I have been watching anime for years. To be honest, I haven’t even scratched the surface of it because the world of anime is vast. My fascination with the field is primarily of love but there is an academic interest to it as well. So while I have many more to delve into, these 20 are my two bit in that direction.
No 20: DEVILMAN Crybaby
Akira Fudo and his friend Ryo Asuka are trying to face off a race of demons who want to eliminate humans. Ryo’s solution to the problem? Turn Akira into a demon. The transformation becomes key to the deconstruction of what is human.
Devilman Crybaby is not an easy series to like. The psychedelic animation, gratuitous violence, explicit sexuality might be a little overwhelming. But if you can get past that, it is an incredibly powerful commentary on violence and humanity.
No 19: Forest of Piano
Kai grew up in the red light district of the town. Playing on the abandoned piano in the forest becomes his escape from a world that is prejudiced against him for the bare details of his background. When young pianist Shuhei ends up in the forest on a school dare, he meets Kai. Their friendship introduces Kai to Ajino sensei who wants to train him to play better.
Music animes happen to be one of my favourite genres. Forest of Piano is wonderful because it is not just about some divine talent in playing an instrument but how the world of classical music decides who can and cannot play music publicly. The series’ ability into entering the politics and pressures of the world of classical music, its demands on the artistes is deftly handled.
No 18: Fruits Basket (2019)
The Sohma family suffers from the zodiac curse – when touched by a member of the opposite sex, who is not a fellow zodiac, they transform into the animal. Tohru Honda, a plucky girl trying to make her way in the world after her mother’s death, ends up as Shigeru Sohma’s housekeeper. The role gives her a roof over her head and financial independence. So begins her close interaction with the Sohma family and their strange curse.
While the transformations sound comic at best and inconvenient at worst, the series is actually a lot darker in that it explores abuse, absentee parents, abandonment and trauma. It may seem like there are far too many bad parents in the Sohma clan, but it actually makes sense because being a zodiac animal brings prestige to the individual family so there is tacit approval of the abuse meted out to them.
No 17: Kyo Kara Maoh
Yuri Shibuya is an idealistic, conscientious high schooler who steps in when he sees his classmate being bullied. The bullies annoyed by his preachy attitude, leave the classmate and frogmarch Yuri into the nearest bathroom to flush his head as punishment. Being flushed in a toilet bowl however becomes Yuri’s least problem when the water opens a portal into an alternate world. In this world, Yuri is proclaimed the next Demon King.
Kyo Kara Maoh is a brilliantly funny isekai (another world) anime that combines with the reverse harem concept in that there are really good looking men in it. Yuri’s lack of knowledge about the world’s customs leads to some wacky situations like his engagement and duel with the previous ruler’s son. It is also an adventure series, in that there is a reason why the two worlds are connected and why Yuri had to be brought here.
No 16: Psycho-Pass
Clearly inspired by Minority Report and similar futuristic narratives, Psycho-Pass is set in a world where the Sibyl System measures the psycho-pass of its citizens. The rating decides your education, your career and more importantly your criminality index. Akane Tsunemori is a rookie inspector who has an ideal psycho-pass measure. When she and her team come across a criminal mastermind who cannot be judged by the Sibyl System, they are forced into dangerous moral territory by the situations he creates. This flaw in the system throws up a question, who or what is Sibyl?
An intense series, Psycho-Pass can be a little too much to stomach in that it is rather violent. The world that the characters inhabit is seemingly perfect but one wonders how much of free will is surrendered to create such a space.
No 15: Nodame Cantabile
Shinichi Chiaki is a gifted pianist who wants to train as an orchestra conductor. To do this, he needs to relocate to Europe to learn under his mentor Viera among others. But he has phobia against flying and the ocean. Stuck, and in a particularly low point in his life, he gets drunk and passes out. Only to wake up in a garbage dump, that is actually his next door neighbour’s living room. While scandalised by Megumi Noda’s general untidiness and eccentricities, he is irresistibly drawn to her captivating cantabile style of piano playing.
