For as long as I’ve been able to view it, anime has had an important role in my life. I remember waking up early in elementary school, eating cereal right out of the box, nothing but the blue glow of the TV and Sci-fi channel’s broadcast of Ronin Warriors to keep me company. As cable channels grew and anime became more ubiquitous in its influences on Western audiences, so did its role in my life.
I would come home and watch Toonami, on Cartoon Network after school with my friends, and shows like Dragon Ball Z and Mobile Suit Gundam gave small but insidious insights into a country none of us had ever visited, and couldn’t begin to understand. We would stay up late on weekends to watch Adult Swim, troll the anime section of the now-defunct Blockbuster Video, and use whatever corners of the internet we could to get more.
Flash-forward a few years, and I’m living in Japan for the second time. Even though my understanding of Japanese culture has broadened considerably, anime was the small, pivotal first step, and I’m still crazy about it. The butterfly effect that it has had over the course of my life is a long, winding road that I could spend the entire word count recollecting. So instead, let’s get nerdy.
Without further ado, here are my top five favorites, in a variety of genres and no particular order.
5. Mobile Suit Gundam Wing
- Episodes: 49
- Aired: April 1995 – March 1996
I’ve watched more entries of the prolific Mobile Suit Gundam series than even I’m comfortable admitting, and Gundam Wing is still my absolute favorite. For those that don’t know, the show helped define the mecha genre. It takes place in a future where space has been colonized by humans, and the space colonies live under the yoke of a strong, centralized Earth-based government, the United Earth Sphere Alliance. The colonies enact a clandestine operation for independence by sending five gifted, young pilots to spark a revolution.
This show has stayed relevant to me throughout the years for a lot of reasons. The characters are unique, and even though they’re technically teenagers, watching them grow through the decisions they make, often at the expense of lives on both sides, really adds a lot of gravitas to the show. I’m also a huge fan of the moral ambiguity of the conflict taking place, both politically and militarily, with both sides appearing at times heroic and villainous. The world of Gundam Wing may be colorfully animated, but it is defined by shades of gray and measured by the tally of lives lost.
And obviously the epic mech fights, taking place on Earth and in space. There are plenty of episodes to get invested, and there is an excellently animated follow-up film that offers a lot of fan service with updated models of the mechs we’ve grown to love, and a nice wrap up to the plot. Don’t take my word for it. If you’ve been hiding under a rock and somehow haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out.
4. Ouran High School Host Club
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: April 2006 – September 2006
Although not normally in my wheelhouse, I have my girlfriend to thank for introducing me to Ouran High School Host Club, and boy am I glad she did. The story takes place at the prestigious high school, Ouran Academy, and follows Haruhi Fujioka, a scholarship student who becomes a de-facto, indentured member of the school’s strangest extracurricular activity after an expensive, vase-shattering accident.
This show works on a lot of levels, and really rewards multiple viewings. From the endearing opening theme “Sakura Kiss,” to its bizarre but always earnest cast of host club members, the over-the-top freeze frames that candidly and hilariously break the fourth wall by summarizing the goings-on of the characters, each episode had me hooked from start to finish.
Under its saccharinely slick art style and popping color palette, the show addresses a lot of important social issues, such as gender identity and sexuality, privilege versus economic awareness, and what it means to truly embrace one’s self-identity. As smart as it is entertaining, it’s a show I would recommend everyone check out, whether or not you’re a fan of the genre. Like me, you might be pleasantly surprised.
- Episodes: 74
- Aired: April 2004 – September 2005
Monster is a show that definitely lives up to its namesake. A show as insidiously addictive as its characters are inscrutably horrifying, it has plenty to offer fans of horror, psychological thriller, and anime alike.
