It’s time to update this thing. It’s been almost 4 years since we last collaborated to produce a definitive list of the best anime of all time, so I figured it was worth returning to see what new anime have made it. But before we go onto that, I first have to give you the definite, actual-for-real, best anime of all time list. Yes, that would be my personal favourite anime! This chopped and changed a few times (sorry Last Exile, Shirobako, Black Lagoon), as well as a few anime that dropped out due to the fact that it’s just been so long since I watched them that I couldn’t tell you any of the original reasons why I liked them so much (School Rumble, Cromartie High School). But it’s finally here. Now do remember to not just skim down right to the end and see what I’ve listed and actually read what I had to say about all these anime, OK? I spent a long time agonising over this.
30: Tokyo Godfathers
I love Satoshi Kon’s movies, and this isn’t the only one of his anime that make this list. Tokyo Godfathers is a wonderful, feel-good movie in the sense that you get to see people at their lowest points discover something that leads them to happiness. As these homeless dorks find a baby, their journey to find its parents eventually forces each of them to confront what set of circumstances led to them becoming homeless in the first place and finally start rebuilding bridges in their lives. I’m not usually this much of a giant sap, but Tokyo Godfathers just warms my heart.
29: Space Dandy
Even on the episodes of Space Dandy that didn’t quite work, I never held it against the show because I would be so eager to see what the hell they come up with next week. Would it be a space parody of High School Musical? Will it be a message about how we should all just accept our new zombie state? Or will it be a story in which the main character accidentally teleports his head to a planet where the sole resident is a talking fish desperate to impress his old girlfriend? Its so imaginative with its stories and knocked some of those episodes out of the park so well that sometimes a crazy new anime will come out today and all I can think is “this is just like a mediocre episode of Space Dandy stretched to a full series”.
28: Detroit Metal City
Detroit Metal City’s crowning accomplishment is how it single handedly destroys the veneer around music industry personas. Its parody of the heavy metal lifestyle is obvious. Screaming the word “rape” 10 times a second, an opening song that implores you to murder your family, the fakeness of it all mirrored by a singer who just couldn’t be arsed. All he wants is to sing sappy love songs. But his crappy romantic lyrics are just as fake as the death metal murder spree that he touts in his alternate persona.
27: Arakawa Under the Bridge
This quirky, communist romcom really managed to stick with me. There’s just something brilliant about watching this man trapped in the logical capitalist nightmare be dragged to shore by a woman who claims she’s from Venus and slowly destroys his view of the world. Through the nonsense of the community living by the riverside, they reveal the nonsense behind the main character’s beliefs and slowly rebuild his worldview from the ground up. Maybe I’ve just got something of a hippy spirit inside me to appreciate this call to the wild. Abandon your belongings and put on that kappa costume. What’s common sense anyway?
I’m not entirely sure how this happened, but after watching almost all of the Ghibli movies, Arrietty came out on top as my personal favourite. Quite remarkable considering it’s by some newbie director and not Miyazaki or Takahata. It’s the feeling of mortality as a central theme that I loved about it. The contrast between the kid suffering from a debilitating illness and contrasting his life with that of the borrowers who aren’t even sure if more than 10 of them exist in the world. This looming idea of a lifestyle that is dying out and constantly running to outpace it. It’s a great movie on a purely surface level, but its those themes that have kept it this high up my list.
25: Daily Lives of Highschool Boys
Around the end of 2011 I was on the edge. I was about to give up on anime. In retrospect it feels a bit silly, but a barrage of do-nothing s’life comedies plus horribly melodramatic teens being incredibly stupid had driven me to a point that I kinda wanted out. This stuff just wasn’t for me. Then Daily Lives of Highschool Boys came along and said don’t worry, we know this is complete rubbish. And so it spent the next 13 episodes ripping into these kinds of series. Teens standing by the riverside trying to come out with the most meaningful statements about the weather, but in their heads wondering why on earth they’re speaking such nonsense. Introducing a teen girl segment that ends as soon as it starts with one of them punching the other in the face.
Akira is one of the best directed anime around. It has an eye for detail that tells its story in so many little but meaningful ways. But it also has the eye for dramatic cuts and bombast, showing the villain emerging from a plume of smoke as backing singers start chanting dramatically. It’s gross and disturbing but also enthralling and engaging. Plus for all its psychic cyberpunk nonsense, it still tells a sympathetic story about real human emotions of jealousy and fear as well as that of a broader national state. A kid who just wants to stop being lorded over by his brother suddenly finds himself with far more power than he can control, mirroring the frustration a younger generation feels when left with a nation destroyed by their parents.
