netflix anime

Max Fleishman

The best anime on Netflix may not be what you'd expect.

How good is Netflix's anime collection? Better than you might think.

In 2015, Kotaku turned heads by declaring that Netflix's original series, Knights of Sidonia, was the best anime on the platform. Although we agree that its distinctive animation and especially its newness are factors in its favor, we'd never rank this series above tried-and-tested favorites like Fullmetal Alchemist and Death Note, or true genre-bending hallmarks like Samurai Champloo or Ouran High School Host Club.

The main drawback to Netflix's anime selection is that if you're a fan of anime, you've already been exposed to many of these titles over the years.  The other drawback is that many series are incomplete: You can watch Berserk the movie, but not Berserk the series; you can watch four seasons of Naruto, and the first two Shippuden movies, but not Naruto: Shippuden. Meanwhile other recent new series, like Attack on Titan, are on Netflix, but the wait for additional seasons to arrive may be unbearable.


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Still, there is a surprising amount of variety, a mix of old and new anime and a wide mix of genre. And if you're new to anime in general, Netflix's collection is a great way to get your feet wet. We've designed this guide full of pointers for newcomers, a way to help them find their way around the often overwhelming number of titles in Netflix's anime collection. 

For most of these series, both English dubbing and subtitling are available, so you can simply toggle on English or Japanese audio and/or subtitles from your Netflix menu.


 

Naruto

Netflix

Genre: Shounen (boy's) adventure/Fantasy

Complete? No. Only the first three seasons are on Netflix at this time. Although this means fans can skip the notorious long seasons of "filler" episodes, created while the anime was waiting for the manga to complete a major plot arc, the fans who do really like those episodes are out of luck. The main drawback here is the lack of Naruto: Shippuden, the series that finally brings fans back to the ongoing main plot.

Supplements: Naruto Shippuden: The Movie, and Naruto Shippuden: Bonds. These are films set during the time of the Shippuden arc, which is unfortunately not included with the current Netflix order. Still, it's better than nothing.

If you've heard of anime, you've probably heard of Naruto. Based on one of the bestselling titles in Shonen Jump history, this is a classic coming-of-age story about a would-be ninja whose cheerful nature masks untold power. It's also a story, in the long run, about friendship, brotherhood, and found families, and it will move you more than you might expect. —Aja Romano

Sword Art Online and Sword Art Online II

Netflix

Genre: Sci-fi dystopia

Complete? No. The light novels on which the series is based are still being released, and fans are waiting breathlessly for Series 3 and beyond.

This series is about a virtual-reality game turned nightmare for an entire society of players who find themselves trapped inside it and have to battle for their survival in a Battle Royale-style fight to the death. That premise is a giant cliché, it's true, but it's saved by gorgeous animation, great pacing, and the unexpected intimacy of the character interactions. —A.R.

Fairy Tail

Netflix

Genre: shounen fantasy, action

This wildly popular anime follows the adventures of five teens who join a notorious wizarding guild that's kind of like the Animal House of modern magical society. They then proceed to worsen their guild's reputation. Full of wacky characters and high jinks, Fairy Tail does have a serious side, but mostly proceeds like the One Piece of magical anime. If you like having fun, you'll love this. —A.R.

Attack on Titan

Production I.G.

Genre: Action

Complete? No. Manga author Hajime Isayama said in a 2014 interview that he is projecting to wrap the series by 2017, but it's possible it could go longer due to its meteoric popularity both in Japan and other parts of the world.

Supplements: Attack on Titan's success has made it possible for the series to spread across many mediums. Two live-actions films, Attack on Titan and Attack on Titan: End of the World, have been released in theaters, and theres also a light novel series with three entries: Before the Fall, Harsh Mistress of the City, and Lost Girls

There are also seven video games: Attack on Titan: Humanity in Chains for Nintendo 3DS, Attack on Titan: The Wings of Counterattack for mobile phones, and Attack on Titan, which was released for PlayStation 3 & 4 and PlayStation Vita. If you're lucky enough to have a Blu-Ray drive in your computer, you can also check out several visual novels dedicated to the series' individual characters, including Mikasa, Levi, Erwin, Annie, and Eren.

Attack on Titan has been the quintessential disaster anime of the last few years, and if you haven't seen it you're missing an essential part of anime's current vocabulary. The story centers around a walled city called Shinganshina that's trying to keep out Titans, huge humanoid creatures with an appetite for people. The barrier has worked for 100 years, but of course, if the Titans didn't make a horrific return, there'd be no story to tell.

