One of the great things about the Internet is the opportunity to experience shows and movies from around the world. A few years ago, my son Lowell introduced Arlys and me to Japanese animation (anime) and we became serious fans. These shows are not cartoons in the American sense. Many are aimed at adults with mature and serious themes. Others find humor in situations that American television wouldn’t dare approach. As a guide to newbies who might want to check this out, we’ve each listed our top five favorite shows with animation studios and dates.
Cowboy Bebop (Sunrise, 1998) – This is classic space opera about a pair of down-on-their-luck bounty hunters who travel the system in their spaceship catching bad guys and collecting fellow outcasts. It has quirky, memorable characters and a great jazz soundtrack. If you don’t already own a corgi dog, it will make you want one.
Death Note (Madhouse, 2006-07) – A brilliant teenager finds a magic notebook that allows him to kill people from a distance. He embarks on a crusade to cleanse the world of crime but the authorities hire an equally brilliant young detective to stop him. It’s an exciting game of cat and mouse with ever-increasing stakes.
The Eccentric Family (P. A. Works, 2013 & 2017) – In Japanese legend, tanuki (also called raccoon dogs) are tricksters that can shape-shift and take on the form of people. This series follows a family of tanuki in modern Kyoto, living secretly among humans with other magical beings. It’s funny, charming and at times heartbreaking.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (Kyoto Animation, 2006) – Haruhi is a high school girl who unknowingly has godlike powers. A small circle of friends, most of whom have unusual powers themselves, must keep her amused and happy, lest she unwittingly destroy the universe. It’s got adventure, humor, and time travel.
Kill la Kill (Trigger, 2013-14) – In this over-the-top parody of “magical girl” anime, a young woman sets out to avenge her father’s death. She battles the students of a bizarre military high school and uncovers a sinister conspiracy by the fashion industry. There’s lots of “fan service” (gratuitous partial nudity) and fantasy violence, starring one of the most bad-ass warrior babes in all of anime.
Black Butler (A1 Pictures, 2008-10, 2014) – In Victorian England, a demon rescues an orphaned aristocratic boy from evil cultists, becoming his butler and protector. It’s clever, dark, and sometimes uncomfortable, with some of the best direction and story plots we’ve seen in anime. Though the main character is a child, this show is definitely not for children.
Death Note – (See synopsis above.) I just love this premise. The series has an excellent story with unexpected plot twists. It’s sometimes hard to choose who to root for.
XXXHolic – (Production I.G, 2006-2008) A teenage boy in modern-day Japan suffers from visions of spirits no one else can see. He seeks help from a “witch” (a sultry young woman) who counsels people with their problems, becoming her assistant. It’s a very funny show, with magical creatures and many silly elements, but it’s also very well written.
Mushishi (Artland, 2005-06, 2014) – Set in pre-industrial Japan, the show follows a man who travels the country exorcising spirit creatures called Mushi wherever they cause people problems. Though some are quite dangerous, the protagonist handles them with respect as living beings. This show was my introduction to anime. It’s beautifully drawn and the many different stories keep the viewer engaged.
Food Wars (J.C. Staff, 2015-17) – This is the story of a boy who attends an elite Japanese high school for future chefs and restauranteurs, and the friends and rivals he meets there. The name comes from there impromptu cooking contests which are as competitive as any martial arts battle. Don’t let the strange premise allow you to miss this one. It was exciting and very fun, with wonderful characters.
Since Arlys and I had a duplicate pick, the above list has only nine shows, so we’ve included an extra one, which was the number 6 pick for both of us.
Attack on Titan (Wit Studio/Production I.G, 2013 & 2017) – Centuries in the future, mankind has been almost wiped out by giant flesh-eating monsters called Titans. The survivors live in a city surrounded by concentric walls and once again face extinction when the Titans breach the outer wall. The show’s heroes are the Survey Corps, young men and women who battle the monsters using swords and steampunk-type rope and pulley arrangements. It’s exciting, gory, and occasionally bizarre as they struggle to survive and to discover the secret of the Titans.
You’ll note that though a few of these have Victorian and retro-technology elements, there are no explicitly steampunk titles in this list. There are a number of good (and not-so-good) steampunk anime that I’ll be reviewing at a later date.
These and many other excellent anime are available on-line on anime sites such as CrunchyRoll.com and occasionally on more mainstream services like Netflix. All of the above are available in two versions: dubbed by English voice actors, or in the original Japanese with English subtitles. Anyone who’s interested in imaginative story-lines and who isn’t afraid to try something new should check out these shows.