Classic Anime that Aren’t For Me: What IS the Anime Canon?

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What comes to mind when I mention “classic anime” or “anime canon”? What kinds of films are included in the “anime canon”?

Paige Sammartino: In terms of films, Studio Ghibli is the first thing that comes to mind, particularly Princess Mononoke. Films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell are not only great on their own but have made a huge impact on movies that came after them, even outside of animation. Though plot points or animation style may be dated, viewers now and in the future will still be able to trace elements of direction or storytelling in current movies back to these films.

Amanda Vail: I think of pre-1990 films when I hear “classic anime.” I don’t think of anything that was being produced or came out when I was first being introduced to anime as “classic.” Maybe that’s because of my age. However, “classic” anything indicates foundational. There have certainly been films after 1990 that fit into that category, and that could also be called revolutionary, but I’d probably slot them into canon rather than classic.

Alenka Figa: I immediately thought of Miyazaki films, Akira, and Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue and Paprika. I think there’s a lot of fun anime out there that is hugely popular or that most anime fans will know, but to me “canon” and “classic”—and I’m sure this a very western/European perspective—imply films that are focused on pushing boundaries with their art. Satoshi Kon is really who I’m thinking of terms of art, because his films really strive to show how unique and capable animation is as an art form. In terms of story, I’ve never seen the Barefoot Gen movie but films like it that capture important moments from Japanese history also come to mind as anime canon. However, I’m not sure how unique Barefoot Gen is! Are there other films like it?

Al Rosenberg: Weird, I didn’t think about Studio Ghibli at all, even though I’ve watched and loved all of those movies. My immediate thoughts were Akira, Paprika, and Ghost in the Shell. I agree with Paige, they are films that have made waves in their genre. There’s sort of a timelessness to them; they continue to offer ideas and beauty to the world.

Insha Fitzpatrick: Classic anime for me was always movies like Akira, Ghost In The Shell and most of the Studio Ghibli films. I’m so happy that someone else knows about Perfect Blue other than me. You’re awesome, Alenka! For other classic animes, I think of Metropolis by the director Rintaro, an amazing updated adaptation of Fritz Lang’s classic black and white film, and Vampire Hunter D. I always think of “classic anime” as early 2000 films honestly. A time where everything was coming together in a transition from the 1990s anime films and into their own creative way. I think of most of the classic anime as super experimental for its time.

Perfect Blue, Satoshi Kon, 1997

Perfect Blue, Satoshi Kon, 1997

Do you think there is a big gap between anime that’s canon in Japan and anime that’s “anime canon” outside of Japan?

Paige: I think there’s less of a gap now that anime is more mainstream and films considered canon in Japan are readily available to audiences elsewhere. There are definitely going to be films that speak more to fans in or outside of Japan in terms of culture or subject matter.

Amanda: To some extent, yes, and the gap is inevitable—as Paige says above. Each film will speak differently to native and international audiences and will be appreciated by some more than others. However, the big wheel of commerce keeps on rolling, and it seems only natural that blockbusters in Japan are flagged for export and translation to other markets. My completely unscientific impression is that as anime becomes more and more popular internationally, it also becomes more accessible because many of the Japanese cultural items—like kancho, for instance—are more widely understood and/or are explained by current fans to newbie fans.

Alenka: I was a huge anime geek in high school and thus have been watching it for a long time, but I’ve honestly not given much thought to what is popular in Japan versus what is popular in America. Obviously I am a sample size of one, but perhaps that is telling in regards to what kind of cultural exchange is actually going on. I’d be curious to know how aware others are of the differences in “canon” anime is received in Japan versus America. I definitely agree with Paige and Amanda that culture plays a factor. What do different cultures look for in terms of a canon?

What classic anime have you seen and just not connected with? OR What are some classic anime you will just never watch?

Paige: I can’t say I connect closely with most of the classics I’ve seen, actually; that’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed watching them or think they’re bad, only that I am usually content to see them once. Most of my favorite anime films are more nostalgic than classic.

Amanda: Although I appreciate the historical significance of films like Tetsuwan Atom (1964) and even Akira (1988), I haven’t been able to connect with them personally. Watching them is more of an academic study than a pastime. Akira, for instance, is beautiful and engrossing and masterfully executed, but also dark, chaotic, and repulsive. Tetsuwan Atom aka Astro Boy is so influential and, again, well executed, but it speaks to an earlier era and I just can’t get into Atom or the surrounding characters. As with most art, these two films are relics of the hopes and fears of earlier decades. I think it’s important to know them and be aware of their cultural legacy, but I also think it’s fine to not be in love with them.

Alenka: I really enjoyed Perfect Blue when I first saw it, but the more distanced I am from it the more I realize how confused I was, especially toward the end of the film. Paprika has stayed with me in a very different way; instead of remembering my confusion I mostly recall a sense of awe for what was happening on the screen in front of me. Work that deals with dreams and hallucinations is really interesting, and working outside of reality allows artists to really get creative with their art. However, I do wonder if there’s a line between subverting an audience’s sense of reality in a really wonderful way and just confusing them too much. This is a longer conversation that would require a re-watching of Perfect Blue, which I am definitely up for!

I can’t move on without saying that Amanda’s last point is very important! Just because something is a classic doesn’t mean you have to love it. Canon-worship can be gross and dangerous, especially when it causes fans to attack each other or prevents people from calling out offensive content.

Al Rosenberg: Hm, this is a tough one. I felt incredibly connected to Akira and that’s part of the reason it stuck with me so hard. I suppose the Evangelions and Fist of the North Star didn’t particularly resonate with me in any way even though I went in knowing they were some of the BIG movies.

