Out of the 26 eligible films submitted for the Best Animated Feature Oscar this year, six come from Japan. Six is also the number of anime films that have been nominated for the award before: Spirited Away (which won), Howl's Moving Castle, The Wind Rises, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, When Marnie Was There and Mirai (the only anime nominee not from Studio Ghibli). Could any of this award season's crop join that short list?
All of the contenders have their work cut out for them to get recognized. None has been a widespread favorite in a year when Soul and Wolfwalkers are dominating animation awards, and while they each have strengths that could be to their advantage, they also all have notable weaknesses. It would be at least mildly surprising if any of these films were nominated, but it's not impossible.
Demon Slayer -Kimetsu no Yaiba- The Movie: Mugen Train
Until now, movies based on Shonen Jump properties have never been considered serious awards contenders. FUNimation, the company releasing the Demon Slayer film in the US, didn't even bother submitting My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising despite also being eligible. So what makes Demon Slayer so different? The simple answer: it's already made all the money.
It can't be understated what a phenomenon Demon Slayer as a whole and Mugen Train in particular has been in Japan. This movie beat Spirited Away's box office records, making it the most financially successful anime film of all time. Those headlines will certainly get it more attention than a film of this type normally would. Already, it's been nominated for a Satellite Award and placed as a runner-up for the New Mexico Film Critics' Best Animated Film award. Mugen Train has hype going for it. The big question is if Academy voters can understand anything that's happening without having watched the TV show first.
Earwig and the Witch
On paper, Earwig and the Witch sounded like an Oscar contender. Five Studio Ghibli films have been nominated in the past, including the winner Spirited Away, and the studio's first all-CGI feature seemed promising. GKIDS, the independent animation distributor which has successfully campaigned its way to 12 Oscar nominations, was clearly hoping this year's extended eligibility window would benefit Earwig, which was released this February.
Then people actually saw the movie, and most didn't like it. Critics gave it a low score of 33% on Rotten Tomatoes and even those who were more forgiving of the film's visual weaknesses could not forgive the fact the story cuts off just when it should be getting going. With a response like this, a nomination would be a downright shocker.
Lupin III: The First
The more artistically successful of the two CG anime in contention, Lupin III: The First is a movie that's generally well-liked but not widely loved. The film's Rotten Tomatoes score (which calculates how many critics liked it) is 95%, but its Metacritic score (which calculates how much top critics liked it) is only 61. Admittedly the film has more reviews hosted on RT than on Metacritic, but the general impression is that it's good but not great.
Still, solidly good might be enough to make it in this strange awards season if GKIDS campaigns as hard as possible and Academy voters can overcome their aversion to franchise anime. Those are two big ifs, but Lupin III: The First is both visually stunning and approachable to those new to Lupin III. It actually managed to win the Hawaii Film Critics Society's Best Animated Film award.
On-Gaku: Our Sound
For those seeking the most unique animated films of the past year, On-Gaku: Our Sound definitely warrants some attention. This deadpan comedy about a group of stupid musicians was produced independently, and writer-director Kenji Iwaisawa drew almost all of the film's 40,000 frames of animation. It's pretty much ready-made to be a cult film.
The prospective cult for this film, however, is probably too small for an Oscar nomination. The film's theatrical release last December passed by most critics' attention (it doesn't even have a Rotten Tomatoes score yet), and GKIDS has more mainstream contenders to campaign for.
Ride Your Wave
Masaaki Yuasa's Ride Your Wave might be the best of the six anime in awards contention this year. It's sad, funny, romantic and inspiring, with great music and outstanding animation. If the discussion of grief in WandaVision made you cry, this anime's treatment of the same subject matter will have you bawling. It's streaming now on HBO Max, so check it out if you haven't seen it yet.
Its biggest obstacle has nothing to do with the quality or appeal of the film itself; it's about timing. Movies released in the first quarter of a given year are usually ignored by the Oscars, and with this Oscar season lasting two months longer than usual, Ride Your Wave feels like it was forever ago. It won multiple prizes at film festivals in 2019, but this year, the Florida Film Critics Circle is the only group to give it a Best Animated Film nomination so far. GKIDS would need an amazing campaign to turn the tide.
A Whisker Away
The Netflix release A Whisker Away received mostly positive reviews, drawing some comparisons to the works of Studio Ghibli. Despite this, however, it never stood a chance at the Oscars due to the nature of its release. Netflix has five contenders this year, and A Whisker Away is by far their lowest campaigning priority. Over the Moon and The Willoughbys are in-house productions that Netflix is clearly prioritizing, while A Shaun the Sheep Moive: Farmageddon comes from Oscar favorites Aardman Animation and the Indian film Bombay Rose has more hype from film festivals. Maybe it can surprise at the animation-focused Annie Awards, but for Oscars, it's a non-starter.