The more anime I watch, the more the idea of ranking anime makes me uncomfortable. How the heck do I compare series with vastly different goals and methods of storytelling? Beats me. So I guess think of this more as “this is 30 shows I sure like a whole lot because they are cool and good” rather than “these are the 30 best anime of All Time objectively ordered into an easily consumable listicle.” Or disregard my handwringing entirely; that works, too.
That said, my list is better than Scamp and Inushinde’s, because I am cooler and better than them even though I watch anime. My tags are way better than their tags, too.
Shiki probably should not have worked. The vampire tale was well-trod even in anime when this series aired nearly six years ago. The character designs — especially that hair! — seemed primed to undercut any potential drama. Hell, I remember goofing on Shiki quite a bit at the start. With each episode, however, the show grew on me. Shiki pulls a classic trick — showing the would-be monsters as more human than expected, and the humans as rather monstrous when their safety is in question — but it works because the show commits so fully to it. The story builds slowly, letting the characters reveal themselves and the horror of the situation seep into the viewer’s bones, such that when the conflict explodes, you’re not quite sure if you want the story to plow forward or stop altogether. But it won’t stop; it can’t stop. The final couple of episodes have stuck with me for a long time.
29. Mobile Police Patlabor 2
As goofy as Patlabor often is, there’s a strong human core running through the series. It’s that human core that makes the stakes of Patlabor 2 more real than they already are (the movie’s main conflict is famously steeped in of the time conflicts in Japanese society about the reach of its Self-Defense Forces). There’s a lot of talk and philosophizing about the nature of war and peace and society and all that fun stuff; however, those real life stakes and the great characters built to this point in Patlabor make all that talking incredibly gripping. Patlabor 2 is a political thriller that isn’t “political” simply because some government agents happen to be up to some dirty business — the movie’s got real concerns and attacks them guns blazing.
28. SDF Macross
SDF Macross is a silly, ridiculous show. There is no getting around that. To deny that is to deny what makes Macross what it is. And what it is is a celebration of the dumbest, basest element of society: popular culture. It’s telling that what connects humans and the alien Zentradi is not humanity’s greatest achievements, but its dumbest, most mass market garbage: pop idol songs and kung fu flicks. (And, if you want to go the dark route, you could view it as cultural imperialism in action. Lots to think about!) There are innumerable goofy elements to this series (one of the most beloved relationships in the franchise starts with one beating the other at a video game); however, that is all part of SDF Macross‘ charm. Humanity is, after all, as much trash as it is treasure.
27. Perfect Blue
Basically every movie Satoshi Kon directed after Perfect Blue is more polished; however, none strikes me as deeply as this. It’s a perfect psychological horror movie as far as I’m concerned. The way the film plays with perspective, the psychological degradation of Mima’s career as an actress and the sheer terror and darkness of the movie grabs me by the throat and doesn’t let go. It’s the type of horror I love: very personal, the type of horror that erodes the mind. It’s the sort of horror that allows creators to be at their most visually creative. Perfect Blue is definitely rough, and it’s difficult to watch (particularly for an intensely uncomfortable scene where Mima is metaphorically raped), but it is perhaps anime’s greatest example of horror.
Simoun has a reputation built on its approach to gender identity — in short, people in its society choose whether to be female or male once they reach 17 — but the series has stuck to me due to how well the questions of gender, the nature of this specific society, and of the characters’ role in that society informs the turbulence of the characters’ lives and relationships. The cast is among my favorites in anime; my favorite would often shift by the episode due to a well-timed reveal about their life, or some event that would cast new perspective on their relationships with each other. That level of investment had me intensely interested in all the melodrama of the story — it definitely goes places, but I was more than willing to go there with the show, even when I had no idea what was going on. That’s the power of good characters.
(P.S. Mamiina is still my favorite.)
25. Cardcaptor Sakura
Even with the typical weird CLAMP stuff that nudges in every so often, Cardcaptor Sakura is an ideal children’s series. Its greatest strength is that for much of the series there is no specific villain who must be felled — Sakura’s mission to collect the Clow cards she accidentally released more often than not features her coming into conflict with herself. In one episode, Sakura comes to terms with the death of her mother; in another, she struggles with how to deal with a friend who is unknowingly using magic to cheat. There’s a good mix of serious and not-so-serious episodes, but what they have in common is that human flaws are the obstacles that must be overcome rather than concrete villains. That’s what gives Cardcaptor Sakura so much heart and makes it so enduring and influential. Even watching the series for the first time as an adult, I couldn’t help but enjoy what a warm, affirming story it is.
24. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex + 2nd Gig
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is a bit tough for me to write about, because what I appreciate most about the series is that it’s such a solid as hell marriage of police procedural and cyberpunk aesthetic. There’s certainly more to the show than that, but sometimes I want to see cool cyborg folks solve mysteries, get into cool fights, and occasionally debate the social ramifications of merging man and machine. Also I sometimes I want to see The Major get ANGRY AS FUCK and blast the hell out of a mechanized tank because some dumbasses dared to step to her crew. Don’t fuck with The Major.
23. Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
Robots punch each other and go boom. This simple concept has led to endless hours of entertainment for yours truly and many other mecha fans. Real robot stuff is all well and good, but for me, super robot is where it’s at. Robots should run on guts and heart, and the ‘bots in Gurren Lagann run on super duper guts and burning hearts. I’ll always have a soft spot for Gurren Lagann as one of my early gateways to the joy of super robots — it’s been interesting to think about the series and its influences after watching Getter Robo and those types of shows.
The older I get, the more I relate with Kaiji. I’m not sure if that says more about me or the state of America. Whatever the case, it’s not a particularly good feeling. Kaiji is, however, a phenomenal show, a slow building thriller about a punk ass motherfucker on the edge of society who’s desperate enough for any sort of break out of his dreary, shitheel existence that he’ll be the willing plaything of some of the most vile capitalists put to screen. They’re straight-up cackling, mustache twirling robber baron jerks — I’d say they were an exaggeration if I were paying zero attention to the state of the world. The battle between Kaiji’s desire to live like a normal person and the bits of his heart that haven’t been shredded to bits and which compel him to do the right thing make for a harrowing as hell story. Also that drill. That fucking drill.
21. Black Lagoon
Black Lagoon is the greatest ’80s action movie that could possibly be made. It has a sense of and flair for the ridiculous that was the hallmark of that wonderful decade for popcorn action nonsense. I was sold when the crew launched a boat into a helicopter. Yes. Just the right amount of crazy action. How could I hate a series with an arc as gleefully goofy as that first Roberta arc? But as ridiculous as Black Lagoon is, it never simply winks at the audience. It builds storylines that make the audience care. Pretty much everyone I know who has seen the second season of Black Lagoon talks about that arc with the twins with at least a certain level of reverence. The slow change in Rock from beginning to end is legitimately interesting to witness. Black Lagoon is often silly, but it’s often surprisingly smart, too.
20. Code Geass
Code Geass is such a dumb fucking show. I love it to bits, but holy shit is it dumb. You’re just as likely to see an episode revolving around high schoolers chasing a cat wearing a helmet as you are a boy genius manipulating groups of people into grandiose, convoluted plots. The thing with Code Geass is that it commits so fully and confidently to everything that I can’t help but want to buy in. Even rewatching the show recently didn’t damper the magic — if anything, I have a greater respect for what an entertaining popcorn series Code Geass is, and how much I liked and rooted for specific characters. (That Episode in season one is still heartbreaking for me, especially because I liked a certain character much more this time around. I could barely watch it…) I could pretend to be a fancy pants scholar all I want, but I got into anime for the ridiculous melodrama and I stay for the ridiculous melodrama. Code Geass scoops it down my throat in abundance.
19. Space Battleship Yamato 2199
Yamato 2199 is an extremely well made space adventure story with a great cast of compelling characters drawn with nuance and empathy. If there’s one thing I wish to impart to you, The Reader, it’s that anything described using the previous sentence should, at some point, be watched. (I of course would never dream of strapping any of you lovelies to a chair and forcing you to watch some ala A Clockwork Orange. Perish the thought.) I mentioned a few sentences earlier that I love melodrama, and you don’t get much more melodramatically romantic than the crux of Yamato‘s journey: a spaceship must cross deep space to find alien technology that will clean up the destruction wrought upon Earth by an alien race. Yamato 2199 is all space battles, crew tension, and asses everywhere. (No, seriously, there are SO MANY BUTTS in this show.) As a bonus, it has one of my all-time favorite anime episodes, in which two crew members are trapped in a psychic, surreal dream projected on their ship. This show rules.
18. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure
My love affair with JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is perhaps the hardest I’ve fallen for any single long-running story in quite a long time. I still remember the exact moment where my reaction to the first season went from “this is a fun and goofy show” to “A MILLION HEART EMOJI”: Joseph Joestar, punk ass British guy in America, gets confronted by the man — the vampire! — who he believes killed his beloved uncle (of sorts). They both know the dude is a vampire now. The vamp, Straights, makes the typical vampire threat. Joseph replies “oh yeah, motherfucker?” (I’m paraphrasing) and whips out a tommy gun and blasts Straights through a window. The first notes of Yes’ “Roundabout” kick in, Joseph plants his foot on the window sill where the glass once was, and says (paraphrasing again) “YA FUCKED UP, DOG”
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure fucking rules.
