Anime is a medium, not a genre, in and of itself. Simply, "anime" translates to animation, but in the western world we classify it as animation strictly out of Japan. Many people perceive anime as all the same "big eyes, little mouth" cartoons. But, just like western animation, movies, and television, there are numerous genres within this animated medium.
One should not limit him or herself to one or two genres of anime because there's a lot that you're missing out on. This list takes the best titles of each genre and explains their worth so that you may broaden your own viewing and appreciate these great works of fiction. I tried to stick to one or two titles for each genre, but there are a lot of great titles out there that are excluded just for the sake of length. I just went with the best of each category and pulled the titles from those that really resonated with me.
Hunter x Hunter
Shounen is probably the most popular market in the US. One Piece, Naruto, Bleach, etc.. they are series that appeal to more than just young boys. But for me the best shounen series is Hunter x Hunter. HxH is written/drawn by Yu Yu Hakushou's Togashi Yoshihiro who admits that YYH was sort of a "practice run" for Hunter x Hunter. Hunter x Hunter follows possibly the most likeable gutsy shounen protagonist ever conceived of, Gon Freecss.
His father is a Hunter, basically super elite adventurous types who are the best of the best and have talents beyond normal people. Twelve-year-old Gon decides to take the Hunter exam to become a Hunter himself and find his father who is constantly in hiding. The characters in this show as well as the world Togashi creates are the biggest draws to this series. The main cast is diverse yet all very likeable characters.
They all have their backstories and their motivations to strive for, similar to the Go Merry's crew in One Piece. Gon and Killua have such an enjoyable friendship to see progress. Oh and one antagonist is a psychotic clown who has an unhealthy obsession with Gon... incredibly unhealthy. The show is fun, heart-wrenching, and very unique, without falling into boring power-up arcs and drawn out fights. You have two anime series for HxH that you can watch, the 1999 series or the one currently airing. Both are very good, though I personally prefer the 1999 series.
Ah Berserk, possibly the bloodiest hack and slash television series there is. Our protagonist Gatsu (or Guts) plows down enemies by the dozens with his massive sword each episode. He gets taken in by a young idealist named Griffith and joins his Band of Hawks. There's war, diplomacy, romance, blood and more blood, and the hands of pure evil at work in the shadows... it covers all the masculine fantasy war elements beautifully.
This series has one of the best endings there is in anime. You don't expect it or see it coming, just remember to pick your jaw off the floor. The tv series ended with just 25 episodes. There's been a couple of movies recently made, but if you want more read the manga which is still slowly and steadily coming out. In any form, the art is stellar, top-quality stuff!
Harlock is THE space-pirate. He is the model for all others. Leiji's entire space opera universe is worth checking out, all the Captain Harlock titles, Galaxy Express, Queen Emeraldas, etc. This man is a pirate Green Lantern with the manly will to put gods in their places. You will easily double in testosterone per viewing. With Harlock comes an enjoyable, fun crew, lots of adventure and drama, and complete and utter freedom for ultimate badassery.
This is a science-fiction retelling of the classic French novel The Count of Monte Cristo. The animation is insanely innovative, using embedded patterns on numerous layers to give the series a very original effect. The Count is captivating, the drama is heightened from the source material, and it's all just absolutely a well-told original work in its own right. Having the Count be possessed by a space spirit of vengeance really added a new perspective to the story.
The Gankutsuou Trailer Speaks for Itself
And I have two titles that barely even qualify for this category. Honorable Mention goes to Beck which just missed making the list because of its godawful Engrish dialogue.
Saint Young Men
So I've cheated... this series is manga-only, but I love it dearly. This is a manga about the daily hijinks of roommates Buddha and Jesus Christ. Yes, that's right, THE Buddha and THE Jesus live together in contemporary Japan.
Amazingly the writer is well-versed in both Buddhism and Christianity and is capable of making amazing jokes while managing to never be sacrilegious about it. Watch Jesus and Buddha go to a laundromat, go grocery shopping, or hit up an amusement park and you'll wonder how you lived without this series in your life.
This series has so many supernatural and science-fiction elements, but I think the show shines for its slice-of-life elements. This is a show immersed in quantum theory. Half of the cast are kids in present-day Japan and the other half of the cast are alternate dimension adult versions of that same group of kids.
