The 25 Essential Anime Series To Watch Now

From early Miyazaki to Neon Genesis Evangelion and through Attack on Titan and JoJo's, here's the anime from the last five decades that made an impact.

by , and | December 7, 2020 | Comments

It’s a good time to be an anime fan, what with multiple dedicated streaming services (choose among Crunchyroll, Funimation, HiDive and more), alongside mainstream awards recognition and critical acclaim for the likes of Your Name or Dragon Ball Super: Broly. Meanwhile, Studio Ghibli‘s on HBO Max, and anime-inspired shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra hitting big on Netflix. And now Attack on Titan has returned for its fourth and final epic season.

We’re commemorating these moments with a selection of 25 anime TV series that we believe have been essential to the medium over the last five decades. Our recommendation that these shows ought to be sought out and watched is based on the immediate quality of the stories, characters, and animation, along with their crucial impact in exposing new audiences to the world of anime.

Of course, with so many high-caliber shows produced over the years, much of it readily available at our fingertips, we invite you to create your own guide. Let us know what you think are the best, most essential anime series out there in the comments.

Future Boy Conan (1976) 

(Photo by Nippon Animation)

Owing to its inconsistent availability country to country, Future Boy Conan remains underseen even among most Studio Ghibli devotees. This is something fans must rectify by any means. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki in collaboration with Isao Takahata, this 26-episode series features a flooded post-apocalyptic Earth, warring human factions, a boy with superhuman strength, a girl with telepathic powers, and, of course, pirates and seaplanes. Released before his feature debut, The Castle of Cagliostro, this is light years beyond Miyazaki’s other TV output (like when directing Sherlock Hound episodes or his run on Lupin the 3rd, all great), finding him at his most youthful and enthusiastic. And the show bears all the hallmarks of his later work, like worthy female protagonists, environmentalist messages, and complex, shifting relationships between heroes and villains. Which actually renders the phrase “later work” void. Future Boy Conan shows he’s always known how to make masterpieces.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock (1978-1979) 

(Photo by Toei Animation)

The beginning of a vast space opera franchise created by Leiji Matsumoto, this is a slow-burn melodrama anchored around the titular Harlock, who has left Earth in his ship, the Arcadia, after defining space as the final frontier for a man of honor like himself. He and his crew engage in war with the all-female Mazone, who threaten his home planet. In his characteristic skull-and-crossbones cloak, Harlock’s stoic nature and moral nobility (and not to mention he’s a bit of a lush) quickly became a lovely, foundational trope in anime. It’s now to the point where his image and character has been parodied in disparate animation, from Project A-Ko to Steven Universe.

Watch on: Crunchyroll

Mobile Suit Gundam (1979-1980) 

(Photo by Nippon Sunrise)

Like FuturamaStar Trek, and FireflyMobile Suit Gundam was one of those sci-fi shows that found significant life even after their early cancellations, as fans united and rallied around their beloved series. In Gundam‘s case, the powers that be were convinced to resurrect the franchise after model kits of the show’s mechs flew off the shelves for years. Audiences were clearly vibing to Gundam‘s revolutionary new style of personalized giant robots in space warfare, to the point that decades later a Gundam blasted its way into a major fighting appearance within Ready Player One‘s climactic battle. Outside the cool mech design, the original Gundam series is notable for hero Amuro, and his rivalry with Char, whose redemption and fall in the sequels make up one of the great character arcs in classic anime.

Ranma 1/2 (1987-1992) 

(Photo by Studio Deen)

A freewheeling blitz of martial arts slapstick and ever-so-many romantic misunderstandings, Ranma 1/2 is a tale of two families, the Saotomes and the Tendos, whose members and friends are affected by a curse, enacted upon them after some characters bathe or fall into a forbidden natural spring. Cold water afflicts the accursed, transforming one person into a pig, another a duck, a panda, and so on. And in the case of raven-haired Ranma Saotome, cool liquid morphs him into a red-headed pig-tailed girl. The only way to turn any of them back is with a splash of hot H2O. The quirky gender politics, and the love-hate interplay between Ranma and his violently reluctant betrothed Akane Tendo (not cursed, outside of being an exceptionally bad cook), drive the action and comedy, as other would-be suitors surge in like hawks of anarchy. After its TV run, Ranma 1/2 carried on through a robust gauntlet of OVAs and feature films.

