Now that the current anime season (and probably the next) has been crippled by COVID-19, perhaps there aren’t many new shows still airing that you want to watch. Perhaps you’ve been furloughed, or have lost your job. I’m truly sorry if that’s the case, and I can imagine this isn’t the easiest time to look for a new source of income. What to do with all of this unwanted free time? There’s probably never been an opportunity quite like this to develop a new skill or improve an old one. Maybe learn a new language or musical instrument? Or - screw it - just watch that ancient anime show you’ve never quite got around to. Why stick to the same old seasonal grind of new, flashy anime when there are still great shows from the 90s and earlier out there and (over)ripe for the plucking?
US companies like Discotek (and to a lesser degree, Sentai) specialise in releasing older anime on Blu-ray but physical media is expensive and most bricks-and-mortar stores are shut. Folks are also short on cash, and it’s hard to justify spending a fortune on that shiny $800 Legend of the Galactic Heroes box set. Multiple streaming services have large anime libraries, and you may be subscribed to some of these already. I’ll go through them one-by-one and indicate which older shows might be worth your while. After all, it could be a choice between numbing your anxiety-riddled mind with anime or throwing sanity to the wind and skinning, roasting, then devouring your neighbours.
NOTE: I’m writing this as a resident of the UK who does not currently use a VPN, so that immediately rules out Hulu, VRV and I’m blocked from perusing interesting new free anime streaming site Retro Crush. The libraries of the various streaming services are different outside the US, so a lot of catalogue anime on US Netflix is unavailable here, but we do have all the same newer shows and exclusives.
FURTHER NOTE: I will only list shows available at the most basic subscription packages. No add-ons allowed. Generally, I’ve considered only shows released before the year 2000. Otherwise this article would be three times as long.
Netflix:(Basic: £5.99 (1 screen, SD), standard £8.99 (2 screens, HD), premium £11:99 (4 screens, HD and Ultra HD)
The granddaddy of mainstream streaming sites got into anime a big way in the later 2010s, with many exclusive shows unavailable to watch anywhere else, not even physically. Outside of the US, Netflix scored a major coup by securing exclusive rights to every Studio Ghibli movie from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984 - technically made before the studio formally existed but retroactively added to the oeuvre) to When Marnie Was There (2014). Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is the only, inexplicable omission. How on earth is one meant to watch the traditional double feature with My Neighbour Totoro?)
In the US, the Ghibli catalogue will stream instead on HBO Max, due to launch on May 27th 2020. Some Crunchyroll stuff is due to appear on that service too. Prime Ghibli mover Hayao Miyazaki’s Lupin the Third movie Castle of Cagliostro (1979) is also on Netflix and is a fun romp that anticipates much of the tone and content he’d cram into later films like Castle in the Sky (1986 - my personal favourite Ghibli film). If early Steven Spielberg had directed an anime movie, it would have turned out something like Cagliostro.
We can’t talk Netflix exclusives without mentioning Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995, 26 episodes), perhaps one of the most important anime of the 1990s. As a sullen teenager obsessed with the end of the world, Evangelion spoke to me like no other pop culture property has since. Other shows have since eclipsed it in terms of production quality, but nothing quite matches it in terms of the emotional intensity of self loathing and disgust exhibited by poor Shinji, Asuka and Misato. Only superficially a mecha show, director Hideaki Anno used the TV series to skewer the tropes of the (at-the-time) popular “giant robot” genre to give us a clinically depressed “hero” fighting for meaning and purpose in a post-apocalyptic world filled with terrifying biblical, apocryphal and kabbalistic monstrosities.
Studio Gainax ran out of money towards the end and the final couple of episodes were slideshows that concluded the series in what can most charitably be called a “thematic” sense rather than resolving any plotlines. Anno received death threats, so proceeded to make a different conclusion that was equally as divisive - the insane movie masterpiece End of Evangelion (1997). End of Eva’s tagline was the ominous “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone would just die?” No experience of Evangelion is complete without the film. Netflix includes the TV “director’s cut” with extra scenes edited into episodes 21-24. Presumably these were not in the original broadcast due to financial constraints. The movie Evangelion Death(True)² is a non-chronological recap of episodes 1-24 that can be safely skipped. Watch the series first, then watch End of Eva. Then invest in a good counsellor. Unfortunately no streaming service has rights to screen any of the newer 3 Rebuild of Evangelion movies, and the 4th and final Rebuild movie was due to be released theatrically by now (in Japan) but unfortunately it was preempted by the real apocalypse.