This show excels because it balances the kids and adults' stories with ease. Haruka and Ai have a fight and their friendship suffers for an episode and then this ripples into the relationship of Haruka and Ai as adults. The music score and animation are so versatile that they will fit these wonderful childlike stories then transform for a massive fight scene. I love this series so much and highly recommend it to people who like to find new, original titles.
Josei means a series for older women. This is probably one of the least watched genres. Some series that would be labelled as Romance would fit into here, all depending on the target audience. But, I wanted to put a series here that is clearly for a mature female audience and that is Riyoko Ikeda's Oniisama E. Ikeda is best known for Rose of Versailles, and Oniisama E takes the melodrama of RoV and quadruples it. Oniisama E (Brother Dear Brother) takes place at an all-girls school for the wealthy.
At this school there is an elite sorority that girls will literally do ANYTHING to get into (sending death threats to classmates is no big deal afterall). The story is from the perspective of innocent Freshmen Misoo Nanako as she gets pulled into the sorority and the lives of the school's Big Three upperclassmen: Fukiko, St. Juste, and Kaoru-no-Kimi.
This series covers everything from suicide pacts to drug abuse... it's so melodramatic and yet it is ridiculously enjoyable. The series is only available via fansubs, and there's no way any American company will ever pick it up! The art picks up on the 1970s style of comics and features a lot of beautiful watercolor stills.
This series is a real gem hidden under mediocre character design. The series starts with a bunch of white-haired, black cloaked kids creeping around, ending up dead, then being magically not-dead later on. These are the Belfort Children; kids who reappear across the decades looking identical each time. As their story happens in the shadows, the story of some young orphan kids takes place and they are eventually intertwined across space, time, and reincarnations. It's an incredibly unique story, full of mysteries to uncover, and just very emotionally captivating.
This could also be seen as a Slice of Life series or a Historical one in a sense,... and yet it is so incredibly timeless. Lead character Ginko is a Mushi master and interacts with Mushi (supernatural nature-originating beings) and the people who are suffering the effects of the Mushi around them. The series is episodic, each episode being a beautiful tale that could fit into Shinto folklore or extended into a lovely novel. The atmosphere of the series is so serene and awe-inspiring... it really is in a class of its own. If you don't need constant dialogue to appreciate an anime, give this one a shot. Also, so-much-SCENERY-PORN. It's backgrounds to rival Ghibli.
I'm going to ignore old greats like Captain Tsubasa, Hajime no Ippo, and Slam Dunk in favor of a much newer series. Eyeshield 21 is a series focused on an underdog high school football team. The writer has stated that he does not like his series being called a "Sports" series, and that may be why this series is so charming. Eyeshield 21 has a strong foundation of interesting, funny, and heart-wrenching characters who will stop at nothing to win a game.
The standout character is Hiruma, the Devil Bats' quarterback who often totes guns and has an extensive blackmail book to be sure things are always working in his favor. This series has a lot of heart as well as humor mixed in. The anime is enjoyable for a couple of seasons, but I'd highly suggest that all those interested in the series should invest some energy and read the 37 volume manga run. Take it from someone who hates football, this series is never dull!
FRENCH DOUBLE-TEAM: Rose of Versailles and Le Chevalier d'Eon
Both series are about the time leading up to the French Revolution of the late 18th century. Rose of Versailles is a CLASSIC that should be watched by everyone... it has inspired many series and is a foundation of traditional manga. Oscar is the archetype for princely-heroines. One of the most charming aspects of this series is that we get to grow up with Oscar and Andre, from their teens into their early forties. There's romance, accurate French history (with the occasional embellishment), fighting, loyalty, and the inevitable revolution that ends a lifelong friendship. Despite your gender, you cannot go wrong with Rose of Versailles.
Le Chevalier d'Eon meanwhile is a far newer series about the same time period with supernatural and occultist elements added. It does not match the ambiance that RoV glows with, but d'Eon is interesting in the execution of these unusual elements into the state of countries and governments around Europe. This series has some elevated themes on the ideas of freedom, revolution, loyalty, and a monarch's curse. It is not a perfect series but there are some truly unique elements that make it stand out.
