From A Silent Voice (2016) to Only Yesterday (1991), here are the best romance anime movies that should be on your watchlist.
Romance is the most popular film genre, and its cultural influences are numerous. At the same time, for Gen Z, anime has evolved into an ideal form of escapist entertainment. And when you combine these two forces – you get some of the most beautiful, moving, and heartbreaking stories ever told. Love and romantic relationships are now a common narrative theme in anime. And with the evolution of anime in the past couple of decades, we are bestowed with amazing love stories that are more profound than any live-action cinema.
Japan’s iconic Studio Ghibli paved the way for many varied and fascinating plots in the anime industry. Quite a few of their narratives featured astoundingly written romantic subplots with ample life lessons. Romance genre stories began to proliferate in the 2000s. Some were light-hearted, funny, others had complex love triangles, and still others prompted a hearty, cathartic cry. Renowned anime filmmaker Makoto Shinkai has been truly distinct in the way he handled love and relationships. He mixed in sci-fi and fantastical elements to deeply explore the feelings of love.
So, here’s a look at some of the best romance anime movies that stand out among the rest:
20. Hal (2013)
Hal naturally brings to mind the villainous artificial intelligence in Kubrick’s epic space drama 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But Hal in Ryotara Makihara’s anime is a gentle humanoid robot who tries to help a grief-stricken girl. The anime is set in the near-future where robots assisting humans are common, and they are used for therapeutic purposes too. In such a futuristic world, Kurumi loses her boyfriend in an accident. Subsequently, a robot resembling her boyfriend attempts to draw Kurumi out from despair and come to terms with her loss.
In the process, Hal also learns a lot about Kurumi’s relationship and gains fresh insights on humanity. The film has interesting emotional moments and puts forward engaging philosophical dilemmas. But with a short running time of 60 mins, the anime fails to strongly capitalise on its alluring premise. Nevertheless, it’s a very watchable tale about lost love and healing.
19. Hello World (2019)
Tomohiko Ito’s Hello World is a sci-fi romance, set in the year 2027 in technologically advanced Kyoto. The protagonist is high-school student Naomi Katagaki, who tries to come out of his shell and be more assertive. One day, Naomi’s future self appears in front of him and talks about a rogue supercomputer. Naomi’s older self also explains the need to save his classmate Ruri, with whom he is fated to fall in love with. And Ruri will be supposedly killed by a lightning strike in three months’ time. But there’s more to future Naomi’s mission which is revealed towards the end.
Unlike Makoto Shinkai, Ito fails at convincingly bringing together sci-fi and romance elements. The narrative is ambitious and some of the sequences are absolutely awe-inspiring. Yet, Hello World doesn’t quite live up to the initial promise of its premise. Despite the beautiful visuals and charming characters, the romantic bits remain shallow and one-dimensional.
18. Ride Your Wave (2019)
Masaki Yuaasa is one of the distinct voices of 21st century anime. He has gradually joined the ranks of contemporary anime masters like Mamoru Hosada and Makoto Shinkai. Ride Your Wave is an oft-kilter story of romance between surfing enthusiast Hinako and handsome young fireman Minato. An unfortunate accident brings them together. And just when things get serious between them, a misfortune separates Hinako and Minato. But there are more narrative turns in this picture-book romantic tale.
Yuaasa’s animated style is generally exaggerated though it doesn’t possess a fantastical setting. The strength of Ride Your Wave is the humour which is derived from the characters’ day-to-day situations. Furthermore, Yoshida Reiko’s (A Silent Voice) script bestows us with lovable and charming character sketches. The narrative does get a bit muddled in the third act. Yet Yuaasa’s creative energy and the intense emotional set-up keep us engaged.