The three characters at the core of the story are the most important part, despite the Titans' towering presence. Eren Yeager and his foster sister Mikasa Ackerman manage to stay alive, along with their childhood friend Armin Arlert, once the Titans return to wreck havoc. The relationships between these characters are lovingly drawn, so much so that you hardly notice how powerful they are as so much chaos is constantly going on around them. 

At the core of Attack on Titan is the battle of good against evil and the human thirst to survive, no matter what the cost. It's a thrilling watch, and best of all, there's still more to come. —A.R.

Fullmetal Alchemist and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

Netflix

Genre: Fantasy

Complete? Yes, for both.

SupplementsFullmetal Alchemist: Star of Milos, a sequel to BrotherhoodConqueror of Shamballa, which is a sequel to the original series, is not included.

2003's Fullmetal Alchemist was so universally beloved that six years later its animation studio decided to completely remake the series, but better. This second series, Brotherhood, reprises the animation style of the first and features two main voice actors repeating their roles as brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric. The primary difference is that the second series is wholly faithful to the manga, which was still in progress when the first series was made. The ending is notably different and many plot elements which were only hinted at in the first series are explored in depth in the second. 

However, both series are excellent in their own way, mainly because the driving force behind both is Ed Elric's commitment to rescuing his younger brother, Al, from a fate as a disembodied soul trapped in a suit of armor. The originality of the plot, the gorgeous steampunk animation, and especially the character development, shines through in both series, which have spent most of their lives topping "best-of" anime lists like this one. —A.R.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Netflix

Genre: Shoujo/fantasy. Madoka is essentially a savvy takedown of a sub-genre of shoujo called "magical girl" anime, popularized in the '90s with Sailor Moon and Utena.

Complete? Yes.

Supplements: Three follow-up Madoka movies: Beginnings, Eternal, and Rebellion

There's a shortage of magical girl anime on Netflix, but even if you've never seen a single mid-air power transformation, the genre's tropes have been thoroughly disseminated into the cultural mainstream over the years—enough so that you can watch and enjoy smart deconstructions like Madoka and Kill La Killincidentally also on Netflix

Combining gorgeous animation with an ensemble of fully empowered female fighters, as well as an adorable main character, Madoka has garnered tremendous critical acclaim because of the way it subverts familiar tropes and shows you the dark side of girl power. Fans of Harry Potter should definitely give this series a try. —A.R.

Gurren Lagann

Netflix

Genre: Action/Mecha

Complete? Yes.

At times controversial and often deceptively raunchy, this smart, fast-paced anime is beloved for its wide-ranging plot, its gorgeous animation, its take-no-prisoners plot twists, and its character development. While many anime series in the mecha genre tend to turn off newcomers because of all the talk about giant robots, Gurren knows how to plunge you into the middle of the action while getting you emotionally invested before you know what's happening. Even if you're not up on your Japanese sci-fi tropes, this is an excellent, accessible series. Don't miss it. —A.R.

Gunslinger Girl


Genre: Action

Complete? Yes 

You may have missed Gunslinger Girl if you weren’t watching anime back in 2003, but it’s worth going back to for a complex tale of government corruption and the struggle to survive within it. The story revolves around the Social Welfare Agency, a government collective that rescues young women on the brink of death and retrofits them with cybernetic implants to turn them into killing machines. As five of these girls carry out their missions, they start to wrestle with their conditioning and wonder who and what they are and if this is the only life they can lead.

Gunslinger Girl’s complexity is still a standout, sketching a world of dark intentions and tangled emotions on a backdrop of Italy’s streets. But the story’s heart lies with the evolution of its central characters, as well as their interactions with their “handlers” (called fratellos). Its open ending also leaves plenty for the viewer to think about when it’s over, and the takeaways of the story will remain clear in your mind. —Colette Bennett 

Durarara!! and Durarara!!X2

Netflix

Genre: Fantasy Crime thriller

Complete? No: the third season of DurararaX2 aired this year and is not yet in release.

As fun as it is dark and surprising, Durarara is the fairy mob boss crime thriller you've been waiting for. Imagine the Headless Horseman as a modern-day female bike rider through the streets of Tokyo's seedy underbelly. Now imagine a kind of Rashomon-like tale full of intersecting, overlapping, and contradicting narratives about the horseman's quest to find her head, and the addictive cast of characters who get caught up in an intricate, violent plot. If you've ever longed for more Celtic mythology in your Tokyo yakuza underworld, this is the series for you. —A.R.

Ouran High School Host Club

Netflix

Genre: Satirical romantic comedy / Shoujo

Complete? Yes.

