The more anime you watch, the tougher it is to make a top 30 list. I have found this out the hard way. I could do this in my sleep before; now, I wonder how could have ever compared some of these anime to each other. The exercise seems utterly insane now. And, yet, here I am doing it. Perhaps I am insane. Regardless, these are 30 anime well worth watching.
30. Armored Trooper VOTOMS
Armored Trooper VOTOMS is not much what I expected, and for the most part, this is a good thing. The grimness and dirty, grimy feel of the world are interesting, but more than that, I enjoy how the series offers such thoroughly different experiences with each arc while somehow keeping the overall plot coherent. Not an easy feat! The first arc is a solid gangster flick, the second is the Vietnam War (not a Vietnam War movie, mind — the Vietnam War itself), the third is part-post-apocalypse and part-PTSD nightmare, and the finale is 2001: A Space Odyssey except Dave Bowman has agency. How is this a coherent story? You got me. Its intensity and ferocity has few peers, however. It’s a striking experience!
Simoun is a series that rewards the viewer greatly if they can get past the utter ridiculousness of the premise. Yes, the ships are powered by two female (but not female) pilots kissing. It’s justified in the series, but that doesn’t make it any less goofy. That said, Simoun boasts an incredibly detailed world with a rich history, politics and fascinating gender studies, and characters who are incredibly interesting and sympathetic. My favorite pilot would often switch by the episode as more was revealed about each. The plot perhaps grows a tad convoluted by the end, but it never loses its emotional punch. It’s a great ride from start to finish. (P.S. Paraietta and Mamina are the best pilots.)
28. Perfect Blue
Basically every movie Satoshi Kon directed after Perfect Blue is more polished; however, none strikes me as deeply as this. It’s basically 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.
27. 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. Always loved 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 an example of cultural imperialism. Lots to think about!) Throw in some surprisingly dark turns to begin the series, some shockingly good flight animation (to balance out the numerous instances of terrible animation) and lots and lots of space battles, and you’ve got yourself a series!
Kaiji‘s first season is a masterpiece. Yes, it is ridiculously slow. Yes, it is WAY over the top. Yes, Kaiji cries at the drop of a hat. But, man, the way each arc is built (particularly the first) is pitch perfect. Kaiji has to jump through so many hoops just to stay alive (much less win the terrible games in which he is forced to participate) that it’s a wonder his mind doesn’t explode from frustration. Instead, he adapts. He clearly sees the rules and exploits them as best he can. Where the title character in sister series Akagi wins through sheer talent and brass balls, Kaiji prevails through sheer guile and wit under the greatest possible pressure. The second season isn’t quite as good (the final arc breaks much of the tension before trying to rebuild it at the end), but nevertheless, Kaiji is fantastic.
25. Dennou Coil
Dennou Coil is a rarity in anime — a smart show with an intelligently thought out world that feels as if it has been fully explored. By the end, it seemed to me that the show went through every possibility in this world of children with augmented reality glasses. I like the main story just fine — it is, at the very least, well plotted — but the main draw of this series are the episodes where it takes a clever idea and runs with it. As a plus, this is one of the best cast of kids in any story. They’re clever, funny and incredibly sympathetic. It’s a miracle when a story makes you not want to throttle a child; it’s something else entirely when a story makes you like them.
24. 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 the ‘bots in Gurren Lagann run on super duper guts. Throw in the wonderful style of director Hiroyuki Imaishi, and you’ve got yourself a fuckin’ series, people.
23. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is so good that it led me down the dark path of figure buying, which I had avoided for years. (Those commercials are just too enticing!) JoJo is basically everything I could want from a big, bold, mad shonen story. Phantom Blood offers a taste of the insanity that defines JoJo, but it’s Battle Tendency that sends the series into
SUNLIGHT YELLOW OVERDRIVE. Joseph Joestar is the coolest motherfucker to bust down a bar window and blast a vampire with a Tommy gun in quite a while, and his story gets great visual style to match. The way David Production plays with color and visual space, and the way the sound and music go absolutely bonkers, is absolutely beautiful. What a show. I look forward to more JoJo in the future.
22. 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? Sign me the fuck up! I hope one day that this is licensed in America — even on a limited run — so that I can own all of Imagawa’s robot anime.
21. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex + 2nd Gig
These two series are probably the best political thriller series anime will produce. They tackle complex issues and philosophies but never forget they have stories to tell and characters to shape. That’s what separates Ghost in the Shell from, say, Speed Grapher or something like that. Every character has such weight to them, and that adds more heft to every twist. But, really, the Major is all you need. It is pre-ordained that I fall for her.
For the longest time, I didn’t get Akira. I never doubted its technical chops for a second; however, I thought it was just a confusing mess. Age and experience have taught me otherwise. The overall story is shockingly coherent for something from a rather long manga, and the themes of director Katsuhiro Otomo’s original manga still shine through here. And, yes, this is one hell of a gorgeous movie — perhaps the best looking anime movie ever created. It deserves to be seen by every fan of animation (not simply anime) on that fact alone. Regardless of how it looks, though, this is a damn great anime.
19. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Hands down my favorite shonen anime. (Though if the Hunter x Hunter remake continues on its current course, it could at least pose a decent challenge.) To put the old argument to rest: Brotherhood is better than the original, because it doesn’t have a shitty final boss and doesn’t fall apart at the end. So there! The overall story is good, but when it comes to shonen, I am an easy man to please — I love this anime because the fights are all ridiculously awesome. BONES has the benefit of a few years of technological advances over the original FMA, and it also brings in some incredibly talented animators to work on the fights. I can still recall just about every detail of that first Wrath vs. Greed battle, and it has been ages since I’ve watched this series! It’s just that wonderful.
