Anime as a genre has a diehard following that includes fans from all over the globe. Anime is known for its distinct visual style, engaging and relatable characters, and fearless storytelling. The market for it has grown exponentially in recent years, mirroring the success of juggernauts like the U.S. music industry. And, with the rise of streaming services, it’s become more accessible than ever. Loyal fans, both young and old, have nearly endless possibilities to choose from. Fortunately, there’s always new anime to watch. In fact, the industry seems to be thriving. 2023 is shaping up to be a huge year for anime, with plenty of new seasons, series, and movies planned for release.
Updated June 2nd, 2023: Whether you’re a long-time anime fanatic or a complete newb, you’ll be ecstatic to know this article was recently updated by Amanda Minchin to better reflect the ever-changing industry.
There are some series, however, that have remained fan favorites even years later. These are the shows that are still actively discussed among circles, with some even continuing to this day. These notable animes have received both fantastic ratings and rave reviews over the years. Many, for better or worse, have garnered their own live-action reboots. So, whether one is a long-time fanatic or a newb just wanting to get your feet wet, here are some of the most popular selections from the genre.
Bleach is a more traditional adult anime that ran from 2004-2012 but is still ongoing to this day. The series follows Ichigo Kurosaki after he is bestowed with the powers of a Soul Reaper, a role similar to that of the Grim Reaper. He sets out to defend humans from evil spirits, all while guiding lost souls into the afterlife. Based on the best-selling manga of the same name by Tite Kubo, fans early on wondered how the anime would condense all the pages of filler.
As it turns out, they didn’t. Instead, the series played it fast and loose with the source material by introducing characters and storylines not found in the Manga. While shows like this are notorious for bloated casts, each character in this series had their own ongoing storyline that was more adult-focused than others at the time. After a lengthy hiatus, Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War, a direct sequel to the original anime series, came out just last year. The series hopes to close out the final arc of the Manga, though it may do just as well to deviate as it has in the past.
11 My Hero Academia
My Hero Academia takes place in a fictional world where a majority of the human population has unique superpowers called “Quirks.” The story focuses on a protagonist named Izuku, who starts off with no quirks but is determined to become a hero nonetheless.
With brilliant character developments, fascinating storylines, and a heavy emphasis on the idea of good vs. evil, this superhero anime has won a large fan base because of its positive life lessons. There are multiple reasons why this modern-day anime has become successful, but it is definitely notable that the characters, the visuals, and the soundtracks have allowed My Hero Academia to be one of the best animes out today.
10 Death Note
A dark anime with a simple plot, Death Note can be as thought-provoking as it is gruesome. The story focuses on the absolute power to kill just about anyone with a name and a face. The power to do just this is bestowed on the owner of the Death Note. This series constantly makes the viewer question who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist throughout.
In fact, the anime might start off with the viewer rooting for Light Yagami, only to realize this character is filled with pure evil and is willing to use anyone close to him to achieve his dream of becoming a God of a new world. The ending, however, proves just how evil Yagami is. Death Note‘s reflections on certain ideologies, like what morality is, the debate on the death penalty, and the power of certain organizations and people, can be quite intriguing.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is based on Hiromu Arakawa’s manga. While there are technically two Fullmetal Alchemist series, there are some key differences between the two. For one, Brotherhood is far more faithful to the original manga. In fact, after Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was released in 2009, it went on to become more popular than the 2003 version due to its loyalty to the original story.
The plot focuses on two brothers whose passion for alchemy takes them on a painful but ultimately successful journey. This anime is one that focuses on some important topics, from family bonds to fascism, ethical practices, and the natural vs. the unnatural debate.
8 Mobile Suit Gundam Wing
The early anime scene has long been filled with mecha or mechs, giant robot-like machines controlled by people. While there have been endless iterations of this, from Mega Man to Transformers,
the Gundam franchise has long dominated the anime space. While there’s no going wrong with most of the franchise, Mobile Suit Gundam Wing does hold a soft spot for many American audiences due to its beloved slot on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block in the early 2000s.
Much like the original, the plot revolves around a future war between Earth and its orbital colonies in the Earth-Moon system. The series features political intrigue and epic battles alongside its jaw-dropping suits. While not the first in the series and not even the first to make it to the US, it still made a lasting impression for generations to come.
7 Cowboy Bebop
Cowboy Bebop follows a unique group of bounty hunters in a sci-fi futuristic universe in which humanity and its many vices have migrated all across the galaxy. The neo-noir series follows the crew of a ship called Bebop, which is helmed by the ever-goofy Spike Spiegel and his companion Jet Black, both of whom are weighed down by the past. They are soon joined by con artist Faye Valentine, an oddball wunderkind and a bioengineered Welsh Corgi.
While this is easily the shortest-running series here at just 26 episodes, fans have been clamoring for more ever since its release over 20 years ago. Its length is due mostly to acclaimed anime director Shinichirō Watanabe’s finite vision for the series, the content of which also alienated traditional toy companies from wanting to market to it. Netflix’s recent live-action reboot was heavily criticized and was quickly canceled.
