Whether snuggled up on the sofa watching Studio Ghibli films or getting stuck into darker, grittier stories such as Ghost in the Shell – whatever you’re into, there’s an anime out there for everyone. Originating in Japan, anime has captured the hearts and minds of audiences around the world. Perhaps it’s the deftly drawn graphics bursting with vibrancy and flare. Maybe the stark realism of the characters and plots is what keeps viewers coming back. Or it could just be the unabashed “all bets are off” attitude of the subject matter; you never know with this style. Regardless of reasons, anime has been a staple of audiences worldwide for some time now, long enough to have taken on a wide variety of forms across many movies and shows. Join us as we count down some of the most successful anime TV shows there have ever been, and see if your favourites have made the cut.
11 – Cowboy Bebop
From 1997-98, Cowboy Bebop made a massive impact on TV and has since been frequently cited as one of the greatest anime titles of all time. The basic concept of bounty hunters catching criminals is elevated to new heights with a space setting, and with its layered characters, dark drama and detailed, colourful graphics, it’s no wonder this show is as popular as it is. So popular, in fact, that a live-action TV show is apparently set to grace our screens sometime soon. And some people think anime’s obscure…
10 – Fairy Tail
On the surface, Fairy Tail appears to be your standard trip to fantasyland. It’s got wizards, magical creatures – heck, the protagonist is a dragon slayer with a wizard sidekick. That originality minefield sounds pretty familiar, right? Well, hold your horses, naysayers, because it appears to have been navigated successfully. Fairy Tail is a unique and beautiful thing. Imagine Zelda but so much more hardcore. Sure, it’s a fantasy, but there are plenty of subversions of the genre. For instance, the protagonist, a dragon slayer, is fostered by – you guessed it – a dragon! And it’s these little quirks, coupled with a cast of dazzling, relatable characters, that have won this anime such a large and dedicated following. With its final season due to arrive sometime in 2018, fans have a lot to look forward to and talk about while eagerly anticipating the fates of their favourite characters.
9 – Bleach
Inspired by and loosely based on Tite Kubo’s manga, Bleach is a standout anime. Featuring some of the most credited and well-known voice actors from both Japan and England, such as Masakazu Morita and Johnny Yong Bosch, the show is basically The Sixth Sense meets Ghost Rider, by way of Akira Kurosawa. The audience follows Ichigo Kurosaki after he obtains the powers of a Soul Reaper, a Japanese death personification like the Grim Reaper, and sees how he handles the duties of defending humans from evil spirits and guiding departed souls to the afterlife. With amazing casting, gripping storylines and a complex protagonist, it is no surprise that this series is so popular!
8 – Dragon Ball Z
Let’s be honest, who hasn’t wanted to take things Super Saiyan from time to time, or unleash a full-blown Kamehameha Wave just ’cause it looks so damn fun? Boasting a fan base ranging from teenagers to NFL superstars, Dragon Ball Z is every 90s kid’s favourite TV staple. Perhaps the best example of a sequel surpassing its predecessor on multiple fronts, this series continues where the original Dragon Ball anime, from 1984 to 88, left off, following the adventures of Goku and his friends as they try to stop a variety of villains from taking over the world. Whether you’re in it for the action or the cleverly designed characters, you’re sure to be hooked in no time.
7 – Fullmetal Alchemist
Based on the manga of the same name by Hiromu Arakawa, Fullmetal Alchemist is a laboratory of action that is sure to satisfy. The anime loosely adapts the original story, breathing new life into the adventures of Edward and Alphonse Elric, two brothers searching for the Philosopher’s Stone in the hopes of restoring the bodies they lost in a failed attempt to resurrect their dead mother. Perfect for fans of fantasy and family dramas, the show is celebrated for its unique way of handling a past setting, as well as its deft portrayal of the darker side of human nature through characters such as Pride, Envy and Wrath. However, for those who would appreciate a more faithful adaptation, an attempt is made to follow the manga’s storyline more closely in the 2009-10 series Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.
