Netflix has officially gone all the way in on Japanese anime, reportedly investing truckloads of money into producing original series and movies, as well as making big-ticket acquisitions like the world-famous franchise Neon Genesis Evangelion, set to hit the platform this spring. But with so many options available, it’s hard for newcomers to know where to start, and Netflix doesn’t help by lumping its whole library under an “Anime” genre category. Anime encompasses countless different genres and subgenres and caters to several distinct demographics and tastes, just like live-action TV and film in the States. So if you want to give Netflix’s anime series a shot but were confused by seeing wildly different shows like Devilman Crybaby and Pokémon sitting next to each other, this list is for you.
Carl Macek is dead, but his Robotech will live forever and ever. The former Heavy Metal magazine writer and Lucasfilm marketer for Star Wars accomplished a brilliant, cheap vision in 1985: soldering together three unrelated Japanese series that all had evil aliens, transforming robots, and soapy melodrama, and importing them to the U.S. as one TV show, Robotech. Like all the best space operas, it captured kids’ attention with both sci-fi action and unrestrained horniness. Much of the show’s conflict revolves around the fact that the aliens can’t fathom that humans bone sometimes. It’s campy! It’s also genius.
Watch it if you love: Top Gun; Transformers before Michael Bay
Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet
Since the ultimate refugees of climate change will be our descendants, everyone should watch this show about a drowned Earth and the information and culture that gets washed away by it. This show starts when Ledo, a young soldier, is wormholed away to Earth just as he was about to lose a space battle with aliens. He has to adjust to a language barrier between his fellow humans on Earth and the fact that he grew up thinking the planet was an old myth. Gargantia has everything: action, environmental subtext, a talking robot, and several canny plot twists.
Watch it if you love: the Battlestar Galactica reboot; the setting of Waterworld
Children of the Whales
Like Gargantia, Children of the Whales plays with the idea of a postapocalyptic world racked by ecological disaster, this time as a global desert instead of an ocean. A pocket of survivors now lives on a giant floating city called the Mud Whale, and a majority of them developed psychokinetic abilities. Its 12 episodes explore what happens when the Mud Whale encounters another island with very different beliefs, and the conflict that follows. And while that’s all interesting, its stylized animation, watercolorlike backgrounds, and slow pace put the show in a class of its own.
Watch it if you love: Dune, Mortal Engines
Little Witch Academia
One day, this show will join the great pantheon of witch media, and it’ll be thanks to its protagonist Akko, the endearing “little witch” herself who works her butt off at a witch school for girls. As someone with a non-magical background, Akko isn’t naturally gifted and has to practice really, really hard to get her spells right, often getting them wrong and giving her friends furry tails or animal ears in the process. But she never gives up, which is a big part of why fans keep clamoring for a new season.
Watch it if you love: the Harry Potter series; Hocus Pocus
Kill La Kill
In a sci-fi action comedy where clothes are superpowered AI, sometimes the underage heroes have to get basically naked to save the day. Is this gross, objectifying fan service? Yes. But Kill La Kill flips the concept by empowering its female protagonists and villains throughout and emphasizing the bonds between them. (As other writers have noted, the show passes both the Bechdel and Reverse Bechdel Test.) Very few anime or “prestige” live-action series alike outline arguments against constricting social ideas around fashion, body image, and mental health, but Kill La Kill shreds through them with complex characterization and an electric-guitar–fueled soundtrack. Like a cherry on top, several of its fight sequences kinetically toggle between animation styles, à la Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Watch it if you love: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World; Alita: Battle Angel
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
In a world more tightly gripped by fascist ideology than ever, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood feels essential. This blockbuster soars on rich character relationships, bravura displays of light and magic, and a plot vibrating with tension. Brotherhood’s heroic brothers Ed and Al are alchemists seeking the philosopher’s stone to restore their bodies after the cosmos punished them for trying to resurrect their dead mother. Meanwhile, the authoritarian government they work for — led by a mustachioed swordsman called “Fuhrer” — has its own sinister plans for the Stone. In 64 episodes, Brotherhood never falters, using philosophy to unpack the consequences of unethical scientific experimentation, xenophobia, state violence, and more. It also balances its darkness with plenty of humor.
