Anime - An Annotated Filmography for Use in the Classroom

Anime - An Annotated Filmography for Use in the Classroom

Ed. Note: Professor Levi has also posted a provocative artilcle, Anime and Manga:It's not all Make-Believe, presenting some ideas about how to use anime, as well as some of the pitfalls of using this medium, in the classroom.  Professor Ian Condry explores the variety of ways anime can be used as a teaching tool in Teaching Anime: Exploring a Transnational and Transmedia Movement.

Look here for resources from Japan Society's past exhibition KRAZY! The Delirious World of Anime + Manga + Video Games.

Aut. Note: Most anime are long series with many episodes linked by an overall story arc. This makes classroom use difficult as showing the whole series is impossible for time reasons, and individual episodes may be difficult to follow; showing the first episode is possible, but likely to be frustrating as these are often teasers. Movies are therefore to be preferred. These are some of my favorites.


The Cat Returns
Dir. Hiroyuki Morita.  Prod. Studio Ghibli.  Buena Vista Home Video (US), 2002.  Run Time 75 min.

  • Synopsis: Seventeen year old Haru thinks her worst problem is deciding how to change herself so as to be more attractive to a boy she has a crush on until she saves the life of a cat who turns out to be a prince and the heir to the powerful kingdom of cats. Soon thereafter, she is visited by his father, the king of the cats, who offers his son in marriage as a reward and who will not take no for an answer. Haru is carried off to the cat kingdom and begins to transform into a cat. With the help of three other cats, she struggles to escape and to retain her own identity as a human being.
  • Age appropriateness: All ages. Although intended mostly for teens, the anthropomorphic cats, fantastic sets and wild chase scenes make it suitable for younger children as well.
  • Points for discussion: Although the cats’ kingdom draws on Western fairy tales for much of its imagery, in fact it has much in common with Japan’s feudal society. More specifically, the very patriarchal, arranged marriage structure and the demand that Haru change herself to conform to the ways of her future husband’s family (actually changing species to do so in this case) clearly relate to older, Japanese customs. The film does a good job of showing how, although such customs are a thing of the past, Haru has actually internalized very similar attitudes. The title itself is a pun and also a reference to a traditional Japanese folk tale, “The Crane’s Return.” In both cases, the word used for “return,” “ongaeshi,” (???)means to return a favor, but in both cases, a physical return is also implied. The original story involves a female crane who attempts to reward a young man who saved her life by becoming his wife; the film reverses the gender, and adds a more modern point of view to having a spouse foisted on a person as a reward. Various versions of the original story can be found on-line by googling “tsuru ongaeshi;” there are different versions for different ages and some are even animated. The return also marks the return of two of the cats, the elegant Baron von Gikkingen and fat, lovable Muta, from the film Whisper of the Heart. Teachers might also want to note that the arrival of the cat king at Haru’s home is also cheekily reminiscent of Shogunal processions and also of the fabled “fox marriage” processions. Any mortal who sees the latter is doomed to die; there is an excellent live action enactment of a “fox marriage” in Kurosawa’s film, Dreams.

Grave of the Fireflies
Dir. Isao Takahata.  Prod. Shinchosha Company and Studio Ghibli.  Central Park Media Corporation (US), 1988.  Run Time 88 min.

  • Synopsis: After their mother is killed in the firebombing of Kobe in the last year of WWII, fourteen year old Seita assumes responsibility for the survival of his four year old sister. Abandoned by relatives and neighbors who are too desperate to care for orphans, the two children starve to death. The story is told by Seita’s ghost. It is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Nosaka Akiyuki, who clearly did not die, but who perhaps wishes he had.
  • Age appropriateness : Definitely not for young children. Even high school students may find it disturbing despite the use of a softened brown outlining and classic woodblock (ukiyo-e) printing imagery to distance the violence that is inevitable in a war movie. Even so, the bombing scenes are terrifying, the scene in which a farmer beats Seita up for stealing a tomato, and the children dealing with the badly burned, maggot infested corpse of their mother are graphic and not easily forgotten. Some students object to the “anti-Americanism” of this anime, probably because they have never seen the view from the other side before. In fact, Grave of the Fireflies does not particularly blame the Americans for the horror that falls from the skies. Neither does it blame Japanese aggression. The war appears almost as a force of nature that destroys these two small victims. That view is understandable since the story is told through the eyes of children, but it is a bit disturbing politically.
  • Points for discussion: This film is an effective way to introduce WWII in the Pacific; it adds a powerful emotional impact and it also discusses the firebombing rather than the more spectacular, but in many ways less deadly, atom bombs. Teachers of literature might also like to note that the brother and sister relationship is presented as a non-sexual love suicide of sorts, and art teachers might like to point out how classic woodblock (ukiyo-e) images have been updated into an animated form.

Kiki’s Delivery Service
Dir. Hayao Miyazaki.  Prod. NTV, Studio Ghibli, and Tokuma Shoten.  Buena Vista Home Video (US),1989.  Run Time 105 min.

  • Synopsis: Thirteen year old Kiki is a witch and the daughter of a witch. In Kiki’s quasi-European world, custom dictates that at the age of thirteen, young witches must leave home and survive alone for a year in a new town using their magical talents. Unfortunately, Kiki’s only talent is broomstick flying, a talent which fails her at one point in the story. Despite the fantasy elements, this is basically a coming of age story in which Kiki and her black cat, Jiji, encounter new friends, new challenges, and first loves.
  • Age Appropriateness: Probably best for early teens. There is nothing to disturb younger viewers, but parts are talky and may drag for younger children. Older teens usually enjoy it, however, and many say what I said when I first saw it: “I sure wish I’d seen this when I was thirteen!” There have been some objections from religious groups because of Kiki’s identification as a witch, but the witches in her world are not women who have sold their souls to the devil, but more village wise women and herbalists with only a bit of magic mixed in.
  • Points for discussion: There are few specifically Japanese elements in this film, so the focus should probably be on how it relates to universal coming of age experiences. In particular, Kiki’s struggle to find her own identity and to separate that identity from her family without rejection or anger is interesting. So is her interaction with an older girl, an artist, who shows her how to find her own way. Kiki’s other interactions with adults, especially two old ladies and the young couple she rooms with, also offer insights into learning to connect with an adult world. Kiki’s first love is innocent and understated, but ends with an empowering rescue (by Kiki) of her beloved. Teachers might like to address the “witch issue” directly in class discussions, noting the different attitudes toward miko (Shinto priestesses) and other mystic women who have none of the negative connotations associated with Western religions. Teachers of Japanese language might also have students read the book on which this film is based. Although it differs quite considerably from the movie, it is a children’s book and a relatively easy read.

Millenium Actress
Dir. Satoshi Kon.  Prod. Bandai Visual Company.  DreamWorks Home Entertainment (US) and Go Fish Pictures (US), 2001.  Run time 87 minutes.

  • Synopsis: As two men interview an elderly actress about her long career, they find themselves literally sucked into her recollections, playing a variety of roles in her films and in her life, often with some confusion regarding which is which. The actress’s own story begins with her rise to stardom in WWII propaganda films and her life-long search for a young man she met only once and tried to save from the military police during the war. Her film recollections cover most of Japanese history from the Warring States Period (about mid15th-late 16th century) on.
  • Age appropriateness: Probably best for high school students. There is some violence, and some disturbing references to violence that are not seen. There are no graphic sex scenes (a rarity in Kon Satoshi’s films), but there is a very complex and disturbing storyline about romance, love, and betrayal. There is no dubbed version of this film available; this is a good opportunity to introduce students to the joys of subtitles if they have never encountered them before, and it is surprising how many have not.
  • Points for discussion: Because of the mix of films and real life, Millennium Actress covers an enormous span of Japanese history and also the ways in which the Japanese visualize that history in popular culture. In the Warring States period (mid 15th-mid 16th Centuries), for example, teachers can point to the image of women faced with defeat who are expected to commit ritual suicide by thrusting a short sword into their own throats, a merciful end compared to the men who were expected to slice open their own abdomens. Similarly, the movie depiction of the Tokugawa era (ca. 1600-1868) focuses on the plight of women and the role of lower class geisha (really prostitutes) in helping anti-Tokugawa rebels to overthrow the old system. The Meiji and Taisho era are mostly depicted as a montage based on old woodblock prints. WWII and the postwar era are more personally depicted in ways that can be used to engage students in discussions of how people behave under trying circumstances including military oppression and occupation.

My Neighbor Totoro
Dir. Hayao Miyazaki.  Prod. Tokuma Japan Communications Co. Ltd. and Studio Ghibli.  50th Street Films, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Walt Disney Pictures, 1988.  Run Time 86 min.

Ed note: Click here for a lesson on using Totoro to teach family structure.

