From Miyazaki to Shinkai: The 10 best ‘feel-good’ anime films on Netflix
(Credit: Studio Ghibli)


From Miyazaki to Shinkai: The 10 best ‘feel-good’ anime films on Netflix

Unlike American cartoons that focus on the movement of the mouth, anime is a far nuanced and refined version in which the character arcs and aesthetically pleasing backgrounds are given higher importance. The history of anime can be traced to the beginning of the 20th century, with Superman, Jun’ichi Kouchi and Seitaro Kitayama being the “fathers of anime”. After promoting propaganda films in the World War II years, anime developed largely in the 1970s, when it detached itself from the Western roots and started creating ingenious sub-genres. It is during this time that Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii and the like gained popularity. With the advent of Dragon Ball, the cyberpunk genre gained popularity in the 1980s.  The late 1980s witnessed the evolution of many sub-genres as well as experimental films.

It is during this time in 1985 that Hayao Miyazaki founded his animation film studio, Studio Ghibli. The name Ghibli was coined by the father himself, derived from the Libyan Arabic word for “hot desert wind”, the idea being the studio would “blow a new wind through the anime industry”. Headed by Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki, Studio Ghibli created its unique aesthetic which won hearts all over the world. With incredibly detailed and surreal backdrops, phenomenal character arcs and lovely music, Studio Ghibli changed the course of anime in the history of world cinema. Also well-known for the brilliant food items portrayed in the movies, Ghibli food items have become popular all over the world. Having received numerous prestigious awards, they have been nominated at the Academy Awards four times and have one ‘Best Animated Feature Film’ Award in 2003 for Spirited Away.

On melancholic days, for a good ‘slice of life’ and feel-good- anime, one must tune into Studio Ghibli films or the ones that follow the similar aesthetics. So, what makes the Ghibli oeuvre so immersive and magnetic? According to Asher Isbrucker, it is their ‘immersive realism’. Although being turned into a dragon or being raised by wolves is not realistic, the powerhouse manages to create rich and detailed narratives that feel real because of their detail and fervour. Ghibli-Esque animation houses too, have tried to emulate their predecessor and have somewhat succeeded.

Netflix, as always, is our saving grace in these trying times. Very graciously, Netflix has purchased rights of numerous ‘feel-good’ anime movies (although fans are still mad at the streaming company for not having acquired rights to Grave of the Fireflies). Here are ten best anime films on Netflix that have been termed ‘feel-good’ due to the relatability of the characters, their stories and their dialogic exchange, that makes the audience laugh and cry with them.

Let’s get started.

The 10 best anime films on Netflix:

10. Flavours of Youth (Yoshitaka Takeuchi, Haoling Li, Jiaoshou, 2018)

This is an anthology film separated into three distinct segments named Hidamari no Choshoku (The Rice Noodles), Chiisana Fashion Show (A Little Fashion Show), and Shanghai Koi (Love in Shanghai). Set in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai respectively, the film chronicles a boy’s nostalgia trapped in a steaming bowl of rice noodles, a fashion model, overwhelmed by her fading beauty, reconciles with her sister and finally establishes herself, while the third story is a bittersweet reminiscence of the pangs of first love.

Stunning visuals embedded in a realistic story, the fil makes the viewers fall hopelessly in love with the cityscape, bustling with life and vigour. All three narratives find a common ground in accepting the wavering nature of life. The character arcs are beautiful in the end as they undergo emotional and spiritual development. Life is not always a bed of roses but by returning to memories of a noddle shop Ming frequented with his grandmother, he finds peace. Yi Lin and her sister Lulu reconnect over a red dress and broken dreams, only to build their one unified dream. Two young lovers, Xiao Yu and Li Mo, bond over innocence, young love and recorded tapes. The three stories add a strange wistfulness to the atmosphere and a yearning to go back home. The intimate setting helps the viewers taste a concoction of regret and redemption, love, longing and loss.

“I don’t know why, I felt this would last forever.”

9. Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata, 1991)

27-year-old spinster, Taeko Okajima, has lived and worked in Tokyo all her life. During her visit to her sister’s family in Yamagata for the annual safflower harvest, Taeko has a heart-to-heart with herself and her memories, where she dives deep into dreams about her childhood. During the course of her stay, she reminisces about the pleasures and frustrations of childhood, her journey through puberty, and questions her life decisions as an adult.

Abound in pineapples, love and memories, Only Yesterday sets a mellow, rueful mood. It explores an entirely new realm compared to traditional surreal anime setting. It is a realistic drama targeted at the adult audience, mainly women. Taeko’s journey from childhood to adolescence is relatable; the mundane and unforgiving life she leads in Tokyo exacts sympathy. While it is a brilliant commentary on the condition of women in 1960s-2980s Japanese society, it does not completely eschew the fantasy elements and recreates the magic in brilliant animation, bittersweet dialogues and a “tear-jerkingly satisfying ending”.

“If today’s no good, you’ll have tomorrow. If tomorrow’s no good, you’ll have the next day.”

8. Kiki’s Delivery Service (Hayao Miyazaki, 1989)

A young witch names Kiki goes on an epic adventure with her talking cat, Jiji. She reaches the port city of Koriko for a one-year training and starts her own delivery service on a flying broom. While saving her friend Tombo from an aerial crash, she finally regains confidence. Kiki’s transition from being a sheltered girl to independence and adulthood is a journey the viewers undertake along with the protagonist herself.

The film is a “heart-warming, gorgeously-rendered tale of a young witch discovering her place in the world.” Although it highlights the journey towards independence, it is not too preachy. A coming-of-age story, the film highlights on Kiki’s slow but steady acceptance of herself which results in the development of self-confidence and an indomitable spirit to conquer everyday challenges. Light-hearted and funny, Jiji and Kiki have their share of fun. Kiki’s personal and emotional evolution is somewhat cathartic- although she is disillusioned by the harsh experiences in unchartered territory when she firsts visit Koriko, she falls in love with life once again.

“We each need to find our own inspiration. Sometimes it’s not easy.”

7. My Neighbour Totoro (Goro Miyazaki, 1988)

Set in 1958 Japan, two young girls, Satsuki ad Mei, move into an old house with their father, Tatsuo Kusakabe, while their ailing mother is in the hospital. The girls encounter a mystic creature, an adorable and fuzzy susuwatari, named Totoro, who exists as their guardian angel, watching over them and helping them in times of distress. Considered as Miyazaki’s breakthrough film, My Neighbour Totoro has amassed a great cult following all over the world after its release. Totoro, now a pop-cultural phenomenon, has also been the Studio Ghibli mascot for the longest time.  

The heart-warming movie is set in a “modern and nostalgic” world. The film creates an extremely believable world where humans and the supernatural coexist in harmony. The evocative backgrounds and the overall vibrance and colours gift a rich and luxurious cinematic experience to the viewers. Miyazaki hand-crafted the design of Totoro, a fictitious spirit; however, he drew inspiration from the Shinto religion by infusing the traits of the kami (holy powers) into the watchful eyes of Totoro who exists as a guardian angel to the sisters. It is an enchanting and immersive experience; instead of trying to find logic in this film which is a clever blend of scary, sappy and moving, one must indulge their imagination with this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

“Everybody, try laughing. Then whatever scares you will go away!”

6. Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)

Princess Mononoke is set in the late Muromachi period in Japan. It follows the story of a young prince named Ashitaka who gets involved in the conflict between the gods of the forest and the greedy humans who consume the resources recklessly. Princess Mononoke and the wolf god, Moro, is enraged. Ashitaka tries to be a peaceful mediator which enhances the conflict. Princess Mononoke sat on the throne for being the highest-grossing film at the Japanese box office till Spirited Away outdid it in 2001.

