Netflix is finally serious about anime. The streaming service's licensing strategy had been unreliable in the past few years, with massively popular titles like Attack on Titan and One-Punch Man being available for everyone, yet many other interesting series being added and removed at the drop of a hat. Thankfully we’re now experiencing exciting changes, and now feels like the right time to point out some excellent anime you can go watch on the Netflix right now.
Based on one of the many characters by Sanrio, a Japanese company known for its cute merch centered around personality-driven animal cartoon characters (Hello Kitty, anyone?), Aggretsuko is basically branded content, but it’s good branded content. When Retsuko, a red panda fresh out of university, finds an office accounting job, she’s brimming with optimism. Five years later, her corporate enthusiasm has been worn down by a grinding combination of a tiny apartment, a crowded commute, a real murderer’s row of co-workers (a gossiping hippo, an appearance-obsessed deer, a sociopathic fennec fox), and a chauvinist hog (literally, he is a pig) of a boss. When her patience reaches its limit, Retsuko resorts to her preferred form of emotional release: death metal karaoke. Despite her daily struggles, Retsuko clings to the security provided by her lame, but stable, job. This focus on accessibility and millennial appeal is exactly what makes Aggretsuko work. Though it’s cute and funny, it becomes a multi-layered, all-too-relatable mind fuck if you stop and think about it for too long.
There were myriad ways a Bleach live-action movie could’ve gone wrong: the story’s curtain between reality and an earthly spiritual realm, maximalist fight scenes, monstrous spirits, big ass swords, etc. But somehow, this adaptation -- produced by Warner Bros. -- of the popular, long-running anime turned out all right. Ichigo Kurosaki, played by the charming Sota Fukushi, is a defiant human high school student who acquires the powers to fight soul-eating spirit-monsters called Hollows and guide unsettled souls into the afterlife to a place called Soul Society (but mostly, defeat Hollows with gravity-defying swordsmanship). He takes on the duties of Rukia Kuchiki (Hana Sugisaki), a Soul Reaper who transfers her abilities to Ichigo when she's injured in a battle against a particularly gnarly Hollow, despite that exchange being against the Soul Reaper code. Those familiar with Bleach's arcs will probably recognize this as a truncated version of the anime's first season, which is basically exactly what this movie is, save for some event shuffling that fills in motivations the meditative character-driven episodes would have otherwise fleshed out. Several scenes of the movie are faithfully remade from the anime's earliest episodes, which speaks to director Shinsuke Sato's acuity for the source material and where it makes sense to deviate it to fit a two-hour movie. Though Bleach isn’t without its flaws -- not everything translates to live acting or through CG, and some of the relationships between characters feel hollow -- it seems like third time’s the charm for Netflix with live-action adaptations.
Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion (2006-2008)
A hit upon its premiere in 2006, the giant-robot epic Code Geass begins in the year 2010, with Japan -- renamed Area 11 -- seeking its independence after being colonized by the Holy Britannian Empire, the world's dominant superpower. The story in earnest starts in 2017 with Britannian student Lelouch Lamperouge, who gets caught in the crossfire between Britannia and Area 11 armed forces. Lelouch is able to escape with his life thanks to a mysterious girl named C.C., who grants him Geass, a power which allows him to bend others to his will with a simple stare into their eyes. Lelouch, who holds a personal grudge against Britannia, quickly harnesses his newfound power and takes up arms against the Empire as the masked vigilante Zero. Like other mecha anime before it (the Gundam series, in particular), Code Geass explores the macro effects of rampant militarism and colonization. What makes this Sunrise production stand out as a modern classic, however, is the ascent -- or descent, depending on how you look at it -- of Lelouch. Over the anime’s 50 episodes, we learn just how far Lelouch and other major characters are willing to go to create the ideal world they envision, frequently forcing us to ask ourselves: Are ends brought forth by questionable means worth anything? Though it comes off a tad too edgy and dramatic as the stakes increase, Code Geass connects on most of the big swings it takes.