Dr. Tenma is a Japanese brain surgeon working in Germany who seems to have it all; professional talent that has led him to the top of his field and garnered the favor of the big wigs at the hospital he works at, as well as the love of his boss’s daughter. All that changes after a horrifying accident results in Tenma having to make a choice between saving the lives of innocent twins, Johan and Anna, or the mayor of Dusseldorf. Following his compassionate instincts costs Tenma more than he could ever reckon, and sets into motion a series of events that lead him into the underbellies of society.
This show is masterfully crafted, from its art and sound direction, its haunting opening and ending themes, its emotionally resonant voice acting. Moreover, it’s a testament to what the medium of anime has to offer. In my opinion, not only is nothing lost in its translation from the pages of manga to anime, but the source material is actually improved upon.
This is a show that asks a lot of hard questions, and proves that the road to hell can be paved with the best intentions. Is stopping a monster worth becoming one yourself? Check it out, and decide for yourself.
2. Rurouni Kenshin / Samurai X
- Episodes: 95
- Aired: January 1996 – September 1998
I want to preface this recommendation with full disclosure: as much as I love anime, manga, video games, and Japan’s other cultural exports, the thing that has most keenly resonated with me is Japanese history. It was one of my two majors in college, and it’s something that I’d love to leverage into an academic career in the future. It’s a big part of my desire to increase my competency of the Japanese language, and a big part of why I’m living in Japan today. All that is to say that, for me, Rurouni Kenshin is a show that simply cannot be missed.
In the early stages of the Meiji Restoration, following the bloody end of the Edo period known as the bakumatsu, Himura Kenshin wanders a lonely rode away from his past as a murderous assassin, offering protection to those in need in an attempt to atone for a lifetime of bloodshed. He protects a martial artist named Kaoru, and as repayment is offered lodging at her dojo. There, he encounters friends and enemies, old and new, and learns that his past isn’t as easy to forget or outrun.
The heroes and villains of the show are as memorable as Kenshin himself, and the plot is wonderfully winding and intense. But for me, more than any other show, this captures an incredibly interesting, tumultuous time in Japanese history. Effortlessly illustrating the myriad changes taking place politically, socially and economically, the show is a crash course in and of itself. Like Japan, Kenshin seeks to enter the future but is unable to leave the past behind.
1. Cowboy Bebop
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: April 1998 – April 1999
Cowboy Bebop changed the way I think about anime. It shattered the limitations I thought were inherent in the genre, bending and blending aspects from several, especially in terms of non-linear storytelling. Watching it was like seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time, and it proved that things don’t need to happen in a straight line, don’t need to be wrapped up in a pretty little bow, and don’t need to have happy endings.
The show follows Spike Spiegel, a former hitman turned “cowboy” in a future in which mankind has colonized most of space, and established a contract-based bounty hunting force to supplement the Inter Solar Space Police. Partnered with his former officer friend, Jet Black, the pair scour the galaxy for big scores and pick up a few more members of their rag tag bounty hunting outfit.
This show is alternately daffy, intense, hilarious, and action-packed. The episodes are often themed after different genres of music, and are accompanied by an unforgettable soundtrack, spearheaded by the insanely catchy show-opener, “Tank.” Although the episodes occur in a non-linear fashion, there are very poignant character moments that make the viewer really grow attached to the series’ protagonists. It also hosts some of the most memorable villains I’ve ever seen, be it the one offs featured in the “case-of-the-week” style episodes, or the menacing Vicious, who casts a pall over the entire series.
I don’t know why it would be the case, but if any of you reading this haven’t seen it, put your computer down and start watching. Well…finish this article, and then pick up Cowboy Bebop. You can thank me later. I can’t tell you enough how much this show matters to me
Well, that’s five. I could keep going, and I could spend time raving over my honorable mentions, and seeking sympathy for how hard it was to trim it down to only five series of a genre that is so prolific, so widespread, whose subject matters are so broad that the task of choosing only five seemed Herculean, but… you all already know my pain.
What do you think of my selections? Are there any shows that you think I should check out, knowing my top five? Sound off in the comments below, and let me know.