I’m not much of a weeb, but I do enjoy the occasional Japanese cartoon. Adult-themed and young-adult-themed animation is simply another media form like books and movies and live-action TV, and if you’ve never watched any, you should probably try some! And for idiosyncratic cultural, economic, and historical reasons, most of this is currently made in Japan (though Netflix is changing that a bit).
People have been asking me for a list of my favorite anime shows for a while. Unlike science fiction novels, I don’t really have a wide enough repertoire here to be confident that I’m recommending the best stuff (You can tell this because three of the shows on this list are from one director, Watanabe Shinichiro). It’s highly weighted toward the genres I like — science fiction and absurdist comedy. And it’s also pretty weighted toward the late 90s and 00s, when I did most of my anime-watching. So don’t regard this as any sort of “greatest ever” list.
Also, I included “watch this if you like” recommendations at the bottom of each one, for people who are new to anime. Veterans, of course, will not need these. :-)
Anyway, this is just a list of TV shows. It doesn’t include movies, so no Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Your Name, Perfect Blue, Summer Wars, The Night is Short Walk On Girl, Tokyo Godfathers, Grave of the Fireflies, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Millennium Actress, etc. Though of course you should watch all of those.
So without further ado, here’s my list:
One time, after I showed a friend the first episode of FLCL, she turned to me, blinked slowly, and asked “What was that about?” Which is pretty much the standard reaction to what’s widely regarded as one of the zaniest anime ever made. The show — just 6 episodes long, if you don’t count the sequel series that I refuse to watch — is more iconic in America than in Japan, thanks to being shown on TV when not much else what available. As for my friend’s question of “What is it about?”, the short, inaccurate answer is “puberty”. The long, also inaccurate answer is that Japan in the 1990s and early 2000s was a unique and very special moment in time and space — something I got to be there for the tail end of — and nothing will ever fully capture that moment for those who weren’t there to see it, but watching FLCL is the next best thing. Note: My Twitter profile photo is one of the characters from this show.
Watch this if you like: Weird stuff, Frank Zappa, Slacker, the song “I Am the Walrus”
The premise of this show is that a guy goes to a high school that’s full of delinquents and thugs, and instead they all just sit around talking about pointless stuff. For reasons unknown, the students include a gorilla, a robot, and a guy who may or may not be Freddie Mercury. The episodes are only 10 minutes long, but they really don’t need to be any longer.
Watch this if you like: Absurdist humor, Monty Python, Stephen Chou movies, Key & Peele
This show is interesting because it tackles modern political issues (immigration, refugees, government surveillance) and, in a somewhat unusual move for an anime, tries to accurately depict real-world races (instead of the usual racially ambiguous fantasy people). The plot — two girls starting a band on Mars — is lighthearted and fun, and violates many of the conventions of the “girl buddy story” genre; the two girls aren’t mismatched, they don’t really fight, etc. In fact, a lot of this story is just about the protagonists being decent and reasonable to each other — a sort of slice-of-life version of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Also it has this song, which alone is worth the price of admission.
Watch this if you like: Heartwarming comedy, Parks & Recreation, Kim’s Convenience, Star Trek: The Next Generation
One of the classics, now getting remade into a live-action English-language Netflix show, Cowboy Bebop is sort of the culmination of 90s anime. It’s a gritty near-future space-cyberpunk tale of every-man-for-himself — a sort of neoliberal dystopia, if you will. Knowing Japanese helps here, since the dialogue is very unique and cool — sort of like a Japanese equivalent of early Tarantino. But I hear the dub is good as well. For pure cool, it’s hard to beat Bebop.
Watch this if you like: 90s stuff, cyberpunk, Firefly, Pulp Fiction, Bruce Sterling novels
Japan is the land of girl-buddy stories, and Nana is perhaps the modern archetype of the genre. A fiercely independent city girl who wants to be a rock singer ends up randomly rooming with an innocent, naive country girl who has the same name. Hijinx and soap opera ensue. Interestingly, although young people living with roommates is common in many countries, it was not yet common in Japan when this show was made, making it kind of culturally pioneering.
Watch this if you like: Girl buddy stories, Thelma & Louise, Booksmart, slice of life stories, Sex and the City
An optimistic, uplifting show about space exploration, told from the perspective of the people tasked with cleaning up space junk. It’s sweet, sentimental, well-written, and has realistic zero-g physics (which is a lot cheaper to do in a cartoon than a live-action show!). The ending is also one of the most poignant things I’ve ever seen. I didn’t include a link above because I actually can’t find where to watch this show online, but if you can find it, it’s worth it.
Watch this if you like: Uplifting sci-fi, Star Trek, space stuff, For All Mankind
A 90s cyberpunk show that deals with the themes of loneliness, family breakdown, teen suicide, etc. The plot can be a bit hard to follow, but atmospherically it’s perfect. In fact, watching the opening theme (the video above) will basically tell you what you need to know about the show.
Watch this if you like: Cyberpunk, Vernor Vinge novels, William Gibson novels
A show about a group of shy nerdy girls living together, whose stable life is upended by meeting a cross-dressing rich guy. Japanese media is just much better at depicting dorky girls than American media, and I don’t know why, but this one is really the pinnacle of dork.
Watch this if you like: Heartwarming comedy
A samurai period piece that plays with and upends a lot of the genre conventions. Adds zany comedy, fantasy, anachronism, and a bit of hip-hop styling, but is still a super-fun samurai adventure epic. The swordfights are highly unusual and much more realistic than the normal cartoon fare — people wisely avoid each other’s sword strokes instead of bashing their swords against each other. For some reason I just loved that little detail.
Watch this if you like: Samurai movies, Kurosawa, Westerns
This show is two things: 1) one of the most complex and clever time-travel stories you’ll ever see, and 2) a sweet and goofy tale about a self-absorbed nerdy guy learning to be a normal human being. It would be worth watching for either of these alone, but the combination makes this show one of my all-time faves.
Watch this if you like: Time-travel stories, Primer, Back to the Future
If they tasked anime writers with making a show to teach kids good values, they might come up with something like Vision of Escaflowne, a show about a high school girl who gets transported to a steampunk fantasy land. But instead it’s just director Kawamori Shoji being a really good dude. Escaflowne is all about the power of love versus annoying physics bros. You’ll see what I mean.
Watch this if you like: Young adult fantasy, Star Wars, Lois McMaster Bujold novels
Probably the darkest, most horrifying anime ever made, Berserk is a nonstop parade of fountaining blood, severed limbs, invincible godlike demons, and assorted other creepy weird stuff. If that isn’t a sufficient trigger warning, I don’t know what is.
Watch this if you like: Dark fantasy, horror, Joe Abercrombie novels, Guillermo del Toro monsters, having nightmares
Strangely, I recommend the American adaptation Robotech over any of the anime shows that it was cobbled together from (Super Dimension Fortress: Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada). The reasons are A) a much better score, and B) a cheesy narrator that somehow ties together three totally unrelated shows into a semi-coherent space opera epic that still captures hearts to this day.
Watch this if you like: The 80s, romance, planes that transform into robots
Honorable Mentions: Neon Genesis Evangelion, Claymore, Dorohedoro, Tatami Galaxy, Parasyte: The Maxim