The Devil Is a Part-Timer! (2013)
After a failed conquest of the world, and one spectacular fight, the Demon Lord escapes to the modern human world, where, without his magic, he has no option but to take the name "Sadao Maou" and start working at a fast food place. This sounds like a recipe for disaster, but he ends up adapting better than you’d expect, leading an eccentric life alongside his trustworthy right-hand man, the holy hero who chased him away to begin with, and some new human companions. The Devil is a Part-Timer! is a lovely comedy and charming romance of sorts, spiced up with some genuinely thrilling fights that prove why director Naoto Hosoda was known as an action ace before standing out with this amusing series. Its ending, unfortunately, prevents it from feeling like a thoroughly satisfying standalone experience, so you’ll be wishing for more when you finish a show that otherwise succeeds at everything it attempts.
There's no better starting point than the title spearheading Netflix’s campaign for high-quality anime productions flying under the "Original" banner. Netflix entrusted visionary director Masaaki Yuasa to reinvent the classic Devilman series, which follows the sensitive Akira Fudo as he’s pushed into fusing with a demon by his friend Ryo Asuka, in a desperate attempt to save humanity from impending doom. All the events from the source material are tweaked, fully transforming the narrative and grounding it in modern times, and yet the consequences and message stay the same. A masterclass in adaptation that marries a timeless work with the surreal imagery of one of anime’s most brilliant directors, and that exploits Netflix’s platform with more explicit sexual and violent material that absolutely would not be allowed on regular TV. This show isn’t for the weak of heart, but in spite of everything, it’s still all about love.
The Disastrous Life of Saiki K. (2016- )
With God-like psychic abilities, the world should become your personal playground, right? For Kusuo Saiki, however, psychic powers make his days a constant nuisance. X-ray vision, telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis… all of these abilities pose nothing but nightmares for a high-school kid just trying to lead a quiet, normal life. But it all makes for fantastic comedy! The Disastrous Life of Saiki K. is told in a collection of vignettes -- usually covering one per chapter of the manga and running at five minutes or less -- bunched together into 23-minute episodes. Ever wondered what it’s like to utilize your gift of teleportation to avoid awkward interactions with that girl who has a crush on you? Do you think about the perils of having to abstain from public settings to prevent your mind-reading powers from spoiling your favorite TV show? Saiki does. No good slice-of-life comedy is without a solid supporting cast. Friend/constant thorn-in-side Riki Nendou is so dense not even Saiki can read his mind. Kokomi Teruhashi goes through ridiculous lengths to preserve her perfect, beautiful girl image. Shun Kaidou thinks he’s the only one who can stop a shadow organization that he believes monitors his every move. These three, and many others, always seem to gravitate towards Saiki and find creative ways to make his life a pain in the ass.
Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan (2018- )
Both in a literal and figurative sense, DRAGON PILOT: Hisone and Masotan is an original anime. Not only is it not drawing from any source material, there simply is nothing else quite like it. Protagonist Hisone is in a constant struggle because of her outspokenness -- quite a problem for a young woman who recently joined Japan’s highly regimented Self-Defense Force. It’s precisely that awkwardness that leads to her meeting with the other titular character: Masotan, an adorable jet-fighter dragon hybrid. A more standard series would have the youngster who accidentally stumbled onto a powerful, heavily guarded military secret use her new powers to fight some sort of alien menace, but this show has no time to waste with trivial matters like that. What does it focus on, then? A multitude of interconnected and surprisingly mature themes: the glass ceiling, the impossible balance of an emotional and professional life, how deeply rooted sexism is in institutions like the army, the role tradition plays in these matters, and so on. This is all wrapped in a quirky envelope that manages not to make light of the real problems it addresses directly, without losing its humor along the way.
Mikado Ryugamine moving to a high school in the rowdy district of Ikebukuro is only the starting point of a much larger and hectic tale. While he acts as the protagonist of sorts alongside his childhood friend Masaomi Kida and the quiet Anri Sonohara, the truth is anything but that; writer Ryogo Narita is known for his love of incredibly multithreaded narratives, with plenty of characters leading their own adventures that end up intertwining in some way or the other, giving absolutely everyone a role in this story about gangs, the night life of the city, and supernatural beings hiding in plain sight. It’s precisely the rich cast that drew many viewers to this series, especially with fan-favorites like dullahan biker Celty Sturluson, the impossibly powerful Shizuo Heiwajima, and everyone’s favorite puppet master Izaya Orihara. Its sequel Durarara!!x2, split in three shorter seasons this time, is also available on Netflix, and while it doesn’t reach the same heights, it’s still a fun ride.
Brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric try to use alchemy to bring their mother back to life and fail, stripping Alphonse of his physical form, and robbing Edward of an arm and a leg, which he replaces with metallic prosthetics. From disaster, Fullmetal Alchemist is born. Their quest to get Alphonse’s real body back is an action-packed ride that spans the entire continent, draws in the entire army they’ve enlisted in, and exposes the shadows that hide within. Long anime tend to have rather uneven productions as resources and staff get spread thin, but this show’s consistently outstanding action setpieces defy the norm, as the iconic effects animation by Yoshimichi Kameda ensure to burn themselves into your retinas. The series had previously been adapted into anime with the more conceptually ambitious yet flawed Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), also available on Netflix, but Brotherhood’s complete tale offers a much more rewarding experience. If that isn’t enough by itself, however, you can also watch its complementary TheSacred Star of Milos, a spinoff movie with a more generic self-contained narrative, but that justifies its prize of admission with its visual experimentation alone. If you want to get into Fullmetal Alchemist, which I can only recommend, you’ve got plenty of exciting material to go through!
Gurren Lagann (2007)
Having been over 12 years since it premiered, Gurren Lagann is a modern classic you have the chance to revisit on Netflix. Set in a world where humanity is forced to live in underground colonies, not even fully aware that the surface is the domain of the terrifying Spiral King and his robot-piloting crew of monsters, the series never-ending sense of escalation and the dynamism, courtesy of director Hiroyuki Imaishi, allow it to reach the very ends of the universe, making the show stay true to its own message about humanity’s endless possibilities. While it proudly showcases its many mecha anime influences, it has enough identity of its own to have become a new icon in the genre ever since then. Of course, it helps that the show is a vividly colorful animation feat, one where ludicrous fights give idiosyncratic artists the chance to imprint through rough line art and wild posing, an excellent argument that fluidity by itself isn’t all that makes animation exciting. If that isn't enough, know that much of the same production team returned for KILL la KILL, also available on Netflix; beware that it’s a messier endeavor – arguably more ambitious, but also much less satisfying than the straightforward yet perfectly constructed anti-oppression tale of Gurren Lagann.
Knights of Sidonia (2014- )
Space opera aficionados have no excuse to skip Knights of Sidonia, especially if they enjoy their sci-fi fairly action-packed. Young Nagate Tanikaze being made to pilot a robot to fight for humanity’s survival, pushed to the brink by an alien species called Gauna and drifting through space in the Sidonia colony, might sound like a very standard premise. But the bleakness that Tsutomu Nihei, author of the original manga, is known for gives Knights a special flair, as do the myriad of societal and technological curiosities introduced to give unique texture to the setting. There were preemptive worries about his striking architecture perhaps not translating well to this CGI production by studio Polygon, but in the end, the surroundings are as awe-inspiring as they’re meant to be. While the 3D character acting leaves a bit to be the desired, the gorgeous lighting and ambitious action set pieces justify the path this adaptation took. Watching its first two seasons while waiting for the third and perhaps final one to land seems like a very good use of your time.
Little Witch Academia (2017)
Young witch Akko is a new student at Luna Nova Magical Academy, a prestigious school that doesn’t quite fit her reckless, tomboyish ways. But she won’t allow that, nor her immense clumsiness, to get in the way of her dream: become as great of a witch as Shiny Chariot, the person who pushed her to chase magic in the first place. This is a setup that works as both a Saturday-morning style fun cartoon, as well as an allegory for dying traditions, specifically mirroring the situation of hand-drawn techniques in the animated medium at large. Being so dedicated to its own art, Little Witch Academia needed fantastic animation of its own, and it’s got that in spades; the series is filled with delightfully loose character art and fluid effects to give form to magic, by the hand of director Yoh Yoshinari himself and trustworthy allies like Takafumi Hori. It’s recommended to start with its two relatively short films first, as they capture the grandeur of magic much better than the TV reboot, although the latter’s longer format allows it to expand its metaphor and is plenty entertaining on its own right. You can’t go wrong with this.