That’s pretty much it for older anime on Netflix. Other newer “classic” anime (early 2000s) of note on the service include the original Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), Death Note (2006), Code Geass (2006 - but only season 1 available for some reason) and Black Lagoon (2006) - all are essential viewing for your fully rounded anime education. Oh, did I not mention? Yes, there will be a test at the end. Get studying.
Amazon Prime: £7.99 monthly or £79 annually (includes other services)
Anime often feels like an afterthought on Amazon Prime. After that brief, disastrous fling with double-paywalling of anime content (with the much-hated “Anime Strike” model), Amazon seemed to forget that it signed an exclusivity agreement with Fuji TV’s late night anime programming block noitaminA. Many great modern anime shows are buried on Amazon, like Land of the Lustrous, Made in Abyss, Re:Creators, Blade of the Immortal, Vinland Saga, Banana Fish, Dororo, Kemurikusa, Wotakoi, Killing Bites, Happy Sugar Life (I know I’m a bad person for including that one) and latterly Psycho-pass Season 3 and its conclusion First Inspector. We don’t talk about Babylon any more. Now that exclusivity deal is over, who knows what the hell Amazon’s plans are with anime. Their listings pretend it may as well not exist on the service, it is so hard to find out what is even on there.
With some difficulty, I managed to excavate a couple of vintage anime available on Prime. Cat’s Eye (1984) is a 36 episode series I know absolutely nothing about. Go knock yourself out. Based on a vintage (1905-1911) American comic strip, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland is a 1989 children’s movie I’ve always wanted to see. Most people who’ve heard of it are probably more familiar with the tie-in NES game that was released in the West a good couple of years before the movie. I’ll probably get around to watching this with my son soon, now that I know it’s available. And that’s it for Amazon. Pretty poor show.
Crunchyroll: premium: £6.50 monthly (£64.99 annually), premium plus: £8.99 monthly
I read online that Crunchyroll has 1200 subbed properties in its library. This may be true in the US, but a lot of the older shows are unfortunately region-blocked in the UK, such as many properties sub-licensed by Discotek. So that means no A Wind Named Amnesia (1983) for me, which is a shame as I loved that when I saw it on VHS in the 1990s. Similarly, I’m unable to torment my children with Ringing Bell (1978), a thoroughly disturbing kids movie that’s never been officially available here. Don’t worry, I’ll find a way for it to infect my children’s nightmares. What is available, wonderfully, is Robot Carnival, a 1983 anime anthology movie with a segment directed by Akira’s Katsuhiro Otomo. I really wanted to watch this after I reviewed Memories (1995) last year. As it was never released physically here, I was resigned to torrenting it. Now I can watch it on Crunchyroll, so you can probably expect a review soon.
Carol and Tuesday and Space Dandy’s Shinichirō Watanabe’s first series as chief director was 1998's incredibly popular (in the West, anyway) Cowboy Bebop, a stylish, witty and tragic Sci-fi Western about a band of misfits travelling the solar system in their rickety starship. It also spawned a 2001 movie (unavailable to stream as far as I can see). This is a pillar of 1990s anime that still holds up incredibly well today. Yoko Kanno provides a predictably awesome and eclectic soundtrack. Outlaw Star is another 1998 Sci-fi Western that was significantly eclipsed in popularity by Bebop. I’ve never seen it, but as it’s on Crunchyroll now I’ve added it to my backlog. Completing the 1998 anime Sci-fi Western Triumvirate is Trigun, which although on Crunchyroll in the US, is completely unavailable to stream anywhere in the UK at present. Once upon a time it was on Netflix. One of these days I’ll be able to finish watching this initially goofy, comedic show that apparently gets darker and painfully serious towards the end.
Generally, the Gundam franchise bores me to tears. I’ve tried multiple times to get into various series but end up falling asleep or being confused by the opaque, stilted storytelling. This doesn’t stop me from making Gunpla models, but it means I don’t care which series they originate from - only if they look cool or not. Back in the early Toonami days, I survived about 2/3rds of the way through Mobile Suit Gundam Wing (1995) and mostly enjoyed it. I thought it would be nice to start watching it again from the beginning with my nine-year-old son. We got two episodes in and the constant questions “Why is he doing that?” “Who is that?” “What is going on?” drove me to give up again. Gundam Wing is bad. It is incoherent, badly plotted, poorly paced and the dub is laughable. Anyway, it’s all on Crunchyroll, so if you want to ruin your childhood memories, be my guest.
