Better a few years late than never, but here’s an updated list of what anime are objectively the best according to somebody who, for some reason, can’t seem to get enough of cartoons aimed at little girls. In order to keep portions of the list from feeling too same-y (i.e. ARIA-y, Ghibli-y), some of the entries are representative of works of comparable genres, directors, or quality. This way half the list won’t just be Hayao Miyazaki’s film output, both Non Non Biyori seasons, and three seasons of JoJo. What other shows they’re representative of I’ll leave up to your interpretation, you lovely reader you.
30. Emma: A Victorian Romance
I will say one thing about the title for this show: There is a romance, and it is in the Victorian era. I get that it’s hard to name things, but I feel a more apt description of the show’s appeal would have been “Emma: Pleasantness Can be Interesting”. Like ARIA, there’s a warmth to the low-key activities in the show, and the awkwardness between Emma and Will. The charm lies in the eager way that Will tries to break Emma out of her shell. It’s boyish, but it comes from a place of genuinely wanting to get to know her better. The show is at its best when it transplants their growing relationship into the doldrums of early 20th Century London life, creating an effect not unlike a nice warm bath. It’s a period piece slice of life that’s simply cozy to watch, and I adore it.
29. Samurai Flamenco
The death of Manglobe was sad to see. Though it still fought valiantly after putting out Samurai Flamenco, I’ll always consider this story, that of a manchild who finds out he’s a hero of interdimensional significance, the wonderfully inelegant swansong of a distinguished studio. Its inclusion on this list comes with quite a few qualifiers, namely that it’s a sloppy mess that, at times, cares more about throwing the viewer for a loop than making a coherent story. It’s also ugly as sin, with the budget noticeably running out toward the end. However, there’s no better love letter to the various superhero subgenres than this show. Every audacious twist, every jarring genre shift, and every nonsensical fight are in service toward perfectly crystallizing the essence of the Japanese superhero, and its evolution over the last several decades. It’s not so much a trainwreck as it is watching a train being thrown into a black hole to be compacted to its very core. And once you go Guillotine Gorilla, you don’t go back.
28. Eve no Jikan
A lot of works involving robots and artificial intelligence tend to take a cautionary approach, warning of what happens when people give machines equal intelligence, and proceed to treat them like second class citizens. Rather than taking the Asimov approach of sending the ultimate artificial intelligence to help the galaxy from behind the scenes for several millennia while his robot kin end up dead or in disguise, Time of Eve opts to take a less ambitious, infinitely more optimistic approach by showing what happens when those who are discriminated against are treated like equals in one particular place.
And, shockingly enough, they don’t entertain ideas of overthrowing their meatbag overlords. They just want to converse at a café like any other actually warm-blooded person. It’s something of an anomaly in science fiction that, though it has nothing truly powerful to say, shows that what intelligence wants more than anything is respect. And I respect it for that.
27. Mirai Nikki
The relationship between Yuki and Yuno is one of utterly caustic symbiosis. It’s utterly unhealthy, with Yuno exerting a bizarre sort of control over Yuki as he tries to survive a Verizon-sponsored Battle Royale, but it’s absolutely crucial to both of their survival. Seeing how it plays out as they’re tossed against a variety of psychopaths is most of the series’ charm. Mirai Nikki is hardly the most cerebral show, but the lot of eccentrics that it tosses together, and the rules that they’re all bound by, makes for one of anime’s most compelling games of cat and mouse.
26. Non Non Biyori
Hailed as the “best thing since sliced ARIA” by a certain handsome gentleman, Non Non Biyori makes the death of the small town look like the most fun thing in the world. Where Shiki practically revels in burning small town society to the ground, Non Non Biyori sees it as a unique situation where a small group of kids of varying ages can get close to each other and engage in the most entertainingly banal adventures imaginable. Whether you enjoy this show will wholly depend on your attitude toward true slice of life, and whether you think it’s simply a waste of time. I enjoy it, so I can say with confidence that it’s easily one of the best shows of the last decade, and anybody who disagrees is terrible and probably likes something bad.
