15 anime shows that will make you think, laugh, swoon and cry
A little escapism, a little real life wisdom
Stepping into the world of anime shows feels like a suspension of reality, like some cult Bollywood films and TV serials that challenge traditional notions of science, storytelling and critical thinking. Japanese anime will throw together giant robots, ghouls and super-powered humans in a post-apocalyptic world and still manage to make you giggle over jokes made by tiny talking dogs.
Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z captured our collective imagination through video games, collectible cards, anime series and more. Professor Susan Napier, Tufts University explains the fascination with anime and the show Akira, saying, “Americans had never seen anything like this before – things that far from real life. It was pushing boundaries in a way US comics at the time were not.”
What gets people hooked to anime shows is the storytelling and visuals. Characters, story lines, and whole new worlds are brought to your screens to tell dramatic tales through pop-coloured illustrations. Unlike the cartoons we’re used to watching, anime shows are intricately detailed, playing with lights, shadows and accentuated features, but also realistic expressions, landscapes and settings.
The characters are complex and layered, with rich personalities, relatable quirks and traits. Anime is not just about escapism. While the cartoon facade lulls you into a comfortable slumber, disconnecting you from the real world, the real power of anime comes from its ability to seamlessly meld real human issues with fantastical storytelling and exaggerated character behaviours.
Core messages range from the impact of loneliness – a real crisis in Japan, so much so that they have a Ministry of Loneliness – to existentialism, classism and gender discrimination. Kill La Kill may tell a story of clothes giving you superpowers but underneath it all, you see a critique on capitalistic hierarchies. Psycho-Pass turns the lens on government surveillance and the justice system, even police brutality.
Anime shows dip into horror, body morphing, fantasy, supernatural beings, slice of life comedies, romance, psychological thrillers, superheroes and more – depending on your mood and how much you want to commit, you have a large catalogue to pick from.
Shōnen anime targets a younger male audience with stories featuring male protagonists, action, adventure, fight sequences and more. Seinen is for an older male audience, sophisticated and R-rated in their themes with more violence, nudity, satire and psychological play. Shōjo focuses on drama, romance and relationships, intended to target young girls with female protagonists. Josei is a grown-up version, with more intimacy, dark subjects, realistic relationship depictions that includes the good and the bad. Lastly, there are kodomomuke anime shows which are solely directed at children with creative, imaginative characters, cute visuals and mostly holds a moral message intended to teach children lessons as well.
I don’t really agree with the categorisation of different stories for different genders but it can help you better navigate the burgeoning world of anime shows — it did for me, as I put together a starter-kit for those looking to dip their toes into the anime world.
15 anime shows to add to your watchlist
Protagonists Fuu, Mugen, and Jin are a loveable trio of misfits. Mugen and Jin are two very different kinds of samurais – the former a rule-breaking wild child, the latter a stoic and composed traditionalist. They’re brought together by chance, and enlisted by Fuu, a young teahouse worker to travel together in search of a samurai who smells like sunflowers.
We get to meet a lot of eccentric but also heart-breaking characters through their travels. There’s a beatboxing samurai who’ll reminds you of Elvis impersonators, a Japanese man pretending to be a priest and a hilarious baseball game between locals and an invading American troupe.
Did I mention that it’s got an amazing trip-hop opening sequence? The soundtrack overall is fantastic, with some electronic bops and haunting traditional Japanese songs, like the one sung by Sara, a visually impaired musician (traditionally known as Goze). Though, spoiler alert, she does end up being a secret assassin.
The show is short and sweet, compared to a lot of other long-running anime shows – 26 episodes running for approximately 20 minutes each – and funny as hell. The rural landscape is a beautiful backdrop and you’ll also get to learn a lot about Japanese culture and traditions. The show set in the Edo period (1603-1868), and through the lightness of some pretty biting comedy you get a lot of commentary on the politics and practices of the age – the persecution of christians, disenfranchisement of women and the Yakuza.
