I'm not into anime so much these days. Not that the shows are of a lower quality or that I much prefer the shows that were on back when I was into it. I'm just plain, old-fashioned not into it anymore and definitely don't have the time to binge watch as I once did back in college.
Still, back when I was into anime, it was an era not unlike the Gold Rush, a time I like to call it the "Turn-of-the-Millennium Anime Boom." Back then, Best Buy used to carry entire shelves of DVDs that could cost as much as $29.99 for a few episodes, and Otakon in Baltimore was the highlight of my year. I digested anime music videos, spent stupid amounts of money on anything I wanted, and contributed my fair share to this lift-off in popularity
Anime became a full-fledged industry that was able to stand on its own two feet for about five years, and how I wish for all those dollars back!
Of course, piracy and online distribution eventually ran it right into the ground, but as far as I can remember, the anime that flooded America was at least semi-decent stuff. We were spared the leftovers and throwaways… for a while, at least.
If I were to ever go back and explore this chapter of my pop-culture history, I definitely know where to start. These are the series I most fondly remember, but I'll need to set some boundaries based on US distribution, not Japanese production. We're not talking Ghibli movies since those are on a whole other field of "excellent." Instead, we'll start circa 2000, when Rurouni Kenshin DVDs started crawling into the market and set an endpoint at Samurai Champloo in 2004, the last series I sat through and enjoyed binge watching into the early morning hours.
From there is was that weird Haruhi Suzumiya show into "Zeus only remembers…"
Before we get into Rurouni Kenshin, though, already breaking my boundaries, I need to give a quick tip of my hat to this wonderful bit of sci-fi escapism. Outlaw Star was my first "not Dragon Ball Z" anime, and it opened my starry eyes to a world that existed beyond Goku and friends.
While shows like Gundam Wing and other modern day anime more frequently would air on Toonami, this is the one I would stick around for after those Rock the Dragon credits wrapped up.
Outlaw Star follows the voyage of Gene Starwind and his outcast crew of space pirates as they journey to find a lost treasure. A mercenary job gone awry places the young android girl Melfina in his care, and the map tucked away in her data chambers becomes the prize of the galaxy. Gene soon finds out he's not the only one seeking his treasure while Melfina begins to wonder if Gene cares about her or just the treasure.
It's not a deep or groundbreaking anime in the least, but as I said before, it's pure escapism. Gene's wide variety of bullets bring an excitement to the gunslinging, and his crazy crew of misfits fill in their anime stereotypes nicely.
26 episodes is a good length, and thanks to having two DVDs in each case, it's the only series that has made the trip with me to Japan. Gotta love all that extra space on my shelf!
Oh, yes please! A staple of my early anime career and the series I give all the credit in the world to for helping me branch out into exploring anime beyond what we could see on TV. While it would eventually air on Adult Swim, I had already bought up half of the series on DVD by that point and was light years ahead of my other friends who watched it.
It doesn't get a whole lot better than Rurouni Kenshin. Characters fall into place nicely, and each comes loaded with a complicated background that pops up throughout the series. Our hero, the titular Kenshin, is the embodiment of a tormented soul, atoning for the murderous sins of his past and refusing to kill anyone. When he's not kicking butt, he's a fragile wimp and a goofball.
While Rurouni Kenshin is primarily a character driven show, its action fills in the gaps to make it exciting. The hyper jazzy soundtrack is also on an entirely different level from the anime that came out at the same time. And who doesn't love the historical setting? It introduced me to the complex wonders of Japanese history, and that's a whole other path in life that it sent me down.
95 episodes is quite long, but luckily you can quit at the end of the second arc and just watch the first Trust & Betrayal OVA after that. Don't bother with the Reflections one. Yuck! Unlike most other shonen anime, Rurouni Kenshin rarely overstays its welcome and the most climactic fights wrap themselves up after three episodes.
Oh my gawd, nostalgia. Stop doing this to me! Alongside Rurouni Kenshin, this sci-fi western became a mainstay of my anime viewing life, and at 26 episodes, it's easy enough to go back to if I get the urge.
Trigun is the epitome of "cool," back when things like Devil May Cry and The Matrix made shiny trench coats sunglasses, and huge pistols every hack writer and artist's go-to design choices. Not to say that Trigun was made by hacks, though, because it absolutely exceeds all of these trivial fads and makes sense in the context of its barren desert planet.
Of course, Vash the Stampede is the same character as Kenshin, a two-faced goofball with a dark past and a desire to keep everyone alive, but Trigun takes these contrasting poles to the extremes. The reason why Trigun never caught on quite as strongly as Rurouni Kenshin is because it plays up the emo a bit too much, especially in the entire second half when there isn't a shred of joy to be found anywhere.
