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10 Anime Series You Need To Watch Before You Die

You'll be glad you did.

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1. Cowboy Bebop

Funimation

More than any other series of its time, Cowboy Bebop proved that anime, in addition to being a medium for storytelling and entertainment, could in fact be a work of art. Each of the 26 episodes of Cowboy Bebop exemplify a concerted effort to create artwork, music, plot, and character that best play off one another, establishing subtle but consistent series-long themes and arcs.

The series, set in 2071, follows the lives of two bounty hunters — Spike Spiegel and Jet Black — who travel through the solar system on a spaceship named Bebop (a reference to the proclivity of bebop jazz in the show's soundtrack). Both bounty hunters have murky pasts (Jet was once an Inter Solar System Police officer, while Spike was the member of a vicious criminal syndicate) that continue to creep back into their current lives, sometimes as flashbacks and, increasingly so as the show progresses, sometimes as recurring characters and conflicts.

Cowboy Bebop skillfully merges the aesthetic of several disparate genres — sci-fi, mystery, psychological thriller, comedy, noir — as well as different cultures and settings, such as the Jazz Age, modern Japan, the American Old West. The series also features what was, at the time of its airing, a revolutionary approach to soundtrack. The music of Cowboy Bebop (including its iconic theme song) was composed by Yoko Kanno, who wrote predominantly jazz and blues pieces for the series. Kanno was given unusually free reign on her compositions by the show's director, and in some instances she would compose a song that she felt was necessary for an episode, leaving the artwork and story to be built around it rather than the other way around. The decision to use music as a narrative force in anime is just one of the many reasons Cowboy Bebop broke boundaries with its launch, and is part of what makes it such a pleasure to watch.

2. Revolutionary Girl Utena

Nozomi Entertainment

Princess gets in trouble, prince saves princess, prince and princess fall in love — it's a trope many of us have seen time and time again. Revolutionary Girl Utena lives up to its title in the best way possible by taking "damsel in distress" themes and completely turning them on their head. Utena is a high school student who dresses as a boy because she wants to grow up to be the prince who saves the day. And not only does she dress as a prince, but she acts the part by dueling adversaries and rescuing a young woman from an abusive relationship.

Revolutionary Girl Utena is far from what many people think of when you say "magic girl" shojo anime. It doesn't just defy gender roles; it flips and bends them beyond recognition. At its very core, it's a story about a woman trying to save another woman. Beyond that, it's a show laden with socially and ethically conscious metaphors and darker themes. And although the dueling can get a bit repetitive, it's still pretty fun to watch fancy sword fights.

3. Death Note

Viz Media

Fiction is ripe with characters claiming to be geniuses. Often, they just throw off smarmy witticisms or pound away at a keyboard and announce that they've hacked into a mainframe. Their genius is marked by obsession or social awkwardness, and less so by acts of genuine brilliance. Death Note, by contrast, is a show whose two genius protagonists actually act like geniuses.

The series follows high school student Light Yagami, a teenager of remarkable intelligence and equally vast boredom. Just as he wishes for something more exciting than tests and textbooks, fate hands him a gift: a Death Note, a black notebook and the tool of Shinigami (Japanese gods of death). The instructions within the Death Note declare that if the owner writes someone's name down on its pages, that person will die. After testing out the Death Note and confirming its power, Light quickly assigns himself the task of ridding the world of whomever he considers evil or unworthy. But the pattern of Light's actions soon catch the attention of a reclusive detective who calls himself "L," a young man of equal intelligence and obsession. Both men go head-to-head to stop each other from accomplishing their goals.

Death Note is one of the most tightly plotted anime you're likely to watch. In each episode, Light and L's tactfulness and strategy are revealed and compounded, resulting in a complicated cat-and-mouse dance and leaving the audience no choice but to watch the next six or seven episodes before going to bed. It's a fascinating show with a colorful cast of main characters, with moments both hilarious and haunting.

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4. Steins;Gate

Funimation

Adapted from an award-winning visual novel, Steins;Gate is nothing short of a time-travel tour de force. Rintaro Okabe, a self-described mad scientist prone to the occasional fit of maniacal laughter, and his lab mates accidentally create a time machine capable of sending text messages into the past. These minor tweaks to the past escalade into huge consequences for the future, sparking a rich and complex plot defined by tangled knots of parallel timelines.