The viewers are introduced to the narrative through the straight-laced Chiaki and his reaction to Nodame as well as the other strange characters like his new mentor Stresemann. It is one of my favourite romantic comedies with the most unlikely slob-like female lead. The animation does seem a little repetitive at times but the accuracy of the finger movement while playing instruments is laudable.
No 14: Steins; Gate (2011)
Steins; Gate is about an oddball group that run a ‘future gadgets’ lab. They design a microwave phone capable of sending “d-mails” – messages across time that alter events. Masquerading as a comic series, Steins; Gate hurtles forward, transforming into a slick thriller on time travel. With its eccentric cast, including a self-proclaimed mad scientist, it puts forward probably one of the most plausible explanations regarding time lines. I love it for how it stumps you at every turn.
No 13: Assassination Classroom
An overpowered alien has destroyed 70% of the moon. He has claimed that he will destroy Earth in a year’s time. He however, has an offer – he will teach class E students of Kunugigaoka Junior High School and they are free to try to assassinate him. So begins Assassination Classroom with Koro-sensei teaching the students regular Junior High subjects as well as the finer points of assassination.
When I watched it, it emerged as one of my favourite animes. You may wonder as I did if Junior High students should really be exposed to something so harsh, but in the course of the series you realise that they are already accustomed to it. They live in a world that judges them on their grades; cementing their status in society on something so arbitrary. It is deeply critical of the education system, asking poignant questions on what a teacher should actually do and by extension, society.
No 12: Run with the Wind
Based on the novel by Shion Miura, Run with the Wind has been adapted into a manga, live-action and an anime. Kakeru, a first year Kansei University student, is chased after shoplifting from a convenience store. Haiji, a senior saves him while marvelling at his running style. He invites him to join the Chikusei-so dormitory – a cheap university housing facility; incidentally also the track and field team’s official dormitory. With Kakeru joining, there are exactly ten members. This allows Haiji to put into motion his long-term dream of running the Hakone-Ekiden.
A sports anime unlike any other, it focuses on long-distance running as an individual and as a team. The question that echoes throughout the series is Haiji’s to Kakeru – Do you like running?
No 11: Banana Fish
Banana Fish is a moving series with action elements. Since the story is set in America each episode is named after a prominent American text. Vividly constructed with tight pacing, it draws you into a heartbreaking world. A child growing up unprotected, groomed as a sex slave, grows up to be the well-respected gang leader Ash Lynx. He wants to take down his ‘master’ Golzine and protect the people who matter to him, be it his men who follow him or friends like Eiji Okumura who might get caught in the conflict. He also wants to find out about the mysterious drug ‘Banana Fish’ corrupting the streets and impacting the lives of the people around him.
Banana Fish straddles two different demographics – shoujo (girls) and shonen (boys). It has BL (Boy Love) themes and yet does not fall into the usual BL rape fantasies trap.
No 10: One-Punch Man
Saitama is a ‘hero for fun’. After he saves a child from a monster, he decides to train as a hero. He loses his hair in the process but his rather unremarkable training regimen awakens his talent and he is now the most powerful hero in the world. Since he can defeat anyone with one punch, there is no one to challenge him so he slips into depression. Along the way, he gets a disciple and through him meets a host of new characters.
One-Punch Man is an improbable yet relatable superhero series. Saitama’s existential despair mirrors our own feelings and more importantly his cardboard -like personality is such a refreshing change from the staple of larger-than-life hero figures. The unpredictability of the story and the characters actions make it genuinely fun.
No 9: Paradise Kiss
Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss follows the serendipitous meeting between Yukari, a high-schooler at a prestigious school and the students of Yazagaku fashion school who are looking for a model for their annual show. The students run an atelier to promote their brand Paradise Kiss or ParaKiss. Torn between the parental pressure to excel academically and her fascination with these passionate students she yearns to find herself. Her tempestuous relationship with the enigmatic Joji ‘George’ Koizumi, the main designer of ParaKiss is a catalyst.
