As part of an effort to get more people excited about anime, I�m planning a series of posts based around good anime that can be obtained easily via means most people are familiar with. Netflix has become the go-to service for both DVD rental and streaming video. The service is available on almost any platform including most gaming devices, computers, and internet-to-tv streaming devices. It has a fairly extensive selection of anime available at the click of the button, but like the menu at a Chinese restaurant, the number of choices can sometimes be daunting to those unfamiliar with what they�re looking for.
These selections are my choices for some of the best quality anime to be found on Netflix Instant Watch, based on series that I�ve seen and enjoyed. Since this list is by no means comprehensive (some series are only available upon directly searching for them, and I know I haven�t watched all of the awesome series there are to see), feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments!
Note: These selections are accurate/available as of 4/29/2012. If there are any changes in availability or any additions, I�ll update the post.
Genres: Action, Historical, Comedy
This series takes place in Prohibition-era New York and Chicago, and follows the manic, intertwined stories of a group of immortal alchemists. One of the primary storylines takes place on the Flying Pussyfoot, a train where several different factions with entirely different (and often conflicting) goals meet by chance and end up butting heads.
The title comes from the Italian word for �ruckus,� and considering the structure of the story this is entirely accurate; the viewpoints and their respective time points (the bulk of the stories take place between 1930 and 1933, with brief forays into the Eighteenth Century and the modern day) are presented in such a way that it can be disorienting at first. This series� gangster-era antics are fairly unique as far as anime goes; its Western setting makes it more approachable for viewers who aren�t familiar with Japanese culture. The English dub captures the era well and manages to be amusing without being over-the-top.
The first thirteen episodes wrap up most of the primary storylines. The three bonus episodes are decent enough, but I didn�t find them as interesting. If you like this one, check out Durarara! which is based on a novel by the same author and involves a lot of the same animation staff. The series is available for free on internet streaming service Crunchyroll.
Violence: High � There�s quite a bit of blood, but the fact that the characters are immortal mitigates the physical damage they endure.
Japanese Cultural Knowledge Required: Low � This takes place primarily in the United States.
Genres: Sci-Fi, Action, Drama
Hundreds of years ago Casshern, a cyborg being, was sent to assassinate Luna, the �Sun called Moon.� When he killed her, he triggered the Ruin, which attacked both robotic beings and humans alike. Casshern no longer remembers what happened that day, only that he�s being pursued and that he must seek redemption.
This series, a reboot of a more straightforward action anime from the 1970�s, is a great example of �love-it-or-hate-it� entertainment. Its morose tone and focus on death and dying certainly isn�t for everyone, but its willingness to tackle difficult issues, like the human preoccupation with mortality (and obsession with immortality), makes it worthwhile for fans who enjoy analyzing life�s big questions. Its structure and themes are heavy with Biblical metaphor and its story could be construed as critical of most religious thought, so a general familiarity with those ideas is a definite plus going into the viewing.
Aside from that, it�s a beautiful show that makes great use of scene framing and color. Its director, Shigeyasu Yamauchi, went on to direct 2011�s Dream Eater Merry (a nice-looking but emotionally-empty TV series), as well as episode 18 of Mawaru Penguindrum, both of which feature a similarly strong and unique visual sense. The animation varies in quality, but there are some spectacular action sequences that make this often slow series worthwhile to fans of animation (Casshern�s fight with Dio in episode 6 is absolutely spectacular). Your mileage may vary, but I loved this show. Bonus: it looks even better in HD.
Violence: High � There�s quite a bit of fighting and dying in this series, though much of it involves robotic beings rather than fleshy ones.
Japanese Cultural Knowledge Required: Low � The shows themes, as I interpret them, are fairly universal but skew towards more Western modes of thinking about religion.
Genres: Sci-Fi, Action, Drama
Ten years ago, an impenetrable field known as �Hell�s Gate� appeared in Tokyo, and certain individuals called �Contractors� gained the use of telekinetic abilities in exchange for their human emotions and consciences. Hei, a contractor, and his associate Yin, a �doll� with the ability to psychically communicate through water, work for an agency hoping to unlock the mysteries of Hell�s Gate.
This series is perfect for people who like to watch things in small doses � most of the story arcs are resolved in two episode chunks and the series� overall plot arc isn�t too complicated until near the end of its run. Despite its grim-sounding title, the show has a fair share of occasional comic-relief episodes thanks to a couple of amusing side-characters. Speaking of which, one of Darker Than Black�s other strengths is its diverse cast of characters who hail from many different countries and are visually distinct from one-another (which can sometimes be a rarity in anime).
