The 13 best anime on Netflix
From bathing spirits to time travel, hand-drawn delights await you on Netflix. Updated for January 2022
In addition to possessing an intimidating library of live-action TV and cinema, Netflix has also invested in some fantastic anime series that you’d be mad to overlook – plus obtained the rights to stream most of Studio Ghibli’s movie output.
The selection of anime pales in comparison to some of the streaming site’s more popular categories, but its select acquisitions have been shrewd choices. Dedicated anime sites such as Crunchyroll require users to sift through a catalogue of questionable shows to reach the gems; Netflix’s collection is, on average, of a much higher standard. Whether you’re a Breaking Bad fanatic or go nuts for Battlestar Galactica, there’s almost certainly an anime out there that’s also right up your street.
Additional words by Sam Kieldsen and Tom Morgan-Freelander
Cyberpunk: Edgerunners (S1)
Anime and the cyberpunk genre have gone hand-in-hand for decades, thanks to classic films like Akira – which released the same year as Mike Pondsmith’s influential tabletop RPG. Developer CD Projekt Red would swap pen-and-paper for polygons over three decades later, and now things have gone full circle with spinoff series Edgerunners.
It’s another show where you don’t need to have played the game to enjoy it, with an all-new cast of characters, but the way it reimagines locations from Cyberpunk 2077 is a treat for those that have. It’s uncompromisingly gory in places, and visually stunning in others courtesy of Japanese animation team Studio Trigger. It can be seriously bleak in places, but there’s a relatable story behind the dystopian setting. A must for genre fans.
This animated retelling of Konami’s classic vampire hunting adventure games is worth adding to your watch list, even if you weren’t a fan already. All four seasons are an M-rated visual spectacle, following clan Belmont’s increasingly bloody battle with Count Dracula and his army of otherworldly evils. It’s not all gore, though: there’s comedy and drama in there too, with pacing that’s perfect for binge-watching. The English voice cast is a who’s who of the British acting world (Richard Armitage and Bill Nighy being just two of the highlights).
Follow-up series Castlevania: Nocturne is currently in the works, and while not a direct spin-off (the action will be moved to the French Revolution and focus on Belmont descendent Richter), there’s plenty of time to complete a run-through of the original to fill yourself in on the backstory.
Probably the first film that to ignite the West’s obsession with anime and manga, this Japanese cyberpunk classic is a tale of teenage biker gangs, political upheaval and creepy wizened psychic children played out against the backdrop of sprawling, crumbling megalopolis Neo-Tokyo.
It’s now over 30 years old, but few animated movies have aged as well or proved as influential. The hand-painted animation is stunning, the grimy dystopian setting evocative and the brilliant original soundtrack unforgettable. Rumours of a live action Hollywood reimagining won’t go away, but we say there’s absolutely no need for one: Akira is every bit as vital as when it was first released.
Cowboy Bebop (S1)
Following the adventures of a group of bounty hunters travelling through space on the eponymous ship Bebop, this 26-episode series is rightly ranked among the best anime TV shows of all time. Part Western, part sci-fi and part noir, it’s a pulpy series but far from dumb and shallow; deep, existential themes are explored through the adventures of Spike and friends, but there’s lots of shooting and action too. It’s also gloriously stylish, something that the ill-fated live-action remake (also available on Netflix but cancelled after a single season) recognised and attempted to capture. Trust us, though: stick with the animated original.
Demon Slayer (S1-2)
With the recent release of a full-length movie, Demon Slayer has become the highest-grossing anime franchise in Japanese history. Netflix viewers in the UK can see what all the fuss is about by streaming the preceding TV series.
The show follows the trials and tribulations of quick-witted teenager Tanjiro, who returns from a trip to town to find his entire family murdered – except his sister, who has suffered a perhaps worse fate by being transformed into some kind of demon. As he travels the land looking for answers, revenge and a cure for his sister’s condition, Tanjiro quickly finds himself attracting the attention of a cabal of professional demon slayers, who decide to induct him into their ranks.
Neon Genesis Evangelion (S1)
Giant robots punching giant monsters – aka “mecha” – might seem like an anime cliché, but Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s more nuanced take on the genre has established it as one of Japan’s most beloved cult phenomena. The series revolves around three teenagers who pilot Evas, towering robots that are humanity’s last hope against a race of otherwise unstoppable creatures called “angels”. But the Eva-versus-angel fights are far from the most interesting thing here – it’s the complex characters and rarely explored themes that elevate Neon Genesis Evangelion to the level of classic anime.
As well as the series, Netflix includes the two feature-length movies that conclude the story.
Studio Ghibli’s Oscar-winner showcases director Hayao Miyazaki’s filmmaking at its very best: Spirited Away is magical, thought-provoking and utterly absorbing. When the average Western animated movie is considered sophisticated if it tosses in a couple of clever references for any adults that happen to be watching, this film approaches universality from an entirely different place.
