This list has been updated! It really needed it too, given how much time has passed.
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After over 4 hours of heated debate, all three of the writers on this site have finally managed to agree upon the anime we consider to be the best. The idea was that, if we’re going to have such a prominent link to our top 30, it should be one that represents all our tastes. And yes, this is just about taste with little to no regard for attempting objectivity. But hopefully with 3 of us pitching in, we’ve managed to get rid of each person’s stranger tastes and come up with a more agreeable top list. This also happens to the 1,000th post on this site, so huzzah for that. Right, enough babbling, and let’s get on with it: The Cart Driver’s Top 30 Anime Of All Time.
The story behind the creation of FLCL is that Gainax were exhausted and emotionally wrecked after creating Neon Genesis Evangelion and the subsequent movie and desperately needed a release. It was then that some bright spark on their team said “hey, why don’t we take the budget of a 26 episode TV series and put it into a 6 episode OVA”. Thanks to them vomiting money at FLCL, it ended up being one of the craziest, most vibrant and just plain batshit insane anime ever created. There’s something sort of genius about FLCL. It’s the kind of anime that people can write multi-page essays disseminating the meaning of a scene in which a pink haired girl in a bunny suit rides an electric guitar into a giant alien hand. Now that, my friends, is something worth celebrating.
What’s immediately noticeable about Mononoke is its striking visual style. Where many anime might choose to coast on that style, however, Mononoke embraces it as a part of the story. It’s as occasionally difficult to parse the story of each arc as it is to figure out what is being shown in each scene; the viewer never feels as if he or she truly knows what is going on until the ever stoic Medicine Seller reveals all. That visual style and sense of unease are a big part of what makes Mononoke effective horror. This is a world where everything seems dangerous, and it’s stylized with a sense of the unreal rather than the real. And, of course, the final arc is excellent at totally pulling the rug out from underneath the viewer, especially one who is familiar with the “Bake Neko” story from Ayakashi, which was the genesis for what would become Mononoke.
28: Aquarion EVOL
None of the staff on The Cart Driver have seen the original Genesis of Aquarion. We all love Aquarion EVOL. Love its goofy ridiculous symbolism and endless innuendos. Love its colourful world and energetic, bombastic presentation. Love the winking self-aware tone it takes to its grand spectacles of sexual metaphors. But most of all, Aquarion EVOL has heart, and it loves what it is doing. It’s also the most anime anime on this list. Where no character has hair colour that exists in the real world. Where a ‘cat’ is any animal not immediately identifiable as a human. Where women have breasts that bound like bunnies in a lightning storm. And even a metaphor that strange isn’t anywhere close to the ones EVOL uses to describe itself.
27: Time of Eve
Yasuhiro Yoshiura and his small collection of anime are about the closest to an indie hit anime can produce. Time of Eve was a 6 episode web release anime with little fanfare and a several month break between episodes. But man, the stuff this guy does. The combination of his handheld camera style, with swift cuts and zoom shots and the like, along with his fantastic control of storytelling and depth of character really give his works a distinct feel. Time of Eve specifically focuses on a very Asimov-inspired story of robots relationships with humans, and it’s really friggin good. Particularly episode 4 with Nameless. The way they shift your expectations and make you realise what a hypocrite you are through humour is fantastic stuff.
26: Madoka Magica
There are two things that keep drawing me back to Madoka. The first is how perfectly paced and structured the story is. Every twist is deliberate and perfectly planned. It has just the right amount of foreshadowing that you can predict a plot twist just before it’s about to happen, bringing on this almost deadening realisation as you watch the giant candy snake monster bear down on the pretty blonde haired girl. The second is how goddamn fantastic the imagery is. Shinbo has always been a crazy director, but Madoka’s strong story focus means this remains one of the few times that his style has been fed directly into telling that story rather than simply there to look cool. It helps accentuate the story elements so it all comes together in one complete picture.
25: Azumanga Daioh
One of the things that makes Azumanga stand out even more over time is how much every single other anime that copied its formula pales in comparison. It’s not like Azumanga does anything particularly remarkable either. It has a solid cast of characters with distinct traits. It has Osaka, who delivers some of the most wonderful lines and has the most surreal sequences that allow you to get into her mind and see what it is that drives this most beautiful of minds that says these otherwise incomprehensible things. It also has Kimura-sensei, whose deranged spouts of wisdom are inspired. It just has a damn fine sense of comedic timing and sense of humour while not relying on cuteness or tits, and so few anime comedies seem to get those things right.
