Back when I first began watching anime – that is, animated programming from Japan – it was was either the terrible English dubs shown on Cartoon Network or whatever VHS tape with bootlegged subtitling I’d find at some seedy video shop. My options were limited, to say the least.
Nowadays, anime fans don’t have nearly as much hassle finding quality releases of their favorites shows, and often with official subtitling and occasionally an English language track that remains true to the original script. Recently, I’ve begun rediscovering the current anime scene through the plethora of means today’s fans have to watch the latest hit shows. And as a handy guide, I’ve compiled here a list of nine anime you have no excuse for not watching.
Attack On Titan
WHAT: When the world is overrun by giant humanoid creatures – a.k.a. Titans – that exclusively seek out humans and devour them, humanity is forced to seek refuge or face extinction. Over 100 years have passed since humanity began living behind immense walls for protection, and on one fateful day an enormous 60m Titan appears and kicks a whole in the outermost wall! With Titans streaming in and refugees on the run, all hell breaks loose; forcing humanity to face their annihilation head on. Which they do by utilizing 3D maneuvering gear that allows humans to swing and fly (think Spider-Man) and attack these giant Titans in their one weak spot: the nape of their neck.
WHY: Attack on Titan, or Shingeki no Kyojin (which literally translates to “Advancing Giants”) is quite possibly the most popular anime in the world right now. It’s gruesome and really bizarre, but incredibly addicting and chocked full of huge surprises and intense action. And did I mention terrifying? The main cast is comprised of a young group of cadets who all have their own reasons for joining the fight against the Titans, whether they be altruistic or simply selfish, and the camaraderie between them is the core appeal of the series. That, and fighting Titans with that 3D maneuver gear just looks really, really cool.
WHERE: It’s available to stream with English subtitles on Crunchyroll (free), Hulu (free) and Netflix (subscription). The English dub is available on Funimation (subscription) and a handful of episodes are available on Adult Swim (some require cable subscription authentication).
Sword Art Online
WHAT: Set in a world where Virtual Reality Massive Mulitplayer Online Role-Playing Games are incredibly popular, the advent of new VR technology called Nerve Gear allows players to control and experience games all with their minds. Sword Art Online is the newest and most revolutionary game to date, but once the servers open and the first players log on they soon realize they can’t log out! No one can, not until a player reaches the 100th level and beats the game. To make matters even more dire, if a player dies in the game, they’ll die in the real world; making SAO the most important video game of anyone’s life.
WHY: If Attack on Titan isn’t actually the most popular anime around right now, then it must be Sword Art Online (currently in it second season). While set within a VRMMORPG, it’s similar to a lot of RPG series, with classes, leveling, looting, etc. The way classic MMO elements and language are incorporated is very clever and makes the series a must for gamers. SAO has an intriguing concept, often exploring what is reality? And for those in the game, the threats they’re facing are very real and the consequences of their actions even more so. But SAO isn’t all that dark and depressing, it’s actually pretty uplifting. Its two main leads – Kirito and Asuna – are both strong players and depicted as on equal footing, which isn’t unheard of in anime but it’s can be rare to find a female lead shown as capable as Asuna in a shonen series (read: made for boys).
Puella Magi Madoka Magica
WHAT: One day two middle school girls come across a small, cat/rabbit-like creature who makes them an offer: he’ll grant them any wish they’d like, but in return they must become magical girls who fight against hellish witches who terrorize the weak of heart. Before they agree, they shadow another magical girl to learn the ropes and witness her amazing abilities, but also the high risk involved in being a magical girl. At the same time a mysterious new transfer student (also a magical girl) does all she can to stop them from agreeing to become magical girls, warning them it would be the biggest mistake of their lives.
WHY: The magical girl genre comes with a set of expectations. Cute girls in cute outfits who wield incredible magic power and have cute little animal mentors. Puella Magi Madoka Magica has all of this, but what this series manages to do with all those elements is unlike any magical girl series before. Its bright colors and enthusiastic characters mask what’s actually a very dark and tragic story, but it still manages a lot of the fun that comes with cute girls battling evil. PMMM turns the magical girl genre on its head and is still one of genre’s best offerings in years.
