There seems to be an almost constant stream of highly-acclaimed anime series these days—more than anyone interested in the art form will have enough time to consume, in fact. Some find their way to almost universal popularity; the pop-culture saturation of Naruto, the classic status held by Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood or Neon Genesis Evangelion, or the current widespread appreciation of My Hero Academia are some examples that have engaged a huge population of fans.
But, not every worthwhile anime series gets its time in the spotlight. With so many being produced all the time and competing for viewers, there will naturally be some gems that slip through the cracks. Fans who are looking for some underappreciated titles to dive into may want to give some of these series a go.
Updated on July 22nd, 2022 by Tanner Fox: Even avid anime fans have a hard time keeping up with the dozens upon dozens of worthwhile series that release every year. Naturally, many quality outings slip through the cracks, overshadowed by more established franchises.
Shifting through every underrated anime series that fell by the wayside over the past two decades would be an almost inconceivable task. While hundreds of anime released over that period of time could reasonably be labeled as underrated, these twenty are of particular note.
Hell Girl (2005 – 2006)
Hell Girl is a supernatural/horror anime full of self-contained episodes of characters suffering at the hands of those around them. After reaching their limits, they use a website to summon the mysterious Hell Girl, Enma Ai. Enma Ai offers to send their tormentors to Hell if they enter into a contract with her, though the price is steep, as they also condemn their own souls to Hell once they die.
Hell Girl is an amazing series that shows the hold vengeance can have on a person. There’s some dark satisfaction seeing some genuinely evil people getting “what they deserve,” but it also question’s one morality and the nature of revenge.
AnoHana: The Flower We Saw That Day (2011)
After the tragic death of their friend Menma when they were kids, Jinta Yadomi and his friends have grown apart. Jinta himself has become a recluse until the ghost of an older Menma comes to him one summer day, asking for his help in granting her “wish.”
AnoHana is a touching coming-of-age story that deals with grief and growing up. Jinta, Menma, and the rest of the “Super Peace Busters” are all well-written characters whose individual experiences of grief are just as heartwrenching as their collective experience. It’s a sad yet beautiful story that no anime fan should miss.
Skip Beat! (2008 – 2009)
Kyoko Mogami lives to support her boyfriend, an up-and-coming pop star. However, once his stardom begins to manifest, he betrays Kyoko, abandoning her in spite of her years of total support. She then vows revenge and embarks on a quest to become a star renowned enough to eclipse her former lover.
An interesting tale of love, loss, and revenge, Skip Beat! deserved more attention than it got, and it’s easily one of the most underrated shojo anime series of the past two decades.
Haganai (2011 – 2013)
A group of wayward, socially inept high school students comes together to form a club with the goal of teaching one another how to make friends. Full of fanservice and dark humor, it’s not exactly the most approachable series, but it’s maintained a passionate fanbase over the years, and it’s deserving of more recognition than it originally received.
Haganai features a dry, sarcastic sort of humor that contrasts strongly with many of its very loud, in-your-face contemporaries. It’s certainly not for everyone, but those who value humor above all else may want to give Haganai a go.
Hikaru No Go (2001 – 2003)
Anime series based on trading card games are pretty common—series such as Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! spring to mind—but there are few based on things like board games. Hikaru no Go is one of those few and is based on the ancient Chinese board game of Go.
This series puts an interesting and entertaining spin on the game, as it follows middle schooler Hikaru as he enters the world of professional Go players under the guidance of a ghost from the Heian era. This series, all about the surprisingly competitive nature of professional Go players, is illustrated by the artist of Death Note Takeshi Obata.
The 12 Kingdoms (2002 – 2003)
Inuyasha is certainly one of the most popular anime series in the fantasy/historical genre, but it’s far from the only one. The 12 Kingdoms is an underappreciated gem that’s based on the manga with the same name. While the manga follows various characters, the anime focuses on Yoko Nakajima, a red-haired girl who discovers that she’s an empress after she finds herself transported from Japan to another world.
