Edit: There is now an updated version of this list HERE.
Needless to say, this list is based purely on my own personal tastes, and so I don’t particularly care whether other people agree with it or not. Of course, the specific order of at least some of these titles is probably reflective of the mood I was in when I wrote this, and I also won’t be keeping things up-to-date here. I don’t regard this as an ‘official’ list of any kind – I approached it as more of an interesting exercise in contemplation than anything else. However, for a more detailed explanation behind how I ended up choosing the titles I did, see this post.
(Note that I’m sticking to only televised works for the purpose of this list, as I tend to view films and even OVAs quite differently to how I view full-length shows.)
20. Death Note (2006-2007)
Just narrowly making the cut (mostly because of the final third of the series, which was satisfying but still nowhere near as epic as the rest), Death Note was the one that scraped into my final spot mostly because there are very few anime that hook me as fast as this one originally did. I generally know what I like as soon as I see it, but it still often takes me a couple of episodes before I can make the distinction between ‘excellent’ and ‘I am completely obsessed’. Death Note, on the other hand, gripped me at some point during the first few minutes and refused to let go, even when things started to come ever so slightly unglued after episode 25. Otherwise, it’s a compellingly written and beautifully paced thriller that’s absolutely deserving of all the fan attention.
19. Wolf’s Rain (2003)
Wolf’s Rain is all about the journey, in every sense of the word. Its narrative isn’t about the place itself (if such a thing even exists), or even why the characters are trying to reach it, but rather how they get there and what they – and by extension, the viewers – discover along the way. It’s a metaphysical journey as much as it is a literal one, yet Wolf’s Rain somehow manages to avoid coming across as confusing or pretentious; the plot isn’t bogged down in heavy exposition or intense psychological monologuing, making the story easy to follow despite some of the weighty themes. Aided by a brilliant cast of characters, a gorgeous soundtrack, and some lovely animation, Wolf’s Rain is a show that feels surprisingly down-to-earth while never compromising on what it sets out to do. It may not be a particularly happy ride, but it is a beautiful one.
18. Great Teacher Onizuka (1999-2000)
Great Teacher Onizuka’s particular brand of slapstick comedy might not be for everyone. The whole ‘good teacher, bad students’ scenario has been done countless times before, and the episodic nature of the series may come across as repetitive to some viewers – particularly as the titular character is a hulking man-child whose nature never really changes even after 43 episodes. However, I’d be lying if I said that the sheer idiocy of GTO didn’t have me laughing until it hurt. A lot of the humour feels like it should be inappropriate, or even offensive, yet I can’t help but be charmed by its oddly heartwarming idiocy. There’s a good reason this title is considered such a classic, and it’s not because it looks amazing or is super deep and incredibly intelligent – it’s because it really is just that stupidly funny.
17. Eden of the East (2009)
I don’t know about the two follow-up films, but the TV series is everything a decent mystery anime should be: gradual but solid in build-up, intelligently scripted, funny where it needs to be, and generally well-crafted without being convoluted. The fantastic artwork and fabulous voice acting are just icing on the cake compared to this show’s attention to detail and weirdly charming cast, who take the series in directions that are clever but also often lighthearted – it’s like Eden of the East knows that it’s slightly ridiculous, but has no trouble selling its story anyway. Everything just seems to fall into place on its own, never once coming across as though it’s trying too hard. Effortlessly cool and totally different in feel to any other anime series, I feel that this is an absolute must-watch for any fan looking for a change of pace.
16. Toradora! (2008-2009)
You know, I didn’t actually like Toradora! at first. In hindsight, my mistake was that I initially attempted to approach the show as a comedy, when in fact it does far better at being a drama that just happens to have a few genuinely side-splitting moments scattered throughout. Critics seem quick to label Toradora! as a fanservicey title (in the most general sense of that term, not in the random panty shots kind of way) masquerading as a meaningful story, whereas I see it as a meaningful story masquerading as a fanservicey title. Yes, Taiga is the very definition of a tsundere, and yes, Yasuko is an air-headed MILF who works as a club hostess. There are also love triangles, misunderstandings, and Complicated Feelings™ galore. But there’s also a lot of heart to be found here, and some interesting twists on otherwise done-to-death themes – not to mention some great character dynamics. This is slice-of-life high school drama done right, and I honestly believe that Toradora! breathes new life into the genre.