The high-quality action animation is definitely one of the more appealing aspects of the show � there�s a good action sequence every couple of episodes and the character animation overall is very good (check out some of these scenes animated by veteran animator Yutaka Nakamura). The story itself has its clich� moments and the resolution isn�t entirely satisfying (there�s a second season and a short OVA series that bridges the gap between the two), but overall this is a solid series that doesn�t require a whole lot intense scrutiny or thought.
Violence: High � There are some fairly bloody and/or gruesome battles that take place between contractors, and the fluidity of the animation can sometimes enhance the shock level.
Sex/Nudity: Low � There are a few episodes that involve a character who can transport individuals between different points, and one of the side-effects is that when they appear at their destination they do so without any clothing on (kind of like time-travel in the �Terminator� universe).
Japanese Cultural Knowledge Required: Though most of the action takes place in and around Tokyo, the cast of characters is fairly international and there should be very little that�s confusing to people who aren�t familiar with Japan.
Genres: Action, Drama, Thriller
Saki Morimi decides to spend the remaining portion of her graduation trip in Washington D.C. While she�s standing in front of the White House, a naked man approaches her waving a gun. What she eventually learns is that this man, a mysterious stranger calling himself Akira Takizawa, may very well be the terrorist responsible for the disappearance of several thousand Japanese �NEETs.�
An original project by director Kenji Kamiyama (Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit and Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex), this series, which pits several characters against each-other in a contest to help �save� Japan, blends a strong political message with social-media-based concepts and interesting mystery elements in a way that ends up being very successful. There�s plenty of excitement and suspense for people who enjoy fast-moving narratives, and there are plenty of fun character moments for viewers who like drama. Though the series has two follow-up films (the second of which is not currently available on Netflix), its initial eleven episodes wrap up with enough finality that those films aren�t a strict requirement (though they are also enjoyable).
The series has unique character design aesthetics thanks to Chika Umino (Honey and Clover) which allow the characters to appear youthful without looking cutesy. The animation is strong and the background artwork seems to be taken from photographs of actual locations, so there�s a certain element of realism here that tends to be missing from many series. This show is one of my favorites from the past few years.
Violence: Medium � there�s very little character-on-character violence depicted throughout the series, but there are at least a couple of gunshot fatalities and quite a bit of military-style activity at certain points.
Sex/Nudity: Medium � Takizawa�s introduction features him naked aside from some (humorous) censorship of his frontal area, and there�s one character who appears in her underwear for an extended scene, but there�s nothing most adults will find to objectionable.
Japanese Cultural Knowledge Required: Medium � while the problem of disenfranchised youth isn�t particular to Japan, the NEET culture that�s referenced as part of the narrative is a current issue for the country.
Genres: Drama, Literature
This certainly isn�t the first example of Japan adapting a work of Western literature through anime, but it certainly is one of the most memorable. Alexandre Dumas� classic tale of revenge gets an anime makeover that pushes its setting into the future (and into space). If that sounds corny (and I�m sure it will to some people), let me assure you that the original tale is treated with the utmost respect. Its new coat of paint and slightly different character focus only serve to enhance what�s already there.
The first thing that many people notice about this series is that its visuals are stunning (and occasionally vertigo-inducing). The costumes are layered with textures and patterns in a way that almost no other anime has done, and the background settings are rich and vibrant. This is a great example of Studio Gonzo at its peak, before a string of substandard adaptations and bad financial decisions led to its overall decline and near-bankruptcy. If anything else, the show is worth a look based on its futuristic look alone.
More than that, though, the show features some truly excellent characters, the most intriguing of whom is the Count of Monte Cristo himself. His unusual appearance is the result of one of the more spoilerish aspects of this adaptation in particular, which I�ll leave to those who want to watch the series on their own. The decision to frame the story through young nobleman Albert�s point-of-view adds a nice coming-of-age and loss-of-innocence dimension to the tale, which ends somewhat differently than the book on which is was based. This anime definitely stands out among other adaptations of this story.
Violence: Medium � There really isn�t much gore, but characters do fight one-another and there�s at least one major duel.
Sex/Nudity: Medium-Low � While there are several allusions to the different relationships between the characters and one scene which depicts masturbation, for the most part there isn�t strong content in this area.
Japanese Cultural Knowledge Required: Low � This is a Western Tale set in a fantasy setting with very little Japanese �flavor.�
Genres: Sci-Fi, Cyberpunk, Action
In the future, cyborg enhancements are the norm and cyberspace is pervasive. The Section 9 security force works to combat cyber terrorism and crime in a world where the increasingly fluid nature of human consciousness makes such acts all that much more difficult to thwart.
