Best Anime Titles on Blu-ray Disc: Feature Films

Akira's 25th Anniversary Blu-Ray Edition. Amazon

Ever since the high-definition Blu-ray Disc format appeared, anime fans have been abuzz about whether their favorite movie titles would make it to the new format. And so far, a steady trickle of both new releases and catalog classics have been making their way to Blu.

Here's a list of anime films on Blu-ray that represent the best of what can be found in the format: they're a) great on their own merit, b) have outstanding presentations on Blu-ray, and c) have extras that make the package all the more worthwhile. Older films that have only been issued before on VHS or DVD (or never issued at all) are given extra priority as well.

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It's hard to write about anime generally without mentioning Akira, and it's all but impossible to write about anime's most striking visuals without mentioning the film either. It's lengthy production history is the stuff of legend now: its budget was exorbitant, and the level of detail involved required that (among other things) specific colors of paint had to be custom-mixed for the film. A project of this scope would be barely possible today, and wouldn't be feasible via the hand-animated and cel-painted technology used at the time. But that only makes every shot of it all the more stupefying to behold.

Sound/vision: The Blu-ray Disc version of Akira shows off all this eye candy to magnificent effect, includes both English* and Japanese audio, and also shows off Geinoh Yamashirogumi's score via a Dolby TrueHD "infrasonic" track, which requires a sound system capable of playing back 24-bit audio.

Extras: Trailers, teasers, TV commercials and a selection of storyboards from the film. Ironically, the previously-released 2-disc Pioneer DVD edition has a better selection of extras, including the AKIRA Production Report. Maybe a future BD edition will fix this.

*Note that the English audio on this disc is not the dub that was commissioned for the original English-language Streamline Pictures release of the film, but one newly-created for the film.

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The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Yasutaka Tsutsui's novel of the same name has been adapted numerous times before, but this anime reworking of his basic story -- girl learns how to "leap" through time with unexpected consequences -- is so good it's hard to see how another version could improve on it. The titular girl uses her newfound powers to make a very bad day go incrementally better, only to find that by tampering with her own history she might well be ruining everyone else's in the bargain.

Sound/vision: Apart from a great-looking filmless transfer, there's only Japanese and English audio. Bandai doesn't take Sony's approach and try to trick out the disc with most every language out there.

Extras: The curious thing about Girl is while there are a bevy of extras -- including a feature-length storyboard-to-screen comparison! -- they're all on a second, DVD-format disc in standard definition. Maybe it was a cost-cutting measure, but the content on the second disc is so meaty it more than makes up for the format change: two separate commentary tracks, a half-hour conversation with the director, behind and in front of the scenes at the premiere, and a smattering of other goodies as well.

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Ghost in the Shell 2.0

If there's any one title on this list that is only here by fiat, it's this one. Ghost in the Shell deserves a top-notch Blu-ray edition for English-speaking audiences, but for now, we'll have to settle for this version.

The best thing about Ghost in the Shell 2.0, is, sadly, also the worst thing about it. This edition of the film was extensively remastered from the original film negative, but replaces a number of scenes with newly-rendered CGI and applies some additional color grading not used in the original film. Not all of these changes are appreciated, though; some perfectly good (and lovely) animation and background art has been ditched in favor of this Lucas-esque "remastering."

Sound/vision: Gripes about the changes aside, the film still looks far superior in this edition than the previous DVD editions, so this edition should be considered a placeholder until a BD version of the original "1.0" version of the film is available domestically. 

Both the original English dub produced for the film and the original Japanese audio (with English subtitles) are presented in 6.1 DTS-ES Discrete format.

Extras: The 30-minute featurette Making of Ghost in the Shell: Production Report is here, but it's in upscaled standard-definition.

Even more bewildering is the entire original version of the film -- but it's also in upscaled standard-definition, with picture quality that is arguably worse than the actual DVD itself!

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Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade

There's barely been a Mamoru Oshii movie that didn't deserve a BD edition (see Sky Crawlers, Ghost in the Shell, etc.) This grim vision of a heavily militarized alternate present is like a grittier, darker cousin to The Sky Crawlers, wherein a loyal soldier for a repressive regime finds himself tested by unexpected emotions. It's a dark film in both the figurative and literal sense of the word: many of the scenes of subterranean blue-on-black imagery turn into a pixelated murk on DVD but are preserved far better on Blu-ray.

Sound/vision: Another fine from film transfer courtesy of Bandai, where again the texture and detail of the cels is evident in every frame. Audio consists of two Japanese tracks with English subs and an English dub.

Extras: The on-disc extras are minimal -- teaser and trailer -- but the real bonus is, as with Wings of Honnêamise, the booklets packed with the original pressing of the DVD. One contains interviews and behind-the-scenes data; the other is the entire storyboard for the film, a real collector's item.

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

The first in what promises to be an excellent series of Blu-ray reissues of all of Studio Ghibli's back catalog, Nausicaä was the first of Hayao Miyazaki's films as director and still remains one of his best. An ecologically-themed fantasy with adventure enough to appeal to both adults and children, it also sports the first of Miyazaki's many feisty heroines.

Sound/vision: The film transfer is directly from the original negative and is immaculate, but also not over-processed or heavily denoised; the hand-drawn feel of the lines and the texture of the painted cels comes through. For audio, there's an all-star English dub (Patrick Stewart, Uma Thurman, Edward James Olmos, Shia LaBeouf), plus French and the original Japanese audio.

Extras: Two featurettes ("Behind the Studio" and "Enter the Lands"), plus a feature-length storyboard-to-screen comparison that uses sketches and the original Japanese audio.