15. Azumanga Daioh (2002)
I don’t often love moe titles. I appreciate some of them, sure, but whole shows that are based around nothing but moe don’t usually thrill me. Azumanga makes it onto this list because even though it’s one of those ‘cute girls doing cute things’ types of anime, I genuinely find it funny 99% of the time… even when the logical part of my brain thinks I probably shouldn’t. It certainly helps that the girls aren’t drawn in a way that speaks of sexualisation to me – no earnestly sparkling eyes or lingering thigh shots here, much less anything more offensive. I also deeply appreciate that Azumanga doesn’t seem to be trying to make any deep and profound statements about the power of love or friendship, and never attempts to be something it’s not. It’s just a drama-free sketch comedy about a bunch of school girls being nothing but their own (often dumb but nearly always entertaining) selves – and sometimes, that’s really all I want.
14. Sakamichi no Apollon (2012)
I’ve seen a number of anime about music, but this is by far my favourite. I daresay this series would still be rather good without this aspect, because it’s got a certain charm and a down-to-earth realism about it despite the occasional indulgence in melodrama, and the setting is also extremely well done. However, it’s the music that makes Sakamichi no Apollon truly shine. The scenes revolving around nothing but this make my heart beat faster every time I watch the show, and I adore the fact that whole relationships are built up around it as the main foundation – not romance, not even bromance, but a shared love of jazz. All the hallmarks of what makes a decent drama are present, but first and foremost, this is an anime (and a gorgeous-looking and gorgeous-sounding one at that) about the shared beauty of music.
13. Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo (2004-2005)
Gankutsuou is a spectacle – I can think of no better word to describe the show. Everything it does is grand and theatrical, from the unapologetically bold art style to the superbly over-the-top arm gestures. And yet, at no time do I find myself thinking of the series as cheap. Melodrama normally annoys the hell out of me, but Gankutsuou pulls it off with so much flourish and flair that ostentatiousness somehow becomes a good thing. Which isn’t necessarily to say that the title goes for style over substance; if you can look past all the flamboyance, this is actually an exceedingly finely-crafted show that hits all the high notes of a fantastic tale of revenge. Showy but smart, Gankutsuou is campy extravagance personified but manages to remain deadly serious from beginning to end. Now that takes both balls and talent.
12. Samurai Champloo (2004-2005)
This series goes a long way in showing why Watanabe Shinichiro is the anime king of cool. Everything about Samurai Champloo oozes style – the sharp character designs, the sparkling dialogue, the smooth action sequences, and of course, the brilliant incorporation of an extremely unexpected subculture. Edo-period settings have been done to death in anime, and I don’t even like rap or hip hop (in fact, I usually detest them), but Samurai Champloo puts these things together as though it’s the most natural thing in the world. Needless to say, artistic license plays a heavy role in this series, but the spunk and enthusiasm with which it’s handled ensures that Samurai Champloo comes across as smart and funny as opposed to thoughtless or crude. It’s episodic and gimmicky nature might not be for everyone, but I found myself charmed right off the bat.
11. Eureka Seven (2005-2006)
Eureka Seven is the epitome of brilliant characterisation. There’s plenty else going for it – in particular, its perfectly fleshed-out presentation of a hippie/surfer subculture and some parallel political and environmental movements – but if I had to pinpoint the best thing about this series, it’d still be the characters. Their actions, their motives, their fears and their secrets are all just so beautifully portrayed and revealed that I can’t not love Eureka Seven, despite the fact that I don’t generally like sci-fi or mecha and often have problems with anime that go over a certain episode length. My only quibble with the series is the not quite as fantastic ending (more of an execution issue than an actual plot issue), but that doesn’t detract from the magnificence of the overall story to me – a story that also has great visuals, an outstanding soundtrack, and one of the very best English dubs I’ve heard from any anime to date.
