People in the West – at least those who have never watched it – recognise anime by its characters’ large eyes, their colourful and stylised hair, and the shows’ elaborate, fantastical plotlines.
This is the distinctive art style we recognise in animes – from things like Pokémon to Dragon Ball, Spirited Away to Death Note. And, in our country, we associate this particular genre with Japanese culture – thinking that this precisely is what defines Japanese popular culture. And that this is what Japanese animation is like.
We’d be right and wrong in our assessment here. Because whilst anime makes up a huge proportion of the Japanese film and television market – and indeed much of the world’s animated shows – that style that is so recognisable to us is not the extent of Japanese anime.
In fact, many of the anime shows that we know are not necessarily so popular in Japan. Just as there are many more anime series in Japan that we just don’t know over here.
So let's get the ball rolling on Anime
Whilst it may be quite a stylised representation of Japan, we still get a sense of life in Japan when we watch (this might be why the adventure and passion we perceive in the shows boosts these episodes and films to the top of the box office regularly!).
Whilst it might only be a piece of the true representation of life in Tokyo, the original storylines in a movie or episode of a series do reveal something about life (and sometimes death!) in the Japanese psyche. Note, however, that given this is an art form that is taken very seriously, even with branches of academia dedicated to it, there is sometimes a rigorous way of creating it which distances it from reality (think the same as for creating traditional theatre).
Anime is really just short for animation, surprisingly enough. Whilst in English, the term has come to specifically designate Japanese animation techniques, in Japan, it refers to animated productions from all over the world, non-Japanese as much as Japanese.
Given this, it’s hard to say that anime really constitutes a genre as such – and the style we see as specifically anime here is not really so clearly defined. It isn’t all big eyes and wacky hair.
Just have a check online and any results retrieved will show that even with the times, the style of cartoon doesn't change. Compare an older one which fans from various states of life across the world love - Doraemon or One Piece for instance - to a more modern one like Naruto or Death Note. The thick black lines that act as a box to fill in, and colour gradient of the characters that gives them dynamism can change depending on the tone of the show, but the essential technique of drawing these characters is the same.
Rather, there are as many different styles of anime as there are animators, artists, and animation studios. You’ll probably know studios like Studio Ghibli, Toei Animation, Kyoto Animation, and Gainax – and, if you do, you’ll know that their styles are quite significantly different. And if you are anime fans, you’ll easily spot the difference between Osamu Tezuka and Hayao Miyazaki.
This fact also complicates the questions, ‘what’s the best anime in Japan?’, or ‘what are the most popular anime movies?’. It’s a tricky question because, in Japan, anime can be for everyone – and different anime characters are made for different audiences.
Gundam, for example, was aimed originally at boys, whilst Cowboy Bebop, with more sophisticated themes, was aimed at adult audiences. Meanwhile, Fruits Basket was intended for a young female audience.
Something else to keep at the top of your mind when being about to check what anime hero adventure or detective video story to get into next is that many anime series have dozens or even hundreds of episodes which means that it can become a really big piece of your life. For those who like to watch an episode or multiple episodes of somethings before going to bed, this can be the way to go since you get spirited away from your daily life, as it were, while you watch.
Find out more about Japan's culture of anime!
What is the Best Anime Series?
All of this means that it is hard to define the best series or the most favourite ones even. However, we have given it a go. And, like with any best of list, we know that we might upset part of the anime fandom.
Some of these, you’ll find, are bigger with an international audience than they necessarily are with a Japanese one. But this is a testament to the massive global appeal of this style of art.
So, from full-length films to fantasy series, here are some of the most popular anime series around.
Read about the best characters in anime here!
Tiger and Bunny.
According to a poll in Japan, the Tiger and Bunny franchise came out as the most popular anime production of all time. The characters came from an original manga, were made into an animated series, video games, a stage play, and live action films.
Generally, then, we can say that it is pretty popular as a franchise.
It takes place in a futuristic New York City in which superheroes are sponsored by companies and they compete to be the ‘King of Heroes’ – as their heroism is broadcast on television.
It’s been available subbed on Netflix, by the way, if you want to check it out.
Love Live! School Idol Project
Another of the most popular franchises in Japan is known as Long Live! – which has, again, spawned, a whole range of different media projects too. Beyond the original anime and manga, you’ve now got CDs, music videos, and video games. It became something of a cultural sensation.
Rather than the fantasy anime we are familiar with, however, this is a simple story of a high school student and her friends who become ‘idols’ – young singer celebrities – to save their Japanese school.
We told you that anime is a lot more than we initially assume.
One of the massively successful anime from the late nineties is Cardcaptor Sakura – or, in the heavily criticised American version, Cardcaptors.
Recognised as one of the best shoujo manga series – or a manga aimed at young girls – this was transformed into a seventy-part anime series. It also won a hell of a lot of awards.
The story revolves around a girl called Sakura, who receives magical powers after releasing into the world a pack of magical cards. The series focuses on her retrieving these cards.
It’s a great example of the famous genre of anime known as ‘magical girl’, which features, surprisingly enough, a girl who can use magic.
The seventy episodes in the series were cut to around forty for the American version, which were dubbed and criticised for making the plot unintelligible.
The manga, Gin Tama, is one of the bestselling series in Japan – and, as is the trend, this has been made into everything from a live action film, Gintama, to a light novel.
