Anime can be a difficult thing to get into if you haven’t been a fan since childhood. It’s an entire art form, and diving in can be as daunting as trying to watch your first professional wrestling match, or read your first book. And between the off-puttingly devoted fanbases, enormous backlogs of episodes (don’t worry, One Piece and its 900 episodes aren’t on this list), and pervasive stigma against watching animation as an adult here in the west, it’s not much of a surprise that many of us don’t turn to anime in our precious free time.
Television itself has undergone a lot of changes in the past decade, from the advent of streaming to the rise of “prestige” longform television and every “must-see” show having hour-long episode run times. But anime’s format has remained consistent – every show on this list is made up of digestible half-hour installments, which makes dipping your toes into any (or all) of these shows much less of a time commitment compared to figuring out whether you want to stick with Ozark after three hours. So if you’re a fan of any of the shows on this list, then you’ll likely enjoy the anime equivalent with which we’ve paired them.
We’ll try and keep these entries spoiler-lite and just focus on the similarities in both shows without plot specifics, but if you’re the type of viewer who loves total surprise, tread lightly.
10. Game Of Thrones and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
We’ll start with the most mainstream anime on the list. A lot of ink has already been spilled on the artistic achievements of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, the second anime adaptation of the Fullmetal Alchemist manga (the first, which came out alongside the manga, significantly diverged from its plot early on). However, every drop of that ink is well-earned, as Brotherhood’s sprawling narrative, memorable cast of diverse characters, deep lore, and unique magic system all stick sharp in the memories of anime viewers everywhere.
Game of Thrones, with its multiple warring families, sprawling narrative, and fully-realized fantasy world captured audience’s imaginations for almost a decade, and, in an instance of extreme synchronicity, also had to reach a point of narrative departure from its source material. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood matches the sprawl of imagination in George R.R. Martin’s novels, and by the fifth season, Brotherhood’s cast of characters is just as intricate and enormous as the various warriors of Westeros.
However, Brotherhood does differ from Game of Thrones in one crucial aspect: Brotherhood managed to create a satisfying ending. Maybe once the novels are finished, HBO can roll out Game Of Thrones: Brotherhood and right the wrongs of the past.
9. Westworld and Ergo Proxy
Like Westworld, 2006’s Ergo Proxy is about the relationship between machines and humanity, and how human empathy is easy to turn off once we decide the thing we’re interacting with doesn’t have feelings. Like Westworld, Ergo Proxy has an open predilection for philosophical musings and namedropping famous philosophers. And both shows also have a tricky habit of falling a little far into their own Big Ideas, occasionally leaving the viewer adrift in galaxy-brain thought explosions.
While the gimmick of Ergo Proxy, a private investigator chasing a string of previously harmless humanoid machines that have turned murderous, owes its premise much more obviously to Blade Runner and the works of Phillip K. Dick, the show quickly outgrows the cyberpunk trappings of its early chapters and takes multiple abrupt left turns into uncharted thematic territory over the course of its 23 episodes.
Regrettably, Ergo Proxy is sorely lacking in player piano covers of early 2000’s rock songs.
8. The Good Place and Anohana
Let’s talk about death.
NBC’s The Good Place, which premiered in 2016, is a profoundly philosophical show, tackling huge questions like What Does It Mean To Be “Good,” How Do We Define Soul Mates, What Is The Actual Value of a Human Life, and Why Is Florida…Like That? All of the human characters on the show begin after they’ve ended their mortal time on earth, and the humor and heart that unfolds over the show’s four seasons is a life-affirming story about quintessential goodness and the fleeting joy at the heart of being alive.
Anohana, full name Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day, premiering in 2011, is also about death, specifically the death of a childhood friend, and how we as human beings respond to trauma over the course of our entire life. The former childhood friend group of Anohana has dissolved after the death of a mutual friend, and the show’s primary plot is about getting the band back together and seeing how each character has coped, or failed to cope, in the years since their friend Menma’s death, concluding in one of the most tear-jerking anime stories this side of Grave of the Fireflies.
Both shows are equally funny and melancholy, and both shows are relentless in exploring the heaviest aspects of their premises even as both shows keep their worlds full of bright colors and lovable characters right until their respective ends.
7. This Is Us and March Comes In Like A Lion
This Is Us, the primetime tearjerker that premiered in 2016, is a story about modern American families in good times and bad, crossing back and forth across time to paint comprehensive pictures of domesticity in all its forms, pretty and ugly.
