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— by Carl Davis

From the time Disney's "Snow White" first hit the big screen seven decades ago, the animated film has been a mainstay of popular culture — in the U.S. and around the globe. Nowhere is this more true than in Japan, where animation has become so stylized and sophisticated that its particular contribution to the genre has earned its own moniker: "Anime."

Considered to be one of the masters of anime is Hayao Miyazaki. Often called the "Walt Disney of Japan," it's no wonder that the filmmaker and his legendary Ghibli studio partnered with Disney's Miramax to release his impressive collection of films here in the states. Beginning with 1997's "Princess Mononoke," to his latest flight of fancy, "Howl's Moving Castle," Miramax has been offering up Miyazaki's works to audiences in both their original Japanese and all-star dubbed versions. No matter what language it's in, the release of a new Miyazki movie is a big deal and "Howl's Moving Castle" provides an excellent opportunity for us to look back at some of the greatest anime films of all time, out on DVD.

"Appleseed" (2004)

The year is 2131 A.D., and the world has been devastated by years of war. Now, the remnants of humanity and their greatest creation, the genetically engineered "bioroids," are trying to rebuild society. Smarter and stronger than humans, but also sterile, the bioroids have built the technological utopia of Olympus. When humans attack the bioroid-controlled city, the mercenary Deunen and her cyborg lover, Briareos, are forced to choose sides. The meditations on existence take a backseat to the non-stop action in this visually groundbreaking, big-budget, theatrical remake of Masamune Shirow's manga (comic book) of the same name. Director Shinji Aramaki combines traditional hand-drawn animation with cutting-edge computer technology in a process called "cel-shading." This gives the film a more fluid look and much greater depth than 2-D animation alone and could help to revolutionize the future of anime.

"Spirited Away" (2001) / "Princess Mononoke" (1997)

Miyazaki won an Oscar in 2003 for "Spirited Away," his anime masterpiece. Still the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan, the movie tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl whose greedy parents are turned into pigs while she is put to work in a bizarre resort for a horde of monsters and demons. As much a critique on
rampant consumerism as it is an "Alice in Wonderland"-style adventure, Chihiro's journey is actually one of self-discovery, as she matures from a spoiled brat into a responsible, self-confident young woman. The theatrical release of "Princess Mononoke" helped to introduce Miyazki to a larger audience here in the U.S. Set in 14th-century Japan, the movie follows Ashitaka, who receives a fatal wound defending his village from a demon and must seek out the deer god, Shishigami, to help cure him. Along the way, he becomes embroiled in the battle between the wolf god, Moro, and the miners of Iron Town. San, a young girl who was raised by Moro, is his only hope of ending the conflict and finding Shishigami. Miyazki's message about the sacredness of the natural environment isn't lost among the action and violence — rather, it's handled with his trademark blend of beauty and sophistication.

"Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust" (2000)

The long-awaited sequel to the anime cult hit, "Vampire Hunter D," "Bloodlust" finds the titular anti-hero hired by a rich family to retrieve their young daughter from the vampire, Meier Link. This won't be easy, for in the year 12,090 A.D., vampires rule the night and their many minions keep them well-guarded. D, part human and part vampire, is not easily deterred — but neither is his competition, the Marcus brothers, a motley crew of hunters also contracted by the girl's family to increase chances of her return to safety. This anime is not for those with weak hearts or stomachs, as D must hack and slash his way through a never-ending horde of mutated monstrosities in order to rescue the girl and claim his reward.

"Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade" (1998)

Set in an alternate timeline in which Japan and the Axis forces won World War II — but Japan is shortly thereafter occupied by their former Nazi allies. In this neo-fascist regime, Kazuki Fuse is an officer with the jackbooted Metro Police whose orders are to weed out the anti-government guerillas known as "The Sect." On a routine patrol he encounters a beautiful young woman on a suicide mission — a young woman who has already activated the bomb she's wearing. Kazuki can only watch in horror as she dies. Haunted by her memory, Kazuki breaks down upon finding her twin sister, who has plans of her own for him. In recent years, this has become an even more fascinating film to watch, as it paints both the terrorists and their hunters in very human shades of gray.

