The 17 Most Significant Animes in the United States
What do you think of when you think of an anime series or movie that's made a big impact in the United States? There are many series that qualify. They can be action-packed fighting animes like Bleach, magical girl shows like Sailor Moon, giant robot shows like the Gundam series, or boy-and-pet-monster shows like Pokemon.
So, in this article I will mainly be discussing the popularity of these shows and their impact on culture and anime.
Basically, I wanted to talk about these shows, not necessarily because they're the best, but because they became the most significant in the U.S., having a big impact. They're also the shows most likely to be someone's first anime or the first one that made them interested in seeing more anime.
These animes are also some of the most well-represented within anime fandom, with the highest number of cosplayers, fan artists, and fanfiction writers, obviously as a result of their popularity and success. Many have also spawned successful fan-made parodies.
17. Neon Genesis Evangelion
While probably the one with the least amount of recognition to non-otakus in the west on this list, I still thought it was worth a mention because of how significant it's popularity is with otakus, as well as the level of merchandise produced by Gainax of the characters in this show in Japan. Personally, I find it weird that this happened. After all, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a show about 14 year-olds losing their minds and sinking into abject depression, while corrupt adults manipulate things to bring about the destruction of all mankind.
I don't like how this show is then depicted as cute or sexy for the purposes of merchandising, when in reality it's gross, violent, disturbing, and pessimistic. They also made a manga of it (Angelic Days) that dumbed it down and took out the psychological drama that was in the original series. And then there's the Rebuild movies, which basically take all the depression, angst, bitterness, philosophical interest, teenage sexuality, and everything else that made Evangelion unique, and turn it into another mindless action shounen. Isn't it great what money can do to art?
However, this was probably not intended to ruin the show, but make it more accessible to a new generation of fans. But I like the original, because it touches on themes like fear, loneliness, anxiety, isolation, sexuality, failure, paranoia, and self-esteem. It also has a lot of cool religious symbolism.
Evangelion stands apart from other anime, and it was definitely the show that cued me in to the fact that anime was something separate from "cartoons" in the western sense.
It's one of the more philosophical and psychological works of fiction, sparking a lot of discussion. Evangelion remains a huge franchise in Japan, and is popular with anime fans all over the world, but is still not as popular in the U.S. as some other animes. Possibly, this is because it's a tragic show at its core, and American audiences prefer more saccharine tales with more perfect heroes and heroines and happier endings.
16. Death Note
A more recent anime, Death Note is popular among anime fans in the west and, like Evangelion, is often a starting point for discussion. Death Note centers around Light Yagami, a college student studying law, who encounters a magical notebook that can kill anyone whose name is written in it, if the person using it also pictures the person's face. It's an incredibly powerful object sent to earth from the land of the dead, because one Shinigami (death god) named Ryuk was bored and used the Death Note in the human world to stir up trouble, and to see how humans would react to the capabilities such an artifact would give them.
Light's mindset is very justice oriented. His dad being a police officer might be a strong influence here. However, over time, the audience learns the downsides to his idea of what justice is. He thinks that by using the Death Note to purge the world of criminals, and eventually of other undesirable elements in society, he can achieve a perfect world. This makes this anime incredibly significant from a philosophical standpoint. It explores what different people might do given the power over life and death (since, over time, new characters with death notes appear), and also explores the ethical questions raised about how society should treat criminals.
In the U.S., these kinds of issues are of monumental importance, considering all the problems the U.S. has with crime, high incarceration rates, and police racial profiling and excessive use of deadly force. Comparatively, Japan has such low rates of crime and incarceration that I thought it was strange for a Japanese show whose primary conflict derived from disagreements about criminal justice. L, the master detective, takes the compassionate stance, that everyone has the right to live, even criminals, and that no one person should dictate moral law for the rest of humanity. This moral stance is probably the more common sentiment of most Americans. Another important issue explored in Death Note is the concern for people who have been wrongfully accused. It also deals with the idea that a person forfeits their right to live when they themselves take the life of someone else. And perhaps it's the hard-line moral nature of Japanese culture that has led to their low crime rate in the first place, and leniency could definitely become a weakness.
