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15 Contemporary Animated Indies 
15 Contemporary Animated Indies 

15 Contemporary Animated Indies 

Interested in independent Asian animation, but not sure where to start? We got you covered.

Interested in independent Asian animation, but not sure where to start? Well, we could give you a list of anime, but we’ve already got (three parts!) to an anime tribute already. Instead, here’s a list of 15 animated indies from the last few years that fall outside of mainstream animation studios like Disney, Pixar and Ghibli.

This list is in no way prescriptive nor comprehensive, and is merely organized by date of release. Some of these filmmakers are more established; others are just beginning their careers. Some of these are shorts, others are features, a few are even series. Regardless, with each of these animated indies, prepare to laugh, cry, and have your mind blown by the unbridled joy of animation.

While Makoto Shinkai had been churning out his own shorts and mid-length films for almost a decade preceding “Your Name,” he doesn’t really nail the art of storytelling until he gets to “Your Name.” (Grace Han)

CoMix Wave Films did an astonishing job on the animation of the title, again with a great focus on detail. From the way the sun shines on the sea to the way the leaves of the trees move in the wind, everything has been animated to perfection. The same applies to the characters, which move as realistically as possible, with the trait exemplified once more in the traditional dancing scene, but also during their running, as they try to escape the disaster. However, the scene that highlights the animation the most is the one where the meteorite falls on the town, destroying everything.

“Your Name” is a true masterpiece of the category and a title that definitely justifies its success. (Panos Kotzathanasis)

“Tehran Taboo” doesn’t hold anything back, save for the fact that it is animated. In Ali Soozandeh‘s unhinged rotoscoped debut feature, he depicts the increasingly entangled stories of three people in Tehran. Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh), a street-savvy but jaded sex worker demands a divorce and an education for her mute son. Sara (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), a soft-spoken pregnant woman seeks work despite her husband’s strict orders to stay at home “for the baby’s sake.” Finally, Babak (Arash Marandi), a struggling musician, is flung into an absurd search to replicate an unbroken hymen for his one-night stand. In the trio’s search for propriety in Tehran’s underbelly, the three find that their worlds, strangely, overlap more than they initially thought. (Grace Han)

A scene from the animated film “The Last Fiction.” Credit: Hooraksh Studios

While “Tehran Taboo” is rooted in the present, “The Last Fiction” borrows from The Book of Kings, a classic epic written by Ferdowsi between 977-1010 CE. Stylistically, this film errs into the abstract with each memory sequence whilst capturing the full blood and gore in its otherwise naturalistic cel animation. Rahgozar’s impressive first feature portrays the full glory of the medieval days, luxuriating in grand palace halls, patriotic declarations and glittering gold jewelry galore. If you’re fan of historical epics in the vein of “Vinland Saga” (2021) or even “The Prince of Egypt” (1998) this film is sure to be a captivating watch. (Grace Han)

Chi (Lun-Mei Kwei), a restless Taiwanese American emigre, returns to Formosa after hearing that her beloved grandmother has passed away. Returning home is a bittersweet, however. Memories of her childhood and adolescence

After she gets back to Taiwan, she has to face her aging parents and their unpleasant living conditions. Also, she reunites with her old school friend, an American-Taiwanese girl Betty. The narrative develops mostly out of Chi’s interactions with these people.

As the director Sung has pointed out in her statement, the film is about a young woman who starts to reflect upon the fairy tale she used to believe in. It is through this reflection, Sung states, a person can grow.

“On Happiness Road” is a one of those rare works that can show us how fantasy is deeply embedded and enabled by geo-, political-, and economical structures; and how individual can zig-zag through the massive constraints and find her own way to live. (I-Lin Lu)

Honestly, quite a few European animated documentaries about Asian subjects could have made this list – including “Persepolis” (2007), “The Breadwinner” (2017), “The Swallows of Kabul” (2019), and more recently, “Flee” (2021) – but I find Denis Do’s perhaps the most compelling. In this ode to his own heritage, we witness an incredibly intimate directorial debut as he brings stories based on his parents back to life. (Grace Han)

