There are a lot of anime out there! Literally thousands, with over a hundred more being released every year. There are new hits every season, and old favorites that have slowly lost their topical sheen. Given all those shows, it can be understandably hard to pick what to watch next – anime, like every other medium, is full of stuff that will disappoint you, and everyone’s tastes are different.
My own tastes in particular are a little weird – I like arthouse stuff and intimate character studies and occasional cathartic message-focused shows. But fortunately, there is indeed such a thing as “normal” taste in anime, or at least the most common preferences shared by fans outside of Japan. And today, I’m hoping to help that audience – or more specifically, hopefully, You.
You like action-adventure shows, most likely – you were possibly dragged into anime through one of the big shounen hits (Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, etc), or maybe through one of the more recent action blockbusters (Attack on Titan, One Punch Man). There’s also a fair chance you’ve seen some anime on Toonami or Adult Swim, be it Cowboy Bebop or Kill la Kill. Regardless of your entry point, anime offers something many other mediums don’t – consistently thrilling adventures in fantastical settings, full of engaging characters and terrific visual wonders. And you want more of that!
Whatever your starting point, I’m fairly sure there’s at least a few shows on this list you’ll really like. All of these shows are widely loved, and all of them fall somewhere along that thriller-adventure-action spectrum. There is a lot to dig into here – and if you’re wondering where to watch them, nearly all of these shows are available streaming legally and often for free (check out because.moe to find where something might be streaming).
Incidentally, I won’t be ranking these shows from best to worst – that’s kind of silly in my mind, since the goal is more to find something you’ll enjoy than to argue over largely incomparable stories. Instead, I’ll be grouping them by categories, to hopefully help you find the sort of show you’ll enjoy best – along with offering explanations of what specifically makes each show unique, and even some secondary recommendations if that seems like exactly what you’re looking for. You can start off by either hanging around the subgenre you started with, or branching out to some other segment of this anime feast. And we’ll start off right at the beginning, with the shows that brought by far the most foreign fans into this big anime tent:
The Long-Running Epics
Naruto is the show everyone’s heard of, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching. Naruto is the story of an orphan ninja-to-be who’s scorned by his village for an unwanted curse, but who will eventually rise to be a great hero. The appeal of Naruto in large part comes down to the broad cast and their many powers – if you want to see characters cleverly apply tactics like doubling techniques or control of sand to battle, Naruto is full of engaging fights that bring those hypothetical clashes to life. The show eventually gets bogged down by filler and slower arcs, but that’s pretty normal for shounen (Japanese for “boy,” and here used to refer to the demographic-defined “shounen manga”) – if you want to see what an archetypal shounen is like, this is a very safe place to start. And if the show ends up feeling too slow for you, an easy fix is to switch to the manga – something that applies to basically every show in this category.
While Naruto’s conceit is a ninja world, One Piece envisions a world of pirates crossing swords on the high seas. Its protagonist Luffy aspires to be the Pirate King, and is gifted with the ability to stretch his body like rubber, making for all sorts of powerful, goofy attacks. One Piece has an initially lighter tone than Naruto (it feels almost like a carnival), but is bolstered by an extremely strong main cast, and eventually builds into incredibly powerful major arcs. One Piece’s mixture of cartoonish visual styling and epic storytelling makes it little surprise that this is the most popular shounen in Japan.
For one more long-term fantasy shounen with a focus on community, try out Fairy Tail.
Bleach’s star has somewhat faded in recent years, as the manga’s slow walk towards its conclusion has left a lot of fans hanging. But the show’s early material still presents a compelling adventure, where hero Ichigo must work to send tormented souls to the afterlife. Assisted by former soul reaper Rukia, Ichigo fights to exorcise the demons haunting the people he loves – but when Rukia’s brother comes to collect her, he’ll have to fight through all the champions of the Soul Society to bring her back. The show gets a little wibbly-wobbly after that, but it still offers a fine soul reaper-focused accompaniment to Naruto’s ninjas and One Piece’s pirates.
For a somewhat goofier shounen that hews closer to the “gods of death” premise, try out Soul Eater.
It’d be a little odd to start with a segment on major shounens and not include the grandfather of the modern style, Dragonball Z. Dragonball Z is certainly a little more long in the tooth than most of these shows, but if you go with the more recent Kai version, it still features some of the most iconic battles of anime history. From going Super Saiyan to beam spam to the wholesale destruction of planets, Dragonball Z offers plenty of classic moments and epic battles for any fans of huge explosions.
For a brief condensation of Dragonball Z’s style, try out One Punch Man.
And finally, we’ve got my personal favorite of the long shounens. Hunter x Hunter is nearly unique in its ability to mess with the battle show formula – its stars are quickly thrust into conflicts that require their wits and creativity just as much as raw power, and it eventually spills over into genres like crime thriller and war drama on top of its regular action scenes. Like Naruto, it’s also full of very unique powers, but its clever application of those powers goes beyond anything Naruto attempts. Hunter x Hunter has something for everyone to enjoy.
