The Japanese anime industry is big.
Like, really big.
It has been around for decades, and it has produced hundreds and hundreds of amazing shows. If you would like to start watching cool anime, it can be difficult to know where to start as there is just SO MUCH CHOICE. We know how you feel and we're here to help. We've compiled a list of the most classic of all classic anime shows. There is something to cater to all tastes - action, comedy, sci-fi, and more. So get stuck and find your new favorite show. You're welcome.
In our opinion, ‘Space Western’ is one of the most underrated genres. It combines the futurism and fantasy of space with grit and bravado of westerns, and Cowboy Bebop is one of the best examples of the space western genre across any medium. The story is set in 2072 - a time when humans have trashed the Earth and moved on to colonize various moons and planets across the galaxy. Bounty hunters known as ‘Cowboys’ help the authorities to keep the peace, and one such crew of bounty hunters is the team that flies in the Bebop spaceship - Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, Win, Faye Valentine and Edward Wong. Everything about this series is golden - the soundtrack, the cast of characters, the humor, the action, the animation.
It’s hard to believe that Cowboy Bebop only ran for a total of 26 episodes across two years when you consider the impact that the anime series had. It’s responsible for turning a lot of people on to the wondrous world of Japanese animations. It aired in Japan in 1998 and 1999, before the Adult Swim channel picked it up for the US in 2001. This resulted in huge crossover success and created many international anime fans, cementing Cowboy Bebop’s status as a bonafide classic.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
There are two different Fullmetal Alchemist anime series - the original Fullmetal Alchemist that was released in the early 2000s, and our recommendation, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was released in 2010. Both are well worth watching, but the second version edges ahead in our minds. Both are based on the manga of the same name, but the earlier Fullmetal Alchemist was made before the manga ended and took far more liberties with the storyline. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a much more faithful Anime adaptation and in our opinion it’s all the better for it.
Written by Hiroshi Onogi and directed by Yasuhiro Irie, the story unfolds throughout 64 episodes and is a joy to behold. It’s centered around two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, and their search to find the Philosopher’s Stone. The hope is that this stone will help them to bring their bodies back to life, which they tragically lost while trying to bring their dead mother back to life with the power of alchemy. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood tackles universal themes of loss and grief, but does so in an engaging and thrilling way.
Dragon Ball Z
OK, the purists out there are probably frothing at the mouth at the fact that we have singled out Dragon Ball Z as the anime series to watch, despite the fact that there is much more to the Dragon Ball canon. The truth is that Dragon Ball Z became so wildly popular that for many people it IS Dragon Ball. The show became so big that it is now part of our pop culture lexicon, and almost everyone of a certain age knows who Goku is (or at least what they look like), and it has probably made the company behind it, Toei Animation, a small fortune.
Based on the original manga written and illustrated by Akira Toriyama, the story of Dragon Ball Z begins with Saiyan Son Goku and is set five years after the original series, Dragon Ball. Goku is now a young man with a wife and a son, trying to live a quiet life. Of course things don’t stay peaceful, and things quickly escalate into high-energy battles and frenetic violence. There is so much to enjoy in the Dragon Ball franchise - anime movies, video games, new series - but we think this is the best place to start.
Hunter x Hunter
This show was produced by the legendary Madhouse Studio and directed by Hiroshi Kojina, and is a relatively new series on this list. It aired from 2011 to 2014 in Japan, and in 2016 it aired on Adult Swim in the US. In total, 148 episodes were produced during its run. This is actually the second Hunter x Hunter series - the first one aired in 1999. What’s interesting about the reboot is that it didn’t just continue on from where the original left off, but instead retold the tale from the beginning of the original manga in order to make it a more faithful adaptation.
The story follows the 12-year-old boy Gon Freecss in his mission to become a Hunter. In this world, Hunters are used to track down things like treasure and criminals. It’s an elite group that you need to be certified to join. Gon’s motivations to join aren’t just to become a Hunter. He has learned that his father, who he thought was dead, is actually a legendary Hunter named Ging. Gon has all kinds of adventures along the way - making friends, fighting monsters, and finding himself.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
Neon Genesis Evangelion is often hailed as an outstanding example of both the mecha anime genre and of anime itself. It aired in Japan from 1995 to 1996 and was much beloved right up to the end, when things actually got a little bit controversial. Many fans said that the final two episodes didn’t really make any sense and it didn’t wrap the story up. There was definitely a lot of truth in this, so much so that the show creator Hideaki Anno made a supplemental anime film, The End of Evangelion, which gave fans the context and closure that they craved.
