Anime 401: The Advanced Course

Your graduate course in anime.

Now that you've had some experience with anime, perhaps it's time you got some exposure to the top of the line -- the most sophisticated, the most difficult, the most challenging, but also the most rewarding and creative shows anime has yet produced. Some of these are definitely not easy viewing, and some draw strongly on Japanese history or culture for their plotting, conceits or overall flavor. But in every case, there's absolutely nothing else out there like them.

All shows are listed in alphabetical order, and all lengths are in episodes.

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Akira. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: Science Fiction / Horror / Action.

Concept: Tokyo was devastated by a mysterious explosion decades ago. It's since been rebuilt but is succumbing once again to all its worst vices. Deep in its concrete corridors, a gang of teenage bikers come face-to-face with a power that transforms one of them into a god -- and leaves his friends at the mercy of a military coup who have no idea what they've just unleashed.

Length: 125 minutes

Appeal: "Spectacular" doesn't begin, to sum up, this ambitious attempt to compress Katsuhiro Otomo's groundbreaking manga into an animated feature film. $11 million was spent on the production, and it shows: the film sports some of the most dazzling animation of any feature film, and still outshines many such productions released since.

Difficulty: Unfortunately, other adjectives like "pretentious" and "muddled" are thrown around about Akira as well. Its story is complex enough that one viewing alone may not help you nail everything down, and its characters are largely cold, opportunistic or brutally unsympathetic -- a complement for the bleak world it depicts if nothing else.

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Baccano!. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: Drama / Crime / Action / Fantasy.

Concept: In Prohibition-era New York, a cadre of thieves, gangsters, grifters, molls, and other underworld types converge and cross paths. But it's not bathtub hooch they're swilling down -- it's an immortality elixir, and some of these folks have been knocking around town for a long, long time.

Length: 16

Appeal: If you watched HBO's Boardwalk Empire or Ken Burns's Prohibition documentary and jazzed on the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the U.S. in the 1930s, this one's an easy choice. It uses the period as a starting point for a far larger and more complex story, with several loosely intertwined gangs (literal and metaphorical) of characters passing in and out of each others' lives.

Difficulty: The tough part here isn't the period or even the more outlandish fantasy elements that are woven in -- it's the way the story's told deliberately out of order, flashing back and forth through time and providing us with some inkling of how disorienting it can be to live forever.

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Basilisk. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: Samurai / Action / Drama

Concept: After the Tokugawa Shogunate unified Japan under a single banner in the 1600s, two enemy ninja clans -- the Kouga and the Iga -- are set against each other to see who among them will survive under the new throne. Unfortunately, their respective leaders are on the verge of sealing a peace treaty between their respective kinds ... and they are also in love.

Length: 26

Appeal: It's Romeo and Juliet with ninjas. Well, truthfully, Basilisk has a lot more going for it than that, but at its core is the same story of doomed, star-crossed love -- one echoed across generations and between bloodlines. The human core of the story is the best thing about it, one carried over (and amplified) from the Futaro Yamada novel, a perennial best-seller in Japan, that inspired it.

Difficulty: Not for the squeamish. It's a good thing this story has such a strong emotional component, because of its violence. Not just action-movie violence, either, but gore, torture and sadism (albeit entirely in-character and motivated) that may turn many a strong stomach.

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Ergo Proxy

Ergo Proxy - Photo Courtesy of Geneon
Ergo Proxy - Photo Courtesy of Geneon. Courtesy and © Geneon Entertainment

Genre: Science Fiction / Mystery / Action

Concept: After a worldwide environmental collapse, mankind has retreated into the safety of a giant domed arcology where everything is (theoretically) under control. Then a digital virus called "Cogito" begins running amok, forcing detective Re-l Mayer and her android sidekick to find out what's really going on -- and to uncover many unsavory truths about their concrete-and-steel womb of a civilization.