24: Mawaru Penguindrum
Mawaru Penguindrum is the type of series that reminds us why we’re anime fans. It’s the type of show that could never be made in another medium — not because it’s necessarily more clever or deeper than other fiction (though it is smart), but because it is so obviously a product of this particular medium and culture. The colors, the settings, the characters, the drama and the ballsy riffs on certain traumatic events in recent Japanese history … Penguindrum is an exciting experience that truly feels as it could have originated only in this medium and from the mind of director Kunihiko Ikuhara. It’s not always a smooth ride, but the journey through Penguindrum’s mad world is memorable as hell.
23: Welcome to the NHK
Welcome to the NHK is crafted to hit harder the deeper you are in a hobby. None of us at The Cart Driver has been as far into the rabbit hole as Satou, but there are always glimmers. What if you get a bit too hooked on that game? What if you buy a few too many figures? What if routinely spend hours of your day surfing for porn? It’s easy to say, “Oh, that will never happen to me,” but even in the most moderate anime fan, there’s just enough Satou there to scare them straight. Satou’s journey is actually legitimately interesting and harrowing, however, and doesn’t simply serve as a hikikomori PSA. The show plumbs depths of despair few others even reach.
22: Death Note
For all of Death Note’s populism appeal, there’s a hell of a lot more going on than just a series of dramatic plot twists. The shadowy animation style really helps bring across the dramatic imagery of Light be an evil dick and how much of an utterly strange creature L is. It also has that great trick with the writing in that you’re never entirely sure what a character is thinking at any one time. Particularly L, whose real thoughts remain an enigma for pretty much the entire series. Plus it actually has depth, and doesn’t shirk the seriousness of its core question by introducing some bullshit cop-out clause in Light’s plan. But really, I love Death Note most of all for the twists and each episode bringing that rush only something as thrillingly absorbing as entertainment can do.
21: Dennou Coil
A good world goes a long way in fiction, and Dennou Coil has a great world that actually feels thoroughly explored by the creators. By the time the series finishes, it doesn’t feel as if there is a stone left unturned or a dark corner left unchecked. While the main story of Dennou Coil is solid (though it wears out its welcome a bit by the end), the strongest episodes in the series are undeniably those that explore some facet of the world and technology the children episode. Mention the beard episode, and fans know immediately what you’re talking about. Bring up the dinosaur, and fans will react as if they’ve been punched in the gut. Dennou Coil is smartly plotted and conceived, and it packs genuine emotion into its stories. You can’t ask for much more than that.
Don’t know if you all know this, but Akira is an amazing looking movie. It’s not just the sheer power of the animation and all the little details that fill out this urban nightmare, but also the way the movie is shot and conceived. Akira is a visual tour de force. However, the visuals alone don’t make this movie worth watching. It captures the tentative feeling of the world during the Cold War wrapped up in a story featuring children hoarded as psychic weapons and the military and science frantically teaming up to rebuild the world. Sure, the ending is weird, but that informs far too much of the discussion of Akira’s plot. This is a movie that deserves to be remembered in anime fandom.
19: Porco Rosso
One of the many things famed Studio Ghibli co-founder and director Hayao Miyazaki is good at is crafting thrilling adventures. Many of his movies are great, but Porco Rosso is genuine fun on a level few other creators can touch. It’s an ode to old Hollywood with many of the old archetypes — it would be easy to imagine, say, Humphrey Bogart slipping into the role of Rosso (though Michael Keaton does an excellent job in the English dub). It also contains some of the most fun dogfighting in any Miyazaki-helmed movie. Porco Rosso stands tall as an example of a sheer, exciting adventure.
18: Rose of Versailles
Rose of Versailles is important as a series that helped establish the aesthetic of shoujo anime, but it’s also well worth watching on its own merits as a great story. It’s an interesting view of the French Revolution from the perspective of a character concerned with justice who grows as the situation in France becomes increasingly unjust. Oscar Francois de Jarjayes is a great hero not because she is strong or cool, but because of her moral development. She is torn between her loyalty to her friends in France’s upper crust (including Marie Antoinette) and what she sees as her duty to those most in pain in France. Her journey from a naive child to a true hero is interesting to see, particularly in the highly stylized form of directors Tadao Nagahama (who directed the first half) and Osamu Dezaki (who directed the second half).
17: Black Lagoon
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 colourful 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.
16: Detroit Metal City
Detroit Metal City is possibly the best piece of satire ever produced by any country, let alone the animation wing of Japan. Sure, it may seem like its focus is on death metal, and it does a damn fine job of destroying the veneer surrounding that subculture. Their symbol of destroying capitalism and embracing anarchy is actually just a salaryman who performs with DMC on his days off. The desire to appear as hardcore and edgy as possible leads to the scenario where Krauser’s legendary ability is his ability to say rape 10 times a second. Yes, Death Metal is silly, but then you see what the main character’s favourite choice of music is, and you realise how fake that image of him is as well, and then suddenly DMC has ruined all of music culture for you forever.
