Behind each iconic scene in the history of anime lies a person serving as the architect for the opus being created. Anime directors may not be as famous as the works that they create, but without them or their talents, anime will not be as prolific as it is today.
Directors are a breed of their own. With a unique insight that specifically sees the exact dynamics of a story as it is supposed to be told, they manage to create classics that touch the viewers, creating an industry that has stood strong for decades, and one which continues to grow every day.
And thus, this list has been created to honor the minds that broke barriers, crushed boundaries, and pursued horizons farther than any art form has ever achieved before. Here are the top ten anime directors!
10. Satoshi Kon
Notable Works: Perfect Blue, Paprika
Hailing from Hokkaido, Satoshi Kon has created his mark in the anime world with anime creations that were both artistic and deep. He was first encouraged to pursue a career in animation while attending Hokkaido Kushiro Koryo High School, where inspiration from classic anime like Space Battleship Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam encouraged him to try out animation himself.
He became a manga artist when he went to college, eventually moving up to anime in the years to follow. He worked as a supervisor for Mamoru Oshii’s Patlabor 2: The Movie along with anime films. However, his work finally reached its pinnacle in his directorial debut, the anime adaptation of Yoshikazu Takeuchi’s novel Perfect Blue, a suspense film with themes of the blurring border between reality and fantasy. The film was a critical and commercial success, and made Satoshi Kon’s name notable in the anime industry.
Tragedy is said to love the genius however, as he was eventually diagnosed with a terminal case of pancreatic cancer while working on his film, The Dreaming Machine. He passed away six months after the initial diagnosis, shocking the anime community and the world since he has not shown any sign of sickness prior to him being diagnosed with cancer. He was later mentioned among the Fond Farewells in TIME Magazine’s people of the year in 2010.
9. Noboru Ishiguro
Notable Works: Space Battleship Yamato, The Super Dimension Fortress Macross
Noburo Ishiguro is one of those names in the anime industry that has influenced the anime world from backstage. Born in August 24, 1938, he came to this world prior to the start of the Second World War. Despite this, however, he grew into a well-rounded, talented young man with an interest in the arts.
One of the really cool things about Noburo Ishiguro is the fact that he was into music while he was growing up. In fact, he was part of a Hawaiian style music band in his youth. This background in music eventually influenced his style in anime, as his ability to read sheet music and proficiency in musical notes helped one of the themes he chose to explore in his anime opus, The Super Dimensional Fortess Macross. In fact, this proficiency in music became his mark in later movies such as The Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love? and Legend of the Galactic Heroes.
He sadly passed away on March 20, 2012, however, due to a lung infection which was the result of a follow-up procedure to a surgery that treated an aneurysm two years prior. He was 73 when he passed away.
8. Shinichirō Watanabe
Notable Works: Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo
Born in Kyoto, Japan, Watanabe has quickly gained fame after joining the animation company Sunrise. Starting his work as a co-director and storyboard supervisor of the well-received to the Marcross update, Macross Plus, he eventually moved up to full directorial duties as the director of 1998 series Cowboy Bebop, which received universal praise was considered by critics and anime viewers as one of the greatest anime series of all time.
Among the key styles that made him into a household name is his propensity to mix genres into an artistic, coherent whole. For example, in Cowboy Bebop, he blended elements from classic cowboy Western, Film Noir, Jazz/Blues music, Hong Kong cinema styles, and classic space opera. In his later work, Samurai Champloo, he mixes elements from Okinawa culture, hip-hop, modern-day Japan, and chanbara.
He was tied to a live-action adaptation of his most well-known work, Cowboy Bebop, in 2009. However, he the project eventually went on hiatus. He has since produced and directed other acclaimed works such as Kids on the Slope (Sakamichi no Apollon), a coming of age story about Jazz musicians.
7. Hideaki Anno
Notable Works: Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion, Evangelion: 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone
Hideaki Anno got his start as an animator working for Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind in 1984. Since Studio Ghibli was running short on animators during that time, the production studio posted an ad in Animage, a popular Japanese animation magazine. Anno headed down to the studio and showed Hayao Miyazaki his drawings. Impressed, Miyazaki assigned him as an animator for the intricate sequences involving the God Warriors.
Anno’s directorial work in the iconic anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion has made him into a household name, as the series’ philosophical depth and religious undertones touched areas never breached by anime before. As a director, Anno usually draws from his own experiences, such as his long bout of depression being one of the inspirations behind the End of Evangelion.
