Just to get it out of the way, yes, anime, in theory, is just the Japanese term for “animation”. So basically, Japanese people will use the word “anime” to refer to any animated show, be it a Disney movie or South Park. Any cartoon is essentially an anime. In practice, however, this is not really the case.
Calling a cartoon, that didn’t originate from Japan, a great anime carries a certain weight. In Japan, cartoons stand at almost the same level as regular TV shows and movies, with a vast number of big production studios and countless shows airing every year. In the West, cartoons don’t have the same presence and are primarily catered towards children.
Anime has a specific art style associated with it, dark themes are often mixed into generally optimistic stories, and so much care and passion are put into not only the animation, but the voice acting, directing, and soundtrack. It is produced in such a way that, although kids still make out the majority of the audience, it can be viewed and thoroughly enjoyed by adults as well.
That being said, here are the 15 best American anime you need to watch.
15. Steven Universe
While the art style may not remind you of anime with its smooth, colorful and diverse character and world design, the thought put into the world-building, music, voice acting, and the characters themselves puts Steven Universe way above standard cartoons.
The plot revolves around Crystal Gems, a team of magic guardians who protect Earth, with Steven, a young half-human, half-Gem boy, at the center. Steven Universe represents a sort of coming-of-age story where we follow Steven as he explores his newfound abilities and tries to find his place in the world as its protector.
Apart from great storytelling, you can also expect a lot of anime references, as the creator herself is a huge anime fan and a lot of episodes were influenced by the anime she watched growing up.
14. Ben 10
A lot of us are familiar with those ever-growing anime franchises like Fate or Gundam. Well, in the West, Ben 10 can surely be measured by those standards. Starting in 2005 with the original Ben 10, the series has become Cartoon Network’s longest-running franchise to date. Spanning five TV shows and four films, if you were a kid in the past 15 years (or parent, on the other hand), you most definitely have watched Ben 10.
The series follows Ben Tennyson, a young boy who finds a watch-like device in the middle of nowhere that gives him the ability to transform into various creatures. He then comes to find out that the world is much bigger and more dangerous than he had previously thought. With aliens and intergalactic conflicts threatening to wipe out humanity, it is Ben’s job to protect Earth alongside his cousin Gwen and grandfather Max, a badass “Plumber” with an RV.
With the latest installment, Ben 10 (2016), ending earlier this year, we are left wondering if there’s going to be yet another addition to the long-standing series. Considering its popularity so far, it wouldn’t surprise anyone.
13. Dota: Dragon’s Blood
Based on the popular MOBA game, Dota 2, comes Dota: Dragon’s Blood, which tries to explain and present to us the dark fantasy world in which the game is set. The art style should obviously remind you of anime and there is a reason for that. The animation was done by the South Korean Studio Mir, and it was purposefully presented in a style that combines Western animation and anime.
The story opens up with us following Davion, a Dragon Knight who hunts and slays, you guessed it, dragons. In an ironic twist of fate, Davion ends up merging his soul with a big boy dragon, gaining enormous power, but at the same time risking to become what he hates the most.
As the story progresses, various characters from the game make their appearance but don’t be disheartened if you haven’t played Dota 2. Yes, it is more interesting if you’re already familiar with the characters, but the show’s presented in a way that allows anyone to enjoy it. I personally haven’t played Dota 2, but the interesting characters, great voice acting, and brutal fight scenes pulled me right in.
12. Batman: The Animated Series
Batman is by far the most popular comic book hero in the DC universe, maybe even the most popular hero altogether. He has inspired countless cartoons, as well as TV shows and movies. Among all of them, however, there is one that carries a lot of elements we’d expect from anime, and that is Batman: The Animated Series.
This particular Batman cartoon stands out mostly because of the art style. While newer renditions of Batman (like Batman: The Brave and the Bold) have a more serious air around them than standard cartoons, they are still very softened and don’t represent the Dark Knight nearly as dark as this show does.
The dark tones and tense background give the series a raw, gritty feel to it that you usually don’t associate with cartoons, but with anime. If you aren’t interested in Batman: The Animated Series, there’s always Ninja Batman, which is actually considered as anime (if you have any respect towards Batman, you won’t watch that movie).
