Retro Anime Classics That Are Old School Awesome

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If you’re anything like the team here at AnimeLab, you probably have a tendency to add more and more titles to your watchlist on a daily basis. That’s why it’s helpful to have a bit of guidance to assist with which one to start next.

Our recommendation is absolutely everything. Multiple times. Watch it in English and in Japanese. Watch it with your cat. Then it will become an O-KAT-U. Listen close enough, and its meows will gradually give way to glorious nyars.

Should you desire a more focused suggestion, however, you can’t go wrong with the classics. We’ve got an absolute wealth of old school anime to take you back to yesteryear, and we’re of course ready to tell you about what makes each one so excellent.

I mean, it would be a bit of a short article if we stopped right there, after all.

Dragon Ball (1986)

The rollicking adventure of Goku and friends has entranced anime fanatics for decades, and there’s something here for everyone. It’s got martial arts action, cheeky comedy, a healthy dose of mystery and a leering old man in a turtle shell. That last one caters to a particularly niche demographic, but don’t worry — we see you.

Dragon Ball is jollification from start to finish, and there’s plenty of content for you to enjoy. Countless story arcs, multiple iterations (including the genre-defining Dragon Ball Z), and hundreds of episodes overflowing with Kamehameha goodness.

Don’t know where to begin? Make sure to check out our beginner’s guide to Dragon Ball! If you do know where to begin, check it out anyway. Rumour has it, it’s good luck.

Wicked City (1992)

Wicked City explores ideas and uncomfortable truths that we’re still talking about to this day, and could well have been made just yesterday.

True to its title, it is eerie and unnerving, with confronting visuals taken straight from your most vivid nightmares. It subverts the notion of genre, ostensibly presenting itself as an action film while displaying traits of body horror, film noir, and even buddy cop here and there.

On an aesthetic front, Wicked City is a delight to the eyes, seamlessly using colours and lighting as its playthings to help emphasise the urgency of its scenes. Every grim moment just hits you, holds you and haunts you, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it is an essential part of any otaku’s anime diet.

It’s not for the faint of heart, obviously… but doesn’t that just make you even more curious?

Berserk (1997)

Bloody and gratifying, Berserk is deliberate in its execution. It hits you with gory images of intense, brutal violence set upon an often subdued soundtrack, and when it treats you to moments of levity, you know that it won’t last for long. The outlook here is bleak, and even with his immense power, Guts feels as if he is fighting against insurmountable odds.

We believe in him in a desperate kind of way, a last bastion of hope in a world gone to hell. He’s not chivalrous or kind, and indeed, the cruelty he can display rings truer of a villain than it does of your stoic paragon. You could say he’s the tortured soul who is out to exact vengeance, or perhaps his bloodlust has simply consumed every inch of his being.

The comrades he meets along the way, however long they may last, help to assemble the pieces of his puzzle, and we learn gradually exactly how this grizzled man came to be. This is no child’s play, that’s for damn sure!

Astro Boy (1980)

Quick, name the most iconic hero in anime history!!

Did you say Goku? Edward Elric? Youto Yokodera?

They’re admirable suggestions (especially Youto-kun), but they were all preceded by the influential Astro Boy. Despite its cheery exterior, this anime has one of the more tragic backstories behind its protagonist’s origin, and it readily confronts questions of morality in technology.

Astro Boy can quickly bring tears to your eyes in unexpected ways. The endearing cast may live in a fantastical, futuristic world, but they’re undeniably rooted in their human characteristics. Its creator, Osamu Tezuka, shaped manga, anime and animation in general with his innovations, and this is his most indelible work for a reason.

Could there be a more sympathetic figure than Astro, who was brought into this world under desperate pretences, and expected to fight for values and agendas that he couldn’t even begin to comprehend? He acts out of pure altruism, doing right simply because it is right. For that, he is the greatest hero of them all.

And hey, it’s set in 2030, so be sure to take note of all of the technological advances you can look forward to ten years from now.

Speed Racer (1967)

For all of your favourite modern anime to walk, its forefathers like Speed Racers had to drive.

This is truly the definition of an anime classic. Let’s be clear, as well, that there are more qualifiers for an anime to be considered classic than simply being old. It has to be enduring, symbolic and engrained within a generation.

