Anime fans never had it so good. Times were, anime was this niche interest where you had to raid ancient Mayan temples and defeat hordes of thuggee guards to get your hands on one precious blurry VHS. Being an anime fan made you an outsider. When it started airing on the Toonami block of Adult Swim, you’d be grateful to sit up at 2AM to catch up on Naruto.
Now it’s so mainstream, it’s streaming on Hulu. You lucky kids!
Let’s unpack some crates and see what we have here. We’re focusing on the essential “must watch” meaning “if you haven’t seen it yet…” There’s lots of classics on Hulu, many gateway series that fans cherish as their first introduction to the culture.
Yes, you’ve heard over and over how great it is. Hence the pile of Anime Grand Prix awards and regular appearance in everyone’s top lists. You’re hearing it from us now too. What makes Cowboy Bebop special is two factors: (1) how ideal it is for lightweight viewing, and (2) the uncanny mix of cultural influences. The jazzy lounge intro and silhouette opening credits recall James Bond or, more on point, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The bounty hunter framework recalls a touch of the Dirty Pair, while some episodes’ themes feel more like part of the Firefly universe. Cowboy Bebop cheerfully raids every cultural style that works, like the mangaka equivalent to Quentin Tarantino.
Because we can and because this might be the first time anybody’s done so, here’s the Cowboy Bebop and Man From UNCLE intros side by side:
Some of you might like your anime short and sweet, so you can digest it easily within a busy schedule. In which case, you should avoid One Piece, a giganormously popular long-running anime series that’s outsold everything in the universe. It’s one of the few with a multi-generational audience, running off enough manga copies to set a Guinness World Record. All this is about Luffy and a band of Straw Hat Pirates hunting a legendary treasure so Luffy can become King of the Pirates. This simple motive makes for the most Shounen story ever made, but since its audience is so huge, you don’t dare miss out or you won’t understand memes for the next few decades.
Hey, you need a recap? Here’s one that’s only an hour and forty minutes long, no sweat:
Talk about series you’re sick and tired of hearing about! But what are we going to do, tell you that you don’t have to see it? It’s only 37 episodes long, you can binge it in a few weekends, tops. It’s the story of spirit beings bringing their toys to the mortal world for humans to blow their tiny little minds on. Said toys are the title artifact, a book where you can make anyone die by writing their true name as long as you know their face too. From this simple premise spans a deep intellectual thriller that runs to Shakespearean proportions of intrigue. Again, as always, we have to repeat the refrain: avoid the films, stick to the anime.
Here’s just one writer making a fittingly nitpicking analysis of the anime’s fine pacing:
Here’s some more analysis, looking at the rule-driven game aspect of the series:
My Hero Academia
Of course My Hero Academia was destined to take over the world. It’s cute kids in a Shounen-sized anime series for the East. It has a sprawling cast of superheroes for the West. In a brilliant flip of the typical fish-out-of-water story, the main character, Ijuku, is the only one born without superpowers in a world where they’re distributed to some 80% of the population by genetics. This gives us a commoner to root for, as Ijuku is determined to attend superhero school anyway. Watch, just watch, he’s going to turn out to have some goofy quirk like “his real power was his courageous heart all along.” Meanwhile the series is an exercise in boundless imagination and deconstruction of hero fiction, not to mention shout-outs to series like Avatar.
Wisecrack breaks down some themes of the show:
The Promised Neverland
Here’s our underdog pick. It’s a change from the above mega-blockbusters, making a very small blip on the radar so far, but it’s just getting started. This is the anime for those of you who like something darker. It’s about a civilization that raises children in ideal orphanage settings, with the only catch being that they are subjected to tests of their knowledge. They’re also warned not to venture beyond the gates of the complex. By the age of twelve, all children are adopted out to foster families, never to be heard from again. But this set-up harbors a Dark Secret™, and when the kids discover it they’re desperate to escape this fate. This is a horror series that twists several psychological daggers deep in your mind, with some deep political subtext thrown in.
Pardon the goofy host, but this is the most spoiler-light review we could dig up. Sorry, but this is one of those shows where even describing it for a minute requires spoiling something:
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure
Back to the standard picks. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is another long-runner manga aged a quarter century, though it’s only recently gotten an anime adaptation. This series is for you if you like a meaty epic tale to sink some hours into. It’s also the epitome of anime tropes with over-the-top everything and a mix of serious plot lines and goofy random events. It’s a Highlander-type drama about the Joestar family bloodline, possessed of superpowers (called “Hamon”) they have to develop, and their confrontations with nasty supernatural villains. The story literally spans generations, each new protagonist being nicknamed “Jojo” and set anywhere from 19th-century Great Britain to modern-day dates in alternate timelines. As with One Piece, the biggest issue with this show is devouring the huge archive to get caught up. However, each Jojo has their own self-contained story to tell, so it’s broken down into digestible chunks.
Surprised we haven’t posted a “Why you should watch” video yet, but here’s one for Jojo:
Finally, here’s a care package for you science fiction freaks. Steins;Gate is a series about time travel, and like any time travel story, it’s a mind bender. If you want to see Rick & Morty without the obnoxious characters and self-congratulatory smugness, or see Primer (2004) with a more epic scope and fewer mumbling engineers, give this show a try. It’s also a show that starts out lighter and gets progressively grimmer as it moves along, so don’t judge it by it’s opening feel. It takes some innovative twists with time travel formula, starting with the mere ability to send text messages back in time and ending up (we were wondering when somebody would finally do this!) with a war scenario between rival time traveling groups.
Here’s the opening theme, just so you can have the diagrams, gears, and equations tell you what kind of show you’re getting into: