We’ve all been glued to our seats in recent years, what with Attack on Titan’s last season, new successes like Jujutsu Kaisen, and the ever-updating One Piece. But anime has been around for ages now, and with content spanning decades across this (and the previous) millennium, there are some old-school shows that will forever remain must-watches. Because just as literature has Dickens and Bronte, anime has Satoshi Kon and Studio Ghibli and as such, its own classics. So here we have our updated Top 10 Classic Anime list; whether you’re a veteran or a newbie, we’re sure we have something for you to check out!
10. Versailles no Bara (The Rose of Versailles)
- Episodes: 40
- Aired: October 1979 – September 1980
Spill that tea. Literally. Drama, intrigue, romance, gender-bending, political strife; you name it, The Rose of Versailles has it. Set against the background of France in the 1700s, this classic anime puts a twist on history and gender stereotypes with Oscar François de Jarjayes, the Commander of the Royal Guard. But Oscar has a secret: she is a woman raised as a man by a father who desired a son (lé gasp).
Follow Oscar and her desires to live her life as a woman as she navigates the minefield that is the French court and its cumbersome leading lady; Marie Antoinette. In the guise of a man, no less. As political and economic tensions rise in this dramatised retelling of one of the most significant events in French history, Oscar must decide between conscience and duty as she reluctantly serves the increasingly spoiled queen. So if a good historical drama is your cup of tea, then The Rose of Versailles is definitely for you!
9. Cardcaptor Sakura (Cardcaptor Sakura)
- Episodes: 70
- Aired: April 19998 – March 2000
Next on our list is a shoujo heavy-hitter and most likely one of the most popular anime of the magic girl genre: Cardcaptor Sakura. With campy outfits and impressive fight scenes that give shounen action a run for their money, Cardcaptor Sakura is a beloved staple for fans of the genre.
The story is centred around Sakura, a ten-year-old girl who accidentally gains magical abilities after opening the Clow book. And as the title suggests, Sakura must recapture the powerful and unique Clow Cards that were released before they wreak havoc on the world. So card-capturing missions, the troubles of everyday school life, and a secret identity as a Cardcaptor, Sakura’s plate is pretty full which makes it quite an interesting watch for us!
8. Slam Dunk (Slam Dunk)
- Episodes: 101
- Aired: October 1993 – March 1996
Sports Anime. That one genre that nobody sees coming, but everybody keeps loving. From American football to Kendo, to swimming, to Kabaddi, literally, every sport has some anime repping it nowadays. Even golf. And somehow, the stakes are high every single time. For our list of classics, we chose to stick with a classic sport: basketball. And while there are n number of anime on the subject (Kuroko’s Basketball, Ahiru no Sora, Hoop Days, Buzzer Beater… Need we say more?), one of the best of this sports anime sub-genre is, without a doubt, Slam Dunk.
Meet Sakuragi Hanamichi, neither a ladies' man nor a man’s man and not even a man about town. However, the one thing he seems to have going for him is his fairly superhuman athletic ability. Watch as he follows his heart (read: and the only girl that’s been nice to him) into the world of high school basketball in one of the most impactful early anime of the sports genre. Trials, tribulations, and nothing but net await!
7. Yu Yu Hakusho (Yu Yu Hakusho: Ghost Files)
- Episodes: 112
- Aired: October 1992 – January 1995
Spirit Detective, need we say more? The next heavy hitter on our list is Yu Yu Hakusho, a legendary franchise that’s made the top of the Best Anime lists on multiple occasions. Chock-full of fantastic fight scenes and some classic comedy, it’s definitely one of the shows to check out.
When Yuusuke Urameshi makes the ultimate sacrifice to save a young child, he’s given a second shot at life. After completing a series of tasks under the guidance of a death god he may return to the world of the living. So with the help of his compatriots, made up of his ex-rival and two demons, Yuusuke sets off to put a stop to the nefarious spiritual forces at play, as a Spirit Detective himself, cause you only live twice!
- Episodes: 112
- Aired: October 1992 – January 1995
6. Shoujo Kakumei Utena (Revolutionary Girl Utena)
- Episodes: 39
- Aired: April 1997 – December 1997
A groundbreaking anime for its time, what classic anime list could be complete without Revolutionary Girl Utena? Another magic-girl shoujo, this anime takes a totally different approach from Cardcaptor Sakura. Arthouse styles, progressive themes regarding gender and queer identity, and a feminist saga, Revolutionary Girl Utena breaks away (or revolts, if you will) from everything we know about shoujo, gender, fantasy, and superheroes.
