Of the thousands of anime series, movies, OVAs and specials that dot history from the 60s to the modern day, I have only seen scant over 300. That’s barely a blip on the radar, and hardly something to be floored by, even if my regular anime viewing has only been going on for around four years. Of the 423 shows, movies, etc. that I’ve seen, I’ve been expected to pick out 30 that I think are exemplary in some way, and explain why in the form of short paragraphs. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that these are the best that anime has to offer, these are shows that manage to remind me that for every malformed, quivering mess left in a back alley for (often adolescent male) passersby to lather in tongue baths, there is a shining beacon to pick up the slack. These are those shows/movies/whatever. (Note: Entries 10 and 12 are repeats of what appeared on the combined Top 30 list. I couldn’t say anything more to express my love for those shows)
30. Kiki’s Delivery Service
Starting on a high, Miyazaki-devised note, Kiki’s Delivery Service wins points and a special place in my heart for being the first Ghibli film that I’ve ever seen. While I’ve seen many more since those halcyon days where my age was still in the single digits, thanks in part to my Japanese teacher of three years who was fond of showing Miyazaki films with even the slightest tangential relation to what we were learning that week, Kiki’s stands out for being the first (far from only) film that I’d seen without any clear-cut antagonist or a predictable story. Kiki’s biggest problem to confront was herself and what she wanted to do in life, and, thanks to the overwhelming charm characteristic of such films, was never boring. Nostalgia plays a large part in this making the list, but it’s still an undeniably strong contender.
29. Lovely Complex
Lovely Complex is a series that doesn’t dawdle. The entirety of the show spans three years of high school, making the relationship between Risa and Ootani feel like it experiences actual growth over a long period of time, rather than the sudden spurt of “hey, I guess I like you now for no adequately explained reason” that I malign other shows for. There are quite a few spats of serious drama, but the overwhelming comedic tone never seems to be weighed down, nor weigh down the impact of the more emotional scenes. Sometimes, it has to be remembered that high schoolers are stupid as fuck when it comes to romance, and Lovely Complex is just the show to remind me of that, without making me hate them for it.
28. Madoka Magica
2011 was a year that gave us many classics in the making, but none left an impact and divided viewership that could compare with Mahou Shoujo Star Madoka Magica. Many were shocked by the abrupt ending of the third episode, or one of many later moments, but that’s not why it makes this list. For me, it’s a great case study of choice, how one can use the certainty of their own destruction to lead to a better world for all. After all, inevitability doesn’t necessarily mean resignation. Choice is an integral theme to the show, as we see characters on the path to tragic, lonely deaths unable to use that to help others until Madoka realizes her own impact on the world. It’s one of a select few shows that manages to be both depressing and uplifting at once, ending on a reminder to the audience that they’re never alone, since a pink god is watching and protecting them always. Forever.
27. Senki Zesshou Symphogear: Meteoroid Falling, Burning, and Disappear, Then…
That title should clue you in on why this is such a wonderful piece of terrible anime. There’s no sugarcoating it, Symphogear is bad. It’s hands down one of the most poorly-written shows that I’ve ever watched, and it just gets stranger as it goes on. It’s essentially an early-90’s hyperviolent OVA retrofitted for the modern, moe crowd. So what you have is some government conspiracy surrounding vaguely threatening monsters, and people that sing so hard that their eyes bleed.
Everything that could go wrong, from plot threads that go nowhere, to characters outright forgetting their motivations (or repeating them ad nauseum every single episode), to horrible attempts at intentional comedy (“It’s not like we’re in an anime or anything!”), makes for a show that becomes anime’s answer to The Room. Sure, you have shows further up the list that manage to add new things to the medium and collective human understanding. But very few can provide an underground Tower of Babel laser cannon that exists solely to blow a hole through the moon. Oh, and it’s built by the spirit of a Babylonian priestess. Symphogear is just the right kind of bad to stay entertaining from start to finish, and hitting that particular nerve is no easy feat. Which is admirable, I guess.
