The Best Retro Anime for Modern Audiences

Pop culture lives in a moment where anime has become more mainstream now than ever. With shows such as Spy x Family, Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End, and Bungo Stray Dogs, audiences are hungry for unique hooks, strong characters, and unique art styles only found in Japanese animation.

But with this rise, a string of anime classics has been remade for the modern era, with new versions of Rurouni Kenshin and Urusei Yatsura recapturing their original spirit with a fresh coat of paint. Check out this list of retro anime titles still so strong after all these years that they could easily capture the hearts of modern audiences only familiar with the modern anime scene.

1. Dirty Pair

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Image Credit: Sunrise.

Anyone in the mood for a “girls with guns” anime with style to match in the vein of Lycoris Recoil, look to the original Dirty Pair! Inspired by ray-gun gothic pulp novels, Dirty Pair follows Kei and Yuri, “trouble consultants” for hire by the 3WA Corporation assigned to solve planetary-scale problems. Though they go by the codename ‘The Lovely Angels’ and always see their jobs through, Kei and Yuri’s penchant for wanton collateral damage and destruction has earned them the moniker “Dirty Pair.”

The original anime adaptation from the mid-1980s sees the future of that era in stunning neon ink colors and plays far more comical than the original novels that originated the franchise. With a likable pair of heroines in action-filled episodes full of explosions and buddy comedy, the retro anime Dirty Pair has got it all in spades.

2. Ranma ½

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Image Credit: Studio Deen.

Rumiko Takahashi made her name with the legendary sci-fi comedy Urusei Yatsura and proved her mettle in high-concept comedy with the gender-bending mayhem of Ranma ½. Ranma Saotome is a teenage martial artist with a problem: whenever splashed by cold water, “he” becomes a teenage girl!

It also doesn’t help Ranma at all that not only does he have to contend with his father arranging to marry him off to the daughter of another martial artist, but he also has to deal with Chinese Amazons, a perverted senshi, a wannabe swordsman, and a rival without any sense of direction! Featuring one of the strongest supporting casts of any franchise, Ranma ½ mixed comedy mayhem, martial arts action, and tender romance to leave a lasting impression on its audiences.

3. Maison Ikkoku

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Image Credit: Studio Deen.

Between Urusei Yatsura and Ranma ½, Rumiko Takahashi returned to earth with the humble, slice-of-life romantic comedy Maison Ikkoku. In mid-1980s Tokyo, poor college student Yusaku Godai lives at the titular Maison Ikkoku, a ramshackle boarding house filled to the brim with colorful tenants. Just as he prepares to move out, he meets the boarding house’s new manager, Kyoko Otonashi, a newly widowed young woman.

The series follows the burgeoning romance between the pair, all while dealing with the eccentric tenants of Maison Ikkoku and the rivalry between Yusaku and tennis coach Shun Mitaka. While not as madcap or off-the-wall as Takahashi’s more famous works, Maison Ikkoku is an earnest romance and a more honest look at slice-of-life comedy antics.

4. Patlabor

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Image Credit: Sunrise.

Giant robots have become a staple of Japanese animation, but chances are most audiences haven’t seen giant robots used in the way they are in the Patlabor franchise. Set in the then-near future of 1998, Patlabor follows the exploits of Tokyo Metropolitan Police Special Vehicle Section 2, Division 2, assigned to combat crime in their Patlabor mech suits, as seen through the eyes of Officer Noa Izumi.

Unlike the more well-known Gundam franchise, Patlabor showcases a world where mechs are used for everyday use, such as construction and municipality work, and steers away from the more action-heavy set pieces associated with the genre. Instead, it focuses on the day-to-day casework of Division 2 and, though Noa Izumi is unquestionably the lead, her colleagues take center stage as often as they deal with the flaws inherent in the Japanese political/legal system.

If this sounds similar to Ghost in the Shell, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the film’s director, Mamoru Oshii, directed this production as a member of the Headgear group!

5. Tenchi Universe

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Image Credit: AIC.

Though the Tenchi Muyo! franchise began with the Ryo-Ohki! OVA series, the creators arguably perfected with its 1995 television incarnation Universe. Like the initial OVA, the series follows Tenchi Misaki, a teenage student in the scenic Japanese countryside living with his father and maternal grandfather in idyllic peace. But his world literally comes crashing down when he meets the infamous space pirate Ryoko and her pursuer Galaxy Police officer Mihoshi.

From there, Tenchi will meet enigmatic mad scientists, dreaded bounty hunters, and a princess of a royal intergalactic empire. All the while, Tenchi will discover that he may be destined for far greater things than he could’ve imagined. Combining the sci-fi antics of Urusei Yatsura with space opera undertones, Tenchi Universe is a prime example of the harem genre and sets the stage for the numerous staples and deconstructions that would follow.

6. Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water

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Image Credit: Gainax, Group TAC, Sei Young Animation, GKIDS.

What happens when someone combines a pre-Neon Genesis Evangelion Gainax with a story concept by an uncredited Hayao Miyazaki? You get Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, a steampunk adventure series inspired by 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Set in 1889, Nadia follows the titular heroine, a former circus acrobat as she tries to discover her origins and the mystery surrounding her necklace that alerts her to danger. With the help of the French boy inventor Jean and the Nautilus crew, Nadia races across the seas as she tries to stay one step ahead of the Neo-Atlantis organization led by the enigmatic Gargoyle.