Watch on: Hulu, VIZ

Dragon Ball Z (1989-1996) 

(Photo by Toei)

Anime has been a strong force in upending societal impressions that animation is strictly for kids. And every now and then a show breaks through the otaku inner circles and into shopping malls and the mainstream, validating the medium in a way through its vast pop-cultural reach. Dragon Ball Z is one of those major breakthroughs, an epic of planet-annihilating proportions, whose long-gestating battles of inner rage and surging emotion speaks especially to an eternal adolescent audience. Series protagonist Goku is now an icon of animation thanks to his justice-driven good nature, aided by the characteristically unfussy character design by Akira Toriyama, and a meme-friendly fanbase. And Goku still lives today, through a currently-airing sequel series, the critically acclaimed 2019 Broly film, and even funky Thundercat songs.

Watch on: Funimation

Patlabor: The TV Series (1989-1990) 

(Photo by Sunrise)

Patlabor pulls the mecha genre out from space operas and away from all those cosmic threats, and lands it in for a more upbeat earthbound approach. Created in the twilight of Japan’s  economic boom before the bubble burst in 1992, the series glitters with a positive, progressive outlook on the (then) near-future of the island nation, where commercial-grade mechs called Labors have integrated within every day life, powering transportation, manufacturing, land development, and more avenues of industry. We follow the colorful, motley crew of officers at Second Special Vehicles Division, who combat a variety of Labor-related crimes. Less overtly political than the OVA and movie timeline, The TV Series is an appealing breakdown of a unique police unit’s inner workings that, in its best episodes, feels like an office sitcom whose lessons are delivered through giant robot beatdowns.

Watch on: HiDive

Sailor Moon (1992-1997) 

(Photo by Toei)

If stereotypically Dragon Ball Z captured the attention of boys, then Sailor Moon did the same for girls. A pioneer in national broadcast syndication like DBZ, Sailor Moon brought anime to the masses. It was an after-school, afternoon delight to daily unite with Usagi (or Serena, in the original English dub) and her intergalactic planetary squad of friends, as they navigate adolescent life, mysterious boyfriends, and their own secret identities as magically-endowed defenders of the planet. Series director Kunihiko Ikuhara would go to direct another shojo classic series, Revolutionary Girl Utena.

Watch on: Hulu, VIZ

Tenchi Muyo! (1995)

(Photo by AIC)

From Bubblegum Crisis to El-Hazard: The Magnificent World to Oh My Goddess!, production house AIC defined the anime look from the mid-’80s to early ’90s. AIC’s tendency towards warm color tones and diligent, weighty animation gave their projects an alluring haze which felt simultaneously grounded and not of this world. The Tenchi universe was the commercial crown jewel of the era, with additional OVAs, feature films, and spinoffs. Tenchi‘s premise is one of those classic anime wish fulfillment set-ups, where a hapless high school dude gets entangled in a love triangle, with the two other participants being a princess from another planet, and a roguish space pirate. Superhuman powers, time travel, and a cat-rabbit who can transform into a spaceship may also get involved. The AIC look and Tenchi‘s fluidity between romance, action, sci-fi, comedy, and drama really hits that anime sweet spot.

Watch on: Funimation

Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996)

(Photo by Gainax)

Hailed as the apex of serialized anime since its debut, Neon Genesis Evangelion’s champagne reputation belies just how strange it is. Set in a post-apocalyptic Japan where kaijus known as “Angels” repeatedly ravage humanity, the series follows Shinji Ikari, an insecure boy chosen to pilot one of the Evangelions, which are giant, mysterious robots that are the only weapons capable of repelling the Angel menace. From there, Evangelion transforms from a mecha procedural into an impressionistic allegory about the inherent loneliness of being human. The virtually plotless finale divided audiences at the time and remains contentious to this day. Series creator Hideaki Anno responded to fan outrage with a supplemental film titled The End of Evangelion, which brought closure to the story while diving headlong into a darkness that the show merely glanced at. The result is a harrowing but unusually frank exploration of mental health. Taken altogether, Evangelion’s hallowed status is understandable: While the saga becomes more inscrutable the deeper it goes, viewers will come out the other end having gained a deeper understanding of themselves.