One show that looked intriguing back in the mid-90s when I was an avid Animerica reader (though the UK Manga Mania magazine was far superior) was Key the Metal Idol (1994), a 15-episode OVA about a robot girl whose creator dies and leaves her alone to fend for herself. She’s told if she can make 30,000 people fall in love with her, then she can become human. It looks like a weird cross between Pinocchio, Blade Runner and Love Live! and I hear it gets pretty dark in places. It never had a physical release here so I’m looking forwards to checking it out.
Finally, GTO (1999) is based on a long-running manga about the ex-gang member Eikichi Onizuka who becomes a very unconventional high school teacher. The manga is frequently hilarious, though extremely crude. I’m unsure how well this will translate to anime so I’ll check it out at some point. Overall Crunchyroll’s selection of older anime is pretty good, even better if you’re in North America.
Funimation NOW: Premium plus: £4.99 monthly or £49.99 annually
As much as I hate Funimation’s terrible app and awful website, I have to hand it to them - they have an amazing selection of vintage anime, even outside North America. The oldest shows are two of Osamu Tezuka’s most famous black and white productions - 1963's original Astro Boy and 1965 series Kimba the White Lion. This is the show that Disney allegedly plagiarised to make The Lion King. Probably more interesting as a history lesson than entertainment, I can’t see anyone sitting down to binge episode after episode of these.
Most influential anime movie of all time, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988) is required viewing for anyone interested in how anime breached the mainstream in the West, plus it’s also a fantastic movie that has aged terrifically well. I remember staying up late to watch the subtitled UK TV premiere of this back on January 8th, 1994 at 23:05. (Well past my bedtime.) Although I’d already seen a good lot of anime by then, like Gall Force, Lensman, Locke the Superman, Robotech and Warriors of the Wind, Akira blew them all out of the water with sheer craft and spectacle. Few anime films since have been made with such dedication and attention to detail. Every single yen of the massive (for the time) budget is up there on screen to see. Although it only tells a fragment of the full story (the manga is well worth reading in its entirety and explains the plot better than the film ever does) it is full of heart-stopping imagery and beautiful animation. Watch this.
Heralded as the successor to Akira, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995) is also a gorgeous high-quality film, but it has less heart and although is much shorter, somehow feels long. I wrote about this recently. Ghost in the Shell’s cultural importance has perhaps eclipsed Akira’s, and I’ll always have a soft spot for this film, but the later Stand Alone Complex TV series is a more entertaining take on the same material, and is also available to stream on Funimation, along with tangential sequel movie Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004).
Director Kunihiku Ikuhara has a reputation for producing thematically rich, multilayered stories that are just a little bit... opaque to the average viewer. His early career highlights are most notably as director of multitudes of Sailor Moon episodes. Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997) was his first solo directing gig following Sailor Moon and it is here that he truly crystalises his unique style, full of symbolism, repetition and challenging subject matter. I’ve only seen some of this and I’m looking forwards to seeing the rest. Adolescence of Utena, the extremely surreal 1999 movie retelling is also available to stream. I read the manga adaptation, published in Animerica Extra in the late 1990s. Ikuhara later directed 2011's Mawaru Penguindrum, 2015's Yurikuma Arashi and 2019's Sarazanmai.
Kia Asamiya was a mangaka I vaguely followed in the 1990s. Silent Mobius (one of Viz Manga’s first releases) was atmospheric and interesting and Steam Detectives (published as part of the Manga Vizion anthology) was lightweight, fun fluff. I always thought his strengths were more in design than storytelling. Therefore I never bothered with the 1996 TV anime series Nadesico, though I hear it is great, probably because Asamiya never actually wrote it, only drawing the manga adaptation. It seems to be a mix of serious drama and goofy comedy, with spaceships and giant robots. It’s probably worth a try.
