It’s been a while since I’ve written anything substantive on this site that wasn’t about E3. I have a lot to say about a lot of things, but I decided that I would write about a subject I’ve only lightly broached until now: anime.
I have the distinct pleasure of saying I raised two proper otaku. My son and my daughter are very versed in anime, to the point they have surpassed me. Trust me when I say my Crunchyroll account is kept very busy, and I am a very distant third on the usage meter.
While I can’t tell Attack on Titan from Katsugeki!, I have a deep history with anime. How deep? The first anime I ever saw was Speed Racer. At the time I started seeing it, the anime was only seven years older than me. For reference, Richard Milhous Nixon was president of the United States, and something named Watergate was dominating the airwaves whenever the news was on.
Have I mentioned I am old?
During my time on this planet, I have seen enough anime series to warrant a Top 5 list. I know it’s a stupid and tired gimmick, but I’ve never tried to quantify my favorite old-school anime before. I decided a Top 5 would be a good exercise for me. Please keep in mind, these are my personal Top 5 anime series.
There are a few rules to this exercise based on my history with anime. First, I’m looking at series only. If I include movies and OVAs, my top 5 would consist of Studio Ghibli movies and Fist of the North Star. Second, I’m restricting the list to titles before 2010 or so. It’s a completely arbitrary time frame, but I’m nowhere near versed enough in newer series to even broach it. Plus, I run the risk of my daughter chastising me for not including whatever her favorite new anime is if I don’t limit myself. She’s judging me as it is because I’m not going to mention Sekirei! Final note: these titles may be old, but I’m aware that many of you might not have seen them yet. Since I may talk about plot elements for series, beware of spoilers.
Oh, and no hentai. I keep my deviant proclivities off this site.
I’d love to know which anime series you hold in high regard. I love discussions like these, as they promote healthy debate. Ok, they provoke hate, but some healthy debate as well. Let me know where you agree or disagree with me.
Believe me when I tell you that dozens of series were considered for Honorable Mention status. Included in that list were The Big O, FLCL, Saiyuki, Mobile Suit Gundam, Rurouni Kenshin, Bubblegum Crisis, Samurai Champloo, and Shura No Toki. They were great, but they fell short in my eyes. Also, really old titles like Astro Boy, Speed Racer, and Space Battleship Yamato (Star Blazers stateside) were excluded because they’re almost painful to watch for me now and do not hold up as well. Some notable standouts:
This one comes out of left field, and I acknowledge that.
If I were to throw a driving anime into a list, Speed Racer should be in it, right? I mean, it’s an O.G. anime, and it features a car that overshadows its driver: the Mach 5! It should be a no-brainer. Right?
Except that when I want to experience a series that features balls-to-the-wall driving skills, I keep going back to Takumi Fujiwara and the ’86. I mean, there HAS to be a reason why Toyota decided to revive the name of the iconic car in the U.S.! Right?
Takumi Fujiwara’s journey from spaced-out teenager to the fastest downhill racer on Mount Akina is still awesome. I admit that my interest in drifting makes me a bit impartial, but the anime is still impactful. Only the slightly odd CG work on the cars mars the series in my eyes. There are quite a few fist-pumping moments during the racing, and the story is good enough that it will tide you over until the next race.
Besides, I felt more sorrow for the ’86 when Takumi blew its engine than I felt for other big animated moments. Yes, Big Lu, even the death of Optimus Prime. GET OVER IT!
This series was SOOOOOOOOOOOO close to making it to my Top 5. Gene Starwind’s travels in his eponymous ship was an incredibly fun romp. Though short compared to other series, it has tons of action, emotion, and more than a few gags. Starwind, Jim Hawking, obligatory cat-girl Aisha, and Twilight form one of the best space opera crews I would see until Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014.
Oh, and let’s get one thing out of the way: Joss Whedon may or may not have cribbed Outlaw Star with Firefly. I know this has been talked to death, but it needs to be brought up just to be thorough. In his defense, he’s said multiple times that he didn’t crib Outlaw Star, but the coincidences do stack up. To wit:
- A series set in space named after a ship (okay, the ship in Firefly was called Serenity, but it was a Firefly-class vessel. Also, the follow-up movie is named Serenity. So yeah.)
- The ship is owned by someone who is essentially a space pirate, who leads a goofy but lovable crew (well, as lovable as Adam Baldwin can be anyway)
- They come across a woman that is curled up in a fetal position inside a big suitcase
- Said woman escaped from an evil group who experimented on her
- Said woman is super important because reasons
Whether Firefly is a live-action Outlaw Star or not, the fact that a live-action series that I love shared elements with an anime series I love is pretty heady stuff. It wasn’t enough to crack the top 5, though.
