First off I’d just like to say a huge thank you to everyone that read my list of ten anime films you should see before you die—the response has been phenomenal—not just the number of people who read it, but also those who took the time out to get involved in the following discussion. Some people loved my selections, some people thought I was well off the mark, but it was clear that there was no way I was going to be able to avoid putting together another list, this time of TV series.
It has been a far harder list to compile. Not only because of the vast selection to choose from, but also because I knew from the start that I would be leaving out some shows that a lot of people hold very dear. As such, I hope that at least some of you will read the next paragraph first before scrolling down the list to see what is missing and getting upset.
Just like last time, the aim of the list is not only to present ten examples of the anime medium that showcase the art form at its greatest, but also ten examples that are accessible to those mature viewers for whom the scene is new or even completely alien. They are works that I would show to those friends that turn their noses up at anime—we all have them—to prove to them how utterly wrong they are. To do this they must be not only masterpieces of animation, direction and storytelling, but immediately accessible to any viewer. As such, I have had to leave out popular fan favourites, slice-of-life comedies and high school dramas that are aimed too directly at the otaku demographic and which rely on an understanding of the genre and Japanese pop culture to fully appreciate. Similarly, for us older fans, I’ve left out some longer series that I personally hold very dear—groundbreaking shows like Patlabor, Legends of the Galactic Heroes and VOTOMS—just because the commitment involved in watching such epically long series is probably too daunting for new anime viewers.
Again: The below picks are in no particular order, the term “mature” is kind of loose—seeing as at least two are really “kids” shows—and this is purely personal opinion. If you disagree, see you in the comments section.
Cowboy Bebop (1998) – 26 episodes
When it first hit Japan at the end of the 90s, Shinichiro Watanabe’s seminal Cowboy Bebop broke new ground for anime on TV. An overly stylistic take on the established space opera genre, it’s the story of a disparate bunch of planet-hopping bounty hunters struggling to make a living. It gave Watanabe a chance to shamelessly take influences from all of his favourite pop-culture sources—from Star Wars and cyberpunk literature to Hollywood westerns and Quentin Tarantino movies, all set to Yoko Kano‘s eclectic, vibrant jazz infused soundtrack. The result was an international hit; one of the few shows of the period that found itself transmitted not only on U.S. TV but also across most of Europe, spawning a theatrical movie, various different DVD releases, merchandise, and giving shameless inspiration to Buffy creator Joss Whedon to pen his cult favorite Firefly.
It’s easy to criticize Watanabe’s direction as style over substance at first glance, but in reality it’s Keiko Nobumoto’s skillfully crafted scripts that are the reason for the show’s success. Throughout the 26 episodes Watanabe manages to do the impossible—combine outlandish plots and settings with believable, empathetic characters that the viewer feels a genuine, true attachment towards. For all the choreographed fight scenes, orbital dogfights and John Woo style shootouts, Bebop‘s true heart lies in its dry humour, sexual energy and the gentle, masterful unfurling of its characters’ back stories. If I had to pick one episode of one anime to show a non-believer, it would be episode 17 of Cowboy Bebop “Speak Like a Child”; a perfect 25 minutes of script writing that starts with gentle comedy and ends in emotional heartbreak. Watanabe tried to recreate the vibe with his Chanbara-meets-hip-hop follow up Samurai Champloo, but the characters and plots were limited by the setting, and although Champloo is ingenious and riveting throughout, Cowboy Bebop still remains his masterpiece and one of the most exhilarating, watchable works of anime ever made.
Paranoia Agent (2004) – 13 episodes
The term “auteur” is often overused by critics—especially in anime circles—but if there’s one director that truly lived up to the title then it was arguably the late Satoshi Kon. After completing his masterpiece trio of experimental, reality-bending films—Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers and Millennium Actress—Kon found himself with an abundance of new ideas and desiring a break from the long production cycle of high budget anime features. Turning to television the result was the Madhouse produced Paranoia Agent; a dark, deeply twisted story of two cops tracking a mysterious teenage hoodlum dubbed Li’l Slugger by the media. As the two detectives investigate the case, the lives of Slugger’s seemingly random assault victims become the series’ initial focus and soon there appear to be no truly innocent bystanders. But just as Kon leads the viewer down one apparent path he, of course, pulls his usual reality-shifting, mind-bending, plot-twisting trick with the show’s surprising climax. Paranoia Agent is an unusual, brave and at times challenging example of what anime can achieve, and perhaps what no other art form can. Even just a few years after its first broadcast it seems hard to believe that it was made for television—especially in today’s recession hit, conservative climate.
