In the West, there are only a handful of animation studios who make films that are catered to the younger crowd. When we hear the name like Disney or Pixar, we immediately know the animated films they’ll make will be for kids. In fact, and let’s be honest here, in the West, anything animation is made specifically for kids. But to be fair, studios like Dreamworks and other studios like 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures made animated films that are also aimed at the more mature crowd like Shrek. In Japan, there are hundreds of animation studios and a lot of them have made anime catered to teens, but like the West, there are also a handful of studios that are known for making animated films for kids.
With the cultural differences of Japan to the West, what are the anime movies kids in Japan watch? Are there films in Japan that can stand equal footing amongst the West’s best animation studios?
For this list of the Top 10 Kids Anime Movies, we’re going to list popular movies Japanese kids watched and list some of Japan’s very best anime films yet. And just to be clear, we’re only listing films that are rated for kids, so no teen films or films made for adults. Now that everything is settled, let’s jump right in!
10. Digimon Adventures Movie
- Aired: Mar 6, 1999
Taichi and his baby sister Hikari have stumbled upon a large egg that popped from their computer. The egg hatched to reveal a strange creature that slowly evolves into something bigger and powerful. The very existence of this creature is a sign that the real world and digital world are converging, revealing monsters known as Digimon, living within the sea of 1s and 0s.
The prequel short movie for the first Digimon Adventures TV series is an odd duck when it got localized in the West. The prequel movie was very short at around 20 minutes, but it did lay the groundwork for the TV series of digital monsters from the digital world. There are fine touches like how a Digimon evolve, the need to eat and, well, the need to poop amongst other things, are nods to the series roots as a virtual pet toy that is similar to the then popular, Tamagotchis. The animation quality was top notch and the fight scenes were epic, the movie hyped a lot of kids to watch the upcoming TV series and eventually the long line of video games.
For the Western fans, they watched Digimon: The Movie, a Frankenstein-like creation that consists of splicing 3 Digimon movies into one movie and altering the story with cheesy, yet, memorable English theme song.
9. Pokemon: Mewtwo no Gyakushuu (Pokemon the First Movie)
- Aired: July 1998
A group of scientists has discovered the fossilized remains of a legendary Pokemon Mew and its DNA, to clone a super soldier known as Mewtwo. The psychic Pokemon Mewtwo soon learned of the scientists' plans and destroyed the laboratory and is now seeking revenge against humanity. Ash, Misty, Brock and several Pokemon Trainers were invited to New Island to meet and battle without knowing Mewtwo's plan.
The Pokemon series was a huge hit and with the addictive gameplay of Tetris, the Game Boy handheld console became an instant hit as well, worldwide. Apart from great first party titles for the console and its successors, it was the Pokemon series who helped sell the line of handheld consoles. With Pokemon’s addictive gameplay of collecting and fighting pocket monsters with RPG elements, it has won the hearts of children and it’s so popular, there are trading cards, cereals, toys and especially the anime series and the very first movie that is equally popular like the games.
Though the first movie was mediocre and inconsistent story-wise, it was entertaining to the young fans who get to see their favorite characters and Pokemon in movie budget quality, and they get to see Mewtwo, a Pokemon not all players encountered in the game at that time.
8. Jungle Taitei Movie (Jungle Emperor Leo)
- Aired: August 1, 1997
Also known as Kimba the White Lion, Jungle Taitei Movie focuses on the final chapters of the adult white lion, Leo, with his wife, Lyre, and cubs, Lune and Lukio. On a typical day in the jungle, the young lion cub Lune has stumbled upon a music box and learned of the existence of humans and has taken an interest in them. On the other side of the world, an expedition is being planned to visit the jungle in search for the Moonlight Stone, the fabled precious gem that is thought to solve mankind’s energy crisis. The team is composed of seasoned explorers, and scientists, being led by a greedy treasure hunter. The clash between man and the animal kingdom starts anew.
Before you ask, yes, Jungle Taitei is similar to Disney’s Lion King, and yes, despite Disney's denial, the Lion King is, to put it bluntly, a rip-off of Osamu “The Father of Manga” Tezuka’s manga series that was first published in 1954 with a TV series that aired in 1965-1967. Apart from the copying controversy, Jungle Taitei has a different story of a white lion orphaned at a young age and grew up to be the next king in the jungle and his desire to be peaceful with the humans. In fact, Leo’s self-sacrifice to save everybody is so extreme and may scar children for life. Disney, even in its lifetime, will never copy that to their future films.
7. Stand by Me Doraemon
- Aired: Aug 8, 2014
Nobi Nobita isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer and his life as a kid is nothing short of pathetic. He sucks at everything, bigger kids take advantage of him, and with nothing to look forward to, Nobita’s future is going to suck. That’s not until Nobita’s descendant from the future paid him a visit and offers his help the troubled youth to improve his life and change the future. In order to do that, the Nobita’s great, great grandson sent in Doraemon, a caretaker robot, to help Nobita improve. Can Doraemon fix Nobita’s future using the countless gadgets stored away in his 4th-dimensional pocket, or is Nobita really fated to grow up as a pathetic person?
