Anime often gets a bad rap these days and it’s not entirely undeserved. In a medium filled with brooding loners and semi-incestual romance, you have to be careful what to watch. But there’s gold in this swamp; you just have to look for it.
If you mention that you enjoy anime to someone these days, you’re likely to get one of three responses. “Cool! Yeah, I’m really enjoying Blue Exorcist!” or “Uh…that’s nice.” or “Huh. Yeah, I watched DBZ when I was younger…” You’re either really into it, don’t care for it or are roughly indifferent to it all. While I’m unlikely to change your mind if you truly despise this style of animation, if you’re unsure how you feel or are looking to check out something more than Attack on Titan or the latest (or last) Miyazaki film, I’ve listed ten different series below, along with my thoughts on why they are worthy of your attention. After each series, I’ll tell you whether I prefer the English dub or the subtitled version, if you can watch it online, and provide an Amazon link, if you’d like to purchase it.
While I’ve put this list in no particular order, I’d have to say that Black Lagoon is most likely my favorite anime I’ve yet seen. Currently airing on Cartoon Network’s revived Toonami block of programming, Black Lagoon is a Tarantino and John Woo inspired crime drama. An unassuming young salaryman, Rokuro Okajima (commonly called “Rock”) gets taken hostage by a group of for-hire smugglers and criminals known as The Lagoon Company. Through Rock, we are introduced to the city and culture of Roanapur, a fictional town in Thailand which is so corrupt, that it makes Gotham City look like Care-a-lot. Multiple factions hire Lagoon to do dirty jobs, including Hotel Moscow (An offshoot Russian Mafia, made up of ex-Soviet paratroopers) and Mr Chang’s Sun Yee On Triad. Chow-Yun Fat could probably sue.
The Lagoon company itself is also made up of great personalities. The gruff, but calm ex-military leader Dutch, lazy computer/hacker specialist Benny and Revy, the focus of the show, a dual-wielding gun-woman who takes sadistic glee in slaughtering her foes. And we haven’t even talked about the villains, from the Terminator-style maid Roberta and the sociopathic Romanian preteen killers of the second season.
Dub or Sub?:I implore you to watch the series dubbed. The actors are perfectly cast and the copious cursing rivals any Hollywood action movie. Most of these people are supposed to be speaking English anyway.
Online Availability: The entire series can be seen subbed on Hulu, but as I said, I find the dub highly preferable. But, the first four dubbed episodes are available. Give them a shot. And if you like it? Check the link below.
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Few series can get away with the incredible excess that Hellsing Ultimate builds itself upon. While the original Hellsing anime altered the story drastically halfway through, the Ultimate OVA series has been able to capture Kouta Hirano’s gloriously gory vision in all of its cackling madness. Hellsing’s story is actually relatively simple. After defeating Dracula, Abraham Van Helsing created the Hellsing Organization, a paramilitary group to protect the United Kingdom from supernatural and demonic threats of all kind, though they primarily deal with…you guessed it, vampires.
And how do they fight these monsters? Why with another monster of course. Alucard is a genetically engineered monstrosity who “works” for Hellsing. The only one who can come close to controlling him is Integra Hellsing, the current head of the family and a fascinating and powerful character in her own right. Watching Alucard wreak havoc upon anyone and everyone who gets in his way is a wonder to behold. He is more or less unstoppable, which would normally be an annoying character trait, but here you just want to see what he does next.
Other characters, both good, evil and somewhere in between, pepper the series with interesting ideas and displays of power. Seras Victoria is a recently turned British police officer who becomes the audience surrogate for a while, learning about her new vampiric powers, while remaining appropriately scared of them. Walter, the Hellsing butler, is something of a murderous Alfred Pennyworth, wielding razor sharp wires with deadly finesse. Also, being a Protestant Christian organization, Hellsing frequently butts heads with the Vatican, specifically their monster-killing counterparts, Section XIII: Iscariot. Yes, the Vatican has a vampire-exterminating para-military group named after Judas Iscariot. Don’t even try to tell me that’s not an amazing concept.
Dub or Sub?: As with the previous entry, I can’t imagine not watching this show dubbed. 90% of the series takes place in the U.K. It just fits. And the cast is fantastic.