You’ll often find yourself wondering, what do sunflowers even smell like?
Watch it on YouTube
The show is created by Shinichirō Watanabe, who also created Samurai Champloo. Watanabe is known for his blending of various styles and genres. In Cowboy Bepop there is a mix of, of course, classic American westerns, cowboy culture, science fiction and noir films.
Our main protagonist is Spike, a former hitman in exile who from a spaceship called Bebop along with Faye, Jet and Edward. However, the favourite in the cast, at least in my eyes, has to be Ein, a genetically-enhanced Pembroke Welsh Corgi.
The crew work as bounty hunters at a time when the Earth is pretty much collapsed and everyone has scattered to inhabit various moons smaller planets across the galaxy. Their shenanigans get them mixed up in a lot of hilarious situations, like Ein eating ‘bad’ magic mushrooms.
But the main story focuses on Spike and his rivalry with Vicious who takes over the Red Dragon crime syndicate. These partners-turned-enemies have a final face off in an incredible fight sequence towards the end, with many heartbreaking moments a long the way as well involving long-last friends, faked deaths and rekindled romances. The show will remind you a bit of Guardians of the Galaxy, except this came out in 1998.
Watch it online here
Kill La Kill
The show gives a new meaning to the term power suit where an outfit literally give people superpowers.
The Kill La Kill world mostly centers on a prestigious high school which our protagonist Ryuko Matoi joins. She’s actually on a hunt to search for her father’s killer, armed with part of a special scissor-blade sword which can cut through the ‘life fibres’ that make up the super-powered clothes.
She faces her first adversary in the form of the student council president, the fearsome Satsuki. Along with her team of ‘Elite Four’, Satsuki adorns the most powerful Goku uniforms. The more higher the ranking of the student, socially speaking, the more powerful the attire.
There’s a class structure in place at Honnouji Academy and Honnō city where the position you hold is derived from the level of the Goku uniforms. And the show carries this commentary into life beyond our screens, showing how the impact of these rankings in schools also determines the circumstances of the students’ families outside the walls of the Academy.
Ruko suspects that Satsuki knows something about her fathers death and keeps trying to take them on. After her first failure she finds a sentient sailor uniform that’s made entirely of life fibres that give her god-like strength to take them all on and find her father’s mysterious killer.
Watch it online here
Attack on Titan
Attack on Titan is one of the most profilic anime shows, probably recommended to you plenty already by your anime-loving friends. And there’s a very good reason for that.
Across four seasons we are presented with a dystopian world where human life is restricted to one special zone protected by huge walls to stave away attacks by the gigantic humanoid titans who cause chaos, destruction and devour human life caught in their path.
We follow the story of Eren and his friends Mikasa and Armin. Their lifes are forever changed when a Colossal Titan breaks through the wall and destroys their home town. They set off together to seek revenge, destroy the Titans once and for all. They join the Survey Corps, a group of soldiers training to fight the Titans. But things take a turn when Eren discovers that he too has the power to transform himself into a Titan.
Will Eren be able to control himself when he transforms or turn into the very monster he’s been trying to destroy?
Watch it online here
If not Attack on Titan then you’ve definitely heard about Death Note before. Maybe for no other reason other than the furore over its English live-action remake.
The story is a classic good vs evil tale. But it does start with moral question of doing something bad for the greater good. You’re almost rooting for the protagonist Light, who stumbles upon a mysterious notebook with a very special ability. When you write the name of the person in the Death Note, they die. The son of a police officer, he has a strong moral compass that directs his actions, focussing on criminals. But his actions soon devolve into just pure criminal activity after a point as megalomani seeps in.
From a public hero named Kira you see him transform into a villain, acting to serve his own God-complex while he’s hunted down by a special task force headed by the exceptional detective known only as L. They dance through power moves and mind games, involving everyone in Light’s life, including his own father who is part of the task force hunting down Kira.
