What it’s about: The Hundred Years War is in full swing, and France and England are at each other’s throats. When peasants from a nearby village are levied for the latest battle, the witch Maria steps in, using her magic to bring the fighting to a standstill. But as her use of magic becomes too obvious to ignore, the archangel Michael intervenes, putting a watcher in place to ensure that her sorcery remains secret, under pain of death.
Why you should watch it: Sex jokes and large-scale medieval battles. Junketsu no Maria offers a surprisingly accurate portrayal of the Middle Ages, with some obvious fantastical elements thrown in for good measure. There are no simple villains or heroes to the story – Maria’s interventions in the war are alternately praised by the survivors and cursed for prolonging the conflict and causing greater casualties. I particularly liked the character of the priest Bernard, who is forced to question his faith as the “heathen” witch is saving lives while the Lord’s angels are noticeably silent. The animation is bright, clean, and colourful, and the character designs for the protagonists are great. The plot moves along at a nice clip, and the series manages to wrap up the story completely in 12 episodes (which is a nice bonus in anime).
Caveats: While “Maria the Virgin Witch” sounds a lot like the title of a hentai, and the show does have a certain level of fanservice, there’s nothing distractingly raunchy after the first episode or two. The BD version is likely to provide better battle scenes and tidy up some of the niggling animation issues, so get those for the full experience.
Themes: The morality of interventionism – when should you step in, and when should you just stand aside and let the parties involved settle things for themselves. There’s a humanist/theist argument going on in the background, and a few nods to the conflict between living in the past and for the future. In all, it’s a show about striking a balance between competing priorities.
Similar works: Where Junketsu no Maria is about someone trying to stop war at the ground level, Maoyuu Maou Yuusha follows someone trying to stop war through more abstract means, mostly economic and political.
What it’s about: The Japanese AEGIS Cruiser Mirai is on its way to a routine joint training exercise with the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor when it is caught in a strange storm. When the rains and wind pass, they find that there’s no satellite signal and no sign of their escort ships. They soon discover that they’ve left the 21st Century behind – the date is June 4, 1942, and the Battle of Midway is about to begin.
Why you should watch it: It’s a fantastic war drama, posing an interesting question: should the crew of the Mirai support their homeland, or maintain neutrality in the hopes of bringing their own future to pass? There’s no right answer, and each of the characters wrestles with the issues that arise from holding information and military power that could turn the tide of the greatest war in modern history. Refreshingly for a show about war, neither side (nor any of the characters, in fact) are made into simple bad guys. Everyone has their own ideals, their own ideas about what to make of the situation that they’ve now found themselves in.
Caveats: This is a drama with action scenes, not an action show with dramatic scenes. Don’t go in expecting explosions and battles in every episode. Also, the show was produced for the purpose of drawing people into reading the manga, and the ending is an obvious invitation to do just that. Finally, the CGI scenes are pretty basic. Thankfully, they’re not the focus of the show, usually being simple transition and establishing shots of the fleets and aircraft.
Themes: Do you sacrifice a known and prosperous future for the lives being lost in the present? Where does ones duty lie – to country? captain? friends or strangers? Can a people brought up in peace truly judge the actions of soldiers fighting to defend their homeland?
Similar works: John Birmingham’s Axis of Time novels have a very similar premise (though it’s an American fleet transported back, rather than a single Japanese cruiser). Within anime, Flag and, to a lesser extent, Legend of the Galactic Heroes.
What it’s about: Despite being the second son of the Japanese Emperor, Prince Genji was removed from the line of succession due to his mother’s status as a concubine. As a young man, Genji is listless and without an outlet for his ambition. He spends his days seeking pleasure and leisure, seducing the beauties of the court and building a reputation for himself as a serial womaniser and romantic. But in his heart, he pines for the woman who helped raise him, the Emperor’s new wife Lady Fujitsubo.
Why you should watch it: The Tale of Genji is one of the oldest known novels, and a true classic of Japanese literature. The anime adaptation is a mature romantic drama, exploring the character of a young man who wants for nothing – except perhaps for love. The show condenses the story admirably, moving through the highlights of Genji’s story – his conquests and his failures – without lingering or rushing. The visuals are bright and aesthetically quite pleasing. At the start, the character designs seem a bit odd. But they evoke the classic origins of the story quite nicely. All in all, it’s a melodrama with its own very distinctive style. Try it if you want something different in the romance department.
Caveats: The show is first and foremost a soap opera. It’s written to appeal primarily to the demographic of older women, and this is reflected in every aspect from the characters to the dialogue to the overall feel of the show. As a fairly faithful translation of a classic work, it suffers a bit from outdated ideas about romance – Genji himself is given a bit more sympathy than I’d be personally willing to extend over his own actions.
Themes: Ennui. The power of love, including its power to destroy through jealousy, lack of reciprocation or pining for a forbidden romance.
