What it’s about: Lain is an isolated, troubled girl. At home, her parents and sister barely acknowledge her existence, and at school her only link to her classmates is her friend Alice. Hers isn’t a unique situation, of course – all across the world, people are becoming disconnected from their real lives, in favour of the digital experiences of the Internet. But increasingly strange events seem to point to a deeper connection between Lain and the world of the Wired.
Why you should watch it: Lain is a unique experience. It’s a moody, existential work that trusts the audience enough to let them draw their own conclusions about what is going on, about what is real and why things are playing out as they are. The sound design is fantastic, getting a lot of work out of extended silences, and the soundtrack suits the show. The director’s background in Japanese horror shines through in almost every aspect of the show – there are no (or few) “jump scares”, but Lain manages to evoke an intense feeling of isolation and unease. If you’re up for a slow-burning psychological show that presents you with puzzles and questions you’re going to have to spend some time (or a second viewing) unwrapping, give it a go.
Caveats: I think the above section should be enough to decide whether to watch the show or not. It is slow-burning, it is existential and philosophical, and there isn’t a lot of traditional anime “action” going on. Decide for yourself if that’s what you’re looking for, because the show makes no apologies.
Themes: The division of fantasy and reality is the heart of the show, with a lot of musing going on about the nature of the self – if everyone agrees on the nature of reality, or that you are a certain type of person, can you really dispute those perceptions? Can a person have more than one identity at a time, and deliberately craft those identities to display different aspects of themselves while still remaining whole?
What it’s about: Alien parasites have quietly begun to appear across the world. After seizing control of a host body, they blend in while discreetly murdering and consuming new victims. Shinichi was almost the victim of one such being, but some quick thinking trapped the parasite within his hand. Now the two of them must co-operate to survive, as other aliens see their situation as an unacceptable risk for exposure.
Why you should watch it: Adapted from a tremendously popular manga series from the early ‘90s, Parasyte is a thriller with a tinge of horror to it. The entire run of the source material is being adapted, which makes a nice change from partial translations meant to act more as advertisements than standalone works. Madhouse have also shown adroitness in adapting the story to a more modern world – nothing seems particularly dated or out of place. The soundtrack is fantastic – even if you don’t want to watch the series I’d advise picking up the OST. It’s also one of those rare works that are eminently approachable from a non-anime watcher’s point of view. There are no overused jokes, tropes, or other pandering. Just action, suspense, and a solid character arc for the protagonist.
Caveats: It’s fair to say that Shinichi and Migi carry the show, in that very little time is spent developing any of the secondary cast. The dubstep elements of the soundtrack were slightly controversial during the opening episodes, but I think they fit in just fine. While clever editing and composition limit the censorship, there’s still a little bit here and there.
Themes: Cold logic versus emotion. Prioritisation of one’s own survival versus the survival of the community, tied in to a general environmentalist theme. Humanity as a natural/”evil” force.
Similar works:Tokyo Ghoul‘s protagonist faces much the same sort of situation. Shiki offers the same kind of horror, but ramps it up significantly.
What it’s about: For ten years, Humanity has been at war with an alien menace, a space-borne race with innumerable ships and whose only aim is the consumption of stars and the destruction of mankind. Noriko’s father was killed in one of the first fleet actions of the war, and now she trains in the hope of fighting back from the cockpit of a combat mech.
Why you should watch it: Gunbuster’s main claim to fame is being the directorial debut of Hideki Anno (creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion). This sells it a bit short, though – the show stands on its own two legs as a great example of 80s “giant robot” battlers. Noriko’s journey from her time as a trainee to her final battle is well mapped-out, and the audience gets to see her struggle and overcome her fears, feelings, and failings, as well as the various perils of space combat. One particularly impressive element is the show’s use of realistic time-dilation as a plot point. On top of the dangers they face in the fight itself, they know that every battle drags them farther away from home.
Caveats: The first episode is a deliberate parody of the tennis show Aim for the Ace!. If you haven’t seen it before going in, this is the reason for the absurd mecha gymnastics and sports-show storyline. Things do pick up in later episodes, but it exacerbates the problems of a short run-time – the emotional impact that events have on Noriko doesn’t match up with the audience’s experience because we’re not given enough time for things to soak in. Finally, Gunbuster is very much a product of its time; the soundtrack and the visual aesthetics are pure 1980s. Be prepared for cheese. And random nudity.
Themes: Mortality and the transience of life. Even in a worthwhile cause, time is spent faster than you might think. But the relationships people forge are truly eternal.
Similar works:* The follow-up Diebuster is a good place to start. Otherwise, Knights of Sidonia for another standard mecha vs alien show, or Neon Genesis Evangelion for more of Anno’s vision of how the genre should work. Outside of anime, Ender’s Game bears a lot of similarities.
