Best Historical Anime Series to Broaden Your Mind

These Anime Series are Educational for Young and Old Viewers

Part of anime's magic is how enthusiastically it explores the past as well as the present and the future. Here's a selection of anime that delve into other times and places, and bring back a great deal for your enjoyment. If you're looking for an anime series to help expose your children to certain topics, this list is for you.

01
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Baccano!

Baccano!
Baccano!.

Time and place: New York, the Roaring Twenties.

Gangsters, bootleg hooch that’s actually an elixir of immortality, massacres, hijackings, past, present, future—Baccano! takes all of its ingredients, slices them lengthwise and crosswise, and mixes them into a non-linear stew of storytelling, perspective, atmosphere and invention. Its multiple intersecting plotlines and out-of-order plotting bring to mind the new wave of live-action American cable TV dramas—The Wire, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire—but it’s always unmistakably its own creation.

Time and place: Victorian-era London.

Young Ciel Phantomhive, the scion of a family with a lucrative toymaking business, has a secret: his butler is, in fact, a demon sworn to protect his master by any means necessary. The reasons for this diabolical pact—and the consequences it brings—form the backbone for this mix of gothic horror and lowbrow comedy. Despite the wealth of period details, don’t expect too much in the way of period accuracy—one of the antagonists wields a chainsaw, and there are references to “the movie of someone’s life” (a technology which was still at best in its extreme infancy).

The Black Butler anime was recently adapted into a live action Japanese movie and proved to be a bit of a financial success in Japan.

Time and place: Japan, during the Vietnam war.

Saya looks like a teenaged girl, but she’s actually a decades-old monster hunting vampire sent by her American military controllers to investigate a series of violent disturbances in a school on a U.S. Army base in Japan.

Despite being only fifty minutes long, this film does a great job of assaulting the senses and depicting an obscure part of Japan that most Americans rarely know about, let alone see. Worth watching with friends who like gore.

04
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Chrono Crusade

Chrono Crusade
Chrono Crusade.

Time and place: The Roaring Twenties, New York.

If Baccano! wasn’t enough Jazz Age mayhem for you, Chrono Crusade ramps the action up to eleven and stirs in a generous dose of supernatural intrigue as well. The gun-wielding nun exorcist Sister Rosette Christopher and her demonic partner Chrono scour the tenements and speakeasy basements of 1920s New York for demonic incursions. Then the balance between the realms above and below are all thrown out of balance when Rosette’s long-lost brother Joshua turns up, and the three are sucked into a war that might be Armageddon itself.

05
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Croisee in a Foreign Labyrinth

Croisee in a Foreign Labyrinth
Croisee in a Foreign Labyrinth.

Time and place: Paris in the latter 1800s.

French traveler Oscar Claudel returns from Japan with a unique bit of treasure in tow: a Japanese girl named Yune, who works for Oscar’s grandson Claude in their ironworks shop. The plot takes a backseat to some wonderfully observed details about life in Paris at the time, about East and West discovering each other, and how the rich and poor relate to different issues.

It’s also one of the most gorgeously designed and animated shows in recent years and is worth seeing for that reason alone. The slightly sinister title seems ill-suited for a show of such great cheer and wonder. Don't let it put you off.

Time and place: Victorian-era London.

The Emma of the title is a housemaid, who finds herself the unexpected target of affection from a man far outside of her class, in a time and place when such differences could not simply be shrugged off. Adapted from Kaoru Mori’s excellent manga, the show reproduces a good deal of Mori’s research and attention to detail for the period—both of which are big draws, apart from the wonderfully-delineated romance that is the centerpiece of the series.

Time and place: Japan, 1945.

Japan’s brutal defeat during the last days of World War II is the backdrop for this adaptation of Akiyuki Nosaka’s famous semi-autobiographical novel, rendered with heartbreaking simplicity by Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli.

After the death of their mother during a firebombing, a young boy and his little sister find themselves met with callous indifference by other adults. They attempt to survive on their own, but soon find it’s not that simple, and their lives grow increasingly desperate. The minute details of their moment in time—especially the firebombing itself, depicted in horrific detail—make this realistic in a way wholly distinct from a live-action film.

08
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Le Chevalier d'Eon

Le Chevalier dEon
Le Chevalier dEon.

Time and place: Paris, 1753.

After a woman named Lia de Beaumont is found dead under mysterious circumstances, her younger brother D’Eon takes it upon himself to find out what happened and dives deep into a great number of mysteries that are rooted in the upheavals of that time and place. Based on work by Tow Ubukata (Mardock Scramble), it fairly glows with period detail, inspired both by the period itself and subsequent interpretations of it. (E.g., various characters have hairstyles inspired not by contemporaneous imagery, but by Brigitte Bardot and Brad Pitt!)

09
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The Mysterious Cities of Gold

The Mysterious Cities of Gold
The Mysterious Cities of Gold.

Time and place: The New World, in the 1500s.

Orphan Esteban joins a Spanish expedition to find the Seven Cities of Gold in the Americas, where they find no end of mystery and wonder (and some new playmates for Esteban as well). This lively series, aimed at younger viewers, is actually a French-Japanese co-production, with France supplying the story by way of Scott O’Dell’s young-adult historical novel The King’s Fifth, and Japanese company Studio Pierrot (Naruto, Bleach, YuYu Hakusho, ) supplying the animation.

10
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Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water
Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water.

Time and place: A great many locations, some vague analog of the late 19th century.

Evangelion director Hideaki Anno and Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki joined forces for this adventure. Think Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea crossbred with a world-spanning adventure that mixes in many different anime-adventure conceits.

Young inventor Jean crosses paths with the circus girl Nadia, who find themselves pursued by the likes of the egomaniacal, posturing jewel thief Grandis Granva (she’s more comic relief than an actual antagonist). The kids eventually take refuge with Captain Nemo in his ultra-advanced submarine, but Nemo’s not interested in merely exploring the benthic deep. He’s out to stop the Neo-Atlantean forces from taking over the world—by way of the strange pendant Nadia carries with her at all times.

A movie spinoff (entitled Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water: The Motion Picture) was made but bears only the most tenuous connection to the original story.

11
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Steamboy

Steamboy
Steamboy.

Time and place: Victorian-era Europe.

If this wasn't the movie they were thinking of when the term steampunk was coined, it might as well have been. Half Victorian period piece and half science-fiction action spectacle, this was Katsuhiro Otomo's return to the big screen years after Akira. The two movies couldn't be more dissimilar in tone: Steamboy is a lark and a romp, about a young man whose grandfather has developed a steam-powered gizmo which everyone wants, and which he uses in one action set-piece after another. The lavishly-observed period details are fun, like the trashing of the Great Exhibition in London, but the fact that this is an action spectacle first and foremost is never in doubt.

12
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Zipang

Zipang
Zipang.

Time and place: Japan, both the present day and 1942.

On its maiden voyage, Japan’s newest destroyer, the JDS Mirai, disappears into a timeslip and is thrown back to the beginning of World War II. The crew’s predicament is plain: should they try to alter the course of history, knowing full well it might leave them nowhere to return home to, or should they stay on the sidelines and watch as millions die? It’s essentially a Japanese retake on the cult time-travel film The Final Countdown, as well as another Japanese movie of the same basic premise: Sengoku Jietai (aka Time Slip or G.I. Samurai), but it’s also used to take a close (albeit somewhat sanitized) look at the details of how Japan fought its war in the Pacific theater.