So if this is right up your alley or if you’re looking for something new, join the ambitious Utena in pursuit of her lifelong dream to be a prince (not a princess), in spite of her gender. From dressing in men's clothes to participating in duels to win a fair maiden’s hand (looking at you Rose Bride Anthy), Utena is all about breaking the status quo and embracing who you want to be. Honestly, it’s both before its time and yet somehow timeless.
5. Perfect Blue (Perfect Blue)
- Episodes: Movie
- Aired: February 1998
Satoshi Kon was a game-changer and we will fight anyone who says otherwise. Fall down the rabbit hole with this avant-garde approach to cinema and honestly we bet you’ll be checking out his entire catalogue soon enough. However, since we only have room for one Kon masterpiece on this list, we suggest whetting your appetite with the dramatic thriller Perfect Blue?
Having recently left her J-pop idol group in a bid to reinvent her image as a serious actress, Mima is dragged every which way in the taxing world of showbiz, and honestly, it’s no picnic. And if that wasn’t bad enough, CHAM! (her idol group) seems to be doing better than ever, she’s now saddled with an obsessive fan who’s turned to stalking, and there’s now an anonymous website detailing her life a little too accurately for comfort. As things become curiouser and curiouser, Mima slowly begins to feel a growing sense of unease while parts of her life (and her psyche) begin to unravel in this psychological thriller. So leave all expectations behind and get ready to lose your mind with Perfect Blue!
4. Neon Genesis Evangelion (Neon Genesis Evangelion)
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: October 1995 – March 1996
Mecha Anime. The genre itself is OTT. Robotics, cybernetics, and skyscraper-sized fight suits, we all understand the epic-ness of Power Rangers, or at the very least, Transformers. Now imagine if either of those had a compelling storyline, with a painful backstory, heart-breaking tragedy, a thrilling complex plot, and real character growth, all the while keeping the really cool giant robots. Pretty awesome right? And that brings us to the zenith of mecha anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion.
When Shinji Ikari is found to be the only compatible pilot for Evangelion Unit-01, he must put aside his past trauma and rise up as part of Earth’s latest form of technological military defense against the Angels (celestial beings that are so not angelic). Definitely one of the more mature anime on our list, Neon Genesis Evangelion touches up psycho-analysis, political agendas, and religious symbolism with darker overtones, making it a deconstruction of the genre and honestly, an incredible story to witness.
3. InuYasha (InuYasha)
- Episodes: 167
- Aired: October 2000 – September 2004
No list of classic anime would be complete without a healthy dose of epic romance. And isn’t that the aptest description of Inuyasha (you know, aside from supernatural-action-shounen-comedy)? Go back in time with Kagome to the Sengoku era where she comes face to face with the half-demon, Inuyasha as they set off on their epic journey to collect the shattered shards of the Shikon jewel. Friends, foes, and feels are all to follow as this star-crossed pair tries to navigate the mysterious past (with some modern-day comforts thanks to Kagome) to hopefully avoid a terrible future.
And if you can’t get enough Inuyasha, worry not because it’s really the gift that keeps on giving, what with the continuation series Yashahime currently airing.
2. Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Kenkaku Romantan (Rurouni Kenshin)
- Episodes: 94
- Aired: January 1996 – September 1998
What kind of classic list would be complete without at least one anime about samurai? Keeping that in mind, we decided that for this list, it had been one of the oldest and best samurai anime that still slaps today: Rurouni Kenshin. Follow the reformed but still really deadly Kenshin, with his equally badass friend Kaoru, as he walks his new path to save lives rather than take them against the remerging sinister forces in the aftermath of the bloodthirsty Bakumatsu era.
Stunning sword sequences, a complex evil, and an epic journey, what’s not to like? And if this one really is right up your alley, just remember that there’s also a reboot coming soon!
1. Dragon Ball (Dragon Ball)
- Episodes: 153
- Aired: February 1986 – April 1989
Even if you were one of the few who didn’t play DBZ as a child, surely you must’ve heard the words ‘Super-Saiyan’ or at the very least, Goku and Vegeta? If not, then boy, get ready for the Big One. Yes, no.1 on our list is the one and only (or is it two, since there’s a sequel?) Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z. Follow a young (and later, grown-up) Goku and Bulma as they set off to collect the dragon balls, mysterious orbs with legendary power, first before the forces of evil that would seek to abuse them.
Classic comedy, OTT fight scenes, and good old shounen nostalgia, Dragon Ball is the OG of the genre, and thus a must-watch for any adventure fan.