Inspired by Chinese mythology, this underrated isekai anime series is a bit on the eccentric side, but it’s great for fans of high fantasy. Yoko is an admirably strong female protagonist who perseveres to earn her title of Emperess of the Kingdom of Kei.
Kaleido Star (2003 – 2004)
Everyone has a dream, and Sora Naegino, a teen from Japan, dreams of being a top performer at the world-famous Kaleido Stage. Though she dreams big, she finds that realizing her ambitions of becoming a world-renowned performer will take blood, sweat, and tears.
While Kaleido Star has the vibrance of a typical shoujo anime, it has a fairly down-to-earth story that really makes fans empathize with all the trials and tribulations Sora and the other characters endure.
Mushi-shi (2005 – 2006)
Mushi-shi is a slow-paced anthology series following the travels of a man named Ginko. The world is inhabited by a kind of ethereal spirit called Mushi that interact with humans just trying to go about their daily lives. Ginko can see these Mushi, and he makes it his occupation to help people besieged by their negative effects.
There isn’t much of an overarching plot, and the series instead focuses on the lives of the people Ginko helps. It trades action and suspense for beautiful animation and small-scale storytelling, and the series proceeds at an unhurried pace that lets fans soak in the atmosphere.
School Rumble (2004 – 2005)
This is a two-season romantic comedy series starring two main protagonists, Tenma and Kenji, who are entangled in a love triangle involving their enigmatic classmate Oji. It’s told in a series of short sketch-like sequences, and it follows not only the main characters but also a variety of relatively minor characters and their ridiculous exploits, as well.
It’s been described by reviewers as both shounen and shojo, so it appeals to a wide variety of audiences with its content. Most fans agree that School Rumble‘s fast and fun energy and slightly surreal brand of humor succeed, and it’s got a stellar soundtrack, furthering its status as an underrated anime masterpiece.
Ostensibly a sports anime, Tsuritama focuses on a pretty underappreciated activity of fishing. It also deviates from the norm of the genre in several other ways, as it doesn’t really focus on the bombastic drama and action sequences other sports anime favor.
Instead, the main storyline has a narrow, personal focus. It follows high school student Yuki, who has been moved around all his life and has a terrible time making friends. When he and his grandmother settle in Enoshima, a transfer student named Haru shows up claiming to be an alien and insists on living in their house. The zany setup gives way to a heartfelt series about friendship and dealing with anxiety.
Yakitate!! Japan (2004 – 2006)
A food-based comedy series from 2004, Yakitate!! Japan is vastly underrated compared to anime titles like Food Wars! The main character, Kazuma, is pursuing his dream to make the national bread of Japan and secure a spot at the most prestigious bread bakery in the country. Kazuma also has a special power called “Solar Hands” which makes his hands slightly hotter than a normal person. Useless as that sounds, it does help his bread to ferment faster.
It’s a sweet, funny series all about making and enjoying food, and it features tons of over-the-top food tasting reactions for fans’ viewing pleasure.
Monster (2004 – 2005)
A critically-acclaimed yet tragically underrated anime series, Monster is a dark and realistic thriller about brain surgeon Dr. Kenzo Tenma following his decision to save the lives of two young twins instead of the mayor of his town in Germany.
Nine years after this fateful decision, Tenma discovers one of the twins, Johan, has grown up to be a monstrous serial killer, while the other lives an oblivious life with her foster parents. The plot chronicles Tenma’s attempts to undo the mistake he made when saving Johan’s life. The anime is committed to reproducing the highly-praised manga it’s based on in every way, from its dark cinematic art to its sophisticated storyline.
Samurai Flamenco (2013 – 2014)
Samurai Flamenco follows the journey of male model Masayoshi Hazama as he undertakes his lifelong goal of being a superhero. Unfortunately for Masayoshi, he doesn’t have any superpower or any special abilities at all. Instead, he runs afoul of both the city’s rougher elements and the police over and over again until a young officer named Hidenori Goto gets involved and ends up supporting his cause.
