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One Anime Movie from Each of the Last Five Decades

A map of Eastern Asia, with the nation of Japan highlighted.

May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the United States. Asia has made a bevy of great films over the years but for the purposes of this post I have chosen to hone in on one specific subset, that of animated films coming out of Japan, better known as “anime.” We will look at one film from each of the last five decades (the 2020s back to the 1980s).

Many anime movies are attached to existing series, and best experienced with having seen the series beforehand. I have opted to only include movies that stand alone and do not need any prerequisites to enjoy in this post.

1980s: Akira (1988)

Poster for the movie Akira.
Akira. anidb.net, 31 May 2024, anidb.net/anime/28

Akira is a visual stunner and a movie that had a large impact on later anime aesthetics and is still one of the most beautiful animated productions ever made. Perhaps this is due to the movie being directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, the original creator of the manga of the same name. Akira does not adapt the full manga, which is a shame as it’s fantastic. This does create some plot inconsistencies, but it’s enjoyable on its own nonetheless.

1990s: Only Yesterday (1991)

Poster for the movie Only Yesterday.
Only Yesterday. anidb.net. 31 May 2024, anidb.net/anime/333

Only Yesterday is an under-the-radar Ghibli film and the only one I’ve selected for this list. It’s an intriguing production by the late Isao Takahata about a twenty-seven-year-old woman thinking back on her life, with frequent flashbacks blurring the line between the present and the past. Not explicitly stated, but throughout the movie easily seen, is a window into Japan’s radical transformation in the period following the Allied occupation that ended in 1952 up to the movie’s present day of the 1980s. It’s a fascinating movie and one that might be easily missed if you don’t systematically explore the Ghibli filmography.

2000s: 5 Centimeters per Second (2007)

Poster for the movie 5 Centimeters per Second.
5 Centimeters per Second. anidb.net. 31 May 2024, anidb.net/anime/4568

Five centimeters per second is the speed at which cherry blossom petals fall onto the ground. This is a movie about distance, both physical and mental. The distance that the film is about is between two childhood friends that forms after one of them moves away. Later parts of the movie display two episodes from later in their lives that show how them being distant from one another has shaped their lives. This was the second feature film by the great Makoto Shinkai.

2010s: A Silent Voice (2016)

Poster for the movie A Silent Voice.
A Silent Voice. anidb.net. 31 May 2024, anidb.net/anime/10937

Another partial adaptation of a manga, this film delivers both a gorgeous art style and a hard-hitting message about mental health (May is also Mental Health Awareness Month), bullying, and redemption. Directed by Naoko Yamada, this is one of the beloved studio Kyoto Animation’s most highly regarded works. Unfortunately, due to constraints that will naturally arise from adapting seven volumes of manga into 130 minutes of film, there are some fantastic parts absent from the film, but this film is one that everyone should see regardless.

2020s: Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop (2020)

Poster for the movie Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop.
Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop. anidb.net. 31 May 2024, anidb.net/anime/14642

Undoubtedly there are more great anime films to come this decade, but we’ve already had quite a few. This movie is the film debut of Kyouhei Ishiguro, a director most known for his work on Your Lie in April. It is about two teenagers who have trouble communicating with other people the normal way, how they meet through unusual circumstances, and helping an old man find a record he once loved (among other adventures). It’s not a critical darling but it’s thoroughly enjoyable start to finish.

Bryan Bubala is a new employee to Media Services for the summer of 2024. He is a junior and a double major in accounting and finance through the Kelley School.


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