Watch on: Netflix

Pokemon (1997-present)

(Photo by OLM, Inc.)

If Dragon Ball was for boys, and Sailor Moon was for girls, then Pokemon was for everyone. With its limitless capacity for cute monsters, and hero Ash Ketchum’s simple, defined goal of mastering the capturing of said monsters, Pokemon launched with an immediate, all-ages appeal. Twenty-three seasons later, Ash is still at it, with no signs of slowing down. That’s because the show (and franchise at large, really) hasn’t wavered from its core, timeless bent towards adventure and discovery, of what it’s like to be operating in its universe. Every opportunity is taken to make you feel the thrill of being a Pokemon seeker, as seen in the video games, Pokemon GO!, and even Detective Pikachu.

Watch on: Pokemon TV

Cowboy Bebop (1997-1998)

(Photo by Sunrise)

Cowboy Bebop feels like the end of anime’s classic era, a spectacular climax for cel animation television, and the dawn of anime finally entering the public consciousness. Of course, Bebop had a big hand in making anime explode in America, as cable television grew in popularity and Cartoon Network began airing the show in blocks with the likes of The Big O, Trigun, and InuYasha. Relentlessly hip, Cowboy Bebop stood out (still does) for its silky animation, eclectic blues and jazz soundtrack, postmodern editing trips, explosive action set pieces, and the natural allure of star bounty hunter Spike, who moves like a deep space Elliott Gould from The Long Goodbye. Only Spike’s even cooler than Marlowe.

Watch on: Hulu

Serial Experiments Lain (1998)

(Photo by Triangle Staff)

Serial Experiments Lain helped usher in a new style of anime, of more digitally-produced shows with a glossy bloom and deeper, darker, complicated storylines. In the wake of Neon Genesis tearing up the typical anime playbook, Lain pursues a surreal, interior cyberpunk story about a withdrawn high school girl who receives an email from a classmate who has recently committed suicide. Questions of hyperreality, consciousness, and the everyday tangibility of cyberspace ensue. Lain is pretentious, symbolic, and absorbing – a prime example of a brave new world in anime.

Watch on: Funimation

FLCL (2000-2001, 2018)

(Photo by Production I.G)

What does FLCL (pronounced “Fooly Cooly”) mean? Nobody seems to know in this joyous, nervy, and wistful odyssey through the pangs of puberty. A passion project by Gainax animator Kazuya Tsurumaki, this madcap allegory delivers one of the most experientially authentic depictions of blossoming sexuality in any medium. The story kicks off when Naota Nandaba, a surly 12-year-old boy from a nondescript town, has his life upended when a boisterous drifter drives into town and thwacks him across the head with her guitar. Symptoms for Naota’s injury include angst, confusion, and his skull sprouting fighting robots who may be a part of a vast alien conspiracy. Like its title, the story logic of FLCL matters far less than how the journey makes the viewer feel. For anyone who can remember their first discombobulating step into adulthood, FLCL will feel like coming home.

Watch on: Hulu, Funimation, Crunchyroll (2018 season)

Naruto (2002-2017)

(Photo by Pierrot)

One of the longest-running anime ever with over 700 episodes, it’s pretty hard to never have heard of Naruto before even if you’re not into anime. The show follows an orphaned boy named Naruto, who lives with the soul of a nine-tailed demon fox trapped inside him, and dreams of one day becoming a ninja. The value of friendship and determination is at the core of this show, which offers plenty of interesting characters, both friend and foe, and a story that grabs your attention and never lets go despite having hundreds of episodes. Of course, this all wouldn’t work if Naruto himself weren’t an amazing protagonist. Indeed, he’s one of the most well-developed and charismatic characters in anime history, and we witness him evolving from from aspiring ninja, to leader, to even a father.

