It’s can sometimes be a difficult thing to recommend some western animated shows to a hardcore anime fan. While the two sides of the ocean aren’t as stylistically different as some claim, each does have their own set of elements that work for them. Of course as with anything there are some instances where these elements borrow from each other so here are some essential shows that maybe worth checking out for the average anime fan:
Synopsis: The world of Remnant, is filled with supernatural forces and shadowy creatures known as the “Creatures of Grimm”. Mankind waged a battle of survival against the Grimm before discovering the power of a mysterious element called Dust, which allowed them to fight back against the monsters. In the present day, Dust is used to power magical abilities and weapons. Those who use these abilities to battle the Grimm are known as Huntsmen or Huntresses. The story centers on four girls, each with her own unique weapon and powers. Together, they form team RWBY at Beacon Academy in the city of Vale, where they are trained to become Huntresses alongside team CRDL (Cardinal) and team JNPR(Juniper).
Why it’s essential: This series made a pretty big splash last year with it’s heavily anime influenced artstyle and it’s unique animation. I’m personally pretty neutral on the series myself since while I did enjoy it I could never really quite understand all the massive praise it got. Nevertheless the show made a noticeable impact on the western anime fandom and even enough so that Crunchyroll took a chance on adding it to their lineup (and a gamble that was well rewarded). The story and the characters are fairly basic and though there is some minor character development here and there but it’s greatest strength is it’s sense of style and it’s got a lot of it. Plus it has some pretty well choreographed fight scenes.
9. Green Lantern: The Animated Series
Synopsis: The series focuses on the adventures of Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern of Sector 2814, and his partner Kilowog. Hal Jordan travels t “Frontier Space” the region of space at the edge of the Guardians’ territory, where Green Lanterns are being picked off by the Red Lanterns and they must make their return back to central guardian space to bring news of the threat
Why it’s essential: This is the only actual superhero show on this list, but it’s also feels the least like a superhero show out of the many DC animated works made over the years. The show is much more an adventures in space thing a la Bebop though it’s a lot more plot focused and it occasionally veers into full on space opera territory (especially in the second half)as the threats escalate. The show also puts a lot of emphasis on the relationships between two of the crew members and the group as a whole slowly grows into a family of sorts. Sadly there’s only one season of the show, but the ending is solid and enough plot threads are closed that you’re not left with a massive thirst for more.
8. Steven Universe
Synopsis: The world is protected from evil threats by the Crystal Gems, a group of intergalactic female warriors who use the power of special gem stones embedded on their bodies to summon magical weapons. Steven is a young boy who inherited a gem stone from his mother, a Crystal Gem named Rose Quartz. As Steven tries to figure out the secrets to using his gem, he spends his days in Beach City doing activities with the other Crystal Gems, Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl, whether it’s helping them save the universe or just hanging out.
Why it’s essential: Though the show has just started out it’s hard to ignore some of it’s anime influences. It provides a pretty interesting twist on typical magical girl fare as Steven has many of the personality qualities of a magical girl show protagonist and is surrounded by them but doesn’t have a full handle on the abilities. The series also features some pretty heavy fantasy elements and though it starts off in media res it’s a bit more grounded than it’s sister series Adventure Time. It’s greatest strength though is that it’s a pretty heartwarming tale as Steven grows into a true Crystal Gem though when exactly that’ll happen is anyone’s guess.
7. Code Lyoko
Synopsis: Jeremie Belpois, a gifted child attending boarding school at Kadic Academy, one day discovers a supercomputer in an abandoned factory near his school. Upon activating it, he discovers a virtual world and Aelita, a young girl trapped inside Lyoko. After unusual events begin to occur at school, Jeremie learns of X.A.N.A., a malevolent destruction-bent artificial intelligence/multi-agent system running on the supercomputer whose goal is to take over the world. Jeremie soon forms a goal to materialize Aelita into the real world and stop X.A.N.A. in his tracks. With the help from Jeremy’s friends and classmates, Ulrich Stern, Odd Della Robbia, Yumi Ishiyama, and Aelita, the group goes to Lyoko in hope to saves the world.