25. Paradise Kiss
Paradise Kiss is the story of a girl who has no idea what the hell she wants to do after high school falling in with an eccentric group of aspiring fashion designers, which, if anime has taught me anything, is the closest thing that Japan has to a Bad Crowd. Though it lacks the complexity of Nana, Yazawa Ai’s other notable adapted work, it follows a more existential line of emotional development, focusing more on finding a passion to strive toward than the consequences of being tossed into a largely uncaring adult world. There’s warmth to Paradise Kiss that I find irresistibly charming, as characters are driven by believable levels of emotional immaturity and a burgeoning interest in the various means of designing clothing. Of all the shows on this list, it’s the one that I’d probably call the most mature and contemplative.
24. Higurashi no Naku Koro ni
There’s a timelessness to children killing other children because of suspected homicidal urges on the part of the kill-ee. Sometimes, as in Battle Royale, it’s something used to darkly comic effect. In Higurashi’s case, it uses over the top chillen killin’ to drive home the paranoia held between friends, and ultimately the trust that they build in the face of complicit murder. I guess that’s a roundabout way of saying that Higurashi is probably the one show that can consistently make murderers look sympathetic and downtrodden in the face of almost insurmountable odds. Even that patented DEEN art style can’t ruin the one genuinely creepy, morose show that’s just as good as teenage me always said it was.
23. One Outs
In a strange way, One Outs is the ultimate inspirational story. It’s about taking mediocre talent, and augmenting it with other fields of knowledge to make it exceedingly potent. In this case, it’s about Tokuchi, a pitcher who uses a firm grasp of fucking with people to turn a middling pitching game, and an even worse team, into one of game-changing significance. In One Outs, raw skill means nothing, and even the worst odds can be amended with a well-placed insult and a strong mind-game. Though Tokuchi will always win, the games that he plays are so littered with obstacles, whether it’s a savvy opponent or the manager who habitually sabotages his own team, that it’s always an apparent uphill battle. It’s a credit to One Outs that I can always know the outcome, while still being totally unsure. That right there is damn good scripting and direction.
Through the lens of humble space trashmen, Planetes looks at the uncomfortable corporate atmosphere that would probably arise from focused human excursions into space—both its actions and the reactions to it. It’s a reminder that everything we take for granted as a modern convenience doesn’t exist in a bubble, and isn’t totally beneficial for everyone involved. Yet, there’s a current of levity that Planetes stubbornly clings to, even as things look like they’re going to shit. The crewmembers of Half Section are all charming goofballs, the episode about Fee inadvertently thwarting a terrorist plot in her desperate bid to have a smoke is brilliant, and Hachimaki’s burgeoning relationship with Manabe is adorably awkward in its benign dysfunction. For all of its ruminations on blind ambition and the sobering realities of its world, Planetes unquestionably loves the people that inhabit it. It’s brutal honesty that comes from a place of affection, and I adore it.
21. Death Note
There’s something that I find enjoyable watching schemers ride their own plans by the seat of their pants, not knowing whether they’ll end up dead by the end or not. Death Note offers not one but two of these schemers, who try to suss each other out without being found out themselves. It’s the thriller genre incarnate, a rollercoaster ride of contrivance and dubious motivations that only cares about providing a fun experience. Though metaphysical and moral implications are broached, it’s all in the service of fun, and not vice versa. Though the last third peters out significantly, it still delivers on a strong foundation of ideologically motivated murder and potato chip eating.
20. Eureka Seven
The idea of an adopted family without bloodlines is a central concept of Eureka Seven. While it has an environmental message, enjoyably ambiguous morality, and competent mech combat, where it excels is in emphasizing the importance of Renton’s various adoptive families, and the quirks that lead to conflict between them. Everybody in Eureka Seven’s world shows some kind of cold indifference when they shouldn’t, and moving past that is what makes the characters so damn good. And, without wishing to spoil, Renton’s time with Ray and Charles is perfect in almost every way, both in the way that they act toward each other, and how it eventually concludes.
19. Neon Genesis Evangelion
It’s hardly going to be a controversial statement that Hideki Anno wasn’t exactly a bastion of happiness and goodwill toward mankind at the time that he made Evangelion. And really, I don’t think that it would have the magnitude of a reputation that it has today if it didn’t adequately reflect Anno’s Happy Days and his Burn Everything Days. Hell, this is most of my enjoyment of the series. But beyond its status as a cross-section of the psyche of a man at a less than ideal point in his life, Eva is a fascinating work about broken people trying to prop each other up in the most mutually destructive ways possible. It’s people trying to make the best of an increasingly bad situation, and doing terrible at it. And it’s engrossing as all hell.
