Many, many anime articles have been written about gateway anime or the best anime movies.This post is of a similar vein, but looks at the subject from the perspective of general appeal.I have chosen these movies because I believe they are just good storytelling and they have been released with English dubs in most cases.These movies would also be a good introduction to animated Japanese pop culture without digging into tropes like moe, mecha, magical girls, fan service, etc.If you wonder why animation plays a big role in contemporary Japanese culture, these films would give some appreciation of it, especially before your first trip there.Of course, don't miss out on the classic black and white films, and especially the Samurai films like the Seven Samurai too!
Six Anime Movies
SCIENCE FICTION CLASSICS
AKIRA DIRECTED BY KATSUHIRO OTOMO
This is the classic film about a post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk Tokyo (Neo Tokyo) that set a new standard in animation and story telling for science fiction anime.Teenage biker Shotaro Kaneda with his classic red motorbike must deal with secret government experiments with esper powers.
GHOST IN THE SHELL DIRECTED BY MAMORU OSHII
This is the classic cyberpunk scifi thriller in a future Tokyo that looks like a megacity with Hong Kong like crowding.Major Motoko Kusanagi, an intelligence operative with a cyborg body and a cyberbrain must deal with the puppet master who is hacking into people and systems.It kind of encapsulates a vision of a high-tech Tokyo you would be fascinated to see.
EVANGELION 1.11 DIRECTED BY HIDEAKI ANNO
This film encapsulates the first six episodes of the famous anime that set the bar for giant robot anime after Gundam.The movie takes place in Tokyo-3 which was a city rebuilt after the second impact devastated planet Earth.Shinji Ikari, the reluctant pilot of the giant bio-mechanical robot EVA-01 must fight off monsters called Angels that threaten to destroy the earth once again.
This category is ruled by Hayou Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli which is like the Disney studio of Japan for animation.These films are universally appealing and not just for kids and they have made many more movies than what is listed here.
SPIRITED AWAY DIRECTED BY HAYAO MIYAZAKI
A family passes through into the spirit world by accident.Chihiro Ogino, a young girl, must get a job at a magical bath house to save her parents.This movie won an Oscar for best animated film and tells a wonderful story with a richly imagined world and plenty of magic.
CASTLE IN THE SKY DIRECTED BY HAYAO MIYAZAKI
This film is set in a fantasy world that lives in the shadow of a great empire that fell long ago.Great airships abound and there are legends of Laputa, a lost city in the sky. Pazu and Sheeta, two adolescents, must deal with air pirates, mechanical warriors and a sinister government agent while solving the secret of Laputa.
MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO DIRECTED BY HAYAO MIYAZAKI
This is my absolute favourite movie of all time if I had to pick just one movie.A father and his two daughters moves into the countryside near Tokyo in 1950s Japan.Here, the two daughters meet Totoro, a wind spirit, and have adventures with NO VILLAIN (take that most family pictures).It is a charming film that young children generally love as the Totoro and Catbus are adorable.
GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (BY STUDIO GHIBLI AGAIN)
Be prepared to cry.This is the story about a young boy who must take care of his younger sister after being orphaned during World War II.They must fend for themselves in an uncaring world and it is a powerful drama and an anti-war film.
PRINCESS MONONOKE (BY MIYAZAKI AND STUDIO GHIBLI AGAIN)
This is a pseudo-historical film set in in the 14th century Japan where magic is real and the spirit world is real.The Japanese feudal lords are encroaching onto Emishi lands and conflict results between the iron age Japanese and the stone age native peoples who live there.A powerful film about nature and living with it.
WOLF CHILDREN DIRECTED BY MAMORU HOSODA
A serious film set in modern Japan where a woman, Hana, falls in love with a wolf man (someone who can shape shift between man and wolf - but it isn't normal lycanthropy).Hana bears twins after the two become a family.Tragedy strikes and Hana has to move to the country where she can safely raise her two children who have a habit of transforming into wolf pups.The two children must choose between being human or a wolf and the mother passed through many trials while raising them.Good film!
SUMMER WARS DIRECTED BY MAMORU HOSODA
A rogue AI takes threatens the world by taking over the global cyber network of Oz.A family has to unite to take it on and save the world. Awesome animation, a richly imagined cyberspace, and the importance of family and traditional ties to people all are featured in this film.A favourite of mine.
PAPRIKA DIRECTED BY SATOSHI KON
This is a flim about Paprika, the dream ego, of a psychological therapist who enters patients dreams to help them.Kind of like Inception, but it predates that movie by years, and isn't about theft.The last film by Satoshi Kon and it has wonderful imagery.
PERFECT BLUE DIRECTED BY SATOSHI KON
A psychological thriller where an pop-idol singer loses her touch with reality.What is real and what isn't.A very well done film of this type.
MILLENIUM ACTRESS DIRECTED BY SATOSHI KON
Another richly imagined film about the unrequited love of an actress.It takes a documentary film team into the life of the woman when they are interviewing her.It is like they are immersed in her films and her past.A wonderfully put together and imagined film!
OTHER FILMS OF MENTION:
Steamboy, Tekkonkinkreet, Osamu Tezuka's Metropolis, Roujin-Z, Place Promised In Our Early Days, 5 Cm Per Second, The Garden of Words.