Gunslinger Girl (2003) – 13 episodes
It’s impossible to deny that the vast majority of anime and manga rely heavily on established genres, well-trodden clichés, recycled storylines and archetypal characters. Which is why it’s refreshing when a show like Gunslinger Girl comes along to challenge the accepted standards of the medium. Set in modern day Italy, it follows the activities of the Social Welfare Agency, a shadowy government group that uses abused, brain-washed young girls as trained assassins to eliminate political rivals, and focuses on the relationship between the girls and their older, male handlers. A story about over-cute, teenage girls turned cybernetic killers is nothing new, but writer Yu Aida (who also penned the original manga) turns it into a chilling, scathing deconstruction of anime’s moral values. Everything is questioned—the over sexualisation of young girls and their idolizing relationships with older men, the continued, accepted association of children with violence. The celebration and stylisation of that violence is challenged in the most brutal, disturbing, and heart-wrenching of manners. Gunslinger Girl holds a mirror up to anime and it’s moe obsessed otaku followers, asking them to look at what they find so titillating and exhilarating, as if the blood and consequences were real and in their hands. Its challenging plot and message is backed by strong production values and its gentle European ambiance, making it one of the most controversial anime productions of the last decades. It splits anime fans even now, with many refusing to see it as anything more than fan-pandering—interestingly (in my experience) a reaction seldom seen from viewers from outside anime fandom.
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1994) – 26 episodes plus various OVA releases and alternative versions
Few anime franchises have had the lasting impact on anime and wider Japanese pop culture that Gainax’s Neon Genesis Evangelion has had. The story of giant mecha battling strange, powerful creatures, it is yet another show that takes standard anime clichés—angst-ridden teenage pilots, over-the-top battle sequences, end-of-the-world scenarios—and uses them to try and tell a different, deeper story. Focusing largely on the lives of the children that are forced—at times against their will—to defend earth from this unknown, mysterious enemy, it moves from being a simple coming of age story to dealing with psychoanalysis, mental illness, and the essence of human nature.
Similarly, in amongst the teen drama and city-leveling action sequences, Hideaki Anno’s script plays with Christian and biblical symbolism to explore philosophical and spiritual concepts, as well as questioning the nature of reality itself. As such, it has become one of the most widely discussed and analyzed anime ever produced. As if the series wasn’t complex enough, an OVA—The End of Evangelion—was released that gave an alternate telling of the series’ climax. While its philosophical explorations have helped it to stick in Japan’s collective consciousness, its visual style also played a massive role in revitalising the medium, on mecha and character design in particular, spawning not only many imitators but also a current movie series retelling. It is still the original TV run that remains compelling and essential viewing.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (2002) – 26 episodes
Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell manga had already been a huge hit in Japan before Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film version turned it into a global cult hit, so the idea of it also spawning a TV show must have been circulating at Production IG for years. It wasn’t until 2002 that it finally happened, and along with allowing the powerhouse studio another chance to mine the property, they also took it as an opportunity to appease disgruntled fans that felt Oshii had strayed too far from the source material. The series recaptures the more lighthearted, action-driven feel of Shirow’s manga, but still remains a dark, serious story of high-tech special forces tackling hackers, terrorists, corrupt government regimes, and rogue AIs. Each episode is densely packed with complex plots that can, at times, be tough to follow, but are backed up by another eclectic, brooding Yoko Kano-directed soundtrack and probably the best depiction of Shirow’s distinctive weapon and technology designs, including the now iconic Tachikoma mechs. Those that can’t commit to the entire 26 episode run can try the Laughing Man compilation film, that edits together key scenes to tell the series’ over-arching main plotline, but you risk missing out on some of the more interesting standalone episodes. And for those who get understandably sucked in, there’s always the second season—Ghost in the Shell: S.A.C. 2nd Gig—which is as equally well crafted, complex, and even more politically challenging.
Future Boy Conan (1978) – 26 episodes
A good decade before they turned Studio Ghibli into the internationally renowned animation powerhouse it is now, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata were making shows for TV, most notably amongst them Future Boy Conan. After global catastrophes have threatened mankind with extinction, a man and his 11-year-old grandson Conan, the only survivors of a group attempting to flee Earth, become stranded on a remote island after their spaceship crash lands. Believing themselves to possibly be the only remaining humans, their world is turned upside down when a young girl is washed up on the shore, pursued by mysterious military forces.
What’s fascinating about watching the show now is how distinctly the 30-year-old production feels like a more contemporary Ghibli classic. All the elements are there. Despite the obvious low budget and simple animation, the visuals exude the Ghibli magic, with the character and aircraft designs so clearly Miyazaki’s and pacing and background vista shots so blatantly the product of Takahata’s storyboarding. Even more importantly, it foretells the pair’s stunning gift for storytelling, with many of the themes of Ghibli’s output—environmental destruction, industrialisation, conflict and children facing up to their roles in the world—prototyped here. It’s a magical series that somehow manages to feel as much fresh as it does nostalgic, and one that should be shared with the whole family.
