World War II was one of the most disastrous and tragic times for humankind. Every side, whether good or bad, suffered enormous consequences that left a huge scar in world history. Huge events inspired various media and arts from their beginning and World War II is not a stranger to that. Japanese animators decided to bring us their own stories of World War II in their own specific way, and boy did they leave millions of people speechless. In this article, we will rank the 10 best WWII anime of all time.
This list will include anime with lighter themes that are either influenced by WWII or take place during it and some really tough, heavy animes that will make your heartbreak. Before we start, we are warning you about some heavy themes that are maybe triggering for some. Without further ado, let’s start with our best anime.
10. Girls und Panzer
We will start with something lighter. This Japanese anime depicts a competition between girls’ high schools practicing take warfare as a sport. The story follows Miho Nishizumi, a girl from a prestigious family of sensha-dō practitioners who suffered great trauma. That event propelled her parents to transfer her to Ōarai Girls High School to move her away from everything.
When Miho transfers, sensha-dō is back and revived as a sport in her high school, and although she was reluctant to join the sensha-dō team, other students finally convince her, and they immediately enter the national championship. This animes vehicle, or in this case tanks, were inspired by WWII tanks, so it definitely deserves to be on this list. If you are looking for something outrageous and odd, but also fun and casual, Girls und Panzer are anime for you. Season One is available on Amazon Prime while Girls und Panzer movie can be watched on Netflix.
9. The Cockpit
This original animation series contains three parts – Slipstream, Sonic Boom Squadron, and Knight of the Iron Dragon. Each part follows three different groups and characters during their serving in WWII – Captain Erhardt Von Rheindars, a young pilot Ensign Nogami, and Private Kodai and Private Utsunomiya. The first story follows a German Captain who escorts an American B-17 bomber, who decides to make a huge decision and be “the man who did not sell his would to the devil”. An interesting story from the perspective of the German soldier who cannot go through the massacre anymore.
The second story follows a Japanese squadron, that is fighting their battles with Americans in the Pacific Ocean. One of the Ohka pilots Ensign Nogami is in the spotlight this time – anime shows the perspective of desperate Japanese pilots who are risking lives for their country, by crashing their planes on American aircraft carriers, later known as Kamikaze. This is all happening on the 6th of August, 1945, the day when the first atomic bomb fell on Japan.
The third story follows two privates Kodai and Utsunomiya who are trying to reach the airbase even though they know it is in vain. In their journey, they stumble upon dangers and opposing American soldiers who are attacking them. This trilogy is really cool since it is showing the realities of WWII and how the losing sides dealt with everything that is going on. Soldiers and pilots are the main characters this time.
You can watch The Cockpit on YouTube. The first episode is on this link.
This manga that was later adapted to twenty-six episode anime is one of the more popular WWII-themed animes. It follows the members of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, the JDS Mirai, who are transported back in time to 1942. After seeing what occurred, they also recognize ships that were part of the Imperial Japanese Navy, which were bombed by American forces in 1942, and where 3000 people lost their lives.
Members of Mirai want to save the ships since they have a huge technological advantage over everyone else involved in the conflict. The crew eventually agrees they want to just go home, and not meddle with the timeline, however, they get sucked into the War more and more. After saving a Japanese Lieutenant who was supposed to die, the Mirai crew causes devastating changes in the past. The themes are quite educating as well – the anime deals with brutal themes that include totalitarian, and militaristic governments who are sacrificing their soldiers for success. A little sci-fi outlook on the devastating World War II, and its consequences on the Japanese people. The anime is available on Amazon Prime.
7. First Squad
The First Squad goes away from Japan and takes place in the Soviet Union in 1941 and 1942. It follows a group of Soviet teenagers with extraordinary abilities which led them to be drafted into the special military unit to fight Germans. However, they stumble upon a Schutzstaffel officer who is attempting to resurrect the Order of Sacred Cross from the 12th century and draft them into the German Army.
Unfortunately, the War is brutal and most of the kids die – only the protagonist of the anime Nadya is still alive. Her abilities interest Soviet scientists more and use her ability to contact deceased people in order to help the Soviet Union in the war. She meets her friends there and encourages them to continue fighting. This is another sci-fi-themed WWII anime that interprets themes of children being drafters in the War and fighting adult battles. This is another anime you can watch on Amazon Prime.
6. Who’s Left Behind
A story that follows a little girl living during the World War II conflict. In 1940, the protagonist of the story Kayoko is just starting the first grade. The anime shows her life through playing with her brothers, and friends, interacting with adults and how is her community dealing with the disastrous war. Even though the anime does not show the events of the war outright, through the movie you could see how everything is changing – the war is getting to its end and disaster occurs.