Knights of Sidonia
WHAT: After Earth was destroyed by giant, shape-shifting alien monsters known as Gauna, humanity flees into space on large ships that serve as life boats carrying what little is left of human civilization. One of these ships – Sidonia – has made astonishing developments with human cloning, asexual reproduction and human photosynthesis that allow humans to be better suited for life in space long term. Yet, Sidonia is still plagued by the Gauna that destroyed Earth in the first place, and to defend against more alien attacks they’ve developed an armada of mobile suits.
WHY: Much of that brief synopsis sounds like just about any space-faring, mobile suit series. Its lead is a young man, Nagate, who quickly proves himself the most capable pilot in years – again, very familiar setup – but Knights of Sidonia is building a story that’s about more than humanity’s newest savior. Nagate’s sudden appearance from Sidonia’s underground is surprising for a few reasons, but the biggest is he lacks any of humanity’s latest genetic advancements. That coupled with new, erratic behavior from the Gauna begins to shed light on Sidonia’s unseen government and just what was sacrificed in order for humans to achieve their new traits. Knights of Sidonia‘s blend of CGI and cel animation is stunning, and it’s also one of the few shows that deals with the impact of extended space travel in a believable manner.
WHERE: Found exclusively on Netflix (subscription), both the subtitled and English dub versions are available to stream.
Nagi-Asu: A Lull in the Sea
WHAT: On the coast of Japan there are two neighboring villages – one on land and another under the sea. Long ago all humans lived in the sea under the watchful eye of the Sea God, but when some desired to live on land, and left to do so, the two factions were forever separated. Since then the two communities have co-existed peacefully, with those on the surface holding a yearly festival where a young woman is offered to the Sea God in appeasement for their leaving. Over time that offering became entirely symbolic and no longer is an actual woman given to the sea. Now, with the sea village’s population dwindling and the waters becoming more turbulent, their middle school is closed and the four remaining students must commute to the surface for school, forcing them to adjust to a new world and new people.
WHY: Nagi-Asu is a slice of life series with a whimsical twist. Beautifully animated, this series focuses on the students from the sea and their classmates on the surface as they grow from children to young adults. All the usual teenage trappings of young love and the confusion and heartbreak that goes with it are present, but there’s also that moody and mysterious Sea God. The sea is changing and those under water begin planning for a hibernation to wait out the coming storm. This places the students from the sea who’ve made friends on the surface in a difficult situation, and when plans are made to again offer a real woman in an attempt to calm the seas, the series takes an unexpected turn.
WHAT: Walking home from school one afternoon, Hiyori Iki pushes a man out of the way of an oncoming bus, only to be struck herself, but miraculously she doesn’t die. Instead, Hiyori becomes what is known as a half-phantom: a human who can transition between the land of the living and the land of the dead. While recuperating in the hospital, the man she rescued comes to visit, revealing himself to be a god named Yato. In this world, gods exist to offer help in return for payment which is then used to fund their shrines. The more successful and beloved a god, the better and larger their shrine. Yato, however, is basically penniless. Hiyori makes him an offering in return for his help in returning her to normal.
WHY: Hijinks ensue, that’s why. Yato is immature, selfish, and his antics and disregard for typical human behavior provides a lot of the series’ humor. Hiyori randomly passing out all over town narcoleptic-style whenever her soul leaves her body is pretty funny, too. But there’s also a heartwarming story at the center of Noragami. One of boy who died too young and his learning to accept his new fate as Yato’s Regalia (a god’s servant and weapon), as well as Hiyori and Yato’s growing friendship which may actually be the cause of Hiyori’s phantom state. Plus, over the course of the series more gods and their Regalia pop up, giving the world of Noragami a cast of interesting characters, some allies and some not.
