Top 5

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Year: 2005

Genre: Adventure, Martial Arts, Kids

Audience: Everyone

Anime Experience: Beginner

Summary: Aang, the last remaining Airbender, has been chosen to be the next Avatar, who is charged with keeping balance, order and peace in the world.  Aang must travel the world with his friends Katara and Sokka and train until he is strong enough to stop the Fire Nation from conquering the entire world.

Show Notes: There is only one Avatar at a given time in the world, and the only person able to bend more than 1 of the 4 elements: Water, Earth, Fire and Air.  The show is split into 3 seasons, or “books,” that follow Aang’s journey to learn Waterbending (Book 1), Earthbending (Book 2) and finally Firebending (Book 3).  Although the story starts out more lighthearted, the subject matter, intensity and weight of the story steadily increases with each book. Each book has a main antagonist, Zuko (Prince of the Fire Nation) for Book 1, Azula (Princess of the Fire Nation) for Book 2 and finally Ozai (Lord of the Fire Nation) for Book 3.  While the purpose, powers and history of the Avatar are revealed throughout the series, it isn’t until the sequel story, Avatar: The Legend of Korra, that we learn the origins of the Avatar.

Parental Warning: Because Avatar: The Last Airbender was created by Nickelodeon, it’s very kid friendly and does not require a lot of parental warnings.  Only 2 things need mention. Koh the Face Stealer (Ep. 20 & 59) is a creepy bug-like creature that threatens to steal the Avatar’s face.  Second is Bloodbending (EP. 48 & 56), which is a form of Waterbending where you can control a person’s body. While only used by two people, it is known as the darkest bending ability and can be a little disturbing.

SparkNotes: N/A – 61 Episodes

Comments: In terms of a really well thought-out story that is equal parts action, funny and emotional, there are few shows that do it better than Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Additionally, though the show is heavily influenced by Japanese animation, it isn’t “anime” since it was created in America.  This makes it a great way to be introduced to the world of anime since it seamlessly mixes western and anime elements.

Dragonball Z (DBZ)

Year: 1989

Genre: Super Power, Action, Martial Arts

Audience: Teen

Anime Experience: Beginner

Summary: A sequel that takes place 5 years after the events in Dragonball, the story follows Goku and his son Gohan after they find out that Goku is actually a member of a warrior-alien race called Saiyans.  Together with their allies, Goku and Gohan must train and battle various threats to the Earth’s safety.  

Show Notes: Dragonball Z is broken down into 3 sagas in which each story builds to a fight with a main antagonist: Frieza (107 episodes), Cell (87 episodes) and Buu (97 episodes).  Compared to Dragonball, DBZ focuses more on super powers, energy levels and massive fights; it was one of the first shows that brought Anime world-wide popularity, especially in America.   The main issue when watching this show in English Dub is the fact that there are 3-4 variations of each episode, in which the dialogue, voices and music will differ.  Episodes with the original Japanese music are more quirky and light-hearted.  My personal preference is the english with the Bruce Faulconer music, since it has more grit and intensity.

Parental Warning: Though fighting is a central aspect to this show, it is not very gory, while still having blood and bruises; it is often heavily edited in English dub versions.  Characters do end up being killed by powerful energy beams (meaning not a lot of blood).  The only scary thing of note is the introduction of one of the main antagonists, Cell (Ep 139-149/Eng Dub 124-134). Cell gets stronger by using the needle at the end of his tail to suck up humans and their energy.  While this process does not show any blood, it is still scary and pretty graphic.  The best way to describe what it looks like would be that the people basically wilt/melt/shrink until nothing remains but their clothes; the ominous music makes it worse.

SparkNotes: Yes – 291 Episodes – Condensed to 100 episodes

Comments: While the critique that the DBZ power-up scenes and fights were “lengthy” is true, to a degree, it is also part of the build-up in Anime you see a lot and should just be embraced as part of the medium.  The awesome battles, music and nostalgia will, for many, keep this a classic for years to come.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (FMAB)

Year: 2009

Genre: Super Power, Horror, Mystery

Audience: Young Adult

Anime Experience: Intermediate

Summary: After the bodies of the Elric brothers were decimated in a failed Alchemy transmutation, they travel around their home country of Amestris searching for a way to restore their bodies back to normal.  Their search however reveals that the world around them is a much darker place than they realize.

Show Notes: There are actually two shows calledFullmetal Alchemist,” the 2nd show adding “Brotherhood” at the end as a differentiation.  The original show was released part way through the original storyline of the manga, and thus both shows have very similar elements like characters and events.  Which show is better is still debated; however, working with the source material, “Brotherhood” has a more complex plot that feels more cohesive and rewarding after seeing it through to the end.