At any rate, Death Note is a very intelligent anime. It has intense drama, makes the viewer feel conflicted about who they want to root for, and it makes for interesting discussion on morality and criminal justice. It's rare that a shounen show reaches this level of depth, imagination, or intrigue.
15. Fullmetal Alchemist
A very popular anime this side of the ocean, Fullmetal Alchemist's popularity has even increased in recent years due to the reboot: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which stays closer to the manga than the first series did.
I think that because Fullmetal Alchemist deals with cultural issues that many Westerners can relate to, and because the characters are culturally more European than Asian, this series has had a big impact in the west. It tells a story of science vs. morality, or rationality vs. emotion, which is a common theme throughout history in western art and literature. "Science gone wrong" is a theme that shows up first in Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, and also can be traced back to ancient Greek stories about mankind going too far, such as the stories of Daedelus and Pygmalion. Time periods in western art and literature have been defined by their place on the sliding scale of romanticism vs. enlightenment. So, for this show to show that struggle, coming out on the side of enlightenment while acknowledging the negative consequences of some unscrupulous scientists' actions, is very much based on Western philosophy.
Aside from that, there is the issue of racial and nationalist issues that very much seem related to American political issues of today. For example, there is a conflict between desert-dwelling people called Ishvalans and white-looking Amestrians with superior technology. The Amestrians use alchemy, which is seen as immoral to Ishvalans because of their religious beliefs. This is very much a mirror of the struggle between American vs. Middle Eastern schools of thought. The Ishvalans were also destroyed, and it's revealed that (spoiler alert) many of them were killed as part of a big alchemy experiment. It mirrors the way that western imperialism has historically, and in some places continues to, be seen by people in other countries as deplorable.
A lot of the cultural significance of Fullmetal Alchemist, I think also, is the comparisons that can be drawn between Amestris and the Thrid Reich. These become even more blatant parallels in the movie Conqueror of Shamballa, where there is interplay between the world of 1930's Germany in the real world and the world of alchemy that the show takes place in. It's important that we teach not just that the Holocaust happened, and that it was bad, but also that we explain to them that it could happen anywhere, at any time, given the right social and political conditions, and that we have to believe in the right of every human being to life, or it will happen again. I think that makes this show important.
It's not just about the struggle of one boy and his brother and their desperate, impossible quest. It's much more about the struggles between nations, political subterfuge and deception, and about the dark possibilities that can come with science. It's also about how science and religion can co-exist and why they clash.
14. Cowboy Bebop
Cowboy Bebop is a show about bounty hunters in space in the future. Human colonies have been created throughout the solar system, so the action takes the characters to places like Mars and various colonized asteroids. The main characters are:
- Spike, the epitome of badass, who jokes a lot.
- Faye, a sexy bad girl who can go back and forth between bratty and badass.
- Jet Black, a gruff, no-nonsense ex-cop, a foil to Spike sometimes.
- Ed, an ambiguously gendered kid (I think it's a girl?) with an upbeat personality who is skilled at hacking.
- Ein, the group's corgi mascot.
A typical episode usually has them chasing after a bad guy for a bounty somewhere and then some random, unpredictable stuff happens, usually preventing them from getting the money. The show is mostly humorous but becomes darker when later episodes reveal the main character's pasts and psychological depth. The show really touches on important and interesting themes such as the inhumanity of modern existence and the loneliness and isolation of space. It also shows life as crazy and varied. I really liked the movie of it too.
Trigun is similar in that it takes place in a non-specific future, starts out comedic and gets more and more serious and flashback-intensive, and has similar characters (as Cowboy Bebop). In this, you have, well:
- Vash the Stampede, a goofy man with a huge bounty on his head, incredible superhuman powers, and a love of donuts.
