Legend of the Galactic Heroes
- What it’s about: Two space-faring polities – the autocratic Galactic Empire and the democratic Free Planets Alliance – have been at each other’s throats in an on-again off-again war for centuries. Neither is able to break the stalemate, and millions continue to die in the endless jostling for position and advantage through large-scale fleet actions. Amidst this ongoing tragedy, two military geniuses begin to make their names, each rising quickly through the ranks of their respective militaries to face off against one another. Yang Wenli of the Alliance wants nothing more than an equitable end to the conflict, but his superiors have other ideas –a noble crusade against the “Evil Empire”. Meanwhile, Count Reinhard seeks to topple that Empire from within and save his sister from her gilded cage as the Emperor’s mistress.
- Why you should watch it: Calling Legend the magnum opus of Japanese animation would not be an exaggeration. An epic space opera that sprawls over a hundred episodes, it’s an in-depth examination of war in all its hideousness and glory. Political backstabbing and manoeuvring behind the scenes, tactical space battles, personal conflicts and rivalries, and the small-scale everyday tragedies faced by the civilians – the series has it all. Despite the initial assumptions that come with an “Empire vs Republic” story, neither side is entirely in the right. There are heroes and villains on both sides. Great effort was put into establishing the characters; the series holds the Guinness World Record for the highest number of voice actors, as not a single repeat performance is given despite the gigantic cast. The classical soundtrack complements the action perfectly. If you’re a fan of the medium at all, you’re going to need to explore the series at some point.
- Caveats: There is currently no legal way to watch the show unless you find an old copy of the tapes on eBay. The whole thing is, however, available on most major streaming sites. The largest caveat to the show is the sheer time commitment that it demands. Unlike typical long-running series, though, there’s very little filler in Legend. Every episode nudges the plot forward in one direction or the other, or opens up a new exploration into the characters themselves. If you’re unsure whether or not you want to start, try watching the prequel movies My Conquest is the Sea of Stars and Overture to a New War first. They’re standalone films that also serve as a good lead-in to the series itself. If you do watch Overture, you can skip the first two episodes of the series, as it covers the same material. Finally, it must be noted that the series is from the early 90s, and it shows in the animation and sound design. This is a story where you come for the plot and characters; if you’re after whizz-bang graphics, look elsewhere.
- Themes: I don’t even know how to sum this up here – you could write entire theses on the thematic development of the show. In short: rivalry, ambition, loyalty and betrayal. Power, the right-to-rule, legitimacy, the nature of peace, the nature of war, democracy, autocracy, bureaucracy.
- Similar works: The closest work I can think of is David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, which has the same kind of epic scope and shows protagonists on both sides of the conflict. In anime, maybe Zipang. if you want more of the same kind of rivalry that you see between Wenli and Reinhard, maybe check out Death Note or Code Geass.
Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei
- Trailer: Aniplex Trailer
- What it’s about: Magic is no longer a mystery, but a codified science upon which all modern militaries depend. To encourage development of the necessary skills, national academies have been set up for prospective talents to hone their skills. Tatsuya and Miyuki Shiba have just enrolled in “First High”, only to discover that prejudice and classism are rife within the student body.
- Why you should watch it: This is an unapologetic power fantasy. It does away with the usual tropes of having the protagonist start out weak only to discover their true potential – Tatsuya starts off leagues ahead of his peers and stays that way. The magic system, politics, and general worldbuilding is intricate and detailed, and a lot of attention is lavished upon making sure the audience keeps up. The animation of the fight sequences is also pretty fantastic.
- Caveats: The pacing is really, really weird. The complexity of the world requires a lot of exposition, which isn’t handled as adroitly as one might hope – lots of sit-down “As You Know” conversations. There is a heavy (albeit one-way) incestual romantic substory going on, so if that squicks you out, Id probably avoid the series.
- Themes: Objectivist-leaning discussion on privilege, responsibility, and classism
- Similar works: The world of A Certain Magical Index/A Certain Scientific Railgun is in many ways quite similar, though the story and characters are quite different.
Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo
- Trailer: DVD trailer (poor quality)
- What it’s about: An anime re-telling of the Andre Dumas “blockbuster” The Count of Monte Cristo, with a few twists. Most prominently, the setting has been changed from Enlightenment-era Europe to a space-faring sci-fi civilisation. Secondly, the point of view character is no longer the Count himself but Albert Morcerf, the young man embroiled in the Count’s schemes for revenge. The shift in perspective and “in media res” setup makes the Count appear far more sinister and otherworldly than the original tale.
- Why you should watch it: The Count of Monte Cristo is a classic, classic tale of revenge. Gankutsuou reworks it slightly, but the core of the story remains – a brilliant, scheming mastermind who is all too happy to manipulate pawns and characters to achieve his ends. It weaves mystery and action into its plot from start to finish, and it’s never boring to watch.
- Caveats: The artstyle. It’s weird, there’s no other word for it. But it was a deliberate choice by the creators, and it does grow on you after a few episodes. Here are some screencaps as a demonstration of what to expect:  .
- Themes: Revenge, ennui.
- Similar works: Code Geass, Monster. Outside of anime, the original Count of Monte Cristo is an obvious choice, along with other modern derivatives such as V for Vendetta or The Stars’ Tennis Balls.
A Certain Scientific Railgun
- Trailer: English dubbed version
- What it’s about: Academy City is home to the world’s foremost scientists, particularly when it comes to the development and exploitation of mysterious “esper” powers, for which it has a number of dedicated schools. The protagonist, Misaka, is a rare “Level 5” esper with the power to generate electric fields, earning her the nickname “Railgun”. The story follows her and her friends as they stumble into a series of adventures and mishaps around town.
- Why you should watch it: Railgun is a side-story to A Certain Magical Index, but it stands perfectly well on its own. In many ways, it’s a more approachable work. It’s an easy watch that doesn’t require you to pay a great deal of attention, but will draw your eye back to the fantastically animated action scenes. The characters are fairly fleshed out (though several of them fall into the standard tropes) and the comedy is well-timed, but really it’s the *world* that acts as the series’ main draw.
- Caveats: The second season spends half its run on an arc that’s covered in three episodes in Index. It does a much better job of it, but if you watch Index first, you’ll be pretty spoiled going into it. The question of which to watch first is a tricky one, though Railgun is the more polished work.
- Themes: Class conflict – Academy City is essentially an aristocracy based on the strength of your in-born gifts, and any attempt to upset the natural order (as, for example, by artificially boosting your power) is treated as a bad thing by every character in the place and punished via plot. The emphasis is instead on how best to use what talents you are given.
- Similar works: A Certain Magical Index is the obvious choice. Otherwise, maybe Problem Children…
Brynhildr in the Darkness
- What it’s about: After his childhood friend was killed in a tragic accident, Murakami takes up her dream in her stead, seeking out alien life through the telescope of the astronomy club. Years later, a girl appears at his school, identical to the friend he’d lost, but who claims to have no memory of him. She warns him that unless he listens to her advice, he will die in a matter of hours. From there, Murakami is dragged into a world of blood, horror, and mysterious powers as it becomes increasingly clear that the girl is at the centre of something beyond his understanding.
- Why you should watch it: It’s a fairly clever show and the stakes are always high. The writer does an excellent job of maintaining tension, and even the lighthearted scenes have an element of desperation to them. It’s also nice to see a male protagonist who isn’t simply hopeless when surrounded by a largely female cast, even in an action-heavy series like this.
- Caveats: This is written by the same guy behind Elfen Lied, and there are more than surface-level similarities between them. Tonal shifts are common and quite abrupt, and not always pulled off as adroitly as might be hoped for. The general tone of hopelessness and futility can be draining at times. Finally, the ending is quite rushed – it tries to shove over forty chapters of the manga into three(!) episodes.
- Themes: Prejudice, abuse, desire for normality.
- Similar works: Brynhildr is something of a blend between Elfen Lied and Another. Either would be good places to go if you like this.