Your uncle Geekly may not be Anime Season, but he’s spent some time watching anime over the years and it may be time to share some anime for people who don’t watch anime and want to know where to begin. This may become a series of 3 Lists of 3, but it’ll differ somewhat from our typical For Starters series. A) I won’t go into too much detail, but I may break this rule on more than one occasion. B) I also want to take genres that people may be familiar with and share a few titles that could match one’s interests. Anime has a massive range of genres and subgenres and one can get lost trying to find something one likes. Think of this series of lists as if you like “fill-in-the-blank,” you may also like this title.
Disclaimer: Uncle Geekly refuses to take responsibility if you don’t like a series on one of these lists, even if you like the genre. Direct all complaints to the comments.
Superhero TV shows and movies dominate. Superhero novels—not graphic novels or comic books, but actual novels—infiltrate book stores, so this is a good place to start with this 3 List of 3.
My Hero Academia
On the surface My Hero Academia looks like standard superhero fare, but it takes an interesting turn or two and it holds a special cultural significance that few anime in any of these lists possess (more on that in a bit).
The superheroes of My Hero Academia have government and/or corporate sponsors. While I’ve seen government sponsored hero work in western superhero stories, I haven’t seen as many corporations backing superhero work. The inclusion of a capitalistic view on superheroes results in different motivations for each character. Some detest the commercialization of superhero work and push back, while others are only in it for the money. Viewers are sure to find a character, or two, they can relate to. There are even some heroes who only go into the business because of a family legacy or their families force them into the business.
The cultural significance comes in the form of taking risks or overcoming risk aversion. A lot of Japan is risk averse. For every great quote like Miyamoto’s “A delayed game is eventually good, a rushed game is bad forever” there are ones like the anonymous Nintendo executive’s “I only like to take risks if I know I’ll succeed.” If you know you’ll succeed, you’re not taking a risk. My Hero Academia’s main character Midoriya is the least likely superhero and must take risks. This series shows that it’s okay to take risks. It’s even okay to take a risk and fail; it’s what you do after a failure that defines who you are. Midoriya always gets back up—eventually—and younger Japanese generations are taking this lesson to heart.
One Punch Man
I struggled with putting One Punch Man on this list. It toes the line between parody and satire. On one hand, it’s the anime equivalent of the 1990s animated Tick. There are so many references to anime tropes and inside jokes that new anime viewers may not catch half of them. On the other hand, it takes a critical look at the all-powerful superhero and how lonely and boring their life must be if they’re never challenged—kind of an earthlier version of Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan. Does a lack of a struggle lead to apathy?
As the title implies main character Saitama can beat anyone with one punch. The superheroes in this title are government sponsored—yay, that again—and they obtain rank through a government program. Despite being able to beat enemies with one punch, Saitama is a lower rank than most other heroes. Effort goes a long way and Saitama views fighting as a bore.
No one can beat Saitama, and how did he obtain this power? A daily routine of 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 100 squats, and a 10KM run (which is a little under six and a quarter miles). That’s a good to great daily workout, but it hardly explains why he can beat people with a single punch. It’s hilarious and it does little to explain his hair loss (I’d like to know how to avoid that, asking for a friend), but it also shows how little Saitama exerts himself to achieve his goal of becoming a superhero. He possesses natural ability and it begs the question if one doesn’t have to struggle to obtain a goal, is the goal worthwhile?
But hey, One Punch Man is hilarious. Having a supervillain monologue for five minutes only to have Saitama take him down with one punch is great to watch, even if he can do it every time.
Claymore is the one title in this list of 3 that won’t be for everyone. To be fair, most if not all the anime on these lists won’t be for everyone, but Claymore caters to a very specific comic book fan. Here’s looking at you, Buffy, Blade, and Morbius the Living Vampire fan boys and girls.
The titular claymores fight yoma, who are shape-shifting beings akin to ogres that feed on human flesh and blood. Claymores are only female and are created by cutting open these young women and implanting them with the flesh of another claymore or the flesh of a yoma. This horrifying process conjures a lot of images and can lead to plenty of interpretations. I won’t share mine here, but after you’ve seen the process of making a claymore, you’ll have a reaction.
