Beyond the usual movie and TV offerings available on Netflix, the streaming service also has a selection of anime ranging from mainstream staples like Naruto to original series like Neo Yokio. But with shows featuring everything from ninjas and giant robots to sentient clothing, superheroes, and murderous high-school students, how can one choose which to watch first? In order to solve your streaming questions and woes, Vulture presents this guide to Netflix’s anime series, featuring ten of the best shows available to stream right now.
In our current age of terrifying dystopian realities, it’s hard to find a dystopian show with something new to deliver — and yet here it is. In the world of Attack on Titan, humans live in communities enclosed within giant, concentric walls. Outside the walls, giant humanoid creatures called “titans” roam. Oh, and they have an appetite for humans. When smarter, larger titans with new abilities reveal themselves and break through the barriers, the military must figure out a way to defeat them and fortify the city. Oppressively sad in the particular way only dystopian shows can be, Attack on Titan follows three friends as they join the military and are immediately thrown into the fray of a titan attack. Nothing is sacred in this show, which features beloved characters getting mercifully crushed, chomped, and smashed in each episode. Still, the writers know intrigue, building a world and a story with so many layers that, once you dig in, you can’t help but keep going. Season one available on Netflix.
No, not Netflix’s abominable live-action adaptation. I’m talking about the original series, which stands as one of the greatest animes of all time. Such hefty praise is well-deserved by this show, which builds on the classic cat-and-mouse detective drama and branches out into the realm of the supernatural, in which death gods and magical notebooks are the norm. When Light Yagami, a bright (but casually sociopathic) student gets his hands on a notebook that allows him to anonymously kill whomever’s name he writes inside it, he begins a campaign to cleanse the world of its criminals — and eventually, all those who oppose him. But first, he must thwart the equally bright and eccentric detective determined to stop him. Beyond its deft twists and turns, Death Note also addresses questions about morality, justice, and capital punishment. All this, plus beautiful animation and well-written dialogue and plot, makes Death Note the cream of the animated crop.
If you like your anime with a coat of gloss, you’ll like this series, which has animation so shiny it looks like they ran the illustrations through a power wax at the car wash. A video game turned manga turned anime, Fate/stay night [Unlimited Blade Works] follows Shirou Emiya, an idealistic high school student who gets dragged into a secret life-or-death magic tournament fought by magicians and their servants, the summoned spirits of mythological and historical heroes. For the surviving victor waits the legendary Holy Grail, which has the power to grant the top magician any wish he or she desires. Although there’s not a great history of video games being successfully adapted into other forms of media (ahem, Silent Hill and the Resident Evil franchise), Fate/stay night works. The real treats are the battles and the servants, who include such mythological greats as Medea, Cuchulain, and King Arthur, and each of whom has a special ability or weapon.
File this one in the ranks of “lovably, comically absurd.” Kill la Kill follows the journey of a schoolgirl named Ryuko as she searches for her father’s killer. Wielding one half of a giant pair of magical red scissors as her weapon of choice, Ryuko enrolls in a high school in which the students fight with the help of uniforms that give them superhuman abilities. When Ryuko discovers a sentient uniform that bestows her with her own set of special abilities, she has to fight her way through the school’s hierarchy of uniformed super-fighters to find out the answers she desires. Two dozen episodes of pure, unadulterated camp, Kill la Kill shamelessly goes for gold when it comes to racy humor and packs every moment with action, moving with almost manic speed through its plot, which plays out like a drug-fueled fantasy. All this is grounded by Ryuko, the most determined, streetwise magical girl you’ll ever meet.
As one of the most popular anime series of the past two decades, Naruto has done a lot to bring anime into the mainstream. Naruto, a young ninja with latent abilities and a heart of gold, goes on missions with his team and tries to work his way toward becoming the Hokage, the leader of the village. Full of underdog battles and sunny self-assurances, Naruto takes on a lot of the tropes of the shōnen anime genre. But if you’re looking for subtlety and concise storytelling, look elsewhere: With hundreds of episodes, Naruto is long-winded to say the least. Still, it’s not an international sensation for no reason; it’s an action-packed show with comedy, drama, and positive messaging about the power of hard work, determination, and community. Seasons one through three available on Netflix.