A major hype show in the early 1990's was Record of Lodoss War, a 13 OVA series from 1990 that was followed up with a less beloved 27-episode TV series in 1998. Based on a series of fairly generic-sounding D&D-type novels by Ryo Mizuno (author of Record of Gancrest War, another novel series adapted into anime in 2018), Lodoss War is full of dragons, knights, elves and witches and is probably the classic anime equivalent of The Lord of the Rings. These days, generic fantasy settings are ubiquitous, certainly within the isekai sub-genre, but if you want to go back to see where all the tropes originated (or were at least codified), then Lodoss War would be a good place to start.
Other notable series on Funimation include Initial D (1998), a perennially popular car anime for gear-heads that I have never seen and have no intention of watching. The original 7-episode OVA Tenchi Muyo Ryo-Ohki (1992) is present in its presumably uncut “glory”. I’ve only ever seen the hilariously butchered Toonami versions. OVA series 2 and 3 seem unavailable to stream anywhere in the UK, series 4 has never been released in the West and the first episode of series 5 has randomly appeared on Crunchyroll. Who is even watching this show any more? This was the “original” harem comedy anime, or at least the one we should all blame for the explosion of dull copycats that clog the airwaves.
Finally, and this one is cheating, I know: Star Blazers 2199 is the 2012 remake of 1974 Leiji Matsumoto TV series Space Battleship Yamato. Yamato is better known in North America as the heavily edited and westernised Star Blazers that ran on syndicated TV from 1979 onwards. For an entire generation of anime fans, Starblazers was their gateway drug to the anime medium. The original series is extremely dated now, but this no-expense-spared remake is absolutely fantastic, and criminally underlooked by modern fandom. I heartily recommend this show (at least the first season - the second, Starblazers 2202, isn’t anywhere near as good). I plan to write a more detailed overview of the show in the future, to coincide with its upcoming, long overdue UK blu-ray release.
HIDIVE: $4.99 monthly via paypal (no obvious price in British pounds)
HIDIVE is a relative newcomer to the anime streaming wars. It exists as the streaming arm of Sentai Filmworks and as such is mostly limited to that company’s portfolio. Sentai was Amazon’s partner for the aforementioned Anime Strike disaster, so there may be some crossover with Amazon in terms of newer show content. In terms of older anime, HIDIVE has Amazon beat, with some particularly big and important shows available.
First up is the long-running, serious political space opera Legend of the Galactic Heroes (1988 - 1997), based on a 10-volume novel series. This was not originally broadcast on TV but sporadically released in Japan on a subscription VHS model - one episode per tape, over almost a decade. At 110 main series episodes plus 52 side stories, that was a lot of tapes. Due to licensing vortexes of doom, it seemed unlikely that Western fans would ever get to experience this show legally. Now, a complete blu-ray box set is available for the eye-watering price tag of $800 USD. I don’t think this will ever be physically available in the UK. Every single episode is streaming on HIDIVE though, and I’m currently hacking my way through this grim but compelling drama. It’s kind of like Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October meets Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe but in space, via Battlestar Galactica and Babylon 5 but without the treacherous synths, aliens and weird hairstyles. The sounds and visuals have dated, but the storytelling is tense and sprawling with sympathetic and hateful characters on both sides of the central conflict. Alternatively, a recent remake Die Neuer These is on Crunchyroll, but it seems overly sanitised and flat in comparison.
Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (1990) is what Hideaki Anno made before Evangelion. Character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (not entirely untruthfully) jokes that Eva’s main character Shinji Ikari is basically a carbon copy of Nadia but with short hair. Beset with production problems, Anno sunk into a profound depression for 4 years because of Nadia and only recovered by spewing his self-hatred and negativity into Eva. Nadia is a light-hearted adventure show with darker undertones and some unfortunately shit filler in the middle. The beginning and ending arcs are great though, and it’s a series well worth watching, even if it is pretty juvenile in places.
This is one hell of a blast from the past for me. Battle of the Planets used to be shown on UK TV in the mornings during the English holidays, and I got very upset when my holidays in Scotland did not coincide and I had to go to school, thereby missing my daily dose of anime violence. Of course, this was a bastardised version of Science Ninja Team Gachaman (1972) with most of the violence removed, characters names changed, entire episodes missing and the premise completely rewritten. Now HIDIVE has both versions available to contrast and compare. Also - a second Western adaptation of the same material (G-Force) was produced by another company, with a different translation and including different episodes. Your only chance of seeing that one is on Youtube.