March Comes In Like A Lion is 1) about playing shogi, and 2) about processing grief and trauma through opening up to other people and the joy of being loved that comes after the mortifying ordeal of being known.
Both shows find joy and majesty in the domestic and mundane, and both know how to pull on the heartstrings with a maestro’s skill when they want to. Where This is Us can instill as common an object as a slow cooker with pathos, March Comes In Like A Lion makes flimsy shogi pieces feel like old friends and loved ones.
This Is Us frequently utilises flashbacks to juxtapose characters’ struggles across the years and let audiences dine on the sweet irony of seeing where characters have been and where they’re going, like watching a couple both fall in love in the past and renew their vows in the present. March Comes In Like A Lion doesn’t play with nonlinear structure as much, but what it does do is cast a wide net on its extremely focused premise. How many different philosophies can there really be in playing professional shogi? Definitely more than you think! And no two players have the same view of their passion or their life, leading to thematically rich exchanges on what it means to give your life to a cause, the value in losing, and the importance of recognizing one’s own worth.
While you might call each show melodramatic, they achieve their desired effect: shows without magic powers or special effects bombast, instead zeroing in on fallible people and the recognizable ways they behave in the worst and weirdest moments of everyday life.
6. The Twilight Zone and Paranoia Agent
Both Rod Serling’s original The Twilight Zone and Jordan Peele’s recent reimagining of the anthology show tell episodic stories about people suddenly and profoundly in circumstances beyond their own understanding, telling self-contained stories of hubris, fear, and other negative shades of human nature. It’s so ubiquitous that its title has taken on a cultural shorthand for a situation where one feels confused and alienated by their circumstances, a feeling captured in the best black-and-white installments of the original show and in every single episode of 2004’s Paranoia Agent, from visionary creator Satoshi Kon (Paprika, Perfect Blue).
Paranoia Agent does have a unified overall plot, unlike the Twilight Zone, chronicling the spontaneous appearance of Lil Slugger, a kid on roller skates with a crooked baseball bat, assaulting people seemingly at random and disappearing without a trace. Its episodic structure leans more towards the anthology structure of Serling’s work, as each episode follows a different person who may or may not have any obvious connection to what’s come before at all, with the only given being that at some point in the episode, Lil Slugger will appear in a manner that always manages to be unique and thematic to the episode in question.
Paranoia Agent is perhaps an example of what a multi-episode Twilight Zone could be, taking its deviously simple premise to its logical limits across thirteen masterful episodes. And the opening credits, with characters laughing, staring empty-eyed at the camera against increasingly ominous backgrounds, is the kind of visceral sight that never leaves one’s memory.
5. Community and Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!
Both 2009’s Community and 2020’s Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! are about groups of misfits in an academic setting banding together for a common goal and growing together as friends. But that’s not particularly uncommon in entertainment in and of itself.
Where Community really shone, and really began to catch fire, was with its special lavish genre pastiche episodes that transplanted its community college shenanigans to mafia movies about chicken fingers and paintball games that went from parodying Spaghetti Westerns to Star Wars. Community’s love for metafiction and the joy of pop culture in general became an increasingly intrinsic part of the show, as over the course of its six seasons the show slowly slid more and more into the viewpoint of its resident TV/film obsessive character Abed, and deconstructing/celebrating genre tropes became a core tenet of the show.
Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, about three young high-schoolers trying to become anime creators, also has a clear and overflowing love of their own medium, taking it a step further than Community’s genre fixation — imagine if Community had just been about a film club from the start. Eizouken’s three leads each love anime and the art of creating it for different reasons (backgrounds and worldbuilding, fluid character motions, and the business potential, respectively), and each episode does a wonderful job of communicating its ideas about what makes animation so impressive through both showing and telling, without ever feeling self-congratulatory or indulgent. And, like with Community, the characters of Eizouken are laugh-out-loud funny and instantly endearing.
For all the other nightmares 2020 has wrought, at least it also gave us a show that’s streets ahead.
4. Steven Universe and Land Of The Lustrous
Alien beings with gem stone names and feminine (by human standards) shapes defend the earth from extraterrestrial invaders. This is the premise for both Steven Universe and Land of Lustrous. Now as incredibly similar as these premises sound in these terms, the shows also cover similar themes of self-discovery, gender, body autonomy and heritage.
