One of the most unique things about anime in comparison to Western cartoons is how many series are based on other source material. Some of the most popular series of all time, not to mention a plethora of seasonal shows, are based on manga. Their quality often solely comes down to how accurate they are to the origin story.
But of course, not every anime pulls from a manga. Some series are crafted wholesale as anime from the very beginning and become major series in their own right. This time, we’re looking at ten of the best anime series not based on manga.
10 NEON GENESIS EVANGELION
As polarizing as this series can be for many people, a list like this simply wouldn’t be complete without Evangelion. The 1995 series focuses on the story of an organization known as NERV battling against strange alien forces known as “Angels” bent on wiping out humanity.
While this is a simply enough premise, director Hideaki Anno uses this well-worn idea to deconstruct not only mecha anime but the genre's standard protagonist - the child pilot everyone assumes can simply hop in a robot and punch things without ever thinking about how it might affect them. Anno’s series was groundbreaking for its time and is viewed as a must-see by every experienced anime fan.
One of the most popular fantasy anime ever created, Slayers takes place in a traditional sword and sorcery world, like the most generic D&D campaign ever, with the exception of Lina Inverse. Lina is an absurdly powerful mage who seems to only be interested in money and food.
Lina constantly gets into misadventures while seeking out more treasure, and eventually drags a cast of misfits along for the ride to cause even more trouble. The series is known for its comedy and great music, plus the fact that it somehow manages to get new seasons even twenty-five years later. While a manga was released during the same year as the anime, the latter is actually based on 1989's light novel series. However, the third season, Slayers Try, is an anime original.
Pronounced Fooly Cooly, FLCL is another one of those series from Gainax that quickly turned into a must-see. The show is supposed to be about a young boy named Naota Nandaba, a regular kid living with his dad. But everything starts to get crazy when he meets Haruko, a VESPA riding wild woman with a penchant for hitting things with her electric guitar. For starters, Naota's head suddenly becomes a portal through which giant robots can reach planet Earth.
While that description might sound like a word jumble, FLCL's surreal plot was actually kind of the point. The series was so popular that it managed to get a pair of sequels in FLCL Progressive and FLCL Alternative that premiered in 2018.
7 ACTIVE RAID
Active Raid shows every Super Sentai fan what the franchise would be like if it briefly went anime. Written by longtime Super Sentai alum Naruhisa Arakawa, this series follows a police force known as Unit 8. Unit 8 is authorized to use special technology known as Will Wears, powered armors equipped with special technology.
With these Will Wears, the group is assigned to go into battle against some of the most dangerous criminals in the country...though they usually end up trashing part of the city along the way. Active Raid is great not only as a Power Rangers/Sentai anime but also as a commentary on Japanese culture and politics.
6 MACROSS FRONTIER
Macross Frontier juggles so many disparate plotlines. There’s the usual love triangle between a pilot and two other women who are finding themselves falling for him. There’s the battle to protect the space colony from a new alien species that seems to have no desire for peace. And there’s the story of two pop star, one established and one up-and-coming, gradually becoming friends despite essentially being in direct competition with one another.
Macross Frontier does all of this and more, while somehow managing to balance all the plot threads in a cohesive and enjoyable manner. As a result, it’s not unreasonable to see it as one of the strongest Macross series from creator Shoji Kawamori.
5 CAROLE & TUESDAY
When Shinichiro Watanabe announced he’d be returning to the world of anime for another series, no one knew what to expect. As usual, though, it was another series with a strong musical focus. This time, Watanabe took two young women from entirely different environments (a rich girl who ran away from home and a young orphan doing her best to survive on her own) and turned them into a two-woman band.
Carole & Tuesday doesn’t just work because of its beautiful animation and gorgeous songs, but also as a commentary on how our world is being reshaped by technology. The series isn’t over yet, but just the first season alone is enough to label it a future classic.
4 MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM
This honestly deserves to be on here as a franchise. Admittedly not every Gundam series is great, but over forty years, they’ve managed to maintain some astonishing levels of quality nonetheless. Yoshiyuki Tomino’s baby managed to redefine what it meant to create a mecha series.
Instead of the enemy being an alien race or some secret evil society, the battles were over ideals and between people. The story of Amuro Ray versus Char Aznable is one of the classic rivalries in anime, gets a great ending in Char’s Counterattack almost a decade later, and spawned more sequels than Star Wars.
3 SAMURAI CHAMPLOO
Six years after Cowboy Bebop, Shinichiro Watanabe returned to the world of anime to direct a series about a pair of swordsmen and a young, teenaged girl looking for a samurai who smells of sunflowers. It’s a series that shouldn’t work, as Watanabe combined two things which ostensibly have nothing to do with one another: Samurai and hip-hop.
However, Watanabe blended them perfectly, allowing the mellow tunes to match the slow, almost lethargic pace of the quest underwent by the trio of main characters. Still, the series was never afraid to kick things up a notch for some beautifully animated fight scenes, which only get better by the end of the series, as each hero is confronted with an almost impossible enemy to defeat.
2 YURI ON ICE
In 2016, writer/director Sayo Yamamoto and Studio MAPPA thought to bring us one of the few sports that hadn't already been covered by an anime: Figure skating. As usual, MAPPA's gorgeous production values brought this world to dazzling life, as protagonist Yuri Katsuki worked with his idol and trainer Viktor Nikiforov to be successful at the Figure Skating Grand Prix.
However, what made this anime so successful isn't just MAPPA's animation or the uniqueness of the setting. Yuri on Ice gained popularity for its positive depiction of a homosexual relationship, as Yuri and Viktor bring us a beautiful, realistic relationship not quite like what is normally shown in yaoi anime.
1 COWBOY BEBOP
It’s required to toss out whatever preconceived notions one might have about anime before diving into this series. Jet and Spike are a pair of bounty hunters trying to survive in the new Wild West: Outer space.
There’s just one problem - neither of them can seem to escape their pasts, which is usually trying to kill them. Shinichiro Watanabe creates a perfect fusion of jazz music and science fiction for a series that can be emotionally crushing one episode and a laugh riot the next. It’s just like jazz - you play it all by ear.