Looking for some high-quality entertainment? I have some great suggestions for you. How about a dark, brooding show dealing with serious questions of right and wrong? Doesn’t interest you? How about a fun, zany show featuring aliens, androids and semi-deific powers? Still not your cup of tea? I’ve got more. How about zombie-giants, or video games that entrap you, or children with hard-core karate and kung-fu skills, or wizarding guilds? If you’re interested in science fiction, fantasy, or just good story-telling, the anime genre has something to offer you.
Maybe you’re a fan of other types of animated entertainment, but you haven’t ventured into anime. Maybe you’re interested in anime but aren’t sure where to start. Or maybe you’re already an anime fan and you’re looking for something new to sink your teeth into. Check out my list of what’s great in anime to help you decide!
Not surprisingly, Death Note is not to be taken lightly. This critically acclaimed series, like all good anime, was originally a Japanese manga. A high school student named Light finds a notebook that claims it will kill anyone whose name is written on its pages. Skeptical at first, he soon learns that the book is all it promises. Light is relatable and conflicted at once, kind of like an angsty, younger Dexter. He is surrounded by morally grey characters, all caught in the web of killings that surrounds the other-worldly notebook that grants perhaps too much power to its owner.
The themes of the show are dark: life and death, who deserves to live? what makes God omnipotent? who has the right to make decisions for all of humanity? The tone of the series matches. It’s Gothic, visceral and intense. The music adds to the experience; the orchestration is almost ethereal at times. If you’re not watching Death Note, start at your own risk. Once you start, you won’t be able to stop.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Infused with humor and magic, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is more accessible than some other anime. The series follows the escapades of brothers Edward and Al, both of whom are alchemists, able to alter matter as they see fit using lightning-like blasts of magic. Edward, who has a metal arm and leg, is known as the Fullmetal Alchemist, while his “little” brother, who is actually fully made of metal, is known only as Al. (Al’s spirit inhabits a suit of armor, since the boys accidentally destroyed his body in some alchemy-gone-bad. True story.)
The series delves into some deeper ideas, such as the extent to which you can trust the government, family, sacrifice and duty. The big themes don’t weigh the series down, however. Each episode is lightened with wacky faces and classic manga devices like over-sized teardrops and exclamation points to convey emotion, plus the kids’ voices, particularly Al’s, are just plain cute. But before you sit your kids down in front of this show, realize that Alchemy kills people, and the themes of children being made to do the work of adults may not be appropriate for younger audiences. Not to mention some light casual swearing. Check out this anime for a fun time that still delivers an awesome story.
Attack on Titan
This very successful series gives the idea of a post-zombie apocalyptic society a new twist. The humans in this world live huddled together inside huge stone walls, which protect them from mindless, genital-less eating machines. Rather than guard against the traditional zombies seeking brains, however, these walls guard against Titans, monstrous humanoids that range in size from 10 to 200 feet with terrifying toothy grins. Watching them devour men, women and children is pure nightmare fuel. In fact, I’m getting chills right now remembering the face of the titan that eats Eren’s mother in the first episode of the series.
Eren grows up to join the Garrison Regiment, dedicated to fighting the horrifying monsters that want to ingest them, only to cough them back up in slimy balls of sorrow and dread. This anime is definitely a drama, focusing on the emotional trauma, the loss and the pain of the characters. Watching it is visceral and sometimes difficult. It also features a lot of cool plot twists that I won’t spoil for you, as well as some seriously sick combat sequences featuring the Vertical Maneuvering Equipment. This series has inspired a plethora of spin-off material, including other manga, novels, video games and live-action works.
Dragon Ball Z
Perhaps the best-known of all anime series, Dragon Ball Z is a runaway hit. The story is a follow-up to the also popular series Dragon Ball, which detailed the adolescence and coming of age of Goku, a powerful warrior with almost super-human abilities. Now, in Dragon Ball Z, Goku is a husband and father. His wife doesn’t approve of martial arts, so Goku has not trained his son, focusing instead on academics. Goku’s peaceful world is disturbed, however, when a savage alien named Raditz comes to Earth and demands that Goku help him conquer the world.
This series is both campy and fun, focusing at times on humor and cool martial arts sequences, and spiritual, exploring the concepts of death, rebirth, and Earth’s place in reality. It has serious moments, but overall has a lighter tone than some of the more dramatic anime out there. The show has some wacky elements, including aliens, time travel, androids and the mystical power that Goku wields known as “Super Saiyan.” This classic show should be a staple in any anime diet.
Fairy Tail is a fantasy anime clearly intended to entertain and be a lot of fun. The use of traditional anime stripes and punctuation over faces to show emotions is prevalent, as well as funny noises, sparkles, hearts and music notes. Talking animals and mythical creatures add to the whimsy. The series is set in Fiore, a kingdom of wizards and guilds where magic is used for both practical and amusement purposes. There are also showy magical battles and clashes between immortal beings of intense power. A true sword and sorcery story, the series also includes dragons, demons and magical intrigue.
The story follows 17-year-old Lucy in her quest to join Fairy Tail, the most exclusive wizard guild in Fiore, and Natsu, a wizard with dragon abilities. He takes Lucy along on his journey to discover his own mystical origins and further his already advanced magical talents. Also along for the ride is Happy, an adorable talking cat, and Gray and Erza, wizards of Fairy Tail. The whole crew eventually faces off against Zereg, a dark wizard with devious intentions for Fiore and the world. Who will triumph? You’ll have to watch to find out!
