They say television is a wasteland, and although things have improved with cable series like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, it’s no secret that America’s entertainment industry gets much of its inspiration from foreign sources. TV executives in America are risk-averse and will always back a proven money maker over an untested concept. Not so in Japan, where a burgeoning animation industry produces dozens of new quality series per year, a significant portion of which are aimed at adults. My son Lowell, who is now in college, got us hooked in Japanese animation, popularly called anime, and over the last five years we’ve watched at least 40 complete series. Below I’ve listed some of our favorites, with brief summaries for the benefit of the uninitiated.
None of the shows in our list are “kid’s” cartoons, and nothing in our list would be appropriate for young children but most would be fine for teenagers. I’ve deliberately omitted any feature-length movies, and we avoid the super-popular teen series such as Bleach or Fruits Basket. Nonetheless, most of our picks are relatively popular within anime fandom. All ten of them happen to be science fiction or fantasy, though there is quality content in every genre.
Most of these shows were derived from manga (the Japanese term for a graphic novel) though neither us have read many of those. We prefer to watch these shows (and, for that matter, all foreign films) with subtitles. After watching a few episodes with English-language dubbing, we decided that the subtitles seem to be better capture the writer’s original meanings, as well as the subtleties of Japanese culture. This glimpse into Japanese life, as well as their view of Western society, is fascinating as well as entertaining.
Here they are, listed in Letterman-style reverse order.
10. Black Butler (2008-2009) – Set in Victorian London, this show’s protagonists are the wealthy orphan Ciel Phantomhive and his guardian/butler Sebastian, who is secretly a demon in human form. My son derides this as a “teenage girl” series but nonetheless it fits our preference for the dark and quirky. The show mixes elements of horror and the supernatural with the slapstick comedy of the manor’s bumbling servants. The intense devotion of Sebastian (his favorite tag-line: “I’m one hell of a butler”) for the angry, brooding Ciel borders on creepiness. Perhaps reading the manga would clarify their relationship.
9. Steins;Gate [sic] (2011) – A sci-fi series based on a visual novel/game that was later made into a manga. It involves a group of teenagers/young adults who stumble upon an ingenious way to alter the past, by inventing a device that let them to send text messages to their previous selves. Much of the story arc revolves around the tragic death of innocent young Mayushii and her friend Okarin’s dogged determination to undo that event. With every attempt he makes, his interventions in the time line have further unintended consequences.
8. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (2006) – This seems at first like the typical “slice of life” high school comedy until we realize that the title character, a bright but domineering teenage girl, unknowingly possesses godlike powers over time and space. Upon arriving at her new school, she forms a social club called (for no particular reason) the “SOS Brigade.” Unknown to her, the other club members have been tasked by mysterious entities to keep her happy, so that she won’t accidentally destroy the universe in a fit of temper. The protagonist, the long-suffering Kyon, complains constantly but secretly enjoys his newly interesting life. He is the only member of the club without an extraordinary power of some sort. The show combines adventure, interpersonal drama and humor in a very entertaining mix . The writers make some very interesting choices with the story arc.
7. Bakemonogatari (Ghost Story) (2009) – Translated literally, the name means “monster story.” This is the first of a collection of anime series starring a high school boy named Koyomi Araragi, who was recently turned into a vampire and then “cured,” though her retains some supernatural abilities. The story line revolves around Araragi’s relationships with the many females in his life, including his two sisters, several classmates, the ghost of a middle schooler, and a blonde vampire woman who ages in reverse. All have some mysterious curse to overcome, though some of these maladies don’t come to light until the later series. It’s visually superb, very quirky, and occasionally erotic, though at times the pace bogs down under excessive dialog. The sequels (all with names ending in -gatarai) are also interesting but unfortunately the talkiness increases. This first one is definitely the best.
6. XXXHolic (2006) – Though the name represents a generic term for addiction (alcoholic, shopaholic) such obsessive behavior is not the primary focus of the show. The protagonist is Watanuki, a teenage boy who lives alone, having lost his parents. His curse is his ability to see the invisible spirits (nature spirits, not ghosts) that populate the modern world. While searching for a cure, he comes into the service of Yuko, a mysterious, sultry “witch” who helps clients with psychological problems. When not dishing out advice, Yuko lounges around the house in a kimono, drinking wine, smoking cigarettes and constantly ordering Watanuki around. The characters (which include Yuko’s familiars, two creepy “spirit” girls and a talking rabbit-like creature) have many amusing and sometimes harrowing interactions with the supernatural world of Japanese folklore.