This happy, fun action show just becomes miserable, and not even the charming supporting cast can keep it from heading down that dark path. Fine for an angry teen, but I think I would have a hard time accepting the entirety of Trigun these days. I might quit once the main conflict just gets started.
I had an unhealthy obsession with this nonsensical show for a good, long while. It was my absolute favorite for about two years, and I think that was because it took place in "modern Japan." Throughout college, I dreamed about actually going to the country, and this acted as my outlet while sitting in a dorm room 6,000 miles away. Eventually, after I got to Japan, I finally got to see how accurate it really was.
Well, some parts were spot on and some weren't. I've never met a high-school girl half as interesting as the six who headline this show, but the detail in the backgrounds all look like a genuine Tokyo suburb.
As for the show itself, I loved how Azumanga Daioh has no continuous story, and it makes sense considering it was based on a series of four-panel gag comics rather than full-fledged story arcs like most manga. The humor is also a lot of fun with long-awkward pauses reflecting on the everyday silliness of life
I dipped into other "modern Japan" anime like GTO, but I much preferred the "happy-go-lucky," angst-free Japan from writer Kiyohiko Azuma's brilliant mind.
I still do, in fact! I'm not sure how much I would enjoy going back to Azumanga Daioh these days, but I still pour through manga creator's follow-up Yotsuba& every time a new book comes out. It's the only "modern" manga I read anymore.
My other go-to "modern Japan" anime, this 6-episode OVA might be the most "adult" on our list today. Of course, it's not one of those kind of anime you can find in the seedier corners of the Internet, but I would recommend running it by your parents before burning through it, even if you're 30 years old.
Sell it like this: Golden Boy is a touching story of a wandering nice guy who just happens to lend a hand to unusually lovely ladies everywhere he goes. And he never actually does the dirty deed once in the show either.
Kintaro Oe embodies the "millennial hipster" far before his lifestyle became a widespread thing, even sporting that horrendous ponytail to boot. He spends his days crisscrossing Japan on a bicycle and takes up odd-jobs wherever he can get them. Usually, there are cute women at his place of employment, but because he's socially awkward, he ends up scaring them away.
Of course, his hidden hero within saves the day when push comes to shove, stealing the girl's heart as well. Before he's able to get a love confession or anything like that, he splits to wherever fate takes him next, leaving the women forever in search of the legendary Kintaro.
It's just a fun show that takes audiences from the rough and tough cities to the countryside of Japan. The adult content is there, but it's more of an afterthought to the touching stories and low-brow humor. The English dub is also just fantastic, one I always recommend over the Japanese audio tack.
Odds and Ends
Cowboy Bebop: Everybody liked Cowboy Bebop back in the day, and that's because it was an excellent show. I remember liking Trigun better at the time, but if I went back today, my guess is it would be a different story.
FLCL: Another OVA I worshiped once upon a time. I've watched it a few times since my anime college days, and it's not nearly as deep as my mind thought it was. Nowadays, I get more of a kick from The Pillows soundtrack, and it makes me super nostalgic this time of year, as the first time I came to Japan was in early summer and The Pillows was all I listened to.
Crest/Banner of the Stars: About as "hard sci-fi" as my taste in anime gets, this wonderful series tells the story of an elf-like race of aliens called the Abh who overtake the human race and incorporate them into their intergalactic empire. No slavery, no eradication. You're part of us now or you die. In Crest of the Stars, a human noble is hired to sneak an Abh princess through human lines and accidentally befriends her in the process. In Banner of the Stars, they wind up on the same ship crew, waging war with a human resistance. No series gets you to root against humans like Banner of the Stars does.
Read or Die OVA: This show is just rad. It's a quick three episode OVA that stars a cute, nerdy girl with the ability to manipulate paper. From there, she and her James Bond-esque agency uncover a sinister plot to barrage the world with opera missiles (yes, opera missiles), and she combines her unique superpowers with other recruits to bring it all crashing down. Excellent show. Need to watch it again. Never bothered with the TV series.
Samurai Champloo: As mentioned above, this was the end of anime being a hobby for me and the start of it becoming a tiresome chore. Keeping up with exceedingly long stories like Naruto, Fullmetal Alchemist, and One Piece took their toll on my soul, and caused me to cave in and almost quit anime altogether in about 2006. Even shorter series like Last Exile proved to be too much by this point. Luckily, the episodic style that made Cowboy Bebop such a classic kept me entertained throughout this series, closing out my anime phase with a samurai show, just as it had started.