So, Labor Day has passed. And you know what that means: it’s time for fall TV! Before you start your new shows and catch up on the movies you missed this summer, I have some nerdy ideas for your consideration from the land of the rising sun — some of the most iconic animated productions of all time.
I present to you my top five anime recommendations for those new to the medium.
Honorable Mention: Princess Mononoke (1997)
Hayao Miyazaki is one of the foremost filmmakers of our time. While many claim Spirited Away (more on that later) as his magnum opus, Princess Mononoke was one of my personal favorites. Ashitaka, a tribal prince, is in a race against time when a demon he kills curses him. The curse grants him superhuman strength but also poisons his body. The ensuing journey for the cure introduces him to an interesting cast of characters that are now staples of Miyazaki’s films.
The spirituality, historical fantasy, and kick-ass tag-team of Ashitaka and San, a girl raised by wolves, Princess Mononoke is a fascinating ride and one of the most engaging animated films I’ve seen in my 27 years.
5) My Hero Academia (2016-Present)
In a world where the vast majority of humanity has superpowers (dubbed “Quirks”), Izuku “Deku” Midoriya was born without any powers at all. Notwithstanding, he dreams of entering the prestigious UA Academy to be trained as a Pro Hero. While he is ridiculed for this dream, his fate is forever changed after a chance encounter with the world’s top hero, All Might. And that’s just the pilot!
My Hero Academia (MHA) is one of the biggest series on the planet right now. Based on the manga of the same name, MHA is easily accessible to anyone who is a fan of superhero media. Even more: it is one of the best pieces of superhero media currently available. Its devotion to world-building, character development, and cinematic fight sequences make MHA a highly recommended anime. If you’re a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the X-Men franchise, or any other superhero film, you’ll love this series.
4) Spirited Away (2001)
Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is widely regarded as one of the best films of the century. Ten-year-old Chihiro Ogino gets stuck in a predicament when she and her parents enter an abandoned amusement park. There, she meets a boy named Haku and is taken on a spiritual journey to rescue her family and her own soul.
Miyazaki’s knack for engaging storytelling won him an Academy Award. Spirited Away cemented the legacy of the Japanese filmmaker in the West, further exposing his films, and the genre, to millions of new fans. The demons, apparitions, and other spirits in this film make it worthwhile and intriguing even to this day. If you like films like Anastasia, The Haunted Mansion, or just want a trip through the spirit world, give this one a try!
3) Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Before it became Scarlett Johansson’s biggest nightmare, Ghost in the Shell (GITS) was an iconic anime film. Set in a distant future with cybernetic police detectives, GITS had it all: cyberpunk, electronic music, and an engaging plot. It probably didn’t hurt that the main character, Major Motoko Kusanagi, had a kick-ass introduction sequence.
GITS has been a successful franchise, spawning multiple television series, video games, and more since the release of its debut film. Its themes of morality, responsible use of power, and the philosophical questions of consciousness and existence complement the world and the action extremely well. If you’ve ever liked films like A.I., Ex Machina, or I, Robot, you will want to give this a try!
2) Akira (1988)
What do you get when you mix a post-apocalyptic setting with cyberpunk elements and a telekinetic antagonist? No, not an Ang Lee film. You get Akira. In the wake of a destroyed Tokyo, Shōtarō Kaneda and Tetsuo Shima ride through the streets of Neo Tokyo in 2019 (yes, I know!). After an accident, Tetsuo seems to awaken latent psychic abilities and, predictably, attracts government attention. What ensues next is an emotional & cinematic roller coaster and some dope action sequences.
Like Spirited Away, Akira is one of the most influential films of the medium. It’s so important, it inspired the Hype Williams-directed “Stronger” music video for Kanye West. It is considered one of the films to spark a boom in Western interest, granting the opportunity for series like Dragon Ball to become popular outside of Japan. It’s also inspired many similarly themed series and films, including several on this list. In fact, it inspired my top choice.
1) Cowboy Bebop (1998–99)
Before there was Firefly, there was Cowboy Bebop. Helmed by director Shinichirō Watanabe, Bebop follows the bounty hunting crew of the titular spaceship in a future where humanity expands throughout the solar system and the rest of the universe. The series features stunning cinematography, a dedicated voice cast, and a killer jazz soundtrack — including “Tank”, one of the greatest anime theme songs of all time.
Bebop has many influences, such as westerns, sci-fi, and film noir. You’re just as likely to catch Bruce Lee references as you are to find homages to James Bond. Its episodic structure allows you to be entertained by its action, comedy, and drama as it weaves through its storylines. This series is also relatively short: it’s only 26 episodes through to completion. I’d recommend watching it before Netflix releases its live-action version, though. You never know how that will pan out.
I hope you take the time to try out some of the films and series I’ve suggested. While it is by no means an exhaustive list, I believe it is a safe, introductory sample of the medium.