With Netflix creeping closer to replacing cable television and physical media altogether and me bursting with anime love, I feel like now’s the time to continue spreading the love. Binge watching an exciting new show is a treat unlike anything past generations have seen and I can only imagine how great it would be to fall in love with an unexplored foreign entertainment genre and have so much awesome at my fingertips right off the bat. With anime still being a niche market, I figure now’s a good time to show some people a tiny speck of what they’ve been missing out on.
A funny thing happened to me on the way to write this article. I was remembering all of the great shows I’ve watched over the years and figured I should write an article about some of them. Then I figured I should check and make sure that they are all still up because why bother if you can’t enjoy them right this instant too. Most of them weren’t. In fact, the vast majority of series seem to have been stricken from Netflix Instant, leaving a mere smattering. Stupid expired streaming rights.
Killer shows like Attack on Titan, Eden of the East, and Welcome to the NHK have been covered on this site before so rather than rehash those, I’ll just shout them out here and trust you to know what to do. Still, there are some amazing shows left standing, and some exciting new faces too. So while I may have had to cut this list in half and make some substitutions that end up making this list resemble a greatest hits of Adult Swim/Toonami runs, there are still some really exceptional classic shows for anime newbies to enjoy. Sorry, but no obscurities today, veterans.
Hi kids; you like Cowboy Bebop? Of course you do. Even anime haters have to give us Bebop. How do you follow up an instant classic space western fueled by jazz and blues? If you’re director Shinichiro Watanabe you naturally make a period samurai story with hip-hop elements. So basically the exact opposite thing. Why the hell not?
The first episode of Samurai Champloo is likely to make or break it for you. The anachronistic hip-hop beats and breakdancing turn some people off right off the bat. I kind of feel sorry for them. The premise is that a young girl, Fuu, is searching for a samurai who "smells of sunflowers". Towards that end she enlists the help of two strong polar-opposite ronin who are dueling in a tea shop. The two agree to finish their deathmatch at a later date and accompany Fuu on her journey across feudal Japan.
If you are a fan of chanbara flicks, Champloo’s got you covered, but I personally found the modern elements to be a really refreshing addition to those classic tropes. There’s just something absurdly awesome about a yakuza henchman beatboxing into the hilt of his wakizashi to provide proper atmosphere for his boss’ rantings and ninja graffiti sprees.
In addition to the hip-hop flavor, there’s a lot of classical jidageki content as well, making this show arguably the most effective, entertaining, and stylish East/West culture crossover this side of Kill Bill. Samurai Champloo is definitely something to see.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
This is a modern classic that’s going to be really hard to get around if you are a fantasy fan who is open to Japanese animation. Fullmetal Alchemist is one of the coolest fantasy franchises around and is almost universally beloved for its combination of great characters, imagination, creative action, humor, politics, and drama.
The story involves a pair of brothers studying alchemy; a form of magic where you use existing components to create something new using the Laws of Equivalent Exchange. As children, they found out how it works the hard way when a failed transmutation left one without an arm and a leg. The others’ body was consumed entirely and his soul ended up fused to a suit of armor. The pair set out to research a way to get back what they lost by joining the government, hoping to use the resources there to find what they need, but working for a corrupt government has its own forms of equivalent exchange.
Brotherhood is actually a remake of the well-received original 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist series that came out seven years prior. Why a remake so soon? Well, the original anime caught up to the manga source material and then deviated into an entirely original storyline. Brotherhood hits several of the same story beats as the first series, but then goes on to a much more epic story with a much larger cast.
If you plan on watching both regardless, you may want to start with the original series, but if you’re touring the entire anime medium and only have time for one, I’ve got to give it to the remake. It’s an outstanding piece of work of fantasy fiction by any standard.
I remember seeing an interview with the director of the remake of the classic post-apocalyptic anime Fist of the North Star where he explained his desire to modernize the campy old-school series came from wanting to show a new generation what an ideal man was. Well, the protagonist of that show solves every problem he encounters by punching people until they explode in a shower of gore. Not the best example to set. My definition of the ideal man is found in the late 90’s sci-fi anime Trigun.
