Animation could be the ultimate form of storytelling. With the almost limitless possibilities of the medium, these incredible experimental and avant-garde anime push the boundaries of what’s possible with animation.
Whether through visuals, story, characters or music, these series are very ‘out there’. Some have gone on to be huge successes with incredible fanbases, while others, though less successful, have an equally dedicated following in artistic circles.
There are cult classic anime, and then there is FLCL, a wacky story that found a loving home in the minds of many American anime fans.
The fast-paced slice-of-life story follows Naota Nandaba in a town where nothing seems to happen. However, his life is changed when vespa-riding, guitar-wielding psychopath Haruko Haruhara runs him over, creating a hole in his head through which robots invade Earth.
First aired in 2000, FLCL made a name for itself when it aired on Adult Swim in 2003 and has been re-aired by the network multiple times since. The series has been widely praised as an ambitious revisualisation of classic coming-of-age themes.
Revolutionary Girl Utena
Many of the themes in Revolutionary Girl Utena still feel forward-thinking for our time, let alone in 1990s Japan.
Subverting traditional shoujo and shounen tropes, the story follows Utena who, inspired by a prince as a child, grows up to be one herself.
At Ootori Academy, Utena becomes attracted to Anthy Himemiya, a mysterious girl known as the Rose Bride at the centre of duels happening at the Academy, a window into a mysterious world into which Utena finds herself dragged.
Revolutionary Girl Utena was a groundbreaking anime which went on to inspire other creators both in Japan and overseas. Even today, the visually-striking nature of the show strikes a chord with many viewers.
Satoshi Kon is one of anime’s most iconic directors, and while Paprika and Perfect Blue could also feature on this list, his lesser-known TV series is also spectacular.
Paranoia Agent follows the lives of various people impacted by Shounen Bat (translated as Lil' Slugger), a kid who’s assaulting people with a golden, bent baseball bat. However, none of the victims can remember his face, or anything beyond his baseball cap, gold skates, and bat.
Paranoia Agent essentially served as Satoshi Kon’s cutting room floor, where all his ideas that couldn’t be worked into movies were laid to rest. As a result, the series is notably erratic, which ends up feeding into the series’ explorations of personal and shared anxiety.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
Evangelion takes place in a 90s-style future where the world is threatened by apocalyptic beings called Angels, and the only defence is human-piloted Evangelions controlled by a shadowy organisation called NERV.
Shinji is the estranged son of NERV’s cold-hearted leader, and the only person able to pilot Unit-01, an Eva tuned to the pilot’s biometrics. Pulled into the organisation by the caring officer Misato, Shinji is forced to become Earth’s saviour.
Evangelion remains a bonafide must-watch anime thanks to how it handles the emotional damage felt by Shinji throughout the series. The original Evangelion also begins to fall apart near the series’ conclusion due to budgetary and creative pressures, which is interesting in itself.
Penguindrum is a great example of a series becoming more than the sum of its parts.
The story revolves around three parentless siblings, brothers Kanba and Shouma and their little sister Himari, who is terminally ill.
When Himari collapses during a trip to the aquarium, she is miraculously saved by a penguin hat. However, the hat demands that in exchange for her life, they must find the mysterious Penguindrum with the help of some penguin spirits.
While seemingly simple, under the surface, the series explores complex themes such as love, fate, faith, and more in a story that gets deeper at every turn.
All of this takes place alongside some beautiful animation, which has helped this series cement its place as a connoisseur’s favourite.
Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories
Anime doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to horror, but Yamishibai comes pretty close to pulling off a convincing fright with a unique style and narrative.
Each episode is a unique horror tale told by a creepy man in a mask to a bunch of schoolchildren. The anime incorporates kamishibai, an old form of street theatre that involved a selection of illustrations being presented on a miniature wooden stage.
Yamishibai’s episodes are only five minutes long, meaning the self-contained stories are very direct. It’s the perfect series to dip in and out of whenever you want to experience something different from the usual anime fare.
Discover: The Best Horror Anime to Watch
Ping Pong the Animation
Masaaki Yuasa has made a niche for himself by straddling the line between experimental and popular animation. Arguably the best example of this is the cult classic Ping Pong series which, despite a seemingly simple story, amazes with its slightly disturbing animation style.
The series follows two young ping pong players: the confident and cocky Peco and the unassuming Smile. Despite clear talent, the two of them come across increasingly excellent players that test their resolve and make them question why they play ping pong in the first place.
As with most excellent sports anime, Ping Pong focuses more on the characters’ emotions than the sport itself, delivering some excellent moments of teen drama. The series is consistently highly rated and very much worth your attention.
Serial Experiments Lain
If you’re a fan of psychological anime series, few have as big a reputation as Lain. The visionary, genre-bending series always leaves fans with more questions than answers.
Lain is a schoolgirl who, like the rest of her class, begins receiving emails from a classmate who recently committed suicide. The dead student says that they’ve merely abandoned their physical self and now exist in the Wired, an advanced form of communication networks that surpasses what we know as the internet.
Lain starts to learn about the Wired through a series of strange events which misshape the line between the physical and virtual world.
Although regularly compared to Evangelion which aired a few years before, Serial Experiments Lain has its roots in horror movies.
You can almost treat Lain as a psychological challenge which asks audiences to test their own ideas and beliefs on issues such as identity and the internet.
Similar to Serial Experiments Lain, Ergo Proxy is a notorious series due to the complexity of its science-fiction plot and abstract themes. The series has a slightly similar feel to Ghost in the Shell, although Ergo Proxy leaves a lot more questions than answers.
The series takes place in a futuristic world where emotions are obsolete and robots handle many tasks. However, a virus begins to spread which gives the machines self-awareness and leads to the infected committing scores of murders.
Re-l is tasked with investigating the murders alongside her own robot assistant. However, the more she digs, the more sinister the plot becomes as she uncovers mysterious government experiments on strange beings known as Proxies.
If you’re a fan of science-fiction anime, Ergo Proxy is a must-watch. The series has been praised for its worldbuilding alongside the story which is a challenge for even the most ardent fans of the sci-fi genre.
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