This series follows the antics of juvenile delinquent Naruto, a young ninja who wants to become a great leader in his village, but is hampered by his lack of conformity and effort at studying. Naruto eventually becomes a ninja and forms team 7, along with his friends Sasuke and Sakura. After going on many missions to serve their village, team 7 eventually moves on to harder, more important tasks, and becomes embroiled in plots of revenge, guardianship and monarchy. Along the way, Naruto discovers many truths about his heritage, his power, and what it means to be a ninja.
Naruto is a mix of seriousness and fun. Some sequences feature upbeat guitar music and silly animation, while others focus on subterfuge, betrayal, infighting and death. The series also takes on big issues, like how we treat individuals we fear and the pain lies can cause. There are wars, disguised identities, and political intrigue, all centering on the Tailed Beasts, powerful mystical entities that reside in 9 ninjas. Each tailed beast has a different number of tails, and Naruto learns that the nine-tailed fox who destroyed his village is sealed inside him. He will stop at nothing to make right what the Nine-Tails set wrong, and you should stop at nothing to watch Naruto right away.
Sword Art Online
With one of the more original premises I’ve ever heard, Sword Art Online is solid science fiction. In this dystopian future, MMORPG’s are taken to a new level via NerveGear, a new technology that connects a player’s five senses with the game. When a group of players log-on for the first time, they find that they can’t log-off, and that those who die in-game don’t come back. The players must fight their way to the top of the game on the 100th floor, battling baddies and bosses, as well as prejudice against some of the players who have an advantage, namely the game’s original beta testers.
The show is intense at times, fraught with emotion. It contemplates the morality of killing to survive, questions reality, and challenges the concept of video games as harmless. Other times this series is amusing, especially for those familiar with MMORPG’s. The creators include lots of goodies and inside terms that online players will appreciate. There are a lot of sweet moments as well. This series is a lot of fun, and includes romance, action, deep themes and big ideas. It’s also quite pleasant, which I find refreshing. Don’t miss out on this one.
Welcome to a comedic emo dream world. Meet Ichigo, a teenager with supernatural talents, like talking to ghosts and visiting nether worlds. Ichigo is fearless, taking on anyone who gets in his way, and using his courage to defend the “souls of the dearly departed” (straight from episode 1) with his sweet martial arts moves. Ichigo meets Rukia, a Soul Reaper, who gifts him with her powers, allowing him to take his spirit-aiding activities to the next level, as he is now responsible for chaperoning souls into the afterlife.
This series mixes action in the form of some pretty rad fight scenes, classic anime humor, and a creepy vibe from the ghostly spirits and apparitions constantly traipsing about, especially the Hollows, malevolent beings who roam the world wreaking havoc and devouring souls. Ichigo and a band of his high-school friends soon embark on a mission to hunt down the Hollows, save a friend in trouble, and stop a civil war brewing in the Soul Society, those who run the afterlife. For themes of loyalty, valor, and to explore some freaky Japanese ghosts, check out Bleach ASAP.
Avatar: the Last Airbender
Although whether it is truly an anime is a topic of much debate, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Nickelodeon’s excellent series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The series is set in a world where certain people are born with the ability to bend one of the four basic elements: earth, air, fire and water. There is one special person, however, who can bend all four elements. He or she is known as the Avatar, and is continually reborn in a kind of Dalai Lama cycle. The series follows the adventures of Aang, a young Avatar who is frozen in ice for 100 years, only to wake up and find the world in chaos.
This series has everything. Each episode has laugh-out-loud moments, riveting plots, and touching moments that make you think. I would say its strength, however, is in its characters. Aang is obnoxious in a little-kid way but also powerful in a mystical-awesome way. He is joined by a host of likable characters, my favorite of whom has to be either Zuko, a frenemy with some serious daddy issues, or his uncle Iroh, who’s character is nothing short of genius. I would recommend this series to any- and everyone.
The Legend of Korra
This charming series, a sequel to Avatar: the Last Airbender, has a neat steampunk vibe and another cast of unforgettable characters. (Ju-Li, do the thing!) Korra, a characteristic foil to Aang, the first Avatar fans of the original show got to know, is cocky and self-assured. Unlike Aang, who has to work to master all elements but air, Korra is proficient in all elements butair, and has trouble entering the Avatar state, a highly spiritual and very powerful phase the Avatar needs to enter in times of great need. Older than Aang, Korra explores more mature themes, including cheating significant others, finding genuine humility, and, depending on who you ask, maybe even bisexuality.
Besides providing a host of new and unique characters, the Legend of Korra also takes the powers and abilities of the original series to a new level. While before only Toph could bend metal, now all the police officers can do it. Bloodbending, perhaps the most horrifying idea to come from the original series, now gets more import as it can be used for more nefarious purposes. Every element gets turned up to 11, as Bolin shows us when he moves from bending earth to bending lava. If you were a fan of Avatar, or if you like great stories and original settings, find Korra and watch it today.
So, there you go. There is some amazing anime out there right now, so run, don’t walk to your nearest internet and find these shows. If you can’t find it online or on Netflix, you may have to buy the series to see every episode. Chances are, however, once you watch these original, compelling creations you’ll want to own them anyway so you can watch, re-watch and share with your friends.