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Top 20 Essential Anime

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Here's a list of anime — both shows and movies — that make up the "core curriculum" for an anime watcher. Some are newer than others, some long-running while others only lasted a few episodes ... but all are crucial in some way, and all are a terrific viewing experience. (Note that you don't have to watch every episode of every show -- unless you want to!)

1. Akira

Image courtesy Pricegrabber
Adapted by Katsuhiro Otomo from his manga of the same name, this is one of the landmark works of anime. It isn’t family viewing, though: it’s a violent vision of a future Tokyo threatened with annihilation when godlike power is placed in the hands of a biker-gang teen. Restored for DVD and now Blu-ray, it’s even more visually impressive in this CGI-driven era, thanks to it being one of the last great hand-drawn animated features.

2. Cowboy Bebop

© Sunrise Inc.
It’s not “space opera,” but “space jazz,” as one of the show’s title cards tell us. Freelance bounty hunters Spike and Jet Black do their best to keep their cool while all manner of trouble falls into their laps, from femme fatales to the darkest parts of their own pasts. A classic that deserves to be rediscovered by each successive generation of fans, not just because it refuses to fit neatly in any one genre (although it’s nominally SF), but because it’s loaded with great characters and is rollicking fun the whole way.

3. Naruto

© Masashi Kishimoto
Naruto’s long-running story of a rebellious boy ninja with terrible powers sealed away inside of him has instant appeal not just to the teens-and-up crowd but the kid in all of us. It’s consistently enjoyable to watch (even when it deviates from its source material), loaded with martial-arts action and its own custom ninja mythology, and sports characters that gain remarkable depth and substance over time.
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4. Ghost in the Shell

© Shirow Masamune • Production I.G/KODANSHA.

In a wired-up world that’s not all that far into our own future, agent Motoko Kusanagi—a human brain in a cyborg body—fights crime with the help of her hacker and ex-mercenary buddies in government agency “Section 9”. This franchise spans multiple incarnations, all spun out from Masamune Shirow’s manga in markedly different ways. Best of the bunch is Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, a two-season TV series (with a concluding feature-film-length special, Solid State Society). Think of it as John le Carré meets Michael Crichton: it’s intelligent, adult science fiction, the kind rarely seen in either live-action or animation.

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5. Neon Genesis Evangelion

© Gainax/Project EVA M.
What starts as a fairly straightforward “kid pilots giant robot to save the world” story mutates by degrees into something far more ominous and complex, includes a good deal of religious and psychological symbolism, and concludes with a headtrip on the order of 2001. Anime fans have sworn by—and sworn at—this hugely influential and controversial series ever since it first appeared in 1995. Its first half is a lot more viewer-friendly, but once it really gets going the impact is remarkable. A “reboot” version of the show, designed to be more accessible to non-fans (and therefore the best place to start), is now being released domestically under the name Rebuild of Evangelion.
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6. The Slayers

© Kanzaka • Araizumi / Kadokawa • TV Tokyo • Medianet • Marubeni
A swords-and-sorcery fantasy, spread out over multiple series, but played for broad laughs instead of dour Lord of the Rings seriousness. Absurdly powerful mage Lina Inverse leads her ragtag gang of adventurer friends through one over-the-top conflict after another, although more often than not they end up being their own worst enemies. The English-language version may be even funnier than the original Japanese audio, so that makes it all the more watchable for newcomers.
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7. One Piece

© Toei Animation, Co., Ltd., Japan. © Eiichiro Oda/Shueisha, Toei Animation.
Imagine an animated version of what goes on in kid’s heads when they play Pirates Vs. Ninjas. One Piece uses that as a starting point for its epic story (over three hundred episodes and still going!) about Monkey D. Luffy, the kid pirate with a magical rubber body. The details of the show’s outlandish fantasy world are fun, but the main story is in the way bonds of friendship and devotion are forged between Luffy and his shipmates. The manga makes for equally compulsive reading.
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8. Fullmetal Alchemist

© HIROMU ARAKAWA/SQUARE ENIX, MBS, ANX, BONES, dentsu
Brothers Edward and Alphonse Eric were both crippled when they attempted an alchemical ritual to bring their dead mother back to life. They join the State Military as alchemists in its service in the hopes that they can find a way to restore their bodies, but discover far greater dangers await them than they could imagine. A nifty fusion of alternate history, steam-punk fantasy action and the occasional bit of broad comedy, the original Alchemist TV series has since been succeeded by a revised version, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which more closely follows the story of the original manga and is probably the best place to start.
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9. Death Note

© Tsugumi Ohbata, Takashi Obata / Shueisha © DNDP, VAP, Sheisha, Madhouse
Brilliant young law student Raito ("Light") Yagami stumbles across the “Death Note”, an artifact that gives him the power to kill anyone whose name and face he knows. When he uses it to begin a worldwide purge of evil, he attracts the attention of another young genius, the reclusive eccentric known only as L. The two slug it out in a chess game of wits, using the whole of humanity as the pieces. “Twisted” describes both the plot and the characters, adapted faithfully from the source manga, and the suspense remains solid all the way through to the climax.
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10. Fruits Basket

© Natsuki Takaya/HAKUSENSHA・TV-TOKYO・NAS・Furuba Project
When orphaned teenaged girl Tohru Honda camps out on the property of the Sohma family, they’re reluctant to take her in lest they discover the clan’s secret: they turn into one of the animals of the Chinese zodiac when embraced by the opposite sex. But take her in they do, and soon all of their lives are changed. Nominally filed under romantic comedy, as was its source manga, Furuba (as abbreviated by its fans) works on more than one level to be both funny and touching.
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