5 Classic Anime You Should Watch: Anime 101

Welcome to Anime 101! I’m sure there are many new or casual Anime fans wondering, “What anime should I be watching?” In this lesson, there are 5 classic anime you should watch. Since these are well-known by vets of the art form, watching them will help you understand what those fans grew up watching, and subsequently give you more to talk about with them.

Anime 101 Criteria

Anime recommended in Anime 101 lessons will be:

  • Available to stream legally, making them easy to access.
  • Either be classics well-known by veteran anime fans, or recent shows that are popular.
  • 1-2 seasons long, of not more than 26 episodes per season (or, alternatively, a movie)

Do you have ideas for future Anime 101 lessons? Let me know!

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro

Lupin III - The Castle of Cagliostro

Where to stream it: Hulu (dubbed)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited away – you know the deal, just about every Studio Ghibli movie)
Animation Production: Not listed; this movie was made before Studio Ghibli existed.
Vintage: 1979 (not dubbed until 1991)
Rating: G

After Arsène Lupin III successfully robs a casino along with his partner, Jigen, he finds that all of the money is counterfeit. He decides to track down the producer of these “Goat Bills” and steal every other treasure in the Castle of Cagliostro once he does so. This includes the resident damsel in distress, Clarisse.

Lupin III - The Castle of Cagliostro

The Castle of Cagliostro is the first movie that Hayao Miyazaki directed. Although it is not as smooth and pretty as many of his other works, it still has that same attention to detail and unexpected camera angles that Miyazaki is famous for. It is the most “friendly” of the Lupin III properties because Miyazaki made alterations to the characters. Usually, the characters are portrayed as much more dark and villainous. Because of this, the movie was criticized by fans when it released, but it gained popularity each time it was re-released. It has influenced scenes in movies such as The Great Mouse Detective, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and The Simpsons Movie.

Although this film isn’t true to its source material, it is still a great heist flick, which is a genre not particularly plentiful in anime. It’s also a decent family film so you can watch it with your kids (provided you’re alright with gunfights – but there isn’t any gore). Plus, it gives you another Miyazaki film under your belt. There aren’t many available to stream, so you have to take the greatness where you can get it.

Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell

Where to stream it: Hulu (dubbed)
Director: Mamoro Oshii (Patlabor: The Movie, Urusai Yatsura)
Animation Production: Production I.G (Attack on Titan, Kuroko’s Basketball)
Vintage: 1995
Rated: NR (Mature Audiences Only, for nudity, gore, language)

The story takes place on a futuristic, cyberpunk earth. Technology is highly advanced and many people are cybernetically enhanced – some even to the point of having only their organic brain left. Such a cybernetic body is called a “shell”. Enter Major Makoto Kusanagi, a cyborg who works for Public Security Section 9. She and her team are attempting to track down a hacker known as “The Puppetmaster”, who has been illegally hacking into and erasing peoples’ memories (“ghost-hacking”).

Ghost in the Shell

This movie was animated with what was, at the time, cutting edge digital technology. It does slip into a very-blatant CG mode every so often, but since it’s usually through terminals it isn’t so bad. The rest of it is clean, detailed, and easy on the eyes. The music fits with the tone of the movie perfectly, though perhaps it isn’t the best choice for your everyday playlist. The movie explores some complex themes, such as sexuality and gender identity, which come into play because fully cybernetic bodies cannot reproduce.

Ghost in the Shell has heavily influenced movies such as The Matrix and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. There are even some similarities in Avatar. It is usually found in “top anime movies of all time” lists, and sometimes even “top animated movies of all time” lists. The movie is hard-core science fiction with a lot of technology to wrap your head around, which can be difficult for some to get through. It’s worth the watch, however!

FLCL

FLCL

Where to stream it: FUNimation (dubbed or subbed), Hulu (dubbed or subbed)
Director: Kazuya Tsurmaki (Evangelion 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0, Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion)
Animation Production: GAINAX (Gurren Lagann, Neon Genesis Evangelion), Production I.G (Attack on Titan, Kuroko’s Basketball)
AKA: Fooly Cooly or Furi Kuri
Vintage: 2000-2001

Naota is an elementary school student determined to be mature and act like an adult. Then Haruko, an alien woman on a Vespa, runs him over and smashes his head with a bass guitar. Haruko decides his head is “the right sort of head” to make portals that pull robots from the nearby Medical Mechanica plant. She therefore moves into his house, upheaving his life.