11. Ultimate Spider-Man
While Iron Man is the god of the MCU, your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is the face of the Marvel cartoon scene. Marvel generally has a more comedic and light-hearted approach to storytelling, which makes it more suitable for children.
Spider-man being a teenager himself allows him to relate with kids and adolescents more so than with an older audience. That being said, Ultimate Spider-Man is nothing to sneeze at.
The first time I watched Ultimate Spider-Man, I thought it was a funny show with great fight scenes and good characters. This was when I was in middle school. The last time I watched it was in college and I was amazed at how smooth the animation was for a cartoon made in 2012.
The art style and animation, while clearly stating that it was based on a comic book, reminded me greatly of anime, specifically, the more robust edges and finer line work. Even though the show received mixed reviews from critics, I find it a must-watch if you’re a fan of Marvel, and also anime.
10. The Boondocks
Adult cartoons in the West often take the form of satirical comedies with a bunch of adult humor. Shows like South Park, Family Guy, Rick and Morty, etc. take comedy to the next level. They don’t care about even attempting to be kid-friendly which is why these shows often end up with mixed reception even though everyone loves them.
The Boondocks is definitely one of these cartoons. It follows the Freemans, a black family consisting of “Grandad” Freeman and his two grandkids, Huey and Riley, living in a relatively peaceful, and mostly white suburban area.
The show frequently makes use of controversial topics and social as well as political issues for comedic effect which, although hilarious and thought-provoking, can cause a stir within a more sensitive audience.
The animation, like a lot of the shows on this list, was done by Korean studios. Season one was done by Dong Woo Animation and JM Animation, while seasons 2 and 3 were done by Moi Animation. This is why The Boondocks is often misinterpreted as an anime by its fans.
9. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
If you’re a fan of Sailor Moon and the Mahou Shoujo (Magical Girl) genre of anime, then She-Ra and the Princesses of Power might be right up your alley.
The series tells the tale of Adora who, leaving the oppressive intergalactic empire known as “The Horde” finds a magical sword that gives her special powers. Trying to find a place to call her own, Adora meets “The Rebellion”, an alliance of kingdoms dedicated to fighting off the Evil Horde. There she manages to unite a group of magical princesses to help her in defeating the forces of evil.
The show’s been highly praised for its diverse and LGBTQ-inclusive cast of characters as well as their interpersonal relationships. Considering the popularity of the magical girl theme in Japan, it’s no surprise that this cartoon would be a great watch for anime fans.
8. Voltron: Legendary Defender
If you’re a fan of mecha anime, Voltron: Legendary Defender is definitely a must-watch. With a combination of anime-influenced animation and CGI (actual CGI, not that Berserk monstrosity), Studio Mir brings out one of the best robot fight scenes this genre has to offer.
The original synopsis from the production company, DreamWorks Animation, reads as follows:
Five unsuspecting teenagers, transported from Earth into the middle of a sprawling intergalactic war, become pilots for five robotic lions in the battle to protect the universe from evil. Only through the true power of teamwork can they unite to form the mighty warrior known as Voltron.
RWBY may be the only publicly recognized American-anime out there. While other shows have anime-like qualities, even critics acknowledge RWBY to be an anime in every aspect except the country of origin.
The story follows the four members of Team RWBY: Ruby, Weiss, Blake, and Yang, warriors who are tasked with protecting the world of Remnant. With countless monsters and villains dominating Remnant, Beacon Academy was formed to help train Huntsmen and Huntresses to battle these evils.
If you do decide to pick up the series, keep in mind there’s a ton of 3D animation and it might not be for everyone.
6. Teen Titans
Now that I think about it, most American cartoons focus on superheroes as their main theme. Establishing a group of loveable, yet powerful characters and letting them duke it out with villains who, for whatever reason, want to destroy the world is such a basic plot device, but somehow it still manages to entertain.
Considering it comes from the DC universe, Teen Titans has its share of dark and serious moments. When paired with great character development and humor, it comes as no surprise that it captured the attention of so many kids back in 2003, when it first aired on Cartoon Network.
Even after re-watching some of the episodes as an adult, the quality of the show is cut above the rest that tackle the same superhero genre.
