Drawn in a misleading cutesy-blob style, Kaiba is anything but cute. Following its titular character across a futuristic world ravaged by post-industrial capitalism, Kaiba tells a story encapsulated perfectly by the lyrics of its unofficial theme song about the lengths people will go to for their own happiness, and how often that concept of ‘happiness’ is a sham. Heartbreaking and verging on nihilistic (not the Nietzche kind) I can only promise that Kaiba will drag some kind of a reaction out of you. Kaiba is wholly imperfect, suffering from pacing issues in the second half and not sticking the landing on all of its arcs, but that feels somehow fitting for a show about a world this broken.
Kaiba can be found on Amazon Prime or Crunchyroll
It’s ironic that the anime with one of the best fantasy worlds isn’t even known for its worldbuilding, but that’s just how impressive Shinsekai Yori is. Starting with the premise of a futuristic civilization where a mutation has caused every human to be capable of incredible destruction, Shinsekai Yori quickly delves into a dissertation of society, prejudice, and the fundamental paradoxes of coexistence. Few anime can compare with Shinsekai Yori when it comes to elegantly weaving a story where every piece fits a purpose. The end result is wholly brilliant, though tough to stomach. If you’re someone who cares about the quality of a show’s ending, it doesn’t get much better than this one.
The Flowers of Evil
Tragically incomplete, The Flowers of Evil is an essentially flawless adaptation of the first one-third of the Aku no Hana manga. The manga is beautiful, and I’d whole-heartedly recommend it, but this adaptation elevates the material it covers to such an incredible degree that I’d say it demands its own laurels. Basically, this is a high-school show animated using an experimental rotoscoping technique and shot as though it were a horror movie. General consensus has it that this is one of, if not the most difficult anime to watch (for good reasons, obviously Guilty Grown is an utter drag,) turning even the most innocuous of scenes into tense, dread-filled experiences and taking the viewer so deep into the warped adolescent headspace of its protagonist that the pain he experiences becomes visceral. Great sell, I know.
The Flowers of Evil can be found on Crunchyroll
I almost put this in the meta shows category because I think it’s probably wise to have some familiarity with the magical girl genre before jumping into Madoka, but I’d still recommend it to pretty much anyone. Madoka Magica is simply an epic, telling the story of five girls offered the chance to make reality-defying wishes by Kyubey, a mysterious cat-like creature, and the resulting repercussions. Painting iconic characters in broad strokes and telling a timeless tale that tackles everything from romance to utilitarianism and existentialism, I simply cannot oversell my enthusiasm for this show. I think it’s a seamless, brilliant masterpiece only made better by its follow-up movie, Rebellion.
Madoka Magica can be found on Funimation, Crunchyroll, and Netflix. Madoka Magica: Rebellion is unfortunately not available to stream legally.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
I recommend Evangelion on the basis that it’s perhaps the most influential anime of all time regarding the medium as a whole. It solidified any number of tropes and touchstones, but more importantly it demonstrated what could be done with TV anime, telling a story about aliens and giant robots that departed from the formula and turned into an analysis of the deep personal problems plaguing the hearts of its broken cast. Evangelion resonated with viewers everywhere suffering from depression and anxiety, setting itself apart from an escapism-flooded market and solidifying itself as part of the identity of people around the world. Whether or not you’ll personally enjoy it depends a lot on who you are, but it’s inarguably fascinating and the follow-up movie End of Evangelion is something incredible to behold.
Evangelion can be found on Netflix. End of Evangelion is unfortunately not available to stream legally.
This is not a recommendation for the Fate series. On the whole, Fate is an incoherent mess of power-fantasies disguising themselves as philosophy, mindless fanservice, and the kind of videogame-worldbuilding that makes most of the isekai genre so rancid. Fate/Zero though is a stand-alone article of the greater intellectual Fate property, elevated by the writing of Gen Urobochi, a cast consisting of actual adults, and a story that doesn’t need to be happy. Centering around the ‘Grail War,’ a modern-day battle-royal in which mages summon historical figures to fight each other for the sake of the wish-granting Holy Grail. The actions scenes are glorious Ufotable bliss, the characters are well-defined, and the conflicts are engaging and connected. The result? A flashy dark fantasy with strong momentum and high watchability. Just this once, I’ll recommend Fate.
Fate/Zero can be found on Funimation, Crunchyroll, Netflix, and Hulu.
Following the socially-inept Kuroki as she grapples with her own delusions of grandeur, Watamote is another show that can be painful to watch. It feels kinda wrong to put this show in this category because Watamote (translated as It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Not Popular!) is fundamentally a comedy. However, it’s a comedy in the same way that something like Bojack Horseman is a comedy, where you watch a miserable, broken person stumble about and ruin themselves a little more each day and eventually you just have to laugh at the absurdity of it all. If you like cringe humor, Watamote is excellent, and if you don’t stay far away. It’s about as simple as that.
Watamote can be found on Crunchyroll and Hulu.