For more by HxH’s author, try out Yuu Yuu Hakusho.
The Hot-Blooded Fist Pumpers
Gurren Lagann is about a boy named Simon, a digger trapped in an underground home. Simon’s friend Kamina dreams of reaching the surface – and when a giant beastman crashes through the ceiling of their home, he gets his wish in the strangest way possible. Gurren Lagann is rife with crazy battles and wild animation, always trying to one-up itself, always astonishing with new visual spectacles and special attacks. It’s the kind of show where the protagonist will suddenly decide two robots should combine, and so he’ll slam one robot into the shoulders of another one. It’s a wild ride.
JoJo is the essence of hot blood – detailing the long legacy of the Joestar family across many generations, it’s the place to be if you want to watch vampires with laser eyes summon zombies named after Led Zeppelin, or see two men with crazy spirit avatars fight against superpowered rats. The recent anime lifts JoJo’s inherently thrilling material with beautiful visual execution, making for an often campy but always engaging adventure. Whether JoJo’s heroes are scouring Egypt for undying vampires or hunting down serial killers in suburban Japan, it’s sure to impress with some new fight even crazier than the last.
Kill la Kill is essentially the spiritual successor to Gurren Lagann, featuring the same director (the talented Hiroyuki Imaishi) and writer and standing as the flagship show for his new studio TRIGGER. Kill la Kill is Imaishi all over – expect frantic action, lots of yelling, and more than a little fanservice. Starring Ryuuko Matoi, a girl determined to find out who killed her dad and maybe also topple a fascist school regime in the process, it matches consistent duels with surprisingly strong comedy, making for an entertaining (if uneven) ride.
If you’d like to take a chance on the works that inspired Kill la Kill, you could try Mazinger Z. Or if you’d like the original “girl takes on her oppressive school” epic, there’s always Revolutionary Girl Utena.
The High-Octane Thrillers
Code Geass is another one of those shows with something for everyone – superpowered mind games, giant robot battles, even a dash of romance. It stars Lelouch Lamperouge, a disgraced member of Britannian royalty now seething in Area 11, the Britannian name for what was once Japan. Lelouch is determined to get revenge on Britannia, and his chance comes when he’s gifted with the mysterious Geass power, which allows him to issue exactly one undeniable command to anyone he wishes. Using this power, Lelouch will stage a bloody revolution, forming a guerrilla group and ultimately threatening Britannia itself.
Like Code Geass, Death Note also starts with a boy with one impossible power. Light Yagami is just an ordinary high schooler until he stumbles across the Death Note, which gives him the power to kill anyone whose name he writes in its pages. Light quickly uses this power to begin establishing a new world order, where all criminals he deems beyond saving are swiftly murdered – until his actions catch the attention of master sleuth L, and a game of cat and mouse between Light Yagami and the forces of the Japanese police begins. Death Note is all chess games and melodrama, a classic page-turner with a strong and thoroughly explored hook.
Monster stars ace doctor Kenzo Tenma, a man whose personal integrity demands he save a poor boy who arrived at his hospital first at the expense of an important politician. But while Tenma’s choice certainly doesn’t help his career, he doesn’t begin to appreciate its full consequences until years later, when a series of mysterious killings lead back to the faceless boy he once saved. Monster is a gripping historical thriller that tethers the sins of the past into a manhunt crossing the whole of Europe, as Tenma must fight to destroy the demon he has created. Originally written by master mangaka Naoki Urusawa, it’s a subdued thriller that really deserves a broader audience.
For another thoughtful take on the modern thriller, check out Paranoia Agent.
The Stylish Capers
Cowboy Bebop has a large and well-earned reputation among anime fans. Starring a ragtag crew of bounty hunters in a wild west-styled future, its “heroes” roam from planet to planet, hoping for big rewards or at least something to eat. Mixing stellar direction with great episodic vignettes and a wonderfully jazzy soundtrack, it’s equal parts revenge drama, action-adventure spectacle, and poignant character story. Whether its heroes are hunting down a rogue data dog or being hunted themselves by a cyber-enhanced killing machine, it’s always ready to impress with a new trick.
For a solid show with a very similar premise, you could try Outlaw Star, or the scifi/gunslinger combo Trigun. Or if the overall style is what you liked, try out the other works of director Shinichiro Watanabe!