One of the standout features of the show, besides the unpredictable directions it takes with time travel, is its endearingly eclectic cast. Each of the characters is a misfit or outcast in their own way, making it easy for viewers to become attached to them throughout the show. Steins;Gates is a must-watch series, if only to watch how it consistently pushes boundaries in the genre of science fiction. Reaching beyond the genre of anime, it is one of the most believable and intelligent time-travel sagas of the last decade.

5. Crayon Shin-Chan

Funimation

Crayon Shin-Chan is not at all what most people envision when they hear the word anime. There are no magical girls, no fighting robots, no muscular men blowing up mountains. There are, in fact, hardly any speculative elements at all besides the unbelievable rudeness of its protagonist, a foul-mouthed boy of 5 named Shin. Crayon Shin-Chan is, in fact, a sitcom very much in the vein of The Simpsons. Except way dirtier.

The series follows kindergartner Shin, his hapless, overworked family, and their friends and neighbors through the tedium and confusion of modern Japanese life. The humor of the show is often rooted in wordplay (so you'll notice a distinct difference in jokes between the subbed and dubbed versions) as well as darkly comedic situations. The voice acting in both Japanese and English is excellent, and the animation is...well, terrible (similar to South Park's deliberately crude drawings), which only adds to the humor.

Warning: Almost no topic is off-limits for satire in Crayon Shin-Chan, similar to what you might find in a late-night comedy special. But if you do decide to check it out, you'll likely find it hilarious.

6. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

Funimation

"To create, something of equal value must be lost." This is the law that governs alchemy, a science that allows human beings to shape the world of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood through transmutation. In many ways, this law also defines the show itself. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is about two brothers who break deep taboos of transmutation by playing god and attempting to restore a human life. Though the series begins with the two brothers questing to restore their bodies, it quickly snowballs into something much larger, including countrywide conspiracies, infiltrated militaries, and some of the largest plot twists ever seen in a single anime series.

Part of what makes Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood such a good series is how well it enriches its plot and characters with heavily developed world building, lore, history, and culture for the series' inhabits. But what makes FMA:B a great series is how it ambitiously addresses themes that lesser shows would shy away from, such as racial oppression, militarization, and genocide. Many of the characters in the series have been battered, betrayed, and kicked so far to the curb that by the time they're introduced to the series, they teeter on the edge of vengeful and violent sanity. But as the characters' backstories are unraveled, many viewers will find themselves having to confront their own prejudices that lead them to preemptively judge the troubled and complex antiheroes that frequently appear throughout the show.

It's a show that will have your feelings violently oscillating between emotional exhaustion and overwhelming exultation for the well-placed humor and the well-deserved triumphs (of which there are many). Though there is a lot of darkness in the series, there are also many heartwarming moments, and many of the characters recover and blossom before your eyes. If anything, everyone needs to watch Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood in order to experience one of the purest and truest love stories of any fictional series — the brotherly love between two siblings who sacrifice themselves over and over again to save each other.

7. Neon Genesis Evangelion

AEsir Holdings

Neon Genesis Evangelion is, first and foremost, not an anime for children. It's not original in this fact; there were many anime preceding its creation specifically targeting an adult audience, and even more afterward. But it isn't violence and sexuality that defines its maturity (though, to be honest, there are plenty of both). It is the persistent and, at times, difficult to grasp psychological and moral questioning that serves as the series' bedrock.

Neon Genesis Evangelion is set in a near-future Tokyo after a cataclysmic event has wiped out a sizable majority of the Earth's population. A teenage boy named Shinji Ikari is summoned by his estranged and emotionally abusive father, a brilliant scientist and the director of an underground military research group, who explains the situation at hand: Massive, powerful creatures called Angels have appeared on Earth and are killing off the human race. Earth's only defense is the equally massive robots created by Shinji's father, which are controlled from inside by a human synchronized via the nervous system. Shinji's father asks Shinji to pilot one of the robots and help defeat the Angels, leaving the horrified boy with the first of many painful decisions to make.