Watch it if you love: the Star Wars movies; Raiders of the Lost Ark
Mobile Suit Gundam UC
Think “high investment, high reward” if you get lost amid Mobile Suit Gundam UC’s jargon and sprawling backstory. The space-opera franchise is 40 years old and running, so this one isn’t easy for newcomers, but it pays off. The setup echoes previous entries: Teenage boy pilots a robot (called a Gundam) and encounters friends, enemies, and Jedi-like extrasensory powers in armed conflicts between Earth and its space colonies. Politics and power plays drive the show, but UC balances them with intimate scenes like this one, fluidly animated space battles, and even LSD-trip dream sequences. And the ultimate reveal of the show’s MacGuffin, “Laplace’s Box,” beats anything else you’ll catch on American TV.
Watch it if you love: 2001: A Space Odyssey; the appendices of The Lord of the Rings
War may be hell, but sometimes what comes after is worse. After a bloody career as a child soldier that stole her arms and her emotional development, a girl named Violet has to adjust to a world at peace. It doesn’t help that her new job involves ghostwriting letters for people with her prosthetic hands. This slow-paced show is obsessed with feelings: what they are, how we voice them, and why they affect us in ways we don’t anticipate. Violet’s trauma cut so deep that she shut herself off from her feelings, and her struggle to find them again illustrates the power of writing, therapy, support systems, and patience.
Watch it if you love: The Best Years of Our Lives; Léon: The Professional
Not every series can capture humor, swashbuckling swordplay, and historical context quite like Rurouni Kenshin does. Its story of a swordsman running from his bloody past examines the upheaval following Japan’s Meiji Restoration through a humanist lens. Even as the swords fly, every episode argues for pacifism and the safeguarding of the community from violence. The way it echoes social inequalities the world still experiences today make it worth trying.
Watch it if you love: Deadwood; the work of Akira Kurosawa
If supportive and vulnerable portrayals of bros gets you going, Gurren Lagann will get you going. The show is packed with lines like “Believe in the me that believes in you” and similar affirmations between characters invested in each others’ self-actualization. Those over-the-top overtures pair nicely with its exaggerated animation and duels involving drill-shaped robots called “Gunmen.” All that said, like many shonen anime, Gurren Lagann remains a problematic fave. Its women and gay characters suffer from fan service and grossly persistent stereotypes, but many still consider it a classic.
Watch it if you love: the Fast and the Furious movies; making fun of Fight Club
Death Note’s Light Yagami may be one of the most sinister Macbethian villains of the last 20 years. Over the course of 37 episodes, he murders countless individuals by writing their names in the show’s titular magic book, lies incessantly to practically everyone in his family or social circle, and seeks to establish his own utopia as a god of death. He meets his match when a genius investigator named L starts to close in on him with his own mind games, propelling the show into a dark, suspense-heavy cat-and-mouse chase for the ages.
Watch it if you love: The Silence of the Lambs; any Sherlock Holmes story
Your Lie in April
You’d be forgiven for thinking the core “lie” in Your Lie in April is the false promise that pain and hardship beget great art, but this tearjerker is both more literal and introspective than that. When a young piano prodigy named Kousei loses his domineering mother to a terminal illness, he finds himself suddenly incapable of hearing musical notes. The story picks up years later, as he falls in love with a talented violinist, Kaori, who inspires him to play again. Your Lie in April expresses the fallout of traumatic loss on children with tremendous empathy, at times dropping dialogue almost entirely and using classical music and colorfully abstract animation to convey Kousei’s inner feelings.
Watch it if you love: A Star Is Born; Immortal Beloved
No purer commentary on male adolescence exists than having a demon possess you, but that setup is tame compared to where Devilman Crybaby’s ultraviolence eventually goes. In its ten-episode run, you can expect depravity and horror from humans and demons alike, all realized in a muted color palette and gorgeously grotesque character designs. The Devilman himself, a cool teen named Akira Fudo, wants to use his diabolical powers to keep his family, friends, and humanity at large safe. But he may not be able to; sometimes all you can do is cry.