Baccano! is about as close as anime has come to a Guy Ritchie movie. Packed with a wide variety of criminal hooligans, flying gleefully through different time periods, and seasoned with a dash of ultraviolence, it centers on a prohibition-era train ride shared by an unlikely cast. Some of this train’s passengers are mafia thugs; others are vigilantes even further from the law. Some of them are actually immortal – others see this as a benefit, as it just means they can be murdered multiple times. Zooming backwards and forwards through time, Baccano! details the stories of all these unsavory passengers, as they fight to survive all the way to New York and beyond.
Conceived and directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, the same man behind Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo envisions a totally different world – a world of the distant past, where samurais live in strange harmony with beat boxers and graffiti artists. In contrast to Bebop’s “scifi plus western plus jazz,” Champloo mixes samurai dramas with hip-hop style, resulting in one more set of uniquely stylish adventure vignettes. It is its own very unique kind of cool.
When two souls die at the same time, they are sent to a special limbo to decide their fate – Decim’s bar, where parlor games like bowling or darts will decide their ultimate fate. Death Parade takes that simple premise and runs with it, offering a regularly morbid, sometimes funny, and always engaging series of last dances for a rotating set of unfortunate souls. The first series by Yuzuru Tachikawa (now director of the excellent Mob Psycho 100), it’s a powerful debut that offers a wide variety of exciting episodic dramas.
If you enjoyed this one, definitely check out the director’s followup, Mob Psycho 100.
Rock Okajima is just a mundane, kowtowing salaryman, until his boat is held up by pirates somewhere in the south China sea. Realizing his company doesn’t care if he lives or dies, Rock decides to stick with the pirates, and so becomes the newest member of the Lagoon company. Black Lagoon is a bloody and foul-mouthed crime spectacle, one that mixes the fatigued daily life of a career criminal with battles against neonazis and shotgun-toting maids. It’s a stylish slice of burnt-out ultraviolence.
The Scifi Standouts
Following up on Mamoru Oshii’s landmark film, Stand Alone Complex depicts a future society not that far from our own, where the cybernetic law enforcement group Section 9 must fight to preserve order in a world where identity itself is a fluid and downloadable concept. It’s a thrilling and cerebral thriller that offers plenty to dig into, taking place in a world that offers constant parallels to our own fraught security state.
Stein’s;Gate starts slow, as self-styled mad scientist Okabe fiddles along with his college friends in the hopes of making a legitimate time machine. But when Okabe’s experiments ultimately result in a workable device, his life is thrown into a maelstrom of catastrophe, as sinister forces seek to steal the miracle he has created. Stein’s;Gate builds up a compelling world of likable characters only to break it all down, as Okabe is forced to use his device to try and seek the one future that might save his friends. It’s funny and thrilling and even lifted by a great romance, a very satisfying time travel package.
Written by the talented Gen Urobuchi (Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero), Psycho-Pass is another futuristic crime procedural, though this one is a true dystopia. In the world of Psycho-Pass, our mental and emotional stability is constantly monitored, and any “latent criminals” who fall into the unstable extremes are immediately quarantined. New detective Akane Tsunemori will attempt to deliver justice in this world, a world where overall peace of mind demands the destruction of our most vibrant selves.
You could easily jump from Psycho-Pass back to its spiritual predecessor, Stand Alone Complex. For another stylish modern thriller with a superpowered twist, try Darker than Black. Or you could jump into more of Urobuchi’s works, like the underrated Gargantia.
Saki and her friends grow up in a village where psychic powers are ordinary – in fact, if you don’t develop powers, you swiftly find yourself without a place in this world. As Saki comes to know more about the world around her, she’ll discover the countless dark secrets of her society, and the violence swelling all around. Combining a thrilling dystopian premise with rich storytelling and some beautiful visuals, Shinsekai yori stands as one of the most compelling and shocking dramas of recent years.
The Fantastical Adventures
Eureka Seven is a classic, epic coming-of-age story, spiced by giant robots and a very unique world flavor. Protagonist Renton quickly finds himself joining with a band of famous outlaws who actually use their robots to surf on the wind, seeking freedom with the military close on their heels. It’s one of the sturdiest recent epics out there!
Ripped from her modern-day home, Hitomi finds herself in a world where swords clash in the footsteps of giant war machines, robots driven by hulking pulleys and more than a little magic. Escaflowne marries a beautiful visual aesthetic to a captivating fantasy world, telling a rambling but ultimately satisfying story of love, duty, and the pursuit of a better world. From its unique technology to its distinctive heroine, Escaflowne is a very rich package.
A more manga-loyal remake of the original anime, Brotherhood envisions a world where alchemy is the seed of great power, and potentially even the path to mastering life and death. Brothers Edward and Alphonse attempt to revive their mother through alchemy, and are punished for it through the loss of their bodies – now, their quest to regain what they’ve lost will be tangled into a conspiracy that threatens the future of their entire nation. Brotherhood mixes propulsive shounen storytelling with standout fight animation and a broad cast, creating a solid page-turner of a production.