This delightful and popular genre-bending comedy pokes fun at the excesses and melodrama of shoujo (girl's) anime tropes. But underneath there's a beautiful story of genderqueer hero Haruhi and the way her high school's "host club"—a group for guys to entertain girls—transforms itself because of her. Although this anime has been out for nearly a decade, it's as fresh today as it was when it aired. —A.R.

Little Witch Academia  and LWA: Enchanted Parade

Genre: Shoujo fantasy

Complete? Yes.

This charming anime short about a young girl attending a Harry Potter-style magical academy won the hearts of anime fans when it began circulating in 2013. Originally a standalone short film, Little Witch Academia made such a splash that Studio Trigger was able to launch a lucrative crowdfund for the follow-up. The result is a winsome, delightful fantasy adventure featuring magic, dragons, and a host of adorable little witches. What's not to love? —A.R.

Rurouni Kenshin

Netflix

Genre: Historical action

Complete? Yes.

Kenshin is the godfather of a generation of wandering lone anime swordsmen, and it's been nice to see the comeback he's enjoyed in recent years. For fans who may have seen the recent live-action film adaptations but haven't yet had a chance to enjoy the slow-burning '90s anime, now's your chance. You might think Kenshin would feel dated after all these years, but the familiarity of these tropes and these characters just proves the way of the Samurai is eternal. —A.R.

Fate/Zero and Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works

Netflix

Genre: Action / Fantasy

Complete: No; you'll have to look elsewhere for the original Fate/stay night anime, which falls between Fate/zero and Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works. You can skip the intervening film, Unlimited Blade Works. 

This prequel/sequel combo takes place in a modern-day fantasy world where powerful mages appoint champions to fight for them in an Arthurian-style quest to capture the Holy Grail. Only in this case, the grail is an all-powerful wish-granter, and the "quest" is really an epic war between seven powerful magical clans. Epic fantasy action combined with real-life modern relationship problems has made this franchise a perennial favorite. —A.R.

Samurai Flamenco

Netflix

Genre: All of them

Complete? Yes.

It's almost impossible to sum up this anime—so impossible that others have tried and failed before us. Is it a fashion show disguised as a lighthearted superhero quest turned violent cop drama turned tongue-in-cheek space western turned Power Rangers riff turned ongoing Monty Python sketch turned epic mindfuck turned thinly veiled gay fairy tale? It's all those things and none of them. 

Samurai Flamenco covers a lot—and we mean a lot—of ground in its short but intensely baffling life. This story, which is ostensibly about a regular citizen who decides to turn himself into a real-life superhero, included a long stretch where viewers who weren't stuck in stages of "WTF is happening?" tended to assume the main character was hallucinating most of the action while going slowly insane. But while the overall plot is open to interpretation, what we believe Samurai Flamenco is doing is issuing a superb commentary on the core of the superhero trope itself. It questions who becomes a hero, and why. It also pits itself, its own storyline, against the all-powerful typical superhero narrative. When something totally unpredictable happens to the show's plot line, it's Samurai Flamenco's own special way of facing off against superhero tropes as if they themselves are the monster that must be defeated. You might think that's bizarre; we think it's utterly brilliant. —A.R.

Mushishi

Netflix

Genre: Historical fantasy, magical realism

Complete: No; the final 6 episodes of the first season are inexplicably missing, though the series stands without them. The more recent second series, Mushishi: Next Passage, is also unavailable. 

This relaxing magical anime is a cult favorite among fans. Set in a fictional historical Japanese landscape, the series follows the adventures of a boy who discovers a hidden world full of "mushi"—magical glowing creatures who can secretly impact the human world. He then becomes a wandering 'master' seeking ways to help people impacted by the creatures. Quiet and Ghibli-esque, Mushishi is an anthology series, meaning each ep basically stands on its own. It's a great anime for fans who don't necessarily like complicated, plot-heavy series, but who do love gorgeous, soothing animation. —A.R.

Knights of Sidonia

Netflix

Genre: Sci-fi dystopia/Mecha

Complete? No. The second season of the anime is currently airing in Japan and not yet available.

This series concerns a futuristic human society aboard a giant spaceship, fighting to survive against a species of killer aliens. The premise—a young space cadet is unexpectedly thrust into battle—is very clichéd, borrowed from everything from Ender's Game and Starship Troopers to Starfighter. It's the incredible, VR-inspired animation and a thorough take on human gender and human engineering in a sci-fi age that makes this series worth watching. —A.R.

Other Notable Series we like: Hunter x Hunter, Kill La Kill, Nana

What are your favorite anime series on Netflix? Upset that your favorites aren't on the list?  Be sure to let us know!

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Editor's note: This article is regularly updated for relevance. 

Illustration by Max Fleishman

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