Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki has been making animated films for 60 years, so it’s not unusual to hear him called “the Walt Disney of Japan.” The key differences between Miyazaki and Disney are that Miyazaki is a better writer, and his animated worlds erupt with imagination far beyond most of Disney’s films. Even Miyazaki’s latest film, The Boy and the Heron, has been recognized as a modern masterpiece that ranks among our picks for the best animated movies of 2023.
Miyazaki drew heavily from his own life when telling the story of Mahito Maki, a 12-year-old Japanese boy who loses his mother in a tragic fire during World War II. In his grief, Mahito encounters a grey heron who speaks to him and promises to reunite him with his mother if Mahito agrees to come with him. From there, it’s another fantastical journey that Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have mastered over the decades.
It would be easy to fill up our choices for three movies like The Boy and the Heron that you should watch with only Miyazaki’s films. You really can’t go wrong with any of the Studio Ghibli films. But in the interest of moving beyond Ghibli, our picks all came from other animation studios. The one thing that they all have in common is a blend of fantasy and reality while its young characters come of age.
Your Name was such a blockbuster worldwide that even non-anime fans may have heard of it. The body-swapping premise is simple and yet extremely effective as high school students Taki Tachibana and Mitsuha Miyamizu inexplicably trade places with each other. Taki and Mitsuha have never met before, but they each have to live out a day in the other’s body before they can switch back.
Over time, Taki and Mitsuha figure out how to communicate with each other, and they even find ways to improve their respective lives. However, their experience has created a bond that neither of them fully understands. They don’t realize that the space between them is more than it seems, and they may never get to meet each other in person.
Watch Your Name on Crunchyroll.
Mirai is not the star of the movie that shares her name. Instead, the main character is Kun, a 4-year-old boy with much to learn about empathy. Kun is angered by the way his parents dote on his new baby sister, Mirai, as he feels that their attention should be his alone.
Kun soon finds himself experiencing things beyond mere reality, like swapping places with the family dog or encountering a 14-year-old Mirai from the future. Kun’s magical journey includes brief trips back in time where he can see for himself how his family came to be and what he needs to become. But none of that will matter unless Kun accepts his sister as a part of his life.
One of the common themes among anime fantasy films is that magic is real, but magical power also has its limits. There’s a magic tunnel in The Tunnel to Summer, The Exit of Goodbyes that can grant wishes to people who use it, but the price is high. In a small town in Japan, high school students Kaoru Touno and Anzu Hanashiro separately discover the mythical Urashima Tunnel, and they bond while attempting to determine how to use its wishing powers to give them their heart’s desire.
One of the first things they learn is that time spent inside the tunnel moves more slowly than the outside world. Kaoru and Anzu like each other but are reluctant to share what they really want from the tunnel. But only one of them is willing to give themselves over to the power of the tunnel fully, even if it means they can never go back to the life they had outside.
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