One of the best things about anime is that it’s a “big tent” filled with so many genres and sub-genres that you can never run out of fresh things to watch. If you ever get tired of shounen, idol, isekai, mecha, slice-of-life, harem, yuri or historical offerings, there are plenty of experimental anime series to explore. I asked J-List’s awesome customers to share their favorite examples of avante-garde anime, and this is what we came up with!
J-List Customers Share Their Top 12 Experimental Anime!
What makes an experimental anime? That’s the glorious thing about this category: there are no set elements because each is unique by definition. But some guidelines might include:
- The anime should not in any way be a retread of established tropes. Sure, That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime was fresh and fun to watch when it first came out, but it’s still part of a well-explored genre.
- Innovative use of technology or storytelling methods is always welcome.
- It should be unconventional and take risks.
First up is Mawaru Penguindrum, a deliciously random story of two brothers whose sister Himari is ill. One day a magic penguin hat cures Himari’s sickness, although there’s a catch: her body is possessed by a strange entity. It’s a fun offering from the creator of Revolutionary Girl Utena and Yuri Kuma Ashi.
Serial Experimental Lain
The first outstanding “anime mind fuck” a lot of fans encountered, this gem from 1998 followed Lain Iwakura, an introverted fourteen-year-old girl living in a near-future world of technology and the Internet. When Lain’s friend Chisa commits suicide, Lain receives a message from her explaining that Chisa is not dead but has only moved her consciousness inside the computer world of the Wired.
Wonder Egg Priority
If Stephen King made an anime, it would be Wonder Egg Priority. The story follows Ai Ohto and several friends who get invited into a mysterious place called the Egg World where they must help girls who have experienced some trauma, safeguarding them from horrific Langoliers who appear to kill them. The story arcs each girl goes through can get pretty dark.
This highly influential anime marked a turning point in the history of Gainax, adding a weirdness to story and character elements that were missing from the old-school days of Hideaki Anno. As Gainax faded in influence from the industry, the staff that worked on this legendary work broke away to found the Trigger animation studio.
Bakemonogatari / Monogatari Series
The Monogatari Series, aka How to Make Your Poor Voice Actors Work the Same Jobs for 20+ Years, is one of the most successful novel-to-anime adaptions ever. Supposedly the animated series and films will go through at least 2030. If you like high-quality seiyu, it’s better than porn.
Houseki no Kuni
I’m generally on record for disliking it when anime studios try to replace proper hand-drawn animation with 100% CGI-generated visuals, and I’ve dropped shows just because of these jarring visuals in the past. But some anime need to be animated with CGI in order to reach their artistic potential. One example was Land of the Lustrous, about a future in which females who are living gems struggle against the Lunarians. It’s the closest to Disney’s Fantasia I can think of in the anime world.
Another Experimental Anime: BEASTARS
Since I’m adding avante-garde shows that use CGI to create animation that would be otherwise impossible, let’s add BEASTARS to this list. An outstanding show based on the manga by Paki Itagaki that asks what a world populated by intelligent carnivores and herbivores would look like. It goes way, way beyond Zootopia, exploring the legal and social structures they’d need in place, and even what sex between different species would be like.
Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt
One of the last influential releases by Gainax, Panty and Stocking was very much a parody of Power Puff Girls, which was itself a commentary on anime and magical girls seen through the lens of Western animation. When two angels get banned from heaven for having too much sex, lots of fun hijinks ensue. It’s one of the few anime that might be funnier dubbed in English than with subtitles.
Another random gem from Gainax, Oruchuban Ebichu (“Ebichu Minds the House”) is the story of a cute hamster named Ebichu who lives with a trashy woman. If you ever wanted to hear Sailor Moon/Misato Katsuragi seiyu Kotono Mitsuishi talk dirty, this is the show for you! It’s directed by Hideaki Anno.
It’s impressive when you can watch several episodes of an anime and still not know what the hell is going on. A group of high school students finds themselves trapped in an alternate dimension where they are gifted with strange abilities. With no adults around, it becomes something like Lord of the Flies on LSD.
Flowers of Evil
Experimental anime is great, right? Well, yes…unless it’s horrible. I couldn’t drop the rotoscoped Aku no Hana “anime” fast enough when it aired. Still, the show has some fans, and several recommend the manga as a better way to experience the story.
Of course, all of Satoshi Kon’s works could be included on this list, but I’m going for Perfect Blue. It’s an amazing psychological thriller that follows Mima Kirigoe, a former idol who wants to become a serious actress. Her life takes a dark turn when a stalker appears, which sends her down a real rabbit hole.
Thanks for reading this blog post exploring the best experimental anime. Do you have any suggestions for this list? Post them in the comments below!
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