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(Welcome to Let’s Get Animated!, a column that spotlights the best of film animation. In this edition: the best modern anime film directors to keep an eye on.)
Ask any animation buff and they can list off a handful of great Western animation directors, and one Japanese one. Despite anime’s place on the global stage — dominating the pop culture stratosphere since the ‘90s and going on to win prestige thanks to the efforts of Studio Ghibli — most people still think of Hayao Miyazaki as the lone renowned anime filmmaker. But simply taking a shallow dive into the anime industry proves that is not the case.
That’s right, I’m back to talking about anime. While last time I gave you a beginner’s guide to the best gateway anime, this month I’ll be covering some of the most promising and accomplished anime film directors working today. Most of these filmmakers have had to ward off breathless press questions about whether they consider themselves “the Next Miyazaki” or had their films endlessly compared to Studio Ghibli’s catalogue. But these filmmakers have more than proved that they can stand on their own.
Let it be known that this list will exclusively cover directors still working today, and who work mostly in film. (So, no Isao Takahata, or Satoshi Kon, who is a master due for his own column sometime in the future.)
There’s something about Mamoru Hosoda’s fluid, membrane-like animation style that recalls something out of a dream. His penchant for exploring fantastical stories that burst to the seams with whimsy only serve to make his films — which range from coming-of-age science-fiction to bittersweet fables — more surreal. Yet his calm and nourishing films are among the most grounded you can find in the anime industry.
The 50-year-old filmmaker got his start on TV before earning his directorial stripes at the young age of 33 helming the movie spin-off of one of the most famous animes at the time, Digimon. Hosoda’s burgeoning talent caught the eye of Studio Ghibli, which offered him the opportunity to direct 2005’s Howl’s Moving Castle, before Miyazaki came out of retirement to take the reins. It wasn’t until 2006 when Hosoda proved himself as an anime auteur in his own right, with the vibrant sci-fi film The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. The movie puts a fresh twist on the familiar Groundhog Day-type story while doubling as a coming-of-age comedy about a selfish, dolt-headed girl who has no right to time travel. It was a breakout hit, and an auspicious sign of things to come. Hosoda would follow up with a string of inarguable hits: the dazzling digital adventure hailing to his first Digimon feature, Summer Wars; the heart-breaking werewolf fable, Wolf Children; and the bonkers fantasy adventure The Boy and the Beast.
Through all of his deeply felt, achingly human films, run the themes of parenthood and love — which he condenses into easily digestible, family-friendly flicks. But there’s a comforting (almost conservative) strain of nostalgia throughout his films that make you feel like you’re coming home.
Best Film: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Latest Film: Mirai
Perhaps the only anime director who has been able to see the Stateside success since Miyazaki is Makoto Shinkai. And it’s fitting that it would happen with his rapturous hit Your Name — the body-switch film felt like the culmination of all of Shinkai’s past works, encompassing all the themes he had tinkered with from his breakout short film Voices of a Distant Star to his photorealistic magnum opus, 5 Centimeters Per Second. And astonishingly, it even bested Ghibli’s at the box office, becoming the highest-grossing film in Japan that year and surpassing Spirited Away as the top-grossing anime film worldwide.
It’s a little perplexing that Your Name would be the crossover hit that could launch Shinkai’s international career. A body-switch comedy that transforms into a metaphysical exploration of loss, all nestled snugly inside a heart-fluttering high school romance. And yet, Your Name spoke to some profound, universal emotions that scored it a wide U.S. release. Your Name is the most endearing that Shinkai has ever been, with broad comedy elements unusual for the philosophical, introspective director who delights in finding tragedy within the mundane. Shinkai has perfected a stunningly realistic visual style that complements his brand of slow-burning storytelling.
In an industry that values speed over animation quality, Shinkai’s meticulous dedication to creating a sumptuous, hyper-real animation style is something to behold. Take his consummate short film, 5 Centimeters Per Second. Shinkai painstakingly recreates ordinary streets and alleyways of Tokyo (seriously, compare photos of the streets with his animated shots! There is no difference!), upon which the camera lingers and somehow bestows an otherworldly magic. Let me revise my previous statement: Shinkai doesn’t find tragedy within the mundane, he finds the magic.