- Wolfwood, a traveling priest, who is a practical and cynical foil for Vash's naivete, but despite his cynicism, he is a loyal friend and a powerful ally.
- Milly and Meryl, too young women who are tasked with basically following Vash everywhere he goes to keep track of any damages he might cause for an insurance company. Meryl is all business and Milly is a ditz with a kind heart.
- And, a black cat shows up somewhere in nearly every episode as a kind of running gag.
So, the show starts off when Vash is caught up in a kerfluffle when Millie and Meryl are sent to chase down a man claiming to be Vash the Stampede, who really isn't him. When they find the real one, they have trouble believing that the doughnut-crazed nutball they've been with the whole time is the real legendary gunman. This sets the overall plot structure; Vash is usually innocently getting involved in some larger trouble that sometimes has to deal with his status as a wanted "humanoid typhoon" or "localized disaster". Despite his reputation for being a dangerous person, he avoids killing people at all costs and is genuinely a good person. He just happens to live on a desert planet where people prefer to talk with bullets and grrs.
The show later gets into Vash's past and explores the origin of human civilization on the planet and Vash's relationship with his evil twin brother, Knives. He faces tougher villains over time, culminating in a final confrontation with his brother over deeply rooted resentment over Knives killing his childhood mother figure, Rem Saverem.
The ending of the series is incredibly moving and beautiful, so I won't ruin it.
I think Trigun is noteworthy in that it borrows so heavily from American culture and cinema, especially westerns.
12. Attack on Titan
Hugely popular in the United States, Attack on Titan is a story of some tough teens dealing with the stresses of life in a world where gigantic humanoid monsters keep wrecking shit. With high energy, action, adrenaline, and lots of cliffhanger episodes, it's easy to see why this show quickly became incredibly successful.
One thing that's cool about this show for me is the Titans themselves. They're so mysterious and strange that almost everything the human characters learn about them raises more questions than it answers. Who made them, and for what purpose? Why can't they reproduce sexually? Do they reproduce some other way? Are they natural or man-made in origin? Why are some people able to change into Titans? Why are there different types of Titans? Etc. Basically, I was upset with this for not answering or explaining more, but I'll give it props for centering its conflict around such an interesting mystery. It's also very thrilling to watch.
11. Fairy Tail
Like how Fullmetal Alchemist draws inspiration from real Western philosophy and politics, Fairy Tail draws inspiration from Western storytelling, folklore, astrology, and so on. And it has some unique elements, like a blue cat with wings, that are just fun and part of the unique lore of this show. The main characters are Lucy, a newb in the famous/infamous guild of wizards called Fairy Tail, and Natsu, a dragon-boy wizard who is fiercely loyal to the guild. This show combines European fantasy concepts like dragons with typical shounen stuff (like the protagonist eats a lot, likes to fight, yells, and sometimes loses his temper, what a shock!). It has some very amazing characters, and the animation is very nicely done. I love the character designs and the art's use of color. But ultimately, this show is not just a pretty face, it's about the bond of loyalty shared by all the members of the guild, so it has many moments that are heartwarming and touching.
This one used to be a late-night cable favorite for me for many years. Inuyasha is the story of schoolgirl Kagome, who travels back in time from our present to medieval Japan, and finds the titular half-human dog demon Inuyasha pinned to a tree by an arrow. She rescues him, learns about his past, his struggles with the annoying plot token known as the shikon jewel, and her role in all of this, as she is the reincarnation of a priestess named Kikyo, the woman who originally pinned Inuyasha to the tree. Yes, this show has its flaws, mostly in that there are vast oceans of filler in between actual episodes where the plot even budges an inch. But, like Fairy Tale, Inuyasha is entertaining, heartwarming, and immensely popular in the US.