And that’s a wrap on this edition of our list! With all the great shows out there, we were hard-pressed to pick just ten more. However, we have to admit that these ones made a huge impact on the medium and thus, must be dubbed Classics. These are the origins of how staples of modern anime have developed and since they’ve been used as blueprints, one can rest assured that the enjoyment with these is pretty much guaranteed. So whether you like historical adventures, mecha dramas, or action-packed shounen, we’re sure we’ve got something for you on our list!
So, which of these classics have you already checked out? Do you agree with our picks? Let us know in the comments below!
Top 10 Classic Anime [1980-2000]
The 80s and 90s were a huge point for anime and much of the series that inspired modern anime came out within this time period. Thanks to Mushi Production and Tatsunoko, TV anime was in full spring and ready to pounce into the mainstream with new series aimed at older audiences. It wasn’t about making a new superhero for kids to buy toys of, it was about creating experiences that even adults could get invested into.
So here are my Top 10 Classic Anime within the 80s and 90s and hopefully you’ll be familiar with some of them.
- Episodes: 82
- Aired: April 1997 - January 1999
It’s the series that propelled us into the 21st century! When your mum thinks of anime, she most likely thinks of Pokemon, recalling the adventures of Pikachu, the other one and that one that looks like a butterfly. Whilst it wasn’t nearly the first of its kind, Pokemon did an exceptional job of introducing a brand new world and sticking to its sensibilities. It wasn’t even close to a straight up adaptation, yet it managed to develop into something really fun all the way through.
As something that rose to fame as a kids show, it is massively influential as adults around the world recall the adventures of Ash Ketchum and the gang as they travel across the Pokemon World making friends and solving crimes committed by the evil, yet comical Team Rocket. It’s the series that booted up the new millennium and has continued up until this very day with Pokemon XYZ.
- Episodes: 1 (Movie)
- Aired: July 1988
Akira has been labelled a masterpiece by many critics and whilst I may not particularly agree with that, it certainly is a spectacle to watch. After an explosion destroys Tokyo and brings on World War 3, Akira starts in the aftermath in the new Neo-Tokyo. However, the power that destroyed Tokyo is not lost as Kaneda’s best friend, Tetsuo is discovered to have it. The film continues with Kaneda as he attempts to prevent Tetsuo from unleashing this power and essentially, to get his friend back.
It’s a fairly simple story when you ignore the larger science fiction context as it really is about a persisting friendship despite the grotesque creature that Tetsuo ends up becoming. There’s so many studies to be written (and many that already have been) about Akira’s thematic brilliance and it’s the sort of film that you can learn more from in each and every rewatch. And that’s something that I strongly recommend you do.
8. Sailor Moon
- Episodes: 200
- Aired: March 1992 - February 1997
I mentioned that Pokemon was hugely influential on modern day young adults but that isn’t the only one, by far. Sailor Moon is one of the biggest success stories when it came to a magical series being shown globally. Airing on Fox Kids, Cartoon Network and a whole variety of other channels worldwide, kids would wake up early in the morning just to join in on the latest adventures of the Sailor Soldiers.
Sailor Moon is regarded so highly today that it was among the three series that Toei decided to reboot, alongside Digimon Adventure and Dragon Ball Z. Whilst Sailor Moon Crystal is regarded unfavourably amongst fans, it serves as a reminder of how much the series really was loved. And don’t worry, there’s still time to love it all over again. Despite it being 20 years old, Sailor Moon holds up surprisingly well today.
- Episodes: 25
- Aired: October 1997 - March 1998
Are you having a bad day? Well, you can rest assured that it’s not nearly as bad as the day Guts would be having right now. Berserk is a dark fantasy in every definition of the word as this series adapts the famous “Golden Age Arc” that describes the rise and fall of Guts and the horrors of The Eclipse. As a manga with a huge cult audience, fans have been crying out for a full adaptation for years now. However, whilst we may not have that, we have the next best thing with this series.
It may just be the setup, but every moment of Berserk is as special as the last as we explore who this character really is and what fuelled the revenge to come. But more than anything, it’s a story about Griffith and his insane insatiable ambition to become great. It’s fantastic writing through and through with little room for fluff as every small detail leads to this astonishing climax that shocked the world of fantasy anime as a whole.
6. Project A-ko
- Episodes: 1 (Movie)
- Aired: June 1986
Project A-ko is weird to say the very very least. It’s stupid. It’s dumb. And it’s also absolutely fantastic. Give it to a modern anime fan and the jokes may just fly past you, but if you’re reading this, then it may just be the thing for you. As a parody film, it includes references to mecha, sci-fi and action anime of the 70s and 80s and doesn’t let go of them for a single second, assimilating it into the core narrative rather than including them as brief easter eggs.
