Anime fans have an embarrassment of riches to enjoy for the foreseeable future, with the likes of Chainsaw Man and Mob Psycho 100 season 3 still left to close out 2022, but there’s an impressive backlog of original TV series to enjoy.
It’s fairly common to see most of the biggest fan-favorite TV anime have manga as its source material, but some of the best shows to grace the medium were strokes of creative originality, and they span decades of the genre’s history. Cowboy Bebop is surely among the first to come to mind for veteran fans, but other, more relatively recent ones like Gurren Lagann made their mark in the industry as one of the greatest TV anime originals.
10/10 Great Pretender
Wit Studio is predominantly known for adapting the first three seasons of Attack on Titan and the first season of Vinland Saga, but the animation team tackled several interesting smaller projects. One of which was the Netflix original anime Great Pretender, where Wit put up another showcase of their skill in animation, color, and overall art direction.
Every frame looks like a vibrant digital painting, and the diverse cast of characters teaming up for a colorful series of heist adventures make Great Pretender a thoroughly engaging watch. Each arc is organized by case, with the storylines tastefully fleshing out each member of the crew to give them depth.
9/10 Cowboy Bebop
Surprising almost no one who explored the anime genre at length, Shinichirō Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop was widely acclaimed as one of the best anime in general — regardless of source material, lack thereof, or medium. It’s a landmark series for the genre and an exceptional cocktail of science fiction, western, crime noir, and acid jazz-inspired atmosphere.
Following bounty hunters Spike, Jet, Faye, Ed, and their dog Ein, Cowboy Bebop takes place in a sci-fi dystopian future where humanity colonized space after their negligence and corporate greed rendered Earth a near-inhospitable wasteland. The series is mostly structured in an anthology format punctuated by an overarching narrative, with each character serving as an exploration of themes of the human condition and coping with loneliness.
8/10 Gurren Lagann
Those who have preconceived notions of the mecha genre would do best to forget them when watching Gurren Lagann. Animation studio Gainax’s work is full of visual spectacle, and that includes the mecha action, but that’s a vehicle for the larger-than-life story at play. Young Simon and his friend Kamina live in a grueling underground village as the Spiral King rules the world aboveground.
The story’s scope and the world expand exponentially from there and along with it grows into one of the most emotionally investing anime originals. What seems like mere giant robots punching each other evolves into an inspiring tale of the human spirit and a triumph of an anime TV series.
7/10 Samurai Champloo
Samurai Champloo is another must-watch for fans coming off of Cowboy Bebop, and that’s not just because it’s another product of Shinichirō Watanabe’s talents. It takes place in a radically different setting, but the thematic nuance and sense of style carry over while simultaneously standing on its own merits.
The unlikely pairing of ronin Jin and Mugen form a trio with former teahouse waitress Fuu as they help her find the “samurai who smells of sunflowers.” Champloo has a similarly episodic narrative structure, with the trio of main characters fleshing out themes of carving out one’s identity and the acceptance of death.
6/10 Neon Genesis Evangelion
Neon Genesis Evangelion is another bonafide classic from the ’90s, as well as one of the most somber anime out there. Similar to Gurren Lagann, Neon Genesis Evangelion had thrilling robotic action but sold itself largely on being a deconstruction of the mecha anime genre. However, the latter takes a far darker and more psychological angle to its premise.
Protagonist Shinji Ikari and other teenagers are recruited into the mysterious organization Nerv, where they’re trained to pilot the titular Evangelions against the alien species called Angels. Conspiracies and revelations unravel, with Evangelion providing abstract commentary on the horrors of war and the spectrum of mental illness.
Even though Hajime no Ippo understandably received the most praise as one of the best sports and boxing anime, the newer Megalobox is a worthy modern contender. It takes an interesting futuristic and sci-fi twist on sports and boxing specifically, following the journey of Joe as goes from fighting rigged underground boxing matches to becoming a dark horse entry in Megalonia — the world’s greatest megaloboxing tournament.
Megalobox is a refreshingly grounded and gritty sports story that’s as inspiring in its character-driven storytelling as it is thrilling to watch the crunching sci-fi boxing fights.
4/10 Kill La Kill
Studio Trigger has just received a renewed round of praise with the emphatic success of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, but Kill la Kill still stands proudly as one of the studio’s most iconic anime. The series is unapologetic in how “shounen” it is, and that works to the series’ advantage since most of its plaudits went to its high-octane nature.
Kill la Kill sees the schoolgirl protagonist Ryuko Matoi go on a revenge quest to find her father’s killer, but she clashes with the student council president and her mother — the head of a fashion empire. The characters gain colorful powers through their clothes, with over-the-top action following it. This is an example of an anime that makes otherwise played-out genre tropes work through its bombast.
3/10 Code Geass: Lelouch Of The Rebellion
Code Geass is one of the more popular modern anime originals, telling a story of fantasy, sci-fi, and alternate history. The series revolves around the titular Prince Lelouch who’s given the Power of Kings, and with it, forms a team of allies to fight back against the imperialistic Holy Britannian Empire.
Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion has been well-received for its appeals to such broad demographics of the anime fandom, telling a charmingly grandiose and melodramatic story of freedom fighters complemented by stylized action. Likewise, it interestingly touches on topics of economic oppression and ideological extremism.
2/10 91 Days
Though perhaps not the most popular choice of top anime originals, 91 Days is an underrated and excellent choice for fans of crime dramas and moody noir. Set against the backdrop of 1930s America during the Prohibition era, young Angelo Lagusa sees his family murdered in an Italian Mafia dispute and grows up with a bloody vendetta against the powerful Zanetti Family.
91 Days is gloomily stylish and a riveting saga for those who enjoy period pieces as well. It isn’t a superficial revenge story either, though, as the series is genuinely compelling thanks to its morally ambiguous and troubled cast of characters.
1/10 Darker Than Black
Darker than Black tells a modern-day story mixed with sci-fi, mystery, and supernatural elements. The premise centers on a mysterious supernatural anomaly dubbed the “Heaven’s Gate,” which is spotted in South America, and a “Hell’s Gate” subsequently opening in Tokyo.
Hell’s Gate severely alters the sky and decimates the land below, which leads to a team known as Contractors with special abilities hired to investigate these phenomena. In addition to the consistently intriguing mystery at the core of the story, Darker than Black received a strong critical reception for veteran studio Bones’ stylish character designs and slick animation, as well as the cast’s distinctive personalities.