It's something of a truism that most anime is adapted from something -- typically a manga, sometimes a light novel, occasionally another source of inspiration. But some anime are created as entirely original projects for the screen, whether it's the big one or the little one. Here's some of the best such creations.
If money is everything in this world, what would you gamble to have that much more of it? How about your very future? This visually-striking, socially-conscious production was created anew as part of the normally offbeat lineup for the Noitamina programming block in Japan. It hearkens back to the power-up-and-pummel of shows like DragonBall Z and the duelling cardmasters of Yu-Gi-Oh!, but it's unquestionably an original thanks to not only its clever premise but thought-provoking execution.
2. Cowboy Bebop
This epoch-making science-fiction romp -- equal parts crime noir, future shock, and slapstick comedy -- is as staple an anime title as they get. It's all the more amazing to learn it was created directly for the screen, not adapted from an existing SF novel (e.g., The Dirty Pair) or manga. Apparently the show was originally devised to be a promotional vehicle for an as-yet-undesigned toyline, but after the first episode it was shunted to another production company and given far freer reign!
Another original anime production that's all the more striking for its social commentary and far-reaching concept. Twelve people have been selected at random to play a game, which grants them godlike power over the world they live in and a budget that would dwarf the GDP of most small nations. But what's really going on, and why was this game ever started in the first place? Kenji Kamiyama produced two excellent adaptations of other people's material -- Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Moribito -- before striking out in an entirely different direction with this series.
Leave it to GAINAX, the creators of Neon Genesis Evangelion (also in this list), to come up with something as loopy, unhinged, unpredictable, and at the same time as strangely touching as FLCL. Devised by the production company as a way to wind down from Evangelion's soul-searing, it was actually adapted into a comic after the fact (although the comic and the TV series are shockingly dissimilar). This is one of those shows for which adjectives like one of a kind seem downright inadequate.
Yet another GAINAX original (it's a good thing original work is their mainstay; they do it so well) that should appear in the dictionary next to the term "over the top." It starts from the humblest of origins -- an underground community of humans eking out an existence -- and ramps up and up and up from there until we've reached a pinnacle that involves giant robots throwing galaxies at each other like ninja weapons. One suspects only an original TV creation could have been this unbridled in the first place.
6. Macross / Mobile Suit Gundam
It's a tie! But really, how could a list like this not include two of the most influential and popular anime ever made, both of which were created directly for TV? Both have similarities -- they're mecha shows at heart, albeit each with different ways of humanizing and adding character and color to their respective stories. (See more about Macross and Mobile Suit Gundam in our overviews of each franchise.)
GAINAX's first big hit -- and arguably the biggest they ever will have -- was also an original, direct-to-the-screen creation. One could argue that fact helped create that much more of a fandom for this apocalyptic, symbolism-laden show as it unfolded, since there was no source material to fall back on as a guide for what might happen ... or, for that matter, what was going on in the first place. This show also marked GAINAX's big entry into the field of anime as a creator of original material (much like Sunrise, creators of Cowboy Bebop and Mobile Suit Gundam).
Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have adapted the works of others (Kiki's Delivery Service) and Miyazaki's own works (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), but they just as often created their own stories entirely from scratch. Princess Mononoke is still the best of that bunch, an adventure tale of great scope and storytelling ambition with some of the most staggering images Ghibli & Co. every put on the screen. But it also shows Miyazaki's storytelling at its finest as well: he gives us a cast of characters who even at their worst are still entirely human.
GAINAX again! This time, it's their first feature-length production, a kind of anime version of The Right Stuff as set in a fantasy nation that never was. A certain country's space program has been set up mostly as a way to puff up the military, but one of its young pilots believes in it despite the cynicism of everyone around him. Some people find the story lacking, but nothing beats the movie's exhaustive attention to detail: its world feels lived-in and real in every respect. See it on as big a screen as you can manage for the best results.
BONES, the production company that brought Cowboy Bebop to the screen, also helmed up this theatrical film that's a throwback to the samurai action films of the 1970s, albeit with 21st-century animation technology at the crew's service. The story's old-fashioned in a good way -- a drifter swordsman gets mixed up with protecting a scrappy kid being chased by various baddies, who want him for something really evil -- but the real reason to watch is the amazing animation and fight choreography.
11. Tiger & Bunny
If this had been an adaptation of anything, it would have been from a Western comic book -- but it isn't. This is an original, anime's homage to and loving parody of (sometimes at the exact same time) the Western costumed-superhero concept. The fading star of a reality-TV show that documents the exploits of various caped crusaders has his career somewhat revitalized when he takes on a suave young partner. Too bad his partner is hiding some terrible secrets in his past, and the show they're on isn't untarnished either. Proof positive that Japan and the West are all the more freely borrowing cultural influences from each other, and giving them back.
Another remarkable Noitamina production, this one co-created by Bones, which as the title implies is about the effects on Tokyo of a major 8.0 magnitude earthquake, and specifically on a brother and sister who are separated in the disaster. Even if the show hadn't been made all the more prescient by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked Japan two years after the show's release, it would still belong here for its unsensational, intelligent, and heartfelt examination of ordinary people in terrifyingly aberrant circumstances.