We all have ways of decompressing from the current dystopian reality, and one of ours is rewatching favorite anime. I know, I know — it’s easy to assume that ‘anime’ means interminable sagas about gotta-catch-em-all marketing tie-ins, space opera ultraviolence, or softcore porn for extremely niche targets. But that’s like judging ‘American books’ by what’s available at an airport book stall!
Here’s a handful of my personal favorites, variously available through Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, and probably many other streaming services I don’t know (not to mention your local library). All of them are (mostly) non-violent, non-erotic (although frequently romantic!), and perhaps most importantly short. A 13-arc series of 23-minute episodes is approximately five hours of viewing, less than many mini-series… and you can usually tell by the end of the first episode whether a particular series is worth your time watching it. Also note the original broadcast dates in parentheses next to each title; in the older ones, some of the details are inevitably outdated, but the fact they’re still popular enough to be circulating is a testament to their worth.
Princess Tutu (2002)
Okay, this one is actually 26 episodes… but it breaks neatly into two parts, if that’s as much as you can stand. One of a kind is always special, Terry Pratchett would say — and I believe Sir Terry would’ve appreciated this completely individual saga based (very loosely) on Middle European folk tales as filtered through classical ballet. Gold Crown Town has been trapped in its bubble of magical realism ever since the inhabitants turned against an uncannily gifted author whose stories came true, but never happily ever after. There is a Sailor-Moon-style magical girl, with the inevitable power duels are settled with classical pas de deuxes. There is broad Harry-Potteresque classic-English-boarding-school-but-with-magic humor, and adolescent love triangles that turn into quadrangles and back again. And there is the overarching warning that all writers are bastards, and some of them are monsters. (Warning: Despite the ‘cute’ animation style, the second season in particular is rather too disturbing for young children.)
Princess Nine (1998)
Missing the boys of summer? High-school baseball is to Japan what high-school football is to Texas… if the annual football playoffs were on national television. Japan’s most powerful (and imperious) female CEO has decreed that female students should have the chance to compete against their male counterparts, and Ryo Hayakawa — inheritor of her late father’s renowned Miracle Pitch — is the keystone of that extremely ambitious plan. There’s plenty of teen drama, but also (I am informed by someone better equipped to judge) a decent introduction to besobaru. (Or you could hate-watch, to find out how badly I have been misled!)
Twin Spica (2003)
If you have fond memories of Robert Heinlein’s early young-adult novels, this one’s for you. Japan’s first space launch goes horribly awry, but little Asumi’s personal tragedy that day eventually leads her to a mysterious ‘guardian’ who will help her train for her dreams of becoming a ‘rocket pilot’. When an academy for (adolescent) potential astronauts is finally rebooted, Asumi and her new classmates win highly coveted slots… but can a girl (and a tiny little 4’9″ girl, at that) really aspire to astronaut status? Yet Asumi is so certain, so focused on her goal (like a good Heinlein hero) that even her ‘enemies’ can’t help but root for her…
Tsukikage Ran / Carried By the Wind (2000)
A dusty, sepia-tinted little hamlet miles outside the boundaries of civilization. A lone swords(wo)man walks into the bar… If you like spaghetti westerns and/or samurai movies — and don’t mind a certain amount of parody — this 13-episode series is for you. Ran is a wandering sword-slinger with an upper-class accent and a fatal taste for sake. Lady Meow (of the Iron Cat Fist) is her faithful, if hapless, Sancho Panza. The individual episodes are effectively stand-alones, and entirely predictable, but the dialog and inevitable multiplayer battles are beautifully choreographed.
Young Yurie wakes up one morning and discovers she’s become a (Shinto) goddess. (Ah, puberty. ) She’s not yet sure what her powers might be, but suddenly she can see all the various tiny animist godlings and deities that crowd her boring little not-quite-1960s town. When she complains to her schoolmates, she’s taken in hand by Matsuri, daughter of the local shrine, which could really use the boost; the god of the shrine is a young waster who spends his time dreaming of being a rock star, like his cute (goddess) pop-star crush. Yurie’s also visited by a trio of magical spirits assigned by the God Association, a very Japanese union, complete with an annual business convention. (Get your card stamped at every lecture, for an entry in the door-prize lottery!) Yurie, of course, is more interested in mooning after one of her male classmates, playing with her (not entirely mundane) cat, and wasting time with her girlfriends, but a god’s gotta do what a god’s assigned to do!
Shingu: Secrets of the Stellar Wars (2001)
This one’s for R.A. Lafferty fans. It’s 2070, and the government has just admitted it’s in contact with aliens… something everyone has pretty much suspected all along, really. Hajime’s a relative newcomer to the small town of Tenmo, and on his first day of junior high, he discovers some of his classmates are mysteriously connected to the various giant monsters that have started appearing in the skies — and to the giant Shingu figure that protects Earth from those aliens. Then he find out that seemingly half the town’s adults are actually diplomats for various galactic empires, which is when things really get weird… Don’t worry about the ‘monster battles’; they are the least important part of the story, and take up very little time in any given episode. Always tongue-in-cheek, always respectful of the minor joys of daily life, complete with a final Wagnerian battle, and a Nine Hundred Grandmothers ending.
Figure 17 (2001)
The episodes in this series are 46 minutes (with commercials, an hour) instead of the usual 23-minute ‘half hour’. Shy ten-year-old Tsubasa is trying to find her place in the extremely rural Hokkaido community where her widowed father has chosen to pursue his dream of becoming a professional baker instead of a big-city salaryman. In the nearby woods, she literally stumbles across a crashed spaceship, its unconscious humanoid pilot, and a giant monster. When she attempts to hide, she accidentally triggers a biogenetic ‘liquid metal’ suit of armor, Number 17 in its series, which temporarily transforms her into an adolescent battle warrior… and, once the monster is beaten, becomes a virtual copy of herself. So, every episode is approximately half an hour of a gentle, soft-textured slice of life, where Tsubasa and her popular, outgoing ‘twin’ participate in class plays and camping trips… followed by 15 minutes of Buffy the Alien Slayer. It shouldn’t work, but despite the rich veins of handwavium involved in holding the plot together, it does. Just be prepared for the ending to break your heart (while staying honest to the spirit of the series).
Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (2011)
YA fans should love this one. Adolescent angst at its most elegiac, with a soupcon of the supernatural. None of the surviving ‘Super Peace Busters’ have fully recovered since the day five years earlier when one of their members died in an accident, but former group leader Jintan is the most damaged of the survivors (possibly because his mother died around the same time). He’s become a hikkikomori, a recluse, refusing to go to school or even leave the house — until the day Menma’s ghost shows up, and demands that he reassemble the old gang, so she can finally get her last wish and pass on to the afterlife. This would be easier to achieve if only she could remember what that last wish was… or if any of the other former friends could see her… (Be sure you watch the credits after the final episode, which beautifully round out the story.)
Fellow otaku: Please let me know in the comments where you agree/disagree with me, or if you have your own recommendations. I’d particularly love to hear about newer series in this general vein — the Spousal Unit is still working (from home) full time, I spend my days on this blog, and the way our schedules mesh means we don’t have much time when we’re both awake and ready to watch stuff together!