Length: 26

Appeal: Those of you hungering for complex, conceptually-rich and thoughtful science fiction in anime should start here. It has much of the flavor of classic dystopian SF but with many cutting-edge ingredients -- not least of all, lush visuals that hearken back to Syd Mead's designs for Blade Runner. And Re-l Mayer is one of a small but distinguished list of anime heroines with brains, brawn and a sensitive side to boot.

Difficulty: As with Akira, "complex" can sometimes shade over into "convoluted", or just plain "contrived." This isn't easy viewing, and the show more or less throws you into the thick of things from the get-go with no hand-holding.

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Excel Saga

Excel Saga. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: Comedy / Surrealism

Concept: Lord Ilpalazzo is a man of modest ambitions: all he wants to do is conquer the world to make it a better place. For now, he'll have to start with F City in Japan -- especially since his entire staff for world conquest consists of the all-too-enthusiastic Excel E. Excel, her sickly sidekick Hyatt, a dog that's been reserved for emergency food use only, and a hapless cadre of neighbors who have no idea just how bonkers Excel and her group really are.

Length: 26

Appeal: Come to think of it, "bonkers" is a great word to describe Excel Saga on the whole. There is barely one sane character in it, barely a single situation played straight, and barely a moment when you're not boggling at the depths the staff will descend to for a laugh. It makes Robot Chicken look downright staid in comparison.

Difficulty: How's your tolerance for non-sequitur humor? Or shows that seem to be doing the channel-surfing for you? (Every episode of Excel Saga employs a different genre.) Or on-screen anarchy, to the point where the camera could be held upside down and it would scarcely make any difference? Or a blizzard of in-jokes and cross-references that even some of the most experienced viewers might miss? There's a reason the original manga's English translation had pages and pages of tinily-typed footnotes, and the anime's about as dense. In more senses of the term than one.

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FLCL. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: Comedy / Science Fiction / Surrealism / Slice-of-life.

Concept: Schoolkid Naota's small-town blues are upended when a Vespa-riding alien girl named Haruko rockets into his life. It isn't until after she starts causing robots to hatch from his forehead by pounding on it with her bass guitar that things begin to get really strange ... and strangely heartfelt.

Length: 6

Appeal: Aside from being roaringly funny and loaded with visual strangeness, this one-of-a-kind production also works as -- get this -- a touching allegory for the awkwardness of adolescence. Some of the symbolism is blatant (how about a giant horn-like projection popping out of Naota's forehead?), but there's also a great deal of closely-observed human behavior and sweet scenes that wouldn't seem out of place in American films like Stand By Me.

Difficulty: The quintessential "anime fan's anime," FLCL poses many obstacles for novice viewers. Aside from the sheer strangeness of the story, it's also crammed to the gills with the kind of visual oddity anime bristles with, and which are simply fired at the viewer with no warning. (Example: A major dramatic scene is interrupted by a cutaway ... to the "actors" for the characters lounging in their trailer. It's never referred to again. And that's one of the less confounding things that happens.)

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(The Melancholy of) Haruhi Suzumiya

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya S2. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: Comedy / Sci-fi / Surrealism / Slice-of-life.

Concept: High-school student Kyon's life is set on its ear when his classmate Haruhi crashes headlong into his little world. Haruhi's not interested in "ordinary humans," but rather wants to set up a club for finding aliens, time travelers, or people with psychic powers. Is she just too batty and enthusiastic for her own good, or are there really aliens, time travelers and even crazier things beyond that among us?

Length: 28 (over two seasons)

Appeal: Based on a best-selling novel series (now translated into English), the Haruhi saga ought to appear in the dictionary as the illustration for the word "quirky." Its oddball cast of characters -- especially the headstrong, bossy, don't-tell-me-what-to-do Haruhi -- and genuinely unpredictable storyline have made it an ongoing fan favorite ever since its original release.

Difficulty: The hard part about Haruhi is how "quirky" can seem just plain odd to the uninitiated. Many of the jokes and much of the tone of the humor are best received by existing anime fans. Start with this show as one of your first anime outings and you're likely to be more baffled than enthralled.