26. Time of Eve
Time of Eve is probably the greatest use of sci-fi in a short slice of life series with a focus on what makes humanity ever. It certainly isn’t the first, but it’s a smart, underappreciated project that keeps the café and outside world separate in a way that drives home the message without sounding preachy. Hell, for such a potentially high concept, it shows remarkable restraint and stays away from whatever soapbox a lesser show might’ve perched itself on. It manages to question the audience’s perception of events in the show without talking down to or deriding them, and I think that’s just fantastic.
25. Death Note
A damn good anime with some damn good mind games coupled with some damn unforgettable characters. Damn. Really though, the first two thirds of Death Note make for some of the best television that I’ve ever seen. What really got me riled in retrospect was the way that each of Light and L’s moves were deliberate and carefully planned in advance, successful or not. Their battle of wits was always little more than a series of baby steps of progress toward capture or escape, but it was never clear who’d win until the very final, crucial moment that, somewhat appropriately, was one of the most brilliant anticlimaxes ever animated. For the first anime that I sat down and marathoned, Death Note has held up surprisingly well upon repeated viewings, and that’s not something that most series can boast.
Apparently, I’m in the minority when I say that Nisemonogatari was leagues better than its prequel. While I can certainly understand why somebody would disagree (Bakemonogatari had more numerous and better stories), I’d say that Nise took every element and crystallized it, amplifying the strengths of Bake’s quirkiness into a more focused chapter with the characters at their best. Despite Araragi’s sisters finally entering the scene, Senjougahara stole the show even more than she did in Bake, the diminished quantity of her appearances making her shine all the brighter.
What truly made the series great though was Deishu Kaiki, a conman who took the role of designated villain and ran with it. He had no complex motivations or reason for doing what he did, and even acknowledged that fact. It’s like he was given a career survey as a kid, and his very first choice was to write “Villain” without batting an eye, before picking lethargic cello and accordion music to serve as his leitmotif. I can’t help but enjoy him and the show for that.
Very few series have managed to detail a character’s descent into madness at the behest of an outside power quite as well as Steins;Gate, and all while making him an incredibly engaging eccentric. Hell, the entire series is nothing but fun, a dystopian scifi adventure that delves very lightly into the psychological consequences of time travel while still maintaining an air of self awareness that keeps it from becoming too heavy or pretentious for its own good. It’s a visual novel adaptation done exactly right.
22. Eureka Seven
Eureka Seven isn’t exactly the most accessible show out there. Each of its characters are flawed, and most are borderline unlikable for some reason or another; either because they’re on the wrong side at the wrong time, or their insecurities force them to act like dicks to everyone that they come in contact with. There’s a stretch of episodes around the middle that takes somebody who’s essentially lived nothing but a harsh, alienated life, gives them a family who loves them unconditionally, and forces them to leave for people who cared little for treating him like a human being. Gekko State aren’t the best people, but they sure make for one of the more interesting ship crews in anime.
21. Paranoia Agent
Paranoia Agent is one of the few shows that I’ve seen that manages to be both (intentionally) creepy and funny at the same time. The entire show plays out like a madman’s dream, spiraling further and further out of control until a giant wave of black symbolism washes the madness away, all while cackling hollowly at the insanity it’s created at the beginning of every episode. Plus, you have to admire a show that takes a matter as grave as suicide and makes it into one of anime’s strongest standalone comedy episodes.
20. Mirai Nikki
Okay, one more entry for pure, dumb entertainment. Somebody out there didn’t like that Battle Royale had some degree of subtlety and a moral to accompany all the head-slicing, vein-gushing goodness. They didn’t like that most shows involving kids killing each other don’t give them cell phones to call for help, something that would end the situation in mere minutes in the cell phone user’s favor. And, most of all, he didn’t like that more generic milquetoast protagonists don’t have crazed stalkers. That person wrote Mirai Nikki, the story of a withdrawn middle school boy drawn into an ever-escalating citywide brawl with deranged characters that he has to out-crazy to survive. The sheer variety of crazy is something to behold.
19. Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni
Higurashi is probably the best bad looking show that Deen has ever put out, which somehow still has better art than the visual novel that it’s adapted from. And yet, even with this clearly limited budget, Higurashi manages to turn from an effective horror mystery to something of a tragedy by letting the audience stew on the events, before explaining them from an alternate point of view sympathetic to the perpetrator(s) of the show’s many grisly crimes. It’s one of a very few cases where shedding light on characters going crazy only hints at something more insidious at play. It gets a bit reliant on sickening power of friendship moments (hey, our friend murdered a woman and her lover in a fit of rage, let’s cover for her), but the tiny flaws are easily made up for by what else the series brings to the table.
18. Azumanga Daioh
Azumanga Daioh is a comedy that further proves that the greatest comedy is in the daily interactions of sociopaths. Despite its age and even among the slew of imitators, it’s managed to hold up considerably, in part because of its varied cast of relatable characters and the gags that rarely if ever got old, helped by a firm sense of comic timing. It remains firmly in the highest echelons of school comedy, with memorable moments too numerous to count.
17. Natsume Yuujinchou
Many things are content to convey the many faults in life in as callous a manner as possible, presenting scenarios as utterly hopeless, insurmountable beasts that you can only let gore you as swiftly and painlessly as possible. Natsume Yuujinchou tells similar stories about day to day life in the warmest, most comforting manner imaginable. Even at its bleakest, Natsume is a series that reminds you that no matter how difficult life is, there’s always something positive among all the sadness. Natsume himself is the guinea pig for these lessons, time after time, and learns from them in order to open up to others. Despite his trust often putting him in danger of landing in a youkai’s stomach, life always feels fit to reward him for coming out of his shell in one way or another, and that’s so damn endearing.
16. Serial Experiments Lain
What I managed to parse from the mangled, schizophrenic, beautiful wreck of Lain was a cautionary tale about the dangers of a perpetually wired world and dance clubs with punny titles. Apparently this isn’t what was intended, which adds a whole new layer of frustration to piecing together the story that Lain tells. Still, its own manner of incomprehensibly vague, yet compelling storytelling invites discourse and interpretation in ways that few other shows have managed, strengthened by a lethally claustrophobic atmosphere. It’s an exhausting watch that I couldn’t in good faith recommend to just anybody, but there’s a Zen quality in finding payoff in a show that offers none.
Mononoke is a show that wears its avant-garde label loud and proud. Everything from the time it aired to the animation to the basic premise of each arc was tailor-crafted to fit this tag, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t all work together to create a fascinating work unlike any other before or since. While none of the entries are outright scary, they confront humanity’s relation with horror, and the very real notion that we create our own monsters, and invite tragedy on ourselves by doing so. Oh, and it has Norio Wakamoto as a shamisen-playing fish.
14. Golden Boy
This is one of the few anime from the ancient days of the 90’s whose goofy dub actually improves the show. But it’s not a Ghost Stories-like entity where the gag dub is its selling point and its sole reason for existing on western shores; if it were only in the original Japanese, it would still have raunchy, tasteless content coming out every single orifice, and would continue to make Kintaro’s trek across Japan simultaneous gut-busting and cringe-inducing. After all, in what other show would a woman’s boobs jiggle for several seconds after she stopped moving, and actually keep it from being eye-rollingly stupid? Until I find that out, Golden Boy will be the only boob jiggle show that I let thoroughly entertain me.
13. Kino’s Journey
If Aesop knew about motorcycles, you can bet that he would have written fables similar to those present in Kino’s Journey. What’s great about the series is it takes the premise of Kino spending exactly three days in a location to learn about it and stretches it in all manner of directions all related to the human experience. Sympathetic slavers, decadent societies on the verge of implosion, and people waiting calmly for their expected deaths are just a smattering of the extremes explored in this one-cour show. The episodes themselves may be fleeting, but their impact will stay with you long after viewing.
Mushishi is not your traditional story. There aren’t any chivalrous princes, crafty witches, or guiding spirits framing each episode’s central message. Instead, it’s about how people live with the many facets of nature, both good and bad, and how Ginko either changes them or merely examines the effects. Mushishi takes a neutral, detached view of the beautiful and often frightening world that’s been set before us to examine, treating people spending their lives chasing rainbows, children going deaf, and men whose children stem from plants with the same subdued, oddly warm treatment. The sheer variety of its 26 episodes also ensure that whoever watches it will find at least something that piques their interest, so it’s a riskless proposition with a great payoff.