I feel the need to mention an assortment of titles that definitely embrace that folklore-mysticism atmosphere of Old Japan but aren't necessarily all that focused on accurate history. These anime all just feel like they belong to a Japan that is set in ancient times.
- Otogi Zoshi
- Phoenix (Osamu Tezuka)
This category is cruel... CRUEL I tell you! There are so many great titles in Comedy: Keroro-gunso, Kodocha, Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei!, Cromartie High, Detroit Metal City, Azumanga Daioh, Koko wa Greenwood, Tenshi ni Narumon, Crayon Shin-chan (in English), etc.
But, I just have to go with a short classic to make this easier on myself:
This two episode OVA was the most beloved tape that many people owned back in the old fansub vhs days. It's based on a much longer manga, following the exploits of a half-dragon named Mink. I won't lie, there's a lot of slapstick humor synonymous with the 90s (as could be seen in a series like Slayers!)... but this OVA outshines other titles in how it tries to desperately to appear serious then undermine this tone every thirty seconds. It includes a pop singer named Dick Saucer who sings his own name repeatedly and a girl who is a sorceress made of goo. Also this OVA has the most enjoyable ending theme ever,... about eggs.
Please Save My Earth
This series is all the feels. This is the story of aliens who had been stationed on the moon observing Earth who all died on the moon and were reincarnated on Earth with limited memories of their previous lives. They deal with their old memories and relationships plaguing them and this is done beautifully. Some people have a lot of baggage to deal with. There's a romantic element to the story but it comes with a lot of sadness. Oh yes, so much sadness. The manga is pretty long but they only animated six episodes of it.. but it is one of the most quality OVAs out there and worth watching. There are some ESP powers and fights involved as well, so it's a story that should captivate both genders easily.
When it comes to drama, Wolfs Rain is nothing but drama. The small bits of humor or levity are just there to prevent you from curling into the fetal position. This is a story about wolves who can disguise themselves as humans, most of their race has been killed off, oh and the world IS ENDING. The wolves are just trying to find Paradise in a world that has gone to absolute hell. The "pack" all stick with each other begrudgingly and seeing them learn to sincerely care about each other is endearing. This series contains possibly the most dismally depressing final four episodes of any series ever created. And of course, the animation and music are stellar. Both PSME and Wolfs Rain were composed at least partially by Yoko Kanno (known for Cowboy Bebop).
Honorable Mention: All of Satoshi Kon's titles.
This is a series that LOVES philosophy. There are philosophy name-drops throughout it. The series features a blue-collar worker named Vincent, a shy average sort of guy, as he ventures out into nowhere land. There are these android-like sort-of-god beings out there called Proxies that he runs into, along with a cute little humanlike android girl and a no-nonsense woman from the city he escapes.
Vincent steadily changes throughout the series as he faces the most confusingly existential experiences (one episode, a Proxy puts the characters into a gameshow for instance). The visuals are lovely, though you need to have tolerance for a lot of greys and blacks. It's a series that is for people who want to have to think a bit when they watch a series.
Shoujo Kakumei Utena
I will be honest, this is bar-none my favorite anime series. The fact that Utena is a young teenager who has a magical sword and fights for good is just about the only way this series is mahou shoujo by the classical defintion. This is the series that redefines the genre entirely. Utena is a girl who dresses like a "prince" and gets swept into the Student Council's duels to win a rosebride. The rosebride holds the power to bring the "revolution." The revolution is something insanely figurative to all the duelists involved... and I don't want to spoil what the power truly stands for by the end.
The series is strongly influenced by the studies of Carl Jung and Hermann Hesse's novel Demian, which just add so much dimension and confusion to the series. The animation is God-tier, the music is creative, the psychological and emotional damage across the cast is immense. It is a brilliant anime that gets better and better until the ending blows you away. Fair warning, this series has a lot of sexual deviancy. Not graphic, but it's there. (If you really take a liking to Utena, I suggest you check out director Ikuhara's newest series Mawaru Penguindrum as well!)
