Proving that animation isn’t just for kids, the best anime series offer compelling drama, breathtaking action, and complex plots.
Note: This list only considers releases distributed in the U.S. as of the publication of this article.
1. Full Metal Alchemist
Released in 2004, Full Metal Alchemist is something of a vintage anime series. Brothers Alphonse and Edward Elric attempt to bring back their mother from the dead, but their alchemy costs them many of their limbs. The two are known everywhere in the world and search for the fabled Philosopher’s stone, hoping that it can restore their bodies. The complete first season was released in 2010 was rated the most popular by AnimeNewsNetwork.
2. Avatar: The Last Airbender
Avatar: The Last Air Bender aired for three seasons on Nickelodeon. It earned some of the highest ratings on the network and even inspired a live action film by M. Night Shyamalan. It was also nominated for multiple awards, from the primetime Emmys to the Peabody Award. The series follows a young man named Aang, the last airbender, who must master water, earth and fire to reunite his world and free it from the domination of the Fire Nation.
3. Cowboy Bebop
From the first strains of its jazz-influenced theme song, viewers knew this show was going to be different. While the premise of “bounty hunters in space” may seem a bit odd, and the concept of a mismatched crew is nothing new, the action sequences, character interactions and emotion behind the story quickly made this a favorite. A unique soundtrack eschewing the usual J-Pop sounds of anime didn’t hurt, either. Cowboy Bebop is number seven on the MARP (Meta Anime Review Project) list of top-rated anime and climbed to second place on Anime News Network’s most popular.
Not the standard anime fare, Trigun follows the adventures of the sometimes comic, always compassionate Vash, who wanders a desert-like world, leaving a wake of destruction. Vash is a bit of a gunslinger and he’s wanted by bounty hunters from all over the galaxy. The infamous fugitive is more interested in his doughnut obsession than he is in being a desperado. The series complete set is a bestseller on Amazon.
5. Supernatural:The Anime Series
This gem of a series was created for fans of the Supernatural television series. The anime is reflective of the classic styles of the mid-1990s, with dark colors and splashes of brightness. The story follows Dean and Sam (voiced by series star Jared Padalecki) during their first two seasons of demon hunting. For fans of the show, it enhances their series expectations, but for fans of anime, it’s a look back at the styles that launched anime into the American marketplace.
6. Neon Genesis Evangelion
In a post-apocalyptic world, Earth’s remaining humans face one more devastating enemy – strange creatures known as Angels. The one hope for humanity’s salvation is Evangelion, a series of mecha piloted by emotionally fragile adolescents. Will they be the saviors of mankind or only further its demise? With its mix of action, psychological drama, coming-of-age themes, religious imagery and even comedy, Neon Genesis Evangelion is hailed as one of the best anime series by legions of fans.
7. Bubblegum Crisis
A forerunner of the cyberpunk genre, Bubblegum Crisis focuses on the near future of Megatokyo in 2033 where overcrowding and unemployment has created a dangerous climate. Robotic boomers have replaced humans in the workplace and four women, known as Knight Sabers, work to protect humanity from the cold corporations. The series has lots of flash, music and snark. With multiple spin-offs, the series and its offshoots remain one of the strongest Anime franchises.
8. El-Hazard The Magnificent World
Several high school students are transported to a magical world where they must struggle against strange foes as they hunt for a way to return home. With a score of 96, this short anime series is the fourth-highest rated title at MARP. However, it may not be for all tastes. Rather than seriously contemplating the clash between two different worlds, the series decides to focus on wacky exploits and comedic action. El-Hazard is also an example of what is sometimes called the “harem anime” where a hapless male is surrounded by a horde of amorous females (see the various incarnations of Tenchi for further examples of the genre).
9. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex expands on the world created in the original Ghost in the Shell manga and subsequent movie release. In the future, cybernetic enhancements allow humans to increase their strength and intelligence and access the net through their minds. These newfound abilities lead to unique cyber crimes, and Section 9 is the special police force charged with solving these cases. Each season features a complex storyline that evolves over the course of 26 episodes, with one-shot stories scattered throughout.
10. Death Note
Rated third most popular by Anime News Network, Death Note follows Yagami Light, a student with great prospects who discovers a notebook from the realm of the Death Gods. Yagami decides to use the book to create a perfect world, but when the criminals begin to die, a legendary detective named “L” is put on the hunt to track down Yagami. The classic style of animation mixes well with a story about a battle of wits, deception and logic.