Kaiba is the best cyberpunk anime, in the sense that it tackles the most themes that could come from a cyberpunk future with the most fascinating of consequences. A world in which your conscience and memories can be transported sounds like it could be the immortal utopia, but instead you see how class warfare erupts even with these fantastic technological achievements. The rich spend their money to buy the latest, hottest bodies that are in this season, designed by a mad artist whose only desire is to make the rich look stupider. The poor forced to sell their memories of how to play the piano so they can feed their family. Memories being scrubbed and altered in an attempt to resolve a love triangle. It’s all here and it makes for absorbing viewing.
22: Aquarion EVOL
EVOL is LOVE. It is the dumbest, cheesiest piece of Japanese Animation. It has characters turning the mechs into hot tubs full of bananas. It has an all-knowing general who communicates messages to his subordinates by sending them a box of donuts with ants in them, leaving them to work out the message. It has a guy who starts floating whenever he gets turned on, leading to a jealous love interest to accuse him as being a guy who “would float for anyone”. EVOL knows this is stupid and revels in all of it, making you care about these characters through your disbelieving laughter. It’s the kind of show that can make you cry with laughter at how stupid something is and cry at how you were touched emotionally during the very same sequence.
21: Neon Genesis Evangelion
Neon Genesis Evangelion is a painful character study of what happens when you constantly provoke people’s weak emotional points and watch as they decay slowly from the inside. Which could be very dry and difficult to watch in other circumstances, so the geniuses in Japan realised they would tell the story mostly through metaphors, and those metaphors come in the form of giant robots punching mysterious angels bent on destroying humanity. It has this fantastic boom and bust cycle to it, where you watch a character slowly make progress only for something to push up against their mental weaknesses and see how they destroy themselves from the inside, reflected by the actions of the robot they’re piloting.
20: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Ghost in the Shell was a cool movie that could have done with a full series that allowed it to explore more themes and flesh out its characters. Stand Alone Complex is exactly that and it turns out that was a wonderful idea! Who knew that a cyberpunk police procedural where each episode revolves around various forms of cyborg terrorism would be such a great concept. I particularly appreciate the level of depth its willing to go with each new case. The main case running through the first season involving the Laughing Man has one whole episode where a bunch of politics nerds are in an online chatroom debating what the cyber terrorist’s actions could be for, and it’s one of the best episodes of the series. Also the Major punches bad guys so hard it rips her artificial skin to reveal her cyborg body underneath, and that is just such a goddamn cool image.
19: Millennium Actress
I warned there would be another Satoshi Kon movie on this list. While I have a soft spot for Tokyo Godfathers, in reality I feel Millennium Actress is his best and most complete work. It weaves the various timelines together, cutting between the reality of the actresses life and the fictional stories of the movies she stared in so well that you can no longer tell the differences between reality and the dream. The re-occurring character motif helps tie this story together about undying love, through generations and through timelines. It’s a complete masterpiece from start to finish.
18: Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
Gurren Lagann is just fist pumping, jaw-dropping, stand up and shout in pure exhilaration at your screen entertainment. It’s the shounen power creep for 26 episodes that never feels like dropping. It manages to raise stakes every episode so no matter how epic you thought the last twist was, it will continue to top that episode after episode after episode. It leans into this the whole way through, making bigger robots, badder enemies, more extreme poses. It’s fitting that the power the robots run on in this universe is nothing but belief in yourself, because at times it almost feels like the characters themselves are pulling from your own energy. It’s the kind of show that makes you want to grab a sheet and run around your house screaming like you’re 4 years old and want to be a superhero.
I am amazed at Gankutsuou’s style and how consistently it blew my mind. I don’t know how they were able to get everyone who worked on storyboarding and animating this to stick to this incredibly busy yet strikingly cohesive art style. It lends a grandiose layer to this old classic thriller about revenge. It’s these visuals that allow me to be taken in by the Count’s suave exterior. He is just part of this extravagant yet elegant package. The idea to set this story in some kind of Neo-Paris with this glittering style adds to the feeling of decadence these people live in, adding to the pleasure when it gets ripped out from under them.
16: Mobile Suit Gundam 0800: War in the Pocket
Anime has often done “war is bad” stories, but often they come across as insincere when also packaged with “look at these cool explosions”. None more so than the Gundam franchise. So when War in the Pocket absolutely nails the crushing depression created by the pointless losses of war, it holds far more weight. You get the image of what your giant robot fans love in this kid who is too busy admiring how cool this robot is to comprehend that a gun is even pointing at him. The two sides that could be together, that could love each other, are left fighting each other without ever seeing each other’s faces as they reduce each other to hamburger.