15: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Both seasons of Stand Alone Complex are simply brilliant sci-fi political thrillers. It’s a series that never shies away from going mega deep into psychology or political theory. This can mean it is sometimes difficult to keep up with, but incredibly rewarding if you can, because it’s damn interesting and thrilling stuff. There’s entire episodes devoted to characters sitting in an online chatroom discussing the mystery behind this cyber political activist and it’s one of the best episodes of the entire show. This all wouldn’t work as well if it didn’t have that cast of complex and genuinely likeable characters and the Major’s sweet ass…yeah, that last point is clearly one of the most important points.
14: Millennium Actress
Nearly all of Satoshi Kon’s movies came up in our discussion for what should go in the top 30. Tokyo Godfathers may be the most heart-warming, and Perfect Blue may be the one to leave the strongest impression, but Millennium Actress is probably his ‘best’ work. It has the most complete story, telling the tale of Chiyoko that is as much a tale of 20th century Japan than it is of her life. One of the more remarkable things about the movie is how consistently funny it remains. Even when it gets into some of the truly depressing secret police war crime territory, it has the skill to keep a degree of levity so the experience doesn’t become a true downer without it diminishing the weight of these serious moments.
13: Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
Gurren Lagann is giant robots throwing drill punches at spinning moon robots with sniper rifles taking out giant heads that explode and throw entire galaxies as shurikens with ridiculous attack names. Don’t believe in the you who believes in me. Don’t believe in the me who believes in you. Believe in the you who believes in yourself. Go beyond the impossible and kick reason to the curb! Your drill is the drill that will pierce the Heavens! WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK WE ARE!!!
Yet again, it helps to have a fascinating world and then fully explore all the implications of that world. The first half of Kaiba is one of the most brilliant in anime. It takes full advantage of a tired device (amnesia) to have its protagonist act as a social observer. Because Kaiba is a blank slate, the world can be viewed through an objective lens. He — and, by extension, the audience — is learning about the world for the first time and seeing the class divide and how memory technology is manipulated and abused. The scenarios the series presents are fascinating and pack an emotional punch. Kaiba’s second half, though, while still good, doesn’t quite reach those heights because it concentrates on plot more than pure exploration of the world, but as a whole the show is incredible.
11: Neon Genesis Evangelion
For as much of this show has entered into fandom myth and legend, Evangelion is a difficult series to work out at times. It has an eccentric, make-it-up-as-we-go-along feel that gives the series this confusing and disjointed feel at times. But with the director Hideaki Anno pouring his soul into a work like this, you can return with something that has a crazy amount of raw powerful emotion. No series goes to the depths of the human psyche as Evangelion does. In that sense, it manages to get far more visceral reactions than something that relies on much more shallow horror. Plus it’s got some of the most striking and frightening imagery around, even with the sorta shitty video quality. The image of Unit 01 in berserk mode is still way more frightening than an angry giant robot should be.
10: Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood
While we on The Cart Driver have some disagreements about the merits of the original Full Metal Alchemist TV series, we’re in total agreement on Brotherhood. It is the gold standard for which all shounen anime are compared by. What’s a bit remarkable about FMA is its success is based largely on simply being continuously competent in every category. The characters are likeable and they all go through their own story arcs with progression and growth. The action is thrilling and involves tactics rather than just explosions, without ever letting up too long to offer explanations of battle tactics. The story never goes through a significant dip and there really isn’t anyone in the show you can lift up and point to as being a product of bad writing. It really is the complete package.
9: Infinite Ryvius
Ryvius is a gruelling, harrowing experience. Described accurately, if a bit reductively, as Lord of the Flies IN SPACE, it takes a bunch of teenagers with various levels of emotional baggage, puts them in close quarters with incredible responsibility, and then sits back with a cigar in its mouth and watches the chaos unfurl. One of Ryvius’s biggest strengths is how slow building the tension is, but also how relentless it is. The things that start happening towards the end of the series seem like over-reactions when taken on their lonesome, but the series is so meticulous in building up the decay of each characters mental state that when these more extraordinary things start happening, you’re completely absorbed in the process that none of it seems outlandish. Plus it has one of the finest endings in anime, that works as a fantastic payoff to all the torture you had to sit through to get to the end.