Oh, and Gene’s Caster Gun? The fucking thing shoots bullets literally made of magic! BEST! WEAPON! EVAH!!!
Speaking of cribbing, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai has been adapted too many times to count. The most recent example I can dredge up is 2016’s The Magnificent Seven, itself an adaptation of the 1960 film of the same name. The one that resonates the most with me, however, is 2004’s anime series Samurai 7. It borrows many of the beats of the original, but it presents it in a way that caught my attention early and kept me ensconced until the end.
Why? Because mechs and Kyuzo, that’s why!
There is no way I could possibly explain this series in a way that you will ever understand. Short take: a village of farmers is being hounded by a group of mech samurai called the Nobuseri. They decide to hire samurai to fight the Nobuseri. Action and badassery ensue.
It didn’t make the cut because, as much as I love the series, it is only about the 45th adaptation of Kurosawa-san’s timeless story. I still love it, tho.
This one is way too recent to warrant inclusion. But this series, as well as Initial D, exemplifies what I love most about anime: making mundane things seem epic. Whether it’s driving – or in the case of Food Wars, cooking – anime loves taking a boring task and making it seem like a near-life-or-death struggle. It never gets old. Plus, the sight of grown men and women screaming in orgasmic glory, clothes figuratively exploding off them, after taking a bite of food just seems entertaining to me.
Didn’t I mention I was gonna keep the deviant stuff out? My bad, back to the article.
I know people are losing their minds right now because this isn’t in the top 5. Well, it’s not for hatred. This is a great series, made more so by the fact that my son and I slavishly watched the original series. His love for Pokémon is so ingrained, he has not missed a single game in the mainline series. The only series we enjoyed together more is the one that follows. But I just couldn’t add this one.
Dragon Ball Z
I was close to putting the series on this list. It’s one of the series that my son and I bonded over the most. The awakening of SSJ2 Gohan during the Perfect Cell Saga will always hold a special place in my heart because of that. And it’s still a relatively fun series. But..OH MY GOD, THE FILLER! The series has 291 episodes; the revised version, Dragon Ball Z Kai, cut it down to 167. That’s a lot of added fluff! It may be nostalgic as hell for me, but all that filler kept it off the top 5.
The Top 5
Yu Yu Hakusho
Before Ichigo Kurosaki and Naruto Uzumaki, there was Yusuke Urameshi. And he was a major badass!
True confession: I discovered this series late, experiencing it with my son on Cartoon Network’s excellent Toonami block along with Rurouni Kenshin, another favorite of mine. Of the two, Yu Yu Hakusho has endured with both of us. Urameshi’s story arc from a snot-nosed thug to Spirit Detective to a demon was captivating for me. And the story arc had real weight. Whereas Goku was a badass just looking for a challenging fight and just happening to save the universe, Yusuke was a badass who needed a good, swift kick in the ass in order to get stronger. And when he got stronger, I mean STEROID STRONG! By the end of the series, he was on a level few in the series could even reach. When he fired his Spirit Gun, you knew shit was going down!
But despite all of that, he was just a punk teenager with a punk teenager’s tendencies. He was a slacker and a bully. But he had two things in his life that truly grounded him: his rivalry with Kazuma Kuwabara, wanna-be bully (and cat lover) turned good guy; and Keiko Yukimura, his friend-turned-love interest. Watching him evolve during the series with them never stopped being great.
That’s what I loved the most about this series. His growth in strength and ability wasn’t a cheap “let me show you my TRUE power!” tactic. Every time Urameshi gained power, he earned it. That made me accept things like becoming the Mazoku and absolutely OWNING Sensui during the culmination of Chapter Black.
Yusuke’s adversaries were just as interesting as he was. Earlier demons were crap fodder, but later antagonists were actually pretty complex individuals. It was interesting to not just see their fights with Yusuke, but how Yusuke himself dealt with them. He was troubled as well, and his interactions with his stronger foes added to the show’s depth. Two of his earlier adversaries, Hiei and Kurama, end up becoming allies. They and Kuwabara form a pretty solid team, and their fights together are fun and, at times, emotional.
Oh, and have I mentioned that my daughter conned me out of my box set because of her love for Kurama, who’s on the cover of Disc 3? She loves her some bishounen boys.
Despite dozens of other anime series that have stayed with me, Yu Yu Hakusho endures.
Voltron: Defender of the Universe
This entry is referring to the original version brought to the States, which is based on Lion Force Voltron. The later series, including the Netflix one, aren’t included here.
For all of you Power Rangers fans, let me say this as gently as I possibly can: FUCK YOU, VOLTRON DID IT BETTER!!! Ya feel me, Cousin Jose? Voltron > Super Sentai! COME AT ME, BRO!
