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5 of the best Japanese animation movies released in 2019

Nature and love are the dominant themes of these masterpieces.

With multiple hits exploring relatable themes, 2019 was another memorable year for Japanese animation. Makoto Shinkai’s long-awaited post-Your Name-animation, Weathering with You, was finally released, becoming the best selling hit of the year. Director Masaaki Yuasa, meanwhile, released his first love story, Ride Your Wave, surprising fans and movie critics, while acclaimed director Keiichi Hara (Doraemon, Crayon Shin-chan) released Birthday Wonderland, a fantasy based on a 1988 long seller. The themes dominating the best works of the year was “back to the basics”: nature, our struggle to interact peacefully with it, and love, as the most powerful emotion that keeps us going. Here are five of 2019’s best Japanese anime films that we at Japan Film Festival Magazine believe you’ll love as much as we did.

1. Ride Your Wave (きみと、波にのれたら)

Pushing a temporary pause to his psychedelic films, director Masaaki Yuasa (Mind Game, Lu over the Wall) surprised fans across the globe with the release of Ride Your Wave, his first work on an “ordinary” topic — teenage love. The plot follows Hinako, a college student and an avid surfer, who is saved from fire by a young fireman, Minato, who is also a dedicated surfer. The two begin a relationship that involves a lot of surfing, laughter, and hopes for eternity. Sadly, the couple is separated when Minato drowns in the ocean while saving someone else’s life. Heartbroken, Hinako tries to heal her wounds, until one day she sees Minato’s reflection in the water. Is it an illusion? Or is it really him? This is where we’re reminded that this is a Masaaki Yuasa film — and perhaps, one of his best to date.

Cast: Ryota Katayose, Rina Kawaei
Director: Masaaki Yuasa

2. Weathering With You (天気の子)

It took approximately three years to get more of Makoto Shinkai after his mega-hit Your Name, but the wait was worth it. Weathering With You, Shinkai’s whimsical take on climate change, is the story of high schooler Hodaka, who runs away from his home to come to Tokyo, where he begins working at a small publishing company. An assignment leads him to encounter Hina, a girl who has the power to change the weather by praying. As the two become closer, we learn of Hina’s secret and what it means for Hodaka, the weather, and the future. Since its release in July, Weathering With You has earned over ¥13 billion, becoming the top box office domestic release for the year (for now.)

Cast: Kotaro Daigo, Nana Mori
Director: Makoto Shinkai

3. Children of the Sea (海獣の子供)

Based on Daisuke Igarashi’s manga of the same name, the live adaptation of Children of the Sea took the countless efforts of creative team Studio 4°C (Mind Game, Tekkonkinkreet), and over six years to complete. The result: breathtaking visuals that exceed anything we’ve seen so far. The story follows junior high school student Ruka, who, after getting kicked out of her school club for causing trouble, calms herself at the local aquarium where her father works. While watching the ocean creatures through the glass, she spots two boys swimming just as good as the rest of the animals in the aquarium. The boys, named Umi (sea) and Sora (sky), become her friends, and the trio begins a summer adventure one can only dream of. Meanwhile, however, strange occurrences related to the ocean start happening all over the world. Are Umi and Sora somewhat related to that? Just wait ‘till you find out.

Cast: Mana Ashida, Hiiro Ishibashi, Seishu Uragami
Director: Ayumu Watanabe

4. Her Blue Sky (空の青さを知る人よ)

A story of falling in love, once, twice, even three times, Her Blue Sky follows sisters Akane and Aoi born 13 years apart, who, after losing their parents, are all the two have. Aoi is a high school student who wants to become a rock star and experience all the beauty attributed to it, including, of course, love. Akane, on the other hand, is a mother figure to Aoi, who has learned to place her feelings secondary for the sake of Aoi’s wellbeing — including love. The two’s sisterhood is put to challenge when Akane’s former boyfriend of 13 years ago, and now a rock star, returns to their hometown. He has changed, and, yet he is the same. The ultimate question, is will Akane and Aoi change their love for each other — and, ultimately, for themselves?

Cast: Ryo Yoshizawa, Riho Yoshioka, Shion Wakayama
Director: Tatsuyuki Nagai

5. The Wonderland (バースデー・ワンダーランド)

A fantasy that somewhat reminds of Alice in Wonderland, Birthday Wonderland is the story of Akane, a shy girl who lacks confidence to the extreme. On the day before her birthday, she skips school to avoid yet another confrontation with her classmates and, while helping her mother to pick something from a friend’s store, finds herself with a much larger problem — being asked to save the world. Akane sets on a colorful journey through which she encounters fantastic creatures, unseen wonders — and to her own amaze, the confidence she was missing in her life. Based on Sachiko Kashiwaba’s 1988 children’s book Chikashitsu Kara no Fushigi na Tabi (Strange Journey From The Basement), Birthday Wonderland is a story about gaining confidence through the courage to accept the opportunities that come your way — oftentimes, unexpectedly.

Cast: Mayu Matsuoka, Anne
Director: Keiichi Hara

Fantasy, stunning visuals, and storytelling that’s fit for both young and adult audiences are just a few of the keywords describing the anime films that glued us in front of the screen in 2019. Now get a lot of popcorn ready — you’ll want to watch these in a day!

Text: Japanese Film Festival Editorial Team