Violence has never looked as cool as it has in Baccano, where criminals of all stripes come together to punch, stab, and shoot each other, smiling maniacally all the while. This is hardly anything new in the medium, but nothing else has managed to have every character of note exude so much raw charisma. Everybody is just so damn psychotic that it’s hard not to like them, even as they slice each other to bits in gruesome ways. It’s one thing to have individuals of ill-repute attempt to maim each other—it’s another thing entirely to have the maiming feel kinetic and meaningful, no matter who tries to do it.
17. Code Geass
Pound for pound, Code Geass is the most anime anime to ever grace anime. There are noodly bishounen who frequently find themselves in vaguely homoerotic situations, there’s a girl who spends her time onscreen either being victimized or eating pizza, and a terrorist leader commandeers robots on rollerblades to enact plans that require insane levels of contrivance to work. Yet, it’s one of the most brilliant things I’ve seen. I know it’s ridiculous, but it infuses moments of genuinely good writing (and sterling direction) with unparalleled audaciousness in a way that never fails to have me clapping like a circus seal. Even its less brilliant moments are backed by enough confidence to make up for a drop in quality. As a wise, handsome, socially capable man once said, Code Geass is the Four Loko of anime—everything that comprises it is awful in some way, but together it gets you fucked up like nothing else.
16. Mawaru Penguindrum
Mawaru Penguindrum is the only Ikuhara show that I feel wasn’t initially written and composed as a play to be performed on a dismal stage way off-Broadway. Though drenched in symbolism and abound in subtleties, Penguindrum doesn’t make the mistake of conflating complexity with depth. Oh don’t get me wrong, it’s a genuinely complex affair, but it’s soberly constructed with thought for actually conveying emotional depth through sympathetic, profoundly flawed people, not forcing the audience to parse every scene to make the show worthwhile. All the tiny details are there if you want them, sitting all important and shit, but they add to an already robust experience that’s well worth watching as it’s presented on a surface level. It’s rare for a show to be so genuinely unsettling and gut-wrenching on multiple levels, but Penguindrum pulls it off.
The sole entry in my “being a societal outcast is okay! Really, you’re not totally useless!” category is Steins;Gate. That’s probably because it’s the only one that I’ll defend as a genuinely good show. It also conveniently handles the paradox of being able to travel back in time to wherever by having Okabe more and more exhausted with each time he’s thrown into the past. It’s less about whether he’ll be able to change the past, and more if he can figure out how to do so before he completely loses his will to keep trying. In doing this, Steins;Gate manages actual tension where there otherwise wouldn’t be any. It works so damn well that, even if the rest of the show were fuck-awful, I’d still be flipping my shit.
14. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure—Battle Tendency
I’m convinced that JoJo as a whole is the closest thing that anime has to opera. Every action is animated (pardon the pun) and imbued with world-shattering importance, from eating squid ink spaghetti to a demigod crying to power up. It makes everything seem significant by saying that it’s significant, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work. It helps that Joseph Joestar is the kind of no-good punk that one can’t help but root for as he saves the world multiple times over. While he’s great in Stardust Crusaders, Battle Tendency is definitely Joseph at his best, when he gets to swagger onto center-stage and regard the world with a shit-eating grin. Insofar as shounen goes, there’s very little as “out there” as Battle Tendency. Hell, the only thing that I can think of that comes close is other JoJo’s.
13. Perfect Blue
With the explosion of idol anime in recent years, sometimes I like to take a step back and remind myself that these shows are fundamentally about an exploitative industry that cares more for the image of youth and dateability than artistry. Don’t get me wrong, I like the occasional show about girls chasing their dreams through a particular blend of clumsy dance choreography and off-key singing, but I also like seeing just how cruel the entertainment industry can be toward those who rely on it. Following a former idol in her bid to become a fixture in television, Perfect Blue is a storm of psychosis that bends the very fabric of space and time for our unfortunate lead, enough so that by the end, it’s difficult to tell exactly where and when she is. Perfect Blue is an uncomfortable, disorienting watch about a sympathetic person going through the wringer, and determining how much is self-inflicted, and how much is the result of outside expectations, makes it all the more harrowing.