Planetes (2003) – 26 episodes
Sunrise’s Planetes manages to accomplish something that few sci-fi TV shows, animated or otherwise, have done: Convincingly combine slice-of-life soap opera, humour, a realistic scientific basis, and an analysis of global politics into accessible, polished entertainment. Set at a time when mankind is first venturing into living permanently in space, it shows you the high frontier from the bottom of the social ladder as it follows the lives of the crew of the Toy Box, an aging debris collection ship—basically the orbital equivalent of a road sweeper. Their mundane work gains more danger and significance as their orbital world is threatened by downtrodden third world terrorists. It’s here—and in it’s grim portrayal of the very real threat of cancer to those who spend too long in space—that the show questions the real importance of and celebrates human space exploration, accusing it of not only being politically and economically divisive and a waste of money and resources, but perhaps also biologically unnatural. It’s beautifully drawn throughout, with obvious visual nods to NASA, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and classic sci-fi literature, but it’s Ichirō Ōkouchi’s always tight script and believably fleshed out characters that are the show’s winning assets. While frequently mature and serious, it is paced with well-handled comedy and subtle romance that makes it a joy to watch. It’s this skillful balance and its compelling plot that make Planetes not only perhaps my favourite anime series of all time, but one of the best examples of science fiction that television of any form has produced.
Serial Experiments Lain (1998) – 13 episodes
Set in “present day, present time” according to the show’s opening scrawl, psychological thriller Serial Experiments Lain focuses on Lain Iwakura, a teenage girl living in suburban Japan, and her introduction to the Wired, a global communications network similar to the internet. At a time when internet use was blossoming amongst young people and online subcultures were first cohering, Lain was the first anime series to truly try and capture the emotional and social attachments that are so easily formed to virtual worlds, and how reality can seemed blurred when you divide your time between them and the actual world.
But it didn’t end there—Lain went beyond looking at the psychology of internet culture to touch upon themes of philosophy, theology, mental illness, depression, and existentialism. Director Ryutaro Nakamura and writer Chiaki J. Konaka set out to create a show that would deliberately be open to different interpretations, and they certainly succeeded, with Lain being the most vigorously analysed and discussed anime since Neon Genesis Evangelion in both academic and fan circles. With so much going on thematically it’s easy to forget the series’ visual impact; the angst-ridden character design would influence not just anime but also Japanese and gothic fashion for years afterwards, and the slightly trippy, surrealistic background art questioned the constant quest for realism in animation at the time. A challenging work at times, but ultimately a rewarding one.
Denno Coil (2007) – 26 episodes
In many ways Mitsuo Iso’s Denno Coil covers similar thematic ground to Serial Experiments Lain, but from a refreshingly different perspective. Centered around a group of Japanese elementary school children, the show is at first glance apparently aimed at that age group, but with closer inspection that’s about as useful an assessment as dismissing My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away as just kids films—and the comparison between Denno Coil and some of Ghibli’s better crafted output is a wholly deserved and justifiable one. Set in 2026, it tells the story of young Yūko Okonogi, who moves with her family to the city of Daikoku, the technological centre of an emerging half-virtual world, created after the introduction of internet-connected augmented reality eyeglasses.
It isn’t merely the age of its protagonists that gives Denno Coil its fresh perspective compared to Lain, however, it’s also the decade between when the two were written—DC’s understanding of how networked technology has become so interwoven with our daily lives means that it often succeeds where Lain tried but failed. One of my strongest beliefs is that good science fiction always makes social commentary on the time in which it was written, and it is here that Denno Coil excels, presenting a world where children are more in touch with technology than their parents, are obsessed with video games and Pokemon style fads, and where peer pressure and owning the latest gadgets can become almost disturbingly important. Truly a classic series that exudes subtlety and elegance, and not to be missed.
Mononoke (2007) – 12 episodes
In 2006 Toei released their eleven episode series Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales, an anthology of three separate stories based on traditional Japanese myths, written and produced by three separate teams. The show was only a moderate success until the third and final story about a mysterious traveling medicine seller caught the fans’ imagination, largely due to its unique visual style, which mimics traditional Ukiyo-e art. A year later Toei expanded the character into his series, and the breathtaking Mononoke was born.
Given a larger budget and 13 episodes to work within, director Kenji Nakamura was able to push his vision to the limit. The result was one of the most stylish, visually compelling series to emerge from Japan in decades. His use of traditional colours animated over an exaggerated textured paper effect, sprinkled with frenetic action and psychedelic sequences, all held together by a masterful eye for framing and direction makes every single second of Mononoke a mesmerising joy to behold. But again, it’s not just a case of style over substance; Mononoke combines sinister plot lines and minimal, subtle sound effects to create a truly chilling, creepy horror story experience, and an anime series that genuinely feels like no other.
So, what have I missed out? Gundam? Flag? Macross? Think I’ve completely missed the point here, and I should be trying to convert non-anime fans by subjecting them to 12 hours of Lucky Star? Hit the comments below and tell me what a fool I am. Go on, it’ll be therapeutic. For both of us.
When he’s not writing about anime Tim Maughan writes science fiction — his critically acclaimed book Paintwork is out now.