6 Attack on Titan
A word of warning – this series is not for the faint of heart. Attack on Titan is a dark fantasy anime that is as devastatingly beautiful as it is heart-wrenching. Set in a post-apocalyptic world dominated by giant humanoid Titans, the series follows a group called the Survey Corps as they set out to protect themselves from these creatures… who may just be more like them than they realize. The main protagonist, Eren, joins the group after the brutal death of his mother at the hands of a Titan attack. Adapted from the manga by Hajime Isayama, this series certainly keeps viewers on the edge of their seats.
While Attack on Titan has been ongoing since 2013, the show is currently in its fourth and final season. Season Four, which began in December 2020, is set to conclude with Attack on Titan The Final Chapters Special 2 later this year.
5 Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba
Demon Slayer focuses on a secret society called Demon Slayer Corps, which was created to fight against demons. These demons were initially humans but were transformed by a character called Muzan Kibutsuji. After the protagonist’s sister, Nezuko, is also transformed into a demon, the plot focuses on their journey to eliminate the demons along with Muzan while still trying to restore Nezuko back to her human state.
The story takes place in ancient Japan, specifically in the early 1910s, a.k.a. the Taishō era. The anime takes inspiration from Japanese culture, hence the unique attire and visuals throughout. Its visual lean helps make some of the more difficult parts of this anime easier to swallow.
4 Sailor Moon
The beloved manga and TV series known as Sailor Moon has been ever popular ever since its debut in the early 90s, and not just for fans of cosplay or the magical girl genre. The story follows Usagi Tsukino, a young schoolgirl who was bestowed with some pretty miraculous powers thanks to a talking cat named Luna. She transforms into her magical alter ego, Sailor Moon, a hero tasked with battling the evil forces of the Dark Kingdom, led by Queen Beryl, alongside her fellow moon princesses. Queen Beryl, meanwhile, summons monsters called Youma that sap the energy from humans. She’s set her sights on the Silver Crystal, a gem capable of unlimited power.
While many would assume this is just for kids, Sailor Moon is available in both subtitled, uncut, mature versions and in dubbed tween-approved versions. Its original release in the United States was highly censored at the time, with sometimes hilarious results. Luckily, what was only supposed to be a limited six-month run turned into nearly seven remakes, the last of which is still ongoing.
3 Naruto & Naruto: Shippuden
Naruto focuses on a young boy who is shunned by society but grows up to be one of the most successful and strongest ninjas. The mischievous but optimistic protagonist, Naruto Uzumaki, is a beloved anime character based on the manga by Masashi Kishimoto. Naruto is a character who is absolutely loyal and hopeful. His passion and never-giving-up persona inspire young audiences while teaching them life lessons in the process.
After watching the original Naruto, the next obvious step would be to watch its counterpart, Naruto: Shippuden. Both parts focus on brilliant character developments and fascinating storylines and, in turn, ensure that the viewer is fully submerged in the wide world of ninjas. Those still wanting more can check out the various Naruto movies that have come out as well.
Pokémon is yet another huge franchise that has created generations of fans. Pokémon (abbreviated for “Pocket Monsters”) are adorable fictional creatures with various strengths and weaknesses that are hard not to love. Even if you are not a huge fan, it’s nearly impossible not to be aware of this franchise. The fact that people are still willing to (and dreaming of) owning their own Pikachus and Squirtles is evidence enough to suggest how popular this anime is.
While the video games have been popular, the anime series was likely many people’s introduction to the franchise and helped spawn a long-running film series. Fans who have grown up with the series have come to appreciate the emotional and dark storylines as well. It has also inspired and been inspired by a slew of long-running tabletop game spinoffs, from Digimon to Yu-Gi-Oh! After nearly 25 years of battles, the forever 10-year-old Ask Ketchum story has finally concluded with a new Pokémon anime, Pokémon: New Horizon, which is set to carry on the legacy.
1 Dragon Ball & Dragon Ball Z
Dragon Ball is a massive franchise that shaped a generation of millennials. Like most anime, Dragon Ball was initially a manga series. This one was created by Akira Toriyama in the early 1980s. The first installment was 1986’s Dragon Ball. This anime opened up by focusing on the young Goku. The next series, Dragon Ball Z, was released in 1989. It takes place 5 years after the end of the first installment. This sequel focused on a young-adult Goku alongside his son, Gohan.
This show is inspired primarily by martial arts, and audiences can find some truly brilliant multi-episode fights throughout the anime. From fighting with aliens to protecting Earth against evil, this anime franchise is packed with adventure while still being easily accessible to audiences of all ages. The series has inspired memes, and its action has been the source of inspiration for filmmakers in both animation and live-action. Its popularity is still present in feature-length movies that perform well at the box office despite being considered for niche audiences.