The Black Man’s Guide to Anime

Thought you’d watched everything out there? Time to broaden your horizons.

Photo illustration. Photos: Yu Yu Hakusho, Cowboy Bebop, Hunter x Hunter/Hulu, Aggretsuko/Netflix, timnewman, SB, Robin Gentry/Getty Images

Bet you didn’t know streaming platforms had a bottom. Not a quality bottom, like the social media muck where White supremacists and Tory Lanez apologists congregate, but an actual bottom. Like, you’ve officially seen it all. At least that’s how it feels almost 11 months after the first shutdowns began; we’re all still inside watching the same hodgepodge of warmed-over crime dramas or the umpteenth episode of 90 Day Fiance. Don’t worry, there’s an entire universe of shows out there waiting for you: anime.

While so many other genres seemed to fall flat this year, 2020 was glorious for stylish Japanese animation, both in its origin country and abroad. Thanks to its WFH-friendly development and wild production schedule — over 150 anime series were produced in the last year — there’s always something new and unexpected. And between Netflix’s ongoing development splurge, other major streamers getting in on the action, and anime-only platforms like Crunchyroll, VRV, and Funimation, the medium has never been more accessible.

Sure, all of that material can be daunting for any newcomer, but that’s where we come in. Read on for everything you need to know about anime’s migration to the West, the most fascinating themes and ideas coming out of modern anime, and a few recommendations for anyone looking to dip a toe into this gorgeous and eclectic artform.

History

Japanese anime has been a part of American TV programming for more than 50 years — an English-language adaptation of Speed Racer hit syndication in 1967 — but it took decades to catch on. Through much of the ’90s, movies like Akira and reruns of shows like Astro Boy were relegated to terrible time slots on basic cable, sulking in the doldrums of the midnight hour. But in 1997, executives at Cartoon Network tapped anime fans Sean Atkins and Jason Demarco to create an evening programming block specifically to showcase high-energy, propulsive action cartoons.

The result, Toonami, ignored the silliness that predecessors like Fox and had SyFy attached to anime, and instead homed in on the artform’s cool factor. While the project’s first year saw retreads of Thundercats, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, and Jonny Quest, by 1998, the twin juggernauts of Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z made Toonami a household name. It wasn’t the only place you could go for good anime, but it was certainly the slickest, combining the lo-fi sounds and space station aesthetic that have since become a cottage industry on YouTube and SoundCloud.

After suffering from perpetual low viewership, Toonami was ultimately taken off the air in 2008. But by that point, the programming block had already introduced audiences to many of anime’s most enduring tropes, from giant mech robot series like the Gundam franchise to the supernatural romance of the Tenchi stories. Yet those, too, were only a slice of what the medium had to offer. In 2012, Toonami was revived as a part of Adult Swim’s slate, becoming a home for the glossier, sleeker animes that have cropped up over the past decade.

Honestly, if you’re looking to start somewhere easy, you can’t go wrong with Toonami. Whether power fantasies like Dragon Ball Super to the sci-fi comedy of Assassination Classroom, no one would blame you from just mainlining the whole Saturday late-night offering. But everyone’s different, so we’d rather tailor suggestions to the particular kind of viewer you might be.

But before we get there, it’s important to know the differences between the streaming platforms and a bit about what’s available and where.

A quick note on dubs versus subs

A dubbed anime is one that overlays non-Japanese voice acting over the original movements while subs retain the Japanese audio but add subtitles for the local audience. There are a hundred debates a year about which is better; I usually prefer watching the subbed version, but there are plenty of shows with excellent, well-executed dubs (Yu Yu Hakusho, Cowboy Bebop, One Piece). In short: It’s really up to you.

Crunchyroll

If you’re looking for a straight-up anime streaming service, Crunchyroll is the king. Up-to-the-minute streams updated the moment they go off-air in Japan, simulcasts, even full-length movies and live-action dramas — all for free (ad-supported) or $7.95/month (ad-free). On a content-for-price basis, it’s easily one of the best deals in streaming.

VRV

Owned by Warner Bros., VRV specializes in nerd culture generally but boasts a trove of exclusive anime as well. And because it’s a bundle, it often comes prepackaged with channels like Crunchyroll or indie darlings like Cartoon Hangover and Mondo Media. Like Crunchyroll, an ad-supported version is free; going premium will cost you $9.99/month.

Netflix

Netflix has been fascinating to watch over the last few years as it’s slowly figured out how lucrative anime — and specifically the production demands central to the culture surrounding anime — could be. The platform’s offerings are a bit of a grab bag at this point. Netflix’s original anime has been decent, with Castlevania probably being the most successful, but the shows licensed and acquired from Japan have proven most popular.

Those acquisitions have tended toward high-octane chaos. The psychedelic, psycho-thriller Devilman Crybaby leaps to mind first, followed by the gore-first Dorohedoro, in which a crocodile-headed antihero seeks vengeance on the sorcerer who… well, who gave him a crocodile head. There are also quieter dramas like Japan Sinks that have captivated audiences, with a mixture of beauty and devastation that comes with natural disaster. All it takes is the patience to sift through Netflix’s massive catalog for the dope shit hidden underneath.

