Though it’s the same artistic medium as most traditionally animated films, Japanese anime tends to be in a class of its own, largely due to the shared aesthetic characteristics of the genre that makes it stand out from Western animation—angular faces, wide eyes, Saiyans charging up their powers for episodes on end, etc.
As anime caters to a different audience, its films likewise have a different commercial reception, which usually depends on which franchises are popular with the kids at that moment at time. That being said, the more fantastical films from Studio Ghibli, a good portion of them directed by anime heavyweight Hayao Miyazaki, have proven to be big hits as well thanks to distribution deals with Disney. The following ten movies have been the most domestically successful (that is, in North America) anime films of all time, with figures courtesy of Box Office Mojo.
10. The Wind Rises, 2014 – $5,137,900
The latest by anime titan Hayao Miyazaki, The Wind Rises is a semi-biographical film about Jiro Horikoshi, who designed two iconic fighter planes for the Japanese Empire—both of which were used quite notoriously during World War II. Miyazaki based the film off of his manga, much as he did with his first original film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind; the manga in turn was loosely adapted from a short story by Tatsuo Hori, which was written in 1937.
Apart from amassing a considerable gross—$132,533,417 worldwide—the film also garnered widespread critical praise, though members of the South Korean criticized it for what they perceived as lionizing the designer of planes that killed thousands (and also had to be built by South Koreans who the Japanese forced into labour). Regardless, The Wind Rises was nominated for dozens of awards, winning quite a few as well.
9. Howl’s Moving Castle, 2005 – $5,850,300
Based on the novel by English author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and depicts the adventures of a young hat-maker, Sophie, who is turned into an old woman by a witch’s curse and finds herself caught up in the escapades of eccentric wizard Howl and his massive, mobile steampunk castle.
Released following the critical and commercial success of 2002’s Spirited Away, the film features a big name English voice cast that includes Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Trilogy), Emily Mortimer (The Newsroom), Billy Crystal (you name it) and Old Hollywood star Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep). While not as acclaimed as Miyazaki’s other films, Howl’s Moving Castle ended on several movie critics’ end-of-year lists for 2005 and won several animation awards. It was also nominated for Best Animated Feature for that year’s Oscars, but lost to Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
8. Spirited Away, 2002 – $13,542,400
Spirited Away is a fairly lighthearted fairy tale, taking some cues from Japanese mythology, about a young girl who finds herself in a resort for spirits, and who must work to rescue her parents (they have been turned into pigs after eating food reserved for said spirits). It was Miyazaki’s breakthrough film in the West, distributed by Disney thanks to the interest of Pixar director John Lasseter, and was produced after a period of semi-retirement. It is universally acclaimed, holding a 97% “Fresh” consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, and was particularly touted by the late film critic Roger Ebert, who considered it one of the best films that year.
7. Digimon: The Movie, 2000 – $14,223,400
And now we come to the cartoon show adaptations. While not as popular as its archival, Pokémon, Digimon was nevertheless a favourite among kids in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The movie covered both the first and second series of the cartoon show, and is divided into three distinct acts—this American release was, in fact, edited from three Japanese-released films. As with the cartoon show, the movie follows the “Digidestined” and their Digimons’ battle against a deadly computer virus. Though the Digimon movie didn’t earn Pokémon levels of cash—and was generally negatively reviewed—it still made a decent amount at the box office.
6. Ponyo, 2009 – $16,093,800
Very loosely adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” Ponyo is a children’s film written and directed—once again—by Hayao Miyazaki that tells the story of an enchanted half-girl, half-fish who becomes fascinated by and wishes to live among humans. Her desire for humanity inadvertently unleashes a massive storm on the local island, where the boy the fish-girl has befriended lives.
Ponyo was one of Studio Ghibli’s biggest productions to date, and its English voice cast includes such big names as Liam Neeson, Tina Fey, Cate Blanchett and Matt Damon. As with most of Miyazaki’s films, it was also very well reviewed.
5. The Secret World of Arrietty, 2012 – $19,278,500
An adaptation of Mary Norton’s children’s novel The Borrowers, The Secret World of Arrietty tells the story of the titular character, a tiny girl who with her similarly-statured family lives beneath the floorboards of a full-grown human’s country home. On her first scavenging trip with her father, Arrietty is discovered by one of the house’s residents, an invalid human boy, who becomes fascinated by her and her family’s miniature lifestyle. Its English cast includes then-married Will Arnett and Amy Poehler as Arrietty’s parents and comedy legend Carol Burnett as a borrower-obsessed housekeeper. While not directed by Miyazaki, The Secret World of Arrietty was co-written by the filmmaker and is Studio Ghibli’s biggest domestic success.
4. Pokémon 3: The Movie, 2001 – $23,981,400
And now, the Pokémon. The third film in the franchise sees Pokémon trainer Ash Ketchum and his friends discovering the enigmatic, hieroglyphic “Unown” creatures and Entei, one of the Pokémon world’s legendary beasts. Like the two proceeding films in the series, it was a box office success, albeit not as much, and received largely negative reviews.
3. Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie, 2004 – $25,336,000
Also known as Yu-Gi-Oh!: Pyramid of Light, this film was a continuation of the hit kid’s cartoon that followed the eponymous card game player, who during his duels with opponents would often be possessed by the spirit of his Egyptian ancestor… yes, you read that correctly. To be fair, Spirited Away features a dragon who is—spoiler alert—actually a river. The film failed to appeal to critics as much as it did to its younger fans, and as a result it is the lowest-rated animated film on aggregate review site Metacritic, as well as the second-lowest on Rotten Tomatoes.
2. Pokémon: The Movie 2000, 2000 – $64,623,200
Pokémon: The Movie 2000, not to be confused with its similarly-titled predecessor, sees Ash and company discovering some of the “Legendary Bird” Pokémon, along with encountering a collector who wishes to capture them so he can awaken an even more powerful bird, Lugia. Though not critically successful—it currently stands at 15% Rotten at Rotten Tomatoes—it was still quite a box office hit.
1. Pokémon: The First Movie, 1999 – $134,192,000
The first and most well-known Pokémon movie focused on Mewtwo, a psychic, feline super-Pokémon cloned from its smaller forebear, Mew. While the film as a whole is relatively kid-oriented and meriting its G-rating, its opening scene, wherein Mewtwo learns he has been created without purpose and violently escapes from the human-operated lab, seems like the Pokémon take on Stephen King’s Carrie. As with its sequels, Pokémon: The First Movie was not a critical darling, but made a significant dent in the box office. To promote the film, theatre-goers received exclusive Pokémon cards
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