What makes an anime series a classic? Is it because it is the oldest? The most popular? Some crazy amalgamation of the two? As it stands, an anime is given classic status because it has had such a long-standing effect on the genre. A classic is a series that has gone on to inspire other creators and new shows. Whether you are just beginning the long journey into anime or have been a long-time fan, there are some shows that you should have under your belt. These shows will help you understand the fundamentals in not just other anime series, but within the genre itself.
As one of the most respected anime series in the business, it seemed only right that Cowboy Bebop should kick off this list of fundamental anime classics. Praised for everything from its unique and complex characters to its funky soundtrack by Yoko Kanno, Cowboy Bebop has earned its universal critical acclaim. Its episodic nature that eventually moves on to an overall plot follows a group of space bounty hunters that suffer from both poor luck and difficult pasts. Each episode is unique and, until near the end, a fun romp through the universe.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
Like Cowboy Bebop, Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of those series that really stays with you even long after you have completed it. Set in future Tokyo fifteen years after an apocalyptic cataclysm, Neon Genesis Evangelion tells the story of the Nerv agency that possesses the only weapon effective against the catastrophic angels that land and ravage the Earth. It is a series that not only features satisfying action, but delves deep into the psyche of the fragile child pilots that adults force to fight. Its exploration of both psychological and philosophical themes has kept people thinking about it since its very first premiere.
Mobile Suit Gundam
Every anime fan needs at least one Gundam series under their belt. Unfortunately, the Gundam multiverse is very long and VERY confusing. You can jump in just about anywhere, but there will be a few pieces of back story about the universe that you will probably miss out on. It is best to start out with the original series, Mobile Suit Gundam, then work your way from there. It provides an excellent base and serves as the show that really established the mecha genre.
Ghost in the Shell
Set in a future that has vastly advanced technology, Ghost in the Shell not only presents a complex plot, intricate world, and another superb Yoko Kanno soundtrack, it is an anime series that has surpassed the bounds of the genre and gone on to inspire sci-fi creators in other media, like the Wachowskis and their Matrix Trilogy. While occasionally a little too hard to follow, it is considered a true masterpiece in Japan and a must for fans of sci-fi and cyberpunk.
Fist of the North Star
What can be so fundamental about an anime series in which every episode revolves around a guy punching some other guys in the face? While it is showing its age, Fist of the North Star signaled a change in the anime industry when it was first released. Its more realistic and devastatingly violent artwork used a face-breaking fist to bust down the walls that had been holding anime back and inviting it into a new world of exploration where it was okay for heads to explode in a spray of blood.
While at a glance, Fist of the North Star seems simple and violent, it actually goes on to explore the complexities of many things including the bonds of family and friends as well as the despair that comes with those relationships.
While not the first harem anime, Love Hina was one of the first to become relatively widespread. Ken Akamatsu is the master of vaguely perverted situations with the dangling carrot of budding romance in his series, and none display that better than Love Hina. This series created the type of romance anime that is as alluring to women as it is for men, though for different reasons. Essentially, it set the standard for the harem series.
Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood
If you have been into anime for any length of time, you have probably heard all about Fullmetal Alchemist. It is a series which so enthralled those that watched it that the fandom refuses to die. What made it so good is its superb world building where the lore, history, and culture of the multitude of people in this series is explored throughout the plot. With a unique cast of characters and some of the largest plot twists in anime, it is not hard to see why people fall in love with Fullmetal then never shut up about it. Still, you have to respect that kind of ability to inspire such dedication.
Death Note is another one of those anime series like Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood that inspires an obsessive fanbase, but not without reason. Death Note is responsible for two things – introducing that the main character can actually be the villain of the series and actually showing real genius. Previous to Death Note, a number of characters have proclaimed their genius, but in Death Note the battles between Light and L actually show it. With tactical intelligence and superb strategy all displayed in the plot, Death Note creates a game of cat and mouse that enthralled the anime community.
Mushishi is the odd duck of the anime world. There are no action scenes, dialogue is sparse, and the pacing is slow and thoughtful. Although it sounds about as interesting as watching grass grow, Mushishi has a way of drawing the viewer in with its visuals. It follows Ginko, a Mushi Master, as he travels from village to village dealing with Mushi, otherworldly spirits that can cause great benefit as well as great harm to an area. Spiritually rich and almost meditative, Mushishi is often considered boring by some, but it shows that anime does not need to be all face-punching and boob-bouncing.
Satoshi Kon is responsible for a number of psychological thriller movies, each a hit in its own right, but before he died, he only managed to create one anime series. Paranoia Agent is, like all Satoshi Kon media, a mindfuck. Throughout its story it makes you question what is real and what is only the product of the character’s imagination. It explores the mental trauma of several characters, ultimately having the stories crash together at the end, leaving the audiences wondering what really was the truth. In terms of psychological anime series, no other show does it as masterfully as Paranoia Agent.
Clannad is the ultimate in romance anime. While it does feature a harem, it is not the same pervy harem as in other anime series. In Clannad, the male main character helps his female friends deal with their various problems and traumas while ultimately falling in love with one of them. Clannad was one of the first anime series to successfully be based off a visual novel and essentially opened the flood gates on other adaptions. There is plenty of drama, plenty of crying, and each character captures your heart in their own way. If you fancy a good cry or a serious romance story to get swept away in, this classic is a good place to start.
For many, it was the western broadcasts of Dragonball and Dragonball Z that got people into anime. Like Fist of the North Star, this martial arts anime is long and often repetitive. However, the humor intermixed with the action made it beloved by many. Yet, Dragonball and Dragonball Z did set something crucial for the action genre. It set the standard of powering up main characters. With each stronger foe also comes a stronger power up. Perhaps that was one trope that would have been better off not catching on.
Revolutionary Girl Utena
This is one anime you might have missed, but during its time Revolutionary Girl Utena was… Well, it was revolutionary. We all know the fairy tale trope of how the prince saves the princess and they fall in love, and that is what Utena is about, except it turns it right on its head. Utena is a girl that dresses as a boy because she wants to save damsels in distress. And Utena actually does rescue someone from an abusive relationship. Not only did Utena become one of the first gender-bending anime series, but it turned gender roles all topsy-turvy. Now we have a lot of dialogue on these topics, but when it first came out, Utena was of a controversial breed.