Nihon day thirty four: must-see anime series that will make you think

To the uninitiated, watching cartoons can seem like a childish pursuit. You’re 28, shouldn’t you be spending your time on things that require more brainpower? Well, let me tell you, Mr. Judgmental-Fictional-Person-I-Made-Up, there are a lot of different kinds of anime out there. From shows like Hamtaro (anime about hamsters), that are extremely kid-friendly, to series that should definitely never be shown to children. I remember coming across an anime film in the children’s section of my local library and realizing it was practically hentai (erotic-anime). I brought it to the attention of the librarians with a friendly caution “just because something is animated doesn’t make it for children.”

But there is more to the world of anime then cute kid stuff and hentai. If you think anime is a shallow genre, I’ve put together a list of shows that will surprise you with their sophistication. Not to mention their ability to make you use that squishy grey thing that lives between your ears. If you’re tired of watching tv with predictable plots and cliched characters, you’ll find the anime on this list a refreshing change. I’ve put them in order of how complex their plots seemed to me, with the most intricate coming last.


RElife (リライフ Riraifu)

Available to Buy on amazon

On the surface, Relife seems more like a shojo anime about high school life, albeit one with a clever twist. Arata Kaizaki is a 27-year-old who is considered a failure at life. Even though he left grad school with a good job lined up, he left the company after only three months under mysterious circumstances. After that, he was unable to get another position and ended up working at a convenience store. Just when he gets to the end of his rope, Arata is approached by a young man representing Relife Laboratories, which would like to offer him a bizarre proposition. They want him to participate in an experimental program. If he agrees, he will take a pill that makes his body appear ten years younger and go back to high school for a year. This might seem completely arbitrary, but the idea is to help restart your life by putting you back into an environment of beginning adulthood. In exchange for his participation, they will pay his expenses for one year, and at the end of the experiment, he may be offered a job at the company.

And so, Arata Kaizaki takes the little blue pill and becomes 17 again, enrolling in a high school for his second senior year. Hilarity ensues, like when he tries to show off during PE and realizes that though he looks 17, he’s still physically a decade older and nearly throws out his back. Or when he almost fails his classes because it’s been so long since he had to do any school work.

But, Arata soon finds himself the center of a group of friends who all have deep seeded troubles, typical to young people under lots of pressure. The anime becomes much deeper than you might have initially thought as the older and wiser Arata has to help his new friends cope with their angst. He becomes especially close to one student in particular, which starts to be heartbreaking, as all his classmates will have all memories of him erased when the experiment comes to an end.

It’s a fantastic series. With only one complete season and a bonus special, it can easily be finished over a weekend. It will leave you wondering what you might do if you were offered a chance at Relife.


samurai champloo (サムライチャンプル Samurai Chanpuru)

Available to stream on hulu

The plot of Samurai Champloo is not necessarily complicated, but the characters, style, and flare of this anime make it a masterpiece of any form of media. It mixes Edo period Japan with a hip hop inspired modernity, a perfect melding of cultures. The stunning animation is matched by the soundtrack, which was created by Tsutchie, Fat JonNujabes, and Force of Nature. The story pairs Jin, a ronin (masterless samurai); Mugen, a mysterious rogue; and Fuu, a young waitress, on a journey across Edo Japan to find Fuu’s missing father.

While the unlikely companions travel, they come across various obstacles, such as vicious vagabonds, assassins, and pirates. Both Jin and Mugen are incredible fighters, though in very different styles. The ronin uses traditional samurai techniques while Mugen has perfected his own compilation of sword fighting, breakdancing, and Capoeira (Afro-Brazilian dance martial arts). Their duality is reflected in the odd-sounding title, Jin representing the “samurai” seems obvious, but what about Champloo? Well, the Japanese word is champuru, an Okinawan word for mixing things up, it’s also an excellent way to describe Mugen.

Another appropriate way of translating the title is “Samurai Mix Tape,” which goes along with the way the anime uses its music. The four arches of the story seem to pay homage to the format of a double LP and the two-part episodes are called “verse one” and “verse two.” Even the opening theme shows the title of the anime on a vinyl record. The show’s creator said that he chose hip hop as the backdrop for his story to complement the counter culture of the characters.

If you’re a fan of samurai, history, and music, you have to give Samurai Champloo a try.

(Just a warning, it is graphic, has bad language, and sexual content, so it’s not appropriate for children.)


Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood (鋼の錬金術師 Hagane no Renkinjutsushi)

Available to stream on netflix and hulu

There are a lot of anime I like. There are quite a few that I love. But I don’t think any of them come close to touching my love for Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood. Now, before you run off to start binging this show based off that statement, let me advise you. There are two versions, Fullmetal Alchemist (2003-2004) and Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood (2009-2010). Why? Like many anime series, Fullmetal Alchemist is an adaptation of a manga (Japanese comic book). In this case, the manga was a breakout success, running from 2003 to 2010. The anime started to come out long before the series had come to completion, and so they had to make up the ending (long before Game of Thrones came across the same problem). The manga ended up being far more complex and lengthy than the anime and had a slew of characters, twists, and revelations that the anime lacked. Thus, when the manga ended (totally differently) another anime was commissioned, this time faithful to the original content. I watched the anime back when I was in high school and liked it. I started reading the manga and thought, wow, this is different and way better. Then years later, when Brotherhood came out, I discovered the single best anime series to ever grace television. I have watched it many, many times.


Okay, enough about how much I love it, you probably want to know what it’s actually about. The plot centers around two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, who are gifted alchemists. No, not alchemists like Paracelsus. The world in which the Elrics live is one where alchemy is far more like magic, though they stress that it is a science. Without spending a good chunk of time describing how alchemy works, I’ll just say that it is based on equivalent exchange. To obtain sometime, something of equal value must be given. The Elric brothers attempted something forbidden to Alchemists. They tried to bring their mother back from the dead.

As a consequence, Edward lost his left leg. Alphonse lost his entire body. Edward only just managed to sacrifice his arm to pull Alphonse’s soul back and attach it to a suit of armor. Now, Ed using automail (metal) prosthetics and Al is trapped as an animated suit of armor, the brothers are traveling, while working for the military. They’re in search of a philosopher’s stone, the only way they can get their original bodies back.

The country where they live is a military dictatorship, and many of the characters are soldiers and/or state alchemists, like Ed. There has recently been a civil war and genocide in the Eastern portion of the country where state alchemists killed thousands of Ishbalan citizens. One survivor is now out for revenge, killing all state alchemists he can find. There is also a mysterious group of people bearing ouroboros tattoos and calling themselves after the seven sins (Lust, Envy, etc.). There is some massive conspiracy that the Elrics and their friends find themselves caught up in and the path becomes ever more complex as the series continues.

I also have to especially mention that every single woman in this anime is a fantastic character, and there are a lot of them. If you’re tired of women always playing second fiddle, wait until you meet General Armstrong and Izumi Curtis.

The series covers a wide range of topics, like loss, prejudice, war atrocities, religion, science, terrorism, oppression, sacrifice, and what it means to be human. The world that it creates is complete in a way that only the best works of fiction can achieve. It is an absolute must.

If you decide to watch this show (which you should), please be sure you watch the post-credit scenes. Depending on where you’re streaming it this may involve being vigilant about dismissing the automatic next episode function. Not every episode has a scene like this, but many do, and they are vitally important to the plot.

(Another warning though, there is some graphic violence, and the anime is guaranteed to make you cry at least three times.)



Available to stream on hulu

This was one of the first anime tv show I ever saw, back when I was around ten. It centers around an MMORPG (Massively multiplayer online role-playing game) called The Wolrd. Players wear virtual reality headsets and spend hours of their life in a virtual environment based on a fantasy world. One player, a Wavemaster (magic-user) named Tsukasa, wakes up inside the game with a sudden loss of memory. Then he discovers he can no longer log out of The World. His consciousness is trapped.

Though there is action in the story, the plot is far more driven by interpersonal relations and psychological and sociological subjects. Tsukasa joins a group of other players in an attempt to discover what is happening to him. Soon they are led deeper into the mystery of The World itself, and into the psyche of its creator. Sounds a bit like Ready Player One, doesn’t it? The entire show takes place logged in, besides a few fuzzy clips in the real world, cementing Tsukasa’s reality. At times it can be slow-paced, but the animation is beautiful, and its soundtrack is mesmerizing. The twisting turning plot will keep you guessing. Anyone more interested in psychology than action will love this show.


erased (僕だけがいない街 Boku dake ga Inai Machi)

Available to stream on hulu

I’m just going to start this one by warning you that the plot revolves around a serial killer who targets children. It’s a disturbing subject, but this anime is one of the most masterfully made tv shows I have ever seen. Satoru Fujinuma is your average young man in every way except one. He somehow possesses the ability to travel back in time a few moments before a life-threatening event, which he is then able to prevent. He has no control over this. One day when his mother is visiting him, they are in the parking lot of a grocery store. With no apparent cause, he is sent back a few minutes. All he can see is a van pulled over and a man leading a child towards it. The man notices Satoru and his mother watching him and abandons the child, driving away. Satoru’s mother seems to have noticed something about the man. She asks him if he remembers the time when he was in grade school when children went missing in their town. He barely remembers it but recalls the first victim was Kayo, a girl in his class. A man was arrested for it, someone who Satoru had known, but never believed could have been the killer.