10. Mushishi (2005-2006, 2014)
Mushishi is a quiet anime. It’s probably the quietest anime I’ve ever seen. It also showcases one of the best-crafted and most consistently stunning atmospheres I’ve ever seen. The fact that it does so with hardly a single voice being raised throughout the entire show is a feat in itself – and I haven’t even mentioned the visuals yet (but yes, they’re equally gorgeous). Mushishi is slow and dreamy, and highly episodic. There’s very little action and only one major character, and even he is more of a catalyst to the events of Mushishi than the main focus of the series. That just goes to show how thoughtful and well executed this show really is, though – in everything it does, Mushishi is simple and subtle, yet at the same time utterly mesmerizing, and that’s an incredibly rare thing.
9. Ouran High School Host Club (2006)
As the only reverse-harem I’d ever even consider putting on this list, Ouran High School Host Club has a special place in my heart – though definitely not solely for this reason. It’s a brilliant parody of its own genre, yet Ouran isn’t without its serious side either, and ultimately succeeds in doing what most comedy-dramas fail at: being simultaneously hilarious and heart-warming. It’s also undeniably a smart series, since most of the characters are tongue-in-cheek caricatures of reverse-harem stereotypes but are also self-aware enough and interesting enough to make the whole premise seem weirdly sincere. The purposefully but affectionately over-the-top comedy aspects of the show tip things to the point where they come full circle, resulting in a series where the romance actually comes across as genuine despite all the self-mockery – and that’s a beautiful thing to behold.
8. X (2001-2002)
This was one of my first major anime loves, and while I’m no longer the total X fangirl I once was, it’s still a title I’m proud to have on this list. Thankfully, the trainwreck of the movie I saw before the TV series didn’t put me off watching such a well-paced, excellently characterised, and lovingly crafted title. Unmistakably one of CLAMP’s finest anime adaptations, X is apocalyptic fantasy done almost to perfection; it skillfully combines supernatural action with just the right amounts of drama and romance, and doesn’t take any lazy shortcuts while going about it. I’m no bleeding heart, and tragedies often put me off for their predictable nature anyway, but it’s titles like X which serve to remind me that even there, anime can find a way to appeal to me on a very deep level.
7. Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996)
Critics will say whatever they like about this one: that Shinji is a whiny bitch, that Anno Hideaki is trying to be artsy and succeeds only in being pretentious and self-indulgent, or that the franchise has become a soulless cash cow. I say that however valid these opinions are, I’ve loved the Evangelion TV show since the first time I laid eyes on it – completely by coincidence and halfway through the series. I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about Evangelion, or that I understand it on a deeper level than anyone else who’s seen it, but it speaks to me in a profound way regardless. This anime doesn’t just have intelligence and complexity – it also has heart, and for all that the show can be interesting to analyze every which way, it’s that heart which I value most, every single time.
6. Cardcaptor Sakura (1998-2000)
I’ve mentioned this one a couple of times before on Otaku Lounge, and no doubt I’ll be mentioning it again at some point, because this is unquestionably my favourite magical-girl anime in existence. Cardcaptor Sakura isn’t just a magical-girl anime though; it’s a beautifully-made and uplifting piece of work that’s far more subtle and far more ‘adult’ than the genre is usually given credit for. At face value, this is a children’s fantasy show. On a deeper level, this is a sophisticated series with some of the most charming characters and relationship dynamics I’ve ever seen in any title. Rarely do I finish an anime feeling so happily satisfied.
5. Durarara!! (2010)
Durarara!! is basically everything I could ever want in a decent… I was going to say mystery series, but really this is so much more than that. It’s a smart, sassy drama. It’s a crack-tastic supernatural comedy. It’s got romance and a few other things going on – street gangs and shady corporations, high school students and really weird sushi. The characters are some of the most oddball I’ve ever laid eyes on, and the vast majority of them manage to charm the pants off me. And when you get right down to it, the way in which the lives of these characters intersect, whether they’re fully aware of it or not, is the main draw of the show; a show that’s as cheerfully and vivaciously energetic as they come. Putting it this way, it sounds like Durarara!! should be a clusterfuck of frenetic action and terrible pacing, but nothing could be further from the truth. There’s action, to be sure, but it takes its time in building up, and I have no complaints with the way everything’s eventually pulled together. Suspend your disbelief and just roll with it, because Durarara!!’s one hell of a fabulous ride.