Actually, I just wanted to say that to get a dig in. But just as Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers mesmerized kids in the 90s, this series was mesmerizing kids a decade before.
Voltron was another series that did its rounds on Toonami. But I had a history with the series before then. Moreso than Speed Racer and Star Blazers, Voltron is the old-school anime series I love. Why? FUCKING ROBOTS LIONS THAT JOIN AND FORM A BADASS ROBOT!!!
I will admit wholeheartedly that this entry is motivated more by nostalgia than the story. The old-school Voltron, based on the Japanese Beast King GoLion, is cheesier than a brick of gov’ment cheese, but I love it. It follows five pilots who command five different-colored robot lions. These pilots defend the planet Arus from the planet Doom, ruled by King Zarkon.
Each pilot is a classic ragtag-team stereotype. Keith is the leader of the outfit and mans the Black Lion. Second in command is Keith. He’s the jokester of the bunch and pilots the Red Lion. The Yellow Lion is helmed by Hunk, the tough guy with the heart of gold. Pidge, the runt and the brains of the team, pilots the Green Lion. Finally, there’s the Blue Lion. It is first piloted by Sven, the former second-in-command and possessor of the absolute hokiest Scandinavian accent ever. Eventually, he’s replaced by Princess Allura, ruler of Arus. She’s the compassionate one, being a bit naïve.
All of this sounds cliché as hell, and it is. But once the episodes get underway, none of that matters. Similar to how I figure Power Rangers speaks to Cousin Jose, Voltron speaks to me. Five teammates fight baddies, then form a super-gigantic robot that wrecks the dreams of the wicked. Except Voltron has lions. It speaks to the five-year-old in me. Just seeing the sequence where the robot lions form Voltron makes me giggle like a child. Sometimes, ya gotta go with emotion over substance.
Vash the Stampede is one of those anime characters that I love more than anything. He is considered the most dangerous man alive, but those who first see him think he’s a buffoon. Indeed, he has a very buffoonish air about him. Adventurers who seek to claim the $$60,000,000 bounty on his head will be surprised to find someone that is so silly and seemingly absent-minded.
This series is set on a fictional planet named Gunsmoke, which has a very Hollywood Western feel. The bounty was placed on his head after the destruction of the town of July. He barely remembers the incident due to a bout of convenient amnesia, and little bits of what happened do pop up during the series run.
For the first few episodes, he just saunters along, seemingly oblivious to everything around him. Whatever scrapes he gets into never really involve him firing his trademark gun. The baddies out to kill him and collect the bounty pretty much take themselves out, leveling a town in the process. Meryl and Millie, two employees of the Bernadelli Insurance Company, follow him around and pretty much explain away the carnage as not Vash’s fault. Meanwhile, Vash is equally oblivious as before, not even trying.
But when he decides to get serious? Oh, holy HELL, does he get serious!
For those entering into Trigun blindly, I say wait until he decides to try. The first time Vash fires his hand-cannon in anger, it is almost cathartic. The trials he faces are pure adrenaline. And the rogues’ gallery of bounty hunters he attracts is almost as entertaining as he is. That speaks nothing of characters like Wolfwood, another badass sharpshooter whose iconic cross gun is almost as metal as Vash himself (but still not as cool as Gene Starwind’s Caster Gun). But the ultimate challenge materializes in the form of Vash’s own brother, Million Knives. I promise you, the baggage between them could make Jerry Springer wince. And the culmination of their beef will floor you!
I never did finish watching Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. I couldn’t even bring myself to watch Fullmetal Alchemist: Conqueror of Shamballa, the OVA follow-up to the original series. Honestly, by the time I finished watching the original, I was so emotionally spent that I was afraid to revisit it for a time.
Both Fullmetal Alchemist and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood are different adaptations of the same manga. The original 2003 series deviated some from the original manga; 2009’s Brotherhood follows it more closely. Both are great. Since I saw the original first and it kicked my ass first, I mostly refer to that one.
As incredibly awesome as this series is, it can be an absolute emotional sledgehammer. Fans of the series only have to hear the name “Nina Tucker” and they suddenly have an urge to either punch something or cry. That’s the level of emotional impact Fullmetal Alchemist has. From the very beginning to the end, the series mixes in great action and storytelling with absolute stomach punches.
Edward and Alphonse Elric are abandoned by their father and lose their mother due to illness. After her death, they’re raised by their best friend, Winry, and her grandmother, Pinako. During that time, they learn the ways of alchemy, the analogue for magic in their world. Buoyed by their early mastery of basic alchemy, they decide to return to their childhood home and attempt to revive their mother. The ceremony they perform, called human transmutation, goes horribly wrong. It’s here that the series’ overarching mantra, often spoken by Alphonse, is introduced in typical sledgehammer fashion:
Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. That is alchemy’s first law of Equivalent Exchange. In those days, we really believed that to be the world’s one, and only truth.
