Anime directors are the face of an anime’s production. While it is incorrect and disingenuous to only credit the director when talking about the greatness of a show, it is undeniable that they play a big part in its creation. They lead the creative vision of the show. Ultimately, they decide what the storyboard will be, the overall pace of the show, and the final version during editing. Their impact on an anime is incredible.
There are some directors that really standout among their peers. Their signature is so strong that it propels the narrative of an auteur director. It would be impossible to separate them from the amazing works they have made. For the strengths of their direction and the overall quality of the anime they produce, they are remembered as some of the greatest of all time.
Most fans might know Kunihiko Ikuhara as the director of Sailor Moon S, but his crowning achievements are Revolutionary Girl Utena and Mawaru Penguindrum. Both shows effectively utilize his signature tool in storytelling: symbolism. Ikuhara is obsessed with imbuing meaning in the anime’s symbols.
From the princes and roses in Utena to the circles and apples in Mawaru Penguindrum, some themes are explored in the meta-layers of the narrative, rather than the surface. This approach does not always pan out perfectly. Later works like Sarazanmai tend to lose themselves in the surreal chaos of the approach, but it definitely shines with his other anime. Ikuhara’s direction is stylish, complex, and endlessly interesting.
9 Shinichiro Watanabe Blends Music With Genre Action
One of the most beloved modern directors in the medium, Shinichiro Watanabe’s works include Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Kids on the Slope, and Space Dandy. His clearest trademark is his incorporation of music within an anime. He brings the songs to the forefront of the narrative, rather than allowing them to rest in the background.
Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo would lose all of their style if the music was not as pronounced. Kids on the Slope and Carole & Tuesday are explicitly about music. While the latter end of his career is weaker than the former, there is no director better when it comes to using music.
8 Yoshiyuki Tomino Fathered A New Wave Of Anime
Yoshiyuki Tomino revolutionized anime when he created and directed seminal work, Mobile Suit Gundam. It took the sci-fi community by storm. Mecha anime received an anti-war edge that depicted the irrational and unjust actions done by those in power. The progression of his pre-2000s Gundam anime proved that he is a dynamic and innovative director.
Not every great director could transition from the original Mobile Suit Gundam to Turn A Gundam. The depth of his body of work did not stop with Gundam. His other works like Space Runaway Ideon showed his commitment to scale, themes, and action did not change across franchises. Anime would be a drastically different medium without his influence.
7 Hideaki Anno Deals With Fanaticism & Angst In His Shows
Hideaki Anno’s works are a celebration of his love for the medium, regardless of the overall tone of some of his more notable shows. Neon Genesis Evangelion is an introspective look at the loneliness and shortcomings of characters in anime stories. Anno grew up watching early Tezuka anime, as well as the super robot mecha of the 1970s. His works build off their traditions and evolve them.
His biggest trademark involves teenagers dealing with angst and trauma. Even in a grounded show like His & Her Circumstances, the two leads are introspective about their emotions and what they may lack as people. Anno blends fundamentally human emotions with fanaticism for the medium.
6 Masaaki Yuasa Favors Expression By Allowing The Art To Be Loose & Dynamic
One of the most prolific and beloved directors of the modern era, Masaaki Yuasa’s works are strange and charming. His debut film Mind Game is one of the more surreal movies within the medium, proving that his distinct voice has always been part of his directorial style. Ping Pong: The Animation is based off a manga, yet its delivery is expressive enough to read as a Yuasa work.
His diversity, while maintaining his voice, is one of the most impressive things about Yuasa. A director who can range from Devilman Crybabyto Kaiba to Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken, his distinct vision is ahead of its time. Fans will still talk about his works decades from now.
5 Isao Takahata’s Body Of Work Is Enormous
Most anime fans may think of Isao Takahata as the other half of Studio Ghibli, but he is more than just the director of Grave of the Fireflies and The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Prior to the legendary studio’s foundation, Takahata was already a senior director whose tender and humanistic style created some of the greatest slice-of-life anime like Heidi: Girl of the Alps and Anne of Green Gables.
He also directed the landmark film Horus: Prince of the Sun. It can be said that without Takahata, anime would not be as successful as it is. His individual accomplishments and his influence on Hayao Miyazaki lead to many of the great talents of the last 3 decades. No one directs intimate human emotions as well as him.
4 Osamu Dezaki Is The King Of Drama & Soap Opera
With the exception of mecha anime, 1970s and 1980s anime were dominated by Osamu Dezaki’s melodramas. Rose of Versailles, Aim for Ace, Nobody’s Boy Remi, and Treasure Island are some of the shows most emblematic of his breed of drama. Even the legendary sports manga Tomorrow’s Joe received an enormous amount of added drama when he adapted it. The best part was that his direction was so effective.
It was campy to an extent, but not enough to dilute the intensity of the show’s conflicts. His static frames, etched in pencil, were iconic. They emphasized the drama and emotions of the characters, allowing the audience to soak in the grand expressions. It’s an approach to drama that defined two generations.
3 Mamoru Oshii Is Meticulous, Cerebral, & Contemplative
Mamoru Oshii is one of the most distinct directors of all time. All of his works revisit motifs and images that are essential to his overarching themes. It doesn’t matter if the film he is working on is an adaptation, he will insert his own vision and themes into it. Tanks, reflective water, and ruminations over metaphysics and politics dominate movies like Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dream, Ghost in the Shell, and Patlabor: The Movie.
His works are fantastic, despite the inflexibility of his vision. He wants his movies to only represent his thoughts and themes. This could be disastrous for other anime directors, but Oshii is talented and intelligent enough to make it work.
2 Satoshi Kon Taps Into The Human Mind On A Literal Level
Satoshi Kon has no rivals when it comes to his genius imagination. All of his works deal with human psychology. The mental disembodiment that fame can cause, the nostalgia of memory and art, the destructive nature of stress, and the fluid landscape of dreams, Kon forces those concepts to manifest on a surface level.
Viewers get to see the characters’ thought process, rather than having to feel it. His works have gone on to influence other media. Black Swan and Inceptionare products of Kon’s influence. He is a visionary mind that found ways to realize his imagination in a committee-driven industry like anime. There will never be another like him.
1 Hayao Miyazaki Is The Face Of Anime Directors
Hayao Miyazaki is the most well-known and beloved director in the medium. His works are synonymous with anime film. Fans grow up watching movies like Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, and My Neighbor Totoro.
His films showcase strong anti-war themes, champions the majesty of nature, and children at important junctures in their lives. His aesthetic is incredibly crisp, detailed, and fluid. Even his run sequences are distinctly Miyazaki. When fans think of all-time greats, Miyazaki is always up for consideration as the best among the best.
NEXT: 10 Times Hayao Miyazaki Proved He’s The Best Director Alive