Paradise Kiss was my first josei (adult woman) series and in 12 episodes it took me through an emotional roller-coaster. NANA is probably Ai Yazawa’s most famous work but the manga has been on hiatus for years (stuck at an unbearable cliff-hanger) so I won’t push you to start that. But, if you like mature themes, compelling stories and gorgeous fashion, you may find Ai Yazawa’s works your thing (as someone who has binge-read everything – I vouch!). Her art style is one of my favourites. Since she’s a fashion design student, you can understand why she takes great effort with the sartorial choices of her characters.
No 8: Bungo Stray Dogs
Atsushi Nakajima, on finding out that he has supernatural abilities, is recruited by Osamu Dazai into the “Armed Detective Agency” to handle cases beyond the abilities of the police and the military. They have many clashes with the Port Mafia, a sketchy organisation controlling the underbelly of the alternate Yokohama that the series is set in. Bungo Stray Dogs’s style is reminiscent of the 20s but it is actually a modern narrative.
The most fascinating thing about Bungo Stray Dogs is the characters themselves. Each character is named after a famous author and their power is based on a quality represented within that very writer’s work. The scale gets grander in season 2 when American ‘authors’ join the plot as new antagonists. It is a book lover’s dream plotline.
No 7: Demon Slayer
Tanjiro returns from a trip into town to find his family slaughtered in a demon attack and his only living sibling Nezuko turned into a demon. So begins Tanjiro’s journey to avenge his family and find a way to turn his sister human.
Demon Slayer has stunning animation with a 3D-like feel. The characters are stunningly drawn; it almost feels like they’ll leap out of the screen. The story has great pacing with its competent handling of humour and pathos.
No 6: Hunter x Hunter (2011)
Getting a Hunter license gives a person access to almost any space in the world. The economic benefits and the free reign to your desires to ‘hunt’ anything mean that one is even granted immunity for murderous actions. While the apparent amorality might raise a few eyebrows, the unpredictability of the story despite using classic shonen tropes is what makes it fun. Gon Freecss wants to be a hunter because his father Ging put parental affection aside to pursue hunting. It is not anger at the abandonment that prompts Gon to become a Hunter but the fact that hunting must be truly exciting for Ging to leave him behind.
If you’ve watched Yu Yu Hakusho, by the same mangaka, you may recognise patterns here but also notice how Hunter x Hunter is such a level up in friendships and queer depictions.
No 5: Haikyu!!
Karasuno High Volleyball team or the Crows, was a once great team that went to the nationals. Its then member, nicknamed the ‘Little Giant’, is a huge role model for Hinata who is short as well but passionately in love with volleyball. When he joins Karasuno as a high schooler, he finds Kageyama, his middle school volleyball rival, his new teammate. The Karasuno team isn’t really that strong but they want to be and work hard to make the crows fly again.
Sports animes frequently have unlikely premises, over the top abilities that self-parody the genre but Haikyu!! is different in that they truly are an underdog team. There are no miraculous implausible wins it is just blood, sweat and tears. With an adept portrayal of athletic spirit, desire and an accurate psychological profiling of sportsmen – their fears and inadequacies, Haikyu!! succeeds in showing a different sports anime.
No 4: Kaguya-sama: Love is War
The student council president Miyuki Shirogane and vice president Kaguya Shinomiya are in love with each other. For their relationship to go to the next level, a confession needs to happen. But neither of them wants to, because to confess means to lose, so they each use different stratagems to get the other to confess.
A parody on the romance genre, Kaguya-sama: Love is War is put together like a game show – who will win the game by forcing a confession out of the other? Wickedly funny, it mocks the bizarre games of flirting and courtship that have been played out for centuries.
No 3: Violet Evergarden
Violet is an orphan who in living as a child soldier and being treated as a weapon, is out of touch with emotions – her own and everyone else. Unable to find her senior officer Major Bougainvillea, she is taken in by former Lt Col Hodgins to work in his postal company. Working as an Auto Memory Doll – women who write letters on behalf of others, she slowly learns to communicate emotions.
Violet Evergarden brings back the soulfulness of letter writing. An anime about healing from trauma, we join Violet on her journey as she meets people from different walks of life, helping them, her and us by extension, in understanding the importance of words in conveying heart and humanity.