The film has extraordinary and mystical aesthetics. Despite the looming conflict, there is a sense of calm and comfort. It is a wonderful take on the abuse of the environment and its resources at the hands of humans who love to appease their greed at the cost of other’s misery. As an animated film should, Princess Mononoke “creates a new existence in their own right”. Wonderful adventures and fascinating character backstories lend a personal touch to the film. A philosophical love story plays out parallelly; in a poignant and heart-breaking scene, San and Ashitaka, the star-crossed lovers, agree that they cannot be with each other and must let each other go. Miyazaki’s humanism is intrinsically woven into the film to the point where it is masterful. Although a fantasy film, it delivers hard-hitting realistic facts which remain etched in the viewer’s mind long after the credits roll out.

“Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed. But still you find reasons to keep living.”

5. A Silent Voice (Naoko Yamada, 2016)

The film begins with a boy attempting in suicide and the plot unravels in a series of flashbacks. New student, Shoko Nishimiya is deaf and gets bullied mercilessly for it. She tries to mingle with others which annoys the class bully Shoya Ishida. In a physical altercation, Shoko I physically hurt and she transfers to another school, while Ishida keeps her notebook. This leads to Ishida being an outcast; years later, when Ishida finally learns what Shoko wanted to convey, they meet once again and life comes to a full circle.

Beautiful and heartbreaking, the film is not a typical American high school film with leggy lasses and hunky-dory blonde boys. Instead, it deals with ubiquitous issues including bullying, depression and suicide. Ishida’s moral development is heart-rendering. When he finally gets redemption, the audience will surely be moved to tears. The adolescent mind choked with conflicting emotions of harbouring secret crushes and insecurities have been wonderfully portrayed. Shoko was the one who could not hear but Ishida refused to listen; their scene where Shoko finally forgives Shoya helps the latter find peace. Their rocky friendship and blossoming love are sure to wet viewers’ handkerchiefs with happy tears. The top-class animation involving cherry blossoms and koi fishes exude comfort. Never before has a film explored bullying from the perspective of a bully- the bully’s transformation promotes him from being a subject of loathing to that of empathy. The film is a fulfilling and endearing experience, to say the least.

“Back then, if we could have heard each other’s voices, everything would have been so much better.”

4. From Up on Poppy Hill (Goro Miyazaki, 2011)

In a classic tale where rapid modernisation is pitted against traditions and nostalgia, Goro Miyazaki’s film reeks of the pains caused by the wars, love, heartbreaks and the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. It is about two individuals, entangled in tragedies of their own, trying to find closure. It is about protecting the rundown but wondrous clubhouse, better known as Quartier Latin, from being demolished. It is about guarding the sanctity of their imagination which manifests itself in the form of the clubhouse. A refreshing and mellowed tone, the depth of the characters is understood via their families and past events that have affected their psyche deeply. Gorgeous and detailed visuals remain the highlight of the film. Unlike the usual Studio Ghibli, there is more realism than fantasy; fantasy and surrealism manifest itself in form of the characters, bicycle rides and growing love.

Umi Matsuzaki is a responsible young pre-adult who, in memory of her father, raises signal flags every day to pray for safe voyages. Shun Kazama dedicates a poem to her and they grow closer to each other, joining forces to preserve their beloved clubhouse from being demolished in the wake of rapid beautification before Tokyo Olympics.

“There’s no future for people who worship the future, and forget the past.”

3. In this Corner of the World (Sunao Katabuchi, 2017)

Dark yet beautiful, this film records the life of common people in a war-plagued Japan during the Second World War. Suzu, an innocent young woman from Eba in Hiroshima, got married to a navy civilian, Shusaku. She moves to Kure, a port city around an hour away from Hiroshima. With the war reaching its pinnacle, Suzu has to battle personal loses and emotional trauma while shouldering her duties, and also contend with the return of her childhood friend Tetsu.