I really enjoyed the 3x3 eyes OAV series, based on a manga by Yuzo Takada (translated but only partially released by Dark Horse in the West), but I don’t think that’s available to stream anywhere. Blue Seed (1994) is a 26 episode TV series based on a manga by the same author, and as it was never released in the UK I have never seen it. I wonder if it is any good? Other notable series on HIDIVE include Casshan (1973), a 35 episode series subsequently remade multiple times, including the incomprehensible live action/CGI confuse-fest Casshern (2004). Finally, for those Yoshiyuki Tomino fans out there who want to see something he made that isn’t Gundam-related, Aura Battler Dunbine (1983) is a 49 episode series set in his “Byston Well” alternate universe. (See also - Garzey’s Wing, Wings of Rean.) I know nothing about this one and find Tomino to be an insufferable bore, so I’ll give it a miss. YMMV.
Retro Crush: Free, supported by apparently unobtrusive adverts.
I am so gutted that this service is unavailable outside of North America as it has so many great retro anime shows, and may in fact be the best option for you cash-strapped folks out there. For the moment it’s only viewable via mobile app, so that rules out desktop/laptop use unless you’re technically savvy enough to run an android emulator like Bluestacks or Nox. Retro Crush launched only within the last month or so and claimed at launch to have 100 series and 40 films. Unfortunately I’m unable to directly verify this.
Retro Crush’s lineup is an embarrassment of riches, including perhaps the funniest anime of the 1980s - Project A-ko (1986), an absurd parody that gets better the more anime you’ve seen. Nothing is safe from its irreverent gaze. This movie is just so much fun, you need to watch it. Superhuman redhead A-ko and ditzy blonde C-ko (literally “girl A” and “girl C”) are best friends who attend high school together. Jealous rich bitch B-ko schemes to get between them and this borderline yuri-tastic setting soon erupts into insane mecha fights, Wagnerian Space Opera, schoolgirls using missiles as mid-air stepping stones and cross-dressing space aliens getting drunker and more inappropriate by the minute.
Fushigi Yuugi (1995) is one of the original isekai manga/anime (along with others like El Hazard and Vision of Escaflowne). I’ve never seen the anime, though read the manga when it was serialised in Viz Media’s Animerica Extra monthly anthology that skewed heavily towards shojo (girl’s) manga. I was gutted when that anthology folded, especially because of bullshit licensing restrictions I couldn’t get the successor Shojo Beat in the UK. And now licensing restrictions prevent me from watching the anime! Grrrr. Anyway, this is premium isekai directed mainly towards girls, hence deals with love and emotions and some really convoluted soap-opera stuff. I loved it so much and I’ve never been able to read the end...
Titans of the medium like Osamu Tezuka are well-represented with Jungle Emperor Leo (1997) - this is the movie version of the story, though I’m unsure if the original 1960s TV anime Kimba the White Lion (1965) is included on the service. One incarnation of Leiji Matsumoto’s Galaxy Express 999 appears, and I think this is the 1978 TV series, but I could be wrong. There are a multitude of other films or OVAs it could be. Matsumoto’s Captain Harlock makes an appearance in Arcardia of my Youth (1982), a film I hear is fantastic but have never been able to see. My main exposure to Matsumoto’s work was in the late 1980s with the butchered TV series Captain Harlock and the Queen of a Thousand Years, and of course latterly the Daft Punk movie Interstella 5555 (2003) . Even elder statesman/pervert Go Nagai gets a chance to shine with the insane horror series Demon Lord Dante, though this is cheating slightly as a 2002 adaptation of his 1971 manga.
Finally, other classics like Creamy Mami (1983), Space Adventure Cobra (1982), Golgo 13 - The Professional (1983), Bubblegum Crisis (1987) and Urusei Yatsura movie 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984) are all worth a look, all very different in many ways to modern anime but undeniably influential on the medium as we enjoy it now. They’ve even got Samurai Pizza Cats (1990) for goodness’ sake. Bugger it. I’m going to have to get a VPN, aren’t I?
That was a huge list, but there are still so many other classic anime shows still unavailable to stream. Hopefully services like Retro Crush can continue to expand their catalogue (and hopefully their reach to other countries) soon. Happy viewing, and let me know about your favourite older anime in the comments.
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