17. Tamako Love Story (2014)
Naoko Yamada is one of the prominent female voices in the anime industry. She made her directorial debut with the hit anime series K-On! She followed it up with the laid-back anime series Tamako Market. The series follows the everyday life of its titular character, the eldest daughter of the family which runs Tama-ya mochi (Japanese rice cake) shop. Tamako Love Story is a sequel of sorts. It focuses on the prominent subplot from the series, i.e., Tamako’s childhood friend Mochizo Oji’s crush on her.
Overcoming his timid nature, Mochizo expresses his feelings to Tamako. Both are at the end of their high school lives, and hence at crossroads in their respective lives. How Tamako deals with her feelings for Mochizo after his confession forms the crux of the narrative. Yamada’s splendid colour palette and sharp focus on body language to convey the characters’ emotions add to the delightful viewing experience.
16. I Want to Eat Your Pancreas (2018)
Shinichiro Ushijima’s tear-jerking tale of love and loss is based on Yoru Sumino’s 2014 coming-of-age novel. The novel was adapted into a manga, and later a live-action feature was made. It revolves around a high school girl named Sakura Yamauchi dealing with terminal pancreatic cancer. A coincidence leads Sakura’s classmate Boku to read her diary entry. Now he becomes the only person apart from her family to know that she’s dying of cancer. Boku is a loner who has little human contact. Hence he doesn’t respond to Sakura’s illness with any platitudes. And eventually, the usually cheerful Sakura and the introverted Boku form an unexpected bond.
There’s a brilliant emotional honesty in the way Sakura’s feelings about her illness are dealt with. The story doesn’t simply use Sakura to teach Boku life lessons about grief and loss. Ushijima’s tender narrative brings more depth to Sakura and her relationship with Boku. Nevertheless, it does get mawkish on certain occasions.
15. The Garden of Words (2013)
Makoto Shinkai forgoes hyper-realistic imagery for a meticulous, hand-drawn animated look. This is evident in the way he accurately and poignantly captures the different settings of Tokyo. Though we know that we are looking at a drawn image, somehow Shinkai’s vividly detailed drawings look as realistic as footage of the Tokyo landscape. The same can be said about his characterization, and the way he perfectly captures the expressions of love, heartbreak, and yearning. The Garden of Words is different from Shinkai’s other works. It’s not sci-fi or action-packed.
It tells a fairly simple story of a young high school student’s chance meeting a young woman. He skips school in order to sketch at the Tokyo Park on a rainy day. She’s just aimlessly drifting in life. Over the next few weeks, they both meet whenever it rains. Running for 46 minutes, the film is a bit too sentimental towards the end. Nevertheless, it’s bewitching to witness Shinkai’s ability to use gorgeous, reflexive imagery to portray love and its pain.
14. Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop (2020)
Kyohei Ishiguro’s Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop is a charming tale of romance between two awkward, introverted teenagers. The anime’s central characters Cherry and Smile have grown-up in the social-media era. Therefore, their insecurities and struggles to communicate are strongly relatable as well as universal. Cherry is a shy teenager, who expresses himself through haiku in social media. Smile prefers to make short online videos than engage in normal conversations. She wears a face mask to hide her braces. Of course, Cherry and Smile connect through their smartphone, and quietly enjoy this newfound friendship.
Dai Sato’s writing elegantly presents the character’s quirks that are shaped by their insecurities. Moreover, Ishiguro and Sato fascinatingly examine the influence of social media and the internet on youth’s love lives. The animation is visually arresting and withholds a hand-drawn aesthetic sense. Overall, the intimate and emotive story is told in a straightforward manner with a lot of heart and humour.
13. Ocean Waves (1993)
Ocean Waves is one of the hidden gems of Studio Ghibli movies. It is based on the novel by Himuro Saeko, and was the first Studio Ghibli film not spear-headed by either Miyazaki or Takahata. Produced for television, the anime was exclusively created by the studio’s younger staff members and directed by Tomomi Mochizuki. Ocean Waves is a gentle coming-of-age tale like Takahata’s Only Yesterday (1991), though it isn’t as emotionally devastating as the latter. The deceptively straightforward narrative unfolds from the perspective of Taku Morisaki. Taku makes a trip back home for his high school union.