The era in which Speed Racer came from was a much different time, rife with its own prejudices. The way it was able to transcend such tensions is unfathomably significant. It is uniquely offbeat, rarely letting up with its quirky characters and high octane action. It caters to those seeking frequent thrills, and its fight scenes are something to behold.

Basically, Speed Racer knows exactly what it wants to be, and it leans into that concept with the same confidence Speed takes a hairpin turn. It’s not afraid to be unabashedly weird or loony, and in a lot of ways, it defies definition. It simply oozes style in the grooviest way.

Cowboy Bebop (1998)

A masterclass in storytelling.

Cowboy Bebop invites its viewers in with a familiar premise, then hooks into your soul. Its narrative is slick and sexy, just like its characters (I’m all about that Jet Black hotness), and it interweaves episode-by-episode beats seamlessly with its overarching narrative. Basically, you can’t miss an episode, because you’re likely to miss something important, while at the same time, each one offers something fresh and new, so it’s constantly fresh and fascinating.

The term ‘space western’ is thrown around far too often, but this right here is the magnum opus of that delineation. The only thing more intriguing than the action on-screen is gradually unravelling the nuanced lore of the characters at the heart of it all.

Plus it has kawaii doggy. KAWAII DOGGY, GUYS.

Related: Cowboy Bebop, Code Geass and Escaflowne Music Soundtracks Now Streaming!

Initial D (1998)

Some consider Initial D to be an anime. Others immediately cast their minds to the manga. Others still swear by the popular series of video games. All of the above are true, and this kind of success has built an empire. A drifting empire with questionable road safety practices, but an empire all the same.

This is a franchise that understands the intangible thrill of driving, where the vehicles are akin to mythical beasts. They’re referred to with reverence and a tinge of fear, hushed whispers of fabled champions tackling the courses in record time. The egos, the rivalries, the prodigies, it’s all here, and all captured in glorious late 90s CGI that will instantly make you feel nostalgic.

And of course, we have to mention the music! The Initial D soundtrack has been put on a pedestal, and with good reason, because it absolutely slaps (as the cool kids apparently say). Golly, I miss Eurobeat.

Sailor Moon (1992)

If you grew up in the 90s, Sailor Moon was undoubtedly a part of your childhood. It’s an anime staple, and among the most significant ones to make an impact in the western market before the medium became a worldwide phenomenon.

Maybe you kept watching it to this day, in which case you’ll already know why it was so popular, but maybe you lapsed? If so, you’re really missing out, because this holds up just as well nearly three decades later…

Dare I say, even better, in fact. Usagi is the Id within us all. She’s emotional, impulsive and rash, prone to outbursts and with an attention span shorter than the next sentence.

Wow!

The thing is, she’s really just a kid who’s been thrown into a completely bizarre situation, and her character arc is something to behold, transitioning over time from a panicky, inept klutz to a confident, daring leader… who’s still a klutz.

Sailor Moon is a must-watch for any fan of bishoujo anime. And even if bishoujo isn’t your jam, you should watch it anyway. Just trust me on this one.

Rurouni Kenshin (1996)

A wandering swordsman whose lethal talents with a katana shaped all of Japan… True though that narrative may be, it only tells half the story of Kenshin Himura. Behind the blade, he’s a humble, pleasant dude with bizarre speech patterns and a longing to basically chill out. That’s something we can all get behind.

Rurouni Kenshin is set in the early years of the Meiji era, where centuries old establishments were being cast aside in favour of ushering the country into unprecedented growth. Clearly, ingrained habits die hard, and there are more than a few traditionalists and scoundrels set in their ways.

A lifetime of bloodshed has shifted Kenshin’s demeanour towards a more virtuous outlook, and watching this anime, it’s easy to see why. It perfectly captures the beauty and serenity of historical Japan, even amidst all of the ugliness of its turbulence.

Kenshin is eminently amiable in absolutely every way. He commits acts of violence to maintain peace, and only under great duress. Sometimes we must act out of necessity, rather than desire, and in this, he displays the truest qualities of a warrior.

…But more importantly, oro?

Trigun (1998)

Trigun is one of those anime that is ideal to go into blind. If you haven’t heard much about it, just know that it is instantly enjoyable and unrelenting. Go on, let the legend of Vash the Stampede speak for itself.