17. Shin Mazinger Z
You see that fellow up there? That is Zeus. Zeus teams up with pilot Kouji Kabuto and his giant robot, Mazinger Z, during the course of this series. If that does not immediately show how awesome Shin Mazinger Z is, I don’t know what does. I love director Yasuhiro Imagawa because the man does not think small. Shin Mazinger Z is one example of this: literally everything is on the line in this series. And everything is wrapped up in a conspiracy about as far-reaching as one can imagine. The way the characters evolved consistently astounded me, right until the conclusion, which is one of the very best anime has to offer. The courage, fire and spirit of the best super robot series combined with a smartly-written, labyrinthine plot? Yes. Now, and forever.
16. Legend of the Galactic Heroes
I could say that Legend of the Galactic Heroes is more thoughtful than many series when it comes to matters of politics and philosophy. I could also say that it manages its enormous cast of characters (so large that for a long time characters are introduced with their names subtitled, because you are going to need that) better than many series do with a cast a tenth that size. I could further say that the story does a masterful job of mixing the politics and history in with the lives of its characters, giving it a context that makes the concepts resonate and have actual, tangible stakes in people’s lives that makes its 100+ episodes speed by like nobody’s business. All this and more would be true about Legend of the Galactic Heroes.
But it’s actually a bad show because Reinhard and his best friend, Siegfried Kircheis, never kiss even though THEY ABSOLUTELY SHOULD. Fuck anime.
15. Kare Kano
Hands down my favorite romantic comedy in anime. The first half in particular bursts with energy and love. How anyone could not fall immediately in love with Yukino Miyazawa is beyond me, and Arima provides a strong counterpart — not without his rough edges, but someone who fits Yukino’s hidden weird personality. Kare Kano is that rare romance about the romance rather than the romancing — that makes it automatically more interesting than basically every other anime romantic comedy. And the story is viewed through the lens of Hideaki Anno, who brings a great touch to the series (at least until he was fired a bit more than halfway through). There’s so much joyful imagination put into the visuals that I can’t imagine that watching Kare Kano would ever make me unhappy.
Shirobako is a voice of compassion in a world that exists to crush dreams and grind caring souls into dust. This series is specifically about the anime industry and how folks balance creativity and making something that approximates art with other things like scraping together enough money to eat every day, finding work in a hopelessly competitive environment, and putting on a brave face so that your parents don’t worry about you even though you’re this close to breaking apart at the seams. So, yeah, it’s about anime, but the painful process of becoming a grown-up ain’t much different for most people no matter what business you get into. What Shirobako says is that fighting for something fulfilling in your life — even when it’s hard as hell, even when progress comes in barely perceptible increments — is worth it, particularly when you’ve got people fighting alongside you. We’re all in this together.
13. Popee the Performer
Popee is everything I could hope for in a comedy. The humor is clever and twisted; sure, the punch line might be, say, a bullet exploding out of Popee’s ass and into Kedamono’s gaping mouth, but the execution is a million times smarter than anyone would think to give it credit. The show also never rests on its laurels. Yes, the early episodes trade in shock and violence (which makes for some of the best physical humor in anime, by the way), but as it goes on, Popee explores its world more thoroughly than most anime ever dream of. It takes pride in being a cartoon and full advantage of the anarchic spirit of the animated medium. Literally every time I thought Popee couldn’t possibly have something new for me to see, laugh at and appreciate it, the series proved me wrong. Its cleverness is vast, its imagination endless, its daring boundless. If you appreciate comedy at all, you should watch Popee the Performer.
12. Rose of Versailles
Oscar Francois de Jarjayes is one of anime’s coolest protagonists. She’s strong, noble and proud. She comes off as flawless, but it’s important to understand that this isn’t true. Her biggest flaw for much of the series is her naivete. It just does not seem that way at first, because unlike many naive characters, Oscar is not stupid, nor does the series make her act stupid to show how naive she is. However, her upbringing colors her perceptions to the point where she trusts the nobility of France and their dedication to the nation’s poor far longer than she should. That’s probably the only way Rose of Versailles could work, since Oscar can’t actively mess with the history of the French Revolution, but it’s cool to see it play out all around her. The show also features director Osamu Dezaki working many of the traits that would make his works so recognizable and putting together one of the coolest shoujo anime ever. Also, I am just a sucker for historical fiction.