Its story of a young girl losing her parents and being forced to dwell in a strange land of spirits, witches and demons effortlessly touches on themes with which we can all identify: friendship, love, family, growing up and taking responsibility. All this makes it an engaging watch for viewers of all ages, helped on by its beautiful animation and soundtrack.
Another Studio Ghibli banger, this time set in a semi-historical Japan in the midst of rapid change. Civilisation is expanding, leading to the destruction of the land’s woods, rivers and other wild places. As humans come into conflict with the god-like nature spirits who maintain the delicate ecological balance, our young hero Ashitaka finds himself caught in the middle playing peacemaker as things edge ever closer to outright war. Alongside him is San, a wild, mysterious girl (and the former princess of the film’s title) raised by giant wolves, someone with ties to both sides of the conflict.
Like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke exhibits a level of maturity and nuance that’s rare in Western animation. It makes for a great entryway into the fantastical world of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies.
Sword Art Online (S1-2)
This manga-turned-anime is about to reach peak relevance as we approach the dawn of VR.
Sword Art Online is the story of a virtual reality MMORPG that takes a sour turn. As the revolutionary game launches, its excited throngs of players discover, much to their dismay, that they are trapped inside the game and that anyone attempting to leave Sword Art Online will immediately have their brains scrambled. To make matters worse, anyone whose health bar drops to zero will suffer the same treatment. The only option for escape is to complete all 100 levels of the gargantuan MMO.
As you might expect it all goes a bit Lord of the Flies as the players’ primal instincts take over. An exceedingly strong opening half is slightly marred by Sword Art Online‘s more curious narrative meanderings in its latter segment, but it’s worth watching all the same. Characterisation and art style score highly, as does the show’s depiction of societal breakdown among the trapped denizens of the MMO.
My Neighbor Totoro
Managing to be wholesome and emotionally charged without coming across as lightweight or sentimental is a tough trick to pull off – but Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki have done it time and time again, and 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro is a perfect example.
This film, in which a pair of young sisters move into a new house and befriend a forest spirit in post-war rural Japan, really does have something for everyone: an overarching sense of wonder; hand-painted bucolic beauty; a convincing depiction of family life; a soaring, playful score from the masterful Joe Hisaishi; and of course the wonderful Totoro, a now-iconic Ghibli character representing… well, all sorts of things if you care to think about it.
Netflix has pulled off a coup by getting its hands on Ghibli’s catalogue. If you’re going to start somewhere, why not here?
Tokyo Ghoul (S1-3)
They look like you, they sound like you, but with one key difference: their only sustenance is human flesh. In this bloody anime series humans live alongside ghouls in Tokyo’s bustling districts, but the latter must keep their identities secret for fear of capture and death at the hands of the Commission of Counter Ghoul (CCG).
Given it’s unpalletable subject matter, Tokyo Ghoul is a surprisingly sensitive anime that often finds itself preoccupied with the psychological torment of its central character, Kaneki. This unlucky sod finds himself forced to enter ghoul society after an inter-species organ transplant leaves him half human, half abomination and desperate to devour the body of his fellow man. There are flavours of Neon Genesis Evangelion here, as well as the recent smash hit, Parasyte, and the whole affair is handled with an equally delicate touch.
Netflix has only made one series available, but there is also a second on offer at Funimation for anyone who thinks the series is too ghoul for school.
Another classic Studio Ghibli movie, Porco Rosso is set in the 1930s Adriatic – a place where airborne pirates harass tourist cruises until they’re hunted down by our titular hero, a louche, middle-aged Italian pilot who has (for reasons never truly explained) been cursed with the face of a pig. When the pirates hire a brash American fighter ace to take Porco out of the picture once and for all, his easy life takes a drastic turn for the trickier.
With all this set against the backdrop of rising Italian fascism, Porco Rosso is richly served with subtext and themes; as with all Ghibli films, they don’t smash you over the head with a metaphorical hammer – they reveal themselves expertly through the story and its characters.
If you could jump back into the past and change one event in your life, what would it be? It’s an oft-asked question which is hardly a novel idea for a piece of media in 2018, but Erased pulls it off in style.
The show follows Satoru Fujinuma as he is dragged backwards in time to solve, and prevent, a series of child murders in his hometown. What follows is a surprisingly competent thriller that manages to deftly juggle different tones, and keep you on your toes.
If you’re seeking chronological confusion, or a wildy fragmented narrative, then Erased probably isn’t for you: it doesn’t mess with the timeline anywhere near enough to boggle the brain. The real drama lies in the whodunnit mystery, alongside a story of abuse and neglect which is at times difficult to watch.