6 – Ghost in the Shell
Do yourself a favour and put that godawful Scarlett Johansson adaptation out of your mind. Please don’t let one bad apple spoil all the sweet fruits that have grown out of Masamune Shirow’s amazing manga. Set in the near future, Ghost in the Shell tells the story of Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg femme fatale tasked with stopping the world’s most dangerous criminals, while at the same time trying to recover her past and punish those who stole her life. For those who love conspiracy theories, corruption thrillers, a healthy dose of violence and a spirit of kickass girl power, this is one to watch. The franchise has also spawned some unusual merchandise over the years, including action figures, a Ghost in the Shell slot machine and the ever-questionable Motoko Kusanagi body pillow.
5 – Avatar: The Last Airbender
I don’t think there’s any point in being an anime fan if you don’t know that the world is divided into four nations, and that everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. In a world where magic must be mastered to triumph over the forces of evil, viewers follow Aang, the long-lost eponymous Avatar, and his companions, Katara and Sokka, as they embark on a journey to defeat the ruthless Firelord. But, it is the characters that drive Avatar (Aang, with the weight of the world on his shoulders; Sokka, the paranoid, immature personality with hidden depth; and conflicted Prince Zuko, who is always forced to choose between family loyalties and doing the right thing), and with a flying bison called Appa thrown in for good measure, you’re sure to be transfixed.
4 – Naruto
A complex tale about leadership and the weight of responsibility, Naruto is as celebrated for its hard-hitting storylines as it is for its vibrant visuals. Airing from 2002 to 2007, the anime is based on the first twenty-seven volumes in Part I of Masashi Kishimoto’s manga series, following Naruto Uzumaki, a young ninja of Hidden Leaf Village, as he strives to become Hokage, the ninja acknowledged by the rest of the village as leader and the strongest of them all. One of the coolest things about this series, in my opinion, is how Naruto’s struggles are portrayed as he deals with love, friendship, grief, self-pressure, and finding a voice under the shadow of failure. A sequel anime series entitled Naruto: Shippuden, adapted from Part II of the manga, aired for over a decade, broadcasting from February 15, 2007 to March 23, 2017.
3 – Attack on Titan
Adapting Hajime Isayama’s viscerally charged manga couldn’t have been an easy task, and yet the results have been remarkable. This series is about as brutal as it gets, set in a world where humanity lives behind enormous walls to defend themselves against the Titans, giants who suddenly appeared 100 years ago and with a penchant for eating human flesh. Yes, you read that right – eating people, just for fun. And don’t worry: they don’t shy away with the visuals! If your stomach’s as strong as your survival instinct, this show’s the one for you.
2 – One Piece
This one’s for all you swashbucklers and buccaneers out there. Viewers journey with Monkey D. Luffy and his motley crew as they set sail to unknown seas in Grand Line to find the treasure of One Piece, and witness first-hand the challenges and rewards of Luffy’s quest to become the king of pirates. This anime, adapted from Eiichiro Oda’s ongoing manga, has garnered immense popularity among Western audiences, who have come to regard it as a treasure trove of great stories and characters that has transcended the label of Japanese import in favour of full-blown cultural influencer. One Piece is also a prime example of how anime and popular culture are now more interlinked than ever, with the song “Hope” by noted Japanese performer Namie Amuro serving as the theme song for the hit series.
1 – Death Note
As universally beloved as it is utterly gripping, Death Note is an anime you’ll want to watch again and again, and, in my opinion, one of the best – most deserved of the top spot. Based on a manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, the show centres on a high school student named Light Yagami, who inherits a supernatural notebook that gives him the power to kill anyone whose name and face he knows, and the efforts of a detective known as L, who must stop him. What makes this anime so great to watch is a fearlessness when it comes to dealing with the ethical and social consequences of an ordinary boy with absolute power – the power to decide who lives and dies. That, and it’s got a great soundtrack (some of which is performed by popular visual kei Japanese rock band Nightmare). Seriously, give it a go – you won’t be disappointed.
It’s been hard making this list! Resisting the temptation to go on for pages and pages about episodes of Pokémon, Digimon and Yu-Gi-Oh! – series that shaped my childhood – was a constant battle. Deciding not to focus on classics such as Sailor Moon and Robotech was more difficult, though. But that’s a testament to the presence of anime. The fact that it’s a challenge to pin down the most popular TV shows in this style without angering or upsetting the multi-faceted fandom proves just how beloved this medium is.