No 2: A Place Further than the Universe
The premise of four high school students going to Antarctica might be implausible but A Place Further Than The Universe takes great pains to make it as realistic as possible. Well-researched, it authentically portrays life on a ship and on the coldest continent.
The four girls are each grappling with their personal trials, but forging ahead together to make the dream of one of the girls a reality, gives all of them a chance at growth. It is a beautiful slice of life and coming of age anime.
No 1: Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood
Devastated by the death of their mother Trisha, Edward and Alphonse Elric, attempt a forbidden alchemy technique – human transmutation. The price? Edward loses a leg and Alphonse, his entire body. Edward sacrifices his arm to bind his brother’s soul to a suit of armour, and so begins the boys’ journey to find a Philosopher’s Stone and get their bodies back.
They encounter many people on their search, including coming face to face with human ‘sin’. On the way, they uncover a sinister plot that could jeopardise the country’s fate. The anime manages to weave humour into a heavy narrative about war, genocide, bloodshed, loss, with Machiavellian figures who desire power and immortality at the cost of others. The rounded character building is a huge plus for me because it gives an intimate perspective even on characters that discomfort a viewer.
Unlike the 2003 version which differs from the manga after a point, this follows the plotline faithfully. I would suggest that both versions should be watched because Brotherhood rushes through the segments already covered in the 2003 anime.
Ouran Koukou Host Club: High school boys who start a host club to give the girls a chance at playing romance. It is a parody on the romance genre, especially the reverse harem type. It frequently breaks the fourth wall.
Given: Mafuyu has been ‘given’ a guitar. It holds bittersweet memories. His meeting with Ritsuka opens up a world of music for him A BL music anime about a band.
Food Wars: Set in a world where students training to be chefs are expected to fight with the taste of their food if they want to sit at the top of the culinary world. With sexually explicit imagery it parodies the impact of food on a person.
Yuri On Ice: Ice skating BL anime about a skater at a low point in his career being coached by his idol.
Cardcaptor Sakura: A magic girl anime about an elementary school girl who needs to capture the magic cards that have been released from the Clow Book.
Shirobako: An anime about a group of girls who ran an anime club in school and as adults want to make an anime.
Prince of Tennis: The young tennis prodigy Ryoma Echizen joins his father’s alma mater hoping to become better so that he can finally beat his dad at the game.
Welcome to the Ballroom: Tatara finds motivation in his life when a chance encounter with ballroom dancing opens his heart.
A Corpse Buried Under Sakurako’s Feet: A high schooler who ends up in odd situations while working with an osteologist whose fascination with bones leads them into mysteries.
Orange: Naho receives a letter from her future self telling her to prevent something regretful from happening. It deals with issues like self-harm.
Gosick: Set in a fictional European country in an alternate 1920s, a young Japanese transfer student gets acquainted with a strange girl who solves improbable mysteries. A Sherlock Holmes’ inspired series.
Kuroko no Basket: A basketball team trying to make it to the nationals by using an unexpected player.
The Seven Deadly Sins: A princess who wants to save her kingdom from a coup goes in search of seven banished knights. Funny and a little problematic at times, at heart the series is a romance.
Yu Yu Hakusho: An occult martial arts anime about a young delinquent whose altruistic decision to put himself in the way of harm to save a young child’s life gives him a second chance, by becoming a spirit detective.
Irregular at Magic High School: Two mysterious siblings making their way in a world where magic is weaponised.
Welcome to Demon School! Iruma-kun: After being sold by his parents to the demon Sullivan, the kind-hearted Iruma is officially adopted as his grandson. He must now hide his human identity and survive in demon school.
Scum’s Wish: Two students who get into a physical relationship with each other because they cannot be with the ones they want.
Yowamushi Pedal: Sakamichi is an anime-loving nerd who is the unlikely recruit of the school cycle club. Picked for his climbing abilities, the reason he is so good is that he wants to travel fast enough to Akihabara to give free rein to his anime desires.