The Claymore series follows Clare, the newest and lowest member of the group, as she travels from town to town fighting yoma. As she uncovers more of the mysteries surrounding the Organization (the ones behind the claymores), she becomes less inclined to follow this path. Of all the main characters from the anime in this list, Clare is the most reluctant hero. If that’s something that interests you, you should give Claymore a try. Claymore also does a great job of depicting a hero who partly becomes that which they hate and in turn, how that choice causes them to question with their own humanity.
I’m cheating here a little bit, but I had to include Heroman as an honorable mention in this list because it was co-created by the late, great Stan Lee and features Stan Lee in anime form. We need more anime Stan Lee.
I’m amazed by how many anime could fill the void left by Firefly. In fact, Firefly borrows more than a little from some of these anime. Firefly can trace some of its influences back to at least a couple of the anime on this upcoming list—particularly the first two that came out five to seven years prior—so if a single season, one movie, and a few comic book series aren’t enough Firefly for you, you should try one or two of the following anime.
Cowboy Bebop had to make this list. Spike and company avoid the inner planets’ predominant government and travel the edge of the universe, collecting bounties. Along the way they befriend fugitives with hearts of gold and build their own makeshift family. Yep. That’s pretty much the Firefly formula, and Cowboy Bebop doesn’t take itself too seriously to boot.
Cowboy Bebop is one of the most respected anime of all time and a lot of that comes from series director and creator Shinichirō Watanabe beginning his writing process with the characters. Watanabe wanted the series to be character-driven and he had a definitive ending for Cowboy Bebop early on, citing that he didn’t want Cowboy Bebop to be like Star Trek, something he’d be tied with doing for the rest of his life.
Sometimes the best things in life are finite. The rarer something is the more valuable it becomes and speaking of rare, Cowboy Bebop is in rarified air. Each episode plays like its own mini-movie and that was another concept adopted by Joss Whedon’s Firefly.
Outlaw Star never received the critical or commercial success of Cowboy Bebop because it didn’t do enough to break away from a few clichés, but it’s still a series with some excellent moments and a good fit for folks who can’t get enough Firefly.
Again, we have a ship of misfits traveling the edges of the universe and avoiding the chaotic law of four governments, but this time the governments are weak, at best, and at war. Captain Gene and company must take on odd jobs to fund the ridiculous maintenance costs of the titular Outlaw Star spaceship. This, again, tracks with Firefly.
A bio-android Melfina is the only being capable of interfacing with the ship, but her past is shrouded in mystery, she doesn’t know why she exists, besides to pilot the Outlaw Star, and she has fragmented memories that reveal that she does have a higher purpose and greater abilities. Melfina’s character is like River Tam’s as she looks as if she’s 18, acts like she’s a young child, and the first Outlaw Star captain steals her away from one of the governments—that had bigger plans for her—in an oversized suitcase. Yep. That is, for the most part, River’s backstory, except she’s not an android—or is she?.
But that may be where the similarities end. Captain Gene resembles Captain Kirk if Kirk suffered from space sickness. Seriously, he sleeps with any alien with appropriate parts, but he must use a barf bag each time the Outlaw Star launches. That must be one of my favorite Outlaw Star ongoing gags, but Outlaw Star succumbs to these gags and that may be the chief reason it doesn’t get as much love. It’s not a long series and worth a try.
The anime in this list have gone from serious with a touch of comedy to comedy with few serious themes. Space Dandy is first and foremost a parody of Firefly and other sci-fi shows. The titular Dandy, an alien bounty hunter who is “a dandy guy in space” explores the universe for rare aliens, so Space Dandy shares a lot with Star Trek if the crew of the USS Enterprise were imbeciles. Dandy and his crew (his robot assistant QT and feline-like friend Meow) have the best intentions, but they’re dimwitted and often make situations worse.