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Satoshi Kon's last feature film before his untimely death was an adaptation of Yasutaka Tsutsui's satirical science-fiction novel, with a premise that predates Inception by decades. Scientists have developed a device which allows one person to dive into the dreams of another, and one of its inventors, the normally staid and reserved Dr. Atsuko Chiba, has been using the device on the sly (under the guise of a second persona, which she dubs "Paprika") to help people with severe psychological disturbances. Then the device goes missing, and the barriers between the dream world and the real world start to crumble, bigtime. The film is a terrific showcase for Kon's endless inventiveness, with characters hijacking dream logic to do six impossible things before breakfast for the sake of saving the world.

Sound/vision: Aside from the top-notch picture quality -- the film was an all-digital production, and Sony's Blu-ray production is second to none -- the BD edition of the film comes with a staggering array of audio and subtitle tracks. For audio: Japanese and English, but also French, Spanish, and Portuguese. For subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese, Korean, and Thai.

Extras: Four interesting behind-the-scenes featurettes, which cover the original Yasutaka Tsutsui novel (the author whose work also inspired The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, a roundtable discussion including director Satoshi Kon, an analysis of the film's dream-inspired art direction, an examination of the use of CG in the film, storyboard-to-film comparisons, and running feature-length commentary by Kon and other personnel (including longtime Kon collaborator, composer Susumu Hirasawa).

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Directors Takeshi Koike (animation) and Katsuhito Ishii (voices) teamed up with animation studio Madhouse to labor for seven years on this project. It was worth the wait: Redline is an all-hand-drawn, all-action-all-the-time animation spectacle that hearkens back to Ralph Bakshi's brazen psychedelic animation experiments of the 1970s (Heavy Traffic, Wizards). The story's a thin veneer over the visuals; it's about the fastest, most illegal racing competition in the universe, where every player is risking everything to be #1. But, oh, what visuals!

Sound/vision: Aside from the top-notch picture (the original production was mastered from digital sources, not film), the disc includes English and Japanese audio (with English subtitles).

Extras: An hour-long behind-the-scenes documentary with tons of making-of details, a shorter half-hour behind-the-scenes overview of the film, and a 2006 trailer completed while the film was still under wraps.

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Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise

The first feature-film production by GAINAX, the production company responsible for Evangelion, is a stylish alternate-history take on a fictional nation's space program (vaguely along the lines of James Michener's Space) Here, however, the "space program" is little more than a PR stunt by the country's military, and the tone of the film is alternately wry and romantic, bordering on the cheery sarcasm of the similarly-themed Oh! Edo Rocket. The little team of misfits tasked with sending a man into space aren't expected to succeed, but wait until they begin taking the mission far more seriously than their superiors (or anyone else) do.

The movie works overtime to steep us in the details of this imagined nation, like the architecture and sundries of daily life, as well as the major set-pieces like the rocket launches (both successful and failed) and stupendous aerial sequences. Among the crew (in the capacity of "effects designer") was Hideaki Anno, who later went on to direct Evangelion itself.

The BD edition of the film was one of the deluxe productions from the Bandai sublabel Honneamise (so named for this film!).

Sound/vision: The original film masters were used for the transfer, but haven't been given the kind of full-out frame-by-frame restoration that, say, Disney's own animated films were subjected to. Consequently, one can see all the artifacts of this being a traditional ink-and-paint animation production -- e.g., brushstrokes on the cels -- but that only makes it look all the more handmade and impressive, actually. It's also slightly window boxed (there's a black margin around the edges of the picture for the sake of overscan on older TVs). English and Japanese audio are both included.

Extras: On-disc bonuses are scanty: a teaser and a trailer. The real bonus is the booklet included in the set, which contains detailed interviews and essays from the creative team.

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The Sky Crawlers

Mamoru Oshii has never done anything the easy way, and his adaptation of Hiroshi Mori's novels into one of his trademarked meditations on memory and identity is yet another example of that. It's a war movie disguised as a movie about young love disguised as a science-fiction film, and if that makes your head spin that's probably the idea.

Sound/vision: A gorgeous filmless master, with Dolby TrueHD tracks in Japanese, English and Portuguese, plus a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Subtitles are in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese -- another example of a broadly multilingual Sony Pictures BD release.

Extras: The bonuses here are three featurettes clocking in at 75 minutes or so total: "Animation Research for The Sky Crawlers" (the scene of Oshii having truckloads of art books shipped out to him for further study is a show-stopper); "Sound Design and Animation of The Sky Crawlers" (at Skywalker Ranch, no less); and "Sky's the Limit: An Interview with Director Mamoru Oshii", where the director himself tells all about his ideas for the film.

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Sword of the Stranger

Stranger is something of a wonderful aberration: in a time when very few standalone, original animated productions were making it to the screen -- let alone a swashbuckling period piece with tons of action -- here was the exception to that rule. The plot's rudimentary: loner defends innocent young'un from baddies who have nefarious plans and rediscovers his sense of purpose in the bargain. But the visuals and the sheer exuberance of the production make it both a must-see and a great example of what Blu-ray can do.

Sound/vision: An all-digital filmless image master was used to create the picture, and consequently looks terrific. Both English and Japanese audio tracks are Dolby True HD 5.1.

Extras: Two featurettes are included: a behind-the-scenes production report and a cast-interview segment, including shots from the film's premiere. Most intriguing is a four-minute "pilot film" created by the production company to help drive interest in the full production.