Whereas the titular Steven of Steven Universe is the half-human, half-gem savior of the universe, the protagonist of Land of Lustrous, the gem historian Phosphophylite, is actually too brittle to fight at all, at least at first. Both shows touch on the complex ways we inherit the conflicts of the past, and both shows also cover the growth and coming-of-age of their main characters, and while Steven Universe maintains a carefree and happy tone for the majority of its run, Land of The Lustrous lingers in feelings of melancholy and longing.
Two gems of equal splendor and quality, divided only in tone (and animation style: 2D for Steven Universe and 3D for Land of the Lustrous).
3. The Eric Andre Show and Pop Team Epic
Enough talk of themes, narratives, and heavy philosophical concepts. Time for some laughs.
The Eric Andre Show and Pop Team Epic are both creators of countless memes on the internet, and both sources of endless absurdist and surreal humor. Both shows even have a duo of implacable leads, seemingly untethered to the governing rules of the universe: The unhinged Eric Andre and his relatively straight-man co-host Hannibal Buress on one program; the short, fiery-tempered Popoko and the relatively more self-controlled Pipimi on the other.
The Eric Andre Show’s humor often comes from the bewildered loss of control Andre and Buress inflict on their guests. The anime adaptation of Pop Team Epic pulls a similar trick of unpredictable hurdles to the viewer’s expectations.
Every episode of Pop Team Epic lampoons some popular form of anime, such as in the second episode, when Popoko and Pipimi are accidentally summoned into an unfinished fantasy anime — the scene then segues into the voice actors expressing confusion at the vague lines they’ve been given, and the scene still has a few more twists before it changes in the show’s blisteringly fast pace. The most Eric Andreian (is that a word?) twist may be that each twentyish-minute episode of Pop Team Epic is actually only ten minutes or so of content which is repeated twice, with minor differences — a prank on its own audience.
2. Bojack Horseman and Aggretsuko / Beastars
A slight cheat here in the penultimate entry on our list, but the Netflix original about a depressed former sitcom star who happens to be an anthropomorphic horse shares a lot of DNA with not just one, but two recent hit anime shows which likewise dig into the human condition by putting on a furry face.
Aggretsuko, originating in 2016, is about an office working red panda who feels so soul-drained by her day job that she seeks solace belting heavy metal at karaoke. Retsuko’s struggles are against the grind and the dehumanization (get it?) of living in a capitalist society.
Beastars, which had its anime debut in 2019, follows Legoshi, a high-school aged wolf who’s fallen in love with a fellow student who happens to be a rabbit. In his world, which is a hornier version of Disney’s Zootopia, the stigma of being a predator animal frames every social interaction Legoshi has, and he has to reckon with his own urges for love and for violence, hoping to discern which is which.
Like Horseman, both these shows take an initially goofy premise and the image of cartoon animals as a Trojan Horse (or Horseman) to sneak their deeper themes onto the unsuspecting viewer. Before you know it, you’re rooting for Retsuko to achieve her dreams and praying that the horny young wolf does well in his school play, just like you suddenly realized you hadn’t seen Vincent Adultman in a few seasons. These shows are all members of the genre, ‘Cartoon Animals With Depression’ and honestly, it’s a genre with plenty more potential to it.
1. Hamilton and Nobunaga The Fool
This one may be a bit of a cheat since Hamilton is a stage musical, but given its new availability on Disney Plus, we’re going to count it as television for the purposes of this article.
Like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical chronicling the life and times of first US Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, Nobunaga The Fool, which originally aired in 2014 (predating Hamilton by a year) pulls its characters from the pages of history books, both Eastern (the titular Oda Nobunaga, Akechi Mitsuhide) and Western (Joan of Arc, King Arthur). What’s better, and what really puts this above Miranda’s Broadway hit, is The Fool gives these great beings of history and legend mechs, and balls up timelines and actual history to them straight in the bin where they belong.
Where Hamilton has virtuosic hip-hop performed by real-life slave owners like Thomas Jefferson, Nobunaga The Fool gives Julius Caesar a giant robot, and while these events may not have literally happened in world history, the characters are true to their historical selves, which makes it all feel truer than true, and isn’t that what’s really important in our history-adjacent pop culture?
Did we mention that Nobunaga’s mech was built by Leonardo Da Vinci? Because he’s in this too.
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