While not as refined as the anime that would succeed it, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water offers a glimpse into Gainax’s future endeavors and the raw talent of Hideki Anno that was to come.

7. Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team

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Image Credit: Sunrise.

After the critical success of Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury earlier in 2023, a viewer might hunger for a grittier form of mobile suit action. None have felt more grounded in the Gundam franchise than this 12-episode OVA series.

Set during the One Year War of the original Mobile Suit Gundam, The 08th MS Team follows the exploits of the titular team on Earth in Southeast Asia, assigned to root out the Principality of Zeon forces in brutal jungle guerilla warfare. Upon the discovery of an experimental mobile suit unit that could turn the tide of the war towards the Zeon, it falls to Lt. Shiro Amada to lead his team into enemy territory, locate the hidden Zeon base, and destroy the experimental mobile suit.

What a shame then that the enemy pilot is none other than the woman that Amada befriended during a skirmish in space. While not explicitly created to celebrate Gundam’s then-20th anniversary, The 08th MS Team is a wonderful tribute to the “real robot” mecha subgenre.

8. Ashita No Joe

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Image Credit: Mushi Production/TMS Entertainment.

The oldest entry on this list, with an anime production that began in 1970 and directed by legendary animator Osamu Dezaki, Ashita no Joe follows the titular Joe Yabuki, a young drifter who finds purpose in himself as a bantamweight boxer in late 1960s Tokyo. Noted for its voice to youth culture of the period and realistic cinematic style, Ashita no Joe was Rocky Balboa before Rocky Balboa existed. It has cast a long influence over the fifty years of its existence.

The older ink and paint style of the period contributes to its realistic grit and a young hero struggling under the weight of the world to reach the top. Even in anime as recent as Bocchi the Rock!, the Japanese animation industry continues to find reverence for the original anime boxing champion.

9. Cardcaptor Sakura

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Image Credit: Madhouse.

No retro anime list would feel complete without at least one magical girl anime on it, and a viewer will find none more unique than Cardcaptor Sakura.

Sakura Kinomoto is a mere elementary schoolgirl with a loving widowed father, an annoying older brother, and her starstruck best friend Tomoyo Daidouji. One day, Sakura discovers her capacity for magic when she accidentally unleashes a set of magical cards created by the sorcerer Clow Reed into the world. With the aid of guardian beast Cerberus, or Kero as he prefers, Sakura learns to master her knack for magic while working to stop a catastrophe.

With an art style punctuated by sharp facial features and warm tones, Cardcaptor Sakura is, admittedly, a lower-stakes affair compared to the more renowned Sailor Moon but is still widely regarded for its characterization and animation.

10. Lupin the Third Part II

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Image Credit: TMS Entertainment.

It’s easy to discount the Lupin the Third franchise by how big it has become over the years, but if a viewer wants a zanier, pop-art take on the character, look no further than his second television series from 1977-1980.

Despite the title, audiences won’t need to have seen the series preceding it and Part II served as the entry point to many in America to Arsène Lupin’s wild grandchild. Packed to the brim with Looney Tunes-esque crime capers, Lupin the Third Part II is more lighthearted than its manga origins, and Lupin became a beloved anime icon from this series.

Of particular note in this series are episodes 145 and 155 directed by Hayao Miyazaki; keep an eye out for a few familiar faces from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky! And to hammer in the point: without the success of Lupin the Third Part II, it’s likely there wouldn’t be a Studio Ghibli!

11. City Hunter

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Image Credit: Sunrise.

 Tsukasa Hojo’s legendary City Hunter defines 80s anime. Ryo Saeba is a “sweeper,” a private detective/bodyguard with an insatiable thirst for women, and deadly skill with a gun. When his partner Hideyuki Makimura gets murdered during a case, Saeba forms a new partnership with Makimura’s younger sister Kaori to do the work others reject. Just as long as the clients are women, that is!

Blending Hollywood-style screwball comedy with kinetic gunplay action sequences, City Hunter pays loving homage to classic action films of that era across its 143 episodes, TV specials, and movies. The franchise continues to enjoy worldwide popularity, with a brand-new anime movie set to release in November 2023 stateside and a live-action Japanese production set to be released by Netflix in 2024.

12. Cat’s Eye

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Image Credit: TMS Entertainment.

Before City Hunter catapulted Tsukasa Hojo to international fame, he had his foot in the door with Cat’s Eye. Rui, Hitomi, and Ai Kisugi are a normal trio of sisters, humbly operating a coffee shop. But at night, they become Cat’s Eye, a gang of art thieves working to steal back their missing father’s masterpieces in their efforts to find him.

It gets even more complicated when Hitomi dates the relentless detective assigned to arrest her and her sisters! A perfect cocktail blend of heist action and neon style, Cat’s Eye continued in the Lupin the Third tradition in the 1980s and enjoyed success overseas in Europe. With a live-action adaptation of the franchise in the works by French broadcaster TF1 and hot off the heels of a crossover with Lupin the Third himself earlier in 2023, there’s never been a better time to see the Kisugis pull off the audacious and enjoy this retro anime.

Author: Carl Cottingham

Title: Freelance Writer

Expertise: Anime, Film, Television, Comics