“Funan” is a tale about what connects people, what makes them human, especially under difficult conditions. Changing between moments of extreme beauty and love to those of violence and depression, “Funan” is a touching film which will likely find an audience willing to take an unforgettable journey with its characters. (Rouven Linnarz)

“Sexy Sushi” criticizes the rampant fetishization of food in our consumer society. Erotic allusions fill up the screen – rice that looks like erected penises, tongue-looking tuna that “licks” up the wasabi, and so on and so forth. The sushi itself is presented as a celebratory copulation between two bodies, reminding us of the pseudo-philosophical waxings on food being the harmony between ingredients or between opposing forces. Well, there’s no harmony in here, only fight for attention done in the catchiest way possible – through hyper-sexual behaviour like twerking.

What separates “Sexy Sushi” from many other shorts, and what it makes it an incredible film, is the fact that it manages to explore many contemporary problems in great depth and all in the span of only two minutes. Who knew that a short story about a bunch of sex between rice and his toppings could be so thought provoking? (Grace Han)

“Beauty Water” imagines Yae-ji’s twisted quest to become the most beautiful woman possible through futuristic beauty product that mutates her outer appearance. (Grace Han)

At its core, “Beauty Water” is a true body-horror feature, comparable to the early works of directors such as David Cronenberg. Even though there is no parasite entering the body of the protagonist, she allows her body to be changed, shapes it into a form which paradoxically is both her self-image, but also the images the public finds attractive. Cho Kyung-hun shows how the obsession with beauty causes a psychological disorder, a problematic fetish with one’s body that is in constant need of “maintenance” or “optimization”, thus becoming another “invisible wall” for the character as every body has its limits. (Rouven Linnarz)

Glen Keane – legendary character animator for Walt Disney Studios, with credits including “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “Pocohantas,” and more – seems like a strange addition to this list. His first directed feature, “Over the Moon,” however, marks a watershed moment in indie Asian American cinema. It’s the best of both worlds. Keane’s elegant character design meets a star-studded voice acting cast (including the Greats, like Sandra Oh, Magaret Cho, Ken Jeong, John Cho, and more), making this simple story about a small Chinese girl and the legend of a Moon Goddess a surprisingly emotional watch, suited for all ages.

Do you like radio dramas? Do you like furries? Well, look no further than Avid Liongoren’s second feature, “Hayop Ka! The Nimfa Dimaano Story.” Liongoren’s latest animated project hit Netflix headlines as the streaming site’s first Filipino animated feature. This brightly-colored drama follows the plight of Nimfa Dimaano (Angelica Panganiban), a working-class cat who can never quite settle. She oscillates between her steady janitor boyfriend (Robin Padilla) and her new, wealthy fling (Sam Milby), finding money just as tempting as true love. At once dramatic, funny, and deeply committed to the art of the Filipino radio drama, this feature film is sure to be a good time.

The story is based on a web manga by Sugitani Shougo and follows Gene Fini, an assistant at the acclaimed Peterson Films, and a young man whose passion for cinema is only rivaled by the head producer of the company Joelle Davidovich “Pompo” Pomponette, who is the one who has hired him as assistant. Pompo is a legend of Nyallywood, since her action flicks never fail to produce significant revenue, focusing on monsters and girls with guns, with Mystia, a star on her own, being the usual protagonist. It is in one of those films that Gene gets his first chance, as Pompo asks him to direct the trailer. The result is excellent, and the blonde kid-like mastermind’s actual plan surfaces. For the first time, she has written a script of quality, one that aims at getting awards instead of just making money, and Gene is to be the director. Furthermore, Pompo has secured the services of the “best actor in the world”, Martin Braddock, while the female protagonist role is reserved for Natalie, an ordinary girl with movie actress dreams who has just arrived in town, just to be discovered by Pompo. Thus the adventure of making a movie begins. 

“Pompo the Cinephile” is an excellent movie, one that manages to combine the fairy tale with reality in the most entertaining fashion, and one of the best anime movies we have seen lately. (Panos Kotzathanasis)

The uncommon combination turns out to be a winning formula in “Inu-Oh”, a story both very Western and very Japanese, a film of both darkness and joy, stillness and music. The result is definitely childish – but in a very profound way.