4. Angel Beats! (2010)
Of all the titles to make this list, Angel Beats! is probably the one most people will disagree with. And I get that – it’s not a series that works for everyone. I’ve seen people call it cheap, rushed, and perhaps most damming of all, pandering – an anime that works too hard to please otaku and ultimately results in a fanservice-stuffed freak show. But the thing is, this series does please me. I am emotionally effected by Angel Beats!, and very deeply so. Interestingly enough, I also find the show hilarious. It’s the only anime I can think of that makes me howl with laughter and reach for the tissue box both in the same episode. While I’ll readily admit that it would have been nice for some of the characters to receive more development/backstory, and that the pacing during the final couple of episodes leaves something to be desired, these issues don’t detract from my adoration of the show. I love it to be pieces, and I don’t particularly care if nobody else does.
3. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2009-2010)
And so we come down to it: the final three. Those shows that are as perfect as it’s possible for any anime to be, in my eyes. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is what the original series maybe could have been if the final third wasn’t a god-awful mess of a story. Only not, because even though I love most of the first series, Brotherhood is actually better in every way – not just for the final third (thankfully extremely faithful to the source material this time around), but also in terms of production values. The animation is smoother. The character designs are sharper. The soundtrack is flat-out excellent. The whole thing works like a well-oiled machine, but Brotherhood also has all the heart and soul that any anime fan could wish for. In short, very few titles manage to impress me this much – let alone ones of this length. Fantastic stuff.
2. Cowboy Bebop (1998-1999)
“And the work which has become a genre unto itself shall be called: Cowboy Bebop.” I’d accuse Watanabe Shinichiro of arrogance if I didn’t believe that statement to be 100% true. Long after the 90s have become an entirely forgotten decade, I’ll still be there with a bag of popcorn and a smile on my face. Sci-fi might not be my thing, and westerns might equally be not my thing, but Cowboy Bebop combines both and is somehow one of my favourite anime of all time. It always has been. Funny, smart, stylish… I really don’t have the words to adequately describe what the show means to me, as both an anime fan and on a more personal level. If these things have been said to death and everyone (well, everyone other than me) is completely sick of it by now, it’s only because Cowboy Bebop deserves every bit of praise it gets. Calling it a masterpiece is no exaggeration, and neither is my own respect and affection for the show.
1. Usagi Drop (2011)
This isn’t yet the classic that Cowboy Bebop is, and it’ll never have the same kind of influence or legacy that Cowboy Bebop does, but in its own way, Usagi Drop is no less deserving of either. It’s not that I love Usagi Drop – it’s that Usagi Drop is love, in and of itself. I really can’t put it any better than this, because putting into words how much I adore this series is impossible, as is putting into words just how adorable the series itself is. Luckily, Usagi Drop is an anime that’s all about showing rather than telling – and every piece of it is gorgeous. From the watercolour-like artwork and the subtly detailed surroundings, to the unseen bonds of trust slowly growing between two once-strangers, everything about the show pulls me in. There’s very little drama here in the usual sense of the word, and that’s part of the magic, because the depth of feeling I have for Usagi Drop surpasses every other title – and I cannot possibly give any higher praise than that.
And now, a few general conclusions I’ve come to based on the titles I ended up picking:
– Nice artwork and animation isn’t the be all and end all for me, but nonetheless, I do very much enjoy an anime that looks good.
– I also take a lot of notice of the music. Not just OP and ED themes, but the overall soundtrack, is an important factor to me, and I often think much more highly of an anime if I can tell that a lot of thought and effort went into that.
– If I absolutely had to choose between an intricately plot-driven series and a deeply character-driven series, I’d likely go for the latter.
– Most likely because even though I can certainly appreciate a really well thought-out story, I prize emotional impact over pretty much everything else.
– And as a result, I’m a bit more inclined towards stories on the more serious side as opposed to straight comedies.