What it’s about: The year is 2700, and the majority of humanity has escaped the increasingly hostile environment of Earth by uploading their minds to the digital playground of Deva. Indeed, most have never set foot in the physical world. Which is why it’s all the more concerning when a hacker from the outside breaks through Deva’s security to broadcast a message to its inhabitants, offering ludicrous sentiments about exploring the galaxy. A team of security personnel is assigned to track down and eliminate the hacker in the real world. Among them is Angela Balzac, a young woman desperate to prove her worth to her superiors.
Why you should watch it: It’s an interesting sci-fi detective story with a flair for adventure. The two mismatched personalities of Angela and her native Earth guide Dingo make for a fun dynamic and the dialogue between them is engaging and funny. There’s a solid sense of adventure woven through the plot as Angela explores the real world for the first time while Dingo does much of the actual case work. The action-packed finale is fantastically animated and choreographed, scratching the mecha-fighting itch that was promised in a lot of the promotional material. In all, it’s a good popcorn flick.
Caveats: Angela herself is almost painfully cliche as an anime character, right down to the suspiciously teenage body and brash attitude. While solidly written, the story doesn’t really offer much new – none of the themes are addressed in all that much depth, though it does at least touch on some interesting stuff here and there. Finally, it’s worth mentioning the graphics. It’s 3D-rendered with a sort of cel-animation aesthetic. If you’ve seen RWBY, it’s a lot like that.
Themes: Transhumanism, the ethics of meritocracies. Tradition vs modernity.
What it’s about: Seki’s worries are small in scale. There’s a girl in his high school that he’s trying to work up the nerve to confess to, his childhood friend won’t stop teasing him, and he can’t seem to make it into class on time. But things begin to change when a handsome, enigmatic transfer student arrives in his class. People begin to act strangely, or stop coming into school altogether. And why was it that the first words he heard from the new guy were “So this is Earth”?
Why you should watch it:* This is an utterly gorgeous movie. The animation, backgrounds, and especially the lighting are simply stunning in every scene. Despite the film’s title, it’s is not an action movie about psychic battles. Rather, it’s a gently meandering drama with a romantic bent to it. The plot is almost a sideline to the character interactions and simply presenting a visual feast for viewers to indulge in. Everything about the movie is calming, delicate and completely beautiful to watch.
Caveats: As mentioned above, don’t go into this expecting psychic battles, despite the name. I think the runtime could have been condensed a little; an hour and a half would have been enough to cover everything that needed to be said. Make sure to watch the after-credits scene.
Themes: Lack of communication as the root of most problems.
What it’s about: Shinji Ikari did not set out to be a hero. In truth, he’s not qualified for the role, and he knows it. But when the alien “Angels” responsible for devastating Earth 15 years ago reappear and begin to lay waste to Japan once again, he’s told that only he is capable of piloting the Evangelion weapon system developed to defend humanity. Reluctantly, Shinji steps up. But there are good reasons not to place the weight of the world on the shoulders of a fourteen-year-old boy.
Why you should watch it: It’s not hyperbole to say that Neon Genesis Evangelion has a claim to being the greatest anime series ever produced. Others might have a more general appeal, or spin out a more epic tale, or have slicker production, but the impact that NGE has had on the medium since its first broadcast cannot be overstated. It would be worth a watch just to be able to pick out all of the references and allusions to it in your other favourite series, but on top of that it’s actually a good story. Binging through the whole show is far too easy. The characters are believable in their actions and motivations in a way that’s quite rare, there’s enough action going on to satisfy any mecha fan, and there’s enough depth to keep the attention of a more cerebrally-minded audience. The direction is supremely self-confident, and the writing doesn’t beat you over the head with its intent. It’s a show that has a lot to offer, and thoroughly deserves its reputation.
Caveats: To get it out of the way, this is quite an old series and it shows in the artstyle and animation. It actually holds up a lot better than its contemporaries, but for a viewer accustomed to modern anime aesthetics, it’s going to take a little getting used to. Secondly, the watch order: watch the original series all the way through, then watch the movie End of Evangelion. Give it a while to percolate before trying out the Rebuild movies.
Themes: Um, well. There have been entire theses written on this show and the different meanings and interpretations that can be pulled out of it, so I’m not even going to attempt a full summary. It’s safe to say that there’s a lot of Freudian subtext going on throughout, and the idea of the “hedgehog’s dilemma”, the yearning for close relationships coupled with an inability to commit or engage on that level without hurting one another, is a pretty central theme. Facing up to one’s responsibilities and the personal struggle with both depression and self-loathing is another.
Similar works:Madoka Magica is often brought up in the same breath as NGE for being another show that reflects and reinterprets the assumptions of its own genre. To see where Anno started off, try his directorial debut Gunbuster. It’s a little rough around the edges, and is a much more traditional mecha action show than Evangelion, but the connections between the works are there to see if you want them.
What it’s about: The police arrive at a school to find a classroom full of dead children, with only one survivor – a young boy named Ganta. The evidence of his guilt is overwhelming, despite his protestations of innocence, and the verdict is both swift and decisive. Death. The sentence is to be carried out at Japan’s only private prison, Deadman Wonderland, where inmates must participate in death games for the amusement of tourists.
