I’ve long been drawn to anime for its ability to marry complex ideas with good-natured humor. As a viewer, I like comedy, but I also prefer that a story addresses some question of morality or ethics as well, and many great anime walk that line masterfully. I always try to have anime recommendations for new viewers up my sleeve, and there are a few solid titles that I recommend most often as the best anime I’ve ever seen.
What makes a series truly great in my opinion is not just its artistic qualities, but also its impact on its audience and general culture. Here are seven of the best science fiction and fantasy anime ever, chosen for the power of their legacy as well as the themes they explore.
1. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is one of the best anime ever created. The 2009 remake of the 2003 classic is a more faithful adaptation of the manga, which follows the journey of Edward and Alphonse Elric as they unravel the mystery surrounding the Philosopher’s Stone.
The series is filled with heavy ethical and philosophical concepts and commentary, ranging from humans using science to play God, to the guilt of individual soldiers ordered to commit genocidal violence. Brotherhood uses anime as a vehicle to explore religion and morality under the guise of a fun and action-filled animated series. It’s incredibly thought-provoking and reveals new ideas to consider upon each viewing.
This historical fantasy immerses viewers, along with time-traveling schoolgirl protagonist Kagome, into a mythical version of feudal Japan.
InuYasha was the first series I watched knowing it was an anime and being aware of what that meant. I first watched the series in the summer of 2005, right before starting high school and just after reading every volume of the InuYasha manga available in our local library.
The titular character is half human and half demon, and at the time, like InuYasha himself, I felt an intense struggle with my mixed identity. I’d gone to a predominantly white school, and at that point, I was fully aware there were things about my family life that most of the people around me couldn’t understand. When I was with white kids, I was always the Asian kid; around Filipinos, I was a white girl.
An important plot point of the series is that InuYasha wants to become a demon, while his former lover Kikyo would only be with him if he became human—but Kagome loves him exactly how he is. To see that on screen—to see a character be told he doesn’t need to choose just one identity, because he’s wanted and loved being both at once—was incredibly important for me at that age.
3. Puella Magi Madoka Magica
The magical girl genre—which typically features heroines with magical powers who exemplify themes of optimism, hope, and success through perseverance—has become very established in the past few decades. By the time Puella Magi Madoka Magica premiered in 2011, the genre was definitely in need of some subversion, and the series turned magical girl tropes on its head.
Protagonist Madoka Kaname is a symbol of hope for the world, yes—but the series isn’t about optimistic young girls saving the planet through hard work. Another magical girl, Homura Akemi, has lived the same timeline over and over in order to save Madoka’s life, and as she continues to fail, she starts losing hope that her wish will ever be granted.
Just as in reality, hard work in the world of Madoka Magica doesn’t always lead to success and a happy ending, and the series’ overarching themes—the consequences of making recklessly uninformed decisions, the inevitable corruption of innocence, and the selflessness of a hero that will always separate her from a happy ending—run practically counter to all that the magical girl genre had explored before.
4. Attack on Titan
Saving humanity from extinction is a pretty common theme in science fiction, and in Attack on Titan’s post-apocalyptic world, the threat facing humanity comes in the form of giant, people-eating monsters.
The protagonists of Attack on Titan have lived all their lives inside walls designed to keep the Titans out, hungry for the freedom to explore the wider world and to live their lives without constant fear.
Attack on Titan’s cultural impact was evident in its meteoric rise; its popularity in the U.S. skyrocketed so fast that even non-industry publications like Business Insider took note.
5. Princess Tutu
Princess Tutu is one of the most underrated anime around, probably because it’s called “Princess Tutu.”
When I recommend this series to others, I tend to compare it to the musical Into the Woods: The first act has a fairy tale happily-ever-after ending, and then the second act begins, and all hell breaks loose. Princess Tutu explores the theme of free will against destiny differently than any other anime I’ve seen: By pitting its players against a twisted writer intent on driving their stories into despair, making their real battle a fight against the fate being constructed around them.
Princess Tutu‘s combination of classic ballet references and fairy-tale themes creates a series that’s both familiar and fresh at once. It’s a surprisingly thoughtful anime that shouldn’t be missed.
Psycho-Pass is one of the clearest examples of why animation—and anime in particular—isn’t always appropriate for children.
It centers on the hunt for a serial killer in a not-so-distant future in which the police use a program called the Sibyl System to measure an individual’s likelihood of committing a crime. The System categorizes people with a number called a Crime Coefficient, and if their likelihood of breaking the law exceeds a certain amount, they can be judged guilty of crimes they haven’t actually committed.
Since the Sibyl System and Crime Coefficient are computerized, they’re supposed to be perfect and free of bias. Yet after protagonist Akane Tsunemori watches a killer murder someone right before her eyes, the computer system and her gun judge him Not Guilty.
Like Princess Tutu, Psycho-Pass is another anime I consider vastly underrated, but for entirely different reasons. Psycho-Pass explores a future that feels all too plausible, examining psychology and ethics along the way. A computer system’s judgment can remove human bias from a police situation—but at the same time, it also removes human empathy.
7. Sailor Moon
Like many kids from my generation, Sailor Moon was my very first exposure to anime. It’s one of the founding mothers of the magical girl genre, and for many, it’s the first series that comes to mind when they think of anime.
I watched my first episode of Sailor Moon at a time when the live-action show Power Rangers was still popular. While I loved action hero stories, Power Rangers was never a great fit for me, in part because it exemplified a common problem in media aimed at kids. There were only two female characters for me to identify with (clearly delineated as “the Pretty Girl” and “the Smart Girl”), and neither got to be the leader or save the day as much as I would have liked.
Sailor Moon was different: The clumsy crybaby had the chance to grow into someone brave and strong, the smart girl didn’t need to be awkward and unsociable, the prettiest girl was the strongest fighter, and the most intimidating girl was also the most romantic at heart.
More than 10 years after it was first broadcast in the U.S., this magical girl classic’s impact hasn’t faded. Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles, starting with 2012’s Cinder, is a young adult science fiction series inspired in part by Sailor Moon, and anime remake Sailor Moon Crystal premiered in 2014. While it’s definitely the oldest series on this list, fans’ love of Sailor Moon hasn’t tapered off. It’s bound to continue to inspire audiences around the globe for years to come.
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Featured image of "Psycho-Pass 2" Via Fuji TV.