The storyline is pretty out there. In a post-apocalyptic Japan, enemies known as Angels are wreaking havoc and destroying humanity. The only weapons that are able to fight back against these angels are Evangelions, which are giant humanoid robots that are controlled by humans who get inside them. Shinji Ikari is a teenager who has been chosen to pilot one of these robots, and the story follows him closely. On the surface, Neon Genesis Evangelion, might seem like a mecha action anime, but it’s actually an astute examination of what it means to be human and the loneliness that it can bring.
If you have never heard of Pokémon, then you must come from another planet or dimension. Since the Pokémon phenomenon started back in 1996, it has developed into a truly global franchise worth billions of dollars. Pokémon actually began as a video game series that was created by Nintendo before it became an anime adaptation in 1997- It is widely regarded as the single most successful video game adaptation of all time as well as one of the world's favorite anime.
Pokémon is actually an abbreviation of the Japanese title, ‘Pocket Monsters’. The main story follows a young boy named Satoshi who dreams of becoming a Pokemon trainer and master. When it comes to getting a Pokémon of his own, only Pikachu is left. This seemed like a bad deal at the time, but as anyone with any knowledge of the series understands, things worked out quite differently. The series is still running today, and there are already 1,196 episodes as well as lots of spin-offs and even a surprisingly good live action movie in Detective Pikachu.
Before Dexter hit our screens and made everyone question how they feel about criminals and bad people being killed in morally dubious ways, there was Death Note. The original manga, written by Tsugumi Ohba, was published from 2003 to 2006 before the anime adaption was produced by Madhouse. The story follows a high school whizz kid called Light Yagami who has chanced upon a mysterious notebook called the Death Note. The book is special because whoever is named in the pages, dies. The book was dropped into the human realm by the Shinigami Ryuk, more or less just to see what humans would do with it.
Once Light realizes what power the Death Note book holds, he decides to put all of the criminals in the world to death and create a brave new world where he will be considered a god. Of course, the deaths don’t go unnoticed and so the police set a young hotshot detective named L on the case. It’s a fascinating story that shows one person’s descent into madness, and really makes you question the nature of morality and justice. With a plotline so intriguing, it’s easy to understand how this came to be regarded as a classic series.
This popular anime series is a delightful combination of fantasy, action and romance. It’s set in modern-day Tokyo and follows the adventures of middle school girl, Kagome Higurashi. In the story, she falls down a well near her family shrine and is magically transported to the Sengoku period. Here, she meets the half-demon dog/half-human hybrid Inuyasha and helps to free him. After this, they embark on a quest to find the shards of a powerful magic jewel that has been broken, with its shards strewn across the lands.
The show was very popular for its portrayal of Kagome as a strong female character, and the series ran for 167 episodes, plus an extra four anime movies. Things weren’t quite wrapped up at the end of the original run, so five years after it finished, a 26 episode series called The Final Act was released. This closed off the story and gave fans the closure and satisfaction they craved.
Mobile Suit Gundam
The Gundam franchise is so successful and sprawling that it’s hard to imagine how close it came to not existing at all. Released in 1979, Mobile Suit Gundam, was a pioneer of the mecha anime genre, but it was actually canceled in 1980. The original 43 episode run might have been all there was for Gundam, if not for the popularity of the model kits that accompanied the show. They basically sold so many units that it would have been foolish not to bring the franchise back to life.
The story is set in a futuristic world in the very futuristic year Universal Century Year 0079. It’s all about giant robots that are piloted by humans, but it actually makes some very astute and deep observations about the nature of war and the people who fight them on our behalf. Mobile Suit Gundam is the starting point for so many anime movies, manga, series and model kits. In fact, you could say it provided the blueprint for so many other anime franchises. We consider it a rite of passage for everyone to see the anime series that started it all.
