Anime films have had an enormous impact abroad, with classics like Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and the collected works of Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon achieving international acclaim for their vision and aesthetic uniqueness. All of these films are well-deserved in their celebration, but anime fans looking to dig a little deeper will find an array of obscure, bizarre, and criminally underrated works out there.
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Some movies lost to time and obscurity showcase some of the most innovative works in Japanese animation despite their lack of mainstream success. Thankfully, with the advent of online streaming platforms, it’s now easier than ever to check out these forgotten classics.
10 Tekkonkinkreet (2006)
Tekkonkinkreet’s playful character design and abstract visuals might lead some viewers to conclude that the film is similarly fun, but the out-there aesthetics actually compliment a very dark and frequently tragic story about two boys trying to protect their haphazard cityscape from the encroaching threat of greedy businessmen, yakuza, and other such threats.
The story is at once a coming-of-age tale, and a portrait of a city trying to preserve its identity against forces that seek to erode it for the sake of profit. The outrageous animation and exceptionally distinctive art style also do a lot to bolster the film’s appeal, making it a must-watch for those with an affinity for the experimental.
9 Dead Leaves (2004)
● Available on Tubi
Dead Leaves is an early work directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, who would go on to make the legendary Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann in 2007, and Dead Leaves includes many of the signature stylistic elements that shine through in his later projects. Two amnesiac criminals on a crime spree are imprisoned in the space penitentiary “Dead Leaves”, and things escalate from there.
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Following that is approximately 50 minutes of the most unhinged, face-melting, non-stop bizarre action ever to be produced in the world of anime. Imaishi and his team clearly threw reason out the window early in production, choosing instead to follow the unrestrained spirit of animation to the end of the movie. Dead Leaves is available for rental on Amazon, so don’t miss out.
8 Night On The Galactic Railroad (1985)
● Available on Tubi
A cat named Giovanni is dissatisfied with life; overwhelmed by the social pressures of school, and isolated from meaningful social connections by his work, but everything changes when he finds himself inexplicably whisked to the edge of the universe on the galactic railroad.
Adapted from the Japanese children’s novel of the same name, Night on the Galactic Railroad is a story of self-discovery and a cat’s struggle to find meaning in his day-to-day. The dreamlike aesthetics of the movie help sell a poetic sort of tone as the journey on the galactic railroad travels through space and time. Check this one out on Amazon, Retrocrush, or Crunchyroll.
7 Neo Tokyo (1987)
An anthology movie in three parts from titans of anime cinema Rintaro, Yoshiaki Kajiwari, and Katsuhiro Otomo, Neo Tokyo is a wild, confrontational, and experimental science fiction spread. From the psychedelic first entry Labyrinth Labyrinthos, to the nightmarish sci-fi death race in Running Man, to the absurdly Kafkaesque Construction Cancellation Order, these three features each offer something unique and fascinating.
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It’s unlikely that all of these entries will be everyone’s cup of tea, but the originality of concept and experimental visuals featured in each are sure to grab a viewer’s attention in at least one of the short stories featured in Neo Tokyo. Unfortunately, fans might have a little bit of trouble getting their hands on this underrated classic. It’s worth checking Mubi occasionally, but for those without patience, it might be best simply to purchase a DVD copy.
6 Barefoot Gen (1983)
● Available on Prime Video
Barefoot Gen is a 1983 adaptation of a semi-autographical manga by Nakazawa Keiji, a survivor of the nuclear strike on Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War. A boy at the time of the bombing, Keiji based the manga off of his experience of the aftermath, and as such the film adaptation follows the main character’s struggle to survive in that harsh environment.
Barefoot Gen is notable for, among other things, perhaps the most visceral depiction of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima in animation. The film goes to great lengths not to spare the audience any of the horror that accompanied the event, and the result is a powerful antiwar story, streaming both on Amazon Prime and Retrocrush.
