You're scrolling through Netflix's catalog and have come to a horrible realization: You've run out of true crime documentaries and you've burned through all of Nailed It! three times already. What else is there left to watch? There's anime, and there's never been a better time to get into the medium.
These imported animated series from Japan are more made up of more than just beat-em-ups and giant robots, though there are plenty of those, too, and some of them are really darn great. There is actually plenty of variety, if you know what to look for.
While it may not have the largest streaming catalog of anime, Netflix has some great starting points to get a sense of what anime has to offer. In the guide below, you'll find the robots and the butt-kickers, yes, but you'll also find quiet, character-driven dramas and rollicking comedies, both of the sports and romantic subgenres. We also tossed in some weird (but good!) shows that are just very extra, so you can get a full sense of just what anime has to offer. Then, maybe, you won't wait to watch it as a last resort when you simply can't watch another docudrama murder show.
Anime Genre: Giant robots and existential dread
One of the most influential TV shows of the mid-1990s and early 2000s, Neon Genesis Evangelion tells the tale of three teenagers forced to battle weird beings from space (maybe, who knows) who are trying to destroy the world (maybe, who knows) while piloting giant robots that seem to be a little too sentient. Through the battles, the three teens and the adults who support/use them have to confront past and current traumas and grapple with the very notion of identity. It's a downer of a show that has some great (and sometimes horrifying) giant robot action sequences that drive home the stress of trying to save the world if only so you can figure out just how the hell to live in it.
Anime Genre: Hidden depths rom-com
It's important to never judge a book by its cover, and Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun really drives this idea home in a very charming rom-com series. High schooler Chiyo Sakura has a crush on Umetarou Nozaki, a strong, silent type of teen boy. It turns out that Umetarou is actually an acclaimed shōjo manga (comics primarily aimed at young teenage girls but plenty of people who aren't teen girls read them, too) creator writing under a pseudonym. Chiyo agrees to become Umetarou's assistant, and hijinks ensue as they try and set up various romantic pairings around school to stir up inspiration for the manga. Monthly Girls' is both a loving send-up and whole-hearted embrace of shōjo conventions and tropes that remains accessible to those who may not have much familiarity with them. At its core, the series is about how romance fiction influences gender norms and thus us, and that's pretty universal.
Anime Genre: Living is easier with cute stationery mascots by your side
Rilakkuma and Kaoru is the quieter version of the excellent Aggretsuko, another Netflix anime that uses characters from popular stationery supplies. Where Aggretsuko jams to death metal to express office worker ennui, Rilakkuma and Kaoru plays what could only be described as somewhat optimistic elegies. Kaoru is a woman in her late 20s or early 30s. She's stuck in a dead-end job, and her friends are leaving her behind as they make families. The show, animated with stop-motion puppetry, never shies away from the emotional tolls of these experiences. Helping (and living with) her are Rilakkuma, a life-sized toy brown bear; Korilakkuma, a child-sized white toy bear; and Kiiroitori, a small toy yellow chick. Sure, these creatures sometimes make Kaoru's life more difficult — Rilakkuma is very lazy about housework — but they're also there for Kaoru, helping to remind her — and us! — about the beauty and whimsy that's out in the world.
Anime Genre: Extra
Code Geass is what might have happened if Shakespeare had access to robots and just wanted to do something super popular (which is what Shakespeare often wanted anyway). The show centers on Lelouch, an exiled high-school-age prince of the Holy Britannian Empire living in Japan, which has recently been colonized by the aforementioned empire. Through a series of events, Lelouch gains a power called Geass, which allows him to make one person do whatever he asks of them one time only, provided he asks while he has direct eye contact with the subject. Using his tactical genius and the Geass, he assumes the identity Zero and begins to help a group of rebels destroy the empire. Code Geass has more twists, turns, shifting loyalties, and political intrigue than you can shake a stick at, and it also manages to bake in plenty of high school comedy beats. The action and plotting are all over-the-top, and so are many of the characters (and their designs), including Lelouch himself. If you watched Game of Thrones and thought, "Hey, this needs fewer dragons, way less incest, and even more tactics-based battles," then Code Geass might be for you.