9. Ghost in the Shell
While Stand Alone Complex the anime series was a lot of fun for me when I watched it on Adult Swim back in my day, the Ghost in the Shell movies are also breathtaking, and I've watched a few episodes of the newer prequel series called Arise and liked that as well. Ghost in the Shell is a major (no pun intended) work of science fiction anime. I often use it as a recommendation for people who don't like anime but who might like related science fiction works. The first move, for example, borrows from Blade Runner, a sci-fi classic. As can be expected from a work of the cyberpunk genre, Ghost in the Shell explores potential conflicts caused by potential advances in technology. While some types of sci-fi, like Star Trek, believe that technological progress will result in social progress, cyberpunk anime, literature, movies, video games, etc. have a more pessimistic viewpoint, arguing that there is a dark side to human nature that will not go away just because of improvement to technology.
8. The Gundam Franchise
While I only personally watched and liked G Gundam, for many people, a Gundam show was their first anime or the earliest anime they got into. Gundam has had a lot of influence in Japan and in the west. Early Gundam series were inspired by kaiju, or big monster, movies, Godzilla being the most famous. While Gundam did not make the "giant robot" trope, they are perhaps the trope codifier, and definitely are responsible for popularizing the concept and influencing many other animes. Gundam's hugeness in popularity cannot be understated. I think in the US, Gundam is popular because America makes many loud, boomy action flicks, and this is a loud, boomy anime franchise. Transformers was a top-grossing movie and hit cartoon in the U.S., and it definitely drew inspiration from Gundam and other, older giant robot fighting animes, like Voltron. Basically, both American and Japanese men and boys (and some ladies and girls) like to see big robots punching stuff. And there's nothing wrong with that. Heck, I haven't even watched all of any series in the franchise but G Gundam, and yet the robot designs look so cool that I might just buy action figures of them anyway.
7. One Piece
Like Naruto, but with a stretchy pirate and more emphasis on slapstick comedy. Luffy is determined to be pirate king, and like many shounen protagonists, his inner drive pushes him to overcome many dangers and obstacles along the way. I don't watch this show, but it's ubiquitous at conventions and obviously hugely popular with shounen fans. My problems? I live like a million miles from any ocean and know enough history to know that pirates were actually dirty, violent, vulgar, crude, and disgusting. And how like Naruto is with ninjas, there is little historical accuracy to be had. These dweebs resemble real historical pirates even less than that weird pirate-like cat from The Last Unicorn. But this show is a fantasy epic adventure, and seems to have a positive and heartfelt tone throughout, as well as being good for a laugh. Pirate stories are obviously probably popular in Japan because of its history as a seafaring island nation, but they're popular in the west too because it's also part of our history and because pirates embody the American ideal of rugged individualism.
Bleach is another one of those hugely popular shounens I don't watch, but that I put here because its popularity makes it unavoidable at conventions and other gatherings of anime fans (orgies, Satanic rituals, potlucks, etc.). Anyway, I have watched some of it, but it didn't appeal to me that much. It was just some angry redhead guy swinging a giant sword at some supernatural thingies that weren't too scary. It was hard not to watch Bleach when I had Adult Swim, but I never got why it's so popular. I still don't. Feel free to speculate on this one in the comments section. But I can't ignore its popularity and success, so that is why it's on the list.
A very successful anime, trading card game, and spoof series making fun of said anime, Yu-Gi-Oh! is either as a game, anime, or spoof series, is very near and dear to many fans' hearts. For some, it was probably their first anime. It gets some crap for being similar to Pokemon, but it is very different as well. In Yu-Gi-Oh!, a modern-day card game called Duel Monsters is the result of a weird bit of ancient Egyptian soap opera drama. Yugi Moto and various other characters have special destinies because of their relation to these events in the past. The magic, the mystery, and the monsters all make this show very entertaining. Also, the Abridged Series is just hysterical, and probably caused a recent resurgence of the popularity of the franchise.