For those of you who are more familiar about this particular protagonist, you’ll be aware that said legend is somehow befitting and yet inaccurate all at once. Vash is indeed a destructive force, albeit entirely without malice or self-awareness.

He’s a bumbling, reckless larrikin with strong moral fibre and a commitment to what’s right, despite his propensity for somehow doing almost everything wrong. Truly, if ever there was a better suited moniker than ‘stampede’, we’ve not yet heard it.

Yes, we threw about four different pairs of antonyms in that description. Vash is just kind of like that.

Zillion (1987)

Zillion is madcap and energetic (aka genki!) It somehow manages to be funny and exciting all at once, amusing with its action and humour in equal parts.

There are countless notable weapons in anime history, but the eponymous Zillions — fabled guns sent to protect mankind — are among the most impressive. Only the truly elite can wield them, and a single shot is an event unto itself, decimating its doomed target in a grand display of kaboom.

Additionally, if 80s music is your thing, this is the anime for you. It synths with the best of them, and proves to be absolute auditory rapture. Remember when the world was gnarly? Zillion does.

Bubblegum Crisis – Tokyo 2040 (1998)

The year is 2040, the city is Tokyo. The crisis is of a bubblegum variety. And in a stunning stroke of prescience, boomers are ruining the world for everyone.

The boomers, in this case, are robotic servants that have begun going haywire and attacking their human masters. The police force is struggling to contain this threat, so the heavy lifting is done by the Knight Sabers, a team of mercenaries in high-tech cybernetic suits.

The themes and concepts explored in Bubblegum Crisis are increasingly relevant to the unrest in real-life society. The thin veneer of structure is gradually being peeled away to reveal a seedy underbelly. The rich and powerful have sat unchallenged atop a pyramid for decades, leaving the rest of the populace to fight for the scraps at the bottom.

…That’s probably a better analogy than my boomer joke, isn’t it?

Cardcaptor Sakura (1998)

This is the quintessential magical girl anime, and I won’t hear any arguments to the contrary. I warn you, if you want to protest, I’ll fight back with a deck of Clow Cards and a pocket full of sand for emergency situations.

Cardcaptor Sakura — both the anime and the protagonist on which it is based — is immediately delightful. Sakura finds herself in a situation she had long aspired towards without ever thinking it possible, capable of wielding mystical powers and changing the world.

Have we not all daydreamed of suddenly becoming redoubtable and important? She’s as improbable as a hero comes, and yet, she overcomes the odds time and time again. We cheer for her because we are her, essentially; we all fight our own unlikely battles, striving to make our mark, and occasionally, assisted by a floating kitty guardian.

Also, it has to be said, it’s actually quite epic, and its animation is top notch, even to this day.

The Record of Lodoss War (1990)

Within the first few seconds of this anime, you are definitely going to notice how stunning it looks. The quality of its visuals is pristine, its character designs are rich and varied, and its monsters are suitably monstrous.

This is practically nirvana for fantasy aficionados, with no shortage of dragons, goblins, swords and spells. It’s like all of your D&D campaigns come to life, only much better because it wasn’t fuelled by copious amounts of energy drinks and nachos.

There’s lots of great interplay between the merry band of heroes, as their personalities clash with all of the elegance of two elephants on roller skates. Their travels bring us to some truly spectacular locales and fierce combat, where danger lurks within every shadow. The enemy generals glaring from the other side of the battlefield are imposing and lowkey, kinda gorgeous. Just saying.

Yu Yu Hakusho (1994)

Generally speaking, settling on the word ‘fun’ is frowned upon, because there are surely better adjectives available. But for Yu Yu Hakusho, it’s what immediately comes to mind, because it is the absolute embodiment of fun; it’s so darn enjoyable, it makes you feel good, and it’s got plenty of layers to sink your teeth into.

It stars the rebellious and yet surprisingly pragmatic delinquent Yusuke, who wasn’t really achieving much in life, but managed to become a superstar in death. In a lot of ways, he’s simply been misunderstood, and in turn, this anime is incredibly heartfelt and touching.

It truly runs the gamut of emotions in every episode — at its core, it’s irreverent and thrilling, but it knows exactly how to hit you right in the feels when necessary. Its cast of characters, from the diligent Botan to the courageous goofball Kuwabara, are instantly likeable, and its action scenes keep you on the edge of your seat.