Baccano! is one of the few anime I can describe as truly larger than life. None of the characters is particularly deep, but they’re all memorable, and that’s just as important to me. They’re all distinct. Ladd Russo is an electrifying — and creepy as hell — villainous gangster. Firo is a smooth, plucky leader. Chane, despite having few lines throughout the series, communicates everything she needs to via her eyes and knives. Isaac and Miria are amazing. And on and on. The storytelling is as fervent and grandiose as the characters; it gets confusing at times, but it’s easy to get swept up in the plot because it’s so energetic but also completely under control. Also, it is super duper violent. Always a plus.
17. Azumanga Daioh
It’s just damn funny. Of all the girls, I definitely love Tomo the most — she’s such a wonderfully unapologetic asshole, the one girl who acts entirely in her own interests and could not give less of a shit. She acts in a way that most of us don’t due to common decency, but it’s funny to see that behavior play out in an alternate reality of sorts. When Tomo pushes over Chiyo while she wears that penguin costume, I laughed long and hard. Felt totally guilty afterward, but I laughed and laughed. Of course, that’s not to say the rest of the cast dogs it. Everyone knows Kimura and his frightening facial expressions. Yukari is amazing — she’s basically a grown-up Tomo. And who could forget Chiyo’s Dad? He wishes he were a bird.
16. Code Geass + R2
Completely melodramatic, often goofy as hell, doesn’t really hold up at all when even a modicum of logic is applied to it . . . but, fuck it, I liked it a lot when I first saw the series and liked it even more when I watched both seasons for a second time. I value entertainment as much as anything else, and Code Geass — fucking schizophrenic, goofball show that it is — is great entertainment.
15. 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.
14. 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.
13. Honey and Clover
I watched Honey and Clover during the perfect time in my life. When I graduated from college, I was unemployed for a year. During that stretch is when I saw this series. I like all the characters, but I couldn’t help but connect with Takemoto the most out of everyone. Many of his problems and fears were my own; and, hell, if I could have gone on a bike ride across my home state, you bet your ass I would have. Unfortunately, I was stuck sending out applications to shitty retail jobs. Anyway! I don’t like this series simply because I find much with which I can identify. The comedy is on target, the characters are sympathetic while still making their fair share of mistakes, and the drama is painful in the best way . . . though I concede less so in the second season, where I thought certain parts were totally unbelievable, and I was still at the point where I could take Jun Maeda seriously.
12. 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 though Arima has his lame moments, he is for the most part cool, as well. 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.
11. Neon Genesis Evangelion + End of Evangelion
Of course, if I ever want to be unhappy, I could always pop this in! For the longest time, I didn’t know how I really felt about Evangelion. It was one of the earliest anime I’d seen, and I’d liked it a lot, but by the time I rewatched it for the first time in at least a decade, I’d seen many more anime. Would this be as impressive anymore? Would it still hold up? It does. It’s easy to forget this in light of the ending (I’m in the camp that likes it, btw), but the main plot of Evangelion is incredibly tense and thrilling, and littered with chilling moments. Gainax may not have had much of a budget to speak of, but they did everything they could with what they had. Who could forget Shinji’s first battle against an Angel? Eva 01 going berserk and eating an Angel? Asuka’s decline? Kaworu? Hell, DDR before it was even a thing? OK, that’s less chilling than hilarious, but still. There’s a reason people still pick Evangelion apart nearly 20 years after it first aired — it was created to bore its way into viewers’ minds and never leave. End of Evangelion is much the same. It’s not a movie I can watch often, because it’s so unbelievably depressing, but man alive is it ever an experience. It is at the very least worth seeing for that incredible scene where Asuka takes on a group of mass production Evangelions. It is glorious.
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 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.
9. 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 in a year or so (I finished a rewatch recently as of this writing), 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.
8. 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 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.
7. 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.
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 has to be one of BONES’ most divisive series. Like many of that studio’s anime, it takes the “show, don’t tell” mantra to an extreme. Upon rewatch, it’s clear that most of the clues to unraveling the labyrinthine story are in plain sight — it’s just that they’re presented at times when the viewer lacks the information and context to make sense of them until the end. RahXephon doesn’t just trust the viewer to be smart enough to figure everything out; it forces the viewer to figure everything out. It’s not a storytelling style that appeals to many people (not because they’re stupid, I find, but because it plain wears people out), but I totally dug it. I also love Ayato’s story as someone who is torn between two identities and is being forced to choose among them. It’s probably simplistic, but as far as anime goes, I find it interesting. Haruka Shitow is also one of the coolest ladies in anime, though I think the ending lets her down a bit. And aesthetically, the show looks quite good during a transitional time when TV anime tended to look pretty shit, and the soundtrack is maybe my all-time favorite. There’s a lot to like in this series.
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
I love everything about Utena. I love that it has something to say but rarely takes itself seriously. I love that it starts an exciting new arc and then almost immediately throws out a comedy episode — and it works because the episode is hilarious. In fact, I love all those Nanami comedy episodes. I love the ritual before the duels and the rituals of the duels themselves. I love that the show dumps a truckload of symbolism on the viewer. I love Miki’s inexplicable stopwatch, and I love that director Kunihiko Ikuhara goes out of his way to give nonsense answers when people ask about it. I love Nanami’s egg. I love the sheer otherworldly style of this school. I love Juri. I love Utena. I love Anthy. I love that somehow, some way, this show got made. It is everything I want anime to be — just different from anything else in any other medium. I love Revolutionary Girl Utena.
If you want our other writers’ individual lists:
Alternatively, you can read our joint Top 30.