Anime has seen a surge into the mainstream on the international stage in the last decade, with it now much more readily available around the world. Last year’s theatrical release of the Demon Slayer: Mugen Train and this year’s Jujutsu Kaisen 0 — and more pertinently the craze surrounding the Attack on Titan TV series — are evidence of this, with their successes boding well for the medium’s global status going into the future.
As such, several of the mainstream streaming platforms, aside from anime-specific ones like Crunchyroll, have been acquiring what they can to drive fans to their services. And as jarring as the medium might be to those looking from the outside in — understandably so depending on what series you’re talking about — many of these shows provide a wide variety of genres and premises to appeal to the uninitiated.
For many new fans, Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan was their first anime, as audiences from around the world latched onto its TV anime adaptation in 2013. Attack on Titan has a European-inspired setting where a population of people live trapped inside a giant city-state, walled off from the rest of the world over the imposing threat that these monstrous, man-eating Titans roam.
Thanks to Wit Studio (seasons 1-3) and MAPPA (season 4), the series expertly blends slick animation, action, and art styles with an enticing mystery at the center of it. Likewise, the story injects an equally compelling degree of political intrigue and drama, similar to how HBO’s Game of Thrones uses it with its dark fantasy backdrop. The second part of season 4 — the last season — just wrapped up, with the studio confirming that a third will air in 2023.
Attack on Titan is available to stream up-to-date on Hulu.
As far as the classics go, Cowboy Bebop arguably ranks at the top. It’s also the rare anime that’s also an original story, with a manga adaptation only coming after. Cowboy Bebop is simultaneously stylish and profound, with the anime functioning as a western, sci-fi, and noir all at once. The series follows bounty hunters Spike, Jet, Fay, Ed, and their corgi Ein as they travel the galaxy just taking jobs to get by, as the greed of mankind had finally succeeded in making Earth near uninhabitable.
Bebop also takes its jazz atmosphere to heart, which is part of what inspires the slick character designs. Through this emotionally investing band of traumatized misfits, fans will also explore themes of loneliness, depression, and existentialism, all wrapped in a mostly-anthology-styled season spanning 26 episodes with the action of western movies.
Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist still stands for many veteran fans as one of the greatest manga and anime ever created. Brotherhood is the second anime adaptation, as the original from the early 2000s ran past the manga’s story and had to take an original route. That anime is still solid in its own right, but the 2010s reboot was critically acclaimed for its modern animation, faithfulness to the source material, and having one of the most satisfying stories in the medium from start to finish.
The story revolves around Edward and Alphonse Elric as they work as state-sanctioned combat alchemists, with the latter’s soul being bound to a suit of armor after the two tried forbidden alchemy to resurrect their mother as boys. What follows is a beautiful and, at times, heartbreaking globetrotting adventure filled with engrossing supporting characters through an inventive steampunk dark-fantasy world and impressive world-building. To this day, it’s a shonen that few others of its genre can’t measure up to.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is available to stream on Hulu and HBO Max.
Shonen manga and anime are admittedly a dime a dozen, as some fans could read or watch two separate series and feel like they experienced the same story twice. The recycling of tropes can sometimes feel egregious, and while Jujutsu Kaisen certainly uses recognizable genre conventions, it makes the best of what’s been established. Jujutsu Kaisen takes the best of series like Naruto and Bleach while cutting the fat that held them down as the writing started to overstay its welcome, and it also throws in a dash of Tokyo Ghoul-like horror for good measure.
Its premise is modern-day Japan, where sorcerers study and are trained to battle Curses — demonic entities manifested by the negative emotions of humans. Following protagonist Yuji with Megumi, Nobara, and Gojo is a Naruto-like group, though, the result when combining all of these elements is a refreshingly bold, slick-looking anime with a consistently likable and substantive cast of characters from main to supporting. The aforementioned Jujutsu Kaisen 0 prequel movie makes it as convenient a time as ever, with either it or the series being great starting points.
Jujutsu Kaisen is available to stream on HBO Max.