Watch on: Crunchyroll, Hulu, Netflix, VIZ

Fullmetal Alchemist (2003-2004)

(Photo by Bones)

An action/adventure show with an upbeat tone, amazing action scenes, excellent world-building and characters you can easily fall in love with, it’s easy to see why Fullmetal Alchemist is considered one of the best anime series of the 2000s. As upbeat as it is, the story has loss and grief as a central theme. The series follows two brothers who venture out to look for the legendary Philosopher’s Stone and regain the bodies they lost after trying to resurrect their dead mother using alchemy. Also worth noting is the equally fantastic Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which was a more faithful adaptation of the original manga, whereas Fullmetal Alchemist took many liberties with the source material.

Watch on: Netflix

Code Geass (2006-2007)

(Photo by Sunrise)

In an alternate timeline where the British Empire won the Revolutionary War, but then subsequently lost against Napoleon, we’re introduced to a world where the Holy Britannian Empire controls a third of the Earth. Now, the Empire is set on conquering Japan. A Britannian prince in exile finds himself the leader of a rebellion when he receives the “power of absolute obedience.” Code Geass is full of unforgettable twists, with several mysteries and shocking developments coming at the audience, and a compelling war story that manages to tell a big picture story of epic proportions as well as more intimate character stories that you’ll care deeply about. Then there’s the mech action. Though this is not Neon Genesis Evangelion, this series still offers plenty of giant robot action mixed with the Game of Thrones-like political machinations.

Watch on: Netflix, Funimation, Crunchyroll

Death Note (2006-2007)

(Photo by Madhouse)

What do you get when you combine a god of death so bored he drops off on Earth a notebook capable of killing any person whose name is written inside, a high school student who wants to clear the world from criminals, and an eccentric detective known only as L? One hell of a cat-and-mouse four-dimensional chess game. Death Note doesn’t have a villain really, but instead it lines up two opposing sides who believe in justice but follow vastly different paths to achieve it. There are questions about morality and justice that will make you think, and nail-biting schemes and plots that will keep you guessing and enthralled.

Watch on: CrunchyrollNetflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Tubi, Vudu, Pluto TV, VIZ

Gurren Lagaan (2007)

(Photo by Gainax)

In this over-the-top, loud, hot-blooded, and exciting mecha show hides the antithesis of Evangelion, offering not so much a deconstruction of the genre, but a celebration of it. Gurren Lagann follows two friends who become the symbols of rebellion against a powerful tyrant, in a world where mankind has been forced underground to live in subterranean villages. This show has fast-paced action sequences that can rival those of the biggest blockbusters, with a distinct visual style as loud and extreme as an ’80s heavy metal banger. Additionally, Gurren Lagann doesn’t shy away from killing off favorite characters and exploring more emotionally mature themes while raising the stakes to epic world-ending proportions.

Watch on: Funimation, Crunchyroll, Netflix, Hulu

Steins;Gate (2011)

(Photo by White Fox)

Time travel stories aren’t easy to pull off, but Steins;Gate almost makes it look easy. (And that’s while having a semicolon it its title.) We follow a self-proclaimed mad scientist who likes to joke around with crazy inventions, until he accidentally invents a phone that can send messages across temporal space. Now he and his friends find themselves trapped in a murder loop, as the show uses the butterfly effect to demonstrate the increasingly complicated consequences of trying to change the future. The story is airtight, and though the time travel gets complex, it’s never too confusing. As much a head-scratcher as it is a thrilling roller coaster, this is a sci-fi show you don’t want to miss.

Watch on: Hulu, Funimation, Crunchyroll

Hunter x Hunter (2011-2014)

(Photo by Madhouse)

In a world where people can become certified Hunters to track down treasure, criminals, and people, a 12-year-old embarks on a journey to become a Hunter himself in order to find his missing father. The premise of Hunter x Hunter isn’t completely new (it feels a lot like Dragon Ball), but what makes this show special is in the execution. For one, the show makes its villain as big and compelling a character as the hero, and his story rivals the best protagonist stories out there. Hunter x Hunter has one of the best villains in anime, plus plenty of super-powered action to satisfy any comic-book–style anime fan.