Sunao Katabuchi paints the picture of war-ridden Japan with immense skill and sensitivity. Suzu’s indomitable spirit despite the innumerable hardships is commendable. At one point of time in the film, she says, “I wanted to die a daydreamer”, which foreshadows the effects of war; war gives nothing but suffering and takes away dreams and the very little one has left. The deplorable conditions of the people, daily air raids and limited rations are painted with an innate sensibility; Katabuchi never loses sight of his main objective, portraying the horrors via masterly brush strokes. “In This Corner of the World is a stark reminder of what wartime does to those ethereal elements of humanity that we truly need to survive: dreaming, art, love, etc. We are all lessened by war.” It provides an insight into the lives of people living in rural Japan and their reaction to the harrowing tragedy. The film ends on a positive note where despite their immense loss, the family relocates to a new place in new-born Japan. It is, however, a poignant and heart-wrenching story of a family, and in turn, a “traditional, close-to-nature culture of Hiroshima” ravaged by a war “in this corner of the world”.

“Thank you for finding me in this corner of the world.”

2. Your Name (Makoto Shinkai, 2016)

With a love story effortlessly weaved into a fantasy film, You Name deserves to be termed the greatest anime of all time. It is a story of longing and loss with a relatively simplistic setup of Mitsuha, who lives in the quaint village named Itomori and dreams of seeing the city, and Taki, a boy from Tokyo. In a very Freaky Friday-ish way, despite not having any commonalities or connections, they end up switching bodies and going through each other’s lived experience. It becomes a daily routine until they stop switching; fearing the worst, Taki sets out to find her.

Shinkai who expertly dabbles in the use of ‘star-crossed lovers’ ends up doing so very subtly in this film. His poetic vision and innate eye for details make the film aesthetically striking. The strange sense of displacement is heightened in the film. To call it impressive would be an understatement. The search for something more or someone different is the underlying theme of the film with a general air of disconnectedness from one’s own surroundings. The soundtrack provides a different dimension to this hyper-realistic piece of animation. “Shinkai alternates between detailed visions of Tokyo that feel like they were constructed from real location photos and fantastical images of places that don’t exist in the real world, and never skews that balance too far to either side. It becomes more and more impressive. Few animated films in recent memory have built scene upon the scene to such a rewarding final shot. Few animated films in recent memory are this good.”

“There’s no way we could meet. But one thing is certain. If we see each other, we’ll know. That you were the one who was inside me. That I was the one who was inside you.” 

1. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 Japanese anime film Spirited Away is inarguably one of the most brilliant Studio Ghibli productions. Surreal and spectacular, the film’s strong ten-year-old female protagonist, Chihiro, embarks on a quest to save her parents, who have been turned into pigs as a punishment for their gluttony, from the curse of a witch named Yubaba, with the help of her guide, Haku. Having overtaken Titanic’s record at the box office, it is needless to say that Spirited Away is the highest-grossing film in the history of Japanese cinema. At the 75th Academy Awards, it was the only hand-drawn and non-English language animated film to win the Best Animated Feature, among other global awards.

Miyazaki’s work is a visual delight for the audience. Abound in detailed backgrounds, rich colours and fantasy elements, the Miyazakian realm serves as an escape from the drudgery of everyday life. He indulges in shooting the smallest of details that add beauty to the film. Providing the audience with a variety of perspectives, Miyazaki lets them choose their preferred lens. Chihiro is the epitome of innocence at the beginning, and courage, in the end. The underlying message of the film puts children’s imagination on the pedestal via Chihiro’s character, who despite all odds, achieves the impossible with unwavering faith and determination.

In an interview with Roger Ebert at the 2002 Toronto Festival, Miyazaki was asked about the plenty of ‘gratuitous motion’ in his films, to which he revealed: “We have a word for that in Japanese …. It’s called ‘ma’. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.” The gap that he “intentionally” inserts in between continuous actions humanise the characters and help them breathe, and makes the film more engrossing. As the credits roll out, the audience is left with a knot in their stomach and truckloads of content in their heart as they are kept wanting more.

“Once you’ve met someone, you never really forget them.”