The series is set in the Edo period – the years from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century in Japan – but one in which the country is occupied by aliens. Gintoki Sakata is the main character, a samurai who fights against the aliens and helps to rescue their prisoners.
It’s known for its comedy and its social themes and it has been hugely influential.
Digimon was seen by Anglophone audiences as, essentially, a rip-off of the hugely successful Pokémon. However, whilst Pokémon’s plot arc was perhaps a little limited, Digimon became much more popular and much more critically acclaimed.
Its characters are known as ‘digital monsters’, which populate a digital world into which some children are transported. Realising that they are destined to be the saviours of this world, the children embark on a quest to do exactly that.
One of the bestselling, highest-grossing, and critically acclaimed anime and manga in Japan is Fullmetal Alchemist.
This is a series that tells the story of the Elric brothers’ pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone. Set in the Industrial Revolution, these characters had tried, through alchemy, to bring their mother back to life, by using parts of their bodies. However, the experiment didn’t work, and they became permanently damaged.
The series sold over seventy million copies worldwide.
Dragon Ball Z
An enduringly popular franchise, Dragon Ball is one of the most recognisable products of Japanese anime culture. Its films have made nearly a billion dollars across the world – with only the live action American-made movie flopping at the box office – and the multimedia franchise as a whole raking in over twenty billion dollars.
It’s a simple plot: Son Goku, throughout his life, travels the world in search of the Dragon Balls, objects that release dragons and grant wishes. Simultaneously, a wide variety of villains pursue them too.
Dragon Ball is also the second-highest selling series of manga in history.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
If it wasn’t for Neon Genesis Evangelion, anime might not be as popular as it is today. Owing to a financial crisis in Japan during the eighties and nineties, people weren’t producing as much as they were, and the cultural industries were stagnating.
Neon Genesis Evangelion intervened into this landscape, offering a sophisticated, original, and ultimately hugely popular development in the world of anime.
After a global disaster, Shinji, a teenager, is called to fight the Angels by piloting an Evangelion, a ‘mecha’ or human-controlled robot. It was these figures of the Evangelions that made the series so influential – and you only need to look at its grossing to see the franchise’s global popularity.
Take Japanese lessons on Superprof now.
Princess Mononoke is the highest-grossing anime film in the world. It was also the highest-grossing film in Japan ever, until Hayao Miyazaki, the director made Spirited Away, which overtook it.
It’s a wonderful film essentially about the environment. Based somewhere between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, the film depicts a prince’s involvement in a struggle between the spirits of the forest and those who plunder that forest’s resources.
The film has won a whole heap of awards since its release in 1997 – and it cemented the place of Studio Ghibli among the big anime studios of Japan.
It has also been a massive influence on the world of anime, computer games, and manga – with its complex moral message and its powerful characterisation.
Kind of a detective cum adventure classic, Doraemon has been loved by fans since the 1960s, and it's not just the Japanese who watch it!
It is on our list precisely because the fans count members all over the world thanks to our loveable earless cat hero is aired again year after year in Europe, the Americas, and Asia.
This very original video story has had a few movie spinoffs that did relatively well at the box office, but it's the range of episodes and whacky adventures in each season that really grab your attention.
Doraemon is an earless, robotic cat who travels back in time from the 22nd century to offer assistance to a boy called Nobita Nobi.
If this doesn't sound like an adventure to you, we don't know what will!
Some of the older ones retrieved from the archives for Doraemon have also been the subject of much study in academia, and our loveable hero is very original, and can offer an insight into what life was like as an animator in Tokyo in the mid 20th century when compared with many of the grittier series we know now.
For those who love detective adventure stories, this is the one for you.
A quick check of a randomly retrieved piece on this, written by fans or critic, typically states something like
"this makes me want to know about life in Tokyo because it shows a level of fantastical reality that is so exciting!".
Okay, so we've extrapolated a bit, but watch an episode or a few episodes and you will see how much of an adventure your time with the young detective Conan really is!
Now you might have heard this show referred to as Conan before - it's not an official title but the lead character adopts the pseudonym Conan Edogawa when he is transformed into a child after ingesting a lethal poison that turns him into a child rather than killing him while helping police on an investigation!
See the adventure side of things, right?
We will leave this one here and hope that this is enough of a selling point to get into this one.
You've probably seen people do the Naruto run before - head forward and arms out stiff behind your back.
While this looks strange in real life, season after season, people have continued to love this show and this keeps it at the top of the box office, with movie spinoffs too.
Naruto is on our list because it really is quintessential anime for our times, and takes the fantastical bent very far that we can come to expect from anime series.
While this one is aimed more at children and is clearly adapted for a western audience at times, it doesn't lose any of its very Japanese charm.
The story is told in two parts, and is strangely comforting given that it's very modern but was also written just before the internet became a big part of our life.
The first part involves Naruto and his pre-teen years, then the second part is about his teenage years and seeking recognition from his peers whilst seeking to become the leader of his village.
As you can imagine, on his path to greatness, Naruto encounters all sorts of adventure and mischief which varies from befriending talking magic animals, to stopping seemingly well-meaning warlords try to achieve world peace by casting spells to enslave humanity.
Well alright then!
Really give this one a go if you want to find people to talk about anime with, as the chances are there will be someone you know who has seen it given its incredibly high viewership.
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