Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos Courtesy of Netflix
This article is regularly updated as more titles join or leave Netflix.
There are a few anime movies that American cinephiles will regularly hold up as masterworks of the craft: Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Spirited Away, and the works of Satoshi Kon are among them. As of this writing, Netflix, the largest paid streaming service in the world, licenses none of those titles for streaming in the United States, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have visually arresting features of its own. The best anime films on Netflix are often (a bit) lesser known and in some cases more interesting than the megapopular hits licensed by other services. They’re often just buried under rows upon rows of decision paralysis and the latest infusion of One Piece episodes.
But skipping them would only be doing yourself dirty. “Giving up halfway is worse than never trying,” as the spunky Misato Katsuragi says in The End of Evangelion — one of the visionary anime movies you can watch on Netflix. To that end, we’ve done some legwork to help you out: Below is a curated list of the 15 best anime titles on the service, running across the gamut of genres, running times, and animators worth watching. Included are popular selections like Evangelion as well as hidden gems like a collection of shorts that feature an “animated” invisible man. Prepare to pick your jaw up off the floor.
Running time: Varies
Director: Toshiyuki Kubooka
The late manga creator Kentaro Miura’s Berserk has seen a few anime adaptations now. While the ’90s series is still undefeated, this more recent reimagining as a film trilogy is just as brutally intoxicating. The films’ use of CGI is a mixed bag — the faces at times looking unnaturally stiff even as action scenes faithfully replicate Miura’s gore and bloodshed — but overall, they are a worthy introduction to the series and powerful artworks unto themselves.
Watch it if you love: The Witcher, Dark Souls
Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes
Director: Hiroyuki Seshita
Blame! is the dark, literally. The atmosphere of director Hiroyuki Seshita’s film is oppressively grim, set in the largely lifeless, incredibly massive metal-worked City populated by humans and cyborgs all trying to get through their days without being erased from existence by the City’s so-called Safeguard, a defensive system that can no longer be shut off. It’s as if we only followed the real-world resistance of the heroes of The Matrix films as they traversed the cavernous deserts of long-abandoned machinery, negotiating killer robots along the way.
Watch it if you love: Autómata, Natural City
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes
Director: Tetsurō Araki
Sometimes the kids just want to race across rooftops without falling into the water of post-ecological-disaster Tokyo. After his childhood was permanently shaken by the loss of his parents and the reality-altering flooding of Tokyo with bubbles, a teen named Hibiki throws himself into the sport. Hibiki is a talent, but his trauma and ultrasensitivity to sounds isolate him from his teammates and society at large. Bubble’s action begins when he meets a supernatural mermaidlike creature who helps change all that for the better.
Watch it if you love: Brink!, gravity-defying parkour videos
Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes
Director: Ayumu Watanabe
If surreal, swirling water animation and marine biology are your thing, you could do far worse than this new classic from Studio 4°C. After a young girl gets too aggressive on the handball court, she’s benched and winds up hanging out with a pair of sea-faring kids raised by dugongs. The three find themselves connected to the sea and to water itself: feeling it, manipulating it, and maybe even … becoming it? We’re not totally sure. This movie is slippery when wet but nonetheless stunning to look at.
Watch it if you love: Finding Nemo, The Shape of Water
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Director: Hideaki Anno
Trippy doesn’t cut it when describing the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise. Is it about giant robot fights or identity-crushing mental-health crises? The answer is “Both!” — emphasized across 26 episodes, multiple films, and a remake series of even more films. The End of Evangelion was released in the wake of the TV ending and is an attempt to deliver a more final, externalized version of the events of the last episode, which take place in the recesses of the protagonist’s mind. By contrast, End is fully an action film: Real physical characters do battle, die, and eventually grow to literally moon-size proportions to reshape the world and the human souls upon it. It’s a visual manifestation of the protagonist’s mental journey and director Hideaki Anno’s own feelings toward his franchise, accompanied by live-action real-world footage. The result is annihilating and, ultimately, a masterstroke of meta-surrealist filmmaking.
Watch it if you love: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Twin Peaks
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Director: Nobuyuki Takeuchi, Akiyuki Shinbō
Directed by Nobuyuki Takeuchi (a longtime Studio Ghibli animator) and Akiyuki Shinbō (the director of Puella Magi Madoka Magica and March Comes in Like a Lion), Fireworks’ pops of creativity come through in the visuals more than they do in the writing. This movie can be confusing. Is the marble a tool for time travel? Do these kids talk about anything other than fireworks being round or flat? Is it all just a big “what if” scenario? But Fireworks’ visual expressiveness is what makes it cool, with the images of explosions surrounding the lead characters or the seemingly infinite swirls inside the marble or a swimmer’s hands and body slicing through water. Fireworks may be about a fantasy love triangle among some kids, but it’s really about the vibe, man.
Watch it if you love: A Wrinkle in Time, Primer
Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Director: Li Haoling, Jiaoshou Yi Xiaoxing, Yoshitaka Takeuchi
This gorgeous collaboration between CoMix Wave Films, the Japanese studio behind anime megahit Your Name, and the donghua (Chinese animation) artists at Haoliners Animation League is an anthology set in different regions of China. Flavors of Youth tackles the complexities of young love, fashion, and delicious noodles, rendering each subject in clean, attractive linework. The three short films vary in length, style, and presentation, but they share a wistful, hopeful sense of beauty and their protagonists’ self-actualizations.