The memories of forgotten friendships, unexpressed love, and other unresolved issues plagues Taku during the trip. Featuring a sharp and clean animation style, Taku’s relatable life experiences will warm your heart. Moreover, Mochizuki maintains a realistic tone throughout the narrative.
The anime will take you back to your days of youthful innocence, school time and first love.
12. 5 Centimetres Per Second (2007)
The meticulous depiction of everyday objects and lush imagery are staple elements of Makoto Shinkai anime. He worked as a graphic designer for a video game company, but quit his job in 2001 to write and direct the 25-minute short film Voices of a Distant Star. But it was 5 Centimetres Per Second that strongly realises Shinkai’s pet themes like young love, longing, regret, and loss. The plot is very minimal and revolves around three short chapters in the life of young Takaki Tohno. In the first chapter, Takaki befriends Akari, and they both become an inseparable pair.
But their naïve optimism is displaced when Akari moves to a different town with her parents. What follows is Shinkai’s concise and breathtaking examination of how unavoidable barriers and communication issues become a hurdle for love. The anime isn’t as multi-layered as Shinkai’s later works. However, the pragmatic depiction of romance and vibrant visuals immerse us into Shinkai’s world.
11. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)
Mamoru Hosoda’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is an adaptation of Yasutaka Tsutsui’s 1967 novel of the same name. The story has been previously adapted for a live-action version, notably by Nobuhiko Obayashi in 1983. The plot focuses on Makoto Konno, a clumsy, tomboyish high school student who acquires the ability to do limited time travel. Like any bewildered and curious teenager, she uses it to her advantage, getting perfect grades in the test and avoids socially embarrassing circumstances. But Makoto soon learns how her time jumps and the ensuing actions have an adverse impact on people around her.
The friendship/romance between Makoto and her friend Chiaki plays an important role in the narrative. In fact, it could be argued that the time-travel narrative thread is used to tell an understated tale of romance. Through her relationship with Chiaki, Makoto learns a few things about growing up and taking responsibility. Despite the inclusion of the time-travel aspect, Hosoda’s focus on the relationships between characters is very realistic.
10. Night Is Short, Walk on Girl (2017)
Masaki Yuaasa’s wildly imaginative anime are far more different than the relatively grounded emotional dramas of Hayao Miyazaki and Makoto Shinkai. In Night Is Short, Walk on Girl, Yuaasa takes us on a whirlwind journey as a young freshman named Otome enjoys a night of partying. Senpai is highly infatuated with Otome, though he’s scared to express his feelings. We see our protagonist move through pubs, book fairs, musical theatre, and festivals, while Senpai finds different ways to run into her ‘coincidentally’.
The anime is based on renowned author Tomihiko Morimi’s 2006 novel of the same name. Yuaasa has previously adapted Morimi’s novel Tatami Galaxy. The author is known for his surreal and innovative stories, and Yuaasa’s bold and hyper-active directorial style seems to be a perfect fit for Morimi’s tales. What the narrative lacks in terms of character development, it makes up with the bizarrely entertaining journey of Otome. And it all culminates with a quiet, happy moment.
9. Weathering With You (2019)
Makoto Shinkai followed up his record-breaking success of Your Name with a similar fantastical yet emotionally grounded tale. Weathering with You revolves around young Hodaka who runs away from his small town to Tokyo during a rainy season. He struggles to make ends meet, and befriends a young girl named Hina. Hina possesses the power to manipulate weather. Together, they embark on an adventure through the busy and colourful streets of Tokyo.
As usual, Shinkai elegantly blends in the mystical elements with real-world problems. The result is a beautiful and intimate tale of friendship and love. Apart from a minor twist, Weathering with You tells a simple story about individuals finding their place in the world. Shinkai and his animators take pains in creating a busy, dynamic, and rain-soaked Tokyo. The attention to detail is absolutely mesmerising. And when combined with the excellent voice-acting and soundtrack, the experience is immensely delightful.
