9 Essential Anime Movies

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Japanese animation has been pushing the boundaries of the field for decades, and Hollywood is only now catching up to the trends that anime films have already set.

In honor of Disney's American release of "The Secret World of Arrietty," which has already grossed $125 million outside the U.S., we're listing the most important masterpieces of the anime genre ... at least the ones that don't feature pervy monsters and Japanese schoolgirls.

'Akira' (1988)

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It goes without saying that Katsuhiro Otomo's glimpse at the futuristic dystopia of Neo-Tokyo is a landmark of both animation and science fiction in general. Biker gang leader Kaneda is forced to do battle with lifelong best friend Tetsuo when the latter's latent psychic powers begin manifesting in horrifying ways. It's a subversive cyberpunk fable which functions as both cautionary tale of military run amok and full-throttle action movie. Though an Americanized live-action remake is in limbo, the original remains as potent as when it kickstarted the anime revolution over 20 years ago.

'Spirited Away' (2001)

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Although all of Hayao Miyazaki's output -- including worldwide sensations like "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Princess Mononoke" -- is essential viewing, this 2001 feature from his famed Studio Ghibli made the Japanese answer to Walt Disney a household name after it won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. A little girl takes a phantasmagorical trip down the rabbit hole into an alternate world of dragons, river spirits, and giant bobbing heads, just to name a few of the surprises in this "Alice In Wonderland"-style fairy tale.

'Ghost In The Shell' (1995) / 'Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence' (2004)

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Taking the essence of the "Blade Runner" aesthetic and philosophical musings on the nature of robo-humanity, and expanding on them tenfold, director Mamoru Oshii created an intricate universe in which a cyborg's programming can become as haunted as one's memory. The original was a key influence on the Wachowskis' "Matrix" trilogy, and the sequel expands on the story of electronically enhanced intelligence agents Batou and Kusanagi while carving out an even more distinctly ambitious style.

'Ninja Scroll' (1993)

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This atmospheric sword-and-sorcery epic set in feudal Japan revolves around a lone wolf drifter hero named Jubei, who gets entangled in the struggle between a small clan and an evil Shogun intent on using a shipment of gold to gain control of the country. As one might expect, the Shogun turns out to be someone from Jubei's past. Although it has everything you could possibly want, from truly strange monsters to graphic sex to blood geysers of violence, it also boasts a surprisingly tender love story between the hero and a warrior woman whose body poisons any man she makes love to.

'Perfect Blue' (1997)

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Here's a great example of animation taking on serious, mature themes beyond typical fantasy tropes. This thriller about a popular singer who becomes an actress, causing a deranged fan to begin killing everyone around her, has many admirers in Hollywood and has drawn comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock. Darren Aronofsky, who befriended the late director Satoshi Kon, used this movie as a template for his own "Black Swan." Kon was a genius animator easily in the same league as Miyazaki or Otomo, as seen in other pictures like "Tokyo Godfathers" and "Paprika."

'Grave of the Fireflies' (1988)

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This tragic story tackles one of the foremost events in the Japanese national consciousness: World War II. Two young children from Kobe, Seita and his sister Setsuko, are left orphaned and homeless after Americans firebomb their city, and are forced to fend for themselves. Roger Ebert called this historical survival tale "an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation."

'Memories' (1995)

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This anthology movie features three unique stories all executed by different animators, and proves an exquisite example of the diversity Japanese animation is capable of. "Magnetic Rose" concerns some outer-space garbagemen who stumble across a massive derelict spaceship that may or may not be inhabited by a disturbed opera diva. "Stink Bomb" is an absurd piece of silliness about a goofy lab technician who takes an experimental pill that unleashes a deadly odor, felling everyone around him. "Cannon Fodder" is a dark satiric parable about a city in which every aspect of life revolves around war.

'Vampire Hunter D' (1985) / 'Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust' (2000)

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Gothic horror meets "Mad Max" as the title dhampir (half-human/half-vampire) rides his horse across the post-apocalyptic wastelands of 12,090 AD slicing and dicing any bloodsuckers that cross his path. With supernatural powers including a left hand with a symbiote face in it (named, cleverly, Left Hand) that can talk and suck massive amounts of energy, D is a laconic, mysterious figure whose mystique is matched by his deadliness. The original is a Lovecraftian treat, and the sequel is a gorgeously rendered baroque improvement.

'Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children' (2005)

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A truly insane motorbike chase and a standoff with a mammoth metalic beast are just two of the reasons to check out this video game tie-in movie that went mostly overlooked Stateside. Although the plot will be mostly indecipherable for non-fans, the use of stylized computer animation by Square Enix Studios brings Anime to a whole other level of vibrant life. A previous entry, "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," took a more generic approach to the franchise, but "Advent Children" is hyperactively imaginative Anime unleashed.