Kayoko is also going through food rations, salvaging items for the military to make more weapons, and just outright seeing men of the community being drafted to the army. Her innocence is shattered when she sees the devastated land, that was once her home and realizes that nothing is going to be the same again. What’s really interesting about this anime, is that it’s based on a true story – Kayoko Nakane is a girl who lived through war-devastated Japan. If you are interested, check out this anime on YouTube.
5. Giovanni’s Island
Giovanni’s Island is another heartbreaking story about two brothers who are living through consequences of the Japan losing the war. They are situated on an island which is located on the outskirts of Japan, where they need to live with foreign conquerors. The theme of the anime is quite emotional since it follows people who are exceptionally different and strangers to each other – they need to connect and cooperate to live through oppression and the consequences of the war.
Soviet soldiers’ families inhabit the island and the Japanese oppressed people need to live with them. Beautiful and unlike friendships are born and together, they endure everything thrown at them. Educational and beautiful anime that teaches us about people getting over their differences and helping each other. The movie is available on Crunchyroll.
4. The Wind Rises
This critically acclaimed anime follows the story of Jiro Horikoshi, who engineered the famous Japanese aircraft Mitsubishi A5M fighter and its successor the Mitshubishi A6M Zero, which were used by the Empire of Japan in World War II. Besides Horikoshi’s story of how he constructed aircrafts and his career, the story follows his love story with Naoko Satomi, who he met before becoming a world-renowned engineer.
This is a fictional biography of Horikoshi who is considered one of the greatest Japanese engineers. What is also really interesting, is that Horikoshi actually regretted his creations in the end because it was used in the war. This is truly an interesting story and you can watch it on Netflix.
3. In This Corner of the World
We are getting near the end of the list and In This Corner of the World needs to be ranked at the top of WWII-themed anime. The story follows a woman living in a small town in Japan ten years before the War, during it, and ten years after. Suzo is a lighthearted woman who spends her free time drawing beautiful scenery of her hometown Eba, located near Hiroshima.
Her story abruptly changes when she marries her husband and the story progresses toward the beginnings and eventual ending of World War II. During War, Suzo suffered huge losses – her brother and niece get killed, and she loses her right hand which was her drawing hand. This is devastating for her, but the final blow happens when her family gets killed during the bombing of Hiroshima, where only her sister is left alive, but with grave consequences. Great anime that shows a woman whose family and the gift of drawing was taken away from her because of some other people.
This anime can be found on Netflix if you are interested in watching it.
2. Barefoot Gen
This anime is inspired by its creator, Keiji Nakazawa, and his life story as a surviving Hiroshima survivor. The series is set in 1945, in Hiroshima and its surroundings, where six-year-old boy Gen Nakaoka lives with his family. After Hiroshima was destroyed by the atomic bomb, Gen, his family, and other survivors need to deal with the aftermath of that tragedy.
This is probably one of the most popular historical manga and anime movies released in Japan during the 1970s and 1980s and shows the brutal consequences that anime’s creator Nakazawa had to go through with thousands of other people. This anime deserves to be on this list, especially in second place because of its cultural influence on anime culture and storytelling of the true consequences of the Hiroshima tragedy. The anime is available for watching on Amazon Prime.
1. Grave of the Fireflies
We got to the first place and one of the best war-themed movies, regardless of media, ever made. Grave of Fireflies is an Academy Award-winning anime that stunned the whole world with its sincerity and heartbreaking story of children of Japan living through World War II. This is one of those animes that you watch once and never again because it’s so stunningly honest and beautiful in the most heartbreaking way.
The story follows a brother and sister who are left alone after Americans started firebombing the Japanese city of Kobe. Their journey of trying to survive and dealing with various diseases and malnutrition after their mother was killed in the bombing and their aunt left them all by themselves. While looking for food, Seita’s younger sister, Setsuko dies of malnutrition. Seita cremates her and carries her ashes with him. After War ended and Americans came to Japan, Seita is found dead at the train station – he died from starvation. The janitor finds Setsuko’s ashes and throws them into the field where it scatters. Setsuko is reunited with her brother Seita, and a cloud of fireflies. Their ghosts board the train and at the end of the movie, look over the present-day Kobe, surrounded by fireflies.
Even though it’s heartbreaking we warmly recommend you to watch this anime, it is truly a cultural phenomenon and a masterpiece. The movie is available for watching on AppleTV.