11. Neon Genesis Evangelion
same rei same
I’ll always have a place in my heart for Evangelion, that bratty little kid that saw a shitty world and just wanted a little love for once. Cool adult me can say he loves Evangelion for its tense, apocalyptic story, its cast of messed-up characters hanging on by a thread as the world goes to shit around them, and its stylistic flourishes. (Don’t even try to tell me that the episode where NERV drains the power from an entire city so that Shinji can snipe an angel isn’t still cool as hell.) Shitty teen me can say he loves Evangelion because he shouts “GIVE THESE KIDS A FUCKING HUG” every episode and spits expletives at all these awful adults. Real as hell me can just sit back in a daze and wonder when the heck I transitioned from a Shinji to a Misato. BEING AN ADULT IS THE WORST
10. Hunter x Hunter
I still remember the early reactions to the 2011 version of Hunter x Hunter (some of which I shared, because I’m a big dummy who doesn’t know nothin’ ’bout nothin’): It looks too kiddy. The music is too peppy. It’s not dark enough, not edgy enough. This isn’t what the story is like at all! Who knew that having patience with a nearly 150-episode series would pay off?? There are two main strengths to Hunter x Hunter: 1) its versatility and 2) the core friendship between Gon and Killua. Without the latter, the former would not work nearly so well. Because Gon and Killua are constants, however, always growing and pushing each other, the emotional grounding is there when Hunter x Hunter suddenly becomes a crime thriller or an MMO or a war story. Those two boys will rip out your heart at a certain point. And Hunter x Hunter has the fighty anime prerequisites like killer fights, memorable heroes and villains, cool settings, etc. Best fighting anime I’ve seen in a walk.
9. Cowboy Bebop
I will always love Cowboy Bebop. It is the series that made me fall in love with anime, even though there really aren’t many anime like it. While I do love the hip-hop samurai film fusion of Samurai Champloo, the space age film noir style of Bebop is tops in my heart. Many of the episodes in this series are riffs on familiar themes and stories, but mashed up and remixed through the view of a different lens. What is “Black Dog Serenade” but an ode to film noir? What is “Mushroom Samba” but an ode to blaxploitation? But like with a Quentin Tarantino movie, there’s such fresh, vast energy with each story that they feel like more than a dedication. Plus, something that I think doesn’t get enough play in discussions of Cowboy Bebop is its wonderfully bizarre sense of humor. “Toys in the Attic,” for instance, is a perfect example of how to make movie references work as comedy. The aforementioned “Mushroom Samba” is amazing drug comedy. “Cowboy Funk” hilariously breaks down the archetype of Spike’s character. And on and on. Cowboy Bebop is an amazing series.
Planetes is two series in one that somehow both work well. The first half is a workplace satire where the garbage crew of space fulfills its duties while being looked down upon by other departments and dealing with generally wacky situations. The humor is sharp and on point, the cast is quite engaging and it has plenty of memorable episodes — the one where Fee just wants to have a nice smoke is a masterpiece of anime comedy. The second half, though … now that’s interesting, too. It’s a much more intense, melancholy portion that sees one of its main characters turn into an asshole in the single-minded pursuit of his dream to become an astronaut. But his pursuit is utterly fascinating, and other weighty issues crop up — such as the vast economic disparity in the world that drives certain characters into terrorism — that are just as interesting. It takes a lot of guts to turn such a silly show into something serious, and a lot of skill to make it not just good, but better.
7. Giant Robo
Every time I have ranked Giant Robo on one of these lists, I have determined later that I have ranked it too low. When I rewatch Giant Robo yet again, I may once again come to believe I have underestimated this amazing OVA. Yasuhiro Imagawa has directed some of the greatest giant robot anime (G Gundam, Tetsujin 28 (2004), Shin Mazinger Z), but this is undoubtedly his magnum opus, the one time in his career he got a budget and ran wild with it. I wrote earlier that Imagawa does not think small. Giant Robo is the best example of this. The mooks are powerful enough to beat even the strongest enemies in other anime. The stakes start at perceived world domination and rise from there. Protagonist Daisaku Kusama has the greatest giant robot in the world not because he’s special, but because he needs it to be as special as everyone who surrounds him. Everyone — everyone! — is super powerful, and yet the drama never feels forced, the tragedy never feels false. It’s probably the best looking, best sounding OVA ever made. It’s a massive undertaking and a miracle that it was ever completed. Giant Robo feels like something that should not exist, and it is a testament to the imagination and to animation that it does.