What it’s about: The Hundred-Man Slayer. That’s what they call him. A ronin samurai who killed his master and then every enforcer sent after him. As punishment, he was cursed with immortality until he finds a way to redeem himself. With no skills other than his swordsmanship, he pledges to kill a thousand evil men to make up for the murders he’s already committed. Along the way he runs into an orphan named Rin, who seeks vengeance for the slaughter of her family.
Why you should watch it: In short: the characters and the action scenes. Manji himself doesn’t show a tremendous amount of growth, but Rin’s character – her ideals, motivations, and desires – are extremely well-developed over the course of the series. The fights are well-choreographed and brutal and can get quite inventive in the various ways that Manji’s immortality is put to the test. The animation is remarkably good; the character designs are first-rate and the show makes good use of modern cinematographical technique to keep the action fresh. If you’re looking for something gory with a “badass” protagonist taking on all comers, Blade of the Immortal is a good choice.
Caveats: When I started the show, I’d kind of hoped that they’d play up the “immortal” aspect a bit more in terms of longevity (like Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne, for example). The intro shows Manji in the modern world, after all. But nope, the entire story spans a few months in a single time period. Aside from that, the soundtrack can most charitably be described as…experimental. It’s very different to the standard music you’ll see in action anime, but I’m not sure that it’s actually an improvement.
Themes: Revenge and redemption, mostly in the context of finding your own reasons for living.
What it’s about: The final years of the Second World War – things are turning against Japan. The story follows a pair of siblings who survive a firebombing raid as they try to put their lives back together. But reality isn’t a land of sunshine and rainbows, particularly in Japan towards the end of the War. The elder brother, Seita, soon discovers the difficulties of taking care of a child in a country where pity and compassion are as harshly rationed as the food.
Why you should watch it: It’s one of the most emotional turbulent movies out there in *any* medium, let alone in anime, and regularly gets high marks even from critics in both Japan and the West. Takahata and Studio Ghibli bring their usual level of skill to writing and animation, bringing the tragedy to life. From the opening narration through the trials and tribulations that the children face, it’s a harrowing journey to watch. Grave of the Fireflies is one of those films that will leave a lasting impact, whether you enjoy it or not.
Caveats: This is not a happy story. At all.
Themes: The cruel and petty nature of humanity under stress, particularly war.
Similar works: Anything by Studio Ghibli – try Princess Mononoke first. Outside of that, Tokyo Magnitude 8.0. Outside of anime entirely, The Road or Schindler’s List.
What it’s about: Set in Japan on the eve of Westernisation, the story follows a young man seeking to make his fortune from the opportunities offered by the newly arriving technology – specifically, selling oil lamps to rural communities. But technology never stops marching, and it isn’t long before his own way of life becomes outdated.
Why you should watch it: For some reason, Japanese animators tend to focus on either the country’s Feudal Era or on the modern day without ever looking at the transition between them. Ojii-san no Lamp is a short story covering this gap, and it’s well-told. The central character is easy to empathise with and his story is especially relevant today, when it’s all too easy to fall behind the times despite your best efforts to keep up.This was one of the finalists in the annual government-sponsored “Future Animator Training Program”, so it received a solid backing from the studio in terms of art and resources.
Themes: Changes – embracing or denying them. The march of time.
Caveats: It’s only half an hour long, so while it’s a good story, give it a miss if you’re looking for something more “epic” in scale.
What it’s about: Saburou, a delintquent teenager from modern-day Japan, is suddenly and inexplicably transported through time to the Warring States Period, where he practically drops on top of a young man who bears an uncanny likeness to himself. A man by the name of Nobunaga Oda, heir to an aristocratic family but without the physical or mental temperament to live up to his name. Saburou makes a deal to take his place, and sets about using his wits and poorly-remembered history lessons to ensure that things turn out as they should.
Why you should watch it: It’s a fun adventure romp with a protagonist more capable and interesting than he appears at first glance. There’s been something of a glut of Nobunaga stories in anime recently, which has led many to pass this one over, but it’s definitely worth a quick binge through all ten episodes. Just don’t take it all that seriously. As an aside, the end credits are fantastically rendered, and it’s fun to watch the details change as the story moves along (banners update, character names and appearances alter to fit the new reality, etc.)
Caveats: The animation is largely computer generated and it takes a while to get used to. The show also struggles to find its feet in the early episodes, focusing a little too much on the “fish out of water” humour. It gets a lot stronger once the plot begins in earnest and you can begin to see the changes wrought upon Nobunaga’s story. Speaking of which, while you don’t need any familiarity with Japanese history to enjoy the show, it’s a definite bonus. Some of the subtleties require you to at least know the names of the major players and how they relate to each other.
Themes: Leadership – the privileges and responsibilities that come with it.