Most fans can agree that there are certain stylistic elements associated with anime as a medium that give it that quintessential “anime” feel. When people think of anime, they probably think of large eyes, outrageous expressions and motions, and, perhaps most of all, extremely colorful hair. But, while there might be common elements that make anime so distinctive, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t also shows out there willing to throw the rules out the window and make something totally unique.
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Between bold color choices, wild shifts in animation styles, and striking breaks from the aesthetic norms of the industry, there’s a lot of anime out there that compels people to watch it purely by presenting visuals that most viewers will have never seen before.
10 Tatami Galaxy
Tatami Galaxy tells the story of a college student unknowingly trapped in a time-loop, groundhog-daying his way through college life again and again while he searches for some form of self-actualization, be it through love, club activities, or whatever else.
Of immediate note here are the character designs. The people who inhabit this show’s setting are simple in design and coloration, but this allows the animation team to get away with a lot of squashing and stretching of said characters when it comes to the more surreal sequences. Expertly contrasting with the characters are the bold, vibrant color choices that fill out the setting’s backgrounds.
Adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo are not anime’s typical subject matter, and even fewer are those shows that adapt literary classics while flinging their settings thousands of years into the future. If Monte Cristo in space isn’t already enough of a selling point, Gankutsuou features some exceptionally inventive character designs and color choices to keep things looking interesting.
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The most striking thing about the way Gankutsuou looks is the way its characters are colored. Instead of filling out characters with solid tones adjusted for the lighting of the scene, Gankutsuou textures its characters with rich, visually busy patterns, lending a unique visual style to an adaptation of such an old story.
8 Kill La Kill
Directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, notable for his work on titles like Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, hit the ground running with Studio Trigger’s inaugural TV anime: Kill la Kill. Set in a dystopian high school kingdom where a fascist student council rules with an iron fist; one student challenges the status quo to avenge the death of her father.
The most notable elements of Kill la Kill are its animation and aesthetics: despite what appears to be a relatively limited budget, the direction in this show is so inventive that nearly every action sequence is memorable, and even the downtime oozes character. Throw in some stellar character designs and distinctive sets, and the show becomes a visual treat.
7 Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine
The Lupin III franchise is one of anime’s oldest and most influential tentpoles, featuring the lovable thief Lupin III in his exploits to steal increasingly ridiculous targets. The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is part prequel, part spinoff, and part subversion to the legacy of Lupin.
Trading the ’70s slapstick associated with the original series for a sexy, jazzy atmosphere, director Sayo Yamamoto perfectly captures the aesthetic essence of the earlier Lupin titles, while at the same time putting a unique spin on the art. This show is loaded with thick, sketchy linework, which makes characters mesh perfectly with the dim backgrounds.
6 Panty & Stocking With Garterbelt
Panty & Stocking is a pretty weird show. It’s basically an action-comedy, but the main characters are delinquent angels who battle demons and other monsters by morphing their lingerie into weapons of heavenly destruction. Along for the ride are some equally outrageous characters, a great soundtrack, and of course: a unique visual style.
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Once again, there really isn’t much out there in the anime world that looks like Panty & Stocking does. The show also does an excellent job of leveraging its outlandish look towards the show’s comedy, primarily through some well-implemented visual gags.
5 Mob Psycho 100
Although its setup might be fairly conventional for shounen anime (a teenager of exceptional power finds himself wrapped up in battles against villains of increasing strength), Mob Psycho 100 sets itself apart from the pack on account of its simple yet memorable character designs, and some characteristically masterful animation from Studio Bones.
The real visual excellence comes through in the show’s fight scenes: as soon as characters come to blows, all preconceptions about the “rules” of fight animation go flying out the window, giving the production team a chance to go nuts by switching up mediums, art styles, and motion on the fly to keep the action interesting.
4 Revolutionary Girl Utena
Considered by many to be a masterwork of the shoujo subgenre, Revolutionary Girl Utena is a subversive anime concerned with tackling themes like gender, social norms, and sexuality. It does so predominantly through allegory; it’s never quite clear what’s real and what isn’t, and most of the show is deliberately left up to the audience’s interpretation.
As is to be expected of such an experimental show, the visuals here can get pretty weird. The animation is loaded with recurring motifs to lure the audience into searching for metaphors, and the backgrounds are rendered with dreamy surrealism that looks appealing at first, but also suggests that nothing is quite as it seems.
3 Ping Pong The Animation
Director Masaaki Yuasa has a penchant for the avant-garde, and many would argue that his most underrated work is Ping Pong. Although its setup resembles that of a typical sports anime (a couple of upstarts try to become the best in the world at ping pong), it’s really more of an introspective coming-of-age story at its core.
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Of course, some of the elements that set this series apart are its aesthetics and animation. There simply isn’t much else on the anime market that looks like Ping Pong does, which is a credit to the originality of the work. In addition to the unconventional character designs, the show regularly switches things up on the viewer with some surrealist animation setpieces.
The works of Studio Shaft are known for their surrealist visuals, thanks in no small part to studio veteran Akiyuki Shinbo, who brings a sort of phantasmagoric vibe to even the studios more conventional slice-of-life works like Hidamari Sketch. That trademark aesthetic lives on in Bakemonogatari, and is a big part of the reason why it and its sequels have developed such a following.
Bakemonogatari innovates visually in a number of ways – cuts to frames of text are used to imply the subtext between frames of animation, the color scheme shifts in its entirety to set the mood of certain scenes, and clipped photographs are peppered throughout flashback sequences which adds an otherworldly spookiness.
Drawing from the spookier elements of Japanese occult folklore; Mononoke is an episodic series about a traveling medicine seller hopping from location to location, exorcising all manner of ghosts, demons, and monsters along the way. That otherworldly setup is matched by some otherworldly visuals as well.
All of Mononoke is composed to evoke the feeling of a moving painting; a unique filter gives a sense of texture to everything that appears on screen, and the rich color choices of gold, red, and turquoise give off the impression that the whole show is something one might see engraved on a palace wall.
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About The Author
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Adam Beach is a recent university graduate based out of Austin, Texas who has spent the pandemic playing far too many video games and watching entirely too much anime. Now writing for ScreenRant, he has the opportunity to translate those experiences into his own content. In the past he has been a Model UN instructor, intern for the Government of Rwanda, and full-time student, all of which involved producing a wide range of written material. He also enjoys movies, philosophy, and Mongolian throat singing.
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