In many ways, the ’80s were the heyday of anime, when the likes of Kyoto Animation, Studio Ghibli, and what would become Gainax began. It was the decade the genre boxes blew open and the Japanese demand for VHS content rocketed. The result was a one-upmanship war between anime producers to see who could create the next big thing.
It was an era of genre mashups, superfans, and rising budgets that produced some real classics. Here are our top picks for the best 80s anime.
Stuidio Ghibli is iconic in the world of 80s anime. Check out their best films here.
8. My Neighbour Totoro
A classic from the geniuses over at Studio Ghibli, My Neighbour Totoro is an iconic 80s anime movie and a firm favorite among fans over three decades later. With an enigmatic cast of magical characters encountered by two adorable young girls as they go through a tough time, there’s a lot to love here. Satsuki and Mei are sisters struggling to deal with their mother’s illness.
Having moved closer to the hospital so they can see her during treatment, the girls find themselves in a strange place while wrestling with complex adult feelings they’re not truly prepared for. They take refuge in a magical world existing alongside our own, populated by Totoro – to this day still the mascot of Studio Ghibli – and his friends, including the iconic Catbus and many others.
The tale is highly relatable. The youth and innocence of these two girls is being threatened by the real world and all the responsibilities and inevitable heartache that it brings. They’re struggling to hold on to their innocence in the face of grief and the inevitable end of their childhood. For Mei, the younger sister, this is particularly heart-rending as she is so very young.
At once a tale of excitement, adventure, and sombre reflection, it’s little wonder this 80s classic anime is still so popular today.
7. Super Dimension Fortress Macross
Super Dimension Fortress Macross is exceptional when it comes to battling giant robots. It may have been born in the 80s, but it’s set in 2009, following a spaceship crashing to earth. A decade after extraterrestrial technology plummeted from space, and humans have figured out how to reverse engineer the tech in SDF-1 Macross (the name they gave the alien ship). But this leap in technological advancement has a price. When an alien race – enemies of those who created the crashed ship – detects the technology on earth, humankind suddenly finds itself amid an extraterrestrial war.
What makes this particular anime stand out from the rest of the 80s mecha is that it seamlessly interweaves a genuinely touching romance through all that action. Underscore all of that with a superlative soundtrack, and you have something truly special.
If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of it, you may have seen it under a different name, as Super Dimension Fortress Macross was dubbed and edited before being released under the name Robotech in the US.
6. Royal Space Force
The studio that would go on to give us Neon Genesis Evangelion began with a movie named Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise, and it was quite the outing. Written and directed by Hiroyuki Yamaga, the film follows Shiro through an alternate future in which humankind hasn’t yet been to space. An encounter with a girl inspires Shiro to become the world’s first astronaut.
An ambitious and gritty tale, it didn’t quite take off when it was first released but has gone on to become a firm favorite.
5. Sherlock Hound
If you love Sherlock Holmes, steampunk, and series that don’t take themselves too seriously, this 80s gem is definitely for you. With the first six episodes directed by Miyazaki Hayao, and the remaining taken over by Mikuriya Kyosuke, the visual style of the series is very 80s, yet they’ve technically aged very well. Beautiful landscapes, funky machinery, motorbikes, and airships galore – all mixed together with an air of whimsy.
As the name suggests, the series follows the titular Sherlock Hound (a Pembroke Corgi, in case you’re wondering) and his trusty companion Watson as they solve mysteries. It’s a fun take on an absolute classic. Although it wasn’t well-received immediately, this was largely because it wasn’t intended for a Japanese audience. Once it was seen in the wider world, however, with a trailer running in front of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, interest picked up and it became a bit of a phenomenon.
Fun fact: the English dub on this one runs a full minute and a half longer, which meant the DVD release came as a double-sided disk. One side had the Japanese version, the other the English, as it was impossible to match the audio tracks.
4. Angel’s Egg
While Mamoru Oshii brought us Ghost in the Shell in the 90s, the 80s saw the release of Angel’s Egg. If you were confused by the former, then beware that the latter is considerably more esoteric. A stylized film that boasts two characters, neither of whom have much to say, this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s an absolute masterpiece.
The art on offer is exquisite, and in many ways, the film is a monument to art-house anime. Poetry in motion – almost literally. While the dialogue is sparse, the film more than makes up for it with those visuals, its unique style, and the fact it exists as a thing that still cannot be completely understood, all these years later.
It’s an enigma wrapped in a mystery, told through stunning animation.
Dealing with the contemplation of faith and the nature of the world and the people in it, it’s packed with religious symbolism. There’s also a dark edge to the movie’s message that makes it all the more poignant.
3. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
It was the film that introduced the world to Studio Ghibli and used the real-life mercury pollution of Minamatam Bay in Japan as its inspiration. One thousand years have passed since a catastrophic event poisoned much of the Earth, leaving a toxic jungle spreading and consuming the still-habitable lands.
Princess Nausicaä lives in the Valley of the Wind and gets pulled into a bloody war when a ship carrying a mysterious power crashes near her home. Spurred by the invasion of her homeland and a dedication to unraveling the mysteries of the toxic jungle, Nausicaä’s unique gifts may be the only way her people can survive.
An anti-war epic with and underlying eco-warrior theme with a fierce, charismatic female lead, this is a rich film packed with its own mythology and science. It revolves around Miyazaki’s vision of the power of an individual with a true heart, standing between the Cold War-esque forces of two nations.
2. Vampire Hunter D
Based on a novel series of the same name, Vampire Hunter D has become a bona fide cult classic. This was partly due to it hitting the United States in the first wave of English dubbed animes of the 90s, but the adoration is well deserved. The titular vampire hunter is somewhat reminiscent of Marvel’s Blade, in that he’s the child of a human and a vampire. This grants him the great gifts and powers of the vampire with fewer vulnerabilities.
The plot follows a job he is hired for by Doris Lang – a young girl who wants him to hunt the vampire who attacked her. With the girl coming from your typical farm and the vampire being your typical noble, the stage is set for some good old-fashioned gothic shenanigans.
Exquisitely blending high fantasy and sci-fi, this is a unique, classic world of the macabre.
At the time of its release in 1988, Aira was the most expensive anime ever created. Well, it was money well spent, because Katsuhiro Otomo’s masterpiece became an overnight success. The film is set in the mega city of Neo Tokyo, which has developed in the wake of the original Tokyo’s destruction some thirty years before.
Set in 2019, we are introduced to a dystopian world by Shōtarō Kaneda, the leader of a biker gang, and his childhood friend, Tetsuo Shima. Following an accident, Tetsuo develops astonishing telekinetic abilities. Chaos ensues, along with the promise of rebellion.
It’s stood the test of time remarkably well, largely thanks to the painstaking cell animation. Decades later, it’s still a stunning masterpiece that’s beautiful to behold. Rich and colorful, the aesthetics at play here are simply marvellous. Its legacy also cannot be underestimated, with the show sparking future anime like Elfen Lied, as well as Netflix’s Stranger Things.
Wondering just how close Akira and Stranger Things are? Check out our recent post on the legacy of great anime.