For those that like: War stories, romance, Fullmetal Alchemist
Adapted from the Japanese light novels (literally, what it sounds like: short novels, either stand-alones or as series, typically targeting young adults), the anime adaptation by Kyoto Animation is gorgeous, moody, and dreamlike. War veteran Violet, a child soldier, attempts to integrate into post-war society as an Auto Memory Doll, a professional typist used by the illiterate and the wealthy to ghostwrite letters. Prosthetic, robotic arms and hands allow her to type—but Violet has so repressed her emotions, and is so generally unfamiliar with everything about non-war living, that she cannot grasp the most central role of her job, the process of turning the jumbled or vague descriptions her clients give her into the delicate or diplomatic prose of a professional letter-writer.
This one gets an enthusiastic thumbs up. It's simply gorgeous as animation, with an episodic plot slow-paced enough to do justice to Violet's attempts to become the direct opposite of a professional war machine through force of her own will, but never so sluggish as to feel overdrawn. What you won't get is much in the way of explanation as to where Violet came from. She will remain, for the most part, a mystery.
Carole & Tuesday
For those that like: Music, sci-fi, Behind the Music but on Mars
Carole is a refugee from Earth, now squeaking out a living on barely terraformed Mars with a series of odd jobs while composing and playing music for uninterested street passerby. Tuesday is a rich and sheltered teen who, inspired by Cyndi Lauper, runs away from home to pursue a musical career because that's what an aspiring musician ought to do. The two meet and, of course, a perfect musical partnership is born.
The music is the point of the show, and the focus of every episode. Against a sci-fi background, the pair competes against a let's-say eclectic group of other aspiring groups, including, eventually, model Angela, who is attempting to move past a career as child star by reinventing herself—more than a little cynically—as the perfect pop idol.
The rest is a withering satire of the entire music industry, from an unlikely volunteer manager and a hyper-abusive eventual producer to a series of pompous fellow amateurs and a certain self-absorbed DJ. Industry in-jokes run rampant. On the now-habitable Mars, nearly all music is written and perfected by computer algorithm; composing songs without such tools, as the near-penniless Carole and Tuesday do, is considered archaic. Genetic engineering, politics, and terrorism all come into play, along with an anti-refugee furor to create a Trumpian political atmosphere that threatens to bring it all down. The story feels written for this precise moment in time.
The show is multiracial and set on a Mars where transgenderism is commonplace and uncontroversial, though the rationale given for that transgenderism—"it's because of the radiation"—feels cheap. It may not be entirely family-friendly, due to music industry behaviors of drinkin’, cussin’, and carrying on, with the most fraught scene being a particular performance by "The Mermaid Sisters," a quartet of drag queens whose unconventional lyrical choices will be repeated ad nauseam by your youngest children on their next Zoom call to grandma.
BNA: Brand New Animal
For those that like: Batman or film noir, but with furries
Alternate, much better title: Fluffy Detective Shirou-san
This is an unlikely entry, at first glance, and its promotional materials make it look a bit different from what it ends up being. But it's worth a try. We first meet Michiru, a Japanese teen, as she flees to Anima City while pursued by human hunters. Born a human, after a traffic accident Michiru has found herself transformed into a "beastman," or half-human half-animal. Specifically, she's now part tanuki—a Japanese "raccoon dog."
Once we enter Anima City, a self-governing refuge for beastmen in a world that holds them generally in contempt, the tone turns out to be something different. We are in a crime drama: Michiru meets the silver-haired wolf beastman Shirou, a superhuman-even-in-this-crowd keeper of the peace that cooperates with the city's mayor to root out dangers to the city. Shirou solves these problems in the traditional Batman manner: by punching people. Repeatedly.
Not entirely by coincidence, Michiru soon finds herself at least tangentially involved with every new threat appearing in Anima City, from a suspicious new religion to an all-powerful medical conglomerate with a maybe-shady interest in "helping" beastmen. She becomes the gruff Shirou's unasked-for sidekick, and crime-fighting ensues.
This one had the potential to go all sorts of wrong, since the initial pitch might have gone something like "What if we make a Clint Eastwood police drama, but absolutely everybody is a furry the whole time. Clint, the mayor, everybody." Fortunately it is not that—and if you were hoping it was, you will kindly keep that to yourself, please—but instead something of a blend of Miyazaki-adjacent anthropomorphisms, a hyper-saturated color palette, and an unassuming hero-and-villain tale. It fits the niche of pleasantly weird without being disturbingly weird.
