Japanese animation — anime — offers very different visions from its American counterparts, and it's extremely popular with college and high school students. They can be extremely difficult for well-meaning parents, uncles and aunts to shop for, so here, in no particular order, are some titles that can transform an adult’s image from clueless doofus to knowing friend. Plus, we have a few suggestions for younger children (who can also be a pain to shop for).
Cardcaptor Sakura: Complete Collection
NIS America: $249.99; 9 discs, Blu-ray, plus book
When cheerful fourth-grader Sakura Kinamoto opens an odd book in her father's study, strange lights fly out. Kerberos, who looks like a plushie of the lion on the book's cover, explains that she's inadvertently released a deck of magical cards. Despite her protests that’s she just an ordinary little girl, Kero insists Sakura must become a Cardcaptor and retrieve them before they work mischief on the world. Many American series talk about empowering girls — in this one, the viewer sees Sakura grow stronger and more confident as she learns to master the magical cards.
Cowboy Bebop: The Complete Series
Funimation: $59.98; Blu-ray, 4 discs
The sci-fi action series "Cowboy Bebop" redefined cool in animation when it debuted in 1998. Twenty-first-century bounty hunter Spike Spiegel is an anti-hero in the tradition of '40s film noir detectives. Spike is a tough guy; a crack shot, an ace pilot and a skilled martial artist. But his cynical exterior conceals a never-healed wound left by the woman he loved and lost. Seventeen years later, "Cowboy Bebop" is so popular that two special editions of the series for holiday gifting have already sold out (!). But it’s available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Dragon Ball Z: Battle of the Gods
Funimation: $34.98; DVD/Blu-ray combo pack; 3 discs
The first new "Dragon Ball Z" animation in 17 years, "Battle of the Gods" (2013) proved how popular the franchise still is, selling over 1 million tickets in just six days in Japan. The filmmakers keep the animation flat, limited and hand-drawn, so "Battle of the Gods" looks like the classic TV series and delivers the mixture of slapstick, friendship and over-the-top battles Dragon Ball fans remember and want to see again — especially guys in their 20s who grew up watching it.
Naruto Shippuden: Road to Ninja: The Movie 6
VIZ: $29.99 DVD/Blu-ray combo; 2 discs
The title hero of the long-running "Naruto" and "Naruto Shippuden" series is a come-from-behind hero whose world centers on magical ninja techniques, outrageous fights, slapstick, friendship and ramen. "The Road to Ninja" incorporates these well-loved elements, but stresses the lonely, compelling side of the title character. Audiences would quickly weary of Naruto if he were just a knuckleheaded prankster. His dedication to overcoming his weaknesses and achieving his goals makes him heroic, as well as comic — and one of the most popular animated characters of the new millennium.
(A scene from "Ranma 1/2," an anime series about a 16-year-old boy who's transformed into a girl whenever he's splashed with water.)
Ranma 1/2: Sets 1, 2, 3 & 4
VIZ: $54.97 each, Blu-ray; $44.82, DVD: 3 discs
Because he once fell into a cursed spring, black-haired high school martial artist Ranma Saotome turns into a buxom, red-haired girl when he’s hit with cold water. (Hot water restores his proper gender.) Ranma and his father Genma are freeloaders in the home of Suon Tendo. To ensure the continuation of the family dojo, the fathers have decided that the loutish Ranma and Suon’s hot-tempered daughter Akane are engaged. "Ranma 1/2" supplies the slapstick insanity animation can provide in abundance. The filmmakers carefully sneak in just enough grudging affection between Ranma and Akane to keep the series from feeling mean-spirited.
Pokémon: Indigo League (Season 1): Complete Collection
VIZ: $54.98 9 discs
"Pokémon" is no longer the trend du jour it was 20 years ago, when it swept America. But the games and the animated series remain popular. Although it's product-based and sometimes cloying, "Pokémon" is an agreeable show for elementary school children that stresses friendship, perseverance, fair play and good sportsmanship. These early adventures take the main characters through the first part of the game in its original Red/Blue versions. With his friends Misty and Brock, aspiring master Pokémon trainer Ash Ketchum defeats other trainers, captures wild Pokémon and outwits the inept comic villains of Team Rocket.