It starts as a light-hearted superhero-themed comedy before it abruptly pivots genre halfway through, ramping up in intensity with each new episode until you can’t look away. A forerunner to the extremely popular superhero series My Hero Academia, Samurai Flamenco is an underrated anime adaptation that deserves more love.
Detroit Metal City (2008)
Failed musician Soichi Negishi dreams of rising to pop stardom, but, in order to pay the bills, he becomes the frontman of a notorious death metal act Detroit Metal City. As his popstar ambitions continue to flounder, his metal alter-ego grows in popularity, something he secretly resents. Desperate to escape his new role as a metal legend, Soichi’s attempts to quit Detroit Metal City only result in further fame.
Despite its low budget, Detroit Metal City manages to be a hilarious celebration of music of all sorts. The title is a deliberate homage to the notorious pop-rock outfit Kiss and their song “Detroit Rock City.”
Hamatora (2014 – 2015)
Hamatora also touches on aspects of the superhero genre. The two seasons of its anime take place after the events of the manga of the same name, but fans don’t necessarily have to be familiar with the source material to enjoy the series. The two main characters, Nice and Mursaki, run a private investigative agency, and the two of them use special powers called Minimums to solve their cases.
Primarily a supernatural mystery series, it keeps the tension high through many unpredictable twists and turns. It’s easy to get swept up in the plot, but the series never loses sight of the likable characters that probably drew fans in the first place.
Ghost Stories (2000 – 2001)
A paranormal series that focuses on a group of young teens who must contend with all manner of unnatural horrors once local construction disturbs a collection of shrines, Ghost Stories was received poorly in Japan, and, as a result, the Western localization team opted to alter the original script, transforming the series into a hilariously risque dark comedy.
Ghost Stories is fairly infamous among in-the-know anime fans, though casual viewers may not be as familiar with it. Abound with crude humor befitting a Key & Peele sketch, the English dub is something that really has to be seen to be believed.
Eden of the East (2009)
An unusual blend of survival, political intrigue, and psychological suspense, Eden of the East defies easy classification. The premise is that twelve individuals known as “Selecao” have been given access to ten billion yen in order to save Japan from a future missile strike.
If the Selecao run out of money or spend it selfishly, they are “eliminated” by a mysterious person known only as The Supporter. Nothing else is off-limits in the game, including killing the other participants. The protagonist, Takizawa Akira, is one of these Selecao, but he must contend with the added difficulty of suffering from amnesia. This is an anime that sucks fans into a slick, unusual plot and leaves them hungry to know how it ends.
Last Exile (2003)
In a retro-futurist setting loosely based on World War I aerial combat, the pilot and navigator duo of Claus Valca and Lavie Head operate as couriers in a war-torn stretch of sky known as the Grand Stream. Tasked with a mission thought to be beyond their abilities, the two become a part of a grander conspiracy unfolding between two warring nations and a malignant faction stoking the flames of conflict between the two.
Last Exile is best known for its unmatched steampunk aesthetic, and fans of all forms of retro-futurism absolutely need to give it a watch.
Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere (2011 – 2012)
Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere is a difficult series to define; it’s primarily a science fiction anime following humanity’s failed attempts to travel into space to flee the dying Earth. An unknown force prevents them from leaving, and they’re forced to return to Japan, as it’s the only hospitable place left on the planet.
Most of the human population is relegated to pocket dimensions, but, after a time, those people invade and conquer Japan, forcing the inhabitants to live on a city-ship, forever circling their country. As rumors of an apocalypse draw closer, protagonist Tori Aoi devises a way to take back their homeland.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (2007)
Occupying the tragically sparse landscape of a female-led fantasy adventure series, Moribito stars the wandering, spear-wielding warrior Balsa as she attempts to atone for the deaths she’s caused in the past by saving an equal number of lives. She encounters Prince Chagum during her journey and becomes his bodyguard, attempting to protect him from an assassination order given by his own father.
The series has beautiful animation and a lovingly crafted fantasy world, as well as compelling characters who have their troubled pasts revealed piecemeal throughout the series. Fans should give this one a look for its sheer artistry alone.
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