Parental Warning: While the show is filled with lots of comedy, this doesn’t deter it from getting graphic with its action.  Many of the fights can become gritty and ugly, more in the sense of realistic combat and its consequences (if you can argue that in a fantasy show).  It’s that realism that makes this show not suitable to younger kids, and not just with the fight scenes.  Themes such as sacrifice, war and corruption are among the many darker subjects prevalent in the show.  With all that intensity, there isn’t enough space to write it all.  Here is a snippet of some of the things to be wary of: the transmutation of Trisha Elric (Ep. 2), tragedy of Nina Tucker (Ep. 4), the truth behind the Philosopher’s Stone (Ep. 7), the soldier mannequins (Ep. 44, 50-55), and basically every scene with the Homunculus can turn dark fast

SparkNotes: N/A – 64 episodes

Comments: It’s hard to argue that any other show balances plot, characters, world building, comedy, action. suspense, mystery and more as effectively as FMAB.  Unlike many Anime adaptations of manga, the story actually concludes with the Anime leaving you both satisfied and wanting more.  For this Anime, I always tell people to watch it until at least episode 10; after that, you will be hooked for sure.

Mobile Suit Gundam Wing

Year: 1995

Genre: Mecha, Action, Space

Audience: Teen

Anime Experience: Beginner

Summary: After humans started expanding their population into space by building space colonies, tensions mounted and fighting began between the colonies and those still living on earth.  In response, 5 specialized mobile suits called Gundams are sent down to earth to fight for the colonies’ freedom.  

Show Notes: While sharing the name and concept as Mobile Suit Gundam and the Universal Century timeline, Gundam Wing is a stand-alone series.  The term “mobile suit” refers to giant machines that are typically 50-65 ft. tall and generally have a humanoid appearance; a human pilot sits in a cockpit that is usually located in the chest area who then operates the suit for various purposes (mostly for combat). The term “gundam” often refers to a mobile suit in a series that is much stronger and sturdier than the typical mobile suit.  There are usually only a few gundams in a series as opposed to mass-produced mobile suits.  Due to its success, Gundam Wing received a movie sequel titled Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz.

Parental Warning: Because most of the fighting is done while people are in mobile suits, you usually see the machine being destroyed and do not see a lot of blood and/or people dying on screen. That being said, there is a lot of fighting on the show and death is still prevalent.  As with many Gundam series, Gundam Wing tackles powerful themes like oppression, resistance and the purpose/method/consequences of fighting wars; however, it isn’t done in an obvious manner and can feel less intense than other shows.

SparkNotes: N/A – 49 Episodes

Comments: Though nostalgia is a big factor in this show being in my top 5, that isn’t to say this show is not good; it’s really well done.  What makes this show great, besides some really entertaining action sequences, is its ability to be appealing to a wide audience. The action appeals to younger audiences, while the political and often dark nature of the commentary is engaging to mature audiences. Again the intensity and more mature themes are not portrayed in an overtly brazen manner like other anime.

My Hero Academia

Year: 2016

Genre: Super Power, Action, Martial Arts

Audience: Everyone

Anime Experience: Intermediate

Summary: In a world where 80% of the population is born with superpowers, called “Quirks,” Izuku Midoriya dreams of becoming a pro-hero until he finds out he is “quirkless.” Devastated, but determined, he has a chance encounter with the #1 hero and begins studying at a special high school for future heroes.  

Show Notes: Of the shows in the top 5, this is the only one that hasn’t concluded with either the manga or the anime.  Currently there are 4 seasons, with the manga much further along; all signs point to the anime to continue and keep up with the manga.  The show, like many anime, ebbs and flows between high paced action and slower plot development.  It isn’t as bad as other anime, but the length of each season can be attributed to both world development and the “slice of life” genre centering around the main students.

Parental Warning: My Hero Academia, like so many other anime, has a story that includes goofy and humorous scenes while simultaneously tackling mature themes and action; unfortunately, this makes it hard to easily fit into a specific intensity level.  Luckily, it isn’t over the top with its gore and with the exception of a few scenes, it becomes pretty obvious when the action will intensify.  This is a story (and more importantly a struggle) between good and evil, heroes and villains, life and death.  Heroes get badly injured and the bad guys are just that: bad.  Some of the villains’ “quirks” can be terrifying; most notably would be Tomura Shigaraki’s “Decay,” Stain’s “Bloodcurdle,” and Kai Chisaki’s “Overhaul.”

SparkNotes: N/A – 113+ Episodes

Comments: While the recent popularity of superhero movies has aided in the overall success/popularity of My Hero Academia, it is still a great story in and of itself.  The major fight scenes are both breathtaking and inspiring, especially when All Might fights. Midoriya’s journey to become a hero is incredible and he is an underdog who is fun to root for.  His high school class, 1-A, is fun to watch as they train to become future heroes, especially Midoriya’s rival Bakugo.  You will be saying “Plus Ultra” in no time!

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