Can be labelled a historical anime, let's not kid ourselves, one watches Rurouni Kenshin for the amazing sword fights. Kenshin is a wandering swordsman who was known as the Hitokiri Battousai during the Bakamatsu of the Edo period. Simply put, he was revered as a God of Killing while still just a teenager. When his side, the Ishin Shishi won, he swore never to take a life with his sword again and wandered for ten years. The series starts as he is welcomed to stay in the dojo of young Kamiya Kaoru, being given a real home for the first time in a decade. A group of friends starts to form as well as word of his presence catches wind and trouble seems to keep finding him. The opus of Rurouni Kenshin is the Kyoto arc... it is beautifully animated, music is perfect, drama and choreography are flawless,.. the antagonists,... wow. Just, it's fighting done to perfection. Do NOT watch the recent animated series, it is dreadful and pales in comparison to the 1990s series.
So, I'm not a big mech viewer, so this OVA/movie barely counts as mech, but it is amazing and deserves to be watched. You do not have to watch the Macross series to appreciate this OVA. It is a great standalone. It takes place years after friends Isamu, Guld, and Myung have quit speaking with one another. Myung gave up her singing to manage a computer-created holographic singer named Sharon Apple (do note this super-predates Vocaloid). Meanwhile Isamu and Guld are both test pilots for their respective factions and cannot find a way to get along with each other. This is a movie that hinders on the relationships of these three people. In a sense they've all become a bit cynical because as they've grown older "the dream" has left them and so they're closed off to the idealism of their youth. In the end these three have to find a way to work together like in the old days. This OVA has amazing visual quality, Yoko Kanno composed for it, and it's just a great experience overall.
The Nostalgic Opening Sets the Stage Perfectly.
This is an extensive category; there are countless series aimed at young girls. They typically have a young female protagonist with magical powers (the source often being a piece of jewelry or makeup). Sailormoon and Card Captor Sakura are probably the two biggest names of the genre. But, for this list, I have to go with Princess Tutu.
What a series! Princess Tutu follows the formula to a T in the first half of the series. Ballet trainee Ahiru gets a locket that makes her a prima ballerina with magic powers. Each episode she faces a threat/monster and does this in aid to her love, the prince. But this series is merely leading the viewer on as the second half brings in numerous clever plot elements, such as: fate being decided through storytelling, corruption, and a lot of moments where the characters have profound questions about their own identities and roles to play. I don't want to spoil too much, but if you pick this series up you'll marvel at the beautiful ballet in the first half and sit at the edge of your seat in the second half as all that is good crumbles around the protagonists.
Watch This and You Will Not Be Able to Resist Tutu (spoilers)
This series would be historical, except, its the history of an entirely made up world. The world of Twelve Kingdoms reads like ancient China, if creatures of folklore lived and the Gods truly chose monarchs. The story begins with a girl named Yoko who is, I'll be honest, so timid and reluctant that she's very unlikeable at the start. A man with long blonde hair and Chinese robes approaches her at her high school and essentially whisks her off to a completely foreign land via a whirlpool.
She finds herself confused and lost for quite a while, then as the series progresses, the focus of the series shifts to the politics of government, uprisings, and so on. The perspective of the story also changes to other characters because the original novels do not all center on Yoko's story. The king and kirin of En are two incredibly entertaining characters and so is their story. It's an interesting world where countries suffer entirely based on the ability of the sovereign of that nation. It has a great atmosphere and mature, though not complicated to follow. Imagine Fushigi Yuugi if you took out all the soppy romance and spent more time following the day-to-day decisions made at court.
The Vision of Escaflowne
This is a classic series from the nineties, but it is becoming lesser and lesser known as younger fans get into anime. Escaflowne is a brilliant fantasy story much like Twelve Kingdoms in that it focuses on a girl from Earth who gets whisked away into a completely different world (Gaea in this case) and is then forced to reconsider her role and identity. Hitomi is a runner who gets pulled in through a connection to the Fanelian prince Van as Van is on a dragon hunt. Both return to Van's kingdom for his coronation as king as the kingdom ends up absolutely obliterated by Zaibachian troops.
