Hayao Miyazaki. Osamu Tezuka. Hideaki Anno. You know these names, and if you don’t, you know their work (Spirited Away, Astro Boy and Evangelion, respectively). But not every awesome anime in every famous director’s oeuvre gets the same attention, so here are eight works by anime's greatest directors you probably haven’t heard of — but should know.
1) Future Boy Conan by Hayao Miyazaki
Before Hayao Miyazaki was synonymous with great anime — heck, before Studio Ghibli was formed — he was the director of this 1976-78 series based on Alexander Key’s novel The Incredible Tide. After a war of ultra-magnetic weapons destroys most of the planet in 2008, a spaceship that had tried to escape crashlands on an island, where Conan is born. In 2021, a mysterious girl named Lana washes up on Renmant Island; when she’s kidnapped by two soldiers from a place called Industria and taken away on a hydroplane, young Conan sets off across his post-apocalyptic world to rescue her. You can see a lot of Miyazaki’s Nausicaa in Conan, which became one of the most popular anime series not just in Japan, but Europe, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Unfortunately, there has been no official English adaptation yet.
2) Roujin-Z by Katsuhiro Otomo
Despite creating and directing Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo doesn’t have the world’s biggest curriculum vitae. He’s directed Steamboy, the live-action Mushi-Shi movie, and several segments in various anthologies, but not much else. In 1991, he wrote the screenplay for Roujin-Z, a wonderful and often terrifically funny story about the government making robotic beds for senior citizens that take care of their every need from food to cleaning to waste disposal. But when first test bed ‘s AI goes haywire and decides to fulfill its occupants wish to go visit the sea, a suspicious nurse realizes the beds are actually military robots, too. The mix of humor and action (the military chasing a single mobile hospital bed through Tokyo, while the elderly occupant sleeps through it all is a delight) while still addressing Japan’s ever-growing elderly population and their care (or lack thereof) makes Roujin-Z something special. The American DVD is out of print, but you can probably track it down online.
3) Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water by Hideaki Anno
Before he blew everyone’s minds with Evangelion, Hideaki Anno was just a regular cog in the anime industry, working on Super Dimensional Fortres Macross, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, and even Grave of the Fireflies. His first real big break was as the director of 1990-91’s Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, based on a concept by Hayao Miyazaki and inspired by the works of Jules Verne, particularly 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. While a young circus performer named Nadia is chased by thieves for her jeweled pendant (the titular “Blue Water”), she’s rescued by Captain Nemo and his submarine the Nautilus and get embroiled in a war between the surface world and the Neo-Atlanteans — a war that will reveal Nadia and the Blue Water’s secret pasts. Nadia feels a lot like a Miyazaki series, but Anno puts his own stamp on the show, with more humor, more lightheartedness, and thanks to having 39 episodes, an even bigger scope. If this story sounds familiar to you, you may be thinking of Disney’s Atlantis: the Lost Empire… which came out in 2001.
4) Tachigui: the Amazing Lives of the Fast food Grifters by Mamoru Oshii
Mamoru Oshii will always be known for the amazing Ghost in the Shell movie, the hilariously unwatchable Ghost in the Shell movie sequel, and, to my mind, his work on the hilarious ‘80s anime comedy Urusei Yatsura. There’s very little of his work that isn’t at least somewhat well known, but one film did disappear almost immediately after it was released in 2006, and that’s Tachigui. This anime movie — and I say anime in the loosest possible sense; it’s was filmed in something Oshii called “Superlivemation,” which is much easier to see in the video above than try to explain — this movie is about a class of con artists who go to stand-up restaurants that serve gyudon, soba, hamburgers and the like at small booths, and then run away without paying. This isn’t mere theft, but sort of a whole bizarre craft and culture which Oshii uses to explain Japan’s history from the end of World War II to the present, and the its eroding loss of cultural identity to mass commercialism, pretty much in the most insane way possible. No one has even tried to bring this to America.
5) Perfect Blue by Satoshi Kon
Admittedly, Perfect Blue may be the least least-known anime on this list; it was released in America, and got a reasonable amount of acclaim. But it was dwarfed by Kon’s later efforts Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers and especially Paprika, when it should be considered right along with them. Mima is a bubbly J-pop singer who decides to become an actress to the dismay of many of her fans, one in particular who sets up a mysterious website featuring entries from her private diary and may even be stalking her. Between the stalker and her role as a rape victim in her first movie, Mima starts to become unhinged to the point where neither she nor the audience knows what’s real. If Alfred Hitchcock had ever made an anime movie, it would be 1997’s Perfect Blue — is the perfect mix of suspense, scares, an unreliable protagonist, the blending of fantasy and reality, and still immensely entertaining, to boot. Kon died in 2010, at the age of 46; since we won’t be getting any more of this wonderful director’s work, it’s important to celebrate all that he left us.
6) Panda! Go Panda! Isao Takahata
Other than Grave of the Fireflies and his Ghibli movies — all of which are dwarfed by Hayao Miyazaki’s films — Isao Takahata isn’t particular well-known in the U.S. But he’s directed about a million things, including mega-popular-in-Japan anime TV series based on Anne of Green Gables, Heidi of the Alps, and many more than no one in America has any practical chance of seeing. There is one exception, though, and that’s Panda! Go Panda!, a collection of two short movies — about 30 minutes long each — about a young girl named Mimiko who gets adopted into a family of pandas. It’s find of a proto-My Neighbor Totoro, which its giant, adorable pandas its spunky young protagonist, and childlike sense of adventure. Pioneer/Geneon released this in DVD in the 2000s, and occasionally you can find it in the cheap-o DVD aisles in grocery stores.
7) Lensman by Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Best known for Ninja Scroll and Vampire Hunter D, two movies that made a million anime fans, Yoshiaki Kawajiri has worked on plenty of anime versions of Western properties including The Matrix and Highlander. But the first occurred in 1984, when he made a movie of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s beloved Lensman scifi novels. Let me first admit that when the Smith estate watched this movie (and the accompanying Lensman anime TV series), they hated the hell out of them, mostly because the movie took the proper nouns from the books and then pretty much used them for a Star Wars knock-off. If you have zero affection for the original books, Lensman is still a pretty decent movie, although lord only know how it holds up today. It was brought to America on VHS in the 1980s by Harmony Gold, the folks who made Robotech, which was even before people had even started calling anime “Japanimation.” The Scifi Channel aired it a few times in the early 1990s, but I don’t think it’s made it to DVD anywhere.
8) Cleopatra: Queen of Sex by Osamu Tezuka
Osamu Tezuka is known as the “god of manga” because he did everything. A fantastic kids’ superhero? Astro Boy. An equally awesome heroine for girls? Princess Knight. Samurai fantasy action-adventure? Dororo. Adult medical drama? Blackjack. Serious work? A biography of Buddha. Mind-boggling explorations of the nature of humanity? Adolf. An attempt to examine the entire cosmos? Phoenix. And that included adult adult works, too; in fact, the reason why every Japanese man, woman and child of any age is considered a viable audience for manga while large parts of America have only recently figured out adult males read comics (they’re still working on the whole “female” thing) is because of Tezuka. He brought his immense scope to his anime works, too, releasing Cleopatra in 1970. Although released in America as an X-rated cartoon a la Fritz the Cat, Tezuka created it as a bizarre, surrealist art-house flick, albeit one with a lot of nudity (and some live-action people, and also Caesar is green for some reason). You can find an edited version (edited for clarity, at least) on YouTube here. It’s probably less important to watch it than it is to remember that the legacy of Osamu Tezuka does not begin and end with Astro Boy.