5 Mind Game (2004)
● Available on Hoopla and VRV
2004’s Mind Game is a lesser-known work in Masaaki Yuasa’s (of Devilman Crybaby and Tatami Galaxy fame) filmography, but also one of his most experimental. The plot is, to say the least, a little bit difficult to describe. After reconnecting with his high school crush, protagonist Nishi is murdered by gangsters and meets an uncooperative trickster god in the afterlife. What follows is a bizarre, surrealist story of reanimation, yakuza, and unrequited love.
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Yuasa is known for his willingness to push boundaries with animation and aesthetics, and there aren’t many works of his where that’s more true than in Mind Game. This is a movie that took one look at the rulebook of animation before throwing it in the trash and setting it on fire. For that alone, it isn’t to be missed, and it can be viewed on VRV and Hoopla.
4 Interstella 5555 (2003)
● Available on Qello Concerts
Interstella 5555 is an animated musical from Daft Punk featuring art direction and character designs from Leiji Matsumoto, the legendary mangaka behind such classics as Space Battleship Yamato. And yes, you did read that right: Daft Punk once made an anime musical with Leiji Matsumoto. A band of alien musicians is kidnapped by an evil Earthling record producer, and it’s up to space pilot Shep to rescue them and restore their true identities.
The story takes somewhat of a back seat to music and visuals here, but that isn’t an issue because the music and visuals are both predictably awesome, and this groovy space opera is sure to thrill both sci-fi and Daft Punk fans. The movie remains somewhat unknown on account of its limited streaming options, but these days it’s thankfully available through Qello Concerts on Amazon.
3 Spring And Chaos (1996)
“Unbeaten by the rain, Unbeaten by the wind” read the opening lines of Ame ni no Makezu, a work from one of the greatest poets of 20th century Japan, Kenji Miyazawa. 1996’s Spring and Chaos is a biographical retelling of the poet’s life in anime, directed by the mastermind behind the mecha classic Macross, Shoji Kawamori. Befitting the biography of a great poet, Spring and Chaos is presented with visual surrealism and narrative intensity.
Like the work of its subject, Spring and Chaos is lyrically beautiful in visuals and bittersweet in concept, using the artistic freedom of animation to tell a resonantly true-to-life story. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find Spring and Chaos streaming on major platforms. It is occasionally available on Mubi, and on DVD through various retailers.
2 Belladonna Of Sadness (1973)
● Available on Tubi and IMDb TV
Belladonna of Sadness is based on the 19th-century work of French historian Jules Michelet, La Sorcière, a book on Satanism and witchcraft. In this psychedelic watercolor nightmare, a woman named Jeanne is assaulted on her wedding night by a man of the nobility. Finding no recourse in the mortal realm, Jeanne makes a pact with the devil himself to achieve her retribution.
Featuring hypnotic, abstract visuals, Belladonna of Sadness is guaranteed to be unlike anything even a seasoned anime fan has come across before. Anyone looking for something with an out-there concept, or intensely experimental visuals will want to check this out on Kanopy or Fandor.
1 Time Of Eve: The Movie (2010)
● Available for purchase on iTunes
Time of Eve is a heartfelt movie set in the not-too-distant Tokyo of the future, envisioning a world where robotics technology has progressed to the point that household androids, all but indistinguishable from humans, have become commonplace. Two boys stumble across an underground cafe called the Time of Eve, one where the differences between androids and humans are erased entirely.
The “robots become sentient” story has been told before in sci-fi classics like Blade Runner, but Time of Eve is refreshingly optimistic in its presentation, dropping the cynicism of its genre counterparts for a hopeful optimism about mankind’s future with machines. Two versions of the story are available: with the film version on iTunes, and the shorter episodic version on Crunchyroll.
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About The Author
(61 Articles Published)
Adam Beach is a recent university graduate based out of Austin, Texas who has spent the pandemic playing far too many video games and watching entirely too much anime. Now writing for ScreenRant, he has the opportunity to translate those experiences into his own content. In the past he has been a Model UN instructor, intern for the Government of Rwanda, and full-time student, all of which involved producing a wide range of written material. He also enjoys movies, philosophy, and Mongolian throat singing.
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