We absolutely love mind-bending time travel storylines, and Steins;Gate is a brilliant example of how to make one work perfectly. This sci-fi anime follows a mad scientist (it’s ok, it’s what they call themselves too) named Rintaro Okabe who loves nothing more than playing around with his wild inventions. Alongside two of his friends, he accidentally invents a ‘Phone Microwave’ which has the ability to send messages through time.
Little did they know, but sending these messages alters history, which then changes the present. This butterfly effect results in them being caught in the middle of a time loop and a murder. What sets this anime series apart is the way in which it has made its time travel plot watertight. A lot of other attempts at the genre fail in the details, but Steins;Gate is a thrilling and exciting ride that has everything locked down.
Attack on Titan
Attack on Titan is one of the newest anime series on this list, and in fact it is still running, with the final season due to air in 2023. However, that hasn’t stopped it achieving certified classic status already and to be talked about as one of the greatest anime series of all time (we’ll reserve judgment until the final series has aired). The first three seasons were produced by Wit Studio, before MAPPA Studio took over for the fourth and final season.
The story is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have been driven to the verge of extinction by giant humanoid creatures known as titans. The small remaining human population has built a giant wall to protect itself from the bloodthirsty titans, something that worked well for 100 years, before one manages to break through the defenses. A young boy called Eren sees his mother get eaten by a titan and he vows to destroy them all. After that, it’s non-stop action and intrigue.
If you’re looking for an anime series to really get your teeth into and aren’t daunted by a high episode count, then Bleach could be the classic anime series for you. It ran from 2004 to 2012, and in the end it totals a whopping 366 episodes. Granted, there are a few series on this list with more episodes (we’re looking at you, Pokemon), but Bleach is still in the high echelons of episode counts.
Bleach tells the tale of Kurosaki Ichigo, a high school student who inadvertently gains the supernatural power to see ghosts. This happens during an incident where a Hollow - an evil spirit that tries to devour human souls - attacks his family. The family is rescued by a Soul Reaper called Rukia Kuchiki, and in return Ichigo agrees to train to become a Soul Reaper himself. Ichigo then vows to battle the Hollows, gathering friends to join him in his mission. The show will return at the end of 2022 for Bleach: Thousand Year Blood War, which is the final installment of the manga and the conclusion of the story.
We love Code Geass for the way in which he makes you ask yourself questions about morality, and what you might do if you were in the same situation as the characters. In this case, what would you do if you had the power of absolute obedience? This is the question that the main character, Lelouch Lamperouge, has to ask himself.
Set in 2010, the Holy Britannian Empire has conquered Japan and is using its power to oppress the people. Lelouch was born a Prince of the Britannian Empire, but he relinquished his claim after the brutal murder of his mother. He vows to fight back and help Japan regain sovereignty, and when he is caught in a battle between the two armies, he is saved by a mysterious girl called CC, who then gives him the Power of the Kings, or the power of absolute obedience. This anime show was a hit because not only does it have amazing action sequences, but the character development and dialogue are top notch.
Ok, so here is the thing about Lupin III, there is a lot to it. We don’t mean there is a lot to the story, we mean the franchise is a sprawling behemoth of manga, anime series and films, live action movies, video games and more. It started out life as a manga written and illustrated by Monkey Punch in 1967, and it became an anime TV series in 1971, directed by none other than Hayao Miyazaki. Lupin III is actually the name of the main character, who is the grandson of the gentleman thief, Arsene Lupin. He’s a stylish thief and master criminal who loves action and exploits.
Lupin III is notable for just how influential it has been. It’s really the first anime series that portrayed the criminal world of violence, guns, sex, and danger. Shinchiro Watanabe has said that Lupin III was a direct inspiration for him in creating Cowboy Bebop. You can dive into any one of the franchise series or offshoots and enjoy it, but we recommend going back to the original to see the origins of today’s anime.