Created by former Studio Ghibli illustrators, this Japanese film features similar-looking beautiful, fantastical imagery to tell a mystical story. Inspired by the classic children’s book The Little Broomstick, Mary and the Witch's Flower follows the magical journey of a young girl sent to live in the country who stumbles upon a charmed broomstick and a flower in the forest that send her away to a secret school for magic. There, a wildly fantastical adventure told through powerful animation unfolds like a storybook.
Miss Hokusai (2015)
If you don’t have the time to invest in an entire anime series but still want to jump into Netflix and enjoy some high quality anime, Miss Hokusai is one of the most interesting offerings at your disposal. Katsushika Hokusai is a renowned artist best known for the iconic imagery of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, but this film explores a more overlooked aspect: the life of his daughter Oei, as an artist herself forced to live in the shadow of a legend. The aim of the movie isn’t so much historical accuracy as portraying a set of struggles with universal relatability, and it does so in a fairly unique way. Rather than following a standard structure, Miss Hokusai is a collection of daily life vignettes that illustrate the interactions between the two main characters and those who surround them. This is brought to life by similarly down to earth animation, never relying on flashy movement but always articulating their demeanor perfectly. It all comes together as a package that’s far from your standard anime, but if any of this sounded appealing, you should by all means give it a try.
Rilakkuma and Kaoru (2019- )
Rilakkuma and Kaoru follows Kaoru, the show's titular 20-something office worker, as she navigates the challenges of her job, home life, the expectations of her family and peers, as well as the vague but palpable experience of depression and ennui that accompanies young adulthood, all while taking care of Rilakkuma, Korilakkuma, and Kiiroitori, two anthropomorphic bears that beginning living with Kaoru and her pet bird, respectively. The show is notable for being one of the most recent and prominent examples of stop-motion animation in anime, a technique too often marginalized to a niche within the anime industry, but no less expressive and impressive. A charming slice-of-life comedy with coming-of-age elements, both the series’ writing and animation are excellent. At its heart, Rilakkuma and Kaoru is much like Aggretsuko: taking the beloved mascot of a commercial brand and centering them at the heart of a sincere and affecting exploration of the inherent loneliness of young adulthood and the value of genuine, persistent friendships.
Violet Evergarden (2018- )
Having lost the parental figure that meant the world to her, and dwelling on her single role as a tool of war, Violet finds herself with no purpose. Pushed into accepting a job as an "Auto Memory Doll," essentially a writer for hire gussied up with Victorian flair, her almost robotic self gradually grows to understand the power of communication and the many forms affection can take. Although her development is slow and she’s not the most immediately compelling character, the show’s impact increases tenfold when it switches to episodic tales that sometimes have Violet as a mere spectator. Her job takes her to different settings with palpable, distinct identities, but it stays thematically consistent, with each episode pushing her closer to the answer she seeks. It’s a sentimental series to the point of being cheesy, but it earns that grandeur through the masterful direction and obscenely lavish production. If you want an anime to make you cry, Violet Evergarden will be delighted to provide just that.
Your Lie in April (2014-2015)
Young prodigy pianist Kosei Arima can no longer play as he used to, unable to hear his own music anymore due to a traumatic experience he doesn’t want to talk about much. His monochrome life after that incident is revitalized once he meets the bright Kaori Miyazono, another musician, who bursts into his life like a cherry petal storm. Add to that tragic health issues, a love triangle involving Kosei’s best friend, and the fact that these teenagers have a tendency of speaking as if they were poets, and you get one unashamedly corny anime. Director Kyohei Ishiguro realized that and made it into the show’s main asset: the lavish, ornate execution makes its flowery style work, creating a show that isn’t just gorgeous but feels like the perfect visual embodiment of this tale. Despite being disguised as a series about music, that acts more as a framework for its pursue of beauty than as a theme itself, although the performances really are a key point that accompanies many cathartic developments. The final episode in particular is a truly memorable experience that makes up for the energy the show’s middle section lacks, earning it a standing ovation in the end.