Many anime fans of my era were probably introduced to anime via the Ghost in the Shell animated film, adapted from the manga by Masamune Shirow. This television adaptation takes the themes introduced at that time and expands upon them while offering fewer of the psychobabble derailments (not that there�s anything wrong with that!) that Mamoru Oshii�s film adaptations introduced. The original characters, including the iconic Major Motoko Kusanagi, return to fight crime and, through doing so, reveal truths about human nature when human bodies are becoming more synthetic by the day.
Both seasons of the series contain �stand alone� episodes that don�t advance the overall plot, and �complex� episodes that do. There are alternate releases of each season (�The Laughing Man� and �Individual 11�) that contain only the story-focused episodes, so viewers who are only interested in the major plot arcs can skip over the less-important stuff. Of course, that viewing approach unfortunately tends to also skip some of the character development.
Violence: High � There�s quite a bit of military-style violence in the series and some acts of terrorism are depicted as well.
Sex/Nudity: Medium � It�s been years since I�ve watched the show, and I honestly can�t remember very well, so I figure this is a safe bet. In any case, it�s not an overwhelming aspect of the series.
Japanese Cultural Knowledge Required: Low � While the series does take place in Japan, its themes are universal.
Genres: Sci-Fi, Mecha
Young Simon lives underground with the rest of his village, but he longs to see the surface that his long-lost father once explored. When he finally breaks through to the outside world, he realizes that it�s a dangerous place, where beast men battle humans in order to keep them down. Simon and his new-found mentor Kamina, as well as Yoko, a spunky female gunner, work towards freeing humanity and allowing them to live above ground once again.
This isn�t normally the kind of series that I would like; its overly-enthusiastic brand of masculinity is practically a joke. In this case, though, the anime owes so much to older mecha anime that this embrace of bullheaded stupidity is more an homage than something its creators are attempting to pass off as original. The end result is that this manic, enthusiastic tale of humanity fighting for its right to live life on its own terms is fun to watch, even though a lot of what happens is goofy or patently ridiculous.
This is what I consider one of Studio Gainax�s last really great series before all their talent up and left to form Studio Trigger (the other is Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt, which I know a lot of people will disagree with me about), and it features some incredible work by talented key animators and guest directors (check out this short sample by animator Sushio). If anything else, this is a fun series that leads up on an absolutely incredible climax.
Violence: High � Battles are frequent in this series, but this is somewhat offset by the fact that the fighting is mostly mecha-to-mecha rather than directly between human characters.
Sex/Nudity: Medium � As a Gainax series, this show certainly has its share of bouncing breasts and silly fanservice, but it�s one of the very few cases where I don�t find myself overly bothered by it.
Japanese Cultural Knowledge Required: Low � The series takes place in a made-up setting. However, some prior knowledge of the common mecha anime tropes is helpful in getting the most out of this show.
Genres: Sci-Fi, Action
Brothers Thor and Rai are falsely accused of committing a terrible crime, and are exiled to the prison planet Chimaera. There, multiple factions, segregated by appearance, fight for dominance of the planet, while hostile carnivorous plants and other hazards work against the survival of the humans there.
This anime is entirely a guilty pleasure of mine, though in reality I don�t even feel that guilty. It�s sense of pacing isn�t that great, in that it spends a little too much time with the main characters as children when the time skip into adulthood makes almost everyone much more interesting. Its sexual politics are also a bit too heavy-handed for its own good (it�s very obvious that this anime series is based on an older manga). However, the setting for the show is very creative and its atmosphere gives it the feel of an old science fiction film from the 1980�s, which hits a certain nostalgic sweet spot for me. I also think that most of the male characters in the series are very attractive, which is a shallow consideration but I allow it for myself every once-in-a-while.
This is definitely the type of science fiction series that�s not worth taking too seriously, but it does introduce some interesting thoughts on classism that�s worth some consideration. But really, this show is best when taken as the story of some attractive men (and a few women) battling it out with each-other in order to escape a hostile planet.
Violence: Medium � There�s a lot of combat in this series, and people are killed by giant man-eating plants.
Japanese Cultural Knowledge Required: Low � This show�s setting is complete fantasy, and it�s class system has little to do with anything specific to Japan.
Genres: Supernatural, Mystery, Historical
When Lia De Beaumont turns up dead in the Seine river, her brother D�Eon, an agent of the Secret du Roi, launches into an investigation of her death. This search takes D�Eon, now possessed by the vengeful spirit of his sister, and his comrades across Europe, and reveals several uncomfortable truths about the aristocracy of various nations.