Let’s start the list with a character who is a children’s icon throughout Japan, Doraemon. You might be thinking: “Doraemon is from a TV series, so why is this on the list?” And you’d be right, but Stand by Me Doraemon is a standalone movie of Nobita’s encounter with the famous blue robot cat and their eventual parting. Think of this as a compressed version of the original TV series containing all the best parts. While Nobita is a genuine idiot who is lazy, easily gives up, not too bright, and often relies on Doraemon’s wacky gadgets to make his life easy, he has a good (sometimes misguided) heart. He slowly learns from his mistakes, the consequences of relying on gadgets too much, and Nobita eventually matured into a better person. And despite all of the things Doraemon endured, he became the cornerstone for Nobita’s bright future.
6. Uchuu Show e Youkoso (Welcome to the Space Show)
- Aired: Feb 18, 2010
In a small village up in the mountains, a group of five kids Natsuki, Amane, Kiyoshi, Noriko, and Kouji are preparing for their summer vacation at their local school for 1 week. Everything seems normal for the kids until they rescued an injured dog near a suspicious crop circle formation. To their surprise, the dog is actually an alien named Pochi and he’s on Earth protecting a rare plant that is thought to have been extinct. To repay for the kids’ kindness, Pochi took them to the dark side of the moon for a field trip. Unwittingly one of the kids happened to bring the rare plant with them and they’ve become a target of poachers wanting the plant for their evil plans.
Traveling across the unknown cosmos, meeting aliens and eventually saving the entire universe with your friends is probably the best summer vacation kids could ever dream of. Welcome to the Space Show has everything from a talking dog sidekick, an epic adventure in space, friendship, love and be the hero fighting the bad guys. The story starts out pretty normal of a group of kids spending their summer vacation at school, befriended an alien, they went to the dark side of the moon for a field trip, got space visas, ended up traveling to different planets and eventually got involved in a universe-ending plot that involves, uh, wasabi. The movie is slow at the beginning, awkward even, especially that shlong shot, but once you get past that, you’ll be treated to a visual spectacle that will leave you breathless. Welcome to the Space Show! It’s the biggest event since the Big Bang!
5. Majo no Takkyuubin (Kiki's Delivery Service)
- Aired: Jul 29, 1989
Following the old witch custom, Kiki, a witch in training, must leave her home at the age of 13 for a year in training. Leaving her family and friends, Kiki travels with her cat friend, Jiji, on a flying broomstick south and, eventually, settled in the coastal town of Koriko, where she begins training. Things didn’t turn out great for Kiki as she struggles to adapt to the new urban environment. Kiki eventually found a job delivering things and then decided to start her own delivery service. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a coming of age story that teaches the value of responsibility.
Don’t expect any magic battles like you see in Little Witch Academia because the movie is more about Kiki growing up and living together with the people in the city. Studio Ghibli film stories aren't wordy and rely on the artwork, animation, and sound to do all of the talking. This approach is what makes Ghibli films so appealing to children who rather prefer experiencing the movie in its entirety without getting bored by characters who talk on and on.
4. Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya)
- Aired: Nov 23, 2013
Once upon a time, there lived a Bamboo Cutter. On the mountain, he would cut bamboo to make all manner of things. One day, he saw light shining from a bamboo stalk and in wonder, he drew closer and saw a small beautiful girl within. The Bamboo Cutter, convinced he was blessed by the heavens, took the girl with him to his wife. From that day on, the Bamboo Cutter and his wife would raise this miraculous child as their own.
Based on the Japanese folklore, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, Kaguya-hime is the animated adaptation which is loyal to the original tale with some minor changes and additions. The story is very simple when watching Kaguya growing up and experiencing new things and meeting new friends, but there is more to the story - like where Kaguya came from and why was she brought to the bamboo cutter and his wife. What sets it apart from other Ghibli films or any other film is the exquisite art style that is similar to traditional Japanese art dominated by brushes and thick outlines. It’s so different that you can’t really tell this movie was made by the same studio who animated My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away.
It’s not very often to see a faithful animated adaptation of folklore because the stories usually don’t end in a happy ending. Disney altered timeless tales like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and the Little Mermaid, by cutting out the darker side of the stories - like how the queen from Snow White was forced to dance with iron-hot sandals until she dropped dead or how the king molested the Sleeping Beauty while she was asleep and how the mermaid dissolved into bubbles. Granted there are other alternate versions of the original tales that are less grim, but regardless, the stories were neutered for the young audience. Studio Ghibli respected Kaguya-hime so he remained faithful to the original tale and the ending is something you’ll never expect.