Space Dandy has loose continuity at best, since many episodes will feature Dandy, QT, and Meow getting trapped in another dimension or turned into zombies, only to see them back to normal the next episode with little to no explanation. There are plenty of references to older science fiction properties as well as ones for internet culture. Be ready for some dank Space Dandy memes, dudes.
Cyberpunk dominated the small and big screens in the 80s and 90s with Total Recall, Blade Runner, and 12 Monkeys to name a few. The subgenre slithered its way to Japan, resulting in cyberpunk as one of anime’s favorite subgenres. Me thinks there will be more than three to this list.
Ghost in the Shell
I had to start with this one. Major is the face of anime cyberpunk. Set in the future and blessed with high technology where cybernetic bodies (shells) become the norm the world of Ghost in the Shell still suffers from rising crime rates, and a new type of crime—cyber warfare—is given birth. Yes. Ghost in the Shell warned against cyber warfare before it was cool. Elusive hacktivist Puppet Master leads the Security Police Section 9 (the unit Major works for) into a corrupt political and corporate underbelly.
Stunning animation aside, Ghost in the Shell explores self-identity and procreation by means of mechanical replication. It shines a light on a society that prioritizes technological advancement without considering social issues. Some of these issues haunt Japan today. In Japan, there is a growing concern that some would rather reproduce by means of androids or pleasure themselves with robots instead of propagating the species. Japan’s recent population decline further fuels these concerns.
Ghost in the Shell is not only one of the greatest anime of all time, it’s a great science fiction experience and a great place to start for cyberpunk fans. Even though the series are great, I’d start with the original film.
Akira is another quintessential cyberpunk anime. Based in a 2019 dystopian Neo-Tokyo, Akira follows a teenage biker Tetsuo and his biker gang leader Shotaro Kaneda. Tetsuo’s psychic abilities may flirt with fantasy, but Akira’s setting and themes scream cyberpunk. Gang warfare and social inequality based on technological advancement abound.
Even non-anime fans know of Akira. This 90s anime phenomena raised the West’s awareness of the artform, and Akira has influenced a lot of live action movies outside of Japan that include The Matrix and Stranger Things. Tetsuo does have killer psychic abilities after all.
The Bubblegum Universe
The Bubblegum Universe (Bubblegum Crisis, A.D. Police Files, Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040, and Parasite Dolls) ran off and on between 1987 and 2003, so it predates the other two entries—so far—on the cyberpunk anime list. Bubblegum Crisis is perhaps the best and most well-known of this bunch and it tells the story of an all-female group of mercenaries the Knight Sabers powered by exoskeletons. They fight rogue robots and if Iron Man is the Elvis of high-tech exoskeletons, the ladies of Bubblegum Crisis are the Ramones. Hey. Ho. Let’s go.
Bubblegum Crisis blends cyberpunk with a crime drama and even adds a splash of superheroes for good measure. It’s also one of the most visually stunning anime of the 80s. While cyberpunk tends to lean toward the dark and grim, the Knight Sabers and AD Police give it a positive spin.
I told you that I’d sneak in another one on this list. Psycho-Pass is essentially Minority Report if the police used brain scans to determine whether someone will commit a crime or not instead of precognition. That said, Japan becomes one of the safest countries, but they give up some personal liberties in order to institute the Sybil system (the same system that determines if you can commit a crime), but the Sybil system can be manipulated and often is. Psycho-Pass shows a society where the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the individual and presents a world where people are more likely to die from stress than criminal activity.
I know that I said I would stop with three, but there are too many great anime out there, especially cyberpunk anime, and at least I didn’t mention Battle Angel Alita—except that I just did and you should watch Battle Angel Alita before thinking about watching the Alita movie. The anime only ran for two episodes and it’s another great example of how society breaks down as a consequence of technological advances. A future where the have-nots must rummage through the refuse of the haves. Okay. I’m done; I promise.
I hope there are plenty of anime in these lists for you try out. If Uncle Geekly got something wrong, I’m sure you’ll let me know in the comments.