If you don’t yet know how great Japanese animation is, you just haven’t found the right show. Now’s your chance
very weekday for the past few weeks, Guardian Australia writers have been recommending hidden gems of streaming that they’re turning to in these chaotic times – but for some reason, almost all of them have been about live action shows featuring real people. Weird. There is another way.
I won’t bother with an impassioned defence of Japanese animation: people who don’t yet know that it’s good just haven’t found the right show for them. Instead, I’m just going to prattle off a list that I’ve found myself watching in lockdown – not necessarily the best shows of all time, but the ones that remain eminently watchable.
Netflix began streaming almost every movie from the world-renowned Studio Ghibli in most territories from February, and it’s hard to go wrong with any of their thoughtful, considered films that mix the magical and the mundane. There are the international award-winners such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke; there are the early masterpieces such as Laputa, Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbour Totoro and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind; there are even the quieter, oft-overlooked movies such as Only Yesterday, Porco Rosso and Whisper of the Heart. The only movie in Ghibli’s oeuvre I would not recommend is Tales from Earthsea, which is a terrible adaptation of a wonderful book.
See also: Your Name (Netflix) by Makoto Shinkai and Wolf Children (AnimeLab) by Mamoru Hosoda are modern contemporaries which also explore the fantastical and the familiar in stunning theatrical quality.
Teasing Master Takagi-san
This breezy, gentle series from Shin-Ei Animation, about an overly competitive high school student and his forever two-steps-ahead “rival”, masquerades as a gag comedy but turns out to be something a bit sweeter. Though I started watching mainly to practice my nascent Japanese, the gradual turn towards a slow-burn romance between high schoolers kept me compelled even as I was fumbling for my dictionary. Note that the first 2018 season is only available on Crunchyroll, while Netflix has the more recent 2019 season.
See also: The retro video game-focused Hi Score Girl (Netflix) and fast-paced absurdist comedy Kaguya-sama Love Is War (Crunchyroll, AnimeLab) are also great watches if you’re in the mood for some light-hearted romance.
This wildly popular action series about a kid ninja and the various wars he gets into has been running since 2002 and was a staple of my schooldays, but I fell off watching thanks to its repetitive and often bloated nature. Catching up on it now – with the aid of episode guides, liberal skipping of “filler” episodes, and the encyclopaedic knowledge of my more dedicated significant other – is like a more convenient return to those halcyon days, when my friends and I practiced secret ninja hand signs and tried to run up trees. Sure, it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure, but finding out what the characters I was invested in almost two full decades ago have got up to while I was gone is its own strange little delight.
See also: My Hero Academia and Demon Slayer (Crunchyroll/Animelab) are more recent spins on the adolescent-aimed action genre, with far better pacing and animation work.
Though it boasts a fairly standard Tron-style “trapped in a video game” premise, Log Horizon is less interested in escapist fantasy violence or die-in-the-game-you-die-in-real-life horror than it is in questions of social dynamics and world-building. Not everybody appreciates a series where entire episodes can be taken up by dramatic discussions of jurisprudence, enforcement, inequality, societal norms and high-stakes asset negotiation, but the first season’s exploration of such weighty issues – dressed in the familiar clothing of late 00s online games like Runescape and World of Warcraft – is a delight, at least for me.
Director Masaaki Yuasa’s latest series about a high-school animation club is bursting at the seams with an incredible love for the medium. Though largely plotless in the dramatic sense, the characters’ (and the creators’) eagerness to share their knowledge and demonstrate the trials and tribulations of making an animated work sing is enthralling – especially as their imagination takes over otherwise normal scenarios and drops them into moving storyboards and concept art to illustrate the fantastic worlds they yearn to create.
See also: Shirobako (Crunchyroll) is a more realistic (though still idealistic) look at the everyday lives of young people in their first jobs making expressive art as part of a creative industry. Highly recommended.
Avatar: the Last Airbender
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OK, so it’s not strictly speaking a Japanese anime, but it does rule and it is animated, so whatever. Forget the atrocious M. Night Shyamalan movie and check out the original animation’s Asian-inspired fantasy world, where martial arts and elemental wizardry combine. What starts as a fairly kiddy, cliche-ridden affair – the chosen one and friends go on a journey to save the world – quickly reveals itself as a densely plotted, consistent, evolving show, fully prepared to tackle emotionally heavy topics while keeping much-needed moments of levity in-between the explosive action.
See also: The sequel, the Legend of Korra, is, alas, not streaming in full in Australia. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (Netflix, Animelab) is a worthy comparison; a world-travelling adventure with tragedy and action in equal measure.
• Crunchyroll and Animelab are anime streaming services available in Australia. Both are free to watch, but higher quality ad-free streams and early-release anime are available under their subscription plans, which cost AU$7.99 a month.
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