The Pilot’s Love Song
WHAT: Years earlier in this quasi-European world, the Balsteros Empire was overthrown by the Wind Revolution; a group of rebels who had with them a young girl with the power to harness the wind, hence their name. With his father and mother executed, the young prince Karl La Hire is adopted by a rural family and whisked out of the city to safety. Fast forward several years, and the former prince – now Kal-el Albus – along with his adopted sister enroll in the military’s aerial division to become pilots and join the new expedition to discover the end of the sky. While there, Kal-el falls in love with fellow pilot Claire Cruz at first sight, but unknown to him she leads a double life as the Wind Revolution’s prize champion, Nina Viento, the girl who can control the wind.
WHY: This series is a must for anyone who loves star-crossed romances and flashy, aerial dogfights. Its leads are cute and charming, while at the same time carrying with them a lot of repressed anger and guilt from their difficult pasts. The Pilot’s Love Song also does not shy away from exploring the sacrifices of war, with quite a surprising number of characters becoming casualties throughout the series. The young group of cadets who comprise the aerial division and their instructors are fun characters, and almost all are given an impressive amount of development, which only makes the losses felt all the more impactful.
No Game No Life
WHAT: Brother and sister, Sora and Shiro are gamers of tremendous skill. Undefeated, the pair go by the ominous username “[ ]”, where the username is left, well, blank. “Blank” are inseparable in the real and virtual world, living as hikikomori (the Japanese term for reclusives who seek isolation from society). After defeating yet another opponent, the pair are offered the opportunity to leave their world and enter a new one entirely governed by games. Accepting the offer, Sora and Shiro are transported to Disboard, a fantasy world ruled the god, Tet, who challenges them to “win” by helping Imanity (this world’s humans) to become the strongest and most powerful race in Disboard.
WHY: For starters, the style of No Game, No Life is unlike any anime in recent memory. Vibrantly colored and imaginatively rendered, the world of Disboard and its characters are incredibly eye-catching. The mechanics of the gaming, too, are imaginative, as the world is governed by Ten Oaths that outline how the different races – a.k.a. Exceed (elves, fairies, anthropomorphic beasts, etc.) – can compete with one another. Yet, the real appeal of the series comes from Sora and Shiro and their strange though undeniably strong sibling bond. (But are they actually related? Hmm.) Full of humor – lots of it sexual – No Game No Life is a funny and creative series with a world absolutely brimming with potential.
Sailor Moon Crystal
WHAT: Usagi is a 14-year-old middle school student. She’s a klutz, a crybaby, obsessed with sleeping and eating, and also happens to be a warrior for love and justice, Sailor Moon. Along with her mentor – a cat named Luna – she and the other Sailor Guardians must locate and protect the moon princess and her Silver Crystal; and object of unbelievable power. Aiding them in their fight against the forces of the Dark Kingdom is the mysterious Tuxedo Mask, a man whose motives aren’t entirely clear.
WHY: In all honesty, even those with only a passing interest in anime are aware of Sailor Moon. This new adaption of Naoko Takeuchi’s ground-breaking series about a team of magical girls has been hotly anticipated, and in fact a little divisive for fans of the original manga and the first anime adaptation. Yet, its beautiful animation and stream-lined approach to the series’ plot are more in line with today’s audiences’ sensibilities. (Hours upon hours of filler episodes isn’t how Sailor Moon Crystal rolls.) Not a subtle story by any stretch of the imagination, Sailor Moon Crystal is proving to be a fanciful re-telling of Usagi’s transformation into the formidable, if still a little clumsy, Sailor Moon.
WHERE: It’s available to stream with English subtitles on Crunchyroll (free) and Hulu (free). In addition, the Sailor Moon anime from the 90s has also been made available to stream with English subtitles, remastered and uncut, on Hulu (free), along with a brand-new English language dub.
This list is by no means meant to be definitive. There are hundreds of anime series, both past and present, that have been made available to stream online. They’re just sitting there, waiting to be experienced! So what’s stopping you!? And if you’ve been devouring anime after anime like I have, what other series do you recommend? Let us hear from you in the comments below!