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I discovered the world of Japanese anime around the age of 12 or so. Throughout my teenage and college years I was utterly obsessed with it. When I first got into the genre it was relatively unknown in my part of the United States and I truly felt that I had discovered something very special. I would show various anime titles to anyone who would watch them with me. I was even president of the first Anime Club at my local High School. Back in those days I truly was an otaku (a Japanese term for people with obsessive interests, commonly the anime and manga fandom). At that time, anime did things that live action films just couldn’t do. It also didn’t hurt that anime had plenty of attractive, soft-spoken girls paired with – often times – flawed male protagonists I could relate to.
Now that I’m a grumpy old man I still love anime, but I’m far more selective about what I choose to invest my time in watching these days. Much of this is simply because I know the kinds of shows I want to watch. The great thing about anime is that, like movies, it has so many different genres to choose from. If you like giant robots, then you’re more than covered. But perhaps you prefer something sappier and romantic, anime has you covered there too! That being said, there are a lot of “older” (sometimes now called “classic”) anime titles that I feel are essential viewing for any anime fan; old or new.
For the purposes of this article, I will not list any anime that is younger than 2001 (with one exception). So, without further ado, here is the list of 25 Essential Classic Anime Titles.
25) Dragon Ball Z
Yes, the animation is dated, the story is somewhat simplistic, the stalling between episodes is insane and one could argue ridiculous; and yet Dragon Ball Z (DBZ) is perhaps the most successful anime of all time. It’s a peaceful day when Son Goku introduces his son Gohan (who is around 4 or 5 years old) to long-time friends. Suddenly, an alien named Raditz shows up claiming to be Goku’s brother. You see, as it turns out, Goku was originally sent to earth to destroy it. But a bump on the head as a child caused him to lose his memory. Uncle Raditz captures Gohan and a battle ensues. When the dust clears, both Goku and Raditz are dead. Worse still, with his dying words Raditz reveals that it’s only a year until more aliens come to earth. And that’s just the beginning of this martial arts anime classic.
In DBZ, characters fly through the air like Superman. They charge their ki for long periods of time to become super blonde haired beings known as Super Saiyan. They throw fireballs and other various ki blasts at one another as if it’s no consequence, and good always battles evil. Yes, the show may be old as hell, but so am I and I say that DBZ has transcended anime culture to become part of popular culture, making it one of the all-time greats.
Dragon Ball has multiple manga, television series, movies and specials. Recently, Dragon Ball launched a brand new television series called Dragon Ball Super.
24) Lupin the Third
Ultra-silly, over the top and goofy, Lupin will always make you laugh. Master thief Lupin, gunman Jigen and Samurai Goemon team up for various heists that rarely seem to pan out. Temptress Fujiko seems to distract Lupin from his objective and, more often than not, gets away with the goods. The original Lupin anime dates all the way back to 1971, so as you can imagine the animation for this television series is pretty dated. But despite its age, Lupin still holds a charm that few anime titles can claim to have. Lupin has multiple films (including two live action films), specials and a brand new modern television series.
23) Bio Booster Armor Guyver
Particularly in the United States, most people think of the 1991 sci-fi film The Guyver. For me, I think of the OVA (original video animation) series Bio-Booster Armor Guyver because it is the first title I can remember watching and knowing that it was anime from Japan. Guyver was truly my gateway drug into the realm of anime.
The story Shō Fukamachi, a 17-year-old student who accidentally comes in contact with the Guyver Unit – a biological symbiotic techno-organic armour that attaches itself to the host’s body, melding humanity and machine together. Unfortunately for Shō and anyone close to him, an evil corporation known as Cronos seeks the unit for their own nefarious needs and will stop at nothing until they obtain it. Cronos unleashes horrific hybrid man-beasts known as Zoanoids to dispatch the unit, forcing Shō to fight for his life.