  • Synopsis: When their mother is sent to a TB sanitarium, and their father moves to the country in order to be nearer his wife, two little girls, Satsuki and Mei, struggle to come to terms with their new surroundings and their fears regarding their mother. When little Mei gets lost, they receive help from a variety of eccentric neighbors and also from some fantastic magical creatures such as the largest Totoro and the Catbus. This is a very nostalgic view of  1950s Japan.
  • Age appropriateness: All ages. This film is designed for young children, but adults are seldom immune to its charm. I honestly cannot see how anyone could find this story offensive, but a few parents’ groups have objected not only to the magical and pagan (Shinto) elements in My Neighbor Totoro, but also to a scene in which the father takes a bath with his two little girls, a scene which they felt had overtones of child molestation. Teachers might like to pre-empt such objections by noting that family or communal bathing is common in Japan, and that bath time is often the only time over-worked salarimen (Japanese male corporate employees) have to spend with their children, and thus has powerful emotional implications for a Japanese audience.
  • Points for discussion: My Neighbor Totoro is an excellent introduction to Shinto and to animistic beliefs and practices generally. Although the totoros are purely the product of Miyazaki’s imagination, the large Totoro (the “king of the forest” in the English translation) who befriends the girls is a forest spirit or a kami in the Shinto tradition. Specifically, he is the spirit of the large camphor tree to which the Shinto shrine visited by the girls and their father is dedicated; teachers might like to point out the torii gateway and the rope (shimenawa) that designates the tree as sacred. There are also references to Japan’s other major religion, Buddhism, in the O-Jizo statues that are present whenever the girls are really frightened. Jizo is a bodhisattva (a sage who has achieved nirvana but who remains in this world to help others) who protects children. Teachers might like to explain that that Buddhism and Shinto are not exclusive religions and co-exist synchronically with most Japanese practicing both. Students might also like to take note of the old-fashioned farmhouse which is pretty well explained since it would also be unfamiliar to most modern Japanese and which are therefore explained to some degree in the movie. My Neighbor Totoro can also be used to discuss matters that have nothing to do with Japan specifically, such as sibling relationships, parental illness, the fear of death, and the results of dislocation and changes in the family.

My Neighbor the Yamadas
Dir. Isao Takahata.  Prod. Buena Vista International, Studio Ghibli, Walt Disney Home Video.  The Walt Disney Company (US), 1999.  Run Time 104 min.

  • Synopsis: Because it is based on daily comic strip published in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, this film is episodic. It concerns the adventures of the Yamada family: Takashi and Matsuko, their son Noboru, their daughter Nonoko, Shige’s mother (Matsuko’s mother-in-law) who lives with them, and Pochi, the family dog.
  • Age appropriateness: All ages, although younger children will probably not appreciate the artistry of this work which is not done in typical anime style, but looks more like a moving water color; in fact, it is computer animated.
  • Points for discussion: Because it is so episodic, My Neighbors the Yamadas lends itself well to clips. One short episodes teachers might like to share with their classes might be the opening sequences in which Nonoko tells the story of her parents’ marriage which begins as a traditional wedding complete with Shinto wedding kimono, a western style wedding cake, and long reception speeches, and then turns into a wild bobsled ride through the trials and complexities of life in modern day Japan. It also includes references to two important folk tales. In Nonoko’s version of her parents’ life, her brother, Noboru, is born when her father splits open a giant peach, a reference to the birth of Momotaro, a boy born from a peach who became a renowned demon slayer. Nonoko herself is born when her father splits open a bamboo to reveal the baby within, a reference to the birth of Kaguya-hime (Princess Kaguya), the moon princess. Various versions of both these stories can be found on-line by googling the personal names of Momotaro and Kaguya-hime; this can be a good way to inspire interest and provide insights into Japanese folklore.

Pom Poko
Dir. Isao Takahata.  Prod. Hakuhodo, NTV, Studio Ghibli, and Tokuma Shoten.  Buena Vista Home Video (US), 1994.  Run Time 119 min.