Why it’s essential: France has a lot of love for anime (possibly even more than the US) and it shows in this series as it takes a lot of cues from anime in terms of its artstyle and character relationships.This show is by and large a character driven work and the main cast is pretty interesting in that there really isn’t a “lead” character per se as most of the emphasis is placed on the group becoming well…a group and they’re all given a solid amount of focus with one never really outshining the other as they all grow a bit. As for the main storyline itself if you can get through the repetitive first season the show pays off in stronger story arcs and the ending is pretty satisfying. Additionally for all you young guys out there the show offers a surprising amount of genuine fanservice (how it all slipped past Cartoon Network’s radar is something I’ll never know). It also has a pretty sweet theme song
6. The Powerpuff Girls
Synopsis: Sugar, spice and everything nice. These were the ingreidents designed to make the perfect little girl but Proffesor Utonium accidentally added an extra ingredient to the concoction: Chemical X. Thus the Powerpuff Girls were born. Using their ultra superpowers Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup have dedicated their lives to fighting crime and the forces of evil.
Why it’s essential: When the Powerpuff Girls first came out it was a cultural phenomeon in the US and it’s still pretty well remembered even today (recent special by CN non-withstanding). The show provides a unique blend of magical girl show elements and superhero fare (though the Kaiju esque monsters and villains the girls tend to fight lean it towards the former half of the scale). It’s influenced a lot by japanese monster movies and 80’s anime in many instances and in some ways the show itself is kind of a prelude to modern moe anime as the girls generally do act their age and there’s just as much emphasis on them being adorable little girls as there is them punching out giant monsters
5. Xiaolin Showdown
Synopsis: Set in a world where martial arts battles and Eastern magic are commonplace, the series follows four young warriors in training that battle the forces of evil. They do this by protecting Shen Gong Wu (ancient artifacts that have great magical powers) from villains that would use them to conquer the world.
Why it’s essential: Admittedly this is probably the weirdest thing to have on this list but there’s no denying this show had a pretty strong impact during its intial run. It mostly functions as a blatant parody of martial art movies and also shonen anime to an extent as it frequently plays with and lampshades many of the tropes and cliches associated with both genres. Despite being mostly a comedy however the show does have some actual depth to its main characters as they learn various lessons over the course of the series and the ending does a pretty interesting twist on the group dynamic that you wouldn’t see coming at the start of the series. Unfortunately the currently airing sequel series Xiaolin Chronicles so far doesn’t seem to carry the same level of writing and comedy (and it also screws with the continuity of the original constantly) but the original still stands as a pretty solid work.
4. Megas XLR
Synopsis: In the distant future , Earth is fighting a losing war with an alien race known as “the Glorft”. In order to save the planet, the human resistance steals a prototype giant robot from the Glorft renaming it MEGAS . The idea is to use a time-traveling device called a time drive to send MEGAS and its pilot, Kiva, back in time to defeat the Glorift
Before the plan can be executed, however, an attack by the Glorft sends the now-crippled MEGAS all the way back to the 1930s. It stays in a New Jersey junkyard until it ends up in the hands of a slacker mechanic, Coop, and his slacker best friend, Jamie, around the year 2004.
Kiva goes back in time to retrieve MEGAS, and when she finds she is unable to pilot it because of Coop’s modifications, she grudgingly decides to train Coop, who is now the only person who can pilot it. However, the Glorft have followed her through time and, much to Kiva’s chagrin, it is now up to Coop to defend Earth from the Glorft and other various threats.
Why it’s essential: Despite the rather lengthy premise the show doesn’t take itself that seriously. In fact much like Xiaolin Showdown above, the show is a massive parody of it’s genre (mecha shows) though it takes its parodies to much higher levels as it proceeds to make fun of as many giant robot anime as it can get it’s hand on (sadly it didn’t live long enough to parody Evangellion). Destruction and mayhem are the norm and through it all the show is pretty much out to say what’s advertised in it’s theme song: That giant robots are pretty flippin’ awesome and it won’t rest till it proves it. It’s definitely a show worth seeing for any mecha fans out there as it’s one gigantic love letter to the genre.