This anime show is a pirate tale with a difference. When we think of pirates in the media, we normally think of old, grizzly, one-legged men with parrots on their shoulder and a penchant for buried treasure and wickedness. One Piece flips that notion on its head by making a 17-year-old boy called Monkey D. Luffy the pirate at the center of the story. He’s a pirate who is driven by a sense of adventure and wonder. After eating what is known as a Devil Fruit, Luffy also has a body with the properties of rubber.
In this tale, Luffy and his crew are in search of the ultimate treasure known as ‘One Piece’, the existence of which was revealed by the great Pirate King, Gol D. Roger just before his death. The show has aired more than 1,000 episodes, so as you can imagine Luffy didn’t find this fabulous treasure quickly. Produce by Toei Animation, One Piece is actually one of the best-selling anime series in history, so it’s a bit of a treasure in and of itself.
We love Ranma ½ because it stands out from the other anime on this list by virtue of the fact that it is an outright comedy, albeit with elements of romance and some action thrown in for good measure. It follows the fortunes of two families, the Saotomes and the Tendoes. The family members and friends of both are affected by an unusual and somewhat chaotic curse. When a cursed person is splashed with cold water, they morph into something else, and they can only morph back when they are splashed with hot water. Some members turn into animals - ducks, pigs and pandas - but poor Ranma Saotome turns into a red-headed pig-tailed girl.
Ranma is a top-class martial artist, so turning into a girl isn’t so great for him. It’s also not very good for Ranma’s fiance, Akane Tendo. To top it all off, Ranma’s dad morphs into a panda! A search for a cure ensues, and there is plenty of madcap action along the way.
This anime classic has a wonderful warm heart and a story of redemption at its core. There was once a much-feared and legendary assassin called Hitokiri Battousai. He was known as a merciless killer with a prowess that was unparalleled. During the Japanese revolution, Battousai mysteriously vanished. Except he didn’t really vanish, he actually changed his name to Kenshin Himura and left the assassin life behind. Living in repentance, he promises never to take another life or harm anyone ever again. Instead, he dedicates his life to protecting those weaker than him.
Of course, it’s hard for Himura to leave his old life behind completely, and it creeps up on him in unexpected ways. He has moments of struggle to hold onto his new life and keep the old buried. It’s an anime series that is heavy on the character development, and it’s all the better for it. The show ran for many seasons and even inspired some decent live-action remakes. A second anime series has just been announced, so fans of the story have even more to look forward to.
Like Dragon Ball Z and Pokemon, Sailor Moon is an anime phenomenon that crossed over into the mainstream and became a pop culture icon. Even if you think you don’t know what Sailor Moon looks like, as soon as you see a picture of her you would recognize the look. Her outfit is hugely popular and one of the favorite characters for people to dress up as at comic conventions and even Halloween parties. But the reason that Sailor Moon became so popular isn’t just down to looks and style, it’s all about exciting storylines, fun action and positive messages.
The story revolves around a young girl called Usagi Tsukino, and how she changes into Sailor Moon in the search for a magical artifact. She leads a group of comrades in a shared quest to stop this Legendary Silver Crystal from falling into the wrong hands. The show was insanely successful, and to date the franchise has generated around $13 billion in revenue.
We’re including Astro Boy in this list of classic anime as it is arguably the original anime and the reason that we're able to compile an anime list at all. The debut series of the anime aired in 1963, and it is regarded as the first example of the aesthetic that would go on to be termed ‘anime’ worldwide. The show was based on the manga written and illustrated by Osama Tezuka from 1952 to 1968, and the story is centered around a young android boy that has human emotions who has been created by Umataro Tenma to help him get over the death of his son.
There were two reboots of Astro Boy, one in 1983 and another in 2003, and it has also been made into a number of films as well as video games. While the storytelling might have been surpassed by the more recent titles on this list, there is no denying that Astro Boy played a huge role in the development of the manga and anime industry.
If you like what you have found on this list, you'll also love our list of the Best Anime Movies, and if animation is your thing, we have a lot more articles for you to read too. Check out The Top 15 Japanese Anime Studios and Why Akira is Still Relevant More Than 30 Years Later.
If all of these artistic series have inspired you to try your hand at animation, why not try designing your own anime character in Curve?
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Jonny is a contributing writer to the Linearity Blog.