Look, we've all been there. Scanning the vast wastelands of Netflix's online streaming offerings, trying to figure out what's worth our time and what isn't. It's a common refrain: everything at your fingertips, nothing to watch. Choice paralysis.
This is especially true when it comes to genres or mediums we're looking to try out for maybe the first time.
How are you supposed to know whether Hansel & Gretel is any good if you're not really familiar with the general scene it occupies? (Hint: it's not, please don't watch that movie. Like seriously, don't do it.)
This is especially true for anime, which often presents a language gap in addition to the cultural one. That's why we wrote a general beginner's guide to anime, but some of those titles aren't the easiest to access. So, what anime is worth watching on Netflix? Well...
Relatively new and noteworthy:
Knights of Sidonia
Polygon Pictures: 2014 - 2015
So, if you're wanting to watch the localized version of Knights of Sidonia, Netflix is the only place to do it. That's why it takes top billing here, not because it's necessarily the best of the group. OK? OK.
The basic premise is that a thousand years into the future, Earth has been left behind and humanity lives on giant ships. The Sidonia is one of these. Nagate Tanikaze is a denizen aboard the ship, which must deal with shapeshifting critters called Gauna. How do they deal with these aliens, you ask? Giant mecha, of course.
Knights of Sidonia is a fun little romp, and two seasons are already available. The animation style likely isn’t for everyone, especially if you go into anime expecting a specific kind, but it becomes less jarring as time goes on. Well, slightly less jarring.
Attack on Titan
Wit Studio: 2013 - Present
If you've been looking to watch some intense action featuring teens zooming around giant naked cannibals, Attack on Titan is exactly what your depraved mind is looking for. Seriously, that's the basic premise. Teens zooming around giant naked cannibals.
The anime focuses on Eren Yeager, Mikasa Ackerman, and Armin Arlert as they join up with those charged with defending against these monstrosities, referred to as titans. Nobody knows where they've come from, but humanity's been beaten back to three layers of walls and that's seemingly all that's left. Then the outer layer drops, and things get heated.
Without spoiling anything too much, the show ends up following the group as they zoom about rooftops and walls on equipment that's basically steampunk climbing gear that looks more dangerous than it even sounds. Oh well. It’s basically an anime tradition to equip children with potentially explosive gadgets and send them on their way.
A couple episodes can feel a bit sluggish in the way that anyone familiar with Dragon Ball Z will recall, but the series otherwise moves with a fairly brisk pace once it gets going. Oh, and don't get attached to anyone. They'll probably just get eaten. Again, by giant cannibals in the nude.
Kill la Kill
Trigger: 2013 - 2014
Trigger's very first original anime project focuses on teenager Ryuko Matoi as she attempts to avenge her father by taking on a school controlled by a student council who wears and dispenses clothing that increases the wearer's power. Also, she uses a giant half of a scissor as a weapon.
Ryuko's main antagonist is Satsuki Kiryuin, head of the student council, and the various henchmen (and henchwomen) under her. The clothing that gives the teens power, called Goku uniforms, have ranks with the highest being held by the student council themselves. The uniforms use powerful threads called life fibers, and … honestly, there's a whole rabbit hole here about the clothing itself. It keeps going deeper just when you think it's stopped.
But if you can look past the ecchi (anime talk for erotic), Kill la Kill is a gorgeously animated tribute to all things high octane while also maintaining a philosophical undercurrent with a kicking soundtrack. Honestly, if it weren't for the immense popularity of Attack on Titan and the Netflix exclusivity of Knights of Sidonia, this would be the first entry on the list. Watch it. Now.
Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet
Production I.G: 2013
Poor 16-year-old Ledo just can't catch a break. First he has no real home, serving as just a military grunt in the war against the terrible Hideauze, and then he's stranded in a strange and unfamiliar place. But what's this? It's actually Earth?!
It all sounds a bit kooky, but Ledo's adventures on the long-lost planet Earth with his trusty Machine Caliber, Chamber, are both action-packed and a little melancholy. Machine Calibers, for the uninitiated, are basically just giant mechanized suits with AI assistants that shoot pretty, pretty lights as weapons. Hideauze, for their part, are more or less squid-based lifeforms. It's … complicated. You'd have to watch the show to really understand.
But it's worth it. It has all the weirdness of a post-apocalyptic show without the dull palette often associated with them. Plus, bringing a spaceman back to Earth always makes for a good time.
Old school doesn't mean bad:
Studio Pierrot and TV Tokyo: 2002 - 2007
Ah, Naruto. If you're an anime neophyte, chances are this is one of the ones you know about. Ninjas doing spiffy moves, the Hidden Leaf Village, nine-tailed foxes and so on. In a lot of ways, Naruto is the ninja anime, depending on who you ask.
It's hard to boil down the show into a succinct couple paragraphs, but the basic idea is ninja with powers fight other ninjas with powers and everyone seems to have their own special version of these powers. Sasuke and Sakura are there, and so is Rock Lee, and a ton of other ninjas. The show is literally bursting with ninjas. Honestly, trying to make sense of it at all is probably the wrong attitude to approach it with. Just open your mind to the possibilities, and become an anime ninja.
The only problem is that Netflix only carries 156 of the episodes, which isn't all of them. They're also awkwardly split into three seasons rather than the correct numbering, but it's not really a problem when mainlining them. But seriously, if you've watched 156 episodes maybe it's time to invest in owning the series? Just a thought.
Bones: 2003 - 2004
To begin with, it's worth noting that there are actually two anime adaptations of Fullmetal Alchemist—this one from 2003, and a second from 2009 with Brotherhood tagged onto the end of the name. While some plot points are the same or similar, they differ significantly in other ways. For this guide, we're talking about the 2003 production.
The show follows brothers Elric and Alphonse as they try to figure out a way to get Alphonse's body back using a powerful artifact called the Philosopher's Stone. Did I mention that an alchemical accident took Elric's arm and Alphonse's whole body and that Alphonse is a living suit of armor? No? OK. Also, everyone uses alchemy because that's essentially the magic here.
Things are dark from the start in Fullmetal Alchemist, but they only get darker. It raises questions about what it means to be human, state-sponsored killing and experimentation, and more. For a show so steeped in mythical elements, it gets kind of surprisingly real when it comes to tackling issues like parenthood and friendship.
Since the release of the 2009 anime, the 2003 version sometimes gets a bad rap, but it's … honestly, probably the stronger version? You’re welcome to watch both, but don’t get confused when booting them up and move back and forth, it’ll only serve to confuse you.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Shaft and Aniplex: 2011
Madoka is one of those few series that would probably be completely spoiled by me trying to sell it to you, so let me try to do so succinctly: bright and cheery magical girls are not what they seem. Nothing is ever free.
2011 isn't quite so long ago compared with the other two listed here, but Madoka's impact on anime in general is hard to understate. In a lot of ways, the current slate of anime owes a debt to the ground that Madoka tread so well. It doesn't always blaze new ground, but the stuff it covers it does very well.
Keep in mind that this is a woefully incomplete listing! There are dozens of interesting shows on Netflix, but this should be a nice sampler of what's immediately available. It's worth noting that, depending on when you're reading this, some might have been delisted; Netflix's search option is your friend here.