The thing I like most about Guyver is that it deals with the subject matter in a very mature way. It’s also an incredibly violent anime where eyes are gouged out and heads are crushed. Along with the original 12 episode OVA, or Original Video Animation series (1989-1992), there is also a single OVA short called Guyver: Out of Control, a 26-episode anime series (2005-2006) and the original 32 volume manga from which all of the adaptations are based.
22) Mad Bull 34
Over the top with extreme violence and sexual content. It’s probably how some Japanese viewed New York City during the 1980’s. I suppose one wouldn’t dare mention Mad Bull 34 in the same league as any of Miyazaki’s films. Yet it’s this extremely over the top, but that’s what makes Mad Bull 34 so memorable.
Daiza-buro “Eddie” Ban is a half-Japanese, half American rookie cop who teams with Mad Bull John “Sleepy” Es-tes. Mad Bull’s methods are… unorthodox to say the least…? Yeah, let’s just leave it at unorthodox. Mad Bull 34 is an anime you simply cannot forget.
21) Ranma 1/2
When a panda and a busty young girl show up at the Tendo School of Anything Goes Martial Arts, nothing will ever be the same again. As it turns out, the busty young girl is Ranma Soatome and when splashed with cold water he becomes a she! You can’t make this stuff up, folks. Also, that panda I mentioned earlier is Ranma’s dad, Genma. It seems that a number of years ago when Genma and his friend Soun opened the school, they also promised to marry their children off. Soun has three daughters: Kasumi, Nabiki and Akane. Kasumi and Nabiki are quick to marry 16-year-old Akane off. Of course, hilarity ensues and issues arise between Akane and Ranma. As for why Ranma becomes a girl it seems that while training in China Ranma and his father fell into the cursed springs of Jusenkyo.
Ranma also has all these rivals who all seem to want to take Akane from him, such as my personal favourite character, Ryoga Hibiki (the eternally lost boy who holds a personal grudge against Ranma). Ranma is a very long series with 143 episodes, an 11 episode OAV series, a video game, a live action special and two movies. The manga on which it is based has 38 volumes. I feel that it’s well worth watching. It has a bit of everything from action to comedy to romance.
20) Maison Ikkoku
Before Ranma 1/2, there was Maison Ikkoku. Taking place in a boarding house run by a beautiful widow named Kyoko Otonashi, it has some pretty insane occupants to say the least. The main story focuses on 20-year-old Yusaku Godai (perhaps the most normal resident) who studies hard as she tries to get into university. There’s lots of comedy and drama with lasting, memorable characters. Maison Ikkoku is long with 96 episodes and 15 manga volumes, but it’s worth every single minute you’ll spend immersed in its glory. There has also been a live action movie and a live action television special.
19) Vampire Hunter D
Today, Vampire Hunter D is considered a cult classic. If you went to Blockbuster in the early 90s there’s no doubt that this was one of the few films in the “Japanime” section. With its fast-paced action, unique sci-fi fantasy setting and (at the time) outstanding animation, audiences had never seen anything quite like Vampire Hunter D.
Set in the year 12,090 A.D., in a post-nuclear wild west world full of demons, mechanical horses and vampires, things don’t look so good for the human race. D is a dhampir (half-human, half vampire) and fights against his own sinister bloodlust. One night Doris Lang encounters Count Magnus Lee, only to be bitten and claimed as his wife. As she’s clearly not one for forced vampire marriages, she hires D to protect her from Count Lee.
Besides the movie, VHD has 26 novels, a second film (Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust) and an upcoming animated television series, all of which are worth investing in. But if you want to experience Vampire Hunter D at its best, then look no further than this seminal masterpiece.
Much like Vampire Hunter D, Akira is another cult classic that hooked many early anime fans on the genre. Set in a bleak future that could only be created in the 1980’s, Akira has awesome futuristic motorcycle gangs, blood spilling action and a crazy cyberpunk sci-fi plot that I’m still not sure I can fully comprehend. To this day, Akira still has some of the most stunning hand-drawn animation you will ever see.