Anime Genre: Making connections makes us human
In the world of Violet Evergarden, anyone can hire a ghostwriter, or Auto Memory Dolls as they're known in the show, to write anything from a love letter to making copies of books. Through this work, a young woman named Violet, a war orphan turned super-soldier, hopes to understand the words "I love you," which were spoken to her by the same military commander who trained her before he disappeared and presumably died. The narrative around and characterization of Violet isn't always the best. Still, Evergarden emphasizes how the power of words can change our lives and bring us closer to our fellow humans against lushly drawn and animated backgrounds.
Anime Genre: All you need is a team!
Stop me if you've heard this sports story before. A young boy decides he wants to play a sport, but he just doesn't have the right body for it. Through sheer grit and determination, however, he becomes good enough to overcome what was holding him back. Thought so. Even though it follows this well-trodden path, Haikyu!! is still a wonderfully charming and hilarious series about Shōyō Hinata, a high schooler who is just way too short to play volleyball. Luckily, the kid can jump. Like, really jump. Combining his athleticism with the instinctual play of his middle school rival turned high school teammate, Hinata may be just the person to unite a mediocre team and bring them all the way to national championships. Like the best sports shows (and particularly sports anime), the series never loses sight of its characters, using them to propel the sports action and keep it exciting.
Anime Genre: Furry romance set in gritty Zootopia
In the world of Beastars, anthropomorphic animals live together in cities and wear human clothes. An uneasy harmony exists between carnivores and herbivores, but that harmony fractures when an alpaca is brutally devoured on his school campus by an unknown carnivore. This is only the inciting incident as we learn more about this world through the eyes of Legoshi, a large male gray wolf who is withdrawn from many of classmates. Beastars takes the typical high school drama topics of racism (speciesism?), drug use, and the challenges of dating and makes them feel a bit fresher when animals play all the parts. At its core, however, Beastars feels more akin to a traditional romance novel, especially when the narrative focuses on the internal monologues of Legoshi and the female white dwarf rabbit Haru. Both are struggling with their feelings for each other as well as the burdens society has placed upon them just because of what they look like. It can be potent, sad stuff, all the sneakier because we're not used to seeing this kind of seriousness from cartoon animals.
Anime Genre: Slice of life depression
Centered on the 17-year-old shōgi (near-)prodigy Rei, March Comes in Like a Lion is perhaps one of the single best stories about depression you'll find. Rei lives alone following the death of his family and after becoming estranged from his foster family. He barely has furniture, eats poorly, and can only summon up the energy to go to school, which he often skips so he can participate in shōgi tournaments, the only way he earns money. He resists overtures of friendship from fellow players, students, and three similarly orphaned sisters. The series dramatizes Rei's depression both in his refusal to make these connections and through stylized black-and-white inky drawings of Rei's emotional state. Over time, however, he learns to value these connections and himself, and slowly comes to realize that he is important, not just to others, but to himself, too.
Anime Genre: Super extra overdrive!!!
JoJo's is a multi-generational tale of the Joestar family battling the forces of evil that derive wild supernatural powers (mainly vampiric) from stone masks and jewels. The whole thing is ridiculous and absurd to the extreme. The animation is often non-existent, but excellent art design that blends exaggerated Renaissance-style poses and 1950s pop art aesthetics with over-the-top character designs and grotesque body horror that borders on the comedic enliven the show more than you might think. The plot, thankfully, moves briskly, so if you've been annoyed by slow-moving "fights" in other anime series, know that JoJo's doesn't want you to wait two episodes for someone to do something cool. It's less a show that you watch and more one that you experience and shout, "Wait, what?! This is stupid, and I sort of love it?" at your screen every six minutes or so.
Anime Genre: High school harem hijinks
Netflix lacks many straight-up comedic anime series, but, luckily, it has Ouran High School Host Club to fill that particular void. While attending the illustrious and very expensive Ouran High School, scholarship student Haruhi Fujioka accidentally breaks an $80,000 vase belonging to the school's host club, a place where female students come to be flattered and served tea and sweets by a group of handsome male students. Haruhi is conscripted into drag and works as a member of the club to pay off the debt. There are plenty of silly plots that occur as a result, but Ouran manages to keep a lot of its silliness grounded in character. Some jokes are very anime specific, but the overall humor of the show is accessible to just about anyone.
