No doubt there are a few similar articles scattered about the net, but this one is written with a couple of specific things in mind – and simply listing a bunch of G-rated (and therefore ‘child-safe’) anime isn’t one of them.
First off, the below titles are all televised anime that I consider to be decent quality – mostly because I didn’t want to get stuck creating yet another list of shows that was either based on card and video game franchises, or else made up of heavily-censored fighting anime (Yu-Gi-Oh!, Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z, etc. etc). Secondly, they’re anime that can hopefully be enjoyed not only by kids but also by their parents or older siblings, since I think it’s important that people who prefer to watch with their children or younger brothers/sisters can do so without feeling like the show is insulting their intelligence. And finally, I wanted to try and include a variety of anime that wouldn’t appeal to any single demographic. There can be a pretty big difference between what a 7-year old girl will love and what a 12-year old boy will, so I’ve done my best to include a range of shows that are hopefully not exclusive of any one age group or gender.
Note that I’m deliberately leaving films off this list – mostly because I feel that many films generally receive a lot more mainstream attention than do television shows, while my aim here is to cover titles that are less likely to be known or thought of by the more casual anime viewer.
Spanning three seasons, Aria is a science-fiction series (sort of) set on a terraformed Mars (now named Aqua) sometime in the 24th century. I say ‘sort of’ because while the setting does indeed categorise this anime as sci-fi, Aria is a utopian fantasy that focuses on nothing more serious than a young woman named Akari as she undergoes her training as an apprentice gondolier. Essentially, the backdrop is a version of Venice in which nothing truly bad ever happens, since there’s no villain to speak of and no evil in existence. What we have instead is some lovely artwork, a good-quality soundtrack, and a large cast of women who really, really like to row boats. And when you come right down to it, it’s the characters that are most important in this series – their hopes and dreams, their friendships and rivalries, and their everyday life as gondoliers. Clearly this won’t keep the action-only fans entertained, but despite the tranquil pacing I think that many people will find this title to be surprisingly satisfying.
Cardcaptor Sakura (1998-2000)
This is a magical-girl and CLAMP classic, and despite me classifying it as a children’s show, it’s actually one of my favourite anime of all time. The series follows Sakura and her adventures after she accidentally sets free a set of magical cards, which she is then charged with recollecting in order to stop an unknown catastrophe from befalling the world. The story sounds relatively simple and it is, although the sophistication with which it’s told means that there’s a lot here for adults to appreciate. There are hints of both male and female homosexual relationships, and many of the characters are far more complex than they first appear, but there’s nothing that I would consider unsuitable for kids (even if America/Canada apparently disagreed and censored the crap out of their own version, Cardcaptors). In all honesty, I have yet to come across a more charming magical-girl series than this.
Dragon Ball (1986-1989)
I’d prefer to think of this title as being in no way related to its successor, Dragon Ball Z, because in all the important ways it really isn’t. While the latter is a long-winded action/explosion-fest involving plenty of heavy grunting and staring contests, the former is primarily an adventure series that follows Goku during his childhood years. The comedy aspects of the series are actually funny for the most part, and while there’s a lot of good guy vs. evil villain in both shows, Dragon Ball’s focus is more about the people than random monsters or aliens, and thematically has more to do with friendship and journeying than anything else (although rest assured, there’s still fighting involved). It has its occasional darker moments but usually remains light-hearted; even the uncut version, which features a few naughtier moments (i.e. Goku running around starkers, making comments about Bulma’s bust, etc.) is nothing I’d personally consider offensive. The anime has also aged quite well, and shouldn’t be overlooked just because of what came afterwards.
Princess Tutu (2002-2003)
Of all the titles listed here, this is the one I’d probably say is the most ‘adult’. Not because of the violence (pretty much nonexistent), not because of any kind of sexual representations (again, not the focus of the series at all), but because it’s a bit of a mind-trip. Nearly everything is a metaphor for something – it’s like a classic German fairy tale got mixed in with a less creepy version of Black Swan before being thrown into anime-form and then gleefully subverted by its creators. The result is a story about a duck who was transformed into a young girl and attends a private ballet academy. Just go with it, okay? Princess Tutu is basically a magical-girl series that uses dancing in place of fighting, but it’s also an allegorical fantasy and a startlingly intense drama if you’re looking in the right places. In other words, it’s perfect for a wide range of age groups, and one of the most intelligent children’s anime I’ve seen to date.
Tegami Bachi/Letter Bee (2009-2011)
It’s been a long time since I was so emotionally affected by a shounen series – or by any series for that matter. With a strong mix of fantasy-adventure and drama, and with a truly excellent cast of characters, Tegami Bachi takes place in an alternate universe; a land of perpetual night where postmen (‘letter bees’) make their deliveries through highly treacherous terrain armed with just one gun and a bodyguard. The guns don’t fire actual bullets though, and the bodyguard isn’t usually human. If that sounds more than slightly strange, don’t leap for Wikipedia – no additional information is required to thoroughly enjoy the whole thing, and in fact, I think this is a series best enjoyed when you just dive straight in. Despite some of the darker and more complex themes, the most objectionable material in the show amounts to nothing more than a scantily-clad female using her magical hair as a bikini (in one episode only, as she’s an extremely minor character), so this is a perfectly appropriate title for children. The story carries straight over into the second season, Tegami Bachi Reverse, but the payoff is well worth it.
Uchuu no Stellvia/Stellvia of the Universe (2003)
An easily digestible but relatively serious science-fiction series, Stellvia mostly takes place in the year 2356 AD, where our heroine Shima becomes one of the newest recruits of the space academy Stellvia. While this naturally involves saving the world a couple of times in later episodes, much of the story is about Shima herself as she acquires new skills and grows as a person, and about her relationships with and between her circle of friends. There’s a little here for everyone I think, since the more standard fare you’d expect to find in a sci-fi anime set in space such as mecha are combined with a healthy dose of drama, romance, and coming-of-age themes. The animation is solid as well, making Stellvia a pretty good visual experience on top of its strong storytelling.
And just in case you’ve exhausted all the above possibilities, here are a few other suggestions:
Black Jack, specifically the televised version (2004-2006). I don’t recommend the OVAs for younger audiences, but the TV series seems a little more child-friendly while still carrying plenty of weight. The main character clearly has some moral issues as far as his work goes however, so adults might want to check it out first before deciding whether or not they want their kids or younger siblings watching.
Digimon, specifically the first two seasons (1999-2001), which I briefly discussed in this post.
Kamichu! (2005). If you’re not uptight about religion or spirituality, this is one of the sweetest anime you’ll ever see. It still manages to be incredibly entertaining though, blending slice-of-life, the supernatural, comedy, and a hint of drama into a refreshing and mostly light-hearted show.
Mahou Tsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto/Someday’s Dreamers (2003). A somewhat serious yet very heartwarming series that sounds magical-girl but is actually more a soft slice-of-life drama. However, be warned that the spin-off series is nowhere near as good and will probably make most kids fall asleep.
Ookiku Furikabutte/Big Windup! (2007-2010). Your basic sports anime (baseball) that I somehow actually like. It mentions masturbation once or twice but otherwise should be fine even for younger audiences.
Zoids, specifically Chaotic Century (1999-2000). It’s far and away the best series of the franchise but is possibly overlooked a lot thanks to all the action figures. Well, that and the blandly average New Century series.
Question of the post: What’s been your favourite family-friendly anime that you’ve watched to date? Was it something you saw back in your childhood years, or is it something you discovered as an adult?