There are anime series in which the plot is the world, and then there are anime series in which the plot is in the world. Even if you aren’t familiar with the term “worldbuilding,” you know it when you see it. There are just those series that go above and beyond the plot where the whole world around the main cast of characters feels alive. There is a history in the world, rules that govern it, languages, societies, hierarchies – everything that makes a world seem believable and rounded instead of flat and boring. They are all fully fleshed out in a way to show that this world wasn’t just created for the plot itself, but it was created to stand on its own.
If you have a thirst for anime series that show a world built for more than just its main plot, there are some fine anime recommendations out there that show some brilliant and thoughtful worldbuilding.
Toppa Tengen Gurren Lagann
Gurren Lagann, in terms of plot, is very much a “this happened, then this thing happened” sort of show, but while it is doing that, it is also detailing a world that slowly grows as Simon does from a small boy in a small underground town to an adult in a expanding universe. Their take on worldbuilding is clever, but the finer details, namely the mechs, can come unraveled if you think about it too hard.
Legend of Galactic Heroes
This mind as well be called Intergalactic Politics: The Animation because of how much of the actual plot of the series is based upon building up the universe that it is in. This can slow it down at some points, but it rewards you later with complex and thoughtful battles.
When you look at Moribito, you think it is definitely going to be one of those sub par anime series that you watch once and forget about. However, everything in it from the character interactions and growth to the world around it remains to be low-key stunning throughout the series. You are presented with characters with their own backstories, which is usually a given in any series, but find that the whole world has a rich history that you are taught about throughout the series. As an added bonus, it is the only anime series to teach us how exactly one of those old school water mills work.
From the New World
This is the series that really shows off what worldbuilding could be in an anime, and is easily the best example of it. Not only is it explained how the world came to be and why they have such vague and secretive rules, but even the stupidest, most pointless things have an explanation to them. That being said, when everything comes together later in the series, you see just how well made that world is and still remain intrigued to find out more. Really when you build your world out to be characters solving the mysteries of their small piece of it, you just can’t stop watching because of that intrigue it creates.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Have you ever wondered what specifically made Fullmetal Alchemist get so enduring popular? The plot at the beginning isn’t very interesting, the main characters are very much your typical shounen characters, and by those factors combined, it shouldn’t have been successful. However, what brought that all together was the detail that went into the world. Alchemy wasn’t just MAGIC~!, it is governed by the rules of equivalent exchange and controlled by institutions. The villains in the world weren’t just motivated by EVIL~!, they each had different goals and purposes for what they do. It is these small details that can transform what could be a typical action adventure series into a powerhouse of a show.
The Twelve Kingdoms
When you have a world with twelve kingdoms, you would have to work extra hard to just not world build. The thing I thought was silly at first is those kingdoms are laid out on a map like a five-year-old drew the borders, but later they have a perfectly acceptable explanation for why it turned out that way. Furthermore, the whole series is almost exclusively about dealing with the international politics of the world that, while not showing the specific kingdoms off, does make them feel real and diverse.
Gundam’s Universal Century
The real challenge of worldbuilding in anime is that you have a finite amount of space to do so. While it is always impressive when shows like From the New World Pull it off in your standard 2-cour set, you have to admire things like Gundam that have a whole timeline in the multiverse to flesh out that created world. For those not in the know, the Universal Century is Gundam’s main timeline and typically the reason that other Gundam timelines with only one series feel less satisfying. In the Universal Century, you have a handful of series to watch the universe expand, change, and explain itself over several hundred years and several hundred episodes.
Of all the Big Three shounen anime series, One Piece is the clear winner when it comes to worldbuilding. The real key to identifying a well-built world is to think if all the main characters died in a horrible accident in the next episode, would the world go on? This is very much the case in One Piece. While shows like Naruto and DBZ have unique worlds, if the main characters all died, the world would kind of grind to a halt. If the Straw Hat Crew all died, there would still be a very engaging world left behind in One Piece.
So Ra No Wo To
You would not think an anime series that is basically about a solider with trumpet-playing aspirations would have a really vibrant world, but damn do they find a way to make it so. While much of the series is centered round one small town, you have quite a few influences from the outside world. You learn a lot about it without actually seeing it, which is quite difficult to pull off while sounding organic, but this serene little show makes it feel like there is a big world outside their bubble.
Attack on Titan
This series is a unique example of worldbuidling, but unfortunately, if you haven’t read the manga you won’t quite understand why yet. Attack on Titan does an excellent job of making the world the characters live in feel large and small at the same time. They have lots of room, yes, but there is a much larger place out there. While the rest of that world feels dead and full of titans, what if there was a long-standing history behind it?
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Scifi with good world building is very hard to do well because often it works in terms of science that we don’t know yet or most people don’t understand. A prime example is another popular scifi anime series, Steins; Gate. In it, the microwave is a time machine just because it is. They don’t go to great lengths to explain it, and that is a valid strategy in much of scifi. However, in the world of Ghost in the Shell, much of the why and the how of this cybernetically-enhanced world is exposed throughout the plot, and you learn how things came to be and all the various problems that most people don’t consider.
Fate/Stay and really all of the Nasuverse is an incredibly fleshed out world that somehow all ties together throughout the different series. The thing is, though, that if you don’t read the light novels or the encyclopedic wiki, you really never get the full scope of it. Yet, that’s fine since you won’t care that you don’t know if you don’t know because each individual series is a great watch.
Hunter x Hunter
Right alongside One Piece in the shounen genre is Hunter x Hunter with its thoughtful world. At first it seems typical, then two things happen: it gets very dark and it starts dropping little pieces of exposition about the world and why it is the way it is. Both of those things, in our opinion, make for a wonderful series. Although Hunter x Hunter is not without its issues, its worldbuilding isn’t one of them.
A Certain Magical Raildex
In Index and Railgun, you have two very different aspects that make up one of the most fascinating worlds in anime: magic and science. While the science part of it is explained incredibly well, the magic part, not so much. Of course, Index has other things going for it, but Railgun is really where the worldbuilding gets good in the series.
Why Log Horizon and not Sword Art Online? You know why, deep down in your heart. Overlooking the fact that the whole concept of NervGear is deeply flawed, Log Horizon goes to great lengths to explain much of the finer details in their MMO and while it can get boring at times without Kirito main character-level hacks, it does a very good job of creating a virtual world that is incredibly similar to actual MMOs. They take the time away from character drama in order to give exposition to the world in order to make it feel more feasible.
If you have any other anime series that you feel were a great example of worldbuilding, tell us in the comments section below.
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