Adding to the comedy and banter is the sinister but also comical shinigami named Ryuk, a god of death who is connected to the death note and only visible to Light. As more Death Note’s enter the human realm the major players keep changing. You’re constantly wondering who is going to come up on top.
And in defence of the English version I do have to say that Willem Dafoe is the perfect shinigami.
Watch it online here
The protagonist of the beloved show is Monkey D Luffy, who inspired by his childhood hoero Red Haired Shanks wants to become the greatest pirate in the world. To become the true Pirate King he wants to prove himself by hunting down the ultimate treasure, known as One Piece.
There’s action, art and a lot of humour in this series that spans 20 seasons with over 900 episodes. Oh and did I mention that Luffy also ate a ‘Death Fruit’ that basically turned his body into rubber?
In his search for the treasure, Luffy get together a crew called the Straw Hat Pirates. Considering how long the show has been running for, there have been many additions to their group too. But what’s amazing about One Piece is that you can get lost in this show to easily. Each character has their own unique personalities and sub-plots that you can immerse yourselves in.
every person in the world of one piece possesses Haki, a mysterious power that lets them channel their spiritual energy to serve different purposes. Though not everyone is able to tap into this ability.
There are different kinds of Haki – namely two of the most prominent ones of observation and armament – adding more complexity and layers to their character as their travel the world, face off with other pirates, assassins, spies, government officials hot on their trails, and so much more.
Watch it online here
This show is heavily rooted in the concept of justice and it’s ever-changing nature. We’re taken to the future in this show’s setting, stepping in 22nd century Japan.
Governance and policiing is replaced by an allegedly objective system called Sibyl. Through special monitoring machines, you can asses the ‘threat level’ of every citizen. Asessing their mental state to find signs of possible criminal intent which is measured on a scale known as their Psycho-Pass. Inspectors often pick up citizens with lethal force based on their grading.
Accompanying the Inspectors as Enforcers, people identified by the Sibyl System as latent criminals with the necessary skills to support the inspectors in maintain law and and order.
Our protagonist Akane is a young woman on the job paired up with veteran Enforcer Shinya. Through their cases Akane starts to question the Sibyl System, which in itself would be criminal. She discovers the true intent of the system, realising its far from fair while everyone around her thinks she’s losing her mind, questioning the very system their society is upheld by.
Watch it on Netflix
Anime and otherwise, Monster is one of my favourite crime/psychological-thriller shows. It is 74 episodes long but it’s also a perfect weekend binge-watch, trust me when I say you’ll breeze through it with ease.
In this masterpiece we follow Kenzo Tenma, a highly respected and talented neurosurgeon living and working in Germany. Everything seems to be going swimmingly. He’s respected by his peers, about to marry the daughter of the hospital director and working on high-profile cases.
One day a young boy is brought in for surgery along with his twin sister. They were the survivors of a family massacre. Tenma has to make a tough choice between doing this young boy’s surgery or listening to his boss’s orders and operating on the Mayor. He picks the former, saves the boy but in the process the death of the Mayor means Tenma’s career is pretty much over. His life starts to spiral downwards after he loses his job and his engagement is broken off.
Out one night getting drunk, he hears news of the twins vanishing from the hospital. One by one ebveryone associated to the case start to get murdered. With him being the only connection he becomes the number one suspect. Tenma goes on the run to track down the twins to prove his innocence.
Little does he know the secrets he’s about to uncover, the real cause of the family massacre and how his one act of saving that young boy’s life changed the lives of many others forever. I’m not going to give away any more, because this really is a great mystery and watching it unravel at the end you’ll feel your jaw hitting the floor.
Watch it on YouTube
Watch Helloing Ultimate for pure action and fight sequences. Though be warned that there’s a lot of blood involved. After all, one of the main characters of this series is a powerful vampire named Alucard. Alucard works for the Hellsing Organisation, headed by Integra. They’re the protectors of English people against all things supernatural – namely vampires and ghouls.