Watch on: Crunchyroll, Tubi, Vudu, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, Pluto TV, VIZ

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (2012-present)

(Photo by David Production)

One of the most popular and beloved franchises in recent years, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure tells the multi-generational saga of the Joestar family, with each new season in the saga following a new “JoJo” protagonist from the lineage. Thus, the show spans several generations, along with multiple locations and genres, while always maintaining its very distinct and strange visual style. This is Victorian vampire horror, superhero Nazi-fighting, and a murder mystery all in one. Also what makes JoJo’s so loved is its many references to ’80s action heroes (most of the absurdly beefy characters are inspired by your Schwarzeneggers and Stallones of yore) and rock stars. Jojo’s is as much an ’80s love letter as Stranger Things, but its memeable and unpredictable nature makes this a must-watch for diehard anime fans and newcomers alike.

Watch on: Crunchyroll, Hulu, NetflixVIZ

Attack on Titan (2013-present)

(Photo by Funimation)

The world is a dystopian nightmare. Humanity is at the brink of extinction, hidden behind giant walls, as a group of soldiers fights to protect citizens from 150-foot-tall humanoid “Titans” with a voracious appetite for devouring people. Attack on Titan starts with a simple concept that promises an exciting, brutally violent, and frightening series, but it evolves into a tragic exploration of fate and hopelessness, while questioning whether the cycle of violence can ever be broken. The music will instantly become part of your favorites playlist, the characters have distinct personalities, the action becomes more fluid and thrilling over time, and the story effortlessly swings from action to political drama to mystery. It’s a thrilling world that keeps expanding.

Watch on: Funimation, Crunchyroll, Hulu, Netflix

Haikyu!! (2014-present)

(Photo by Production I.G)

The best sports anime right now, Haikyu!! takes you to the exciting, blood-pumping, and often heart-breaking world of volleyball. Even if you’ve never watched, played, or even thought about volleyball outside of Top Gun, this show guaranteed to school you on the sport and what makes people so excited for it, while putting you in a great mood every time the central team wins a match. Our main character is Shoyo Hinata, a high school freshman considered too short to play volleyball, but who is particularly fast and adept at jumping. Naturally, we follow his journey to becoming the best volleyball player he can be. This show features fantastic character development, hilarious humor, and some of the best sports sequences ever animated.

Watch on: Crunchyroll, NetflixHiDive (seasons 2 and 3)

My Hero Academia (2016-present)

(Photo by Funimation)

It’s a world where nearly everyone has some sort of superpower, and Izuku Midoriya is born with nothing. That doesn’t stop the kid from enrolling into one of the most prestigious superhero schools, setting out on an improbable journey to become the number one hero on the planet. My Hero Academia takes everything you love about superhero movies, and mixes it with a coming-of-age tale with lots of heart, eye-popping action, a supporting cast of well-developed and memorable characters, a protagonist who isn’t afraid to show vulnerability, and references and homages to your favorite comic books. Whether you want a first entry into the world of superheroics, or have seen all that Marvel and DC have to offer, this show has something for everyone.

Watch on: Funimation, Crunchyroll, Hulu

A Place Further Than The Universe (2018)

(Photo by Madhouse)

Have you ever wanted to do something extraordinary, but then life just got in the way? That’s the premise of A Place Further Than the Universe, which follows a teenage girl who’s always wanted to do something big before graduating high school, but can never figure out what. That is, until she meets a group of girls her age who convince her to journey to Antarctica together. The show is relatable, funny, comforting, and upbeat while still managing to be very emotional. It perfectly captures the youthful optimism of the teenage spirit, as no matter how many adversities the girls face, they still manage to overcome them with each other’s help.

Watch on: Crunchyroll

Thumbnail image: MAPPA