5. Uchouten Kazoku (2013) Translated as “Eccentric Family,” this is probably the most obscure entry in our list. This show is a gem that combines comedy and tragedy in a story line that is surprisingly moving. The primary characters are the Shimogamo family, a dysfunctional clan of tanuki, or “raccoon dogs,” animals who according to Japanese folklore have the ability to shape-shift and live in human society posing as people. The show focuses on Yasaburou, the family’s third-eldest son. His father, formerly head of all the tanuki clans in Kyoto, has died tragically, having been made into hot pot and eaten by humans in a New Years’ celebration. Other magical characters include the Shimogamos’ tutor, a tengu (bird man) called Professor Akadama, and his selfish, manipulative human girlfriend Benten. The show features some interesting gender-bending as the fun-loving Yasaburou, when in human form, likes to switch between male and female identities.
4. Attack on Titan (2009) In Japanese it’s called Shingeki no Kyojin, which means “Advancing Giants,” which is far more appropriate than the English title. Set in the distant future, the last remnants of humanity live in a multi-walled city. Here they take refuge from the Titans, giant mindless humanoid monsters who roam the earth, gobbling humans whole. In the initial episode, an extra-titanic titan breaches the outer wall, allowing the monsters to pour in. The city’s military mobilizes to drive back the creatures and save the human race. The show’s heroes are three teenagers – Eren, Mikasa, and Armin – who enlist in the Survey Corps, the first line of defense against the titans. Having no heavy artillery, the humans must kill these monsters by stabbing them in the back of the neck. Each corpsman wears a harness connected to a series of tethers and pulleys, which allows them to swing from trees and rooftops and maneuver high enough to make the kill. Some anime conventions have rated it 18+ due to violence, though I feel that in its fantasy setting it’s really no worse than Lord of the Rings. Attack has spawned a booming costume business. The tan and white Survey Corps uniforms are very popular at anime conventions. Though we fans are eagerly awaiting the sequel, its release date keeps getting pushed back.
3. Psycho-Pass (2012-2013) – This is set in a futuristic dystopian Japan ruled by an all-powerful networked computer system called Sybil. The rule of law has been replaced by a police state which constantly monitors the mental health of all citizens. The “psycho-pass” is an identification document which changes color to reflect the bearer’s mental state. The show features a unit of the police agency charged with apprehending (and in extreme cases, terminating) anyone whose “psycho pass” shows mental distress exceeding the legal limits. The heroine is the rookie cop Akane Tsunemori, a strong and complex female character who, contrary to anime convention, is not overly sexified.
2. Death Note (2006-2007) – Here’s another mega-popular show that’s been a long-time favorite for conventions and cosplayers. If one disregards the supernatural premise, it’s a crime drama that pits an eccentric detective against a brilliant villain. Death Note considers the question of what happens when a good person acquires absolute power. “Light” Yagami, Japan’s top honor student, finds a mystical notebook (intentionally abandoned by a shinigami, or “death god”) that grants him the power to kill anyone he wishes. All he needs to do is write the name in the notebook along with the cause of death, while keeping the person’s face in his mind (to eliminate the issue of duplicate names.) Light begins with the goal of ridding the world of violent criminals, but at this power goes to his head, his criteria for execution grow ever less stringent. As the police close in on him, he abandons all his former principles, using the notebook to eliminate anyone who threatens to apprehend him.
1. Cowboy Be-bop (1997-1998) – The oldest show in our list is a consistent favorite with anime fans. It’s a space opera series in which the “cowboys” (bounty hunters) Spike Spiegel and Jet Black pursue interplanetary fugitives to a classic jazz soundtrack. During their travels they accumulate a crew of oddballs and misfits, including Faye, a gypsy woman who’s awakened from 50 years in cryo-sleep, Ein, a corgi fitted with electronic implants for smuggling information, and Edward, a genius-hacker kid who has made her escape from the devastated planet Earth. Be-bop endured for just one season, but it has held its fans’ attention for far longer than that.
Bonus: one we’ve barely started:
Arly’s son David recently turned us on to Paranoia Agent (2004), another dark and quirky series that we’ve only just begun watching. A pre-teen boy known as “Lil’ Slugger” skates around on Rollerblades and attacks random people with an aluminum bat. The series appears to focus not on Slugger but his victims and how the “blow to the head” changes their lives. (And no, this isn’t a Will Smith “Concussion” drama.)