8. Dou Kyu Sei: Classmates (2016)
Shoko Nakamura’s water colour style anime Classmates is based on Asumiko Nakamura’s manga of the same name. Classmates belongs to the genre of manga and anime known as yaoi. Yaoi depicts romantic relationships between young males. Interestingly, most of the yaoi tales are written by women. Shoko’s one-hour anime revolves around two high school senior students Sajo and Kusakabe. Sajo is an uptight honour roll student, whereas Kusakabe is a slacker who loves to be part of a band as the guitarist. In fact, Kusakabe‘s interest in music brings them both together. Subsequently, unexpected feelings come to the surface during their rehearsal sessions.
Classmates unfolds in an atmospheric background and showcases sharp seasonal changes, often representing the changing dynamics in the mismatched pair’s relationship. Though the story seems like a generic ‘summer love story’, there’s enough emotional sincerity and depth to make us feel for the characters. Moreover, the style and ambience elevate the subject matter.
7. Josee, the Tiger, and the Fish (2020)
Kotaro Tamura’s heartfelt and gorgeous-looking anime is based on the 1984 short story of the same name by Seiko Tanabe. Tsuneo Suzukawa is a poor yet hardworking student of marine biology. He aspires to enrol himself in an expensive summer program in Mexico. Hence he takes up the job of part-time carer and meets the wheel-chair bound teenager Kumiko. She prefers to be called ‘Josee’ after a character from her favourite book. Kumiko seems to be a talented artist, but the overprotective grandmother keeps her confined at home. Of course, it all changes as they come together.
Both the characters, Suzukawa and Kumiko, are very well developed and their struggles are portrayed in a sensitive manner. The animation is lush and overflows with life. And to director Tamura’s credit, there’s not a single heavy-handed moment in this tale of love and empathy. Two live-action adaptations of the story – one in Japan and the other in Korea – were made in 2003 and 2020 respectively.
6. A Silent Voice (2016)
Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice is not a simple first-love romance anime movie. It deals with difficult themes like bullying, disability, and ostracism. The anime was an adaptation of the super-hit manga of the same name. The narrative focuses on high school student Shoya Ishida, who is planning on committing suicide. Before that he wants to express his remorse to the girl he bullied during the middle-school years. Six years before, Ishida was the stereotypical funny guy in the class, whose jokes often came at others’ expense.
The shy Shoko Nishimiya with a hearing disability was the victim of Ishida’s bullying campaign. Nishimiya moved to a different school, and soon Ishida became the target of bullying. The remorseful Ishida, meanwhile, learns sign language and tries to truly make amends with Nishimiya. Eventually, after spending time together, a romantic bond develops between the two. Nevertheless, A Silent Voice mostly captures social anxiety among teenagers and consequences of bullying.
5. The Wind Rises (2013)
Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises is an adaptation of Tatsuo Hori’s 1930s novel. It tells the breathtakingly beautiful story of Jiro Hirokoshi, a real-life aeronautical engineer who made the A6M Zero Fighter Plane for the Japanese Army. Miyazaki’s fictionalised account of Hirokoshi explores the young, imaginative man’s passion for aeroplanes. Later, Hirokoshi’s awe for the flying mechanical objects is undermined by his guilt of creating planes that instigates such large-scale death and destruction. At its core, The Wind Rises is also a wonderful love story.
In a fateful train ride – right before the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 – Jiro meets Naoko, an altruistic young woman who later becomes Jiro’s wife. There are plenty of deep and poignant moments between Jiro and Naoko that enrich the narrative. One of the most memorable scenes was when the ailing Naoko holds Hirokoshi’s hand, while he is drawing an aeroplane sketch with his other hand. Hirokoshi regrets his creation, but never loses his passion for aeroplanes and Naoko.
4. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Like most of Hayao Miyazaki films, Howl’s Moving Castle can’t be easily summarised and categorised. It is based on a 1986 novel by British author Diane Wynne Jones. A modern fairytale that’s sumptuously creative and brilliantly paced. The narrative revolves around the unlikely relationship between a young and industrious woman named Sophie, and the handsome wizard, Howl. After briefly encountering Howl, Sophie is turned into an old woman by the Witch who pursues Howl. In an attempt to break the Witch’s spell, Sophie flees her home and ensconces herself at the wizard’s gigantic moving castle.
Love is an important theme in the film. In fact, the unconventional romance between the young seamstress and the wizard gradually displaces the impending doom of war. Howl and Sophie are different from each other in a lot of ways. Yet the genuine care they show for each other, despite the interpersonal conflicts, has a huge impact on every other character in the narrative.
3. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart is the most grounded work among the Ghibli Studio films as it relinquishes elements of fantasy. However, like many of Ghibli films this one too focuses on the internal struggles and self-discovery of a young girl. Bolstered by a sedate visual style, this emotional rollercoaster ride revolves around Shizuku, a young bookworm. She spends her summer vacation in the library and harbours an ambition to become a writer. One day, Shizuku notices that almost all of the books she has checked out from the library have been previously borrowed by the same person named Seiji Amasawa.
Shizuku’s curiosity leads her to Seiji, a trainee violin-maker. Driven by the intoxicating feelings of first love, Shizuku attempts to achieve her dream. Director Kondo was protégé of Miyazaki, and the script for the anime was written by Miyazaki-san himself. Hence the narrative and characters are intricately detailed. Moreover, it maintains an upbeat atmosphere throughout.
2. Your Name (2016)
Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name might be categorised as teen romance drama. But there’s nothing standard about the anime’s making and plot structure. The story revolves around young Taki and Mitsuha. He lives and moves amidst the cramped spaces of Tokyo, whereas she is from a quiet, small village named Itomori. Though separated by long distance, they both share a yearning for new friendships. One day, out of the blue, they wake up in each other’s bodies. There’s a bit of body-swap comedy, made familiar by Hollywood films like Freaky Friday (1976) and Big (1988).
But Shinkai’s treatment of this narrative thread isn’t superficial. He brings in complex metaphors and mixes a bit of Japanese folklore. Things get even more interesting in the third-half of the narrative as more twists and turns are revealed. Love torn apart by distance and time is a recurrent theme in Shinkai’s romance dramas. And in Your Name he handles it more profoundly and poignantly.
1. Only Yesterday (1991)
Isao Takahata’s 1991 masterpiece is a deeply introspective drama that revolves around twenty-something Tokyo resident Taeko. The progressive anime deals with themes of memory, self-discovery, and childhood trauma. The strong and independent Taeko decides to take a vacation in the countryside and visit her relatives. The journey makes her reminisce about her bittersweet childhood days. As usual, Takahata finds poignant universal truth in the small character gestures and conversations. In the countryside, Taeko settles in a picturesque farm and actively participates in the saffron flower harvest.
Apart from recounting specific events from the past, Taeko spends plenty of time with a young farmer named Toshio. Only Yesterday is a gorgeously crafted animated tale with layers of detail. Even if we don’t share the same past or memories of Taeko, it’s easy to connect with her story. The narrative takes us back to our own formative years. It’s a simple yet powerful story about letting go of the past and coping up with the changes in life.
There you go! These were the best romance anime movies to fall head over heels for. Some of these anime innovatively recycle the classic love story tropes, whereas others dive into the previously unexplored dimensions of love. If you are done watching these films, there are a lot of other romance anime series to explore and binge-watch. Fruits Basket, Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day, Your Lie in April, Toradora!, Nana, Clannad, ReLife, Orange, and Wotakoi: Love Is Hard for Otaku are some of the must-see series in the genre that will tug at your heartstrings.
Which great romance anime movies did we miss? Let’s talk in the comments below.
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’