During an alien invasion, “average” high schooler A-ko must work together with B-ko to save C-ko from the evil D. If there’s one thing I can say about the plot here, it’s that they’re pretty easy-going with the naming conventions. Honestly Project A-ko is a must-watch comedy film that can only really be understood by actually watching it. Well, ‘understood’ is probably a bit of an overstatement.
5. Mobile Suit Gundam 08th MS Team
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: January 1996 - July 1999
The Mobile Suit Gundam franchise is the vanguard of the mecha genre, bringing these robot battles into a political science fiction context, often investigating ideas of independence and ambition. 08th MS Team is special, though as it takes place during Universal Century 0079, concurrent to the original Mobile Suit Gundam series. It’s not about the big battle that decides the fate of the Earth Federation, but rather one of the many smaller battles at the time. And this time, it’s with guerilla warfare.
0079 is an awesome year to produce new Gundam entries in and recently Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt has been announced to also take place during this year. This is because, as the original series showed, there was so much going on in this all-out war and Earth is covered in Zeon troops fighting for their beliefs. But much like other Gundam series, the lines between friend and enemy are blurred once again. You don’t need to have seen other Gundam series to see this one, as it’s plot is fairly self-contained.
4. Outlaw Star
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: January 1998 - June 1998
The late 90s was a great time for science fiction westerns. With Cowboy Bebop, Trigun and Outlaw Star all airing around the same time, it was heaven for anime fans with some of the decade’s most acclaimed works all available. Outlaw Star follows Gene Starwind and his steadily growing group as they go from working as bodyguards to saving lives as they’re caught up in something far bigger than they imagined.
There’s something incredibly fun about Outlaw Star. Whilst it adopts a fairly simple structure, it’s the characters that really propel it into something special. It’s lovable in so many ways and it’s something that many older anime fans keep close to their hearts as a particularly special series that captures the same desires as Star Wars once did.
3. Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water
- Episodes: 39
- Aired: April 1990 - April 1991
As someone who’s not a huge fan of Evangelion, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water is the series that I consider to be Hideaki Anno’s best. Within an alternate version of 1889, Nadia and Jean must protect the blue gem that Nadia possesses from those that would use its power for evil. And as an adventure series, it offers so much as they travel around, discovering mysteries and protecting the world from the evil Neo-Atlantean forces.
It’s not nearly as well known as it should be. Nadia is the hidden gem (If you’ll excuse the pun) of Hideaki Anno’s that is often forgotten when speaking about his library. There’s so few adventure series that put a focus on naval exploration and it offers a truly engrossing experience throughout every moment. It’s phenomenal in so many ways and you need to watch it, especially if you’re an adventure fan.
2. Princess Mononoke
- Episodes: 1 (Movie)
- Aired: July 1997
I had to include a Ghibli film, didn’t I? Princess Mononoke is one of Hayao Miyazaki’s best as it shows a conflict from two sides where the only evil is ignorance. Ashitaka, a villager cursed by a demon travels to Irontown, an industrial fortress fuelled by the forests that surround it. Led by a woman who genuinely cares about her villagers, she is not a bad person, despite her place as one of the antagonists.
Despite it being at face value a film about deforestation, it delivers these simple ideas in an absolutely charming way, tapping into Japanese folk culture and showing both sides of the conflict in a fair and equal light, not going so far as to demonise either of the figureheads involved in this. And of course, it’s Ghibli so you can expect an incredible amount of charm and some phenomenal animation. Honestly, you should’ve seen this already and if not, for shame.
1. Cowboy Bebop
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: April 1998 - April 1999
What else did you expect to see here? Cowboy Bebop defines the 90s single-handedly. An episodic space western that leaps into a confident stride partway through to deliver us the very definition of “cool”. By offering a smaller focused narrative in each episode, it allows us to build on who our protagonist, Spike Spiegal really is and what can really happen in this dystopian sci-fi world. In a way, Cowboy Bebop isn’t just one show as some of these smaller stories feel like short films within themselves and have a value that is entirely separate from what we might find among most TV anime.
Cowboy Bebop isn’t groundbreaking, but it doesn’t stop it from being absolutely excellent. As more characters are brought into the fray, new dynamics play out and character direction completely changes within these stories. Each of them, with their own motives and desires sets out on their travel, hunting for criminals with bounties on their heads, which almost always leads into something far more. It’s been regarded as the best anime of all time by many outlets and honestly, I find it hard to argue with that claim.
So I hope you’ve enjoyed this look back into the past with these classic anime. Every year, the medium evolves with new styles and trends and looking back like this gives us the opportunity to see what anime once was and how far we’ve come in so many aspects. Let me know what classic shows you enjoy looking back on in the comments section below.