It’s also worth mentioning, the opening theme is just absolute fire. It’s so hot, it burns to the touch, so you’d better just sing it instead.

Space Adventure Cobra (1982)

Y’all want to talk about cyberpunk? This is the OG cyberpunk right here, baby! Space Adventure Cobra’s psychedelic voyage through the cosmos is sure to leave an impression with its bold palette and experimental themes, alongside its many twists and turns.

The laidback personality of its hero juxtaposes the frenetic pace of the action around him, but rest assured, he’s got more than a few tricks up his sleeve to stay alive. Meanwhile, the antagonist, Crystal Boy, may sound like a delightful cherub, but he is the epitome of the term ‘final boss’. His intimidating figure, his spectral omnipotence, his sinister sneer… Ooh, it gives me the shivers!

Though this film sets itself up to be a carefree swashbuckling adventure, it soon reveals a softer, more introspective side. It deals with the melancholy of loss and betrayal, and the seemingly infallible Cobra must muster all of his might to turn the tides when all appears lost.

Also, how much money does this dude spend on cigars? It must be a fortune.

Kimba The White Lion (1965)

Appearances can be deceiving. At first glance, Kimba The White Lion seems as though it’ll be a delightfully cosy romp through the savanna with its fluffy, bright eyed protagonist and colourful cast of animal friends.

This is from the mind of Tezuka-san however, so you know it won’t be quite as straightforward as that. The jungle can be a cruel place, teeming with all manner of hazards and villains — predators, poachers and even dancing, singing hyenas! Don’t let their surprising sense of rhythm fool you, these guys mean business.

Poor Kimba is besieged by mishaps and loss from the day he was born, and still he soldiers on, a bastion of bravery, loyalty and moral justice.

About the only thing the impressionable cub lacks is his father’s killer instinct: his old man would be smacking fools left, right and centre, whereas he doesn’t have the same affinity for combat. He’s more of a thinker, and he’ll definitely have to think fast to have a chance at survival.

We’d be more than happy to protect him with our lives, for sure. Just look at that face!!

Astro Boy (1963)

That’s right, boys and girls and robots of all ages!

We’re taking an even deeper look back into the annals of animation, and bringing you the OG Astro Boy. This time it’s set in the distant year of 2000 (not a single sign of NSYNC, from what we can tell) and it truly laid the foundation for the medium we know and love today.

As one of the first anime to ever grace Japanese screens, Astro Boy built an enduring legacy, and each version offers something completely unique from the other. Even the stories they tell, intertwined at their core, take drastically different directions. Certain characters are portrayed in a much more villainous light, making Astro’s turmoil all the more dire.

The 60s edition is loaded with all kinds of sight gags that are still just as funny as they were over fifty years ago, and you’ll find yourself giggling every few seconds. It’s endlessly charming, instantly accessible and rightfully revered.

Princess Knight (1967)

It’s most fitting that we would end this list with another classic from Tezuka-san. He’s been dubbed everything from the godfather of manga to the master of anime. Perhaps you could even call him Te-san, because it’s the Japanese word for hand (an appendage he used to great effect), and it also saves on syllables.

Gender roles and stereotypes are something we’re still grappling with as a society today, so you can just imagine how much a project like Princess Knight challenged the old guard in the 50s and 60s.

It stars Sapphire, a princess who must assume the identity of a boy in order to ascend to the throne. She is a free spirited and somewhat insolent youth, content with seeking adventure rather than adhering to the ideals ordained upon her, rendering her into an inspiring figure.

Sapphire knows exactly who she is, and exactly what she wants to be, may the oppressive patriarchy be damned. Alas, she’s hounded by oppressors at every turn, desperate to stake their claim to the throne and expose her secret.

Frankly, if everyone would stop just being such jerks, their kingdom would be the better for it, but obviously that wouldn’t make for nearly as compelling a story.


Goodness gracious me! So many amazing titles to watch, and that’s just a small smattering of what’s available on AnimeLab. If I can be overly sentimental for a moment, looking back on all of these anime classics has been quite the invigorating experience, and it makes me thankful for this wonderful art form that we’ve been blessed with.

But enough from me — which one are you going to jump into next?

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