Hulu

Hulu has quietly become America’s gateway streaming app for anime. The folks over at the green company have honed in on the medium’s most proven accessible shows like Cowboy Bebop, Yu Yu Hakusho, and Fullmetal Alchemist continue to win audiences over even 20 or 30 years after their debuts. It’s a smart play, bolstered by cult favorites like One Punch Man, and Hulu’s been winning new anime fans left and right.

So… what are you into?

For the action junkie

Cowboy Bebop: One of the quintessential ’90s anime that showed viewers that bounty hunters in space can really pull at the heartstrings. The combination of fluid, stylish animation, and appropriately slappin soundtrack convinced a ton of millennials to jump into anime fandom.

Hunter x Hunter: “Shonen” anime is geared toward teen and pre-teen boys and tends to rely on concepts like friendship, patriarchy, and power fantasies (think Dragon Ball and Naruto). This show takes those tropes and flips them on their head. It’s great for first-timers, but the show’s genius only emerges if you’ve seen enough shonen anime to appreciate the rules that are being broken — and just how often Hunter x Hunter breaks them. The “Chimera Ant” arc in particular is a devastatingly well-executed narrative that touches on everything from genocide to slavery and humanity’s immoral ambition. So much for a “kids’ show.”

My Hero Academia: Probably the most ready-made American export on this list. MHA is a love letter to superhero fandom told through the lens of one superpower-less superfan, Deku, who somehow gets superpowers and uses them to protect his super quirky schoolmates at the superhero academy. Sounds silly, but then you’re sitting there watching Deku do everything he can to protect the homies and you find a single thug tear sliding down your cheek.

Mob Psycho 100: Much like Hunter x Hunter, this show’s brilliance is in how it subverts power fantasies. But unlike Hunter x Hunter, it doesn’t necessarily indulge selectively in those same idealisms. It kills all that noise by making its main character and psychic, Shigeo Kageyama, pretty fucking strong right out the gate. What it does, through the periphery characters, is take aim at the need for power more generally.

For the foodie

Food Wars!: Simply put, this is the best food anime ever made. Combining the fundamentals of classic school-centered anime with a real glossy take on food competitions, Food Wars! will literally have you searching up Japanese cuisine for beginner courses.

Bartender: A mature anime that’s also a lot more chill than the others on this list. Ryuu Sakakura listens to all his patrons’ complaints and serves them up somethin’ fresh so that they can… keep on complaining? If you’re looking for something low-key to wind down your night, this is perfect.

For the heist fiend

The Great Pretender: This Netflix title was a quiet hit among the heads due to its over-the-top irreverence. Following a bunch of con artists doing scammy things is one of my all-time favorite genres of all time, and The Great Pretender combines the lawless swagger of the con game with the absolute ridiculousness of anime. Fun shit.

Lupin III: The master of disguise has been a character numerous times over the history of Japanese anime (not to mention pop culture as a whole), but this most recent revamp from 2015 is the Lupin at his most polished. Imagine Ocean’s Eleven as an anime and you’ll know the fun, breezy binge you’re in for.

For the funny folk

Aggretsuko: A perfect introduction to anime for anyone who thinks they’re too old for cartoons. Following a Hello Kitty-esque red panda through the difficulties and insecurities of Japanese office culture (while she moonlights as a death-metal karaoke singer) had us nodding our heads in that “yeah, relatable” way for its entire run. And with each episode less than 15 minutes long, and it’s easy to see why people await new seasons so intently.

Dorohedoro: It’s hard to even say that this belongs in the “funny” category when it could so easily dip into horror and pulp, but to be honest, I’ve never laughed harder at a young child having her face scraped off (don’t worry, she’s fine!) by a giant lizard. There’s absolutely no way I could do this show justice in the short space, so just trust me: Dorohedoro is an experience.

For the adventurer

One Piece: Anime heads might scoff at this one because it’s one of the longest pieces of serialized media of all time, but no anime guide could be complete without the medium’s longstanding king. Luffy and his band of pirates search the ocean blue for the biggest treasure left behind by the most famous pirate who ever lived. Having gone on for 20 years, there seems to be no end to the material, meaning you’ve got endless hours to catch up with all the crew’s shenanigans.

Dragon Ball: Notice we didn’t say the fight-driven Dragon Ball Z. The original Dragon Ball — which follows young Goku as he travels the world with his friend, Bulma, searching for the titular wish-granting McGuffin — is more about zipping around with your homies. Sure, they pick fights along the way, and as the story progresses you start to see its uber-popular follow-up series taking form, but Dragon Ball is the necessary leisure you need these days.

For the drama kings

Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū: This story, which is ostensibly about one master storyteller passing along the skills and techniques of storytelling, slowly yet surely becomes a damn near Shakespearean narrative in its own right. Early on, the specific references to Japanese folklore and culture might be tough to get around, but the story underneath, between an unconventional family of storytellers, is one of the greatest anime scripts ever written. No cap.

DeathNote: Delicious, propulsive drama writing. Whereas Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū may be a bit of a slow burn, this story of a teenager who gains the power to kill someone just by writing down their name in a book immediately grabs you by the ears and throws you in the deep end. When that genius teenager is pitted against another genius investigating those murders, the ensuing chess game is as magnetic as it is twisty. Controversial ending aside, DeathNote is an incredible watch.

African from Texas• Staff Writer at LEVEL • Black politics, Celebrity interviews, TV & Film Criticism • Previously: MTV News, San Francisco Chronicle

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