Alucard is a mysterious figure and you wonder why such a powerful being would be so tied to and loyal to a human like Integra. Who is Alucard and how does he come into the service of the Hellsing family? The answers all lie in their names, in the case of Alucard, it’s backwards.
He also surprises everyone when he makes himself a disciple, a young policewoman named Seras. We see him face off on a number of occasions with his nemesis Father Anderson, a super powered priest, of sorts, serving in defence of the Pope. But all that is set aside when a group named Millennium comes into the picture.
I never thought I’d ever have to write down the words ‘Nazi vampires’, but they are the villains here whose sole mission is to destroy the show’s antihero.
Watch it on Netflix
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is another favourite in the anime world. It’s the second adaptation on the manga of the same name, the first being Fullmetal Alchemist. Brotherhood differs from its predescesor by sticking more closely to the source material.
The story is of two brothers, Edward and Alphonse who grow up with an affinity to alchemy whiel being raised by their mother in a small remote village. After their mother passes away the brothers traveled the world in an effort to perfect their alchemic practices. Having come home they decide to use their powers to bring their mother back to life. However, such a ressurection is a taboo and it terribly backfires with Alphonse’s body being completely disinterated and Edward losing a limb.
Edward manages to capture his brothers soul in a nearby suit of armour where he continues to reside, in the process sacrificng his own arm for his brother’s return. The two abandon their home, burn it to the ground and start working with the government as State Alchemists.
While carrying out government work they’re also on a journey to hunt down the famed Philosopher’s Stone and use it to get their bodies back. But in their journey they uncover many secrets linked to this stone, one even connecting back to their father’s past, who was also a very gifted alchemist.
Watch it on Netflix
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
Based on manga of the same name this anime series takes you on a supernatural adventure set in a high school. We follow Kyon, a highschool student who is relcutantly pulled into this world by eccentric classmate Haruhi who establishes a club called the SOS Brigade. The purpose of this club is to fulfil Haruhi’s fascination of the supernatural and investigate all such phenomena they come across. Including encounters with aliens, time travellers, people with ESP and more.
Joining in on the clubs actions are Yuki, Mikuru and Itsuki. Kyon later finds out that these three are actually supernatural beings themselves, who have been sent by their orgnaisations to observe Haruhi.
The truth is that Haruhi unknowingly possess a very special ability to warp reality. Their mission is to keep her contained and preserve the integrity of the real world. So they keep Haruhi engaged and entertained on various adventures, fearing that out of boredom she may mistakenly imagine up a scenario into existence that could devastate the whole world.
Watch it on Netflix
I say watch Afro Samurai purely for the fact tht the anime series and the subequent film sequel stars Samuel L Jakson as the voice of titular character. The setting of the story may seem a bit odd – both a feudal japan and yet futuristic in its own way, a feat that pretty common in the anime world actually.
The narrative is driven by a series of headbands, each numbered and believed to grant the wearer great power. The Number 1 headband was once worn by Afro’s father, Rokutaro. He witnesses his father’s death when he was very young by the outlaw Justice, wearer of the Number 2 headband.
You see, only the wearer of Number 2 can challenge the owner of Number 1 and take the crown of the greatest warrior. Meanwhile, the Number 2 can be challenged by anyone else seeking to gain more power.
Years later we meet Afro again, now the owner of the Number 2 headband and on a mission to track down Justice and avenge his father’s death. While focussed on his own life’s mission, Afro destroys everyone in his path, including the relationship with a childhood friend Jinno. Afro murdered their master to claim the Number 2 headband and Jinno is on his own revenge path.
We’re left to question whether the devastation caused by Afro is worth the vengeance he seeks. The amount of lives he’s taken to counter the one the person that had been taken from him. How far do you go before you realise that you’ve become a monster greater than the one you’ve been hunting? Will finally wearing the Number 1 headband make it all worth it in the end for our protagonist?
