We're fans of all types of film around these parts, and some of the best films of 2013 were feature length anime. I can't pretend that Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises even comes close to fitting the "underrated" banner, but it led a particularly strong pack of films this year (it opens in Orlando at the end of February, but has already played NY and LA for Oscar qualification), films worth highlighting as much as any others -- and that's without having seen Mardock Scramble, One Piece Film Z or Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo.
Wolf Children - Mamoru Hosoda (DVD/Blu out now)
I always viewed Mamoru Hosoda as more of an art director than a storyteller, but he fully brushed that bias off of his shoulder with Wolf Children, a coming-of-age story about two half-human/half-wolf children and the trouble their human mother goes through in raising them after their shape shifting wolfman father is killed while out hunting to feed his new family. Before long the childrens' wolf instincts get them from their Tokyo apartment and their mother decides to move them to a rural town to keep their secret safe. But once there, the secret becomes more explosive. It's a touching story, and Hosoda's comedic instincts are both well measured and well timed, something he didn't manage to do in Summer Wars.
Colorful - Keiichi Hara (DVD/Blu out now)
Though it was originally released in Japan in 2010, it wasn't until 2013 that Colorful became available in North America. It's the story of a recently deceased boy who arrives to the afterlife and finds out he's being given a second chance at life, albeit in the body of a 14 year old boy who has just committed suicide. He is tasked with discovering his own greatest sin in life, as well as discovering the secret of his host's suicide. I had some problems with this film initially -- the characters are very hard to like in the moment -- but it's grown in my mind in the months since seeing it and I find I appreciate the film the more I think about it and its maddening plot twists. Life and death are maddening ideas on their own, ones that you can't shut yourself off to just because you don't like the idea of it.
From Up on Poppy Hill - Goro Miyazaki (DVD/Blu out now)
From Up on Poppy Hill, a high school melodrama set right before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, is somewhat of a departure from the norm for Studio Ghibli. Though co-written by Hayao Miyazaki with Ghibli regular Keiko Niwa, there are no flying pigs, wolf girls or floating cities. Instead, there is young love – and only young love. It’s a sweet film, almost an idealized film of youth and zeitgeist. The analogies and metaphor might come from the manga that the film is based on, but the soft, measured feel of youth seems to come directly from Hayao Miyazaki’s memory, more like reminiscence than anything else. I do feel a little badly for Goro Miyazaki though, being stuck with that name and forever living under the eclipsing shadow of his legendary father. If he were Goro Suzuki, say, he might be regarded better, a good director but not a great director; at least he would be regarded without a qualifier.
The Garden of Words - Makoto Shinkai (DVD/Blu out now)
Makoto Shinkai and his team are simply the greatest and most detailed artists currently making features. The attention they give the photographic quality of art and the animation in their films is just staggering and worth any price to watch for by itself. Unfortunately the storytelling is a weak point in The Garden of Words, which is about a 15 year old boy who dreams of becoming a shoemaker who meets a mysterious older woman in the park on rainy days. While they bond over poetry and he makes a pair of shoes for her as a gift, the relationship is a little removed from reality. It's too reserved to handle the burst of emotion in the climax.