The story takes place on a post-apocalyptic desert planet and initially follows two insurance agents whose job it is to get information on a “humanoid typhoon" who has left a trail of expensive destruction in his wake, making him a legendary outlaw. But when they catch up with him, things aren’t exactly what they seemed to be.
When I was first watching this one it struck me that for a show about an outlaw gunslinger with a massive bounty on his head, Vash the Stampede never fires his gun in the early episodes. Turns out, the guy is not only a complete goofball, but an impossibly staunch pacifist who would rather die than kill and is not afraid to expose his rawest of emotions and humble himself in front of redeemable scumbags rather than resort to violence. Not exactly your typical action hero.
There’s something extremely refreshing and cool about a show that chooses not to repeat the same ol’ same ol’ pattern of “ridiculously powerful hero crushes bad people because he can" and chooses instead to create a ridiculously powerful hero who absolutely refuses to harm even the worst of people no matter what.
Most popular entertainment would rather take a good person and have them do bad things to make the audience question how far is too far. Trigun instead pushes the audience to question whether there is an illogical extreme even to benevolence. That, if nothing else, makes it a must-watch show.
Sword Art Online
This is my favorite anime from recent years. Only two years old, Sword Art Online managed to make a big dent when it aired on Toonami and crept from a show I didn’t expect much from to the top of my weekly watch list. It’s definitely the kind of story that creeps up in you and then blows all expectations out of the water.
The concept of an anime taking place in a virtual reality massive multiplayer online role-playing game is one with possibilities, but 99% of the time would probably lend itself to an average trope-filled fantasy romp with a gaming gimmick. SAO took the 1% route and used the concept to add validity to the power of online interpersonal interactions and highlight the revealing nature of anonymous online behavior while giving us a fascinating conceptual science fiction story to boot.
Imagine wiring your brain directly into a virtual MMO. Now imagine that the creator of that MMO uses that connection to lock you into it until you beat the game and programmed it to fry your central nervous system if you died in-game. Living in a virtual world full of monsters and other gamers for an indefinite period of time. Damn.
And should you get out, could you really say the time you spent with people you met, befriended, or even fell in love with online was meaningless? Were the interactions any less real than if you’d encountered them in person? Couldn’t you say that the true nature of the players would come out from this virtual experience?
While most American culture prefers to minimize and even ridicule the role of online communication in our lives, SAO takes a bold stance in suggesting that we may actually be more true to ourselves when interacting with strangers virtually than in real life. At the same time, it’s a cautionary tale about the possible abuses of virtual reality technology. Would you really want EA or Google to have direct access to your brain? Well, maybe if it was this awesome…
Continuing in that same sci-fi vein, Chobits is a classic boy-meets-robot story that explores the possibility that once AI androids have advanced enough, we may not need to interact intimately with other people IRL at all. Once again, a Japanese cartoon dares to look at possible future technology and questions current social norms and concepts of romance against it.
It occasionally drowns in more saccharinity than I care for, but shows like this are proof that anime does not need giant robots, crazy martial arts, or any sort of violence at all to make compelling entertainment. Sometimes unadulterated charm and romance is okay too, and Chobits is all over that.
This story kicks off with a student, Hideki, stumbling upon an apparently discarded persocom, which is an advanced android that acts as a personal computer; like if Siri had a humanoid body. In this case, the persocom is a blank slate which can only communicate with the word “chi", which becomes her name.
As Hideki teaches Chi about life and social norms, it becomes apparent that the robot is not a typical AI and is in fact, one of a legendary rumored line of persocoms known as chobits which are programmed with human emotions. Taking care of an adorable android who is falling in love with him opens up all sorts of questions for Hideki, and he looks at other peoples’ relationships with their persocoms to try and ascertain the nature and limits of romance with an artificial intelligence.
Chobits may not fill the awesomeness quota of your typical anime, but it’s still a must-see series for conceptual science fiction fans looking for a new, lighter perspective on the social possibilities of AI. It also works as a straightforward romantic comedy and serves as yet another example that there is often more to the anime medium than meets the eye. Happy streaming!