Anime has been around for over 100 years and, as an artform, has matured and expanded into a wide variety of genres, each with their own established styles and story tropes. Some anime are groundbreaking titles that spawn their own imitators while others try to perfect or put a new spin on old ideas. In this list, we're highlighting anime that go beyond what is common, be it in art direction, writing, subject manner, or otherwise; anime that push the envelope of the medium and get away with it with flying colors!
10. Poputepipikku (Pop Team Epic)
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: Jan. 2018 – Currently Airing
Absurdist comedy Pop Team Epic consists of a series of skits and short stories centered around two high school girls: the hot-tempered Popuko and the more mellow, albeit equally unpredictable, Pipimi. Based on the incredibly popular 4-koma manga series by bkub Ookawa, Pop Team Epic dives deep into references and parodies of internet and popular culture along with its own brand of over-the-top antics.
Each episode features a variety of segments, all done by different teams, often with extremely contrasting styles and approaches. Individual episodes may feature traditional-looking 2D, the grotesque, intentionally poorly-drawn and animated style of the recurring “Bob Epic Team”, 3D-animated sections in French, live-action sequences, stop-motion felt doll music videos, pixel art video game parodies, etc. Furthermore, the show also completely repeats itself each episode with a different set of voice actors and slightly different jokes. A living meme, Pop Team Epic succeeds in being entirely unpredictable; very much its own thing, even in a genre that's full of the absurd.
- Episodes: 1 (Movie)
- Aired: Aug. 14, 2009
A race with no rules, no limits, and absolutely no guarantee of safety! Every five years the Redline race is held, challenging drivers from all over the universe to compete in a no-holds-barred, quite illegal battle for speed supremacy! Hot-headed, big-haired newcomer JP is one such driver hoping to make it to the finish line, and with it, a name for himself. With a troubled past and stiff competition from the other racers (including fellow human rival Sonoshee McLaren), not to mention dangerous interference from the criminal underworld and the violent, militaristic government of Roboworld (where the race is being held), JP has his work cut out for him in this explosive, adrenaline-fueled sprint to the finish.
Redline demands inclusion in many anime discussions and top ten lists on pure technical craft alone. The film features some of the most intricate and detailed animation ever seen before, a testament to the work of the talented folks at studio Madhouse who completed it after a full seven years in production. Director Takeshi Koike's unique Frank Miller-inspired art style emphasizing use of deep black shadows and outlines and James Shimoji's impressive electronic soundtrack make Redline an action-packed sci-fi experience that should not be missed!
8. Made in Abyss
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: Jul. 2017 – Sep. 2017
On a certain remote island there exists a monstrous hole known as The Abyss, a multi-layered pit full of bizarre creatures, ancient relics from long-lost civilizations, and a deadly curse that bring madness and death to those that venture downward. Explorers known as divers make their living raiding The Abyss for glory and treasures but none have ever reached its deepest depths and returned alive. Made in Abyss follows plucky 12-year old Riko daughter of “White Whistle” diver Lyza the Annihilator who disappeared during a dive many years ago. Living in an orphanage and only a low-level “Red Whistle” herself, Riko's life is changed when she finds the amnesiac robot Regu (named by her) who saves her from an encounter with a giant flying snake-like creature. Convinced that traveling to the bottom of the Abyss will hold answers for both Riko and Regu, the two escape the orphanage with some help from their friends Nat and Siggy, and begin their descent.
A recent standout title, Made in Abyss has fantastic world building and design from the architectural features of the town of Orth, built around the maw of the Abyss, to the strange, alien-like creatures and otherworldly environments of the Abyss itself; like the harsh, aptly-named “Inverted Forest” or the mist-filled jungle where pools of water collect in giant discs known as “The Goblet of Giants”. Top that off with a gripping, intense plot that tackles some heavy subjects, engaging characters, often Ghibli-like high-budget background art, and a stellar soundtrack, and Made in Abyss pushes modern anime to new heights (depths?)
7. Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya)
- Episodes: 28
- Aired: Apr. 2006 – July 2006, May 2009 – Sep. 2009
The world centers on the titular Haruhi Suzumiya, a high school student who openly introduces herself as having distaste for the ordinary and instead chases after the supernatural, be it aliens, time travelers, or psychics. With a hyper-competitive, spontaneous, and unrelenting attitude, she leads the somewhat cynical everyman Kyon, quiet bookworm Yuki Nagato, childish and timid Mikuru Asahina, and polite transfer student, Itsuki Koizumi, as the chief of her newly-formed club: the SOS Brigade (aka Saving The World by Overloading it with Fun Haruhi Suzumiya Brigade). In their various quests to encounter and have fun with the supernatural, almost entirely for Haruhi’s entertainment, they soon find out that the most mysterious things around might be the club members themselves.
As one of the most popular and seminal shows of its time, Haruhi is a name known by anyone familiar enough with anime to have contemplated making a Naruto AMV back Its unique approach to the supernatural within a high school comedy framing, iconic dances, musical moments, costumes, and memorable characters makes The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya a hallmark of the medium. It also stands out in how it plays with the viewer's perception of time, with it notably being intentionally broadcast out of chronological order and the infamous “Endless 8” episodes which largely repeat the same events over and over again; a boldly innovative, albeit somewhat infuriating move that puts the viewer in the shoes of the characters. Long live Haruhiism!
6. Mahou Shoujo Madoka★Magica (Puella Magi Madoka Magica)
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: Jan. 2011 – Apr. 2011
Madoka Kaname, an eighth grader of Mitakihara middle school, and her friend Sayaka Miki were living ordinary lives until they met Kyuubey, a mystical cat-like being who promises them a wish of their choice if they join the fight against monsters called witches as magical girls. However, it turns out this agreement isn't all sparkles and friendship, as transfer student Homura Akemi warns them. More magical girls appear, Mami Tomoe and Kyoko Sakura, and things quickly take a dark turn as they all begin to discover more about what it means to be a magical girl.
Madoka Magica, like Akiyuki Shinbo's earlier work, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, is a departure from the typical magical girl format with more mature themes. Madoka Magica takes things even further and is most accurately described as a deconstruction of the genre with a decidedly dismal tinge. With wild, imaginative visuals from studio SHAFT, Faustian literary allusions, a strong soundtrack, and a thrilling plot full of surprises, Madoka Magica earns it well-known reputation as one of the most compelling anime, magical girl or otherwise.
5. JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken (JoJo's Bizarre Adventure)
- Episodes: 26 (113 in full main series so far)
- Aired: Oct. 2012 – Apr. 2013
In 19th century England, Jonathan Joestar (aka JoJo) is living a happy, aristocratic life with his dog, Danny, and widower father, George in the family's countryside mansion. That is, until Dio shows up! Mistakenly believing that Dio's alcoholic, abusive father, Dario Brando, had saved his life in the same carriage accident that killed Jonathan's mother, George adopts Dio into the Joestar household after the death of Dario. Intensely jealous of the Joestars and ambitious to a fault, Dio begins his quest to break Jonathan's spirit with a series of increasingly cruel acts in effort to become the heir to their name and fortune. Without giving too much away, supernatural elements soon enter into the feud between the adopted brothers and escalate into one of the most bizarre series of adventures a Jojo has ever been on! The full story spans many generations with the next story centering around Jonathan's grandson, Joseph Joestar (aka JoJo), in New York City in the late 1930's and onward towards the modern era.
Based on Hirohiko Araki's monumental manga, which has been ongoing since 1987, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure continues to change and innovate in style, structure, and characters in each part. The anime has currently covered parts 1-4 out of the 8 parts of the story so far, with this first season covering Part 1: Phantom Blood and Part 2: Battle Tendency.
Rife with iconic WRYYYYYs (and other catchphrases), amazing visual design with an air of high fashion, manly poses, and some of the strangest, and often oddly specific powers/abilities, settings, and characters ever, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure stands proud as one of the most interesting and unusual series of all time. Its anime adaptation by David Production is fantastic with some highlights being the extravagantly well-done and symbolic animated openings, superb soundtrack that features both original music and an eclectic mix of Western rock and pop music, and its amazing use of otherworldly colors to highlight dramatic moments that has become a hallmark of the series. There's nothing quite like it, watch JoJo!