What’s more, while it at first sets off alarm bells as perhaps just another cute Japanese girls with animal ears clone, it actually takes its cues and core premise from Japanese folklore, rich in tales of animals and animal spirits taking human form to blend in with or pull pranks on unsuspecting humans. The beastmen of Anima City are creatures that have always been around and able to transform to human shapes, but were driven out of centuries of hiding after humanity encroached on traditional homelands. Once able to survive by convincing humanity they were the world’s gods, the shapeshifters are now treated with revulsion and contempt.
My Hero Academia
For those that like: X-Men
Available on Crunchyroll, My Hero Academia is among the closest analogs to an American superhero show in the anime world. After humans began being born with quirks, or in the X-Men's parlance mutant powers, the inherited mutations spread until essentially all the world has superpowers, though not all are as super as others. This leads, of course, to "superhero" becoming a legitimate profession—a heavily licensed and regulated one, in fact, with elite schools that teach heroism amid relentless consumerism and popularity rankings that dictate how much money would-be superheroes can make and whether they can make a go of it at all. At the top of this food chain is All Might, the blond all-chin-and-eyebrows American-styled superpuncher that the entire world looks up to. He’s the show's Superman stand in.
Izuku Midoriya, on the other hand, is a gentle hero-obsessed kid and ultimate All Might fanboy whose dreams of becoming a professional hero were dashed after his family doctor tells him that he has ended up one of the rare humans born with no superpowers at all. He is devastated, and cannot accept it.
Hero and fan meet by accident, and neither turn out to be what the other presumed them to be. The all-powerful All Might is a dying superhero whose injuries in the line of duty are now too serious to ignore, one still trying to maintain his public appearance and do heroic deeds through sheer force of will. And Midoriya, All Might later concludes, may have what it takes to be a hero after all.
This one is a straight-up superhero show with no complications, both a homage to Marvel and DC comic book heroes and willing to poke fun. Its charm comes from Midoriya's earnestness and single-minded obsession with becoming what he thought he could not, and from fellow Hero Academy students who range from the usual comic relief and one-notes to a few capable of holding the show on their own.
But there's nothing too deep about it, even with its look at superheroism as popularity contest, and as shounen it can suffer from the Naruto flaw of dragging the latest battle-of-the-moment out longer than it needs to. The most recent season, featuring a low-stakes villain who commits few actual crimes but mostly films himself being a petty nuisance in the hope of attracting online fans, is weakest. But it's ongoing, and more episodes are expected soon.
If you liked that and want more superhero action, or if you didn't like it but are still a DC-and-Marvel junkie, you might go a bit further and try:
For those that like: Superheroes, comedy
A gentle send-up of superhero and shounen action shows both, One-Punch Man is what it says on the tin: a hero who has physically trained himself to be so strong that he can defeat any opponent with a single punch. Saitama may be the strongest hero in existence, but his unassuming demeanor (and atrocious written test scores) land him in the bottom rungs of the Hero Association.
There is a plot, and indeed our bored and boring hero does indeed end up having to save the world, but all that is ancillary to Saitama's quest to find someone, anyone, he can fight without leveling them immediately. It's not that he's vain or power-hungry or is itching for the same treatment other heroes get as they make their rounds; he's just bored.
Little Witch Academia
For those that like: Harry Potter, Kiki’s Delivery Service
There’s not much to say about this one. It is the story of a group of friends in a school for witchcraft, there are plots and morals and scary things and failures and victories and so forth, and if you do not like it you are probably a monster. That’s all there is to it. I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them.
Available on Netflix, Little Witch Academia has for years now had a devoted internet fandom, all of it focused on why aren’t you making more episodes of Little Witch Academia or why are you not making more episodes of Little Witch Academia right now. That should tell you all you need to know about whether it’s worth a try.
But what about?