Watch it if you love: Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, Night on Earth
Running time: Varies
Director: Kōbun Shizuno, Hiroyuki Seshita
Those cringing at the idea of a CGI-anime Godzilla movie should rest easy as this trilogy of films was made by pros. Directors Kōbun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita collaborated with celebrated writer Gen Urobuchi on Planet of Monsters, City on the Edge of Battle, and The Planet Eater, which are movies in which Godzilla faces off against the future, aliens, Mechagodzilla, and — eventually — King Ghidorah. Admittedly, this isn’t the best spot to start your Godzilla bingeing, which will always be 1954’s Godzilla, but it’s a great futuristic adaptation of the kaiju themes and action of the series.
Watch it if you love: Godzilla (1954), Prometheus
Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes
Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Like Devilman Crybaby, another Netflix title from director Masaaki Yuasa and his animation studio Science Saru, Lu Over the Wall follows cool teens as they collide with adversity, dope music, and ancient magic. In this case, it’s merfolk who emerge from the sea to dance and jam out. Yuasa’s detailed, exaggerated character models are omnipresent, aiming guitars and body parts right at the camera and firing torrents of water magic across the screen.
Watch it if you love: The Little Mermaid, Disney Channel original movie The Thirteenth Year
Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Most firstborns who have had to welcome a younger sibling to the house can probably relate to the plot of Mirai, in which 4-year-old Kun finds his world shaken up by the arrival of his newborn sister. Made before Belle, this one of director Mamoru Hosoda’s recent efforts, and though it’s not quite as visually eye-popping as a film set in virtual reality, its story is more intimate and, frankly, way cuter, as any film about a small child’s imagination tends to be.
Watch it if you love: Bridge to Terabithia, The Skeleton Twins
Running time: Varies
Director: Yoshiyuki Tomino
This is a bit of a cheat: These weren’t all movies originally. The Mobile Suit Gundam film trilogy is a compilation and truncation of the original 1979 Mobile Suit Gundam series. They still absolutely rule if you appreciate giant robots, meditations on the nature of war and peace, and obvious textual comparisons to the rise of Nazism. The series by Yoshiyuki Tomino, with designs by the talented Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, spawned a sprawling franchise that was comparable in Japan to the hype around Star Wars in the States. To dip your toe in: Start with the first film to get a taste, and if you like what you see, finish the trilogy (or watch the full TV series on Crunchyroll), then track down the excellent sequel Zeta Gundam (on Blu-Ray), then watch Char’s Counterattack on Netflix, which is easily the best film of the franchise and functions as a kind of finale to the original series’ characters.
Watch it if you love: Battlestar Galactica, The Forever War
Running time: 53 minutes
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Yoshiyuki Momose, Akihiko Yamashita
An anthology of three shorts by Studio Ponoc, Modest Heroes runs to under an hour and focuses on unexpected protagonists: a family of crabs, a boy allergic to eggs, and a literally invisible man. Directed by former Ghibli animators Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Yoshiyuki Momose, and Akihiko Yamashita, each short is made with a stylistic flourish that jells with its protagonists’ personality or pain, be that the chaos of underwater life or the dour overcast of a man struggling to be seen by those around him.
Watch it if you love: Miranda July movies, The Florida Project
Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes
Director: Naoko Yamada
The defendant: Japanese studio Kyoto Animation. The charge: a persistent focus on the emotional lives of messy teens. In A Silent Voice, that’s Shoya, a high-schooler growing so deeply depressed that he has begun imagining X’s on people’s faces, has to ask his classmates point-blank what the protocol is for making friends, and has even considered ending his life. Things turn around for him when he reconnects with Shoko, a deaf girl he used to bully mercilessly in middle school. Shoya’s rocky, emotionally fraught redemption isn’t easy, nor is it terribly exciting. This isn’t an action movie or a traditionally grand romance. Director Naoko Yamada is a favorite of video-game auteur Hideo Kojima, and in her character study, less is more. The final verdict: a must-watch.
Watch it if you love: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Spectacular Now
Running time: 41 minutes
Director: Junpei Mizusaki (lead)
Muscle cars, burly sword masters, guts, and cyberpunk ultraviolence define practically every moment of this 40-minute extended music video from Sturgill Simpson. Like Daft Punk and Linkin Park before him, the outlaw country musician partnered with respected anime creators on his way to branching out. Junpei Mizusaki of Batman Ninja led a directing team that included Kôji Morimoto (Akira), Michael Arias (Tekkonkinkreet), Arthell Isom (the Weeknd’s “Snowchild” video), and others to create a multipart action spectacle that doesn’t waste a single second. What it all means feels almost intentionally opaque — it’s an album-length music video — but its cuts are deep.
Watch it if you love: Animated music videos, Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem
Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes
Director: Kyōhei Ishiguro
A darling teen rom-com, Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop jumps off the screen in bright, saturated colors. Every moment of this movie, fittingly, looks as if it were spray-painted in neon hues, a tone that complements both its energy and the creativity and vulnerability of its heroes, Cherry, a haiku poet, and Smile, a braces-wearing influencer. They fall to their insecurities and fall for each other as they pick themselves back up. If you’ve seen the Kyōhei Ishiguro’s series Your Lie in April, you may enjoy this latest serving of teen puppy love and music, but take heed: Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop has a happier ending than that series.
Watch it if you love: Eighth Grade, Ingrid Goes West