What if you could travel back in time and prevent a tragedy? Erased, like so many of these stories, presents the snowballing blowback of playing god with the natural order of time, doing so not through the eyes of a superhero or a killer but the meta casting of a young manga artist who also works part-time. Erased is as endearing as it is exciting, thanks to its tight pacing and the journey for justice that its hero takes down the rabbit hole.
In a sci-fi action comedy where clothes are superpowered AI, sometimes the underage heroes have to get basically naked to save the day. Is this gross, objectifying fan service? Yes. But Kill La Kill flips the concept by empowering its female protagonists and villains throughout and emphasizing the bonds between them. (As other writers have noted, the show passes both the Bechdel and Reverse Bechdel Test.) Very few anime or “prestige” live-action series alike outline arguments against constricting social ideas around fashion, body image, and mental health, but Kill La Kill shreds through them with complex characterization and an electric-guitar–fueled soundtrack. Like a cherry on top, several of its fight sequences kinetically toggle between animation styles, à la Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
In a world more tightly gripped by fascist ideology than ever, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood feels essential. This blockbuster soars on rich character relationships, bravura displays of light and magic, and a plot vibrating with tension. Brotherhood’s heroic brothers Ed and Al are alchemists seeking the philosopher’s stone to restore their bodies after the cosmos punished them for trying to resurrect their dead mother. Meanwhile, the authoritarian government they work for — led by a mustachioed swordsman called “Fuhrer” — has its own sinister plans for the Stone. In 64 episodes, Brotherhood never falters, using philosophy to unpack the consequences of unethical scientific experimentation, xenophobia, state violence, and more. It also balances its darkness with plenty of humor.
War may be hell, but sometimes what comes after is worse. After a bloody career as a child soldier that stole her arms and her emotional development, a girl named Violet has to adjust to a world at peace. It doesn’t help that her new job involves ghostwriting letters for people with her prosthetic hands. This slow-paced show is obsessed with feelings: what they are, how we voice them, and why they affect us in ways we don’t anticipate. Violet’s trauma cut so deep that she shut herself off from her feelings, and her struggle to find them again illustrates the power of writing, therapy, support systems, and patience.
Death Note’s Light Yagami may be one of the most sinister Macbethian villains of the last 20 years. Over the course of 37 episodes, he murders countless individuals by writing their names in the show’s titular magic book, lies incessantly to practically everyone in his family or social circle, and seeks to establish his own utopia as a god of death. He meets his match when a genius investigator named L starts to close in on him with his own mind games, propelling the show into a dark, suspense-heavy cat-and-mouse chase for the ages.
This deliciously gothic take on the Boarding School of Horrors trope puts the students of Death Weapon Meister Academy in charge of hell’s cleanup needs. Their job: to serve Death by claiming the souls of 99 evil humans and one witch before graduating to the next level. Soul Eater is a tonal playground of Hot Topic references, macabre color schemes and background designs, and characters who relish in roasting each other. There’s some gratuitous nudity in it, so maybe think twice before watching on public transit.
If you cross Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger and The Crow’s Eric Draven, you might get Lelouch vi Britannia: an intoxicatingly skilled political manipulator with mind-control powers who is on a mission of vengeance against his family, which rules the world. Code Geass has sci-fi combat, bureaucratic backstabbing, teen comedy, and a future in which imperialism and caste systems keep the populace underfoot. Like practically every revolutionary in history, Lelouch isn’t particularly noble in his pursuit to overthrow the power of the family he is estranged from, but he is fascinating to watch.
The secret to One Punch Man’s hysterical, action-packed sauce: the quarter-life crisis of its protagonist, Saitama, a hero who can easily trounce every opponent that comes at him but who nonetheless feels unfulfilled and wayward. When you can beat any enemy with one punch (it’s a brilliantly simple conceit), where do you go from there? One Punch Man shows us Saitama trying to answer that question through the eyes of his cyborg mentee, Genos, along with earth-shattering fight scenes and the machinations of an organization of ranked heroes that Saitama and Genos try to break into.
The Naruto franchise spans 720 episodes of television, 11 animated specials, and 11 films, plus 700 chapters of manga, and that’s before you get to the supplemental stuff. Naruto and his friends work together as a team of ninjas, doing everything from taking odd jobs to taking out enemies. Naruto’s humor, long-term character development, and crisply animated ninja sequences are masterful and have made it one of the most beloved shōnen (intended for boys ages 12 to 18) anime series of the past 20 years. The “Naruto run” went viral for a reason.
When in doubt, let your characters duke it out. That was the approach manga artist Yoshihiro Togashi took with his other series, Yu Yu Hakusho, and it’s the tack he took with Hunter x Hunter — to dazzling effect. The titular “hunters” are an elite class of warriors who track down rare animal species, treasures, and human heads for bounty, and Hunter x Hunter is the story of one boy who wants to follow in his dad’s footsteps to become a hunter, even after his dad abandons him. Note that there are two adaptations of this series, and Netflix has the later, 2011 one — largely considered the superior run.