Online Availability: You’re in luck. Hellsing Ultimate 1-8, dub and sub, can be seen on Hulu and Youtube. 9-10 have yet to be dubbed, but can be found subbed on Youtube if you look around.
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NBC’s Hannibal has become one of my new favorite television shows. It’s a fascinating reboot, with a darkly beautiful sense of style and some of the most stomach-churning gore you’ll ever see on network television. Psycho-Pass debuted long before Hannibal, but you can definitely see traces of its DNA in this gruesome cop thriller. In a futuristic Japan, society is governed by the Sibyl System, an intelligent network which can supposedly analyze a person’s penchant for committing violent crime. Any great surge of emotion or change in your life could cloud your “Psycho-Pass”, resulting in either your detainment or immediate execution. A division of the police force, called Unit One, employs “latent criminals” called Enforcers, people that have been judged by Sibyl to have the capacity for violent crime, to hunt even more dangerous offenders.
They are watched over by Inspectors, such as series protagonist Akane. Through her, we meet the other Enforcers, who are a great group of characters, both charming and human, yet also frightening. The society is also delightfully unsettling. To keep citizens calm, police robots use cutesy hologram characters to disguise themselves. And the murders? Oh my, the murders. Let me just say one word: Plastination. Yeah, Dr. Lecter would be proud.
Dub or Sub?: Psycho-Pass has just recently been dubbed. I originally watched the series subbed and greatly enjoyed it. I’ve see a few dub clips and they’re…fine. But as nearly every character is Japanese anyway, I’d go with the sub.
Online Availability: Psycho-Pass is on Hulu! You may be noticing a trend here. Full series subbed, first four episodes dubbed.
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Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Let’s take a break from depression and horror for a bit, shall we? Which is not to say that FMA doesn’t have some of that, but it’s a far more optimistic and adventurous series. Some may know the original FMA series, which premiered on Adult Swim in 2004. I watched that series to the very end, including the sequel film, and I can quite honestly say it’s where my love of anime really began to bloom. But, à la the original Hellsing, it diverged from the manga’s story a little less than halfway through. It actually ended up crafting a great tale of its own, but Brotherhood faithfully adapts all of Hiromu Arakawa’s original story. And I have to say, I consider it the superior version.
For those who have never seen either series, FMA tells the story of the Elric brothers, two boys who attempt to resurrect their dead mother through the power of alchemy, which (shocker!) ends going horribly wrong. One of them loses his arm and leg, the other loses his whole body, ending up only as a soul entwined to a suit of armor. They then search for the Philosopher’s Stone, a mythical alchemic artifact which could restore their form and attempt to atone for their apparent sins. It’s an incredible tale, well worthy of the attention of anyone who loves a great epic yarn. Along the way, the boys meet great characters, both hilarious and terrifying; all the way from soldiers of the state army to a group of powerful Homunculi, with world shaking plans. Just go ahead and watch it. It never fails to make me smile.
Dub or Sub?: When I saw the first FMA anime on Adult Swim, it was dubbed and that dub cast stuck with me. But the Japanese cast is also superb. Romi Park is an incredible Ed. I lean towards the dub out of personal preference, but you honestly can’t go wrong here.
Online Availability: And here’s where Hulu screws us. Only the first four episodes and the last twelve episodes are available subbed. The first four are there dubbed. But don’t despair! It’s Netflix to the rescue, with nearly the whole series available dubbed. You can then watch the last handful subbed on Hulu. But if you want the entire series dubbed, you’ll need to buy the blu-ray.
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I should state right off the bat that Summer Wars is a film, not an episodic series. But this works to its advantage, allowing it to tell a contained story about a rampaging computer program, which threatens to unleash nuclear devastation. But that’s really not the heart of the film. It’s really about the power of family, something all of can likely relate to. Sometimes you love them, sometimes you hate them, but they’ll always be a part of you. Summer Wars tells the story of the incredibly large Jinnouchi family, who have come together in an extended family reunion during the summer. Granddaughter Natsuki has promised her grandmother that she would be able to meet her fiancé before she died, so she enlists the help of Kenji Koiso, a mild-mannered math student, to pretend to be her boyfriend for a week.