Watch it on Netflix
The Promised Neverland
This show went from ‘aw’ to ‘holy moly what is happening’ real fast. The show opens in 2045 with 11-year-old Emma and her two best friends Norman and Ray, all of them growing up in an orphanage. They live a happy life, excel at their studies, have great food, friends, games and a loving ‘mother’ Isabella who looks after all the kids in the home. The only restriction is have is to never leave the orphanage grounds.
One night when a girl is taken away to be adopted, she leaves behind her favourite toy which Emma and Norman pick up to give her before she leaves. Instead, they find her dead and this leads them to the reality of the real purpose of their upbringing.
We learn that 1000 years ago an agreement was made between humans and demons called ‘The Promise’ to end a long and bloody war between the two races. This entailed each of the groups to be left alone to live peacefully in their own separate worlds. We realise that the orphanage is, in fact, a special breeding program in the demon world where children are brought up and then served up on a plate for demons ‘parents’ to feed on. The feeding would prevent the demons from completely devolving into mindless creatures.
Realising this horrific reality the kids decide to run away from the orphanage while also freeing the other kids that reside there. While Emma and Ray manage to get away into the big bad world outside, norman was taken away to be ‘adopted’.
The escapees struggle in the real world, making enemies and allies alike, teaming up with some demons as well to destroy the orphanages, free all their siblings and renegotiate the terms of The Promise.
Watch it online here
The Disastrous Life of Saiki K
This one became a quick favourite of mine. In the midst of all the heavy, long and kind of drawn out shows running for god knows how many seasons (not that im complaining, but it does get a bit taxing after a point) this came in liek a breathe of fresh air. It’s a mix of fantasy, comedy and romance, light to watch and super funny with gags and one liners to entertain you throughout.
The name itself is what first caught my eye. Saiki Kusuo is a young high school student who has pretty much every psychic ability you can imagine – teleportation, mind-reading, psychokinesis, etc. But even being this powerful, all he wants is to be left alone and live a normal, quiet life. But that’s hard to go given the characters he’s surrounded with in school.
He usually stays to himself, is introverted and looks straight out of Gen Z TikTok. His inner commentary about the people around him, their interactions are just hilarious and while there’s no real strong plot here to unravel, it’s incredibly entertaining to watch him interact with his friends an family while trying to continue to hide his disdain for his extraordinary powers when all he wants is an ordinary life of drama and excitement.
It’s difficult enough for us ordinary humans, imagine what it would be like when you can hear what everyone is thinking, at all times.
Watch it on Netflix
My Hero Academia
If you’re a marvel/DC comics fan looking to branch out from the usual superhero fair then this one from all the anime shows may be the right pick for you.
My Hero Academia is part coming of age high school drama and part superhero epic tale. The narrative world is one where a large portion of the population has superpowers or some kind of enhanced ability called Quirks. That is, except our protagonist, Izuku. Even at school he goes to he stands out among the few who don’t have any quirks.
Our quirkless hero is enrolled at a school that is meant to train students to use their powers to protect those with less powerful or no quirks at all. He still dreams of being a superhro himself and his life changes when he meets the greatest superhero of them all, All Might, who shares his powers with Izuku and become his successor after seeing the potentioal he has. But having such powerful quirks has a downside as well.
All Might has the ability to stockpile powers but also transfer them to another person. The power is a lot to handle, without literally destroying your body in Izuku’s case. But to live up to the expectations of his hero idol he trains hard at the academy, joins a new class of top heroes and is given the new name Deku.
There are a lot of characters in this show, but watching the various powers come into play is entertaining to see. It also raises many questions of blind hero worship and what it even means to be a hero – who are you really serving? We see a lot of characters navigating through this personal baggage while fighting off enemies, including the League of Villains, which is just such a great straightforward, no-nonsense name.
Watch it on Netflix