Throughout the history of Japanese anime, there has been breathtaking animation and scenery that is deserving of praise as standalone artwork. However, even an outsider who knows nothing about anime would have to admit that these scenes are proof that vision, skill, and budget can create amazing art and animation. And the context of the scenes can add even deeper meaning behind these aesthetic shots.
1. 5 Centimeters Per Second
One of the most visually impressive animes ever released is 5 Centimeters per Second. Famously directed by Makoto Shinkai, and released in 2007, this drama/romance film has a reputation as groundbreaking on many animation standpoints.
The film’s plot centers around Takaki Toono and Akari Shinohara, two very close friends who get separated, but keep in touch through mail. However, as the years pass by, they slowly drift away from one another. Yet, they keep remembering one another and the times they shared together, wondering if they will have the chance to meet again. With its incredible sound design, animation quality, and camera angles, 5 Centimeters per Second remains known for being atmospheric. Which all pays off to the theme of tragic reality.
Another classic, Akira was released back in 1988. It found a huge following for its animation style and quality, as well as its dynamic characters and story.
Akira takes place in the cyberpunk city of Neo-Tokyo in the year 2019. The film follows biker gang leader Shotaro Kaneda and his childhood friend Tetsuo Shima. Accidentally, Shima acquires telekinetic abilities after a motorcycle accident which threatens the sprawling futuristic metropolis of Neo-Tokyo. Here, this screenshot enlarges the cityscape, showing just how looming the threat taking place within Neo-Tokyo is in comparison to the characters.
The famous red motorcycle pops off the screen, emphasizing danger and blood. Any filmmaker should make this classic a must-watch, not just for the animation and scenery but also for its characters and story.
3. Aquarion Evol
Aquarion Evol is the sequel to the 2005 series Genesis of Aquarion. It aired from January to June 2012 on TV Tokyo who licensed it to Funimation in North America. Like the original, themes of love, understanding, and individual growth drive the plot of this futuristic series.
Set in the future of Genesis of Aquarion, protagonists Amata Sora and Mikono Suzushiro must defend their planet from members of an organization called Neo-DEAVA. Unfortunately, the sequel series only received slightly better reviews than its predecessor. Viewers attribute this to the series’ weak main characters and faltering storyline. The series’ strengths are animation and sound design. Overall, it seems like the show is better watched for aesthetic and auditory purposes rather than for actual story.
4. Attack On Titan
Love it or hate it, Attack on Titan is wildly popular. It is currently one of the best selling mangas and animes of the 2010s, receiving numerous awards and praise for its characters, story, world building, and art design.
Attack on Titan takes place in a massive walled city with an almost medieval setting. Humans surround themselves with the wall to protect against humanoid man-eating monsters called Titans. The story follows Eren Jaeger, Mikasa Ackerman, and Armin Arlert pursuing the highly dangerous job of killing and studying titans for the good of humanity.
The city’s Great Wall-esque setting makes the humans seem protected. However, despite the seemingly peaceful aesthetic, the show can often switch from cheerful to intense themes on the flip of a coin. For instance, the environment surrounds the humans with an inescapable presence both within the city and out of it.
Bakemonogatari is the first of the Monogatari series and premiered in July 2009. The anime got acclaim for its art style and depiction of the supernatural. Through several stories involving demons and gods, Bakemonogatari follows a vampire named Koyomi Araragi as he attempts to help those who suffer from supernatural sicknesses.
The art also works with the story, pushing the color red which pairs well with the vampire protagonist. The animation and performances are enhanced time and again by the art style, all culminating in a spectacular show.
Bakemonogatari can be streamed for free on Crunchyroll here.
6. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Considered by many to be one of the best animes ever produced, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood ran from April 2009 to July 2010. The series spawned a sequel film entitled Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos. Both have since received numerous awards for performances, writing, and animation.
The anime follows brothers and master alchemists Edward and Alphonse Elric on their search for the Philosopher’s Stone, a powerful artifact that will hopefully restore their sacrificed bodies. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has all the elements of an instant classic: compelling and relatable characters, a fascinating world that viewers want to know more about, and strong ties to philosophical themes. There seems to be no place where the series fails, not in its animation nor its storytelling.
7. Iblard Jikan
Iblard Jikan, or “Iblard Time,” remains the lesser-known Studio Ghibli film released on DVD in 2007. The entirety of the film takes place in animated portions of actual paintings and is only about 30 minutes long. The film’s director, Naohisa Inoue created each of the works of art.
The story is set in the imaginary world of Iblard. Separated into eight sections, each accompanied by a different painting or landscape along with a musical piece. It mostly focuses on static shots of scenery digitally altered to make the paintings seem like they’ve come to life. Where Iblard falls short is in the story department. Similarly to Fantasia, Studio Ghibli showcases aesthetic shots and eye candy but sacrifices an overarching story in the process.
8. Kara No Kyoukai
Known as The Garden of Sinners, Kara no Kyoukai is an animated film released on December 1st, 2007. Dark and philosophical, it’s the first installment in a seven-part series.
In 1998, Japan is confused and devastated by a string of seemingly random suicides. As a result, a detective agency attempts to link these paranormal activities together, dispatching Mikiya Kokutou and Shiki Ryougi. Most consistently, people bring up the scenery as the main strength of the film. In conclusion, where the characters fall, the art makes up for it.
9. Sword Art Online
Sword Art Online remains probably one of the most popular yet most divisive animes ever released. While some praise it, many others in the community criticize its frequent use of tropes and near-invincible protagonists. However, its deep budget allows for some amazing visuals and animation, some of the most cinematic in the business.
The first season takes place in the year 2022 with the launch of the VR MMO game Sword Art Online. On the afternoon of the game’s launch, its creator announces that if anyone tries to leave the game before beating the final boss, they will die in real life. Protagonist “Kirito” and his friends must team up to reach the final boss and save all the trapped players.
Although most of the light novels receive mostly positive reviews, its adaptations seem to always fall short for viewers. Still, SAO is rarely said to be a storytelling masterpiece, but it is a visually impressive one.
Shelter is not an anime in the traditional sense. Specifically, most animes tend to be either a full feature film or series with its own overarching plot. Shelter, on the other hand, is a music video for musician Madeon, animated by A-1 Pictures. Despite being just six minutes long, however, Shelter achieves many feats that most other animes fail to accomplish.
Without giving too much away, Shelter centers around a young girl with a tablet who can seemingly create anything she can imagine. However, everything about her world, including how she got there, is still a mystery. Any potential viewer with six minutes to spare should watch Shelter. It has some of the best scenes in Japanese anime, tells a jarring plot in just a few minutes, and keeps viewers entertained with expertly crafted music.
Honorable Mention: Your Name
Of course, no article about Japanese anime scenery can end without talking about Your Name. Similarly directed by Makoto Shinkai, the same director of 5 Centimeters per Second, this animation went on to become the biggest Japanese film in years.
The plot revolves around two strangers who find themselves linked in a strange way, almost like a dream. Through a few twists and turns, Shinkai keeps the audience interested and invested the whole way through. The writing, art direction, and voice acting keep the film flowing through its deceptively simple use of film tropes. Most importantly, this award-winning film proves that animation can tell a story as well as any other medium.