It’s no secret that Japanese anime and manga shows have become wildly popular in the United States in recent years. Series like Fullmetal Alchemist, Bleach, and Cowboy Bebop are continually topping the charts on some of the world’s most popular streaming services.
These days, it seems like everywhere you go in the United States, you see someone rocking an anime-inspired hoodie or backpack. However, Japanese anime certainly didn’t just arrive in America recently. Other animes like Naruto, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Pokémon have all been major fixtures of American television since the 1990s. In fact, it’s hard to find anyone who grew up in the ‘90s who didn’t spend their lunch hours at school trading Yu-Gi-Oh! cards or debating the most powerful Naruto jutsu.
While Japanese anime and manga have been around in the United States for a long time, the genre from the East has spawned quite a few anime-inspired shows created right here in the land of the bald eagle and Uncle Sam. It makes sense. With the popularity that Japanese anime has enjoyed in the United States, it’s only natural that American television studios should want to get in on the craze.
In fact, it’s hard to point to any animated program in the United States today that doesn’t have some element drawn from Japanese anime. So, let’s all take a moment to thank our Japanese friends for forwarding the discipline of animation so much.
With so many American anime-inspired shows out there, it’s no easy task to narrow it down to the very best ones. However, in this article, I’ll attempt to identify the American anime-inspired shows that have had the most profound impacts on the popular culture of the United States. Some of these programs are drawn in the anime style, others make direct references to Japanese animes, and some have drawn plot elements from classic Japanese anime. Without further ado, here are the five best American anime-inspired shows of all time:
Now, this could be a controversial pick for one of the best American anime-inspired shows ever, but I had to include it on this list. I just absolutely love how Aaron McGruder, the creator of the series, took the Japanese anime formula and adapted it to the setting of Chicago and the experience of being a Black American.
The show follows the Freeman family (Huey, Riley, and Grandad) as they live out their lives in the predominantly white neighborhood of Woodcrest (which is most likely a reference to the real-life Chicago suburb of Crestwood).
The series touches on some serious political issues and strives to accurately depict the experience of being Black in America. It also features cameos from prominent Black Americans, including Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Cosby (before, well, you know).
The entire series is drawn in a very traditional anime style, probably due to the fact that the Japanese studio Madhouse helped with the animation. There are also fight scenes all throughout the series that are clearly reminiscent of series like Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo.
One of the newer entries on this list, Castlevania has only been around since 2017 and has since spanned four seasons. If you were hoping for a fifth season of Castlevania, you’re out of luck. However, Netflix has teased the possibility of a spin-off series that takes place in the same universe.
Castlevania took the anime style and brought it to 1455 Wallachia (a real region of modern-day Romania). Count Vlad Dracula Tepes, a vampire with advanced scientific knowledge, is turned into a villain when his wife is falsely accused of witchcraft and executed. In retaliation, Dracula summons an army of demons to terrorize the region of Wallachia.
Castlevania follows the adventures of Trevor Belmont, a monster hunter that takes on Dracula’s army with the help of his friends Sypha and Alucard, who is Dracula’s own son. The whole show is drawn in a Japanese anime style, which is most likely owed to the fact that the show is based on a video game series from Japan.
Side note: if you’ve never played the Castlevania video games, you should get on that.
Anyway, in both the video game series and the American anime-inspired Netflix series, seeing the anime style adapted to Balkan folklore is pretty awesome.
Alright, I must admit that Teen Titans Go! is just not my cup of tea. However, the original Teen Titans series that aired on Cartoon Network was pure genius. This series was action-packed and entertaining, touched on a lot of serious themes, had fantastic character development, and was absolutely hilarious at times.
The series follows the adventures of a group of crime-fighting superheroes, all in their teenage years. Robin, the leader of the group, is an athletic and intelligent human being. Starfire is a quirky alien princess with otherworldly abilities. Cyborg is, well, a buff cyborg with incredible strength. Raven is a girl from a parallel world that possesses psionic abilities. And Beast Boy is a goofy kid who has the power to transform into any animal.
The anime influence in Teen Titans can be seen most clearly in the character designs as well as the overexaggerated expressions that are used all throughout the series. Many of the fight scenes in the series (and there are a lot of them) clearly draw influence from classic Japanese anime.
Avatar: The Last Airbender
Of course, I couldn’t write a list of the best American anime-inspired shows of all time without including Avatar: The Last Airbender, which originally aired on Nickelodeon in 2005 but has recently enjoyed a massive resurgence in popularity, leading to the announcement of an upcoming live-action version of the series.
There’s a reason Avatar: The Last Airbender broke the record for most consecutive days on Netflix’s top 10 most-watched series list. This show is funny, profound, suspenseful, and endearing.
By the time you get through this series (at which point you’ll inevitably move on to The Legend of Korra), you’ll be debating with your friends about your favorite characters, the most powerful element, and whether or not Prince Zuko deserves our forgiveness.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is also clearly inspired by Eastern animation styles and culture. The characters and fight scenes, while animated in the United States, draw largely from the Japanese anime style. Many of the themes in the show also allude to Eastern philosophy and religion. Avatar: The Last Airbender is an action-packed fantasy series with a side of spiritual enlightenment.
It’s a show about a samurai. Obviously, it’s inspired by Japanese anime. Samurai Jack is about a samurai who wields a magical katana and, when he loses a battle to the demon Aku, is sent into a dystopian future in which Aku has taken over the world.
Jack goes on a quest to get back to the past and defeat Aku before he gets too powerful. As Jack wanders through the future, he meets friends and foes, tries to figure out how to time travel back to the past, and often has his plans fall apart at the final moment.
Originally, when the series concluded in 2004, the plot was never concluded. However, the series was revived in 2017 and the writers brought an end to Jack’s journey.
In addition to the fact that Samurai Jack is about a samurai and a demon, both common characters in Japanese storytelling, the trippy, fantastical worlds through which Jack travels are also very clearly inspired by some classic animes, such as the 1988 anime film Akira.
Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of the series (as well as the creator of Dexter’s Laboratory and Primal), also claims that a great deal of the inspiration for the show came from the Japanese manga Lone Wolf and Cub and the films of Akira Kurosawa.