This series draws its inspiration from French history. Several of the characters are based loosely on real people, including D�Eon himself, who was a French spy who lived the latter part of his life as a woman. There are also a few �all-stars� of the French Revolution; if you�re familiar with the history of that time period and feel like a certain person might be out of place, stick around until the end � it�s explained. The supernatural embellishments help to liven up the more factual portions of the narrative, and the show�s incorporation of Christian concepts goes above and beyond what normally occurs in anime (by which I mean, those concepts are actually relevant to the story rather than pasted on because they look cool).
This is a particularly nice-looking series. The character animation is very fluid when it�s required, and when the characters use swords, their movements are exceedingly accurate and well-researched (this is according to some friends of mine who have fencing experience). The English dub is also very good in that the actors pronounce the French language terms accurately and the character acting is mature rather than over-the-top.
Politics, action, history, supernatural flavor� this show has a little of everything.
Violence: Medium � There are several sword fights but the gore level never gets out of hand.
Sex/Nudity: Low � There�s one character shown nude in a stylized way but overall the series isn�t focused on that material.
Japanese Cultural Knowledge Required: Low � You might want to brush up a bit on your European history, though.
Genres: Fantasy, Adventure, Drama
Balsa is a traveling spear-wielder and bodyguard who is tasked with protecting Prince Chagum, who has been marked for death by his own father, the Emperor. Chagum carries within his body the egg of the water god, and the hallucinations brought on by the creature resemble the symptoms of demon possession. Balsa and her acquaintances must learn the nature of the creature living inside Chagum and discover how it can be born without killing its host.
One reason that I enjoy anime is that it tends to feature more female characters in stronger roles, and Balsa is one of my favorites. She�s strong, self-sufficient and acknowledges painful experiences from her past without being ruled by them. She is, of course, the primary member of what�s an excellent cast of characters. This is one of those series that doesn�t have any �bad guys� in the traditional sense of the word - The different factions may have conflicting goals but they�re not purposely antagonistic towards one-another. This makes the drama believable and the climax of the show even more compelling.
This fantasy series, created by an author whose areas of study include anthropology, is rich with the peoples and cultures that have been brought to life at a level of detail unusual for anime. The show definitely has an Asian �flavor� to it but the actual people and places live in a rich invented culture that�s interesting and compelling. This is one of my favorite anime series of the past decade.
Violence: Medium � The violence is mostly bloodless but there are still several conflicts that result in bodily injury.
Sex/Nudity: Low � This isn�t something one would have to be afraid to one�s children.
Japanese Cultural Knowledge Required: Low � This is an invented world and while there are several similarities to historical Japan, they�re similarities that don�t affect the meat of the story.
Genres: Fantasy, Supernatural
Mushi are primal life-forms that exist both inside and out of the reality humans perceive. Occasionally the mushi interact with humans, and their effects can be both beneficial and harmful. Ginko is a �mushi-shi� or �bug-master� that studies the effects of mushi and helps humans who are affected by them.
This unique series is incredibly difficult to describe. It lacks lengthy story arcs, the protagonist is mostly a mystery (though there are episodes devoted to explaining his past), and there are very few other recurring characters. However, it is one of the most beautiful, affecting anime I�ve ever seen, and I�d recommend it to almost anyone who doesn�t need fast-paced action or goofy comedy to stay interested in something. Most of the episodic stories couldn�t be described as happy or sad; the term �bittersweet� is probably the best way to describe how things often play out.
There�s a live-action film version of this show. I don�t really recommend it, since it attempts to shoehorn in a plot into something that�s better left plotless, and the special effects make the entire thing seem corny. There are certain subjects that animation simply tends to portray much better, and this is certainly one of them.
Violence: Low � This isn�t a violent series, though there�s some disturbing imagery on occasion.
Japanese Cultural Knowledge Required: Medium � While I�m positive that people who aren�t familiar with Japan will be able to understand what�s going on, having some knowledge of the Shinto religion does help one wrap one�s mind around what exactly the mushi are supposed to be.
Genres: Sci-fi, Political, Mecha
Rin Ogata is a ballerina with a promising future, until an injury sidelines her. Feeling lost, she begins college and discovers a club dedicated to the appreciation of hybrid racing machines called �Ridebacks.� Rin�s natural sense of balance makes her an ideal candidate to race these machines, but she soon finds herself involved in a developing political situation, and she must decide whether or not to contribute her newfound skills to a growing resistance movement.
