My 10 favorite pre-90s anime movies

Everybody had that show or movie that got them into anime, but for most people I find their interest in our medium stems from either the anime boom of the 90s or a semi-recent show from the 2000s or 2010s. Not many people talk about older anime and while the scene was smaller back then, there was no shortage of fantastic anime movies to enjoy. Sure, everybody remembers stuff like Ghibli’s work, but I wanted to look back on some of the other movies coming out at the time.

For this top 10 I only have two rules:

  • I’ll only mention a single Ghibli movie to keep it fair.
  • And Akira is not on the list, because it would obviously snag the #1 spot if I did include it.

#10 Animal Treasure Island (1971)

Starting off this list we have a film that really embodies everything that is fun about adventure stories for children. Animal Treasure Island is a pirate movie about a boy and his little brother who set out to find a legendary treasure after a pirate captain stayed at their inn. They soon wind up captured and made slaves for a greedy, evil pig, who is himself the pirate captain of a sizable vessel. From there it’s a constant struggle, as the boys attempt to escape and find the treasure before the captain who took them prisoner can.

Animal Treasure Island

It’s a lighthearted and fun movie for all ages, with enjoyable characters and some great slapstick comedy during duels and fights. The storyline is simplistic and won’t surprise anybody with its contents, but even an adult can just zone out and enjoy the adventure, alone or together with their kids.

#9 Toward the Terra (1980)

I am not really a science-fiction person, though I have been known to permit some exceptions when the themes of the story intrigued me. One of these rare gems is Toward the Terra, a movie about a future utopia where mankind lives under the watchful eye of a computer program. Humans live on special worlds and are mechanically birthed, after which they are assigned to handpicked parents. On their 14th birthday, they take an adulthood exam and have their memories altered, turning them into unquestioning, productive adults.

Toward the Terra.png

Jomy is an alternative thinker, however, and this leads to him failing the exam and being scheduled for an unpleasant meeting with the AI that runs society. However, a group of rebel Mu, Humans who have evolved to have psionic powers, rescues Jomy and brings them into their fold. After initially rejecting the notion of being a Mu, Jomy’s powers soon manifest and he resolves to help his people in their fight against the regular Humans, who are made to believe that the Mu are monsters that need to be destroyed.

Rather than being a movie about ship battles and high-tech sci-fi jargon, Toward the Terra instead focuses on the more Human aspects. At the start of the movie Jomy is just some teenager that doesn’t want to forget about the parents who raised him just to be a functioning adult, and from there, more questions about this future society are brought up. It questions how much freedom is worth when having less of it enables us to live in a perfectly-oiled system free of internal problems. It asks if sex and physical relations might need to become taboo when it’s safer and more manageable to produce Humans through science. It gets you thinking while also featuring enough intrigue and action to stay exciting.

The movie was remade into a 24-episode TV series in 2007, which I intend to check out soon. I am curious if a different team could succeed in adapting such a philosophical piece of fiction, but I also admit that the movie does feel rushed in some parts, so perhaps the longer format will work in its favor.

#8 Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid (1975)

No, I am not confused.

Besides Disney’s famous attempt at an animated movie based on Hans Christian Anderson’s romantic drama The Little Mermaid, there was also a movie by Toei that preceded Disney’s version by 14 years.  While Disney would take their adaptation into a more kid-friendly direction, Toei went with a faithful storyline that pretty much matches all the important beats from the book.

Little Mermaid.png

The story follows The Little Mermaid, a curious girl who falls in love with relics from the surface and, eventually, a prince from a nearby kingdom after she saves his life during a shipwreck. She becomes obsessed with her love and eventually agrees to a shady deal with a witch that exchanges her beautiful voice for a pair of legs. While she does find the prince who holds her affection, her romance doesn’t quite unfold as she had hoped. In fact, her very life may be at stake because she underestimated how hard it is to win someone’s affection.

If you liked Ariel’s upbeat story in the Disney version, then watching this anime movie provides an interesting contrast. To be honest, I really do prefer this one, as it’s more true to the messages and ideas of the novel, which also leads to a more beautiful ending. Despite being much older, I also find that the movie is beautifully animated and the characters have appealing designs.