4. NHK ni Youkoso! (Welcome to the N.H.K.)
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: Jul. 2006 – Dec. 2006
An anxiety ridden college dropout, twenty-two-year-old Satou Tatsuhiro has barely left his one-room apartment in nearly four years. A hikikomori (someone who isolates themselves from society and rarely leaves their home) and NEET (Not currently engaged in Employment, Education, or Training), Satou believes his situation has been orchestrated by a secret conspiratorial organization called the Nihon Hikikomori Kyokai (or N.H.K.) and barely scrapes by with financial support from his parents. The minimal human interaction he experiences is mostly with his eroge-obsessed, otaku neighbor, Kaoru Yamazaki, and Misaki Nakahara, a mysterious girl who has decided to try and rehabilitate Satou from his self-destructive lifestyle as her personal project. Welcome to the N.H.K. chronicles Satou's struggle to overcome his mental illness and societal status with many failures, strange encounters, and even a little humor along the way.
Like the Tatsuhiko Takimoto novel it is based on, what makes Welcome to the N.H.K. stand out most is the subject matter that it deals with: hikikomori, paranoia, conspiracy theories, obsession, depression, cults, bullying, lolicon, multi-level marketing, and more. With occasional use of comedy and surrealism, Welcome to the N.H.K. is an intense, serious, and largely realistic exploration of real-world issues rarely touched upon in anime. Especially for those that might have had similar experiences, Satou's mindset, pitfalls, and triumphs are quite relatable and human and make Welcome to the N.H.K. a thought-provoking anime that goes far beyond the usual.
- Episodes: 15
- Aired: Jul. 2009 – Jun. 2010
Bakemonogatari (literally Ghost Story) follows high school senior Koyomi Araragi, who is left with unnatural regenerative powers and enhanced vision after an encounter with a vampire. While cured of vampirism by the strange Meme Oshino, Koyomi soon finds out that his encounters with the supernatural are far from over when he catches classmate Hitagi Senjougahara after she falls from the stairs and discovers she is nearly weightless. This begins a series of meetings where Koyomi tries to figure out and solve the unusual problems of various girls possessed by malicious spirits, each associated with a different animal.
Though harem anime with supernatural elements abound, few are as unique as this one. Based on the hit Monogatari light novel series by NisiOisiN, Bakemonogatari (and its sequels) is punctuated by its style of writing with an emphasis on character dialogue that employs heavy use of metaphor, wordplay, and parody of both the genre and other works. While sometimes comedic, Bakemonogatari largely focuses on the mystery and drama between its characters and world with occasional bouts of action and over-the-top fanservice. Other major draws of this anime are the avant-garde cinematography and art direction provided by Akiyuki Shinbo and studio SHAFT, an all-star voice acting cast featuring Yui Horie, Kana Hanazawa, Hiroshi Kamiya and more, and a standout soundtrack accentuated by the wide variety of opening animations that correspond to each 3-4 episode story arc. A ghost story like no other, Bakemonogatari defies expectations as one of the cleverest anime within the genre.
2. Ping Pong The Animation
- Episodes: 11
- Aired: Apr. 2014 – Jun. 2014
The bespectacled, ironically named Makoto "Smile" Tsukimoto and his enthusiastic friend Yutaka "Peco" Hoshino are members of the Katase High table tennis club and have been playing since childhood. Peco is rambunctious and passionate about the sport, hoping to become world champion, while Smile, despite his nickname, is much more reserved, described as robotic, and mostly plays as a way to work through his personal problems without care for winning. Ping Pong is a coming-of-age story that follows their lives on and off the court, through tournaments, self-discovery, and maturation. Stiff competition from rivals like Wenge "China" Kong, an international star who comes to Japan after being kicked off his home team in China, and pragmatic local hero Ryuuichi "Dragon" Kazama, who overwhelms his opponents with his giant size and raw power, keep them on their toes and challenge both Smile, Peko, and the viewer to think about the meaning of success.
