10 essential animes to watch during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

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May 17, 2018

Anime has had a massive influence on American culture since the 1960s across genres, from romance to superhero, sci-fi to action, and its aesthetic and narrative style has inspired many Hollywood movies. The Matrix would be nothing without Ghost in the Shell, Looper drew from Akira and, despite Disney’s denials, The Lion King was obviously influenced by Kimba the White Lion.

In recent years, I’ve fallen in love with the beauty and depth the stories present in this vibrant, somewhat melodramatic and fantastical way. So, as it’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the US, here are a few anime films and TV shows that you should absolutely be aware of.

Cowboy Bebop (1998-99)

This 26-episode series, written by Keiko Nobumoto, follows the misadventures of a few bounty hunters as they track down criminals in a futuristic space-western setting. As you can tell by the name, it’s influenced by both the Old West and American Jazz but retains a distinctive Japanese quality. 

How to watch: Check out Spike Spiegel and the Bebop crew in action on Netflix.

Big Fish & Begonia (2016)

This is actually a Chinese anime film, directed by Liang Xuan and Chun Zhang but released by Manga Entertainment. It is a phenomenal story, steeped in Chinese legend, which centers on Chun, a young girl from a magical world beyond the sea. As part of a coming-of-age ritual, Chun ventures into the human world as a red dolphin. She spends a year there and during that time falls in love with a boy. After tragedy strikes, she brings him to her world, causing a cataclysmic change. This story about life and death, sacrifice, and hope will have a profound effect on you.

How to watch: Big Fish & Begonia will be available on digital download and DVD on July 9.

Mary & The Witch's Flower (2017)

Hiromasa Yonebayashi is a bit of a legend in the anime world, having worked on Studio Ghibli offerings Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and Ponyo, but has since opened his own animation house, Studio Ponoc—and this is its first film. The Academy Award nominee teamed up with Riko Sakaguchi to co-write the story (he directed too) about the eponymous young girl and the discovery of a broomstick and flower that give the bearer magical powers for one night. She’s soon whisked off to a magic school where terrible things occur and, after telling a lie, Mary must make things right. It’s based on Mary Stewart's 1971 classic children's book The Little Broomstick, the English dub features the voices of Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent, and it offers a rather lush depiction of England to go alongside its narrative wonder.

How to watch: In UK cinemas now and on digital download, DVD or Blu-Ray in the US.

Your Name (2016)

Once you watch Your Name you won’t be surprised that J.J. Abrams wants to make a US version. The film, written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, is the highest-grossing anime movie of all time and centers on a high school girl in rural Japan and a high school boy in Tokyo who swap bodies. It’s very much a Japanese story influenced by the 12th-century tale Torikaebaya Monogatari, the poem Yume to Shiriseba and the devastating 2011 earthquake that claimed 16,000 lives. But it’s not a tragic story—it’s one of hope, wonderment, and love that you’ll think about long after the end credits roll.

How to watch: Amazon Prime, DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital download.

Batman Ninja (2018)

As Batman adaptations go, this Junpei Mizusaki-directed offering really pushes the boat out. With characters designed by Afro Samurai’s Takashi Okazaki and the American screenplay by Leo Chu and Eric Garcia, this elaborate tale follows the Dark Knight after he is transported back to Feudal Japan by Gorilla Grodd. He’s not alone though and finds that the Joker, Poison Ivy, Two-Face, Penguin, and Deathstroke have already arrived and taken over five states. It’s up to Batman, Catwoman and the Bat Family to try and save Japan from a Joker takeover and return everyone back to present-day Gotham City. The number of anime tropes used makes it border on the ridiculous but if you go with the flow of it, you’ll definitely enjoy the ride.

How to watch: DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download.

The Red Turtle (2016)

This co-production between Studio Ghibli and Wild Bunch is one of the most transcendental movies of 2017. There is no dialogue rather an astonishing use of sound and imagery that takes you on a journey of life and family, beginning when a castaway washes up on a remote island. During his time there, he comes across a red turtle who monumentally changes the course of his life. Thanks to the guiding hand of producer Toshio Suzuki, Dutch animators Michael Dudok de Wit and Pascale Ferran have created a glowing entry in the anime tradition.

How to watch: YouTube, Google Play, DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download, and on Starz August 20.

Akira (1988)

Directed and co-written by Katsuhiro Otomo, this pivotal movie in the anime genre celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and there are lots to reasons to celebrate. It’s set 31 years after an explosion ignites World War III; a motorcycle gang is thrown into disarray when one of their members, Tetsuo Shima, acquires incredible telekinetic abilities after an accident. When Tetsuo begins to threaten both a military complex and a rebellion, it’s up to his childhood friend and gang leader Shōtarō Kaneda to stop him. Come for the narrative, stay for the stunning animation that created an aesthetic which has been lauded and referenced many times since. 

How to watch: Rent via Amazon or Netflix, or buy on Blu-Ray, DVD or digital download.

Death Note (2006-07)

Forget the pitiful Netflix adaptation — the only Death Note you should take note of is the original series. Written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, the series revolves around Light Yagami, a brilliant high school student who comes across a supernatural notebook that gives him the power to kill anyone in the world if he knows their name. "Guided" by the book's original owner, a demon called Ryuk, Light's mission to rid the world of criminals is obstructed by a highly skilled detective known only as L. It's a gripping, intelligent and thought-provoking series that the Netflix movie did not do justice to. Watch this instead.

How to watch: Netflix, Hulu, and Starz or on Blu-Ray and DVD.

Violet Evergarden (2018)

This Netflix original is based on Kana Akatsuki’s light novel series of the same name. It follows Violet, an orphaned girl who is used as a weapon during a war and later as an auto memory doll for the CH Postal service, whose purpose is to ghostwrite letters for those unable to convey their emotions through words. Along the way, Violet unearths the meaning of the words “I love you” via the people she meets. Love is a universal language and it is beautifully explored in this series.

How to watch: Netflix.

The Boy and the Beast (2015)

Written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda, the film follows an orphan named Ren who is taken in as an apprentice to Kumatetsu, a warrior beast. When both their human and beast worlds are threatened by a darkness, the bond they have formed is tested and together they fight to save themselves and their homes. The Boy and the Beast is a testament to Hosada’s respect to the anime tradition by weaving the supernatural, battle sequences, and coming-of-age tropes into something that feels fresh and rich in narrative.

How to watch: Rent it on Netflix or buy it on DVD or Blu-Ray.