15: Eden of the East
I threw a penny at the White House in honour of Eden of the East. OK I didn’t throw so much as gently drop behind the iron fence in case a sniper thought I was terrorist, so maybe that’s why I didn’t have a naked man holding a gun and a phone ask me what I was doing straight after. Eden of the East is something of a cry from a generation that graduated college but now don’t know what to do. In Takizawa Akira they find themselves something of a savior, shipping them all on ship containers to Dubai and shooting missiles out of the sky with his fingers. It’s a thought-provoking anime while still being massively entertaining and really goddamn cool at the same time. It doesn’t come together in the end with those movies, but I don’t care. The TV series by itself is brilliant and I love it all by itself.
14: Cowboy Bebop
On a forum recently I saw the rather common question of “I just watched Cowboy Bebop and loved it, what should I watch next”, and realising that actually I didn’t have a great answer to that. Nothing handles Cowboy Bebop’s sense of style, maturity and storytelling capabilities anything like as well as it does. Nothing even really comes close. It’s one of the few full-length TV series that feels like it always has the right thing to say. It’s like that one guy who always has the right thing to say that makes him sound cool and witty, but also deep and meaningful, and then whips out a harmonica and starts busting some deep blues before you can retort. It’s got a tone and mastery of storytelling that still makes it stick out to this day.
13: Full Metal Alchemist
While there isn’t necessarily an area that Full Metal Alchemist excels in beyond anything else, what makes it such a great series is how consistently great it is. You’re some 40 episodes into the series and you realise there hasn’t been a single episode that you didn’t enjoy and want to see more of. The characters are consistently entertaining and engaging. It’s constantly introducing new story elements that advance the main plot in a way that shakes our understanding of this world in fundamental ways. It knows exactly when it needs a down moment and when to ramp up the dramatic fights. It hits the exact right moments to pull back in unseen characters just when you started wondering where that character had gotten to. It’s just kinda good at everything.
For a movie that doesn’t really have any depth whatsoever, somehow Redline is the movie that keeps getting better with each rewatch. It’s something about the pacing of the racing scenes. They know when to pull back the music and when to hit on the bass heavily. It’s heart-pumping fast action that seems to know exactly when to hit on the exaggerated speed effects. At this stage it has almost come like comfort food for me. The one kid excitedly grabbing his camera as he hears the racers come towards them. The daydream sequence where JP sees his idol kiss two pretty ladies at once. The final stretch where the cars move so quickly they gradually shed their outer shells until there’s nothing left but two balls of pure speed. I could watch this movie on repeat for days.
11: Infinite Ryvius
Yes, it’s Lord of the Flies in Space. You stick a bunch of teenagers on a ship together, take away the adult control, and watch as they slowly tear themselves apart. Oh sure, thing start well with a degree of control. But eventually moody, jealous teens get their way and everything starts to break. The writing in this is just superb in how it demonstrates the slow cracking of each character, making them believable and understandable, but not necessarily sympathetic. It feels like a scenario in which an evil god knows at exactly which points to throw enemies at them when it thinks things might be moving too far in the right direction. It’s a difficult watch but it’s completely riveting.
10: Legend of the Galactic Heroes
The ultimate space opera series pitting a fantastic dictatorship against a broken democracy and showing two sides of these systems of government. It feels more like reading a history book than watching an anime at times, and that is meant as a compliment. You’re watching nations change, leaders rise, and legends created. You’re watching the moment at which entire chapters of the galactic history is written. You’re watching the characters for whom thousands upon thousands of books, films and documentaries will be created about in the future. You’re watching the bloody results of battles that a kid in a class some 200 years in the future will be struggling to remember the dates for. You were there man. You were there when history was made.
Berserk is a Shakespearean tale of greatness and betrayal. It’s the kind of story you could imagine being written by an Ancient Greek author in the style of an epic. Guts, the legendary swordsman, who could take 100 men and defeat them single-handedly. Griffith, the charismatic leader of the Band of the Hawk, whose leadership was only beaten by his ambition, and how that extraordinary ambition led to destruction. It’s a tale you want recounted to you by an old man by a campfire, humming the songs of their exploits, changing slight details with every re-telling to expand on their exploits but keeping the general structure. It feels like it should be recounted to me through nothing but ancient wood-carvings.
8: Puella Magi Madoka Magica
For years I liked the work of Shaft and Akiyuki Shinbo but wasn’t digging the kind of material he was animating. I knew there was a great series in him somewhere if he would just concentrate on using his surreal animation style to tell a story rather than be weird for its own sake. Then came Madoka and it did exactly that. It used the surreal imagery to contrast with the mundane. It messed with our image of Kyubey to tell the story of his manipulation. It’s so perfectly put together and told, particularly when it comes to foreshadowing. It’s the kind of series where every twist feels obvious in retrospect, but blows you away at the time.
