Top 20 Essential Anime

Cowboy Bebop. Net Sama/Flickr

Here's a list of anime — both shows and movies — that make up the "core curriculum" for an anime watcher. Some are newer than others, some long-running while others only lasted a few episodes ... but all are crucial in some way, and all are a terrific viewing experience.

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Adapted by Katsuhiro Otomo from his manga of the same name, this is one of the landmark works of anime. It isn’t family viewing, though: it’s a violent vision of a future Tokyo threatened with annihilation when godlike power is placed in the hands of a biker-gang teen. Restored for DVD and now Blu-ray, it’s even more visually impressive in this CGI-driven era, thanks to it being one of the last great hand-drawn animated features.

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Cowboy Bebop

It’s not “space opera,” but “space jazz,” as one of the show’s title cards tell us. Freelance bounty hunters Spike and Jet Black do their best to keep their cool while all manner of trouble falls into their laps, from femme fatales to the darkest parts of their own pasts. A classic that deserves to be rediscovered by each successive generation of fans, not just because it refuses to fit neatly in any one genre (although it’s nominally SF), but because it’s loaded with great characters and is rollicking fun the whole way.

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), loaded with martial-arts action and its own custom ninja mythology, and sports characters that gain remarkable depth and substance over time.

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Ghost in the Shell

In a wired-up world that’s not all that far into our own future, agent Motoko Kusanagi—a human brain in a cyborg body—fights crime with the help of her hacker and ex-mercenary buddies in government agency “Section 9”. This franchise spans multiple incarnations, all spun out from Masamune Shirow’s manga in markedly different ways. Best of the bunch is Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, a two-season TV series (with a concluding feature-film-length special, Solid State Society). Think of it as John le Carré meets Michael Crichton: it’s intelligent, adult science fiction, the kind rarely seen in either live-action or animation.

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Neon Genesis Evangelion

What starts as a fairly straightforward “kid pilots giant robot to save the world” story mutates by degrees into something far more ominous and complex, includes a good deal of religious and psychological symbolism, and concludes with a head trip on the order of 2001. Anime fans have sworn by—and sworn at—this hugely influential and controversial series ever since it first appeared in 1995. Its first half is a lot more viewer-friendly, but once it really gets going the impact is remarkable. A “reboot” version of the show, designed to be more accessible to non-fans (and therefore the best place to start), is now being released domestically under the name Rebuild of Evangelion.

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The Slayers

A swords-and-sorcery fantasy spread out over multiple series but played for broad laughs instead of Lord of the Rings seriousness. Absurdly powerful mage Lina Inverse leads her ragtag gang of adventurer friends through one over-the-top conflict after another, although more often than not they end up being their own worst enemies. The English-language version may be even funnier than the original Japanese audio, so that makes it all the more watchable for newcomers.

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One Piece

Imagine an animated version of what goes on in kid’s heads when they play Pirates Vs. Ninjas. One Piece uses that as a starting point for its epic story (over three hundred episodes and still going!) about Monkey D. Luffy, the kid pirate with a magical rubber body. The details of the show’s outlandish fantasy world are fun, but the main story is in the way bonds of friendship and devotion are forged between Luffy and his shipmates. The ​manga makes for equally compulsive reading.

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Fullmetal Alchemist

Brothers Edward and Alphonse Eric were both crippled when they attempted an alchemical ritual to bring their dead mother back to life. They join the State Military as alchemists in its service in the hopes that they can find a way to restore their bodies, but discover far greater dangers await them than they could imagine. A nifty fusion of alternate history, steam-punk fantasy action and the occasional bit of broad comedy, the original

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

, which more closely follows the story of the original manga and is probably the best place to start.

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Death Note

Brilliant young law student Raito ("Light") Yagami stumbles across the “Death Note”, an artifact that gives him the power to kill anyone whose name and face he knows. When he uses it to begin a worldwide purge of evil, he attracts the attention of another young genius, the reclusive eccentric known only as L. The two slug it out in a chess game of wits, using the whole of humanity as the pieces. “Twisted” describes both the plot and the characters, adapted faithfully from the source manga, and the suspense remains solid all the way through to the climax.

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Fruits Basket

When orphaned teenaged girl Tohru Honda camps out on the property of the Sohma family, they’re reluctant to take her in lest they discover the clan’s secret: they turn into one of the animals of the Chinese zodiac when embraced by the opposite sex. But take her in they do, and soon all of their lives are changed. Nominally filed under romantic comedy, as was its source manga, Furuba (as abbreviated by its fans) works on more than one level to be both funny and touching.