Watch it if you love: The Walking Dead; Lucifer
Cocktails, existential dread, sartorial excellence, and squid-ink fettuccine take center stage in this anime starring Jaden Smith, created by Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, and storyboarded by Rurouni Kenshin and Mobile Suit Gundam UC’s Kazuhiro Furuhashi. Its production pedigree and glib roasting of materialism through the magic-using preppy Kaz set it apart from the majority of animated and live-action series alike. And while it’s not exactly revolutionary, the writing is fresh, its seven episodes don’t outstay their welcome, and the voice cast is stacked with the likes of Jude Law, Rashida Jones, Steve Buscemi, and Desus and Mero.
Watch it if you love: The Boondocks; The Royal Tenenbaums
Aggretsuko’s world is much like ours: The day job is crappy, the co-workers are worse, and Instagram eats people’s souls. Retsuko, the show’s millennial heroine, has one outlet — HEAVY METAL — and her werewolflike transformations when she finally cuts loose are what make this show special. For such a deceptively simple concept, each episode of Aggretsuko touches on the challenges that urbanite young people deal with in the 2010s, be they dating troubles, finding genuine friendship, or knowing when to assert yourself at work. Its wry comedy, simplified art style, and dramatic soundtrack all make it compulsively bingeable.
Watch it if you love: The Office; Metalocalypse
Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Puella Magi Madoka Magica was written and produced by master anime deconstructivist Gen Urobuchi with the express intention of upending your expectations. Explicitly marketed as a standard entry in the “magical girl” anime genre, Madoka Magica famously subverts several of the tropes that define that genre. Without spoiling too much here, the show makes no bones about killing off main characters, withholding exposition from the viewer, or turning the tables on the characters’ ethics (Urobuchi once compared them to Al Qaeda). If you’re cool with the cutesy veneer, Madoka Magica’s ambitions are obvious and fully realized through its writing and trippily surreal animation.
Watch it if you love: The Matrix; the Game of Thrones approach to character death
Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan
In Dragon Pilot, dragons hide inside aircraft and are piloted by young women from inside the dragon’s esophagus after getting swallowed whole. They also love eating cell phones and look adorably cuddle-worthy. No other anime series looks quite like Dragon Pilot’s uncluttered character designs, and its grainy backgrounds that call back to vintage film photography. The flight sequences typically feature intricate, fully animated jet-to-dragon transformations, and the scale and speed that the artists manage to convey in each episode is intoxicating.
Watch it if you love: How to Train Your Dragon; The Right Stuff
This deliciously gothic take on the Boarding School of Horrors trope puts the students of Death Weapon Meister Academy in charge of hell’s cleanup needs. Their job: to serve Death by claiming the souls of 99 evil humans and one witch before graduating to the next level. Soul Eater is a tonal playground of Hot Topic references, macabre color schemes and background designs, and characters who relish in roasting each other. There’s some gratuitous nudity in it, so maybe think twice before watching on public transit.
Watch it if you love: The Nightmare Before Christmas; Beetlejuice
The Disastrous Life of Saiki K
Given that it’s about a pink-haired teenage boy with psychic powers, The Disastrous Life of Saiki K gets a lot of mileage out of the purely mundane aspects of his life: going to school, or interacting with his parents, or even, uh, watching anime. Like any moody kid, all the eponymous Saiki wants is to be left alone and mind his own business, but the need to keep his secret from most of the people around him gets in his way. His deadpan delivery and ever-present internal monologue drive the show, and each episode delivers a new, deliciously meta comedy of errors.
Watch it if you love: Sabrina the Teenage Witch; the character Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation
Pokémon (multiple series)
Maybe you’ve heard of it? This long-running anime adaptation of the massively popular video-game series isn’t intended for adults, or even adolescents, but it does teach kids a very important lesson: You will lose — often when it counts the most. Ash Ketchum, the show’s hero and the boy who wants nothing more than “to be the very best,” has never won big at the Pokémon League Championship after well over 1,000 episodes now, but he’s never quit and rarely been a sore loser about it for very long. The series will endure as long as Pokémon games stay popular, but that lesson carries weight, whether you (or your kids) grow out of the show or not.
Watch it if you love: Scooby-Doo; Sesame Street
Eric Vilas-Boas is the co-editor of the animation website The Dot and Line.