12. Black Lagoon: The Second Barrage
Black Lagoon in all of its iterations is one of the better action series in anything, borrowing heavily from exploitation films to paint a criminal underworld always under the risk of tearing itself to bits. But it’s the first arc of Second Barrage, involving twin assassin children, that takes everything that the show does well, and drives it to a truly tragic conclusion. Almost everything in the show is throwaway to an extent, with everybody existing only to shoot at each other to further whatever the plot of the week is. It’s this arc involving the twins that left the largest impact on the show, with the series pulling out all the stops to deliver on a story that’s equal part hyperviolent, and oddly haunting. Don’t get me wrong, all of Black Lagoon is really, really good. But the arc with the twins elevates the series to a different plane of really, really good, where most anime can only look at with jealous eyes.
11. Hunter x Hunter (2011)
There’s a lot for pretty much anybody to enjoy in Hunter x Hunter. Being one of the quirkier shounen titles out there, somehow, it manages to have unique individuals use unique abilities in consistently novel (some might say unique) ways. The action almost always serves a purpose, whether it’s to prove oneself, or show off a cool new rule that was thought up on the fly. There are also some genuinely heartwarming moments, most of which unfortunately involve pretty big spoilers. But what stuck with me for all 148 (Jesus, there were that many?!) episodes is the sober power curve that Gon and his friends follow with varying degrees of success. There’s a constant sense of somebody always being more powerful, who has to be outwitted when they can’t be outrun, and a drive for self improvement that tints every aspect of the show. It’s refreshing to see a believable ecosystem of freaks that can punch each other up with varying degrees of success, and always stand to improve in the process.
10. Monogatari Series: Second Season—Nadeko Madusa
Second Series is where the already tenuous argument of Monogatari Best Girl breaks down entirely. Every main girl, no matter how anemic their story initially was, is given more than enough of a personality and motivation. Even in arcs that don’t rotate around them, each of the characters acts in a way that lets the viewer peek into their most vulnerable state. Even Nadeko—especially Nadeko—is fleshed out in a way that not only shows how much she desires to buck her reputation as a cute nonentity. It’s not only an indictment of the characters that looked on her with patronizing glares, but of the audience for thinking of her as cute, and nothing else. In a fucked up way, we are the ones who drive her anger, by thinking of her as only a cute face. In the entire genre, I’ve never seen something so keen on establishing an expectation of superficiality, only to ruthlessly berate those who hold it. It’s so delightfully calculated.
I first watched Kaiji at a somewhat dark time in my life. Unable to pay my way through school, and constantly turned down for jobs, I spent a good day and a half marathoning Kaiji to kill time between intermittent job interviews. Sure, circumstances may not have been desirable, but Kaiji taught me one important thing: At least I’m not gambling my way out of slavery to pay off a reckless friend’s debts. Kaiji (the show) knows that him winning through sheer skill doesn’t make for an exciting watch by itself, so it constantly snatches victory from his grasp when it matters the most in a sick metaphor for life.
As a result, Kaiji (the person) is probably the most persistent underdog in the medium, battling against an entire world (and a self) that would see him serve the rest of his life indebted to the mob. To see Kaiji (the person), the single most reckless gambler to grace this godforsaken earth, worm his way to victory in rigged games of non-chance is non-stop tense, and actually kind of inspiring when you get past the fact that he digs his own holes that he’s offered to help dig himself out of.
There’s something oddly comforting in Mushishi’s intermittently hostile world of spirit microbes that block out the sun and infect humans like parasites. It’s like a nature documentary and a fairytale all in one, something that seeks to explain nature while marveling at the unknowable bits. At its best, Mushishi shows the balance with nature that humanity finds itself in, whether we know it or not. Sometimes, the way that people and the mushi affect each other is a force for good, or at least not direct harm—the latter usually being in those cases that involve booze. Other times, the mushi act insidiously, as times not involving booze are wont to do. Basically Mushishi is an argument for being constantly blasted. It’s also kind of profound in other ways at times, I guess.
7. Girls und Panzer
From the moment Girls und Panzer zoomed out from Ooarai’s nondescript high school, to its nondescript coastal town, to an absolutely gargantuan carrier (that still pales in comparison to other carriers), it had me. It epitomizes everything that the series stands for, i.e. transposing the banalities of high school life in banal situations somehow involving military hardware. It’s the kind of show that hits all the right notes for me, thanks to sharp writing, even sharper direction, and a tiny blonde Russian girl so desperate to look down on everyone that she goes everywhere perched on somebody’s shoulders like a Slavic bird. It’s a premise so genius, so weird in its simplicity, that it would be impossible to screw up. Girls und Panzer opts to aim for the stars and not only not screw up, but succeed in every conceivable way with flying colors.