17) Urotsukidōji: Legend of the Overfiend
Urotsukidoji is not for children. Violence, sadism and tentacle rape are all elements you’ll find on the surface of Urotsukidoji. Humans are not alone for there are unseen realms running parallel to our own: realms of the demons (Makai) and the man-beasts (Jyujinkai). There is a legend that foretells the coming of the Overfiend (Chōjin) — a being of unimaginable power that will unite all three realms into a land of eternity. Man-beast Amano Jyaku searches for the Overfiend, and his journey leads him to the human realm in Japan. Two high school students: shy, lecherous Tatsuo Nagumo and school idol Akemi Ito are soon plunged deep into a nightmare when demons begin to enter the human world.
Released originally as three OVA’s (direct-to-video Original Video Animation) in Japan between 1987 and 1989, the series was adapted into a full length feature here in the West by Central Park Media’s anime 18 label and given a limited release in select theatres. Urotsukidoji has become a cult film outside of Japan among genre aficionados, and its unique story makes it an anime that the viewer will never forget… no matter how much they might want to.
16) Gunsmith Cats
Based on an 8-volume manga, Gunsmith Cats follows Rally Vincent and partner May Hopkins, who run a gun shop and also just so happen to be part-time bounty hunters on the mean streets of Chicago. “Girls, Guns and Grenades” sums up Gunsmith Cats really well. With slick anima-tion, fun gunplay, awesome car chases, a little humour and a handful of violence, Gunsmith Cats is a fun watch. The three episode OVA series was released as one DVD package in the U.S. and U.K. but is currently out of print.
15) Blue Seed
Momiji Fujimiya is a seemingly ordinary high school student – that is until plant-like monsters try to kill her. Thankfully, a man named Kusanagi – who has seven “blue seed” mitamas embedded in his body – saves her from a giant snake-like plant monster named Yamata no Orochi. It seems Momiji is part of an ancient family lineage, making her the Princess Kushinada. She is supposed to be sacrificed to the evil Orochi, who decimates her high school trying to get to her. But thanks to Kasanagi and TAC (a government lead organisation) she escapes alive. Under the care of TAC, Momiji must help to fight the aragami monsters. Got it? Good.
While Blue Seed has a lot of padding in its storyline, it’s a very memorable one with likeable characters. Blue Seed also has a three episode OVA entitled Blue Seed 2.
14) Ronin Warriors
One Friday afternoon in 1995 I stumbled upon a show that would seal my anime fandom forever. That was Ronin Warriors.
When dark clouds befall Tokyo and its population is captured by the evil Dynasty, five fantastic battled armoured samurai are the only hope for mankind. Chaos ensues, as does some engaging fun to go along with it.
This action anime still holds a real special place in my heart. There are battles that spawn multiple episodes, something you just don’t see nowadays. If that wasn’t enough, the main villain is a giant floating head named Talpa (Arago in the Japanese version). While certainly aimed at tween and teen boys, there are some mature themes to be found here. After all these years I still have no clue what “Dow Ching” means (I’m pretty sure it was made up specifically for the English version).
13) Bubblegum Crisis
An all-female group in power armour fighting evil cyborgs in a 1980’s futuristic setting? That’s what Bubblegum Crisis is all about! In 2032, after a horrific earthquake has split Japan into two islands and a giant corporation has created robots called Boomers to do pretty much everything. The big problem is that these Boomers sometimes go berserk: Terminator-style. Enter the Knight Sabers to save the day.
The OVA series ran from 1987 to 1991 and features movie quality animation, outstanding music and fun stories. Bubblegum Crisis also has a more recent (though inferior) television series that was released in 1998.
12) Fushigi Yuugi
Ditzy school girl Miaka is transported to ancient China by means of a mysterious book. She is nearly raped but a handsome hero named Tamahome saves her. Miaka soon finds out that she is the Suzaku no Miko, the priestess of Suzaku. She must gather seven Celestial Warriors to summon Suzaku and obtain three wishes. Of course, a majority of the seven warriors are handsome Bishōnen guys (bishonen literally translates to “beautiful youth,’’ typically used to describe a young man whose is considered handsome). So, along with her heram warriors, Miaka’s only hope of getting home is to find all seven warriors.
