Top 5 anime not based on manga

The five best anime series that break the trend of being based on a manga by finding inspiration elsewhere.
Pokemon Horizons The Series Key art. Image Courtesy The Pokemon Company
Pokemon Horizons The Series Key art. Image Courtesy The Pokemon Company /

While iconic anime series like One Piece, Naruto, and Dragon Ball were originally manga series that were adapted into anime, it's not a universal rule that every anime series begins as a manga. Lately, there's a growing a number of anime like That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime based on light novels. Of course, there are also plenty of anime series that are original stories not based on any preexisting material.

Here are five of the best anime not based on manga!

1. Mononoke

Audiences were first introduced to the anonymous Medicine Vendor in the anthology series Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales, which featured as one of its three standalone story arcs the Medicine Vendor investigating the estate of a samurai clan haunted by a ghostly cat. After being spun off into its own series, Mononoke took the unique, striking style of art and storytelling demonstrated in the Ayakashi story arc and ran with it.

Mononoke is a horror-mystery series with eye-popping visual flair and mind-bending storylines. The Medicine Vendor himself is clearly some kind of supernatural being, but the series never actually gives any answers about his true nature — it only raises more questions, since the last story arc of the series takes place centuries after the others and the Medicine Vendor hasn't aged at all.

The visuals of Mononoke rely on heavy symbolism and visual metaphor, but like with the Medicine Vendor himself, there are very few clear answers given about the significance of what we're seeing on screen. Mononoke is a unique and memorable series that demands multiple re-watches.

A full-length Mononoke movie is currently scheduled to release in July 2024.

Where to stream: Crunchyroll

2. The Tower of Druaga

Based on a Japanese arcade game from the 1980s with notoriously difficult puzzles, The Tower of Druaga is set in a fantasy world that combines ancient Mesopotamian mythology with a light steampunk-esque aesthetic. The plot follows the adventurer Jil and his party of adventurers as they race up the title tower trying to beat Jil's brother Neeba, facing new obstacles on every floor.

Despite a fairly serious premise revolving around the main characters ascending the tower to kill the evil god at the top to get a wish and some moments of genuine emotional weight, The Tower of Druaga is primarily an off-beat comedy adventure. The series's first hilarious episode is one long parody of the conventions of heroic fantasy stories and many of the best jokes in the series are references to the original Tower of Druaga arcade game.

Where to stream: Crunchyroll

3. Pokémon

Since the debut of the original Game Boy games in Japan in 1996, Pokémon has become the most profitable media franchise of all time, surpassing other pop culture icons like the Disney Princesses, Barbie, and Hello Kitty. In addition to the video games themselves being huge hits, the Pokémon anime has been consistently popular since debuting in 1997.

The original Pokémon anime was one of the first anime to become a mainstream hit in North America and introduced an entire generation of viewers to anime. Before a new cast took over in 2023 with the debut of Pokémon Horizons, Ash Ketchum became such a pop culture icon that when he won the Pokémon World Championship and finally became a Pokémon Master, it was reported by legitimate news outlets as a genuinely newsworthy story.

In most international regions, including the United States Pokémon Horizons is airing on Netflix. You can find where to watch Horizons in other regions here. The Pokémon Company has also provided a guide explaining where to watch the other Pokémon series and movies in the United States here.

Where to stream: Netflix (Horizons, in the US)

4. Cowboy Bebop

Another one of the most important anime series of the 1990s, Cowboy Bebop became a hit thanks in large part to Cartoon Network's Toonami block. Now, almost 30 years later, the noir sci-fi series is still held up as a classic and widely regarded as one of the best anime series ever. The series's visual flair, catchy soundtrack, and memorable cast of iconic characters have allowed Cowboy Bebop to remain continuously popular and influential since its debut.

While the Cowboy Bebop manga did actually launch before the anime, the anime entered production first and the manga is an adaptation of the story written for the anime. For context, it's the same sort of situation as the novelization of a movie hitting bookstores before the movie hits theaters, even though the novelization is intended to be the adaptation.

Where to stream: Crunchyroll

5. Spice and Wolf

Based on a light novel series published from 2006 to 2023, Spice and Wolf follows the travels of the merchant Lawrence and the ancient wolf goddess Holo in a European-influenced fantasy setting. The fact that Holo hasn't regularly interacted with humans for centuries offers Lawrence plenty of opportunities to explain the ins and outs of human society and culture. As expected from a merchant, Lawrence is particularly well-versed in the economics of the setting.

Despite this emphasis on the economic practices of a medieval fantasy world, the series is able to remain interesting and compelling. Lawrence's explanations are delivered in a way that is more helpful than boring and the fact that he sometimes faces cutthroat competition means that the economics of the setting usually have actual implications for the plot. Additionally, the religious and social aspects of the setting are interesting and allow for plenty of dramatic moments. Finally, the Spice and Wolf anime series has an absolutely fantastic soundtrack.

Both the first Spice and Wolf anime series from 2008 and the 2024 reboot series Spice and Wolf: MERCHANT MEETS THE WISE WOLF are available to watch on Crunchyroll.

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While being based on a manga isn't a negative, these anime series manage to stand out both with being memorable, high-quality stories in their own right and for breaking the common anime trend of being an adaptation of a manga. All five of these series are available to stream now on various platforms.