3. Samurai Jack
Synopsis: Long ago in the distant past, Aku the shapeshifing master of darkness unleashed an unspeakble evil across the world. But a young samurai warrior wielding a magic sword stepped forth to oppose him. Before the final blow was struck however, Aku tore open a portal in time transporting the warrior to the future in which Aku’s evil is now law. Now the young warrior, taking on the alias of Jack, travels the world seeking a way to return to the past and to undo the evil that is Aku.
Why it’s essential: Series creator Genndy Tartavosky has been known for numerous anime influenced works but this is by far his most prevalent and iconic. The series pays homage to samurai films as a whole and each episode functions as it’s own mini-samurai film as it delivers on solid fight scenes and a slick artstyle. It’s also a fairly violent show though in a way that’s a bit unconventional as it ducks around the censors in some pretty creative ways. Though the show never really gets to a definitive conclusion, it’s more about the journey itself as the show becomes more of “who will Jack fight next?” rather than “will Jack ever make it back to the past?” and it’s certainly a fun ride. Hopefully the movie that’s been teased for years will eventually get made but until then what we have of the show is pretty great and if you like swordfights then there’s fun times to be had here.
2. Avatar: The Last Airbender (plus The Legend of Korra)
Synopsis: Long ago the Four Nations of the world were at peace, but everything changed when the Fire Nation declaired war on the others. Only the Avatar master of the four elements and spiritual guardian of the world could stop them but one day he vanished. 100 years later the Fire Nation is nearing victory in the war when two youths from the Southern Water Tribe discover a young Airbender named Aang. This airbender is the long-lost Avatar and now he must fulfill his destiny to end the war and restore balance to the world.
Why it’s essential: Well there’s pretty much nothing I can say about this show that hasn’t been said already as to why anime fans should watch it but that pretty much speaks towards its quality. The show is very heavily influenced and isn’t ashamed to admit it as the series creators have admitted to being huge fans of Hayao Miyazaki and Shinichiro Watanabe’s works (which might be why Jet looks a heck of a lot like Mugen from Samurai Champloo) and the show has a pretty well constructed fantasy setting as it slowly fleshes out its world. Though the series is generally a staple of the battle shonen genre, it stands out even among some of the most iconic shows of that genre and in many ways it’s a much more fully realized story than as it’s 61 episode run allows it to have a tightly scripted story (though one particular plot thread is purposely left open to mess with fans).
The sequel series The Legend of Korra mostly continues in the footsteps of the original in terms of storytelling and characters while being a bit darker in some areas though it struggles a lot more (especially in Book Two) which is part of why I didn’t give it it’s own entry.
Synopsis: 1000 years ago, superstition and the sword ruled. It was an age of darknesss, a time of fear, it was the age of Gargoyles. Stone by day, warriors by night, the Gargoyles were eventually betrayed by the humans that they had sworn to protect and were frozen in time by a magic spell for 1000 years. Now in Manhatten, the spell is broken and the Gargoyles as brought back to life as they adjust to the modern era and become its new protectors.
Why it’s essential : I know what you’re all thinking: “Something in front of Avatar? You must be out of your mind!” but please hear me out. While Avatar the Last Airbender is artistically closer to what anime fans want, Gargoyles is closer in terms of writing as it leans towards somewhat darker storylines. Though technically a kids’ show (and one made by Disney no less) the show carries itself with a level of sophistication that leans it more towards an older audience as it delivers on great character arcs, solid continuity and a surprising amount of violence given who it was made by all while generally straying from getting too dark for it’s own good and remembering who its target audience is. The show also borrows a lot from Shakespear as it uses some of his characters and themes to drive its storylines and though it drags a little in the later half of the second season it stays strong throughout everything. Gargoyles’s adult appeal is what has allowed it to remain legendary even today and it has enough fantasy element and continuity to keep anime fans well entertained throughout.
And here’s the list. Some of these are obvious but their significance is hard to ignore. Honorable mentions go to Sym Bionic Titan and Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go (both of which were pretty heavily anime influenced but ended on too large of a cliffhanger) as well as Adventure Time (which does have some of the necessary elements but it’s weirdness can make for a difficult barrier to entry). There’s a lot more in common between western and japanese animation than some fans want to admit as some of these shows prove and while the individual strengths of both sides are good, it’s always great to get things with crossover appeal between fandoms so while these shows are some of the most prominent examples, hopefully they won’t be the last.