Over the course of the film they grow closer, while also fending off the advances of Love Machine, a devious AI which has taken control of OZ; essentially an astronomically complex Second Life-style MMO, which is hooked into every facet of world society. It’s a beautiful film, with some truly astounding animation within the computer world. The dubbing is also pitch perfect, with Michael Sinterniklaas voicing Kenji, who you may know better as Dean Venture from The Venture Brothers. It’s damned cliche to say, but Summer Wars is heartwarming film. By the end, the entire world is pitching in to stop Love Machine.
It’s almost like we’re all one big family.
Ugh. Yeah. Sorry. That was too much.
Dub or Sub?: As I said, the English voice cast is top-notch. Everybody puts their all into some truly emotional scenes. But the film is very Japanese. The card game of Hanafuda is an integral plot point. So this remains a toss-up.
Online Availability: I’m sorry to say, based on my Google searches, Summer Wars does not appear to be available for free online in an “official” capacity. But uh…at the time of this writing…you might search Youtube and find something.
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Getting back into some action now, Baccano! is probably the strangest series on this list. I mean it’s got a damn exclamation point in the title, which translates to “ruckus” or “turmoil” in Italian. Roughly set in the early 1930’s, Baccano! follows an extensive list of characters and connections, some essential to the overall plot, while others exist primarily on the sidelines. It’s a wild ride and trying to describe to the full story here would be an effort in futility and would also spoil some major plot points. Suffice to say, everyone from a young mafioso, to a group of ineffectual robbers and a sadistic hit man cross paths with magical forces beyond their understanding. Also, you just can’t beat the jazzy opening song.
The series jumps around time with each arc, but each group of episodes connects to the previous one. The show is also contains a delightful example of what I call “Anime Western Names”, which range from the believable (Keith Gandor), to the weird (Chane Laforet), to the utterly absurd (Szilard Quates). Overall, it’s delightfully underrated little show, with a sense of mysticism that few other series pull off. But if that’s not your cup of tea, there’s also Ladd Russo.
Ladd fucking Russo.
Dub or Sub?: Here we have another series where nearly everyone is Western in some capacity. These people are supposed to be speaking English, so it just sounds good to hear it.
Online Availability: Baccano’s obscure enough that Hulu doesn’t really bother to limit it. Every episode, dub and sub, is available to watch. Which is good, as the blu-ray release appears to be out of print. Going for over a hundred dollars on Amazon.
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Cowboy Bebop is not on this list, as it’s such an obvious choice and I wanted to shed light on some lesser known series. By all means, if you haven’t seen Shinichiro Watanabe’s jazz-influenced sci-fi classic, get on that. And watch it dubbed if you can. But while Bebop is nearly a household name, Samurai Champloo, from the same director doesn’t get nearly as much love for its hip-hop & samurai story. The series opens with a fantastic statement of intent. “This work of fiction is not an accurate historical portrayal. Like you care. Now shut up and enjoy the show.”When your show includes a beatboxing samurai and the first game of baseball between Americans and samurai, you kind of need a disclaimer.
But especially as the series goes on, it becomes progressively more serious in tone, dealing with Christian persecution and the age of the samurai ending. It’s almost like Red Dead Redemption in tone, but with katanas rather than rifles. I haven’t even mentioned the characters, such as Mugen, a rude and nihilistic vagabond who lives only to eat and fight. Jin, a refined, taciturn samurai who is running from his past. And Fuu, a teenage girl who recruits the pair of them to help her search for “a samurai who smells of sunflowers”. Combined with terrific animation (especially in the frequent swordfights) a brilliant hip-hop soundtrack and great dub, Samurai Champloo is well-worth your attention.
Dub or Sub?: As usual, I saw the dub first. I love it. Lots of returning voices from Bebop and several new ones. But with series set in Japan, especially old Japan, I won’t blame you if you want an extra bit of authenticity.
Online Availability: All of it, dub and sub, is on Hulu and Netflix. Get cracking.