4. The Dragon Ball Franchise
Basically, this is the show that started it all for the shounen genre. Got a protagonist with weird spiky hair in Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Naruto, etc.? Started here with Goku. Got a protagonist who eats a lot? Started with Goku. Got a girl who is smarter than the main character and scolds him whenever he does something stupid? She was based on Bulma. Got a weird, perverted, but ultimately loyal mentor figure? He's based on Master Roshi. The Dragon Ball franchise created many character tropes and archetypes we still see today.
The mythological basis of this story is Chinese, with characters being based on characters in the epic Chinese story, Journey to the West. That's where the name Son Goku comes from, as well as many other elements, such as the main character riding on a flying cloud. A Chinese-style dragon is also the one in charge of the wish-granting that comes from gathering the eponymous dragon balls.
So, not only is this franchise important because it's popular, but because it's been so influential to other anime, especially the shounen and martial arts genres. One of my favorite animes, Yu Yu Hakusho, could be seen as a reboot of the show with a more contemporary feel and more grit, especially since they had many of the same English voice actors. There's no overstating how influential Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z have been.
3. Naruto and Naruto Shippuden
I like this series, but my main beef is that it shits on everything to do with historical ninjas. Ninjas, in real historical Japan, were silent assassins trained to sneak into and out of heavily guarded castles, sometimes by using disguises, sometimes by using highly advanced climbing equipment and martial arts techniques focused on silent sneaking. NARUTO IS TOO LOUD. Ninjitsu, stealth. Ninjitsu in the Naruto universe, yelling and doing a lot of weird hand gestures. Sure, the gestures come from real meditation techniques about aligning the chakras, or spiritual energy centers believed to exist in the body, but goddamn, could they be any more different from real historical ninjas? I'd really prefer it if they'd called them "mages" or something.
But beyond the ninja gripe I have (blaze orange for a silent assassin, really?), the show is interesting and fun to watch usually. I'll give them credit, Shippuden really helped me like this show more because it lessened some characters' most annoying traits. Like with other big-name shounens, it's so popular that it's hard to ignore, and like it or not, it's probably not going away. Believe it!
(Ugh, I did not just say that.)
2. Sailor Moon
Like the Gundam and Dragon Ball franchises, it wasn't the first in its genre, but it was that which most successfully launched internationally, and that which acted as a trope codifier, influencing a lot of character types and tropes that would show up in later anime.
What's interesting to me is that, while the planets and other celestial bodies (sorry Pluto) are invoked, what they're really doing is using elemental magic. The other weird thing? Bubbles. Sorry Amy, I just think that's a weird thing to expect to kill anyone. Like Yu-Gi-Oh!, Naruto, and Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon has a great abridged series. Also like the other shows on the list, this franchise commands a large following in the US. It got a reboot, Sailor Moon Crystal, which has newer animation and stays closer to the original manga than the first anime, which came out in the early 90's. For me, Sailor Moon is always a breathtaking emotional experience, even if sometimes it's also a little goofy.
This series came across the Pacific in the mid-'90s and America will never be the same. It's caused controversy, debate, speculation, and even total insanity. There are millions of fans worldwide, and it has been hugely influential as both anime and video games, and is also popular with many fans as a trading card game.
Pokémon is about, at its core, the special bond formed between humans and non-human life forms. It's about the love farmers have for their cattle, about the love city dwellers have for their designer half-poodles, about the love that a child who saves a baby sparrow has for it. It's a powerful feeling. It's also about responsible stewardship of animals and nature. Yes, in the franchise, humans use Pokemon and Pokemon obey humans, but the idea of this is that it is a mutually beneficial partnership. That way, it's a nice way to teach kids about responsibility.
So, those were my top 17 animes that I found to be the most influential in the US. I chose them for their popularity, their impact on anime, video games, the ubiquity of merchandise and cosplay, etc. I explored their themes and possible reasons for their popularity (still stumped on Bleach though). Additional honorable mentions:
- Puella Magi Madoka Magica
- Sword Art Online
- and probably many more that I'll think of later.
Thanks for reading. Please let me know which of these is your favorite, and if I've left any out that you think should be on there.