7: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Battle Tendency
Jojo’s is just fun man. It’s big muscly dudes standing in dramatic poses with their personal backing track playing as they proclaim how much of your ass they are about to hand to you. It’s a series where you laugh through sheer excitement. The silliness of the fights is matched only by its dramatics. Everything that happens is the most dramatic thing to happen ever and deserves the most over the top reactions. At least until the very next thing that happens in the story, which will inevitably an even more dramatic thing that requires more poses and more colours and more random dubstep. Each Jojo’s arc is fun in their own way, but it’s Battle Tendency that makes me the super-fan of it that I am today.
6: Watamote: No Matter How I Look At It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Unpopular!
I want more comedy to be like Watamote. It is a lesson. It tells us that you can tell the most depressing of stories that would be impossible to face otherwise using the medium of comedy. By coming to terms with the patheticness of your past self, you can learn to understand your feelings and move beyond them. It’s a series at which you find yourself uncomfortable as you can’t stop yourself from laughing at this horrible, embittered nerd destroy themselves as they try to help themselves. She does learn though. Eventually the delusions become less about how terrible everyone else is and how she must face that this is her problem. It’s difficult to watch at times for how cringe-inducing her naive actions are, but it hits so deep with those jokes that it’s almost natural that they cut. But it doesn’t come from a nasty place of mocking. They’re a sympathetic tone to this. You have to understand why you’re lonely. Only then you can start to fix that.
Baccano is something of a meta-commentary on traditional story-telling messages, which creates an increadibly unique experience. You don’t need a start nor an end since life doesn’t have such concepts. There are no main characters as everyone is the main character of their own stories. It simply creates a diverse cast of entertaining characters and watches sparks fly as they crash into each other. This makes criticisms of the series just kinda bounce off it, as it’s doing something so different at the very fundamental level. It takes an incredibly skilled hand to deliberately avoid these traditional storytelling methods and make something that works in its own right. And Baccano does that. Oh boy does it ever do that in the most wonderfully entertaining fashion.
4: The Legend of Black Heaven
Yeah man, Legend of Black Heaven! I know you weren’t expecting this little known series, so let me tell you why all you fuckers should go out and watch this damn thing. It’s about a guy going through a midlife crisis getting picked up by a spaceship and told he can save the planet through the power of his electric guitar playing. In reality this is all a metaphor for him trying to recapture his youthful energy he lost after years of an increasingly sexless marriage and crushingly boring salaryman office job. But it’s not a wish-fulfillment series either, as simply having this guy live in the past through his galactic-guitar playing won’t get him anyway. He must reconnect with his wife, his son, and his old band members to rediscover their life and feel like living again.
3: Death Note
How on earth did this run in a kids magazine anyway? Death Note is a story that asks the audience to truly comprehend the meaning of death on those who remain. What the dismissing of life from those who barely deserve it does for the society around them. Oh sure, it’s an intense, often ridiculous thriller as two geniuses try to outwit each other in an extended game of cat-and-mouse, and an anime adaptation that leans into the dramatic presentation really sells the whole thing as fantastic entertainment. But man, it challenges you to consider some quite difficult questions and, through incredibly diligent closing of potential get-out clauses, forces you to come to some sort of conclusion. That’s a really quite incredible achievement. The fact that so many people did side with Light tells you something about humanity, and it’s not a terribly great message.
Mushishi is a series of tales that will forever warp your mind if you do anything so basic as go for a walk in the countryside. It creates stories out of the most basic of natural phenomenon. From our wonder of rainbows, fear of what lies in the fog, fascination with our own reflection in the water, it uses this common imagery to tell us tales of those for whom nature decided to mess with today. From that position it weaves these stories in which classic human stories, from wonder to depression to family. Once it sets all of that up, it takes a step back and just lets the stories happen. A neutral stance from which everything could go horribly wrong for those involved, or everyone leaves happy with all their dreams come true. Thanks to this, every story is memorable and engaging because you don’t know how it will go. Once you’re done, you won’t view the world in quite the same way again.
1: Code Geass
Yeah I know. I can’t help it. At some point Code Geass became almost symbolic for me. I recognise it has its flaws. Arguably more than any other anime in this top 30. But I just love its bombast and confidence through which it skips through its dramatic story. It feels like its winking at the audience as its characters deliver fanatical Churchillian speeches, knowing full well its being so over the top but knowing we’re happily lapping it all up, like a pantomime actor grinning at the front row as he starts up his next speech. More than that though, it ended up representing anime as a whole for me. I named my blog after the ending. I was “the Code Geass guy”. I found a wife, found work, dramatically altered the direction of my life in almost every way thanks to being this giant weeb who is into anime. Code Geass became the symbol of that for me, and try as I can I just can’t shake that connection.