Later, while his mother is in Satoru’s apartment by herself, she is murdered. He comes home and finds her, moments before a neighbor arrives, seeing him holding the knife and covered in blood. Knowing he will be arrested, Satoru flees his apartment and manages to travel back in time, not to minutes before, but years. He had arrived back in his childhood, a short time before the girl went missing. He realizes that he might be able to find the killer before the children are taken and hopefully save his mother in the present.

The story turns into a mystery/coming of age story, as Satoru and his childhood friends try to protect the girl, Kayo, and to find the killer. It is riveting. Prepare not to be able to stop yourself from watching the next episode. Once you’ve finished it, go and watch the live-action version on Netflix. Before you start rolling your eyes about live-action anime adaptations, this one is nothing like the others. It’s nearly as good as the anime and the actors, especially the children, are fantastic.

(This warning should be obvious. The subject matter is disturbing. There are also descriptions of violence towards children.)


Death Note (デスノート Desu NOto)

Available to stream on netflix and hulu

This anime, and the manga it is adapted from, explore the idea of what happens when you give the power of life and death to someone who is basically a good person. Light Yagami, a brilliant teen, finds a notebook belonging to a shinigami (Japanese death spirit). The notebook clearly states on its first page that if you write the name of someone in the book, they will die. However, the moment you write the name, you are damned, giving up your soul to the shinigami when it is your turn to die. Unless you give specific instructions, the person will die in five minutes of a heart attack. Light is intrigued, especially when he sees on the news that a known criminal is hold up in a kindergarten with children for hostages. He writes the man’s name in the book, and moments later he is dead. From there, Light decides to use the notebook to kill all the wicked people in the world. People begin to take notice and recognize that there is a mysterious and powerful killer at large, who they dub Kira, from the English word “killer.” Before long, a famous and anonymous investigator, known as L, takes on the case, soon closing in on Light.

Death Note is not a story reccomending totalitarian judicial systems. Instead, it is a cautionary tale about how absolute power corrupts absolutely. We watch Light go from a well-meaning and almost Nobel character to a vicious serial killer who will manipulate and murder anyone who gets in his way or threatens his mission. It’s a very interesting way to tell a story like this, as we know from the start who the killer is. Watching the killer and the detective battling wits will keep you spellbound.

(Once again, there is graphic violence, and the subject matter is pretty disturbing at times.)


ghost in the shell: stand alone complex (攻殻機動隊 Kōkaku Kidōtai)

Available to stream on Adult Swim

The story of Ghost in the Shell revolves around Section 9 an elite law enforcement unit that investigates cybercrime and terrorism. The main character is the Major, a woman whose entire body is synthetic. This is somewhat rare, even in this futuristic world where many people have cyber brains and robotic body parts. Many of the people on the Major’s team also have enhancements. Stand Alone Complex follows the Major as her and the team investigate various crimes, many of them connecting to “the Laughing Man” a gifted hacker.

A few years ago I made my sister watch this with me. It was a second viewing for me, though it had been many years since I first watched it back when it was new. The stories were so complex that we found ourselves having to rewind about two minutes if we were ever interrupted during our viewing. As with Fullmetal Alchemist, the world created around this story is completely real. The setting is only a short time in the future, especially now that it’s been nearly twenty years since the release. So the politics that Section 9 moves through are very familiar. It’s pretty much what you might expect if technology reached this level in the next twenty years.

(The only warning I have for this one is that you might be distracted by the leotard that the Major wears and Togusa’s mullet, which are both very dated. Other than that, there is violence, but it is rarely graphic.)

So there you have it, seven anime series that will make you think. I hope you give one or more of them a watch. I don’t think you’ll regret it. I’m planning on making my recommendations for other genres of anime as well, so if this interests you, stay tuned! Follow Washoku Day on Facebook, so you don’t miss any posts!

If you enjoyed this post, you might like this one, about shojo manga, or this one about Digimon.

Until next time, remember, cartoons are for all ages!