this family turn into an animal of the Chinese zodiac. Tohru’s love triangle with Yûki the rat and Kyô the cat was first adapted in 2001 in a patchy version with 26 episodes. The more accurate 2019 remake shows just how much progress has been made during the past twenty years in Japanese animation!
4 – Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (2002, 2004, 2020)
Forget the 1995 film that paved the way for Japanese animation in France! Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is truer to the original manga, favoring action over contemplation, even if the plot requires your constant attention. If the 2002 series, like its 2004 sequel (2d Gig), combined 3D elements with traditional animation, this sci-fi masterpiece returned in 2020 in a fully computer-generated version, SAC_2045. That way you can compare the expertise of Japanese animators in both techniques!
5 – Fullmetal Alchemist (2003, 2009)
It takes a trained eye to compare the two animated adaptations of Fullmetal Alchemist, one of the first successes of the new millennium in the West. Produced when the original manga was not yet finished, the 2003 series offers an alternative ending, while the 2009 series, titled Brotherhood, follows the plot from A to Z. Created by the same studio (Bones), these two versions are ideal for analyzing the different ways directors interpret the same material.
6 – Mushishi (2005)
Mushi are a primitive form of life that sometimes interact with humans as either harmful or beneficial parasites. Ginkgo is a Mushi specialist and aids people suffering from Mushi-related problems in a traditional Japan where nature is still predominant. A succession of seemingly unrelated short stories, Mushishi reflects on man’s place in this world, philosophically and ecologically, and is carried by a calm pace that is much appreciated in a time where everything moves (too?) fast.
7 – Nana (2006)
Two young women who are seemingly complete opposites meet in a Tokyo bound train that is stuck due to the snow. Surprise! The punk and the ingénue have the same first name, which is enough to kindle an extraordinary friendship. Beyond its technique, NANA was a milestone in western animation with its rock soundtrack, which introduced J-Pop to audiences outside of Japan. To complement the series’ 50 episodes, a soundtrack was released on CD. Something that is pretty rare.
8 – Paprika (2006)
Psychotherapy has advanced to a new level thanks to the DC Mini, a machine that allows you to enter patients’ dreams. But this fledgling technology is not without risk for doctors, in particular the psychologist Atsuko Chiba, whose dream avatar seems to be breaking free… The psychological (and sometimes nightmarish) thriller Paprika stands out for its daring and innovative production that has been unrivalled since 2006. Some scenes, such as the dream parade, will be a challenge for outdated Blu-ray players!
9 – Death Note (2006)
Although it looks like an ordinary piece of stationary, this notebook grants the user the ability to kill anyone whose name is written in its pages. When young prodigy Light Yagami finds the Death Note, he becomes a criminal mastermind and is hunted by the mysterious detective L. Alternating between fantasy, thriller and dark comedy, Death Note’s suspenseful atmosphere is unrelenting throughout its 37 episodes. This incredibly successful series has been a reference since 2006, especially among emo/goth teens!
10 – Wolf Children (2012)
As a young widow, Hana raises her two children alone. Yuki, the eldest, and Ame are the result of her union with a werewolf. The toddlers can transform into cubs at will, a supernatural power that their mother tries to keep secret. In Wolf Children, Mamoru Hosoda tackles the subject of family with a supernatural touch for the first time. From 2012 onwards, Hosoda has revisited this blueprint in his other feature films, which have been a success both in Japan and abroad.
11 – Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (2012)
An institution in the manga world that is still ongoing, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is divided into several distinct arcs with the only common thread being the ancestry of its heroes. To adapt this 30-year-old manga of over 120 volumes, David Production Studio chose to change creative teams each season. It was not until 2012 that Hirohiko Araki’s manga came to life, a technical challenge that only computer technology could achieve. As a result, a new teen audience has been able to discover this epic adventure!
12 – Attack on Titan (2013)
Humanity’s last stronghold, a city surrounded by concentric fortresses, protects the few survivors from the giants lurking outside. With this premise as a starting point, Attack on Titan takes on a whole new dimension with each earth-shattering revelation. In order to adapt this best-selling manga, WIT Studio raised the bar in terms of technical sophistication by several notches. With great lighting effects, 2D/3D integration and supercharged sequence shots, the series has been revolutionizing animation since 2013 through technological advances and provides viewers with a spectacular show to be enjoyed in the best possible conditions.
