Dec 102013

If you do a search online for the top anime (Japanese animation) films, either for kids or adults, most of the lists you’ll find will be loaded heavily with the work of Hayao Miyazaki. He dominates best of anime lists the way the Beatles own the top ten on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. There’s a reason he’s known as the Walt Disney of Japan and enjoys more popularity outside of Japan than any other director. While Miyazaki’s reputation is well earned there are many other filmmakers producing movies and television shows that are original, rich in visual inventiveness, bizarre, and entertaining. Japanese anime and manga (comic books) have an increasing influence on our popular culture and are injecting new life and creativity into the media our kids are consuming.

I’ve only scratched the surface with this list and no doubt anime fans would raise a fuss over the exclusion of some (what about Neon Genesis Evangelion?!*) but these films and TV shows are a good starting point if your kids have seen some Miyazaki and are interested in exploring the genre further.

This list includes both TV and Movies; all titles are available either on DVD or streaming through Netflix or Amazon. I’ve ordered this list by age recommendation youngest to oldest.

Mobile Suit Gundam Wing (2000)

Mobile Suit Gundam Wing

Because giant battling robot suits are cool.

Recommended for ages 8 and up
I think Mobile Suit Gundam is a good place to start talking about anime, and not just because it is a wildly popular and influential series, but because it’s also quite violent, which is a recurring theme with a lot of anime. The violence is focused mostly on giant robots and other vehicles but there is no shortage of implied violence to the human characters. But it’s only implied which is why I’m giving it a thumbs up for younger audiences, particularly boys.

Avatar: The Last Airbender (TV 2005 – 2008)
Recommended for ages 8 and up
Avatar and Korra are not technically anime. They were produced in the US for Nickelodeon but I include them here because they pay homage to Japanese anime in style and substance and are very high quality shows for younger audiences. There is a lot of martial arts action but it’s enhanced by the fantasy elements where “benders” can manipulate fire, earth, air, and water.

Legend of Korra

Because manipulating the elements with Kung Fu is cool.

The Legend of Korra (TV 2012 -)
Recommended for ages 8 and up
The currently running sequel to The Last Airbender this series expands on the fantasy martial arts mythology of the original and spins it with a steampunk vibe. In addition it gives girls a strong female lead they can relate to making The Legend of Korra appealing for both boys and girls. Both Avatar and Korra are packed with action and humor as well as positive messages and are worthwhile viewing.

Speed Racer (TV 1967 – 1968)
Recommended for ages 8 and up
The classic auto racing melodrama formerly known as Mach GoGoGo in Japan. When I showed this to my kids I hadn’t watched it in years and was sure that it would fall into the category of things you used to think were awesome when you were a kid that completely fail when you see them as an adult. It did, for the most part, although everything was just as I remembered and it was plain that my kids loved it. It is cheesy fun.

Star Blazers

Go ahead, Derek Wildstar, fire the wave motion gun!

Star Blazers (TV 1979 – 1984)
Recommended for ages 8 and up
This is another one from my youth – although instead of falling completely flat its over the top melodrama now cracks me up. The crew of an old Japanese battleship that has been converted to a spaceship (the Space Battleship Yamato of the original Japanese title) try to save Earth from the Comet Empire. Riding the wave of science fiction popularity spawned by Star Wars the serialized adventures of the Star Force were an introduction to anime for many young people in the US in the early 80s.

Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva (2009)
Recommended for ages 10 and up
There are plenty of opportunities to highlight anime that are based on toys or video games (Digimon and Pokemon for example) but I find the marketing can overwhelm the quality of the story. Professor Layton makes no secret of its origins as a Nintendo puzzle adventure game. However this movie is notable for it’s engaging story and entertaining characters. Its violence is a bit more intense so I would recommend it for somewhat older kids who cannot only deal with the violence but also the puzzles that are integral to the story.

Sailor Moon  (TV 1992 – 1997)
Recommended for ages 10 and up
Sailor Moon is a quintessential example of the sub-genre of manga and anime known as Magical Girl. Fun fact, the magical girl genre was inspired by the Japanese dub of the American sitcom Bewitched. What goes around comes around. There is potentially a lot of Sailor Moon available but you should know that the original subtitled and uncut version is more mature with potentially scary imagery and sophisticated relationships. The dubbed and edited version packaged for the US is more appropriate for tweens but also confusing at times because it skips over some important relationship background. The bottom line though is that this is a cartoon about butt-kicking princesses. Girl power anime style.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Because the Space Battleship Yamato is cool…oh, and so is jumping through time.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)
Recommended for ages 12 and up
This anime is a sequel of sorts to the 1967 novel of the same name that has been adapted repeatedly for the screen (four times and counting). As you might guess it’s the story of a teenager who discovers she can leap through time. The interesting thing about this story, however, is that instead of using her ability with big historical events she uses it to tweak the small moments in her life. I think the enduring appeal of the story is seeing the ways in which she grows by reliving moments and exploring the sometimes significant consequences in small actions.

Steamboy (2005)
Recommended for ages 12 and up
The mechanized violence in Steamboy makes it inappropriate for younger audiences. However, tween and teen boys interested in the steampunk genre will love this movie. Several boys I know have embraced books about airship adventure like Airborn by Kenneth Oppel and Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. Steamboy, set in Victorian England, is cut from the same cloth and is filled with magically advanced steam-based technology and fantastic machines that clank and rattle through an exciting tale of one family’s struggle to come to terms with genius and madness.

Last Exile (TV 2003)
Recommended for ages 13 and up
Last Exile is sort of steampunk but not really. Anachronistic elements like Napoleonic uniforms are mixed in with interwar German aircraft in an epic story where a character might be a crewman on a ship one day and heir to the imperial throne the next. This is another one that I think will appeal mostly to boys but the compelling art direction and many hidden historical references make this series a standout among a vast field of television science fiction anime.

And finally, a bonus 11th mostly-not-Miyazaki film to end on a really not at all happy note.

Grave of the Fireflies

She’s adorable and he’s heroic. Prepare for soul-crushing pathos!

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Recommended for ages 13 and up
Grave of the Fireflies was written and directed by Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki’s partner in Studio Ghibli. I’m including it on this list because, as a film from Miyazaki’s studio and, honestly, one of the greatest anime ever created, there’s a good chance you’ll come across it sooner or later. If you do, I just want to provide this caveat:

Saddest. Cartoon. Ever.

A lot of reviews of Grave of the Fireflies include this phrase, partly because it’s fun to write, and partly because it is absolutely true. It’s the story of a 14-year-old boy and his younger sister trying to survive in a firebombed Kobe in the final days of World War II. In my opinion it’s one of the most effective anti-war movies ever made.


* Evangelion, or Eva for serious fans, is rated Mature or 17+ by most rating systems and is not appropriate for the younger audience this list is aimed at.

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