#7 Taro the Dragon Boy (1979)

Taro is a lazy, unsympathetic little shit who lives in a village starved by poverty, yet spends all day sleeping, eating, and messing around in the forest while his poor grandmother works herself sick in the fields. When he is one day approached by a Demon, he is given a potion that gives him the strength of a hundred men, but it only works when he is trying to help others.

Taro!

When his grandmother then reveals that Taro’s mother was turned into a dragon as punishment for her selfishness, Taro sets out on a journey to find her and learns the importance of helping others through the people he encounters. It’s another stellar adventure movie that sees Taro meet all sorts of interesting people and solve numerous problems. He fights with Demons, he helps improve the land, and all-around just becomes a much more upstanding kid and likable character.

It’s not the most epic, well-animated, or original movie on this list, but it has a varied adventure that I found myself really getting absorbed by thanks to its fun characters and relatable goals.

#6 They Were Eleven (1986)

After numerous tests and a rigorous vetting process, ten young cadets find themselves tasked with a mission to operate an abandoned spaceship for nearly two whole months. However, once they arrive and enter through the airlock, a headcount reveals that there is an 11th person among them.

theywereeleven11

This is another one of those Scifi movies that force me to reevaluate if I may be into this genre after all. I like the idea of a group of hopeful cadets finding themselves in the isolated environment of a ship, and the suspicions that form when issues begin to arise that suggest the 11th person may be out to sabotage the mission. It’s a fascinating adventure with a lot of twists and situations that had me intrigued and guessing at who might be the intruder.

My only complaint is that I would have preferred it if this was a TV series, as I feel it would have benefitted from a few side-stories to flesh out the characters. I thought some of the crewmembers were damn interesting and wanted to know more about them, but the same also went for the characters that kind off got screwed over when screentime was being distributed.

#5 Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

The contest for the Ghibli slot in this list was fierce indeed, but ultimately I am going to award it to Kiki’s Delivery Service instead of Nausicaä. There is no doubt Hayao Miyazaki’s post-apocalyptic, military adventure story was fantastic, but Kiki has a whole different appeal to it that, in the end, just elevates it slightly above Nausicaä in my opinion.

Kiki

Kiki’s Delivery Service is a film about growing up and the hardships that brings along. Kiki is a young witch who is just about ready to leave her mother’s side and set up business in a place of her choosing. She follows her dreams and moves to a beautiful, seaside city, only to arrive there and learn people aren’t as excited to meet her as she is to meet them. People just kind of ignore her and she receives a stern talking to, whereupon she learns that finding a place to stay and getting all the stuff she needs to get through the day are expensive. It looks like her dream job is actually rather depressing, but yet Kiki perseveres.

Watching Kiki set up her business and overcome the challenges that this presents is satisfying and kind of inspiring. Kiki is an adorable, little character and you really just want to see her succeed. It’s a kind of anime movie that I don’t feel can be easily compared to anything else, since it’s neither a drama nor an adventure story; it’s just the very personal tale of a little girl trying to become independent and confident. This makes it both interesting for kids, as well as young adults who are facing challenges not so different from Kiki’s.

#4 The Gundam Trilogy (1981/1982)

This might be a case of me cheating a bit, but I felt the Gundam trilogy deserved a shout-out in this list. I have always had an interest in this franchise, but man… where do you even start with that? There is so much Gundam stuff on the market and even if you go back to the very first show, that is a 43 episode series; a steep investment even without considering the entire rest of the franchise’s universe. A trilogy of movies, however, helps fix this problem.

Gundam

The trilogy summarizes the events of the series in a collection of 2-hour movies, which really brings out the best in the franchise. We follow Amuro, a young genius living in a space colony when it’s attacked by a force of rebels that wage a war against the current government. Amidst the chaos, Amuro tracks down a new type of battle robot called the Gundam and quickly figures out the very basics of piloting it. With his help, a single ship known as “White Base” manages to escape the colony, even though most of its personnel are wounded and replaced with civilian amateurs.

What starts off as a rocky evacuation turns into a saga that chronicles the various problems White Base encounters as the war continues. Amuro and a crew of other young men and women must undergo rigorous training and deal with their own, inner demons in order to become capable pilots and protect those who are dear to them. On the way they make and lose friends, enemies turn into allies and allies turn into enemies. In fact, a lot of scenes were touching and sad, I really didn’t expect some of these characters to die, whereas the survival of some others was even more astounding.