Throughout its 26 original episodes, Neon Genesis Evangelion introduces characters who are frighteningly human, who feel physical and emotional pain so often that it turns some numb and others mad. It is as much a show about fighting robots as it is about demented familial relationships, and, as you can guess from its title, there is no shortage of religious motifs. It is ultimately a show about depression, about the depths and reach of loss. And it does justice to these heavy topics with a maturity and originality uncommon in Western television. It's not a happy show, but it is a phenomenal one.

8. Mushi-Shi

Funimation

Wistful, quiet, and slightly haunting, this episodic anime follows the journeys of Ginko, a man dedicated to studying mysterious creatures called the Mushi. Mushi are life in its purest form, capable of causing great benefit as well as great hardship for the people and worlds they inhabit. In the anime they are portrayed as transparent wisps — occasionally whimsical and at times slightly unnerving. Each episode of the show involves Ginko, referred to as the Mushi Master, visiting a different village and helping its inhabitants solve various problems caused by these minute and mysterious life forms. Evidence of 19th-century technology gives the show flavors of realism, but it is still very much a series emphasizing otherworldly elements.

Mushi-Shi is, for many reasons, unlike any other anime out there. There are next to no action sequences, the dialogue is sparse, and the pacing is slow, thoughtful, and pensive. Yet if anything, the languid pacing enhances the series and takes it in directions other anime series would never be able to touch. Episodes feel more meditative than anything else, and the rich spirituality imbuing the series call for deep levels of introspection. Fans of Miyazaki will especially resonant with the quirky Mushi creatures, along with the darker twists and turns each episode tends to take. For all of it’s subtle beauty, this supernatural anime often slips into the realm of horror.

Above all else, Mushi-Shi is a work of art. The demure and understated color palette combined with the sparse and ethereal music creates a tone and aesthetic completely unique to the show, a setting that is both unquestionably real while hovering on the horizons of imagination. Mushi-Shi has the power to take you to another time, another place — another era. But beyond that, it takes you on a wonderfully fulfilling introspective journey to unexplored, supernatural realms.

9. Wolf's Rain

Bandai Entertainment

According to legend, when the world finally ends, Paradise will appear. But only wolves can unlock Paradise by following the scent of the Lunar Flower. Though wolves are believed by many to be extinct, it is said that some survive by disguising themselves as human through illusions.

Wolf's Rain follows four wolves traveling on the fringes of a quickly dissipating world as they try to unlock Paradise. Any lesser show would come across as cheesy or unbelievable for having four wolves as the main characters. Wolf's Rain is anything but that. A dystopian saga rich with fantastical elements and flavors of folklore, Wolf's Rain is dark, tragic, and ultimately very, very grim. The intricate and well-developed backstories and understated dramatic elements make for a very compelling story that will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the entire 26-episode story arc. Fans of science fiction and post-apocalyptic tales will resonate with themes of urban decay, wavering human morality, and barren landscapes and worlds.

Despite its dark themes, Wolf's Rain is also one of the most stunning anime in existence, not just because of the gorgeous art and animation, but because the story, music, and visuals come together to create possibly the most heartbreakingly beautiful sagas about the end of the world. This is not the type of show you want to watch if you want to feel warm and fuzzy at the end, but this is the anime you want to watch if you love great design and storytelling. Art and animation geeks take note: This is one seriously breathtaking show.

10. Paranoia Agent

Sentai Filmworks

Do you ever question what's real and what's a product of your imagination? Are you fascinated by the spread of gossip and fear in a community? Do you find yourself wondering if everything is your fault, or if you're simply a victim of circumstance?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, chances are high that you'll enjoy Paranoia Agent, a masterful anime only 13 episodes long. The show's focal point is the sudden arrival of a mysterious, roller-skating, baseball bat–wielding young boy named Lil' Slugger who attacks a woman late at night on the streets of Tokyo. Through a series of seemingly autonomous stories — each one connected by more of Lil' Slugger's attacks — Paranoia Agent explores how the mental trauma of its characters begins to swell and spread throughout the city of Tokyo. Eventually, these stories and their characters begin to merge and intersect in increasingly fantastical ways, leaving the audience to wonder along with the show's protagonists if they're witnessing the truth or a version of the truth filtered through someone else's imagination.

Paranoia Agent is a series that not only raises impossibly large questions, but manages to give viewers the tools to answer them, all within the span of 13 episodes. Fans of psychological thrillers and mystery will not be disappointed.