Berserk has a story so great that I would easily place it alongside the greatest stories told by humanity. It’s high fantasy so high it’s practically in space, but also gritty and human and real. It’s a story of betrayal in that classic Macbeth/Greek myth way in that one key character flaw leads aside a person who is otherwise the perfect human being. Gutts is the main character, the dumb but sincere swordsman, and he’s the person viewers naturally gravitate towards as he struggles with his own aims in life. But it’s his leader and otherwise-perfect-human Griffith that truly drives this show. He warps the world around him, and everyone who meets him ends up being caught up in his vision for greatness. It’s his relationship with Gutts that truly drives this story, naked water fights and all.
7: Revolutionary Girl Utena
One of the secrets to Utena’s greatness is that almost nothing that happens in the series is meant to be taken literally. The series is stuffed with symbolism, and that informs the setting (the school has a fairy tale veneer that is instantly memorable), the plot (the duels are surreal, super serious and somehow silly at the same time) and the way its world works. A series like Revolutionary Girl Utena is perhaps the last place one would expect to find cartoon logic, but the show is filled to the brim with fine examples, and not just in the hilarious comedy episodes that centre around resident buttmonkey Nanami. Because everything is symbolic and allegorical, the Utena creators could literally do anything with the series — they were limited only by their vast imaginations. Above all, that is what makes Utena special.
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 it 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.
The artsy presentation and the fact it’s based off the classic Count of the Monte Cristo novel might put some people off, thinking Gankutsuou is too deep for them. In reality though, Gankutsuou is one big overly dramatic soap opera. It’s full of families falling out and daughters being married off and old colleagues coming back to seek their revenge and maybe he’s a vampire now, all classic soap opera dramatics. What makes it really stand out and absorbing to watch is the presentation. It’s so grandiose, with its shifting layers and total abandoning of the laws of physics and scale, creating some of the most marvellous costumes and jaw-dropping spectacles. And even through all this, there’s something wonderfully anime about it too. You have to love Japan for re-creating a classic 19th century novel where two characters engage in a duel and turning it into cyber future Paris and the two characters duel in mechas shaped like suits of armour.
4: Samurai Champloo
When you take a step back and look at the pitch for Champloo, it’s taking the usually dead-polite setting of old samurai era and infusing it with the brash and rude attitude of hip hop. What you then get is a main character who is a breakdancing samurai. But Champloo’s true skill is not making this character funny. Oh he is, there’s rarely an episode of Champloo that doesn’t have several laugh out loud moments. Champloo’s real strength is it manages to make this hip hop samurai setting the coolest fucking thing since sliced suede shoes. Not even ironically cool, but absolute strut down the street with your hands in your pockets as your personal BGM has a lady softly rapping about how awesome you are cool.
3: Cowboy Bebop
Just to cement the fact that Shinichiro Watanabe is an amazing director, right after Champloo gets ranked at #4, here’s his other big TV anime in at #3. While Champloo is more wacky and energetic, Bebop has its blues theme, where everything is laid back and melancholic but absolutely no less cool for it. The show is still funny as hell. It has a fantastic Alien parody episode spurned on by what happens if you leave food in the fridge for too long. Which then transforms into one of the best 2001 parodies ever, and considering the amount of 2001 parodies that exist, that’s saying something. But really, what Bebop really excels at is that melancholic, introspective feel of these wayward bounty hunters in the dying frontier of space. It’s the real Space Cowboy piece, in that it shows how dirty and unattractive the position really is.
2: Code Geass
We could hardly not include the anime this blog is named after, could we? Code Geass is one of those wonderful series that abandons logic at the door, only occasionally coming back to buy it a drink, before jumping back into the dancefloor with lunacy and thrills. It’s approach means that twists are only included if they serve to further the narrative, but cares little for the event actually making much sense. In that sense, Geass can concentrate on delivering this journey of thrills that keeps you clawing for more. I’d also argue that it’s more intelligent than it gets credit for. Its abandoning of logic doesn’t mean it abandons its key plot points and narrative themes, from the solitude providing by power and the clashing of beliefs between military intervention and change from the inside. But really, Geass is here because it’s really entertaining, and is that not all we ask for?
3 people, thousands of anime, over 4 hours of debating, and the anime we have chosen as the best one ever is set in Murica. Baccano doesn’t have a whole lot of depth. What it does have is a cast of the most wonderfully insane colourful nutters. What the author Ryohgo Narita does is create these crazy characters with larger than life personalities, puts them in large set pieces and then lets them just act themselves. He’s on the record as saying he sometimes has plans for how the story will go, but the characters won’t comply and instead take the story in a totally different direction. Speaking of story, that is where the true depth to Baccano really lies. Its meta-commentary on storytelling deconstructs the entire idea of how stories are supposed to be told. It has no main character and no starting point. It’s a work of both stark originality and incredible entertainment and can be proud to hold the title of The Cart Driver’s Best Anime of All Time. At least, until next time we convene and start this discussion all over again…