3. Gake no Ue no Ponyo (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea)
- Aired: July 19, 2008
A house sitting on a cliffside lives a small boy with his mother. When he climbed down to the beach to play, the boy, Sousuke, saw a weird looking fish with a face of a girl. The curious boy took the fish and named her Ponyo. Little does Sousuke know that Ponyo is no ordinary fish and triggered vast storms and floods because Ponyo has disturbed the balance of the sea.
If the West has Disney, Japan has Studio Ghibli, a studio known for high-quality hand drawn family-friendly films and the studio is regarded as one of the best in the world. Ponyo is similar to the Little Mermaid and it’s one of the studio’s best films. While it shares similarities to Hans Christian Andersen’s story, Ponyo tells a story of its own which is about a fish girl falling in love with a human boy with no real villains getting in their way. The vast majority of the movie’s runtime is focused on the interaction between Ponyo and Sousuke, so it tells the viewers how the two have grown fond of each other. If you’re looking for a cute innocent love of two people with no violence and fighting, Ponyo will make your heart flutter and your eyes sparkle at the stunning hand drawn world.
2. Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro)
- Aired: April 16, 1988
This is the oldest movie on the list and My Neighbor Totoro tells a story that is both beautiful and timeless. The story starts with father Kusakabe Tatsuo and his two daughters Mei and Satsuki moving to the countryside, close to where their sickened mother is hospitalized. As the girls get acquainted with the new environment and new neighbors, the youngest sibling, Mei, encounters a strange looking rabbit scuttering along. As she follows the strange creature, she falls through one of the roots and there she meets the giant furry forest spirit that she names Totoro. Mei and Satsuki became friends with Totoro and ever since, their life is nothing but fun and adventure.
My Neighbor Totoro, like most Ghibli films is a classic that has been watched by many kids from the West and Japan. There’s no malice to be found in the movie and the story is simply just about two siblings going about their new lives in the countryside, having fun with the spirits guarding the forest. There are no villains, no neglectful parents and no, tragedy. My Neighbor Totoro has heart and you’ll watch the movie with nothing but a big smile on your face.
1. Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away)
- Aired: July 20, 2001
10-year-old Chihiro and her parents were moving to a new town, but a detour got them stranded from a tunnel leading to what appears to be an abandoned amusement park. The family explored the area and the father got a whiff of food nearby. With no one at the counter, the family, except Chihiro, helped themselves to some delicious meals. As her parents gorged themselves, Chihiro explored the abandoned town only to encounter a young boy. The boy warned Chihiro to leave before sunset, but it was too late. Chihiro’s parents got turned into pigs and the abandoned town is slowly getting filled with spirits. With no way to return to the human world, Chihiro must work at the local bathhouse, otherwise, the Witch managing the establishment will turn Chihiro into a pig like her parents.
Studio Ghibli has produced amazing classics, but arguably it is Spirited Away that cemented the studio and director-animator Miyazaki Hayao as the masters of film animation that rivals or even surpasses, Disney. And it’s no surprise because Spirited Away is one of the most impressive films Japan has ever produced with painstakingly animated characters and a world with minute details you won’t notice for the first time. As for the story, Chihiro getting stranded in a realm populated by spirits can be likened to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, about a girl getting lost in a weird world filled with strange creatures. However, Spirited Away goes further with a story of a girl who was lost and adapted to the grown up world where she needs to work to survive. And let’s not forget the huge cast of characters from the greedy workers of the bathhouse, the mysterious spirit called No-Face, the bathhouse manager and the witch, Yubaba, and the enigmatic young boy named Haku.
It’s very hard to describe Spirit Away with words and it’s best to experience the magic yourself. Do be careful though, because the magic is so potent, you yourself might be spirited away.
As you may have noticed, the last 5 kids movies on this list were produced and animated by the legendary Japanese animation Studio Ghibli. The reason for that is Studio Ghibli is the Disney of Japan who made one great classic after another, with stories that will mesmerize the eyes, delight the ears, and soothes the mind. Both Studio Ghibli and Disney share the same principles, but Studio Ghibli stands out because they can tell stories that Disney deemed too mature for children and even to this day, Studio Ghibli still uses hand drawn animations while Disney went to CGI. Now, CGI animation films aren’t a bad thing, but it’s setting the standard of what the future of animation will be like. Thankfully, we still have Studio Ghibli and Japan’s tradition to prove that hand drawn animation still has a future.
Japan and its culture are indeed different and we see that in their animated works and storytelling. Japan has something the West can copy or take inspirations from, but the West cannot replicate culture. Modern fairy tales teach the children to fall in love with a prince at first sight, but in Japan, they teach children to understand and appreciate the prince’s character before falling in love — this is something that films like Ponyo or Spirited Away teach.
And this is our list. What anime made for kids have you watched when you were younger? Be sure to leave your response to the comments below.