When people talk about “Anime Classics”, they will usually name some of the most popular anime from the 90s, or sometimes as early as the 00s. While the 90s started what I personally refer to as the “anime boom”, when anime and manga became more well known worldwide, anime is almost as old as animation itself. In order to qualify for this list, all the anime we will be listing will be created before 1990. If you like our list, leave a like! If you don’t see your fave, feel free to leave a comment! Anime Gem tries not to repeat anime over multiple lists, so check out our other lists for other recomendations!
- Astro Boy (1963)
If you know anything about anime or manga, you should probably recognize the name Osamu Tezuka, who is referred to as the “God of Manga”. If you’re not familiar with his work now, you should be by the end of this list. Astro Boy is probably one of the most well known out of this list due to the 2009 American and Hong Kong made movie of the same name with an all star cast, which was a bomb in box office but recieved average ratings. Astro Boy follows the story of a young android, who was to replace his creators son who died in a car accident. Astro Boy soon becomes a well known hero, and learns to feel like a real human. Astro Boy is influential for being the first anime released to the US, and although the voice acting was quite notoriously bad, the translation was actually handled with care, although unfortuntely over 80 episodes didn’t make it to the US, although fan translations can be found for most of them. Astro Boy continues to be influencial in both animation and the superhero genre, and while it has outdated aspects, overall it still holds up in modern times.
2. Speed Racer (1967)
You might be thinking “Wait, that’s an anime” if you are familar with the series due to its several reboots airing on mainstream channels such as Nickeloadeon, and the original series often running along side Hannah Barbara cartoons in the late 60s and 70s, and the unsuccessful live action movies made by The Matrix creators (although if you ask for my personal opinion, which may be entirely nostalgia based, it’s actually good). If you know anything about this series, it’s probably the painfully catchy theme song you still hear hummed around to this very day. The plot is relatively simple, Speed Racer wishes to be the best racer in the world, and episodes revolve around things preventing his goal to be achieved. With only 4 voice actors in the English verison, and reused animation, some aspects of the show are laughably bad. However, it’s still a good time if you like old cartoons, and surprisingly Speed’s girlfriend Trixie is more than a damsel in distress. This anime kickstarted every little boys and girls love for cars, and continues to be entertaining in modern times.
3. Candy Candy (1976)
Although more recently western media has been vastly influenced by anime, anime in the 60s and 70s were often heavily inspired by North American and European Literature. Candy Candy stars Candy, an orphan girl who lives in the early 20th century America at an orphanage known as Pony’s Home. Candy is known for her mischievous behavior, and her closeness to another girl named Annie who was abandoned on the same day as Candy. After Annie is adopted, Candy is devestated, and soon follows the dramatic tale of her life. Although some of the animation is dated, the character designs in Candy Candy are quite charming. And although melodrama can sometimes be exhausting, Candy Candy handles its soap opera-ish format well, and takes the time to develop its characters. Candy is just as lovable as Anne of Anne of Green Gables or Little Orphan Annie, and is deserving of the same praise.
4. Cutie Honey (1973)
Although famous creator Go Nagai is more well known for his Devil Man series, Cutie Honey is arguably just as important to anime history, if not more so. Cutie Honey stars Honey, a seemingly regular girl who causes trouble at her Catholic school. One day, Honey discovers that she is an android, and her creator/father has been killed by an evil organization known as Pather Claw, which she swears revenge on. Honey learns that she can transform into 7 different forms, with her warrior form Cutie Honey being her main. Cutie Honey is known for being credited as the first Magical Girl Warrior anime (a genre that will later be seen in Sailor Moon and Madoka Magica) and also created the traditional magical girl transformation. Honey is also the first shonen anime to feature a female lead, who appealed to both boys and girls. Despite some of its questionable moments of “Fan service” (uncomfortable sexualization of the lead character) the show is honestly as good as any modern day superhero anime. Cutie Honey also features several other adaptations, including a shojo version in Cutie Honey F and a live action movie directed by Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno. Honey was also recently adapted in 2018, it’s safe to say that we will be seeing more of this android girl in the future.