6. Spirited Away
My favorite Miyazaki film seems to change with the tides. For years it was the underrated (relatively speaking) Castle in the Sky, primarily because the lengthy exploration of abandoned, tetanus-spawning Laputa hits all my melancholic notes. Lately though, Spirited Away has somewhat boringly taken the position of Sole Top 30 List Miyazaki Representation, using imaginative lavishness to bring to life a world governed by the limits of animation more than the limits of physics. Yet, all this attention paid to painstakingly animating a world of bathhouse-patronizing spirits doesn’t detract from a coherent narrative, like it would have in almost any other hands. It doesn’t hold the emotional significance of Castle in the Sky for me, but you could say that Spirited Away has spirited me away… from listing Castle in the Sky in its place.
5. Spice and Wolf
Despite being a recluse who saw human interaction once, there’s something in Spice and Wolf, the tale of two individuals feeling profound loneliness who eventually feel profound loneliness together, that really speaks to me. Though the backdrop is in a pseudo-historical analogy of the time when people first didn’t have to barter their way out of starvation, the core of the series is in the interactions between Holo and Lawrence as they try to find their places in the world side by side. There’s a tangible connection between the two that breathes life into everything they do together, making the moments of tenderness that much sweeter, and their fights all the scarier.
Shiki is a sad show about people either resigned to ignoble deaths, as their forebears were, or filled with rage at their predestined fates. Eventually, it comes to a head in a tense, multi-episode finale that’s equal parts saddening and cathartic. As a whole, the town of Sotoba is one of the most sadness-inducing communities ever filtered through the medium of animation. And as it teems more and more with the undead, its prior condition looks so dire that the systematic slaughter and reanimation of the townspeople ironically gives it new life. With enough homoeroticism to choke a rainbow and hair that the late David Bowie would have been envious of, Shiki has something for everyone.
3. Detroit Metal City
Anybody who’s paid the slightest bit of attention to the culture surrounding metal music knows that metalheads are masters of hyperbole, elevating their favorite musicians to godlike status and upselling their infamous deeds, while decrying anything they don’t like with a fury unseen outside of a hurricane. Hell, the legacy of one of metal’s most recognizable faces is an oddly positive one surrounding him killing his bandmate in cold blood. It’s this bizarre idolatry of music industry (and it is an industry) fixtures that Detroit Metal City skewers better than anything else. Everything, from DMC’s absurdly crass lyrics about rape and violence, to Krauser’s (aka Negishi’s) hatred of his persona, to Krauser’s fanatical… well, fans, makes for a show that continuously skirts the border of tastelessness, while never crossing that line. Detroit Metal City is the only thing where a man thrusting into Tokyo Tower could possibly be funny, and not just really weird.
2. Welcome to the NHK
Aside from maybe Evangelion, very few shows have as unlikable yet profoundly sympathetic a cast as Welcome to the NHK. In some way, everybody in the show is desperately trying to run from the expectations of the outside world and their own feelings of inadequacy. To see them struggle with and against each other in their bid to find their way out of a societal dead end is simply mesmerizing in a way that few shows can muster. More than that, Welcome to the NHK balances justified bitterness at an uncaring outside world with depths of self-pity that it’s far less sympathetic toward. Given that the original work was written by a shut-in, it serves a purpose much like Eva in allowing a peek into a moment of the author’s vulnerability. It’s affecting and deeply personal for me, but generally enough that I feel anybody can relate to. More cathartic than fun, Welcome to the NHK is an experience like nothing else.
In contrast with almost every other show in this list, ARIA is one of the most relentlessly optimistic pieces of media ever. Using the well-worn sci-fi premise of gondoliers on Mars (yawn), ARIA is about the chipper Akari and her chipper A-named friends (and Woody) appreciating the small things in life with an unyieldingly chipper attitude. Equal parts an animated travel brochure for Venice and a continuous message of “everything will be alright, just follow your dreams and love everything around you”, ARIA manages to find enough depth in positivity that it never feels repetitive or needlessly glurgy, with imminently likable characters—even the gibbering President Aria.
ARIA’s vision of a bright future is one that I’ve been inspired to try and help realize in my day-to-day life, and I’ll always urge anybody and everybody to check it out. It may not be transformative for anyone else, but it sure was for me, more than anything else on this list. To me, it’s a validation of anime’s artistic merit.