  • Synopsis: A band of tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs which look like raccoons, but which are really a type of canine) use their legendary magical powers and shape shifting abilities to try to prevent their habitat being destroyed by developers creating a new Tokyo suburb, the same Tokyo suburb that appears fully developed in Whisper of the Heart. The tanuki attempt to frighten the developers off by recreating a panoply of Japanese ghost stories and images, by sabotage, by direct attack, and finally, by appealing to humanity’s finer instincts. They fail, although some tanuki survive on the outskirts of the new community and some even manage to live among the humans.
  • Age appropriateness: Do not be deceived by the cute anthropomorphic animals. This movie is not for small children. The fate of the tanuki is not pretty; even cutely animated roadkill is still roadkill. And particularly sensitive children might actually be frightened by the tanuki’s ghost shows, although the Japanese children in the movie are not. A subplot involving foxes (who also have shape-shifting abilities, which they use far less ethically than the tanuki) contains references to prostitution and yakuza (Japanese gangsters). There is also a love story involving two tanuki that results in a roll in the grass followed by a litter of pups. One other sexually sensitive topic might be the use of a legend that male tanuki possess large testicles which they can inflate and use for flight. If you use the Disney DVD, you will find that this has been changed so that what the tanuki inflate is actually a secret pouch, but if you use another version, your students may discover what those really are!
  • Points for discussion: One friend of mine offers an automatic A in Japanese Studies for any student who can identify every cultural reference in Pom Poko; so far, no one has succeeded. Teachers might like to identify the best known story about a tanuki who turns himself into a teakettle; various versions of that story can best be found by googling “bunbuku chagama.” Pom Poko also includes an episode in which the story of Nasu no Yoichi from the medieval classic "Tale of Heike" is re-enacted by a shape-shifting tanuki storyteller, and many explicitly Buddhist teachings about death and the afterlife. Teachers might also like to note the forms the tanuki take during their shape-shifting classes such as the O-Jizo statues (a Buddhist saint who cares for children and travelers), the Daruma dolls (another Buddhist saint who sat in meditation so long that his legs fused in the lotus position; the little dolls that cannot be knocked over are a symbol of sincerity and perseverance) and the maneki-neko or beckoning cats (a cat with raised paw thought to bring prosperity and good fortune). Art teachers might note the different styles and the ways in which they are used within this anime; the tanuki are portrayed in three distinct styles: realistically, as anthropomorphic animals, and in a simpler, sketch style.

Princess Mononoke
Dir. Hayao Miyazaki.  Prod. DENTSU Music and Entertainment, NTV, Studio Ghibli, Tokuma Shoten.  Miramax Films (US), 1997.  Run Time 134 min.

  • Synopsis: In the Muromachi era (1333 - 1573), a young man named Ashitaka is cursed by a wound incurred in a battle with a giant boar deity, which was itself cursed because it was shot with a musket ball. The village shaman tells him that he must go west to seek a cure. In the west, Ashitaka encounters medieval Japan in all its blood-thirsty and oppressive glory. He finds a temporary home in a utopian community of oppressed peasants and women who have escaped from brothels. This community, headed up by the idealistic Lady Eboshi, keeps itself independent through iron smelting and strip mining the surrounding old-growth forest. As a result, they are at war with the forest deities; the boar that cursed Ashitaka was, in fact one of their victims. Ashitaka finds himself caught in the crossfire of that war, especially after he encounters and falls in love with Princess Mononoke, a girl raised by wolves.
  • Age appropriateness: Middle school and up. There is violence which is probably excessive for children, but within acceptable limits for teens and probably even tweens. The real difficulty is probably the sheer complexity of the moral issues and the way they are presented. Except for the corrupt samurai and Imperial forces who are fighting a separate battle nearby, there are no clear villains or heroes. The battle is between environmental and human needs, and there are no easy answers.
  • Points for discussion: The Muromachi era (1333 - 1573), named for the Kyoto district where the Shogun lived, is so long and so diverse that most historians divide it up into the Ashikaga era when the Shogun retained some central control and the Warring States era when central control slowly collapsed and various warlords fought to determine who would reunite the country under a new Shogun. It is not clear when Princess Mononoke occurs. Even the guns are not a clear indication; guns are usually thought to have arrived in 1543 when a Portuguese ship was wrecked off the coast of Japan. However, the dialogue clearly states that these guns come from China, also a historical possibility. A similar ambiguity surrounds Ashitaka himself. He is clearly not fully Japanese; he comes from further north. Yet, he does not appear to be fully Ainu (Japan’s northern minority) either. His people describe themselves as “Emishi,” a contemporary term whose meaning has been extensively debated by historians. His community seems to combine Japanese and Ainu traditions and costumes in a way that suggests a fusion frontier society of a sort that often did result as escaping peasants joined with indigenous people. Teachers might like to point out the film’s bias against the ruling classes, both the samurai and the Imperial forces; not all Japanese see the samurai as positively (as exemplars of honor and courage) as Westerners often do, and some do not like the idea of the Emperor and his court either. The fact that the forest deities, although certainly animistic, are not identifiably Shinto deities probably also relates to that latter point: Miyazaki has presented Shinto without the Emperor mythology. Science teachers might also like to use Princess Mononoke to discuss Darwinian environmentalism. For all its magical components, in the end, the film presents a danger not that humans will destroy nature (they do not have that much power), but that they may change it so dramatically that it can no longer support human life. (That theme is also very evident in an earlier Miyazaki film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which is not listed here as it is less distinctively Japanese in nature.)