The human transmutation fails, primarily because it is essentially impossible in this world. Equivalent Exchange demands something massive in return for the attempt. It claims Eric’s left leg and Alphonse’s body. In an attempt to save Alphonse, Eric sacrifices his right arm in order to bind Alphonse’s soul to a suit of armor.
We’re not even 5 minutes into the first episode. It doesn’t get rosier from here.
However, Fullmetal Alchemist is not an overly morbid series. There are plenty of light-hearted scenes, many of which are absolutely sublime. Of course, many of them involve Major Armstrong. Because of COURSE, it does! And when it wants to kick ass with action, it kicks ALL the ass! Here, Brotherhood one-ups the original. The way ultra-badass State Alchemist Roy Mustang LITERALLY roasts Lust (yes, the Seven Deadly Sins are represented) has to be one of the greatest things I have ever witnessed!
It’s strange to me that I would pick a Western-influenced anime over a samurai series set to hip-hop. But when I look at both of director Shinichiro Watanabe’s biggest anime, Samurai Champloo cannot hold a candle to the absolutely classic Cowboy Bebop. I mean, Champloo is great, but it’s not Bebop.
It has to be the soundtrack. I mean, the story is amazing, but there’s no way I can ignore a soundtrack as excellent as Cowboy Bebop’s. Some of the most iconic music in anime can be found in this series, including some of the absolute BEST jazz riffs ever. It is simply composer Yoko Kanno’s finest work. Considering her work on Porco Rosso, RahXephon, and Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex, that’s a bold statement!
And it is introduced with that has to be the best theme song, BAR NONE. The opening theme, Tank, sums up everything I love about it into a minute and a half. There are plenty of anime opening themes I enjoy. Lupin the 3rd, The Big O, Trigun, Samurai Champloo, and Chobits come to mind. Bebop blows them out of the water. Okay, Lupin the 3rd is close.
(I considered putting Afro Samurai’s opening theme on that list, but that isn’t fair. How can you put them up against The RZA?)
OK, so the score is excellent, but a great soundtrack with no compelling story is just a reason to buy a CD. The premise for Cowboy Bebop is pretty cool. It’s a mix between Blade Runner and Outlaw Star, only no replicants or women in suitcases.
It’s set in 2071. Earth is pretty much toast, the result of an accident fifty years prior. Humanity moved off the planet and inhabited the planets and moons of our Solar System that they could. The spread-out nature of the colonies invites lawlessness. The acting police force of the colonies, the ISSP, is so undermanned and weak that it resorts to the Old West tactic of setting bounties on criminals. A quasi-legal system is set up that allows people to register themselves as bounty hunters. These “Cowboys”, as they are known, do the dirty work of catching the criminals and get paid for it. The system is so prevalent, there’s a whole in-universe TV show that is dedicated solely to announcing contracts.
That’s just the story, though, the setup for the universe the anime is in. And it’s a nice setup. But what elevates Cowboy Bebop into legendary status is its characters.
The anime series follows one particular Cowboy, Spike Spiegel. He and a team of bounty hunters travel around in a ship named Bebop and get into one scrape after another while searching for contracted criminals. The team includes a con artist, a hacker girl, and a genetically-engineered dog. They don’t get much more ragtag than them.
The crew is not just a collection of stand-ins, though. They, like so many characters, give Cowboy Bebop tons of depth. Even the colonies themselves are characters here. The colonies all look Earthlike and very lived-in, despite being on other planets. Everything on-screen, from the shopping malls and casinos on Mars to the Bebop itself, has character.
But everything that is awesome about Cowboy Bebop is encapsulated in one character: Spike. At first glance, he’s not all that interesting. He is lazy and slow to excite. His favorite pastime is sitting around and enjoying some noodles. But he knows Jeet Kune Do and is a crack shot, a sleepy clone of Bruce Lee and John Wick. He even espouses Lee’s philosophy. All the while, he looks playfully bored.
But beneath that is a much more complex character. It doesn’t surface until a menace from his past resurfaces. In Vicious, a former associate and all-around not-nice guy, you have Spike’s absolute opposite. Vicious brings out Spike’s mean side in a very…well, vicious…way. And trust me, there’s reason for that.
Cowboy Bebop is absolutely phenomenal. And it is a very emotional experience. By the end of the series, you will feel spent, but you will feel it was an excellent trip. As a bonus, you got to hear some pretty awesome bebop along the way. Bebop the improv jazz style, not the ship.
Yeah, I keep throwing the music in there. But it’s an integral part of Cowboy Bebop. Every element works together flawlessly: world, characters, story, and music. When they combine, they create dozens of memorable moments. To me, this is anime at its absolute best.