When I was in fourth grade, we were slated to watch a movie during the last week of school. Our teacher told us to bring a VHS tape (ah, 2000, how we adore thee) of a movie we wanted to watch—G or PG only, naturally—and we’d vote on which movie we would watch.
I do not remember what we watched. What I did remember was that I brought the direct-to-video Toy Story animated spinoff Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins. Nobody voted for it, but it was also the only animated movie up there. I was embarrassed that I wasn’t as grown up as those other kids.
I’m an adult now. I am secure in my knowledge that animated movies are awesome. Still, it wasn’t until late last year that I dipped my toes into anime, specifically. Growing up, I watched some Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh and whatnot, but I thought Dragonball Z was…dumb. I never got into anime. It was too weird, too Japanese, too nerdy. I had too many other non-nerdy things to do, like studying, playing video games, practicing the french horn, and being too scared to ask the cute redhead I liked on a date.
I see the irony. Don’t push it.
Anyway, as Covid-19 reaches into our very core to slowly drag our sanity through our eyeballs as we stay at home for the eighth (or is it 14th?) weekend in a row, I have finally embraced anime as an unexplored facet of animation, an un-mined treasure trove of gems to be watched as the world burns around me.
So, hey, I’d like to let you in on what I’ve been watching and whether it’s worth watching. See, I’m not a ride-or-die anime fan. I like the visual style, and I like aspects about the genre, but I am the furthest thing from a purest you can get and, therefore, a reliable source on anime quality. Here’s everything I’ve watched over the past year, and whether or not it’s worth watching.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
One-sentence description: A mech show and a teen drama show get married and get philosophy degrees before tripping on some serious acid.
Should you watch it: Yes, you should. But it is extremely weird. Be warned.
Maybe don’t watch this as your first real anime like I did, because there is absolutely nothing like this show. Nothing. The first half of the show is a pitch-perfect mech show. The second half rather quickly descends into a psychological horror show, of sorts? It’s hard to explain. You’ll be thinking about this one for years.
One-sentence description: A retro 1980s space opera about transforming robots and alien dogfights serves as window dressing for a dope love triangle.
Should you watch it: Yes, but only the first 36 episodes; it’s quite literally a different show after that (but I won’t get into Robotech history here).
I started watching Robotech on Toonami when I was naught but a child. The show ruled. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen. On its surface, it may seem like a dumb 80s Transformers knockoff built to sell toys, and in some ways it is, but the show itself is much deeper than would think. Yeah, some of it is hokey, but it’s an iconic show for a reason. Don’t sleep on the love triangle, either, which is the emotional core of the show.
One-sentence description: Former child soldier navigates trauma and emotions in an early 1900s-era alternate world that has metal arm prosthetics for some reason.
Should you watch it: Yes, but don’t expect constant action. It’s not that kind of show.
Violet Evergarden is all about feelings and the power of words. That it sprinkles in some great action at times is an added bonus. It moves deliberately, but not slowly, and it resists the tropes that would hamper a lesser show. Just be sure to have some tissues ready.
Your Name (film)
One-sentence description: An unconventional and earnest high school romance told through body-swapping and some surprisingly high stakes.
Should you watch it: Absolutely.
I watched this in the heart of quarantine, and it really left an impression on me; it’s ultimately about the importance of connecting with other people and empathizing with them. Your Name is sincere, exciting, and visually gorgeous. It also features a great and memorable soundtrack. It was a worldwide phenomenon for a reason—it is a superb movie that connects with everyone.
Your Lie in April
One-sentence description: Boy with trauma meets girl, girl shows boy how to love music again, show reminds viewer what ugly crying is like.
Should you watch it: Yes, especially if you’re a musician.
Your Lie in April is simply a beautiful show. It tells the story of a piano prodigy who became unable to play after the death of his mother and how meeting a passionate and energetic violinist changed his life. The show depicts music performance unnervingly accurately, and it adeptly navigates themes that would, on the surface, seem to clash tonally. It is the most touching show I have ever seen.
One-sentence description: The protagonist does murders with a book, repeatedly, while frantic authorities try to stop him from doing book murders.
Should you watch it: No, but lots people like it (and love it) so you could get some mileage out of it.
If you could kill people anonymously by simply writing their name down in a book, would you? This a fascinating question that Death Note does not ask because the main character goes from “hey, what is this book” to “I guess I’ll kill some people to find out if it does what it says it does” to “I WILL BE THE GOD OF JUSTICE FOR A NEW WORLD” in the span of the first episode. It’s a waste of a potentially fascinating character arc, but that’s not the story it wants to tell.
*I stopped watching Death Note after the sixth episode, though I did poke around and watch some portions of other episodes later
Garden of Words (film)
One-sentence description: Two humans bond over rain, gardens, and dreams, all while blatantly disregarding their social obligations.
Should you watch it: Probably, but you could skip it and not lose out on a whole lot.
A short film that lasts 45 minutes, Garden of Words tells the story of a high school senior who yearns to be a shoemaker and an unexpected yet repeated encounter with a woman in a garden in the rain. It’s unique and has some truly beautiful visuals.
Sword Art Online
One-sentence description: A bunch of poor gamers get trapped in a game that will kill you for realsies if you die, and then decide to play more games afterwards for some reason.
Should you watch it: Sure, if you’re ok with it being what it is (a bit of an empty, visually appealing power fantasy, and not good). Otherwise, no.
This show is infamous. If you decide to watch it, watch the first 14 episodes–the main arc about being trapped in the VR game Sword Art Online–and then stop. After that, the show’s writing flaws, pacing issues, and lack of interesting characterization just snowball out of control. It’s a frustrating enterprise, because it is soooooo close to being really good. It’s a fun watch, though.
*I stopped watching in the middle of season 2
One-sentence description: Start with Your Name, take everything good about it and make it discernibly worse—serve cold or extremely hot.
Should you watch it: No.
Fireworks is pretty! But it’s not good. If you saw the trailer or saw it pop up on Netflix and think about watching it, just go see Your Name again instead. It’s not bad, and I didn’t actively dislike it, but there is no weight behind its narrative.
One-sentence description: Cowboys and Aliens, but in space; Han Solo and friends, but in our solar system; a Western, but on a spaceship with a corgi instead of a horse.
Should you watch it: Yes; it’s a classic.
I’m in the middle of watching Cowboy Bebop, so I can’t speak to the show as a whole. But it’s definitely a classic for good reason. There’s nothing quite like Cowboy Bebop, and it has been influential to all kinds of anime since its heyday in the 90s. It’s no Evangelion, but Cowboy Bebop is indeed worth a watch.
*I have not finished this one yet