He has since established himself as one of the founding members of the animation studio Gainax, which creates groundbreaking and daring anime. In early 2006 however, he has left Gainax to create his own animation studio, Khara. Describing himself as the prodigal son of Hayao Miyazaki, he has become one of the most respected anime directors in the world today. In fact, he even has an asteroid named after him, 9081 Hideakianno. Now that’s breaking new ground.
6. Isao Takahata
Notable Works: Grave of the Fireflies, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Isao Takahata is one of the names in the anime world that fosters great respect and reverence. Being a longtime friend and collaborative partner of Hayao Miyazaki, Takahata is also co-founder of Studio Ghibli, most possibly the most notable anime company in the world.
Graduating from a the University of Tokyo with a degree in French Literature, he was inspired to enter the anime industry after watching a cartoon adaptation of Le Roi et l'Oiseau (The King and the Mockingbird), which is based on a fairy tale by Hans Cristian Andersen. He eventually joined Toei Animation, which started his career as one of the greatest anime directors in the world, adapting literary classics and creative adaptations into anime form.
Known best for the anti-war film that made moviegoers go out of movie theaters in tears, Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata’s work has been found to carry influences of Italian Neorealism, Jacques Prévert, as well as French New Wave films during the 1960s. His work also carries influences in Expressionistic art, as shown in his films Omohide Poro Poro, and his another one of his acclaimed works, Horus: Price of the Sun. His most recent film is yet another critically acclaimed work, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film at the 87th Academy Awards.
5. Mamoru Oshii
Notable Works: Ghost in the Shell, : Patlabor 2:The Movie
Mamoru Oshii has created a name for himself with his most notable work, the 1995 anime film Ghost in the Shell, a story of a female cyborg trying to find the meaning of her existence. The depth of the story, as well as it’s the artistic direction of the anime has made it universally-acclaimed, making it the first anime to reach the top of the US Billboard video charts in 1996 and is widely considered as a masterpiece and anime classic.
Oshii’s influences lie in European cinema, especially films by Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean-Luc Godard, Andrei Tarkovsky and Jerzy Kawalerowicz. His works usually carry a significant amount of symbolism, which ranges from known archetypes to biblical references such as those found in his work, Angel’s Egg and Avalon.
His works have helped elevate anime to new heights, reaching levels and audiences that the art form was not able to breach into before. Though he occasionally dabbles in live-action movies, his animated works are what made him into an international name. The Wachowskis, famous for the Matrix Trilogy, have openly cited Oshii as one of their influences in creating their sci-fi masterpiece, to the point of showing Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell to their producer in order to show them the type of film they wanted the Matrix to be like. James Cameron, famous for the two highest grossing movies of all time, Titanic and Avatar, has also been open about his admiration for Oshii’s work, stating that Avalon may be "the most artistic, beautiful and stylish sci-fi film" ever to grace the animated screen, and that Ghost in the Shell was "the first truly adult animation film to reach a level of literary and visual excellence."
4. Yoshiyuki Tomino
Notable Works: Mobile Suit Gundam, Brain Powerd
Known as the man behind the Gundam franchise, Yoshiyuki Tomino started his career under Mushi Productions, the company behind the world’s first Japanese anime series, Astro Boy. Tomino worked under Osamu Tezuka, writing storyboards and the screenplay for a number of episodes of the iconic series.
However, Tomino is best known for single-handedly pushing the mecha genre to new heights. With his realistic approach to mecha as machines that are rooted in science, his trailblazing series, Mobile Suit Gundam reinvented the mecha genre and started a trend that is to stand until this day. Though the initial run of Mobile Suit Gundam was pulled out of the airwaves due to low ratings, its eventual rediscovery after a series of animated movies triggered a worldwide phenomenon, eventually making Tomino into a world-famous director.
What makes Yoshiyuki Tomino even more awesome is the fact that his talents in anime do not stop in directing. Apart from creating great series and directing them with a style and depth unrivalled in the anime industry, he has also created music for anime, even collaborating with anime music greats such as Yoko Kanno, Asei Kobayashi, MIO and Neil Sedaka.