The seinen genre series that target older audiences don’t get a lot of the limelight, but Makoto Yukimura’s Viking epic Vinland Saga made a respectable mark on the medium in 2019. Former Attack on Titan animators Wit Studio did an excellent job at bringing Yukimura’s work to life in a picturesque fashion, bolstered by a deeply personal story of revenge, being blinded by such vengeful ambitions, and a fascinating degree of self-reflection across the main cast of characters.
It might be good timing with Robert Eggers’ The Northman releasing this month, since Vinland Saga‘s story is similar (at the start), as young Thorfinn Karlsefni’s life is consumed by hateful vengeance when his reformed father is murdered. The series explores a varied cast of characters with ambiguous moral alignments, their motives, and their respective inner turmoils with an interesting political-drama backdrop.
Vinland Saga is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video, with a second season on the way.
From creator/director Shinichiro Watanabe — of Cowboy Bebop fame — comes another acclaimed one-season series in the form of Samurai Champloo. Where the former was a sci-fi western, the latter takes place during the Edo period of Japan and revolves around two ronin named Mugen and Jin as they become intertwined with each other and Fuu’s journey. Like with Bebop, the series is mostly episodically structured, with certain episodes culminating in Champloo‘s greater plot.
Watanabe created this series as a tightly-focused character study of the main trio similar to his prior anime and also dives into insightful explorations of themes — like carving out one’s identity, acceptance of death, and sensitive social issues surrounding marginalized minorities — through the lens of a stylish historical-fiction setting. Samurai Champloo adopts modern hip-hop as the basis for the series’ atmosphere and tone, making it a worthy follow-up to his work on Bebop.
Samurai Champloo is available to stream on Hulu.
It’s the most overlooked anime here, but this original story — once again by the talented Wit Studio — is a worthwhile work that deserves more recognition. Great Pretender is particularly good for new anime fans given its two seasons (at least so far) are about as long as Bebop or Champloo.
However, it also features a story and cast of characters that are equal parts palatable to newcomers and impressively intimate and worth getting invested in. The art style and color palette are also a sight to behold, with colors beautifully vivid and fitting to the swashbuckling-like heist adventures in which the characters and plot are set in. The arcs are separated by the crew’s jobs, with each storyline having some meaningful, down-to-earth subplots that humanize the main cast.
Great Pretender is available on Netflix.
It’s simultaneously one of the most jarring and captivating anime around, as Hirohiko Araki’s long-running JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure manga exploded into the mainstream since its anime adaptation debut. The series balances intense action with an absurd pop-culture-inspired campiness and irresistible style that culminates in a wonderfully chaotic formula that sounds like it shouldn’t work on paper.
JoJo’s follows the lineage of the Joestar bloodline back to 1800s England and onward through the 20th and 21st centuries, with a new setting and protagonist leading a fresh cast each season against supernatural foes. It’s almost like an anthology but rewards those who start with the first part, Phantom Blood. Now is a good time for audiences to jump right in and ride the wave of hype since Stone Ocean, the next chapter in the manga series, is finally being animated.
Though it dials back on the action, Steins;Gate excels as a sci-fi-themed mystery thriller. The series was based on a video game of the same name, and it ended up becoming a modern anime classic. Steins;Gate starts as a slice-of-life-style story, focusing on an eccentric and egotistical scientist and his group of friends.
However, a darker mystery surrounding an evil corporate entity begins to unravel when the group accidentally discovers time travel. It’s a perfect way to catch audiences off guard, flipping the story into a gripping thriller that makes you genuinely care, empathize, and fear for the safety and future of the characters.
Steins;Gate is available on Hulu.
On its surface, Gurren Lagann looks like a bombastic mech-themed action anime. While it certainly has its fair share of stunning action, the story and its characters are surprisingly more than just skin-deep. Gurren Lagann starts its story small with the young Simon and Kamina in a post-apocalyptic ruled by mechas. However, the stakes gradually rise as the worldbuilding progresses to expand well beyond the planet.
At the heart of the series is the characters’ deep emotional bonds with each other, making for one of the most emotional modern anime classics to watch. The flashy mechs are merely vehicles for this inspiring and occasionally heartbreaking human story of sheer willpower.
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