5. Cyborg 009 (1968)
An early sci-fi anime, Cyborg 009 has a plot that could easily be created into a block buster hit. Cybor 009 tells the story about 9 people who were kidnapped and turned into cyborgs in order to use them weapons. A scientist helps them rebel and the 9 eventually escape, but continue to have to fight against corrupt people. Despite being in black and white and over half a century old, Cyborg 009 still has a following, and for good reason. It continues to get adaptations, including a Netflix original, and the plot is just as epic today as it was back then.
6. Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974)
As described early, anime in the 70s was often inspired by European literature, and this includes direct adaptations of it as well. World Masterpiece Theater had a “Classic Children’s Literature” period from 1974-1997, with their most popular one being their adaptation of Heidi. Following the plot of the original novels, Heidi is a young girl who moves to the alps and lives with her grandfather and befriends a young goat herd named Peter. Heidi later on moves to the city and becomes close with a sickly girl named Clara, before moving back to her beloved alps. This anime was directed by Studio Ghibli’s co-founder Isao Takahata, and featured animations from the more well known Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki. Although some character designs were rather simple, they work, and some of the scenery is some of the best in animation peroid. Plus, it is as sweet and endearing as any other adaptation of the story.
7. The Rose of Versailles (1979)
Outside of just being a great anime, The Rose of Versailles is a great period piece. The story takes place during the French Revolution, and stars noblewoman Oscar, a woman raised as a man in order to be captain of the royal guard. The story later focuses in on the government of France at the time, and most noticeably takes a realistic approach to Marie Antoinette, instead as being potrayed as an evil, lustful woman who isn’t too bright like most believe her to be, or more recent potrayals of her being a victim, Rose of Versailles paints her in a sympathetic light while acknowleging that she was flawed. Oscar soon becomes a revolutionary leader as she realizes how horrible the French people are being treated. Featuring themes of feminism, sexuality, and gender, along with having one of the most gorgeous art styles that even high end fashion label Moschino took inspiration from, The Rose of Versailles doesn’t have a single aspect that feels dated.
8. Lupin the Third (1971)
Out of all the anime on this list, Lupin the third has the strongest modern following. The anime follows Arsene Lupin the III, the grandson of the gentleman thief from the 1905 French Arsene Lupin novels, and his escapades. The release of the series saw a birth of a franchise, with the second movie Castle of Cagliostro directed by Miyazaki inspiring other works such as Cowboy Bebop. Every installation has recieved critical praise, including the recent 2019 film Lupin III: The First, which is known for being the most visually appealing CGI anime to date. The character of Lupin and the rest of the cast are very appealing, and can be enjoyable to anybody.
9. Princess Knight (1967)
As mentioned, Osamu Tezuka is a name you should know. Princess Knight is a traditional fairy tale story starring Princess Sapphire, a girl who was born with both a male and female heart. An angel named Tink attempts to remove her boy heart, but Sapphire fights him off because she wishes to take over the kingdom. Although some outdated gender roles are presented, Princess Knight is a feminist story that inspired other works like the previously mentioned Rose of Verasilles and Revolutionary Girl Utena. Princess Knight is also known for being the first anime to be targeted toward girls, and its impact can be seen in modern day shoujo.
10. Gigantor (1963)
Known for being the first Mech anime, Gigantor helped pioneer stories of robots in sci-fi. The story follows a young 12 year old robot polite in the year 2000. Gigantor is later programmed into being a defender of peace, and becomes a superhero of sorts. Gigantor’s influence can be seen in cult classic The Iron Giant and the very popular Pacific Rim series of film. It may seem somewhat cliche now, but this was the beginning of the giant robot phenomenon, it’s a piece of history in a way.