The Action Blockbusters
Attack on Titan doesn’t hold anything back. Envisioning a world where humans live sheltered within giant walls, at the mercy of the massive titans outside, it’s essentially a supersized zombie apocalypse. There’s an inherent thrill in seeing Titan’s heroes spin through the sky on their gas-powered maneuvering gear, taking blades to Titans or being caught and messily devoured. Attack on Titan is a siege on all of humanity, as those who survive struggle to fight back against the hideous monsters that surround them.
If you enjoy Titan’s style, definitely check out its director Tetsuro Araki’s other works, which include Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress and Death Note.
The premise of One Punch Man is a very silly one – Saitama is a superhero who has trained so hard that he can destroy any opponent in one punch, and thus finds his days fighting supervillains just as boring as any other workaday salaryman. But One Punch Man’s execution elevates that single joke into an absurd visual spectacle, with every episode offering climactic battles between a swiftly growing cast of superpowered villains and heroes. It’s not the richest of shows, but it certainly, uh, packs a punch.
For a more thoughtful take on the original creator’s other manga, try out Mob Psycho 100. For a straight shounen take on superheroes, check out My Hero Academia. Or you could return to the kinds of shows this one is riffing on with Dragonball Z.
Fate/Zero is actually the prologue to the Fate/stay night visual novel, but fortunately, you don’t really need any context to appreciate this one. It depicts the brutal drama of the Grail War, where seven mages and their servants (manifestations of great heroes from all of history) fight to claim the grail and its wish-granting power. Featuring a gritty aesthetic, a wide ensemble cast, and constant violent twists, it’s an easy drama to get lost in.
Standing as the most popular of the recent “trapped in an MMO” anime, Sword Art Online presents a world where a new console allow gamers to transport their entire consciousness into a game. Unfortunately, as the creator of that console swiftly announces, anyone who actually tries that console is trapped, unable to escape their fantasy world until they reach its summit or die trying. And so a great race begins, as players fight to escape their beautiful, virtual prison.
And You Know What, Let’s Branch Those Genres Out
I know I said this would all be action/adventure/etc, but it feels a little silly to constrain this list to such a small portion of what anime can do. Here are some scattered highlights from across the anime universe!
Though Evangelion could technically fit into categories like action or scifi, it’s ultimately more of a psychological drama than anything else. Its protagonist Shinji is thrown into battle by a father who doesn’t seem to care whether he lives or dies, and must find a reason to live in between battles with horrific creatures known as Angels. Evangelion changed the face of anime, and is a must-see for any longtime fan.
Toradora is one of the most thoroughly likable romantic comedies out there. Featuring a well-developed and very endearing cast, it catalogs the trials of Ryuuji, his hot-headed neighbor Taiga, and their friends as they attempt to navigate the trials of high school, romance, and everything else. From its high dramatic peaks to its strong art design and thoughtful conversations, Toradora is the whole romantic drama package.
For a somewhat more biting take on the classic romcom premise, try out Oregairu. For a very beautiful and thoughtfully written one, check out Hyouka. For a classy period drama version, check out Kids on the Slope.
Even if you’re generally put off by shows about cute girls, Girls und Panzer is a thrilling and funny ride all the way through. By actually taking its “riding tanks as a sport” premise seriously, it’s able to set up regularly exciting matches full of great tactical interplay and last-minute twists. Girls und Panzer demonstrates the diverse merits of both sports shows and shows with a slice of life twist.
If you enjoyed Girls und Panzer’s energy and sense of fun, check out its director’s later Shirobako. For a deeper dive into tactical sports drama, try Hajime no Ippo. And if friends having fun is what strikes you, you could try the slice of life hit K-On!
Bakemonogatari is ultimately something you just have to try. Set up as a traditional harem, its focus on wacky antics and romance ultimately gives way to a series of stories about poignant personal issues, where our internal demons are brought to life as actual apparitions the heroes must fight. Mixing a wild visual style with a constantly rambling inner voice, it’s a unique and strangely emotional show.
For more by Bakemonogatari’s singular writer, check out the unrelated Katanagatari.
Ginko is the titular mushishi, a man who travels from village to village in a distant, rural time, solving problems related to the mushi. The mushi are tiny spirits that live all around us, helping or hurting and generally living out their lives as a strange piece of the natural order. Mushishi offers dozens of small fantasy stories, where the mushi’s relationship with humanity results in beauty or horror or something else entirely. It’s a gorgeous and captivating peek into a compelling fantasy world.
And that’s all I’ve got! If you enjoyed some of this last group, I’d welcome you to check out my own personal favorites – otherwise, sites like myanimelist should help you branch out even further from your first picks. What I’ve covered here only really scratches the surface of what anime can offer, and you never know what new show or genre you might enjoy. I hope you find many more shows to love!
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