This is the most recent of the classic anime in this lesson, and it is only 6 episodes long so it’s quick to get through. It can be a bit of a difficult watch just because it’s so crazy and the story needs to be pieced together like a puzzle. The soundtrack is amazing. A rock band called The Pillows did all the music for the series, and if you can get a hold of the OST, it is a great addition to your playlist. The animation isn’t great – it is wild and rough, and frequently changes style. However, it’s fun, which is what this show is all about, really.

FLCL: the animation constantly changes style.

It doesn’t surprise me to know that one of the key animators for FLCL worked on Kill la Kill as the animation director. The action animation is similar, and many people from GAINAX left to form Studio Trigger (which produced Kill la Kill). I’m willing to bet the rest of the animation staff between both shows is similar despite the studio change.

Most fans remember FLCL fondly, and it has been on American television as recently as 2014. It’s worth a watch even if you’re just interested in seeing where animators from Studio Trigger came from.

Cowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop

Where to stream it: FUNimation (dubbed or subbed), Hulu (dubbed or subbed)
Director: Shinichiro Watanabe (Space Dandy, Samurai Champloo, Zankyō no Terror)
Animation Production: Sunrise (Tiger & Bunny, Accel World, Mai-HiME)
Vintage: 1998

Spike Spiegel, Faye Valentine, Edward Wong, and Ein the corgi are  a team of bounty hunters – referred to as “cowboys” – aboard a spaceship called Bebop. The main storyline is about Spike and his rivalry with Vicious over a woman named Julia. However, the show can be considered fairly episodic and explores a large number of topics such as drugs, homosexuality, existential ennui, and loneliness while documenting the misadventures of the crew.

Cowboy Bebop

Many veteran fans will name Cowboy Bebop as their first anime. It did a lot better in the U.S. than it did initially in Japan, perhaps because of the heavy western and pulp fiction influences that many in Japan wouldn’t identify with. It is hard to place a genre on the series because it crosses so many (also including science fiction, comedy, film noir, detective capers, and more). The animation is consistent – not amazing, but decent enough.

Cowboy Bebop is frequently found in top anime lists, and sometimes even in top sci-fi tv show lists.  The music, composed by Yoko Kanno and performed by The Seatbelts, ranges from wild and funky jazz to soulful blues, is often mentioned as a top anime OST.  The series is often noted for its character development and backstory. It has gunfights, space battles, gambling, and hacking. And if you like the TV series Firefly at all, you should especially check out this show.

Akira

Akira

Where to stream it: FUNimation (dubbed or subbed)
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo (also the creator of the Akira manga)
Animation Production: Tokyo Movie Shinsha (various Lupin III and Detective Conan movies, among others)
Vintage: 1988
Rating: R (language, gore, nudity)

Akira takes place in a post-WWIII, dystopian, cyberpunk Tokyo. It follows Tetsuo, a member of a gang led by his best friend, Kaneda. During a motorcycle chase with a rival gang, Tetsuo almost hits an esper released from a government laboratory by a guerrilla revolutionary group. When Tetsuo is taken into custody, it is found that he has psychic powers similar to those of Akira, the esper who destroyed Tokyo. Tetsuo is to be killed if his abilities go out of control.

Akira

Everything about this movie holds up today (except maybe the year in which it takes place, which is 2019). The story is gripping. The animation is fantastic and detailed. Not just backgrounds, either – character movement was meticulously animated. The music is unique and beautiful, and sometimes haunting. You will never see another movie like this one. I remember watching it as a teenager (my third anime, after Sailor Moon and Ranma 1/2) and being enthralled.

Akira consistently makes it into top science fiction movies lists, and if you ever see a top anime movie list that doesn’t have it listed, that source is bad and you might want to consider ditching it. It continues to influence works even today – one recent example is the movie Looper. It is also continuously referenced and spoofed (go ahead and watch the South Park episode about Cartman’s Trapper Keeper).

In short, if you are at all serious about watching influential classic anime, you need to watch Akira.

Honorable Mentions

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Unfortunately, this is not available to stream online at this time. But everyone knows about it, and many anime series spoof or reference it in some way, even in newer shows. If someone you know can lend you the original TV series, I highly recommend you take the plunge.

Ninja Scroll: I decided this was too graphically gross for a recommendation to new fans, but veteran fans do generally know about it. You can find it on Hulu (along with the worst synopsis ever) if you’re into gore and questionable sexual content.

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Jen is a web developer and anime enthusiast from the suburbs of Philadelphia. She is the proud mama of a future geekling and enjoys yarncrafting, especially if it involves a pop-culture project.

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