I don't label this series a Mecha series, but the mechs in this series are beautiful. They are closer to British armor than a Gundam. The series progresses with complications between countries, cursed races, the responsibilities of a warrior, the power of controlling fate, and so on. It's a rich series, yet another with music composed by Yoko Kanno, and absolutely stunning animation. The end gets a bit,... unusual, but the cast is enjoyable and so is the journey.
Kareshi Kanojo no Jijou
AKA KareKano aka His and Her Circumstances. The anime for this series is a testament to how GAINAX can make any genre interesting if you put it in their hands. This is a straightforward school romance series, yet GAINAX makes it really stand out. Arima's psychological flair-ups alone are handled in a way that I cannot say I've seen in any other series. The show handles the comedy of school life and dating awkwardness wonderfully, the cast is likeable, the show can be both energized and subdued as needed. If anything, I think this series is very honest about the issues that go into entering a relationship with someone and the doubts and worries that brings.
Hana Yori Dango
AKA Boys Before Flowers. Here's my weakness in terms of shoujo manga, Yoko Kamio. Hana Yori Dango is her most famous story: simply it's about a poor girl in a wealthy-class high school who must do her best to deal with harassment and romantic entanglements with the elite guys of the school, the F4. Tsukushi spends her first year of high school being brutally bullied by her classmates. This improves (but also worsens) when the self-proclaimed king of the student body falls madly in love with her. Tsukushi's relationship with Tsukasa has every pitfall you can imagine and yet it endures. The series is so popular that the anime and manga are not only available worldwide but the story has been made into a half-dozen live-action dramas. (I recommend the Korean drama, best all-around). I also highly recommend Kamio's manga series Cat Street. It's an amazing work as well.
Lupin the III
For most people this series needs no introduction. Lupin III is the Japanese grandson of the famous French thief Arsene Lupin. Lupin and his friends Jigen, Goemon, and unreliable femme-fatale Fujiko do heists and they get chased around the world by somewhat-dimwitted INTERPOL's Zenigata. It's clever, funny episode-long stories that focus on the tricks of the trade: clever disguises, lockpicking, etc. The art style by Monkey Punch is unique and fits the anime. There are three anime series of Lupin III and the new Fujiko Mine series.
The first Lupin III series was so serious and adult in nature that it ended in a season (green jacket). The second comedic series is the one that aired in the US and has the biggest following (red jacket). And the also short lived third series (pink jacket). The new Fujiko series has its fans and haters. It greatly differs from the Lupin III anime but it does fit the style of the original manga. There's also a pile of movies to check out, the best being the Hayao Miyazaki directed Castle of Cagliostro.
lkhg on June 22, 2020:
How old is the editor of this post?
Start refreshing the list.
Lolicon420 on May 03, 2017:
I keep lolis in my closet.
Dav on January 11, 2017:
OP How well would you rate Code Geass, FMA: Brotherhood, and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann? ... for me those are amazing animes... A notable mention would be Death Note because of the way it makes you root for the bad guy/or the guys against the protagonist. But I am not much of a hardcore Anime enthusiast. I do love HxH and YYH...
ugh on November 01, 2016:
I only agree with HxH on the list, everything else is bad. I mean come on eyeshield 21 ? The anime was cancelled, hajime no ippo or Haikyuu is a better fit. For science fiction, there are better series as well like Planetes or Ginga Eiyuu Densetsu, better yet Steins;Gate. For comedy, you HAVE to mention Gintama, one the best anime series EVER.
RachaelLefler on September 01, 2016:
If you have a "massive fight scene" in many episodes I would not consider that a "slice of life".
Have you been watching the new Berserk anime? Thoughts on the comparison between the new anime and the old? I never saw the old one but I enjoy the new.
Ashley Davidson from United Kingdom on July 11, 2014:
So glad you chose Vision of Escaflowne for Fantasy :) Totally agree. I agree with Rurouni Kenshin for fighting too. If only I had watched the others... XD I'm surprised at your chosen one for Mecha, I really expected to see Neon Genesis Evangelion there. I guess, I'll be watching Macross Plus now to see if it's really that good :)
Dead Runner on July 01, 2013:
Mecha and you didn't give Gundam? Are you stupid?
Kai on June 30, 2013:
One Piece was considered the best Shonen in Japan, just sayin.