Though the description marks this series as being full of clich�s, its political machinations and gear-head tendencies are all really a means to an end. For all its action and cool computer graphics, this is really the story of a young woman undergoing a major life-change and journey of self-discovery amidst a background of political unrest. It continues to be fascinating to me that this seinen anime has a female protagonist who isn�t turned into a sex object, but there you go.
I absolutely love the way this series looks. The character designs can take a bit of getting used to (some characters have odd head shapes), but the overall artwork is some of the best I�ve seen, and it looks even better in HD (glad I bought those Blu-rays!). Some people might have some complaints about the way that the computer graphics are integrated � all of the Rideback vehicles are rendered in full 3D and then matched with the 2D character artwork - but the effect is managed better than in most series so I have very little complaint about it. This is a beautiful, unique series with a neat message and an original way of incorporating a little something for mecha fans.
Violence: Medium-High � There are terrorist events and some person-on-person combat using firearms.
Japanese Cultural Knowledge Required: Low � The only government body really represented is the fictional multi-national totalitarian one that the characters rise against, and there aren�t really any other cultural references to speak of.
Genres: Fantasy, Drama
Lawrence is a traveling merchant. On his way through a small farming village, he finds what he believes to be a young woman asleep in his cart. He discovers that she�s really Holo the Wise, the local wolf deity who helps the fields of wheat remain fertile. Since technology has advanced to the point that she no longer feels needed, she invites herself along with Lawrence on his travels, so that he might guide her back to her home in the far North.
A friend once commented that this scenario sounded like the setup to some sort of fetish anime, and I�d be inclined to agree if I�d never actually seen it. Holo�s character design seems tailored to a very specific brand of �animal ear� otaku. Like many anime, though, what�s beneath the surface is definitely surprising. Spice and Wolf is a story that�s half medieval economics lesson, and half �are-they-or-aren�t-they� character drama, and the mix between the two is surprisingly satisfying. The often-witty relationship between the two leads is enjoyable to watch unfold, and the ways in which their experiences help us as viewers learn about the act of trading and making a profit are varied and surprising.
There are several examples in Japanese literature and myth of a human being falling in love with a goddess; this is merely a more modern equivalent of such that also incorporates more Western elements, like a church that�s slowly attempting to stamp-out pagan practices. This is a smart series with smart characters and a unique setting. The only unfortunate thing is that only the first season appears to be available at the time of this writing (the second is available elsewhere on hard copy DVD).
Violence: Low � Though there are brief spurts of violence every once-in-a-while, for the most part the plot moves along without it.
Sex/Nudity: Medium � Though this isn�t what I�d call a �fetish� series by any means, the female lead does spend some time in the nude, especially early-on (though it�s non-detailed and meant to be non-sexual, by my interpretation).
Japanese Cultural Knowledge Required: Low � The story takes place in a very European setting rather than in one inspired by Japan.
Genres: Fantasy, Drama
Akiyuki lives a normal life on Sentan Island, until he�s caught in a terrorist attack on his way to school one day. It�s then that he absorbs an ancient power called Xam�d and must learn to control it before it controls him. In the meantime, his home is under attack by competing forces and his friends choose to join the military rather than sit idly by.
This TV anime is often compared to the films of Studio Ghibli. Sure, it shares some aesthetic commonalities with some of them (namely parts of Nausicaa), but more than that, this series� sweeping scope and population of characters with sometimes ambiguous goals makes it feel like the best examples of cinematic animation. Right off the bat, Studio Bones delivers with some of the best quality animation I�ve seen in a TV series, and while that level isn�t quite maintained throughout, all of the important scenes are animated very impressively. The musical score is also very strong, with orchestral pieces rather than synthesized music.
This is a show with a large cast of characters, and almost all of them get a chance to be in the spotlight. It�s also one of the few anime I can think of that has several adult characters who are important to the story, two of whom are the protagonist�s parents. Since absentee parents always seem to be the norm in anime, seeing both Akiyuki�s mother and father is quite the pleasant surprise. This series has some good things to say about the importance of identity, but overall it�s really just a great story.
Violence: Medium � While the violence level overall isn�t that terrible, there are a couple of very shocking scenes that bump the overall level up a bit. This isn�t appropriate for very young kids.
Sex/Nudity: Low � There�s one scene where the expectation would be that a character clad only in a towel might end up accidentally naked, but the show subverts that expectation.
Japanese Cultural Knowledge Required: Low � The story takes place in a very Japan-like setting, but the sweeping story has little to do with any cultural specifics.