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Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: Mecha / Science Fiction / Drama

Concept: With half the world in ruins and billions dead, mankind is teetering on the edge of extinction after the arrival of the alien "Angels." Now the Angels have returned, and the only hope for mankind's survival may lie with the young, emotionally immature Shinji Ikari. He, along with a few other children, have been selected to pilot the weapons that are the only things that stand between the Angels and oblivion. But there's a great deal more he hasn't been told, and what he learns will have catastrophic consequences for the future of the human race.

Length: 26

Appeal: There are many good reasons this series has lionized generations of anime fans since its debut in 1995. It broke new ground for experimental content in mainstream anime -- its final episodes have been likened to 2001: a space odyssey in form and content -- and deals with nothing less than the end of the world in a novel and striking way. It also has a good deal of humor and quirky characterization, the likes of which have been a model for other anime ever since. And the action sequences are eye-popping stuff.

Difficulty: For "experimental" and "challenging," some people might be tempted to substitute "incomprehensible" or "incoherent." Nobody gave points to Evangelion for being easy to follow -- and they certainly didn't give it points for its main character being likable or sympathetic since Shinji is one of the anime's most notorious depressives.

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Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings

Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings © CAPCOM / TEAM BASARA. Licensed by FUNimation® Productions, Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Image courtesy Pricegrabber.

Genre: War / Action / Samurai / Drama

Concept: Based loosely (very loosely) on Japan's​ Sengoku period, when multiple warlords all vied for control of Japan. Most prominent are the icy Date Masamune and the hot-blooded Sanada Yukimura, each determined to one-up the other in battle even when they end up on the same side against the "Devil King" Oda Nobunaga.

Length: 26 (over two seasons).

Appeal: Imagine the Japanese equivalent of Hitler and Stalin duking it out with lightsabers while flying around in X-wings, and you've sorta got the appeal of Sengoku Basara. It may draw on Japanese history for its ideas, but it is not for one single solitary second remotely faithful to any of it -- it just uses all that as a launchpad for some of the wildest, most stylish, most outlandish samurai warfare ever put on a screen. What's not to like about a show where the warrior's horses sport oversized exhaust pipes? And under it all, there's a real story with solid characterization which is easier to get swept up in than you might think.

Difficulty: Since it's drawn directly from Japanese history, it's easy to assume you'll get that much more out of it if you know the conflicts in question. This helps, but it's not vital -- and the story explains enough as it goes along (and departs far enough from accepted historical fact) that having that background on your own is a bonus and not a requirement. That and some of the truly insane visual tropes may take some getting used to.

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xxxHOLiC. Image courtesy PriceGrabber

Genre: Drama / Fantasy / Mystery

Concept: Kimihiro Watanuki has either a special ability or an affliction, depending on how you look at it. To him, it's an affliction: he not only sees spirits and monsters that most people never see but attracts them to him like a lamp draws flies. He wants none of it and soon finds himself in the thrall of the mysterious Yuko, a witch who runs a shop where wishes can be granted for a price. Usually a drastic one.

Length: 26 (with other seasons not licensed).

Appeal: "Be careful what you wish for, because you may get it" is one of the major underlying themes of xxxHOLiC (pronounced simply "-holic"). So is "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dream'd up in your philosophy." When Watanuki isn't witnessing how the various customers to Yuko's shop have their wishes fulfilled in the worst possible way, he's encountering various denizens of the spirit realm and the worlds beyond, and coming up either nonplussed or dazzled. It's part Twilight Zone (or Night Gallery), part uncensored Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, and part existential mystery -- one where Watanuki may be alternately the victim and the instigator.

Difficulty: It isn't just the extended forays into Japanese mythology or high culture that may make xxxHOLiC a bumpy ride. It's also the downright oddball character designs, strange even by anime's standards -- although those are part of an overall visual design that exudes exoticism and mystery.