12. Princess Mononoke
Hayao Miyazaki, along with Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo and Ghost In The Shell helmer Mamoru Oshii, is one of the filmmakers most responsible for pushing anime out of the ghetto of geek subculture and into the arena of international respectability afforded to “real” cinema.
His work states as firmly as any other that Japanese animation is as viable and as worthy of inclusion in the classical canon as the best work of Disney Studios. He accomplished this feat by telling stories that strike an almost elemental note of myth and enchantment, assembling out of the standard parts and pieces of mainstream anime visuals that one feels have never been seen before, a quality of experience that may never be replicated again.
The message of Miyazaki’s masterpiece is unmistakable: rampant human consumption of nature will eventually lead to death and destruction, and well as the despoilment of all that is beautiful in the world. Set in medieval Japan, the story follows Ashitaka, the prince of a primitive tribe who becomes infected by a dangerous substance that has overtaken the body of a boar god, turning it into a grotesque demon. He seeks out the domain of the Forest God, where he might find a cure for his affliction.
In doing so, he comes across Irontown, an establishment run by a woman named Lady Eboshi who is determined to do away with all of the gods of the forest so she can use its resources without interference. With the aid of a young girl raised by wolves (the Princess Mononoke of the title), the prince tries to put a stop to Eboshi’s plan to kill the Forest God and wage a war of genocide against the rest of the forest spirits. When the god is decapitated, the act unleashes a destructive force that threatens to annihilate the entire world.
Miyazaki’s parable is a detailed analogue of the modern world. Irontown employs former prostitutes and the diseased to assemble weapons for the war, suggesting the way in which industry often employs the desperate to further its production goals. Irontown itself symbolizes the worst aspects of human civilization, setting itself against the natural world to not only its own detriment but that of any living thing that gets in its way.
Toward the end, the human ambition to control nature through violence results in a catastrophe, a story element that can be applied to contemporary dangers such as climate change, meltdowns at nuclear power plants or possible earthquakes caused by hydraulic fracturing—any of them fit the theme of this visually breathtaking, one-of-a-kind film that can simply not be praised enough.
11. Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare
As two grave robbers raid a tomb in the ruins of ancient Babylon, they awaken a powerful demon called Daimon, who flies to Japan to wreak havoc. Once there, he drinks the blood of a samurai magistrate and one of his underlings, possessing their bodies and demanding that the household shrines be destroyed. Daimon’s activities are noticed by a kappa living in the pond outside the house, who tries to fight the demon to no avail. His yokai friends provide little help, not believing his tale of a strange monster they’ve never heard of.
However, as the possessed magistrate sends his servant out to bring him children from nearby farms so he can subsist on their blood, two escaped youngsters implore the yokai to help. After several unsuccessful attempts to trounce the evil Daimon, they call on all the yokai of Japan to declare war on the interloper, fearing the reputation of Japanese supernatural beings will be forever tarnished if they can’t send him packing.
Part of a trilogy of films produced by Daiei Motion Picture Company from 1968 to 1969, Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare is an almost perfect kids’ film, provided parents can overlook infrequent—and fairly minimal—bloodshed and mild cursing (the other condition would be kids that are good at reading subtitles or speak fluent Japanese).
The movie is fast-paced, fun and colorful, making use of dazzling—and, for the time, quite sophisticated—special effects, giving it the same level of production value found in the studio’s other fantasy trilogy of Daimajin films, and the kid-friendly feel of their Gamera series. Also a lot of fun for adults keen to learn something about Eastern folklore.
10. Vampire Hunter D
Out of the wild and woolly world of the 1980s comes this inspired exercise in animated sci-fi/horror. No CGI enhancement, no giant robots, just a harsh, fantastical dystopia of undead overlords and sinister demons. The vampire hunter named D, a direct descendant of Count Dracula, takes on a 10,000-year-old vampire who holds an entire region in his terrifying grip. Helping him fight the ancient bloodsucker and his minions are a scimitar-like longsword and the face on the palm of his hand that dispenses (often unwanted) advice and criticism and well as giving D an extra edge in healing from injuries.
Vampire Hunter D takes place very smartly not in a high-tech futuristic society but rather in a far-flung time that bears all the trappings of 19th-century Europe while also including science fiction elements such as laser rifles—a kind of steampunk by default, if you will. Like all great anime, it creates a world that is unique in its depiction of time and place, intermingling horror, science fiction, period drama, and fantasy, tailor-made for those who enjoy supernatural fiction with a touch of inventiveness and class. Based on a series of novels by Hideyuki Kikuchi.
A ragged samurai named Kibakichi walks a lonely country road and finds himself confronted by sword-wielding ruffians. What follows is a fight that leads to cleanly severed limbs and high-pressure bloodspray. The warrior pushes on, coming to a village where the main business appears to be a gambling house run by yokai (Japanese demons from ancient folklore).
The yokai have made deal with a nearby feudal lord—they kill and eat criminals who stop in their village to gamble in exchange for peace. But Kibakichi knows better. His own village, populated by werewolves such as himself, was wiped out by humans who had promised to leave them alone. As the supernatural beings debate, the feudal lord’s henchman acquire guns and explosives from a Western power and plan to use them to wipe out the yokai for good.
If you take a bit of Lone Wolf and Cub, throw in a little of Joe Dante’s The Howling, and stir in some of the visual sensibility of Lucio Fulci, you’ll have something that strongly resembles Kibakichi, a sort of period horror anime presented in live action. After a strong start, it gets kind of dull in the second act, but stick with it: this is a movie that seems to have been made with the finale chiefly in mind.
The character Kibakichi transforms into a werewolf to fight the gun-toting samurai clan, leaping and flipping, dodging exploding grenades, going one-on-one with a yokai cyclops, and employing wolfman hand-to-hand combat. If the entire movie were like its last fifteen minutes, it would be a masterpiece. Taken for what it is, it’s an enjoyably cheesy, bloody supernatural romp with a killer ending.
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