3. Katsuhiro Otomo
Notable Works: Akira, Steamboy
Yet another anime director whose works have triggered worldwide fame, Katsuhiro Otomo grew up with a fascination with movies. It is widely known that while growing up, he was so enamored with movies that he would unhesitatingly travel for three hours during school holidays just to see them. After graduating from high school, he pursued his dreams of becoming a manga artist. Soon after, he published his debut work, a manga adaptation of Prosper Merimee's short novel Mateo Falcone, called A Gun Report.
His magnum opus would be another manga that he would pen in the early 1980’s, his critically-acclaimed work, Akira. The work took years to complete and culminated in over 2000 pages of artwork. Once released however, it quickly gained fame as one of the best animated movies of all time, credited for elevating anime to heights never before reached. Even world-famous movie critic Roger Ebert picked Akira as his Video Pick of the Week in 1989, giving it a “Thumbs Up” rating. It has also garnered very favorable reviews from film site Rotten Tomatoes, which has given it a “Fresh” rating since it was included in the site’s list.
Otomo has achieved even greater heights than the awards that his works have received, however, as he has managed to become a decorated Chevalier of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2005. He was laterpromoted to Officier of the order in 2014. Apart from these, he has also been inducted into the American Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 2012 and the 2016 Grand Prix de la ville d'Angoulême, becoming the first manga artist in history to receive the prestigious award.
2. Osamu Tezuka
Notable Works: Astroboy, Black Jack
Regarded by many as the “God of Manga,” Osamu Tezuka is the man who is perhaps the one person that anime can truly credit as the one who started it all. Born in 1928, Tezuka initially set out to become a medical doctor. What’s really remarkable is the fact that he did become one, graduating from the University of Nara with a dissertation about the structural membrane of sea nails. After earning his M.D. however, he decided to focus on manga instead. He cites Walt Disney as one of his greatest influences, though he was known to disagree with the commercialism that Disney embraced.
He is best known as the man behind the first anime to ever be produced, Tetsuwan Atom, better known in the West as Astro Boy. Though the series experienced heavy editing when it was brought to the West, it was nonetheless embraced by the populace. He would later create other notable series such as Kimba the White Lion, which, ironically is believed by many to be an inspiration to one of Walt Disney’s most successful films, The Lion King. Another work, Adolph, touches on themes prevalent among Jews and Germans in World War II, as the story tells of the two friends torn between duty and friendship amidst the horrific, turbulent period.
Tezuka was a very efficient artist, known for being able to create up to ten pages of manga in a single day. His work in Astro Boy also earned him the admiration of Stanley Kubrick, who invited him to be the art director of the sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Tezuka’s greatness not only lay in his work as an artist. When one looks into his roots, greatness also lies there, since Osamu Tezuka is also a known descendant of Hattori Hanzo, a famous ninja and samurai.
1. Hayao Miyazaki
Notable Works: Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle
Hayao Miyazaki is one anime director that continues to impress the world until today. Though officially retired, his works have become so prolific, to the point where people who are not familiar with anime can still recognize his work. This has made Miyazaki into a director that has become respected not only in Japan or the USA, but all over the world.
His style as a director is quite unique, since he is a purist of some sorts, preferring to use traditional animation over the use of CGI. In fact, it has been reported that he does not allow any more than 10% of any work he is doing to be computer-generated. His characters are also notable, usually featuring a young female lead that can only be described as feminist. Overall, his works, as well as the acclaim his works have garnered throughout the years, have given him the moniker the “Walt Disney of Japan.” Even though Miyazaki states that he hates the title, it is nonetheless a testament to how great his work is considered by the people who adore him.
His works have garnered numerous awards and universal critical acclaim, most especially Spirited Away, which has garnered a 97% “Fresh” rating from film site Rotten Tomatoes. It was so well-received, the movie won the Best Animated Feature in the 75th Academy Awards. So yes, Hayao Miyazaki has an Ocscar.
But this is not all, for in the 87th Academy Awards, Miyazaki has become the fourth person to receive the rare and prestigious Academy Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). He is one of only four animators to receive this award, the other three being Walt Disney, Walter Lantz (creator of Woody Woodpecker), and Chuck Jones (animator of Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry).
And so ends our list of the best minds behind the most notable anime that have been created through the years. Without these directors, anime would probably not be as prolific as it is today. So yes, I believe these ten special directors deserve a load of recognition from the anime community. After all, after their creative touch, anime has never been the same.