In the end, after all the spectacle, Yuasa makes sure that we never forget about where the story began, of children performing their music without any knowledge of either authorities or popularity, just playing together for pleasure. In a story where every character has extremely dark events happen in their past, or future, or both, coming back to those pure moments of childlike happiness is a very moving reminder that maybe our inner child is just another victim of history – another thing that we ourselves leave behind, forgotten long ago, not fit for this world ruled by order. (Pawel Mizgalewicz)

“Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish” develops as an inquiry into Lei Lei’s own family history. Here, through a series of audio interviews, Lei Lei’s father Jiaqi and grandfather Lei Ting recount their experiences from The Great Leap Forward (1958-62) through to the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The story starts with 1959 China. Upon the death of Lei Lei’s grandmother and Lei Ting’s assignment to the fields during the Great Leap Forward, Jiaqi and second-oldest sister live at an orphanage while the eldest studies at an airforce academy in Nanding. From there, his lineage marks milestones, big and small. From simple pleasures like going to the movies, to ideological initiatives like political re-education camp, the film follows the tales of a single family living through history – laughter, heartache, and all. 

This feature film does run a little long at 104 minutes, but its aesthetic is unlike any other. Lei Lei remains committed to portraying the slippery elusiveness between the frames, or in this case, memory between events – making the film perhaps more about what is not seen than what is. A noteworthy homage to one’s own lineage. (Grace Han)

13. ONI: Thunder God’s Tale (2022) by Mari Okada and “Dice” Tsutsumi (USA)

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We would be remiss to not include Tonko House on this list. This California-based studio – famous for the didactic short, “The Dam Keeper” (2016) – recently released “ONI: Thunder God’s Tale,” a delectable hybrid stop motion-CGI series on Netflix. Over teh course of this series, watch how Onari, a human raised in a village full of Oni, seeks to protect her village with her own hidden talents. In addition to being delightfully uplifting, the series is animated with such care. Plus, it’s only four episodes! (Grace Han)

Eric is a young man working as an animator in the Philippines. His life is fairly normal, with him retaining a cramped apartment, a friend which seems to also be something more for him, and a mother who loves him, in the face of Rosalinda. However, Eric is also not only mute, but actually has no mouth at all. When one day, his mother asks him to check on his uncle, Eric finds him dead for days, and his shock leads him again into the nightmare of his childhood years, involving an alien who repeatedly abducts him. If that is not enough, every time he stumbles upon the extraterrestrial, different parts of his body seem to literally go away, with his grip on reality becoming more and more distant.

Truth be told, a lot more could be written about the film, but since it is one of those whose twists are its most impactful aspect, the rest are better left for the viewer to discover. What we can easily say, though, is that “Missing” is an excellent film that manages to reinvigorate the genre through its contextual uniqueness, while remaining pleasant to the eye from beginning to end. (Panos Kotzathanasis)

“The Summer” recreates the tender, rose-tinted atmosphere that comes with adolescent romance. Here, Lee-Kyeong (voiced by Yoon Ah-young) looks back at her first love, Soo-i (Song Ha-rim). From the get-go, the two could not be more different. While Lee-Kyeong is quiet and studious, the hardy Soo-i aspires to be a professional soccer player; while Lee-Kyeong is excited about their blossoming relationship, Soo-i keeps mum for fear of judgment. Nonetheless, in the sweet summer days in the countryside, the two exchange sweet words and clandestine kisses. They spend their final high school days blissfully envisioning their future together in Seoul. 

For a coming-of-age, queer film, this is actually quite a refreshing watch. Instead of having a protagonist search for their true love in a “Call me by your Name” style or struggle with bullying, we see the many flights and fancies of a younger heart. For Lee-Kyeong, homosexual attraction is just a side fact. It is now more important for her – as it is with any youth – of how to satiate the constant desire for something more. Lee-Kyeong searches for herself in and through the women around her, looking for role models, companions, lovers all while keeping her partner at bay. For a list that starts with Makoto Shinkai, it feels only fitting to have a queer, Shinkai-esque feature close it off.