Princess Nine Complete Series
Bayview Entertainment: $39.99 DVD
Ryo Hayakawa inherited her late father’s talent as a pitcher, but she works as a waitress in her mother’s tiny cafe. Determined to overcome sexist opposition and create a girls’ baseball team that can compete in the national championships, Ms. Himuro, the head of prestigious Kisaragi High, gives Ryo a scholarship. She must recruit players and build an effective team. Ryo is a very likable character — she’s proud of her abilities, but surprised at where they take her. "Princess Nine" ranks among the better girls’ series of recent years, with characters who are strong, capable individuals but who exhibit human weaknesses.
Sentai Filmworks: $29.98 Blu-ray
For "Short Peace," Katsuhiro Otomo ("Akira") and three other directors made short films in personal styles they felt suited the stories they’d chosen, two of them evoking the look of 19th century woodblock prints. In Shuhei Morita’s Oscar-nominated "Possessions," a wandering tinkerer seeks refuge from a storm in a remote forest shrine. Inside, he must pacify umbrellas, bowls and other household objects that resent being thrown away after years of devoted service. Otomo’s "Combustible" focuses on childhood sweethearts Owaka and Matsukichi, the son and daughter of wealthy merchants in 18th century Edo (Tokyo). The climactic blaze that brings the star-crossed lovers together — only to separate them forever — is stunningly beautiful.
(Oscar-winning Japanese animator and film director Hayao Miyazaki walks past an advertisement following the release of his film "Ponyo.")
No figure in contemporary animation is more admired than Hayao Miyazaki. Walt Disney Home Entertainment has just released to DVD/Blu-ray 2-disc sets of three of his major films at $26.95 each:
Kiki's Delivery Service
A charming coming-of-age story, "Kiki's Delivery Service" (1989) follows the very human ups and downs of an adolescent witch who must leave her family for a new city where she’ll discover her special talent. Kiki copes believably with tight budgets, self-doubt and the awkward attentions of a flight-obsessed boy. The late comedian Phil Hartman gave his final performance as Gigi, the sardonic black cat who provides a running commentary on Kiki's misadventures.
The ecologically-themed "Princess Mononoke" (1999) was the first of Miyazaki’s features to receive a major theatrical release in the U.S. The problems posed by rampant development and consumerism figure prominently in the film. “If you want to discuss any aspect of the problems we face as humans, you cannot ignore ecology,'' he said. Miyazaki juxtaposes visually and emotionally intense scenes of the characters, with quiet images of clouds, streams and forests. When rain begins to fall, he lingers on a stone that darkens as it absorbs moisture.
(A screenshot from Japanese director and animator Hayao Miyazaki's "Princess Mononoke.")
The Wind Rises
In "The Wind Rises" (2013), Miyazaki carries the viewer through rapturously beautiful fantasies, hard-won pleasures and poignant sorrows in this biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the A6M Zero Fighter for Mitsubishi during World War II. "The Wind Rises" isn’t focused on speed — Miyazaki concentrates on the magic of flight. Instead of launching the viewers on a CG rollercoaster ride, he enables them to savor the magic of escaping gravity in a way that approaches visual poetry. "The Wind Rises" may be Miyazaki’s last feature, but the director is still clearly at the height of his powers; although premature, it’s a glorious exit.
Light Yagami, the hero of the dark fantasy-adventure "Death Note" (2006) is brilliant, alienated— and murderous. He found the Death Note: the notebook of a Shinigami (god of death). If anyone writes the name of a human in the book, that person dies within minutes. Light launches a vigilante campaign to rid the world of criminals and create his vision of a perfect society. But the unexplained string of deaths attracts the attention of the police, who turn the case over to the secretive master crime solver known only as L. Although it begins slowly, "Death Note" gets better with each installment, as the stakes grow higher in the macabre duel of wits between Light and L.