Yes, it’s not the most exciting concept: a bored superhero with an unbeatable one-punch attack tries (and repeatedly fails) to find someone to challenge him. Who wants to watch a powerful, near-unstoppable hero constantly win? But One-Punch Man is far from the typical superhero show. Our hero, Saitama, outfitted in uncool, handmade superhero duds, seems more interested in getting deals at the supermarket than establishing himself as the great savior of the city. Drawing on tropes from popular shōnen and comic books, One-Punch Man presents comically exaggerated villains, idiotic and incompetent heroes, and an accidentally powerful protagonist whose thriftiness and deadpan humor make him — and this show — truly one of a kind. Season one available on Netflix.
A take on the popular genre of magical-girl anime, Madoka Magica isn’t the fluff-and-puff series it seems to be. When a middle-school girl named Madoka and her friend Sayaka encounter a catlike magical creature who promises to grant them any wish if they agree to fight witches, it seems like everything’s going to be flowers and sunshine and cute outfits. But when Madoka and Sayaka meet other magical girls and discover the fine print in their magical-girl agreement, there’s not so much flowers and sunshine as there is death and despair. (However, there are plenty of cute outfits.) Madoka Magica riffs off of the expectations of magical-girl anime to create something darker, yes, but also more ultimately fulfilling. Even the animation, a surprising 2-D collage of patterns and colors, is trippy and jarring, but in all the best ways.
Don’t miss this golden oldie, one of the oldest anime series available to stream on Netflix. Rurouni Kenshin takes place during the Meiji era in Japan, where an assassin formerly known as Hitokiri Battousai (“Battousai the Manslayer”) now goes by the name Himura Kenshin and lives as a friendly, wandering samurai who vows to never take another life. As a sign of his reformed ways, he travels with a sword with a backward blade. Though the show has its lighthearted moments, it’s not flippant in the way it handles its themes of atonement and justice. And while it’s got some filler episodes, the action scenes are memorable and Kenshin is a worthy protagonist. For new fans to the series, there may be a few questions: Why does the main character talk like Yoda? How many times can the word Battousai be said in one episode? Is a sword with a backwards blade even a thing? Why is the villain a mummy? It’s okay, you can just go with it.
And so it was said: Blessed are the gamers, for they shall inherit the Earth … or at least some really cool gear. This series follows a talented teenage gamer named Kirito as he tries the newest in interactive gaming: Sword Art Online. He and countless others quickly find out that they’re trapped inside the game, and if they die in the virtual world, they die in real life. The only way out, of course, is to defeat the game. Kirito teams up with a fellow kick-ass gamer, Asuna, to face the game’s bosses as well as other human threats, and figure out how to live their lives in this virtual world. The action in this show is a big draw, but the real pull is how it depicts the way its characters react in the circumstances. The relationship between Kirito and Asuna, which evolves from a partnership between two teenagers trying to survive to a mature, supportive romance between two people who had to quickly grow up in a traumatic situation, is so well-done that you’ll be rooting for them more than you would Romeo and whatshername.
Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful works of animation on Netflix right now, what Your Lie in April delivers visually is only matched by what it delivers emotionally. In this romantic drama, strait-laced piano prodigy Kousei Arima suffers a mental breakdown at a piano recital and becomes deaf to the sound of his own piano-playing. But when Arima meets Kaori Miyazono, an innovative young violinist who plays with wildness and passion, he begins to re-evaluate what he understands about music and himself. Your Lie in April certainly doesn’t mask where it’s headed: We’ve got an emotionally damaged boy and a bit of a manic pixie dream girl, and we know from the onset that there’s a good chance this whole thing could jump on the express train to the Land of Tears. Still, you can’t help but get drawn in by the story of Arima, whose joys, fears, and anxieties are brought to life through lush, synesthetic animations that move with the music. That alone makes this worthy of watching.