Why you should watch it: This is an action show through and through. It pulls no punches, with deaths, fights and assorted ultraviolence in nearly every single episode. The conflicts and threats that Ganta faces are continually ramped up, and every time he begins to get a handle on his current situation, a new wrench is thrown into the works. The characters are entertaining in their insanity (and Shiro is adorable), and there’s a mystery to be solved under the surface of the story, but it’s the fight choreography and the fluid animation of the action scenes that are the major draws for the show.
Caveats: This is not a show you should try and watch with a 480px pirated stream; there are a *lot* of dark scenes – not thematically speaking (though that’s true too) – but in a literal sense of having the screen mostly black. Watching it on BluRay helps with the contrast but, annoyingly, there doesn’t seem to be a single release without some degree of gore censorship. Finally, the series ends quite abruptly. While it settles all of the immediate conflicts, it feels a lot like the first half of a story than a solid conclusion. But there’s always the manga to turn to if you want more.
Themes: Typical shounen fare with the power of perseverance and friendship,
What it’s about: Every five years, the various alien races of the galaxy are brought together by their love of racing, with the infamously deadly and spectacular *Redline* race. “Sweet” JP, a rockabilly racer with a fondness for driving a Transam souped up by his childhood friend and mechanic Frisbee. But is the clean weapons-free driving he gained his nickname for going to be enough to survive the upcoming Redline race, which is to be held in the territory of a hostile military power?
Why you should watch it: Many sports series use the genre as a jumping off point to expore other themes. Not Redline. This is a racing story through and through. The biggest draw of the film by far is its animation, which is unlike anything seen in anime before or since. It draws heavily on Western graphic novel styling, all bright colours and harsh shadows. The common anecdote is that it took six years to complete, and it really shows. It’s a non-stop adrenaline ride where the characters and plot are there to serve the spectacle, and not the other way around. That’s not to say that either are bad, it’s just a film that knows its strengths and plays to them. This is not a movie that would benefit from overly complex character progression or plotting.
Caveats: If there’s any anime out there where you don’t want to skimp on resolution quality, it’s Redline. Don’t resort to fuzzy garbage-level streams; use a premium service or just go and buy the DVD – it’s not that expensive.
Themes: Nothing particularly deep here. Doing what you love and sticking by the people you care about.
Similar works: Not much, really. There’s Trava, which is a side-story exploring the background adventures of another of the Redline racing pairs.
What it’s about: Some years ago, something strange happened. Across the world, the force of gravity suddenly flipped, and thousands of lives were lost as people and buildings “fell” into the open sky. Of those affected by the inversion, only a handful – those who were lucky enough to be in shelter – survived, and have since retreated underground. They live their lives upside-down, knowing that only a thin skin of earth separates from from the gaping void below.
Why you should watch it: This is science fiction as it should be – an imaginative, speculative concept made real and put on the screen for all to see. The animation and background art are gorgeous, with particular attention paid to shots of the sky that’s so terrifying and mysterious to both halves of the cast. But it’s the cinematography that’s most intriguing. The movie really can be watched with your monitor flipped upside-down as, even within the story, the perspective regularly changes to get the audience to focus on a particular character’s viewpoint. The plot itself is a nicely-executed adventure story with a tinge of action and romance, and it’s involving enough that the hour and a half run-time will pass in a flash.
Caveats: I wish that the same effort put into the landscapes had been lavished on the character designs. That’s not to say that they’re bad, by any means. Rather, they’re just standard when the world around them is a step above.
Themes: Prejudice, rebellion against authority. Seeing things from a different perspective.
What it’s about: Have you ever wondered if the “red” that I see is the same as the “red” that you do? These subjective experiences have a name – qualia – and they can define your identity and your limitations. Marii Yukari suffers from an odd condition: she’s utterly unable to distinguish living creatures and people from inanimate objects. To her, her classmates appear to be intricately designed robots. This strangeness has cost her one friend and gained her another. But things take a turn for the weird when it becomes apparent that the “Observer Effect” of quantum physics has broader implications than one might suspect.
Why you should read it: The story is actually quite hard to discuss without spoilers, because it’s utterly defined by its second act. That’s not to say that the opening arcs don’t do a good job of setting up the characters and the conflict, it’s just that once you’re past the introduction, Murasakiiro no Qualia ratchets up the stakes so far and so fast that you’ll plough through the last volume or two without stopping at all. If you truly want to see what “making a real effort to solve an intractable problem” looks like, this is the work to try.
Caveats: The final few chapters have not yet been translated. The story so far is good enough that you should read it anyway. The technobabble pretends to be scientifically accurate, but don’t take it too seriously.
Themes: If you have no limitations, how do you know when to stop? When does a hope become an obsession? The corrupting influence of power, and how our perceptions define our realities. Predestination vs free will. There’s a whole bunch of stuff in here.
Similar works: Far and away the closest work to this is Steins;Gate. I’d go so far as to say that they’re really twins separated at birth. Madoka Magica is another anime series worth trying out if you enjoyed this.