Anime Genre: Fashion kills in the most extra of ways
Kill la Kill is a weird show. It's not quite as odd as JoJo's, but it's still pretty bizarre. Ryuko Matoi, a teenage girl looking to avenge the death of her scientist father, dons a sentient school uniform that gives her superpowers. Wielding a single giant blade from a broken pair of scissors, she picks up the killer's trail at the prestigious Honnouji Academy. The school is governed by Satsuki Kiryuin, the student council president, with an iron fist. Convinced than Satsuki is her father's killer, Ryuko goes on a battle spree in the school to claw her way to the top of the school and avenge her father's death. Except things get much more complicated in really wacky and sometimes disturbing ways. Kill la Kill's story is delightful, its characters endearing (we dare you to not fall in love with Ryuko's best friend Mako), its music simply slaps, and its animation is ridiculously stylish. The show also offers food for thought about clothing, sex, and oppression concerning female bodies, but Kill la Kill has its cake and eats it too in this conversation, so your mileage may vary on its politics.
Anime Genre: Decent pop music will solve everything
While a number of these series are relatively accessible, Carole & Tuesday is probably the easiest one to sell. Two girls living on Mars from different backgrounds — rich Tuesday and orphaned part-timer Carole — meet and decide to form a folky pop duo and compete on Mars' Brightest, an American Idol-esque singing competition. The show's first half is its best as it offers a gentle critique of the music industry's obsession with authenticity and the mass production of pop hits that all sound the same. The second half attempts to deal with politics and immigration, but the story never quite lands. Still, there are several great songs throughout the show's run, and its cast of characters is very lovable.
Anime Genre: Cute girls and tough dudes tell you about your body
Some of us just lack a good understanding of how our bodies work. Are allergies all in the mind, as 30 Rock's Jack Donaghy contends, or is there more to it than that? How do our bodies recover from scrapes and cuts? Cells at Work! answers these questions and more, in mostly scientifically accurate ways. But this isn't just edutainment to be sure. We're privy to White Blood Cells and Killer T Cells that brutally destroy pathogens and unhealthy cells. Cells is a weird mix of learning and bloody (literally, since Red Blood Cells show up a lot) violence. Just have the pause button ready so you can read the translations of on-screen text.
Anime Genre: Gambling is sexy, bad, and extra
At Hyakkaou Private Academy, only one thing matters: how well you can gamble. Students' popularity and future business connections — all the students are loaded to the max — are at stake after classes in high-stake games. If they go into debt and are unable to pay it off before the end of their time in school, they receive life schedules that tell them exactly how to live the rest of their lives. It's all ridiculous, and it's all amazing, especially after Yumeko Jabami arrives on the scene. Games of chance excite her, perhaps too much, and she's looking for the ultimate gambling thrill. Kakegurui is, like Code Geass and JoJo's, very extra. Like, a game of concentration could result in players losing their fingernails extra. The show is compulsively watchable, however, and is probably one of the best indictments of what capitalism drives us to do that you'll see.
Anime Genre: Adolescence is hell
Devilman Crybaby is probably the most divisive Netflix anime series so far. Director Masaaki Yuasa's take on the classic 1970s manga Devilman puts the plot in the present and adds modern sensibilities. Akira Fudo is a nice kid who gets possessed by a demon and attempts to use the demonic powers to protect his loved ones from the impending demon apocalypse. There's a larger plot at work, however, that may make that impossible. The series is ultraviolent, and the sexual content is intense in ways that weren't possible in the '70s or '80s with previous adaptations. These more extreme depictions are not without purpose, however, as Yuasa attempts to depict what separates humans from demons (hint: not a lot) or, essentially, what makes humans good. Still, the series is a lot, and perhaps more than our other recommendations, this is not a show for everyone. It may also be one of the more important anime series of the last decade.
Anime Genre: Allow us to gut your heart with music
We won't lie to you: Your Lie in Aprilwill probably break you. Kōsei Arima was a child piano prodigy before his (abusive) mother died. After that, he was unable to hear the sounds of a piano, despite his hearing being in otherwise working order. And then he meets Kaori Miyazono, a free-spirited violinist whose playing style awakens the creative forces that have lain dormant within him. The show often drops dialog completely and allows music to convey emotions and colors, and a strong supporting cast helps to keep the narrative rich. To say much more would spoil things. Just be aware that the mixture of love, music, and loss come together to tell a heartfelt romance that you may wish we hadn't told you about it at all.