We'll close out this time with two recent ultra-hits that don't quite hit their marks, but that can't go without mention because someone will mention them:
Attack on Titan
For those that like: Steampunk, military, giant monsters, horror, gore
Attack on Titan is a post-apocalyptic entry with quite the innovative hook, in its initial episodes. A medieval-styled fragment of humanity is trapped behind tall walls; the rest of the known world has been occupied by giant humanoid monsters that will eat whatever normal-scaled humans fall into reach. They are battled by a small military force that uses steampunk-ish grappling gear to soar through the air (and within range of the giants' only weak spots) like awkward fighter jets. Our hero is heroic, but a bit thickheaded; his survival is largely due to his two childhood friends, who also join the military after the giants breach their village's walls.
The mystery of how humanity came to be this way—and conflict with a central government that seems to know the truth, and be hiding it—gives the show its intrigue. This is a horror-and-adventure show that does not skimp on the gore.
But: As the show's central mysteries become less mysterious, the explanations feel less intriguing than the original premise and a too-strong conspiracy-to-mystery ratio sets in. For a show about giant murder monsters, the show can drag. Our main hero never finds much in the way of personality, primarily being a brick tossed around by the rest of the plot, and everything after the first season feels like it’s struggling to maintain momentum. Again: This is a horror show, with lots of blood and gore and horrific deaths. In a few later-season episodes, though, it can sometimes feel like it's shrunk down to something resembling an overly dramatic and military-heavy Scooby Doo episode. The flaws make it hard to recommend as a top-tier entry.
Sword Art Online
For those that like: Sci-fi, fantasy, swords and sword accessories
This is another tough one. The plot of the original Sword Art Online, and the premise around which all later transformations of the series rely, is the near-future invention of new virtual reality equipment so advanced that it allows gamers to become immersed in fantasy worlds that look and feel absolutely real. This is accomplished with virtual reality helmets that tap into and manipulate the brain's electric signals directly. It all goes wrong on day one, when the technology's designer traps the gamers now logged into his game inside by removing their ability to log out and with new code that will kill any player in real life if their helmets are removed or if their characters die in his game world. The experiment: How will this world be different if the would-be players are now literally putting their lives on the line each time they attempt to defeat the dungeon's increasingly powerful monsters?
Rather than explain the series' flaws, it might help to describe the results. Each Sword Art Online story consists of two parts. In the first, an elaborate new world is created with interesting characters, environments, and premises. In the second, the writing gives out and all of that gets tossed in the trash for a quickie ending that abandons all those good things and just ... moves on. Over and over.
The premise of being trapped in a computer-generated reality is a popular one, probably because our technology seems to tantalizingly close to being able to accomplish such things—but also because abandoning this world in favor of a new one in which you are not an unremarkable nobody, but the savior of an entire alternate reality is, let's face it, just as surefire a hit as any other story of discovered superheroism. In a virtual reality, anyone can be their own Mary Sue.
And this series, a mega-hit, has perhaps 80% of the elements of something superb. It's the other 20%, all of it due to atrocious writing, that can end up grating. Entire story arcs that disappear with the flimsiest of resolutions. The constant trope of our hero saving his harem of online allies, after each of the skilled and perfectly capable female characters is hobbled by plot device and now requires their male savior. The population of casual murderers wandering the streets and internets of near-future Japan, as an aside, itself seems rather brazenly off-kilter.
But the death knell is in its cookie-cutter portrayal of its main villains, nearly all of which are demonstrated to be villains through the same repeated plot device of sexually assaulting our female hero before our male hero dives in to save the day. That's it. Every villain is just that, and every new villain's evil plot is explained while they are menacing a female captive in ways that the show's staff seems to have a pointedly gross desire to dwell on. In the latest season, our male lead is reduced to a mindless shell after his brain is essentially short-circuited by the equipment being used—but he still manages to save his forever-expanding collection of smitten love interests, including the ones already established to be well capable of smearing their opponents' corpses across three kilometers without any help. It again follows every season's path of pairing a new interesting world with a climax so telegraphed that it makes you embarrassed to have watched any of it. There's so, so many better shows—this one you can pass on. Maybe a future remake will fix what’s so badly broken and give us the original show audiences found so compelling.
Instead, you might try Log Horizon, which takes a nearly identical premise, puts smart characters at the helm, and turns the whole thing into an extended study on, of all things, the economic and political ramifications of trapping its gamers in its alternate world. You know, between sword fights. That one ends on a cliffhanger, but the long-awaited continuation is finally starting up again in the next few weeks.
Next time: Into the breach. You’ll want to turn on the subtitles for these next hits and hidden gems, but it will be worth it.