"Perfect Blue" (1997)

The theme and tone of Satoshi Kon's taut psychological thriller illustrate the amazing range of storytelling in the world of anime. The film follows the career trajectory of Mima, a pop idol who leaves her successful singing group and squeaky-clean image behind in order to pursue a career as a serious actress by taking a role as a sexy bad girl on a TV show. She soon finds her life turned upside down, however, as a deranged fan begins to murder her closest associates and a mysterious Web site appears with intimate pictures and details about her private life. Almost 10 years after the movie's debut, the mysteries it examines — the cult of celebrity, the perils of obsession, the limits of privacy — are more relevant and disturbing than ever.

"Ghost In The Shell" (1996)

The landmark anime of the '90s, celebrated as much for its arresting visual style as for its philosophizing on the meaning of life. In the year 2029, technology is everywhere — even inside us. A mysterious super hacker known only as the Puppet Master has discovered a way to enter human minds and wipe out their memories. It's up to cyborg officer Motoko Kusanagi of the Section Nine force to discover who the Puppet Master is and stop him. However, when the equally mysterious Section Six become involved, Kusanagi begins to question the nature of her own existence — an existence that only the Puppet Master may hold the answers to. Based on the manga of Masamune Shirow, "Ghost in the Shell" questions the very nature of humanity in a world rife with technology.

"Ninja Scroll" (1993)

One of the most popular film genres in Japan, "chanbara," or the Samurai film, hasn't received nearly the kind of attention that science fiction has in the world of anime. Still, "Ninja Scroll" is a dazzling and vibrant film with colorful action sequences that practically leap off the screen. The film chronicles the adventures of the wandering ninja Jubei, who rescues the beautiful Kagero from the clutches of a vicious monster. Jubei quickly falls in love with the woman, only to discover that her poisoned blood makes her pale skin lethal to the touch. The monster that attacked her was just one of the Eight Devils of Kimon, who are moving to overthrow the Shogun, and only Jubei and Kagero can stop them.

"Grave Of The Fireflies" (1998)

Based on writer Akiyuki Nosaka's autobiographical novel, "Grave Of The Fireflies" is a harrowing drama and one of best antiwar movies ever made. Set in Japan during World War II, it follows the lives of a boy, Seita, and his young sister, Setsuko. Their father is a Japanese naval officer who is off fighting in the war. When their mother is killed during a bombing raid, they are forced to try and survive on their own. With little in the way of traditional action, this film instead focuses on the horror of war far from the battlefields, specifically the damage it inflicts on its most helpless victims: children.

"Akira" (1987)

In the post-apocalyptic city of Neo-Tokyo, Kandea and Tetsuo are members of a local motorcycle gang. When Tetsuo is bombarded with a mysterious energy source, giving him phenomenal mental and physical powers, Kaneda must race to find him before the military can turn him into their experimental guinea pig. Based on the mind-bending manga by Katsuhiro Otomo, "Akira" was a surprise hit when it was released theatrically here in the U.S., converting filmgoers from all walks of life with its visual sophistication and mature story line and creating a legion of anime fans in the process.

"Be Forever Yamato" (1980)

The third in the revered "Space Battleship Yamato" series of films — better known here in the U.S. through its televised version, "Star Blazers." The year is 2202 A.D. and Earth has fallen under the control of the Black Star Empire. It's up to the heroic Kodai and the Earth Defense Force to use the awesome might of the Yamato's wave-motion gun to strike back at the would-be conquerors and free the planet from their clutches. A modern-day classic, "Be Forever Yamato" has gone on to influence a majority of the "Space Opera" anime series that are so popular with filmmakers and fans today, a quarter-century after its release.

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Photos: Buena Vista Pictures

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