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Somewhere deep down, we all kinda enjoy being scared. Well, not if you’re in actual danger, but horror movies? Haunted houses? Nothing beats that rush of adrenalin or sense of creeping dread. Another delivers this feeling in spades. In 1972, a very popular high school student named Misaki died unexpectedly. The rest of the class was so stunned and broken by the loss, that they collectively decided to pretend that Misaki was still alive, with even the teacher continuing to ask the empty desk questions. When they took their graduation photo, his image appeared on the developed film. Decades later, fifteen-year old Koichi transfers to a neighboring high school and meets a girl named Mei Misaki. But no one else in the class will even acknowledge her. You may think she’s a ghost, but it’s nowhere near that simple.
Much of the series is psychologically creepy, with an especially original concept of “ignoring” someone, which would be too spoiler-y to get into. As the series continues and the deaths pile up, the full scope of the horror is slowly revealed. Horror anime is hard to come by, with truly good series being even rarer. Another stands out from the pack, being a perfect Halloween season choice for someone who likes goosebumps and gore in equal measure.
Dub or Sub?: While there is a recent dub available, I’ve never seen it. I watched the whole thing subbed. Being in a foreign language adds to the creepiness, however subtly, in my opinion.
Online Availability: Every subbed episode is on Hulu. Keep a light on…
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I saw a trailer for Jormungand at an anime convention (yeah yeah, laugh it up) a few months ago and immediately bought it later that day in the dealer’s room. I was not disappointed in my purchase. It’s a great spiritual successor to Black Lagoon, also featuring awesome gunfights and badass female characters. The creator of Jormungand even created a short crossover manga with both series. But the series also stands on its own. Telling the story of arms dealer Koko Hekmatyar and her group of bodyguards, Jormungand is blindingly “grey” in its morality. There no heroes. There are no villains. We root for Koko because we know her and like her, but she remains a merchant of death, selling to the highest bidder. She claims she does it for “world peace”, some part of a larger plan, but in the meantime she hires a child soldier and does not hesitate to kill anyone in her way.
Jonah, the child soldier in question, is our audience-entrance character and he’s fascinating in his own right. While he despises weapons and weapon dealers, he still joins Koko, becoming entranced by her force of personality. Soon he’s fighting alongside the rest of her crew, from Finnish soldier Valmet, explosives expert Wiley and sarcastic ex-Delta Force operator Lehm, they’re a family of killers and merchants. In between selling weapons, they try to teach Jonah math and history, often to hilarious results. This show has plenty of comedy, which helps offset the very dark premise.
Dub or Sub?: Gotta go with the dub here, for many of the same reasons as Black Lagoon. Koko’s voice actor in Japanese is just too high-pitched for me and you miss out on some great (curse-filled) line translations.
Online Availability: For such a recently released series, Jormungand is surprisingly available. Dub and sub are available in full on Hulu.
Buy on Amazon
Alright, I’m totally cheating for this final entry. Yosuba&! is not an anime and it probably never will be. Creator Kiyohiko Azuma has claimed that the stories are not well suited for anime and while I’m sad I’ll never get to see it in motion, I understand his point. Yotsuba&! is joy on a printed page. If I had my way, I’d pass a law requiring every psychiatrist’s office in the U.S. to keep the first few volumes available for patients. Yotsuba&! is about five-year-old Yotsuba Koiwai and her lackadaisical yet loving father moving into a new town. She soon befriends their new neighbors, the Ayases and their three daughters. From then on, the series is collection of short stories, all about Yotsuba learning something new or having some adventure. From the time she learns what an air conditioner is, to getting a teddy bear, even when she meets a cardboard-robot named Danbo (actually a friend in disguise), the comic radiates an indelible sense of fun.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the manga, is the hilarious facial expressions Azuma gives Yotsuba and the other characters. From stunned shock, to iron-cold defiance, every face is a forum reaction image just waiting to be used. Above all else, Yotsuba&! is a necessary plate cleanser. Sadly, too much of the anime medium can be boiled down to bloody action, cliched romance or up-its-own-ass philosophizing. At the end of the day, sometimes you just want to read about a cute little girl going to a farm and being amazed by what she sees. It’s a beautiful world out there.
Dub or Sub?: Uh…
Online Availability: As a published manga, Yotsuba%! is not available online in any official capacity. But, if you google it and you’re careful on what you click, you might be find what you’re looking for…
Buy on Amazon
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