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Samurai Champloo

In 18th century Japan, two lone swordsmen—mad-dog Mugen and cool-as-ice Jin—end up in the thrall of ditzy teahouse waitress Fuu, who leads them cross-country on a quest for “a samurai who smells of sunflowers.” A rollicking, hilarious and deliberately anachronistic fusion of tropes from East and West, this mash-up of samurai-movie conventions and hip-hop attitude is highly rewarding in the long run, much more than just an exercise in style(s).

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Spirited Away

Chihiro, a glum young girl who doesn't want to move to a new neighborhood, falls Alice in Wonderland-style into a world populated by gods and spirits, and must then summon courage she doesn’t know she has in order to prevail. A movie bursting at the seams with wonder and imagination, and which has a much appeal for adults as younger viewers. Director Hayao Miyazaki has been described (not all that incorrectly) as Japan’s Walt Disney, and this is only one of many movies from his catalog (e.g., Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) that are as brilliant if not more so.

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Teenaged Ichigo Kurosaki just landed a new job: cleansing the world of renegade evil spirits named “Hollows”. Now he has to defend his real-life family and friends, along with a host of new comrades from the underworld. Another long-running smash-hit series in both Japan and elsewhere, both in its TV and manga forms, it cross-breeds supernatural-action and samurai-warfare tropes. Its intended audience is teens, but many adult fans also get a kick out of it, and its giant cast of allies and villains alike make it compulsively watchable.

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Rurouni Kenshin

Kenshin is a samurai who's taken a vow to never kill again. Easier said than done, especially after he crosses paths with beleaguered kendo instructor Kaoru Kamiya, her impossibly stubborn student Yahiko, and the devil-may-care street brawler Sanosuke. The best part of the show is the cast — both good guys and bad are wonderfully depicted — and it jumps seamlessly from comedy to drama to full-bore tragedy without losing its footing.

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Super Dimension Fortress Macross / Robotech

Anime doesn't get much more essential than this. After a massive alien spacecraft crash-lands on Earth, a team of pilots and engineers refit it for space travel -- only to come up against its original owners. With its sprawling, operatic storyline and engaging gallery of characters, it's not just a lesson in anime roots but a terrific show by any other name. The U.S. version (retitled Robotech) and the original Japanese edition (Macross) are now both available.

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Mobile Suit Gundam

One of Japan's most durable franchises, the many shows in the Gundam multiverse all revolve around the same basic ideas: warriors entrusted with giant shapeshifting robots, either defending the Earth or attempting to overrun it. Gundam Wing and Gundam SEED are two of the most popular shows from the franchise -- easy to get into, highly entertaining, and loaded with strongly-written characters.

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Dragon Ball / Dragonball Z

No other show in anime history lives up to the cliché term "action-packed" more completely than the Dragonball franchise. The premise of the original series was inspired by the Chinese classic Journey to the West; the successor (Z) has a more science-fiction action flavor to it. The whole vocabulary of shonen action tropes (e.g., power-ups) was more or less coined with this show, and a dizzying array of spinoffs and side stories have also been brought to market.

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When schoolgirl Kagome plunges into Japan's past, her fate's intertwined with a half-demon seeking the shards of a crystal that could cause untold destruction. A long-running series (167 episodes plus a 26-episode concluding season!), it's been praised for its absorbing storyline but also condemned for the way it repeats itself in its latter half. Series creator Rumiko Takahashi is also responsible for Ranma 1/2, another classic show that's better known by older fans.

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Tenchi Muyo!

Masaki Tenchi mistakenly liberates a demon from his family's shrine -- except this demon's actually a fugitive alien criminal, and soon everyone from intergalactic cops to mad scientists to potential suitors are dropping in. A mixture of harem-style romance, fantasy, SF, slapstick -- just about every genre imaginable, actually, which makes it accessible for almost any kind of viewer. Several spinoff shows (Tenchi in Tokyo, GXP, etc.) were also released, but the original is still the best place to start.

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Sailor Moon

Klutzy, unscholastic Usagi Tsukino habors a great secret: she's actually the crime-fighting, magic-power-wielding Sailor Moon. It's the ultimate "magical girl" show, one of the few that aired on daytime broadcast TV in English-speaking territories and kicked the door open for anime in the West during the Nineties. Unfortunately, the series is currently out of print in the U.S. and may not be relicensed for some time to come; check NetFlix or a local anime club for copies.