The last thing I want to suggest is that there is some kind of “required viewing” in order to appreciate particular anime, perhaps the notable classics. No, I don’t believe such exist as necessary requirements.
I do believe however, that my appreciation of some shows is tremendously impacted by my experience of certain other media. Rather than present a theory, I intend to share some examples of how this plays out.
Nodame Cantabile and Legend of the Galactic Heroes
While I always had a healthy appreciation for classical music and own soundtracks of the likes of The Vision of Escaflowne; and I know pieces by Yoko Kanno and Joe Hisaishi, except for a very few examples I do not know classical music pieces. I cannot tell what is a symphony from a concerto. Nodame Cantabile (particularly the live action) changed all this. I started taking my wife to the orchestra. I can distinguish particular movements in the different pieces. I can distinguish musical styles across history to a small degree.
This deepened my appreciation for Legend of the Galactic Heroes, who relies on classical music by the masters to score its 110 episodes. I delighted in hearing the opening bars of Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto when Julian comforted Karin after the battle of Iserlohn Corridor. I felt every bit of borrowed pathos when Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique’ played as someone important passed away.
Instead of just the context of the narrative, I brought with me the whole history and context of the musical piece. It is an unnecessary thing, but it fits for such a show that is the very spirit of foppery and whim. I was only able to do this when I watched LotGH for the second time. I already considered it a masterpiece after my initial viewing, but this new appreciation of the score is a new world of feeling.
Perhaps there’s no better example of anime building upon itself to yield a wealth of ‘new’ experience than the Gundam franchise. Outsiders looking in are often misled into thinking that Gundam is this monolith of a franchise filled with exemplary shows that form a pillar of anime itself. No. As someone who watched almost every show in the franchise; many times over in some cases, I can truthfully say that most of it isn’t very good. Great chunks of it are rather awful. And yet the more I watch, each new show becomes a better, fulfilling overall experience. I grow to love Gundam more and more, and by the time Mobile Suit Gundam AGE came along I watch it with the wealth of 30 year worth of context. I can only imagine this existing in a franchise like Star Trek. Not being a trekkie myself I cannot validate this. But yes, when I watch an episode of a Gundam show, any Gundam show, I bring with it that ocean of meaning that makes the experience powerful, even if the episode itself is rubbish.
Heavy Metal & Zetman
I bring us to a contemporary show, which on the surface seems filled with puerile exploitation and false depth via pathos and death. I won’t say that the depth is real, but rather the surface is rich in itself. I do so by relating it to the comics of Heavy Metal magazine (there are two animated movies), that I remember casually reading as a postadolescent. These are dark, puppy science fiction stories that are quite violent and exploitation indeed. There are almost never any happy endings except those that are darkly sneering and cynical.
Zetman reminds me of these works, which doesn’t make it automatically exceptional, but knowing the tradition exists, my experience of the show is enriched. The show isn’t stopped by the red flags of moral taste. If I can bring myself up to a mood for grand pulpy shlock, I think Zetman may just hit that spot.