People in the West – at least those who have never watched it – recognise anime by its characters’ large eyes, their colourful and stylised hair, and the shows’ elaborate, fantastical plotlines.
This is the distinctive art style we recognise in animes – from things like Pokémon to Dragon Ball, Spirited Away to Death Note. And, in our country, we associate this particular genre with Japanese culture – thinking that this precisely is what defines Japanese popular culture. And that this is what Japanese animation is like.
We’d be right and wrong in our assessment here. Because whilst anime makes up a huge proportion of the Japanese film and television market – and indeed much of the world’s animated shows – that style that is so recognisable to us is not the extent of Japanese anime.
In fact, many of the anime shows that we know are not necessarily so popular in Japan. Just as there are many more anime series in Japan that we just don’t know over here.
So, What, then, is Anime?
Anime is really just short for animation, surprisingly enough. Whilst in English, the term has come to specifically designate Japanese animation techniques, in Japan, it refers to animated productions from all over the world, non-Japanese as much as Japanese.
Given this, it’s hard to say that anime really constitutes a genre as such – and the style we see as specifically anime here is not really so clearly defined. It isn’t all big eyes and wacky hair.
Rather, there are as many different styles of anime as there are animators, artists, and animation studios. You’ll probably know studios like Studio Ghibli, Toei Animation, Kyoto Animation, and Gainax – and, if you do, you’ll know that their styles are quite significantly different. And if you are anime fans, you’ll easily spot the difference between Osamu Tezuka and Hayao Miyazaki.
This fact also complicates the questions, ‘what’s the best anime in Japan?’, or ‘what are the most popular anime movies?’. It’s a tricky question because, in Japan, anime can be for everyone – and different anime characters are made for different audiences.
Gundam, for example, was aimed originally at boys, whilst Cowboy Bebop, with more sophisticated themes, was aimed at adult audiences. Meanwhile, Fruits Basket was intended for a young female audience.
Find out more about Japan's culture of anime!
What is the Best Anime Series?
All of this means that it is hard to define the best series or the most favourite ones even. However, we have given it a go. And, like with any best of list, we know that we might upset part of the anime fandom.
Some of these, you’ll find, are bigger with an international audience than they necessarily are with a Japanese one. But this is a testament to the massive global appeal of this style of art.
So, from full-length films to fantasy series, here are some of the most popular anime series around.
Read about the best characters in anime here!
Tiger and Bunny.
According to a poll in Japan, the Tiger and Bunny franchise came out as the most popular anime production of all time. The characters came from an original manga, were made into an animated series, video games, a stage play, and live action films.
Generally, then, we can say that it is pretty popular as a franchise.
It takes place in a futuristic New York City in which superheroes are sponsored by companies and they compete to be the ‘King of Heroes’ – as their heroism is broadcast on television.
It’s been available subbed on Netflix, by the way, if you want to check it out.
Love Live! School Idol Project
Another of the most popular franchises in Japan is known as Long Live! – which has, again, spawned, a whole range of different media projects too. Beyond the original anime and manga, you’ve now got CDs, music videos, and video games. It became something of a cultural sensation.
Rather than the fantasy anime we are familiar with, however, this is a simple story of a high school student and her friends who become ‘idols’ – young singer celebrities – to save their Japanese school.
We told you that anime is a lot more than we initially assume.
One of the massively successful anime from the late nineties is Cardcaptor Sakura – or, in the heavily criticised American version, Cardcaptors.
Recognised as one of the best shoujo manga series – or a manga aimed at young girls – this was transformed into a seventy-part anime series. It also won a hell of a lot of awards.
The story revolves around a girl called Sakura, who receives magical powers after releasing into the world a pack of magical cards. The series focuses on her retrieving these cards.
It’s a great example of the famous genre of anime known as ‘magical girl’, which features, surprisingly enough, a girl who can use magic.
The seventy episodes in the series were cut to around forty for the American version, which were dubbed and criticised for making the plot unintelligible.
The manga, Gin Tama, is one of the bestselling series in Japan – and, as is the trend, this has been made into everything from a live action film, Gintama, to a light novel.
The series is set in the Edo period – the years from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century in Japan – but one in which the country is occupied by aliens. Gintoki Sakata is the main character, a samurai who fights against the aliens and helps to rescue their prisoners.
It’s known for its comedy and its social themes and it has been hugely influential.
Digimon was seen by Anglophone audiences as, essentially, a rip-off of the hugely successful Pokémon. However, whilst Pokémon’s plot arc was perhaps a little limited, Digimon became much more popular and much more critically acclaimed.
Its characters are known as ‘digital monsters’, which populate a digital world into which some children are transported. Realising that they are destined to be the saviours of this world, the children embark on a quest to do exactly that.
One of the bestselling, highest-grossing, and critically acclaimed anime and manga in Japan is Fullmetal Alchemist.
This is a series that tells the story of the Elric brothers’ pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone. Set in the Industrial Revolution, these characters had tried, through alchemy, to bring their mother back to life, by using parts of their bodies. However, the experiment didn’t work, and they became permanently damaged.
The series sold over seventy million copies worldwide.
Dragon Ball Z
An enduringly popular franchise, Dragon Ball is one of the most recognisable products of Japanese anime culture. Its films have made nearly a billion dollars across the world – with only the live action American-made movie flopping at the box office – and the multimedia franchise as a whole raking in over twenty billion dollars.
It’s a simple plot: Son Goku, throughout his life, travels the world in search of the Dragon Balls, objects that release dragons and grant wishes. Simultaneously, a wide variety of villains pursue them too.
Dragon Ball is also the second-highest selling series of manga in history.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
If it wasn’t for Neon Genesis Evangelion, anime might not be as popular as it is today. Owing to a financial crisis in Japan during the eighties and nineties, people weren’t producing as much as they were, and the cultural industries were stagnating.
Neon Genesis Evangelion intervened into this landscape, offering a sophisticated, original, and ultimately hugely popular development in the world of anime.
After a global disaster, Shinji, a teenager, is called to fight the Angels by piloting an Evangelion, a ‘mecha’ or human-controlled robot. It was these figures of the Evangelions that made the series so influential – and you only need to look at its grossing to see the franchise’s global popularity.
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Princess Mononoke is the highest-grossing anime film in the world. It was also the highest-grossing film in Japan ever, until Hayao Miyazaki, the director made Spirited Away, which overtook it.
It’s a wonderful film essentially about the environment. Based somewhere between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, the film depicts a prince’s involvement in a struggle between the spirits of the forest and those who plunder that forest’s resources.
The film has won a whole heap of awards since its release in 1997 – and it cemented the place of Studio Ghibli among the big anime studios of Japan.
It has also been a massive influence on the world of anime, computer games, and manga – with its complex moral message and its powerful characterisation.