This synopsis may sound simple but I promise that there’s a lot more to Fushigi Yuugi than meets the eye. The story and characters in FY are strong and the plot has tons of great twists and turns. FY remains, at its core, an epic tale that should not be missed. Along with the 52-episode anime, FY also has 18 manga volumes, 15 OVA’s and two manga prequels.
Trigun gained more popularity in the United States than it did in its native Japan running during the Adult Swim block late night on Cartoon Network. The series follows the adventures of two insurance girls, Meryl Stryfe and Milly Thompson, as they try to track the legendary Vash the Stampede. As it turns out, Vash isn’t such a bad guy at all. In fact, he’s quite goofy. But trouble follows Vash wherever he travels.
Trigun mixes the wild western and science fiction genres together in a perfect, yet strange combination, that just works. Trigun also has a terrific movie that should be seen after finishing the television series.
10) Iria: Zeiram the Animation
Based on the original live action film Zeiram (which is not anywhere near as good as the anime) Iria: Zeiram The Animation is a prequel to the movie, and it follows an apprentice bounty hunter named Iria.
During a rescue mission of a hijacked space-craft the two discover that a vicious alien lifeform named Zeiram has been released from the cargo hold, killing almost everyone on board. Her brother – and veteran bounty hunter – Gren is wounded by Zeiram, but manages to help Iria escape before blowing the entire ship up in an attempt to kill the monster. Unfortunately for Iria, it’s not enough to finish the job. Did her brother make it off alive? Can she stop Zeiram before it’s too late?
Iria: Zeiram The Animation was released throughout 1994 in six separate OVA episodes in Japan. It aired on the Sci-Fi network in the United States and developed a cult following. With its intriguing story, epic fights and futuristic worlds, Iria: Zeiram the Animation is a title that I would consider a classic.
9) Ninja Scroll
In feudal Japan, Jubei Kibagami, is a wandering swordsman who is embroiled in clan politics when he saves a female ninja named Kegero. After defeating her attacker, Jubei is poisoned by a government spy. He has only two choices: defeat the Eight Devils of Kimon or die. Over-the-top violence, nudity and sex, coupled with gorgeous animation (that still holds up spectacularly to this day), along with an intriguing story to drive the action, makes Ninja Scroll a must see.
8) Cowboy Bebop
We follow the adventures of bounty hunters Spike, Jet and Fey through space and onto various worlds as they try to make enough money to keep the Bebop (their spaceship) flying and maybe have a decent meal once in a while. Cowboy Bebop is filled with action, humour and a science fiction look at the future that is unlike anything else I can think of.
7) Yu Yu Hakusho
Think Dragon Ball meets Vampire Hunter D and you should get a brief idea of what Yu Yu Hakusho entails.
Yusuke Urameshi is a delinquent of sorts, but he isn’t all bad. When trying to save a child from an oncoming car, Yusuke is run over, which leads to his death. But his good deed is noticed by Heaven and his soul is returned to his body. However, Yusuke is now a Spirit Detective, but Yusuke and friends do far more fighting than investigating.
If you’re looking for a fun action show filled with martial arts and spiritual energy, look no further than Yu Yu Hakusho! Along with its 112-episode television series, YYH also has two OVA’s and a movie.
6) Fatal Fury: Legend of the Hungry Wolf
I was never really big on the Fatal Fury video games, though I did like King of Fighters. So, I really had very little knowledge of the game going into the anime. Yet to this day I absolutely love the OVA series.
The plot revolves around Terry and Andy Bogard, whose father Jeff is killed in cold blood by his former training partner, Geese Howard, who then steals a scroll containing an ancient technique. Rather than helping the boys out and training them himself, their former Master decides that it’s best to just send them out into the world to fend for themselves… and get good at martial arts. To defeat Geese they must be as hungry as wolves, and 10 years later they return to exact their revenge.