11. Perfect Blue
As a story, Perfect Blue is one of the most gradual shifts from ominous mundanity to off the rails insanity that I’ve ever seen. Everything about the film is incredibly… off, for lack of a better word. The most innocuous, boring scenes are injected with just a few uncanny elements to induce unease, doing a fantastic job of setting the mood before the actual thriller element hits. The mental stability of Mei is questionable at best throughout, its ambiguity making Mei both sympathetic and profoundly disturbing. Perfect Blue validates our silliest, least realistic fears, and validates paranoia in a way that plays off of common neuroses.
10. Black Lagoon: The Second Barrage
Black Lagoon is the exemplification of a show that does not give a fuck. Logic and general human kindness are obstacles in its quest to emulate and perfect the formula of cheesy 80’s action movies, and it will damn well break past those barriers in a flurry of guerilla maids and androgynous Romanian twin children. The sheer variety of enemies that Rock and co. have to fight is nothing short of heart-stopping, all scented with their own unique brands of insanity. Even the one-shot villains that die gruesome deaths, like an innocent-looking suburban dad-type with a passion for burning shit, are colorful characters worthy of a large amount of screen time in a more grounded show without so much wonderfully gratuitous violence. And when some of the characters are given (often gruesome) pasts, it’s nothing short of sobering. Black Lagoon pulls off the mood whiplash well, and it always does so with guns blazing.
9. Samurai Champloo
There aren’t enough hours in the day to describe just how fantastic Samurai Champloo is. Its fusion of hip hop and a 19th Century Japanese setting allows for a variety of stories, the highlight of which is a wonderfully imaginative baseball match between Mugen, Jin and friends and the crew of Commodore Perry’s fleet. Really though, the sheer imagination put into this show is admirable by itself and more than makes up for any shortcomings in character development. You won’t find any greater series with both graffiti ninjas and giant gay Dutch eating contestants anytime soon.
8. Castle in the Sky
Castle in the Sky is one of Ghibli’s earlier efforts and certainly my favorite. While calling a Miyazaki film fantastical is almost a pointless description, Castle in the Sky really earns the title, as it takes the main characters everywhere from a late 19th Century mining town, to a glowing underground cave complex, to the film’s namesake floating in the stratosphere. Underlying the actions and aspirations of the cast are themes of abandonment that make the eventual discovery of Laputa one of the most bittersweet moments in anime. Yes, it’s a wondrous flying fortress with rolling meadows and spacious estates, but it’s also fallen into disrepair, its robotic wardens tending it mechanically to the best of their abilities . There’s a 5-10 minute stretch that’s nothing but exploration of the ruins, and it’s one of the most beautifully sobering moments in any movie that I’ve seen, and nothing that later efforts have been able to reproduce. While it isn’t the best Ghibli film, it’s certainly one of a kind.
7. Spice and Wolf
The worst part of human existence is loneliness. Spice and Wolf has two people that know this and, just as they reach a crossroads in their lives, forces them together, and has them bond over currency manipulation and witty quips. The body language and their sly ways of teasing each other make the burgeoning romance between Lawrence and Holo one of the most interesting in anime. It’s a series less about romance itself and more about what it brings to those ensnared in its tangled web. What makes it even better is that Holo being a long-lived god doesn’t feel like a silly contrivance. You know that it won’t end pleasantly in the long run, but you almost think it will for how much she grows to love Lawrence, and that hope drives the series onward.
6. Mawaru Penguindrum
Penguindrum is incredibly pretentious. It’s also cryptic, posing open-ended questions without ever giving a definite answer. At the same time, it explores a complex web that’s been woven between every character, even characters previously thought to be unimportant being given a large amount of detail and growth. Seeing Ringo turn from crazed stalker to benevolent caretaker, Kanba keep his actions and motivations a secret from his own family, and Sanetoshi do… well, anything, compounds the sense of mystery without ever losing a sense of purpose. It isn’t navel-gazing for the sake of showing off, and it isn’t incomprehensible for lack of real effort. Just like Lain, Penguindrum is made as good as it is by its enigmatic nature, though its sense of coherence places it higher.