The Count of Monte Cristo is one of anime’s greatest characters with one of anime’s greatest performances from Jouji Nakata. There are good, effective stories built around the Count, but let’s be real, his quest for vengeance is the most engaging, fascinating story in this series. He’s just so damn cool, confident and commanding — there’s no way the viewer’s eye could be on anything but him when he’s on the screen, and that is a massive accomplishment in a series that gives the viewer so many amazing sights. Last time I checked, the intense art style of Gankutsuou was divisive, but I’m on the side that absolutely adores it. It’s a huge part of what makes this version of the story so different from the original Count of Monte Cristo novel by Alexandre Dumas. But perhaps what I love most is the sheer power of the drama when all the elements come together.
RahXephon is one of those shows that hits a personal note for me. The show’s protagonist, Ayato Kamina, is someone without a strong identity to fall back on — he learns the life he lived was a lie (raised by aliens, natch), but even though he is rescued by a human military group, Ayato is untrusted by the majority due to being raised by aliens most of his life. He’s human, but he could be one of them. Precious few see a person — they see a confirmation of their prejudices and fears. I wouldn’t by any means call RahXephon a nuanced critique of racism and prejudice (that’s not the show’s main concern, anyway), but for a teenager confused by American society’s insistence on fitting people into flimsy boxes and never felt comfortable in the box socially constructed for him, RahXephon gave me a character I really felt spoke to me on a level I didn’t get in anything else I watched. I appreciate a lot about RahXephon, but that is what sticks to me most when I think about the show.
4. Kaleido Star
I like this for the greatest reason: It makes me happy. It’s one of the few “hard work and guts” type series where the hard work is emphasized as much as (if not more) than the guts. Protagonist Sora works her ass off to be a top performer in the circus. She is handed nothing and earns everything. It’s actually quite inspiring in its own simple way. Sora’s rivalry with star performer Layla Hamilton is also wonderful in that it doesn’t devolve into something where Layla is a petty, jealous villain. She’s simply someone whose respect must be earned and who doesn’t take it easy on people who won’t work as hard as she does. It’s a really beautiful moment when Layla finally accepts Sora as someone on her level and they give a knockout performance for the ages. Also, I really want to go to the Kaleido Stage. This circus is one of my all-time favorite settings. If I could see shows there for the rest of my life, I would know no greater joy.
3. Eureka Seven
Eureka Seven can be a frustrating experience. The whole first section of the series seems engineered to drive people away. Frankly, I agree with many that the show could be cut down a fair amount and still be just as effective. But, man, once this show gets going, it’s SO GOOD. The emotional highs are perhaps the highest I’ve experienced in any series — the kind that make me want to pump my fist upon recall (in fact, I had to pause in the middle of writing the previous sentence to pump my fist). The Beams Arc is fantastic storytelling that hits me in the gut whenever I think about it. Holland’s maturation is wonderful. And, fuck it, I even love the soccer episode. My one wish is that I will one day have a surfing giant robot of my own.
Monster is a weird anime because basically every reason it’s great is due to Naoki Urasawa. The writing is so meticulous and careful, sharply honed to the point where every emotional moment jabs sharp and strong. The characters are balanced so effectively that it’s one of the few works of fiction where I can say everyone is used as they should be. There’s always something fascinating going on, whether it’s Dr. Tenma’s moral struggles, Johan’s hellish backstory, Eva’s terrifying self-destruction, Lunge’s dogged pursuit of Tenma, and on and on and on. This series is never afraid to go to some truly dark places, but it never feels exploitative, either. It never peers into the void purely for the sake of peering — there’s always something interesting to behold, something to examine as each story plays out. And one of the most fascinating elements upon rewatch is seeing how deftly Urasawa’s story plays out, how everything ties together so neatly and yet rarely feels contrived because of how well the strings are manipulated. To watch Monster (or read the manga) is to see a master storyteller at work.
1. Revolutionary Girl Utena
When I think about Revolutionary Girl Utena, the main reason why it has such a hold on me is that it feels like it’s tuned to all my sensibilities. The sharp melodrama — where an emotional issue resonates such that it feels like the most important problem in the world at this very moment — consistently hits hard, particularly in the wonderful Juri episodes. Whenever the series threatens to get too serious, there’s an incredible episode of energetic slapstick comedy to lighten the mood. (Nanami’s comedy episodes are among the best in all anime. This is inarguable fact.) The gorgeous setting, surreal symbolism, and emphasis on repetition and ritual lend Utena‘s world a dreamlike feeling that always sucks me in. The characters carry themselves regally, but no matter how convoluted and strange, they face the same problems of sex, gender, alienation, confusion, etc. that are timeless because they’re human.
Also people ride on cars and have weird swordfight duels and that’s pretty rad. Anime is pretty rad.