13 – Ping Pong (2014)
When the unconventional director Masaaki Yuasa met the alternative mangaka Taiyou Matsumoto, the result was inevitably explosive! His interpretation of Ping Pong, released in 2014, features epic clashes between table tennis players that are worthy of Dragon Ball fights, but also poetic moments that celebrate the friendship between two sporting rivals. Right from the opening credits, which are all in pencil, the 11-episode series promises an unforgettable experience!
14 – The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2016)
Studio cofounder Isao Takahata strived to achieve the perfect animation throughout his career. This quest culminated in 2016 with The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which revisits the traditional Japanese legend of a Moon child raised by a couple from Earth. An essential lesson in directing for students and animation enthusiasts alike. Alas, this work is also the testament of the director, who passed away in 2018.
15 – Yuri!!! on Ice (2016)
A series like Yuri!!! On Ice was unimaginable before its release in 2016. An ode to figure skating, this series is inspired by the performances of real athletes and features a combination of rotoscoping and motion capture to achieve the most realistic result possible. It took not only today’s technical advances to produce it, but also a shift in attitudes: the thinly disguised homosexual relationship between the two heroes stems from the boys’ love (or yaoi) genre that is popular among young Japanese women.
16 – Your Name (2016)
Be it in Japan, where it dominated the 2016 box office, or internationally, where its success rivaled Ghibli productions, Your Name brought Makoto Shinkai’s talent to the masses. In tune with the anxieties of Japanese youth, it features two teenagers who swap bodies during their dreams. The young country girl and the high school boy from Tokyo will do anything to meet in person. Reflecting the digital era with its chromatic palette that requires a perfectly calibrated screen, this movie lays the foundations of 21st century anime.
17 – Mob Psycho 100 (2016)
Just like the web manga from which it is adapted, the Mob Psycho 100 series is far from conventional. Although it was produced in 2016, at a time when digital animation reigned supreme, its director chose to explore other animation techniques, notably using sand and glass. These initiatives are consistent with the intrigue (the pent-up anger of a teenager with psychic powers threatens, if it erupts, to destroy the world) which deviates from the usual shōnen (manga marketed towards young teen males) codes.
18 – Aggretsuko (2018)
At first glance, one recognizes the kawaii (cute) style of the company in charge of Hello Kitty when discovering Aggretsuko. However, through the misadventures of this small red panda office worker, it is the unhappiness of young, present-day Japanese women that comes to the surface – stress that Retsuko evacuates by screaming death metal during karaoke sessions. Since 2018, the series, which evokes the golden age of Flash software, has attracted a female audience thanks to its ironic and comforting tone.
19 – Golden Kamuy (2018)
Following in the footsteps of the great Hollywood adventure films of the 80s, Golden Kamuy brings to life a wild treasure hunt in the snowy plains of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. The 2018 series is also reminiscent of westerns when evoking the Ainu, indigenous people who were dispossessed of their land by the Japanese during the expansion of their nation. Although the story focuses on Japan, it is also very universal, notably with the almost paternal relationship between the heroes.
20 – Promare (2019)
Let’s finish this overview with the movie that made waves at the Annecy Animation Festival and then in France’s best movie theaters in 2019. An ode to free-spirited animation, Promare sears viewers’ retinas with its saturated colors and angular designs. Co-produced by the best Japanese studios in 2D (Trigger) and 3D (Sanzigen) animation, this feature film about an extraordinary firefighting group is the epitome of contemporary Japanese production, a compilation of the very best, to be enjoyed on Blu-ray and on a huge screen!
About: Matthieu Pinon
Matthieu Pinon is a journalist who has specialized in Japanese pop-culture for more than twenty years. He addresses both manga and cartoon enthusiasts through the specialized press (AnimeLand, Coyote Mag, Japan Live), as well as the general public (Phosphore, regular columnist of the Blockbusters show on France Inter). He reconciles these two audiences in his two books published by Ynnis, which are both accessible to newcomers to the genre and more in-depth for connoisseurs.