The story isn’t particularly great and the animation hasn’t held up too well (particularly in the first OVA), but I still love this simple martial arts anime. Along with tons of other SNK fighting games there’s also Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture, another favourite of mine. I suggest watching the Fatal Fury OVA series and movie together.
Guts is a badass wondering mercenary who carries a GIANT sword. He joins whatever army pays him the highest price to do battle. Guts encounters Griffith, a man with huge ambition. Guts loses a battle to Griffith and (per their prior agreement) joins Griffith’s army, the Band of the Hawk.
Berserk did dark medieval fantasy before Game of Thrones and in my opinion, it still does it better. Berserk explores dark human themes, politics and the horrors of war. It’s a violent, sexually charged, dark anime that will leave a lasting impression on the viewer. As of this writing, Berserk also has its original (ongoing) manga, three movies and a brand new upcoming television series.
4) Night Warriors: Darkstalkers’ Revenge (Vampire Hunter: The Animated Series)
Demitri Maximoff and Morrigan Aensland do battle for control of the demon world. Dhampir Donovan Baine hates the cursed blood that runs through him and fights to kill the dark creatures of the night. Catgirl Falicia tries to find her place in the world and adds some comic relief. But a more sinister foe lurks above. Vampire Hunter does a great job of showing off many of the game’s characters in unique situations. Great animation and great fights make this one that fans of horror and anime should pick up!
3) Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie
Street Fighter II was one of the biggest video games of the 1990’s. I spent thousands of quarters in the arcade and even more money on the console version and its many minor upgrades. The Street Fighter II anime movie is one of the best fighting anime titles around. The story is rather bland, but seeing your favourite fighters duke it out in gorgeous anime fashion makes it well worth watching.
The basic story revolves around Vega (Bison in the English version) and his Shadaloo organisation, who want to capture and analyse the ultimate fighter. This happens to be Ryu. It also has a killer soundtrack. Make sure you watch this film in Japanese. The dub version cuts the wonderful Japanese soundtrack out and replaces it with some awful music.
I will proudly admit to being a Hellsing fanboy. Vampire god Alucard, who the story centres on is, in my humble opinion, the ultimate badass superhero.
The Royal Order of Protestant Knights has one mission: to search for and destroy the undead and other supernatural forces of evil that threaten the Queen and the country. This organisations leader is Sir Integra Fairbrook Wingates Hellsing, who witnessed her father Abraham Van Helsing murder members and take over the organisation. Her right hand man, so to speak is Alucard, the original and most powerful vampire that swore loyalty to the Hellsing family after being defeated by Van Helsing one hundred years before the story takes place. When Alucard is dispatched to kill a vampire posing as a priest, police officer Seras Victoria is taken hostage. Alucard shoots through her to kill the vampire and gives her the choice to become a vampire or die. Of course, she decides to become a member of the undead and a member of the Hellsing Organisation. The Catholic Church has its own means of killing the undead in the form of Father Alexander Anderson, a vicious superhuman monster hunter who is destined to cross paths with Alucard. If that wasn’t enough for you, Hellsing also has Nazi vampires hell bent on plunging England back into World War II.
Hellsing is without a doubt one of my favourite anime titles. While not for everyone, horror fans will no doubt delight in this. I suggest watching the television series before the OVA series. You won’t regret it.
1) Vision of Escaflowne
Without a doubt my favourite anime television series is the Vision of Escaflowne. Why, you may ask? Because it has EVERYTHING you could ever want in an anime: Giant medieval mecha-robots, epic sword battles, terrific characters, a great medieval setting and the best soundtrack an anime has ever seen.
High school girl Kanzaki Hitomi is transported to another world called Gaea where the earth and moon are visible in its sky. There she meets Van Fanel, a Prince whose homeland is attacked by the Zaibach Empire.
What makes Escaflowne stand out above the rest is its rich characters and incredible plot that I refuse to tell you any more about. It’s one that you’ve got to see for yourself. Escaflowne also has two manga series, a novel and a movie.