While ostensibly about table tennis, Ping Pong is a deep exploration of character and philosophy that uses the sport as a way for each character to express their own ideals and feelings. That is not to say that it doesn't touch on the different strategies and specifics of table tennis, in fact, it goes into both very smoothly without impeding the plot whatsoever; but rather, it uses this to give the viewer more insight into the characters themselves; all of which are well developed, interesting, and memorable. Ping Pong does an exceptionally brilliant job with its finale that wraps up the story of not only Smile and Peco, but all the of minor characters as well and in an incredibly natural way. With Masaaki Yuasa's superb direction and a signature style brought to life by Tatsunoko Production, paired with a fitting, extensive soundtrack and strong voice acting, the hero appears! Ping Pong The Animation is a modern triumph that both seriously portrays the sometimes harsh reality of high-level sports and goes far and beyond in its examination of personal ideas of success and meaning; a groundbreaking effort that sets a new standard for sports anime.
- Episodes: 6
- Aired: Apr. 2000 – Mar. 2001
“Nothing amazing happens here. Everything is ordinary.” a repeated saying of twelve-year-old Naota Nandaba who finds nothing exciting about his suburban existence in Mabase, especially after his older brother Tasuku, whom he idolizes, moves away to play baseball in America. However, Naota is about to experience some radical changes, physical and otherwise, after mysterious, psychopathic Vespa-rider Haruko Haruhara crashes into him with her scooter and then proceeds to bash him on the head with a pull-cord motor-powered Rickenbacker bass guitar; the latter of which causes an enormous horn to sprout from Naota's forehead. Haruko soon forces her way into Naota's home under the pretense of being a housekeeper and says she's an alien, but what is she really after? Could it be connected to the looming Medical Mechanica building that dominates the city? And what even is fooly cooly? Naota quickly finds himself dragged into a conflict of immense proportions; a wild ride of superpowered robots, magical guitars, arson, space pirates, and eyebrows?!
Perhaps the quintessential weird, experimental anime, FLCL or Fooly Cooly or Furi Kuri, is an unorthodox coming-of-age story full of visual gags, creative jumps in art style, bizarro characters, and nonsensical situations infused with sexual innuendo, pop-culture parodies, and references to other works. While often moving with near light-speed madcap mania, FLCL also has many moments of calmness possessed by a sense of melancholic nostalgia and some genuinely awesome action sequences. Its phenomenal, iconic soundtrack provided by famous alternative-rock group The Pillows coupled with top-notch animation and art direction by legendary studios GAINAX and Production I.G.
make FLCL a crazy, unforgettable experience that smashes through the envelope for a home run right into left field. As Mamimi Samejima remarks, “He who conquers the left side conquers the world...”
Anime is an ever-evolving art form that continues to innovate and reinvent itself. While many anime -especially in our current era of copious production- largely play it safe, some studios and directors are willing to take risks to try to push the medium in new directions. While not always artistically successful or even popular, pioneering anime is important for creating new ways of expression and enjoyment and makes the ones that do succeed even greater.
Doubtlessly, this list is in no way exhaustive; we'd like to give some special mentions for a few anime that didn't quite make the cut:
Tekkon Kinkreet (Tekkonkinkreet): A film by American-born director Michael Arias about two orphaned brothers, Black and White, who fight mobsters, crooks, and foreign opportunists who are trying to tear down their city of Treasure Town to replace it with an amusement park. A deep, psychological action film with decidedly non-standard animation and character design.
Samurai Champloo: Another modern classic by Shinichiro Watanabe, of Cowboy Bebop and Space Dandy fame, Samurai Champloo tells the story of Mugen and Jin, two swordsmen of vastly different style and demeanor, who are rescued from execution by a girl named Fuu who enlists their help in finding a certain samurai “who smells of sunflowers”. An amazingly stylish mashup of hip-hop style, with a soundtrack provided by Nujabes, and a semi-historical Edo period setting.
Paprika: The final major work of acclaimed director Satoshi Kon before his early death in 2010, Paprika is a psychological thriller centered around the world of dreams. A new experimental medical device called the DC Mini allows users to delve into the dreams of others but when one is stolen by a madman it's up to scientist Astuko Chiba, her alter-ego Paprika, and detective Toshimi Konakawa to find the culprit jumping between dreams and reality; a concept that would hugely influence Christopher Nolan's Inception.
Agree with our assessment? Or are we missing a crucial envelope-breaker in your mind? Please let us know in the comments below!