Insha Fitzpatrick: I will never watch Akira ever again in my life. I think that was the first anime to give me full on nightmares as a child so if there is ever a time where I need to watch it again, I will skip that moment in my life. I disconnected with that film so much that I had to block it out of my mind for years to come. It wasn’t that it frightened me; there was something about the entire notion and premise of the movie itself bothered me in a way. I felt more comfortable watching Ghost in the Shell’s version of cyberpunk than watching Akira.

Mononoke Hime, Hayao MIyazaki, 1997

What are some films you think should be included in the anime canon? OR What does your personal anime canon look like?

Katriel Paige: My personal anime canon, in terms of films, also includes Vision of Escaflowne and Revolutionary Girl Utena; but I’m not sure if those would be considered canon. I just think that the film of Revolutionary Girl Utena is one I keep going back to in my own collection, and so for me, it’s earned a place as a personal anime canon film alongside “obvious” ones like Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away (both Ghibli films).

Paige: It probably sounds funny to pick a Ghibli movie when I started off saying it’s the first thing that comes to mind for anime canon, but I’d like to see more love for Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. It’s critically acclaimed but certainly hasn’t received the attention of other Ghibli films, in part likely because it wasn’t one of the titles Disney adapted. Eventually I’d also like to see Mamoru Hosoda’s work, particularly The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars, considered canon. As newer movies, they incorporate modern ideas of technology and lifestyle, but the quality of the direction, writing, and animation is already “classic” in my mind.

Amanda: There’s a lot of talk of Ghibli in this thread, but I have to throw one more out there: Kaze no Tani no Nausicaä (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) from 1984. I also completely agree with Paige regarding Grave of the Fireflies and the work of Mamoru Hosoda. I’d be remiss, too, if I didn’t mention the work of Satoshi Kon; his Sennen Joyū (Millennium Actress) will always be among my favorite movies, and Kon’s storytelling techniques have already been hugely influential. One last not-exactly-good movie that nevertheless made a huge impression on me is Uchū Senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato) from 1977. It’s … well, it is what it is, and I think it’s glorious.

Alenka: I’ll second Katriel on Spirited Away, because that film is so beautiful and incredible, and I react so viscerally to Chihiro’s fear, strength and growth. Amanda, I’m glad that you mentioned Nausicaa! It’s definitely one of my favorite Miyazaki films, and so many of themes are similar to Princess Mononoke that I feel like it’s unfair to include one and not the other. As Nausicaa predates Princess Mononoke, I think it’s safe to say without the latter we wouldn’t have the former. I’ll also echo Page regarding Mamoru Hosoda. I haven’t seen Summer Wars (yet!) but The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is spectacular on so many levels, and it conveys this warm, humid sticky it’s-summer-time sensation that I feel like only anime creates so perfectly. Obviously I’m a big fan of Satoshi Kon, so I’d include Paprika, Perfect Blue, and Tokyo Godfathers, especially because I LOVE Hana and think she’s one of the few trans women of color I’ve seen given such a strong, real personality. I’m pretty sure she’s the only trans woman of color I’ve ever seen in anime, but please tell me if more are out there!

Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988

Al Rosenberg; Oh yes to both Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Tokyo Godfathers! There’s a lot of anime series that I consider necessary, even though it generally isn’t. Movies though, I can only really think of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. I was not a FF player before I watched that movie. Oh, wait … maybe also the Pokemon movie. Gets the tears going every time. Now that I’ve thought about it for HOURS, I will be honest and say the Sailor Moon and Digimon movies, too. They’re all in my personal shelf canon of must see anime. In response to the fandom above me: I feel like Ghibli has such an intense following already, it’s just it’s own floating island of anime canon.

Insha Fitzpatrick: Hands down. Revolutionary Girl Utena. There’s no way I can go without saying that’s in my personal anime canon and should be included as well. It has the most spellbinding visuals and story I’ve ever seen. I can go all day talking about Utena. I get enough of Revolutionary Girl Utena, I swear. Another couple of films that are awesome are Metropolis, Ghost in the Shell, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Perfect Blue and every single one of the Sailor Moon movies. I have to agree with Al on the SG. It’s so massive that it literally can not be anything but it’s on anime canon. I have to say though, I would put My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service on my personal anime canon list as well.

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About Author

Paige Sammartino is a writer and book publishing professional. Her parents had serious foresight when they named her. Part-time superhero, full-time Slytherin.

4 Comments

  1. I suggest you make a Correction when you mention Rintaro’s Metropolis since you only mention Fritz Lang as the maker and influence. You should also mention his wife Thea von Harbou who played a fundamental part in the making and writing of the movie (history always seem so bent on forgetting her) and on the other side The movie is also heavily Based in Metropolis (yeah, same name!) by Osamu Tezuka even if in the ending Rintaro’s movie diverts from both projects.

    • Insha Fitzpatrick on

      What?! I never knew that! That’s so bloody cool! See? Learning something new everyday! Metropolis, the Fritz Lang version was always a big futuristic influence as a kid so when I watched the anime it was so much like it and so beautiful that I never knew that. Thank you so much for that information. I’m gonna watch it with different eyes now. 😀

      • Thea von Harbou’s science fiction can be found with decent enough regularity in second-hand bookshops or antiques markets, fyi! I discovered her by picking up a novelisation of a script she’d done just by chance.

  2. I watched Tokyo Godfathers for the first time (I know, I know!) just a week ago. It was amazing! Alenka, I agree with you: Hana is spectacular. All of the characters are, really. It needs to be on everyone’s watch list!