Shiki is one of those few things that’s hit every note just right for me. The show doesn’t do anything terribly original: After all, taking the west’s common vampire myths and turning them on their heads by making the monsters relatable would have been groundbreaking if it happened several decades ago
What Shiki does exceedingly well is frame this from three perspectives that view the infection ravaging their town from entirely different angles; what one character sees as something out to ruin their future plans, another recognizes as an opportunity to escape from what they view as a meaningless existence of routine and expectation. This constant shift in the point of view frames some downright disturbing moments, while a haunting soundtrack makes the inevitable climax an ultimately morose affair.
4. Detroit Metal City
Detroit Metal City falls somewhat into the mold laid out by Golden Boy years earlier: A student fresh out of college is trying to find himself, and ends up in compromising positions that only somebody with his specific skillset can puzzle out. Also, he’s the lead in a death metal band (more like Gwar with Sodom and Kreator’s musicianship, but whatever, it’s metal) that wants nothing more to be a pop star. The series follows Souichi, aka Johannes Krauser II, as he attempts to lead a normal life and slowly drift away from his band and its foul-mouthed manager. As the show continues though, his efforts become less and less successful until, by several hilarious strokes of (mis)fortune, it culminates in him becoming the king of death metal. And while it does this, it’s one of the funniest fucking things that I’ve ever seen without ever overstaying its welcome. I hesitate to spoil any of the gags, as going in with a clean slate is probably the smartest thing to do, but just watch it.
If there’s one thing that anime does consistently well, it’s fun. Granted, it’s not rare to have a show that’s well-written, cringe-inducingly violent, and a pure adrenaline rush to watch, but almost nothing steps up to the plate in the same regard as Baccano. At times confusing and never boring, this tale of Depression-era gangsters, mages, and hot rail on face action is one of those that not only stands up to repeated viewings, but actually gets better the more that it’s watched.
2. Welcome to the NHK
What makes Welcome to the NHK so painful to watch is the fact that most of it sounds like it’s coming from a grizzled veteran who’s seen it all. And indeed, that’s the story behind the novel, one of the most unrelentingly depressing works of semi-autobiographical fiction ever. Satou is a shut-in who spends all of the 22 episodes overcoming his debilitating social anxiety, with every success matched with an equal or greater failure. It’s impossible for the viewer not to see at least a part of themselves in Satou as he explores the world of internet porn and MMOs, while throwing every piece of currency he has at useless anime paraphernalia. Buried deeply within each of his ventures is a profound sense of emptiness that he attempts, with no success, to fill.
1. Aria the Natural
Aria in general is probably my favorite anime ever, but also one of a few on this list that I’d hesitate to recommend to everybody. It’s unbridled optimism and serenity in the form of apprentice gondoliers exploring a retro-futuristic Venice on Mars, something that hasn’t been attempted before with such detail. Neo Venezia itself is the star of the show, most of the episodes revolving around Akari and her friends exploring its many secrets, nooks and crannies, and especially people. The Natural is the best of the three series for this reason; it’s the one that most explores the setting of Neo Venezia in all its mundanity and mystery. Highlights include a citywide scavenger hunt, a fond farewell to an old gondola, and several episodes involving Cait Sith, Neo Venezia’s elusive cat guardian with a fondness for bringing Akari into his own world for periodic visits.
With probably the greatest anime soundtrack to go along with it, Aria is a one of a kind series that, while it may not be to everyone’s taste, presents a future that we can all strive for. Quite simply, it makes life affirmation into an art form, and this is why it’s my uncontested, absolute favorite series. Aria is the kind of show that I stick on after a long day to unwind, or after a particularly catastrophic failure. Be warned though, it’s the Space Honey of anime, when viewed more than one episode at a time: One episode and you’ll be relaxed. Two, and you’ll sleep peacefully for a night. Three, and you’ll sleep forever.
If you want our other writers’ individual lists:
Alternatively, you can read our joint Top 30.