Best Film: 5 Centimeters Per Second
Latest Film: Your Name
In the opening minutes of Masaaki Yuasa‘s explosive, exhilarating debut film Mind Game, our hero, the weak-willed wannabe manga artist Nishi, meets up with his high school crush on the eve of her engagement to another man. At a yakitori bar, he struggles to confess his lingering feelings for her, but is interrupted by a hot-headed ex-football player and his manager who crash into the bar and hold it hostage. Things escalate, and the two assault Myon while Nishi, watching helplessly, gets shot literally up the butt. It’s a brutal, shocking display of violence, amplified by Yuasa’s grotesque, constantly shifting animation style.
As you could guess, Yuasa isn’t for everyone. But you’d be remiss if you avoided the most idiosyncratic, wildly innovating anime director working today. Those first opening minutes of Mind Game only scratch the surface of Yuasa style (and the movie itself, which involves Nishi getting a second chance at the encounter, only for him and Myon to jump off a cliff into the mouth of a whale, where the rest of the movie takes place) and his capacity for testing the limits of animation.
Even within the limits of a two-hour movie, Yuasa can’t seem to decide on an animation style, ping-ponging between flat paper cut-outs, to hastily drawn sketches, and computer-animated…fish? His dizzying, experimental style doesn’t once try to mimic reality, but instead bends it to his whims. It’s no wonder that Yuasa’s one stint in American animation is in the trippy Cartoon Network series Adventure Time, where he tapped into the show’s signature quirky style (and perhaps let it influence his own as well as he heads into family-friendlier territory). His work on Netflix’s Devilman Crybaby exemplifies the best — and worst — of Yuasa’s idiosyncracies (he still has a pretty stunted view of women), but has helped launch him to global success.
Best Film: Mind Game
Latest Film: The Night is Long, Walk On Girl
Mamoru Oshii changed the anime game when he directed his magnum opus Ghost in the Shell in 1995. The groundbreaking cyberpunk film was a watershed moment in anime industry, helping to put anime on the international stage and going on to directly influence the Wachowski’s The Matrix. The 67-year-old Oshii, one of the older directors on this list, resided in a rapidly industrializing Japan where the lines between technology and reality became increasingly blurred. And his catalogue of works, from the Ghost in the Shell movies to his live-action/animation hybrids, tapped into the anxieties that came with growing up in a swiftly shifting society.
Oshii is famous for his philosophy-oriented storytelling and brutally sleek animation style, which always seem to be at the point of bursting — whether in shows of violence or in shows of dazzling beauty, no one could predict. In recent years, Oshii has moved away from directing anime films in favor of hyperstylized live-action films. But his defining impact on the anime industry will never be lost.
Best Film: Ghost in the Shell
Latest Film: Garm Wars: The Last Druid
At only 33, Naoko Yamada is a bit of an anomaly in the anime industry, rapidly rising to prominence from work as an in-betweener (drawing the frames between the key animation) to the shining star of her studio, Kyoto Animation. And as a woman in a male-dominated industry, she is even more of anomaly. But in her brief career, Yamada has amassed a portfolio that most of her male peers would be green with envy over.
Yamada began her career drawing inbetween frames for the popular anime series Inuyasha, back when the studio had only around 100 employees. She paid her dues at Kyoto Animation, rising through the ranks as an episode director for Clannad before making her directorial debut with the 2009 TV series K-On!, a slice of life high school comedy. She would find her niche in the love stories of adolescence, bringing them to sparkling life with her keen eye for the cinematic.
Yamada directed her breakout film fairly recently with 2016’s A Silent Voice, an adaptation of a manga of the same name by Yoshitoki ?ima. But Yamada’s uniquely cinematic approach infused the film with such vibrancy and liveliness that it immediately launched her name to the top of the animation industry. A Silent Voice is visual storytelling at its most powerful, following a teen boy who seeks redemption for bullying a young deaf girl from his childhood. It’s a film that exists in the small non-verbal gestures between characters, the changing colors of the sky, and an odd amount of shots of legs. Yamada describes these small, subconscious movements in her animation style as the key to how she approaches film, saying, “Anime is one frame by one frame with something a human has created to move around. It’s that ‘animation’ process that moves people. You never forget that intent when creating something.”
Best Film: A Silent Voice
Latest Film: Liz and the Blue Bird
Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion)
Sunao Katabuchi (In This Corner of the World)
Kunihiko Ikuhara (Sailor Moon, Revolutionary Girl Utena)
Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll)
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