I have said it before in this piece, but I am not really into science fiction and especially the mecha genre leaves me generally cold. The Gundam movies are an exception in this because it feels like the mechs are just a tool the writer uses to tell a gripping story about war. And that, I am 100% a fan of.

#3 Ringing Bell (1978)

Ringing Bell is probably the shortest movie on today’s list, but that just makes it all the more surprising that this little film about a sheep is so absolutely kick ass.

Ringing Bell.png

Chirin is a little, carefree lamb, who loves to hop around the fields and leaves his mum in constant worry. When one day a wolf breaks into the barn and slays his mother, Chirin swears vengeance and chases the wolf into the mountains. With no way back, he soon finds that life outside the farm is harsh and unfair, as food is scarce and kindness even more so. We get to see how this new life changes Chirin and turns him from a helpless little lamb into the most badass little furball ever to graze in the pastures.

While it may be short, the movie absolutely offers a full package and is always a joy to watch. I love the presentation of the action scenes, the themes that it tackles as Chirin learns more about the hardships of life, and the dynamic between Chirin and the wolf ends up becoming interesting too.

#2 Barefoot Gen (1982)

Barefoot Gen was such an amazing movie that the first time I watched it, it cost me two days of sleep because the haunting images and terrible subject matter just kept me up at night. The story adapts the manga and life story of Keiji Nakazawa, an author who lived in Hiroshima and was six years old when America dropped the atom bomb on his city.

Barefoot Gen

The story is about Gen, a young boy obviously representing the writer himself, who is also six years old and lives in Hiroshima. His family lives in poverty and regularly has to take shelter for air raids. To be fair, Gen and his brother are kind of annoying brats, who get into fights with each other a lot and aren’t exactly sympathetic towards the struggle of their parents. That changes when their mother grows sickly during pregnancy, and even more when the bomb is finally dropped.

The scene of the nuke going off and the immediate after-effects of it are some of the most gruesome and impactful images I have probably ever seen in anime. I am known to enjoy edgy stuff from time to time, but the sight of people scorched out of existence by a weapon of mass destruction, followed by heavily burned survivors wandering the streets almost like zombies, that is far more horrifying than anything a show like Blood-C or Akame Ga Kill could ever hope to achieve.

After the nuke has come and gone the movie almost turns into a survival story, as what remains of Gen’s family travels around and tries to eke out a living in the wasteland that was their city. All around them is hunger, hurt, and people dying from their wounds and cancer, yet Gen must carry on. He is forced to quickly grow up and be the man his family needs, and we get to see him meet all sorts of people who are trying to restart their lives after the disaster. It’s an inspiring movie in that regard, yet it also completely changed my perception of Japan in the second World War and warfare in general.

#1 The Great Adventures of Horus, Prince of the Sun (1968)

You might be left wondering how good of an anime movie you could possibly make in 1968, back when stuff like the Cyborg 009 movies were probably the fanciest you could otherwise go with. Well, I’ll tell you man, if they had released The Great Adventures of Horus in cinema nowadays, it’d still look pretty damn nice.

Little Norse Prince

Horus is this little boy who lives in exile with his father, after a powerful demon once came to their village and destroyed it. One day Horus meets a powerful earth spirit and pulls a blade from its shoulder, who then prophesizes that Horus is meant for greatness. When his father dies soon after, Horus sets out to return to his homeland and find his people. When he gets there he finds the people living in fear and under constant threat from all manner of monsters, plagues, and other troubles. Thus he strives to become their hero and fight back.

This movie is just all kinds of amazing. Part of that is certainly from the stellar animation and great sense of style, as a lot of inspiration was drawn from Norse mythology and early Scandinavian civilization. The titular adventure is also very engaging, with Horus having various achievements and setbacks throughout all of it. There is also a remarkable amount of intrigue to be found here, as forces seek to sabotage Horus from within the village he is saving. Honestly, it would take years before a movie came out that would rival this one and its many qualities far outshine the rare, few moments where you are reminded of the movie’s age.

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