Spring and Chaos
Dir. Shoji Kawamori and Stuart J. Levy. Prod. Group TAC (I).  Bandai Visual Company, 1996.  Run Time 57 min.

  • Synopsis: A nostalgic biography of celebrated poet and storyteller Miyazawa Kenji (1896-1933). The film focuses on the death of his sister from tuberculosis, on his Buddhism and vegetarianism, on his attempts to reconcile mysticism and science, and on his advocacy for the poor, especially poor peasants. Miyazawa’s disturbing flirtation with ultranationalist ideology is dealt with rather ambiguously through the introduction of an old friend who becomes increasingly militaristic throughout the movie, but somewhat whitewashed. Miyazawa and most other Japanese characters are portrayed as cats, but poor peasants and other outcastes are drawn as dogs or bears.
  • Age appropriateness: Definitely not for small children despite the cute anthropomorphic animals. The film contains vivid and disturbing images of death, poverty and violence. Spring and Chaos is not drawn in typical anime style; it is creative, experimental, and many of the images are based on Miyazawa’s own art, which often featured anthropomorphic animals with a distinct preference for cats..
  • Points for discussion: This short film is an excellent way to introduce the almost unteachably complex and amorphous history of Japan’s Taisho era (1911-1925), and also a good way to discuss more recent events in Japan, particularly the New Age movement which has embraced Miyazawa’s work. Teachers of world literature might also find it useful. North American students generally respond well to Miyazawa’s poetry, much of which is available in translation, and often enjoy cruising the Miyazawa World website, a Japanese site which is also available in English translation. Teachers looking for a short explanation of key issues regarding Miyazawa might like to check out Miyazawa translator Hiroaki Sato’s article in Japan Focus on the poet and the difficulties of translation. Language teachers might particularly enjoy Sato’s comparisons of how the same poem has been translated by different translators, and the existence of various versions of Miyazawa’s work in English allows students to do their own comparisons of other works.

Whisper of the Heart
Dir. Yoshifumi Kondo.  Prod. Tokuma Shoten, NTV, Hakuhodo, Mimi wo Sumaseba Production Committee, and Studio Ghibli.  Buena Vista Home Video (US), 1995.  Run Time 111 min.

  • Synopsis: A classic coming of age story. Fifteen-year-old Shizuku is a bright girl, but a bit of a dreamer, forever lost in fantasy stories. When she notices that the same boy has checked out almost all the books she is interested in, that fact spawns a wave of new fantasies, and when the young man becomes a reality, a whole set of new challenges. Her new love, it seems, has dreams of becoming a violin maker, and that goal sends him away to an apprenticeship in Italy. Shizuku responds by vowing not to spend the time mooning over his absence, but to find her own focus as a budding writer. With the aid of an old man and two cats (who return in The Cat Returns), she finds both love and her own identity.
  • Age appropriateness: Middle school and up, not because there is any violence (there isn’t) or sexuality (only of a very innocent variety), but simply because it is a love story of a sort that probably will not appeal to younger children. Younger children might enjoy the flying fantasy scenes in Shizuku’s story, buy this film is otherwise remarkably realistic for Studio Ghibli.
  • Points for discussion: An excellent overview of life in contemporary Japan. Shizuku and her family live in a small, crowded apartment, one of those sometimes called “rabbit hutches.” Her father is a librarian, and his lifestyle and income are clearly very different from that of Shizuku’s best friend Yuko’s father. Her mother has returned to school and her focus is on her classes, a reflection of changing roles of women in Japan. Shizuku herself is initially seen attending a cram school (juku) during the summer, and her older sister regularly stresses the importance of doing well on her high school entrance exams. Japanese students who want to go to a good university must first pass entrance exams to a good middle school, a good high school, and then a good university. This is a very stressful system which is why Shizuku’s liberal, relatively laid-back parents try to go easy on her, but the society at large still applies pressure. The old man and his musician friends, Seiji’s artisan ambitions, the repetition of the song “Country Roads,” and even Shizuku’s quasi-historical fantasy show the cultural context of globalizing culture in contemporary Japanese culture.









Topic,Art; Type,Bibliography; Topic,Gender; Topic,History-Modern; Theme,Imperial Japan; Topic,International Relations; Topic,Literature; Topic,Popular Culture; Type,Popular Culture; Theme,Postwar Japan; Topic,Religion; Theme,Using Pop Culture to Teach About Japan; Topic,War & Conflict; Topic,Women;
anime, pop culture, cartoon, film, filmography, Muromachi, gender, fire bombing, World War II, Antonia Levi, Miyazawa Kenji, Shinto, Buddhism, Muromachi, Sengoku, Tokugawa, Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki Hayao, firebombing, environment,