In the world of Japanese animation, certain directors have become legends, inspiring countless animators and creators throughout the decades. These luminaries are among the most inexplicably creative, ground-breaking, and influential directors in the history of anime.
10. Katsuhiro Otomo
Though he has only directed a handful of films, Katsuhiro Otomo has gone down as one of the most influential anime directors of his generation. This is due in no small part to his magnum opus Akira (1988), a post-apocalyptic film about biker gangs and genetic experiments that has been hailed as one of the greatest animated productions in the history of the medium. His other animated work includes the feature-length steampunk adventure Steamboy (2004) and short segments from the anthology films Memories (1995) and Short Peace (2013).
9. Mamoru Oshii
Known for dark, philosophically-oriented storytelling that values images over matters of plot and character development, Mamoru Oshii is one of anime’s great visionaries. Among his work is the indomitable cyberpunk police-procedural Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984), a film which dispensed with the series’ traditional slapstick humor in favor of a more atmospheric tone and a narrative which dwelt on the nature of dreams and reality. Oshii has been a direct influence on such filmmakers as the Wachowskis and James Cameron.
8. Yoshiyuki Tomino
Getting his start doing storyboards and scripts for Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, Yoshiyuki Tomino would help revolutionize anime with two shows: Brave Raideen and Mobile Suit Gundam. Brave Raideen helped popularize the giant robot genre of anime by featuring a fantastical story of an ancient robot fighting against the terrible Demon Empire. But Tomino would propel the genre he helped create to new heights with Mobile Suit Gundam, a show more grounded in realism that treated giant robots as scientifically plausible. Mobile Suit Gundam would go on to become one of anime’s most enduring franchises, giving birth to multiple shows and films.
7. Hideaki Anno
While Hideaki Anno is perhaps best known in the West for his infamous deconstructionist mecha series Neon Genesis Evangelion, he is also celebrated for directing the classic adventure series Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. Anno’s work has a heavy emphasis on both postmodern storytelling and exploring the inner psychology of his characters. In this way Anno has created work that at once entertains and intellectually challenges its audience.
6. Isao Takahata
As the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, one of Japan’s most prestigious animation studios, Isao Takahata has left an indelible handprint on the anime industry. His films include the fantastical Pom Poko (1994), the hysterical My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999), and the anti-war film Grave of the Fireflies (1988). Grave of the Fireflies has been hailed as not only one of the greatest anime films ever, but as one of the greatest films by any country in the history of the medium, consistently ranking high in critics’ lists of the best of world cinema. Though overshadowed by the other co-founder of Studio Ghibli (who will be popping up later on this list), there is no doubt that Takahata is an anime legend.
5. Satoshi Kon
Satoshi Kon’s tragic death at the age of 46 to pancreatic cancer robbed the world of one of the few anime directors who can rightfully be labeled as “visionary.” Fascinated with such ideas as the nature of reality, Kon’s work frequently focused on characters who come to question their own sanity and the inner workings of other peoples’ minds. His films Perfect Blue (1997), Millennium Actress (2001), and Paprika (2006) have been celebrated as some of the most mind-bending and ruthlessly creative anime features of the last few decades. His series Paranoia Agent has also become something of a cult hit with fans all over the world.
4. Noboru Ishiguro
Noboru Ishiguro has his name attached to some of the most beloved anime franchises ever: Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Space Cruiser Yamato, and Lupin to name just a few. Space Cruiser Yamato was a particularly vital series which would become one of the cornerstones of contemporary anime, helping to spur the medium towards more complex and mature stories. Ishiguro was also tasked with directing the 1980’s remake of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy.
3. Shinichir? Watanabe
While other anime directors may be more well known in Japan, overseas Shinichir? Watanabe is the director that helped introduce anime to literally millions of Westerners with such classic series as Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. Well known for utilizing a wide range of influences including everything from jazz music to film noir to blaxploitation, Watanabe’s work defies genre conventions, mesmerizing audiences with eclectic characters, culturally anachronistic soundtracks, and fast-paced action.
2. Osamu Tezuka
With such nicknames as the “Godfather of Anime,” “the god of comics,” and the Japanese Walt Disney, it’s no surprise that Osamu Tezuka would occupy one of the top spots on this list. His exhaustive creative output introduced the world to some of the most enduring Japanese franchises of all time: Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, Phoenix, and Black Jack. Tezuka’s style and ideas still reverberate in modern anime. If not for the fact that much of his best work wasn’t with anime but with manga (Japanese comics) then Tezuka would have been a shoo-in for the number one spot. That honor goes to…
1. Hayao Miyazaki
There can be no debate that Hayao Miyazaki is the greatest anime director who ever lived. His filmography reads like a laundry list of some of Japan’s greatest cinematic triumphs: the post-apocalyptic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), the ethereal adventure Castle in the Sky (1986), the beloved children’s film My Neighbor Totoro (1988), the epic fantasy Princess Mononoke (1997), and the magical coming-of-age film Spirited Away (2001) which would go on to become the first Japanese film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Beloved by audiences, critics, and fellow filmmakers, Miyazaki has elevated himself to become one of the defining creative presences in all of modern Japan.