Remember what I just said about there being too many superhero cartoons? Well here comes another one, but this one is not your basic “I’m not like other cartoons” type of superhero show. Invincible makes it very clear that these “heroes” are not normal, they have powers that allow them to straight-up murder people. And it’s so refreshing to watch.
Invincible starts with a 17-year-old kid who, despite being the child of the most powerful person on the planet, can’t seem to get his powers. When eventually he does, he finds out that being a superhero is not as easy and cool as he thought.
That summary doesn’t seem like much, however, at the end of the first episode, we get a glimpse of what the show is actually going to look like (Spoiler Alert). The main character’s dad brutally murders the world’s most famous superheroes. Why? Well, you’ll just have to watch and find out.
4. Samurai Jack
The world-building in Samurai Jack could easily put to shame 80% of anime. It is mind-boggling how a cartoon from 2001 can still stand as one of the best shows ever.
One day, in feudal Japan, a mysterious, shape-shifting demon called Aku appears and starts spreading chaos and death all around it. To avenge the death of his father, Jack, a “foolish, samurai warrior, wielding a magic sword” goes to defeat Aku, but just as he’s about to finish him, Aku sends him into the future. Jack must then find a way to return to the past and “undo the future, that is Aku”.
As I’ve already said, this show is all about world-building. Watching Jack as he encounters hardships left and right, with despair looming over him every step of the way makes you truly wonder “when will the suffering end if it ever will?”.
The friends he makes and the enemies he must defeat along the way all come together in the final season and perfectly encapsulate the series. We waited 12 years for Samurai Jack to get a proper ending and since 2017 we can say that Jack’s journey has finally come to an end.
When Castlevania was first announced, I don’t think people had very high hopes. This is mainly due to the fact that in the past, screen adaptations of popular video game franchises didn’t have the best track record. At best, they ended up being just ok, with fans preferring to stick with the original medium. But oh boy, did Castlevania prove its worth.
The characters, brutal action scenes, music, voice acting all help immerse you into this dark fantasy. It bears a resemblance to Berserk (the manga of course) and to be able to compare itself to that legendary series comes to show you how amazing it is.
When dumbed down, the story revolves around a group of heroes trying to save the world from Dracula, who vowed to erase humanity for killing his wife. Just leaving it at that isn’t doing the story justice, but considering the massive hype around Castlevania every time a new season comes out, you can believe me when I say that the show is worth watching.
2. Avatar: The Last Airbender
Even at the end of 2021, Avatar: The Last Airbender is still considered to be one of the best cartoons ever created. Just like Fullmetal Alchemist in anime, Avatar stands as a classic cartoon in the West that can be enjoyed by whoever, whenever.
The series is set in a world where civilization is divided based on one of the four elements: the Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, the Air Nomads, and the Fire Nation. These nations are home to special people who can control one of the four elements.
There is only one person who can control each element, and that is the Avatar. The story follows Aang, the current Avatar, on his journey to master all of the elements and bring balance to the world run under the dictatorship of the Fire Nation.
Full disclosure, I’ve played League of Legends for a long time and I might be a little biased when I say this, but Arcane is a modern-time masterpiece. Every person that has ever watched any Riot games cinematic or music video or anything has been waiting for an anime to be released. And finally, we have Arcane.
The story is set in Piltover, a city of inventions that prides itself in the brilliant minds of its citizens and that strives to always look ahead, in the direction of progress and technological advancements. On the other side, we have the repressed and run-down undercity where disease and poverty lead the people, and the leaders are Piltover’s criminals.
Although Vi and Jinx, citizens of the undercity, are considered to be the main characters, Arcane brings us a lot more than one story to follow. It shows us that bad guys and good guys don’t actually have to exist as two ends of a spectrum. Every character has a story, and Arcane takes the time to explore the very world it has created.
Needless to say, the animation is also top-tier, with music playing a huge role in conveying the intensity of the fight scenes. The best part of Arcane is that it doesn’t cater to League of Legends fans. Sure, if you already know the characters, it gives the show a new perspective (and it’s really satisfying when a character goes pow-pow and boom-boom as they do in the game), but it is far from necessary.
If you haven’t already, I urge you to give Arcane a shot. It is by far the best non-anime anime to come out in years.