Japanese animation has become a major influence on Western cartoons, contemporary cinema (especially superhero movies!), and even fashion design. Despite its reputation as lowbrow and nerdy, anime remains one of the most boundary-pushing genres in contemporary visual arts. But the world of anime is hard to penetrate, especially if you weren’t die-hard about it in your teens. The good news is: Netflix has some of the best anime of all time currently streaming on its service. The bad news is: they also have some truly repugnant, cheaply made trash on there, too.
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Luckily, we’ve done the hard work of sorting through the dreck and finding the hidden gems. From beloved classics to next wave brilliance, here are the 10 best anime series currently streaming on Netflix.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
Neon Genesis Evangelion is widely touted as one of the greatest television series of all time, and with good reason. What begins as a relatively standard show about giant fighting robots turns into a post-modern meditation on the darkest depths of depression. This sci-fi masterpiece is as much an Oedipal psychodrama as it is an action-packed adventure. Don’t expect to understand what’s going on the first time around, but you’ll definitely be rewarded with a re-watch. (Note: the version currently on Netflix has been re-translated, re-dubbed, and re-scored from the original series that aired on TV in the 90’s due to ongoing licensing issues. The general consensus is that this new version is good enough, but not quite as iconic as the original.)
Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Even the most casual of anime fans are dimly aware of the influence of Sailor Moon on what became known as the “magical girl” subgenre of cartoons — what Evangelion did for mechs, Madoka does for magical girls. In this show, the fantasy tweens who put on cute dresses to save the world are actually pawns in an internecine cosmic war for the fate of humanity, trapped in a futile struggle against the march of time. With avant-garde animation techniques rarely seen in anime, the series provides a dark counterargument to the naive optimism of kawaii culture.
Loosely based on the classic 1970’s anime and manga franchise by creator Go Nagai, Devilman: Crybaby is a stand-alone update of the beloved series. An existentialist and apocalyptic parable, the beautiful art style of the series is as expressive as it is bizarrely cosmological. And while most anime is scored with uplifting pop, the abrasive and intense techno soundtrack of Crybaby gives the series a modern, fashionable edge.
Fullmetal Alchemist + Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Not quite as cerebral or surreal as other shows in this list, FMA is a tightly wound high-fantasy series that has garnered several generations of fans. A bit of explanation: Full Metal Alchemist takes a turn halfway through that changes the story vastly from the series’ source material (as the speed at which the TV show was being produced began outpacing publication of the manga, in a manner similar to what happened with Game of Thrones), while Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a more strictly adhered-to adaptation of the original books. Most FMA acolytes think the latter is far superior, but both are excellent. Telling the story of Edward and Alphonse Elric, brothers who survived a traumatic magical accident now hoping to right their mistakes of the past — the show explores themes of filial piety and the ramifications of global war.
Little Witch Academia
Little Witch Academia was made into a limited series after the 2013 short film of the same name charmed audiences worldwide. The conceit of the show isn’t far from Harry Potter (A school! For witches!) but without the sometimes irksome fanbase — and almost all of the protagonists are girls. Every frame of animation is lushly gorgeous and the characters are impossibly endearing. Not exactly an intellectual endeavor, but perfect lighthearted entertainment.
Kill la Kill
As an entry level anime, Kill La Kill probably doesn’t work. The series is something of a hyperactive pastiche of shonen (anime/manga for boys) and shojo (anime/manga for girls) tropes, making it a bit incomprehensible if you haven’t seen the shows it consistently refers to. That being said: the extreme over-the-topness and wild action sequences are both goofy and erotically titillating. Don’t expect any kind of moral message or ideological coherence, though.
Arise: Ghost in the Shell, Ghost Pain
The original Ghost in the Shell manga by Masamune Shirow is often considered an urtext of the cyberpunk subgenre. The books went on to inspire several TV series and movies — including an unfortunate American reboot starring Scarlet Johansson, which should be avoided at all costs. The latest proper entry into the franchise is Arise. You won’t necessarily need the background from the other texts to “get” this miniseries, but Shirow’s deeply intratextual works are incredibly dense. That being said, it’s one of the smartest and most politically prescient sci-fi programs ever made, and the payoff is huge if you can figure out how to follow along.
The legendary animation studio Gainax (the same company that created the aforementioned magum opus, Evangelion) took another stab at giant fighting robots with Gurren Lagann, a far less serious interpretation of a timeworn subgenre. The heartwarming story arc explodes with feel-good positivity. Campy and flirtatious dialogue pairs well with the series’ high energy fight scenes.
Combining the girly sweetness of teen romance and heavy-hitting fantasy combat, Inuyasha’s expansive and seemingly endless narrative arc is a good way to get started on a budding anime addiction. There’s definitely a lot of filler in the nearly 200 episodes, but the lovable cast of characters and simple, sometimes soap opera-inflected storytelling are a good introduction to the tropes that more highbrow works of art are riffing on.
The absurd premise of Kakegurui — a high school populated by gambling geniuses — belies a raunchy story filled with more adult themes and imagery. Probably the most NSFW show on this list, the grotesque eroticism of the series makes for a bizarre art experience, and the twist-filled plot is consistently compelling. The series takes some truly strange turns in the second season but remains as addictive as playing the slots throughout.
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