I’ve made no secret of the fact that, more often than not, I dislike long anime shows. No doubt I’ve grown far pickier since I first started watching (back when I was happy to sit through some outright bad shows just because they were better than nothing at all). If I’m being honest though, I never had much patience for things like long-winded exposition, constant flashback scenes, and other assorted filler tricks to begin with. Neither does it help that I’m too easily irritated by wildly inconsistent production values; another fairly typical hallmark of longer anime titles.
Sometimes though, a long-running anime comes along that surprises me. Sometimes I’m taken aback by just how high-quality a 60+ episode title can be. Sometimes even I have to admit that, for all I can be extremely impatient, a few shows really are worth investing that much time (and yes, emotional commitment) into. Below are what I still consider now to be the absolute best of these.
Notes: I’ve gone with 60 episodes and over because a) I needed some kind of benchmark to work with, arbitrary as it may be, and b) that number takes things comfortably over two seasons of the 24-26 episode model, which used to be the trend before 11-13 episodes per season became the industry norm. I’ll be counting second seasons as long as they’re direct continuations rather than spinoffs, but I won’t be counting associated specials or OVAs – this is televised anime episodes only.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (64 episodes)
I’ve said more than once on this blog that the one type of anime I’m almost guaranteed to dislike is a long-running shounen series. This is at least in part because action/adventure just isn’t usually my thing – which just happens to be the genre that so many long-running shounen anime fall into. Brotherhood, however, is one of those rare beasts that somehow succeeds at everything it tries its hand at, including (but certainly not limited to) action and adventure. It also performs admirably whenever it dips its toes into some light-hearted comedy material, or when it tugs at the heartstrings with some well-placed drama or romance. At no time do these genres feel out of place or disharmonious, and despite being 64 episodes in length, not one of those episodes goes to waste. The frosting on top of the cake is that, quite apart from delivering a well-constructed, well-paced, and exciting story with a wonderful cast that both starts and finishes on a high note, Brotherhood does so while looking and sounding damn fabulous. There just aren’t that many corners being cut here in terms of production, and that’s quite a rarity for any show of this length.
Cardcaptor Sakura (70 episodes)
I’d normally be the first person to slam an anime for filler. I don’t tend to like it when anime shows start adding a bunch of stuff that wasn’t in the manga – not because I’m a ‘purist’ (in fact, I very rarely read any manga at all), but because whenever an anime starts throwing in random material, it almost always ends up seeming like nothing more than an convenient way of spinning more time and money out of a franchise. Cardcaptor Sakura is one of those rare exceptions where not only do I not mind the extra material (and there’s a lot of it), but said extras also actually work to bolster the narrative rather than drag it down with the usual weaker story arcs. The other thing I really appreciate about Cardcaptor Sakura is that it manages to function well both as a children’s series as well as one that adults can watch without feeling as though their intelligence is being insulted. I’m sure many CLAMP fans would agree that the studio often deals with some quite mature themes, but Cardcaptor Sakura holds a very special place in my heart for doing so in a way that’s sweetly as well as subtly consistent.
Natsume Yuujinchou (74 episodes)
Where Cardcaptor Sakura feels mostly like a children’s show that’s also designed to work well for adults, Natsume was clearly designed for older audiences but would probably be appropriate for at least older children. It’s an episodic and often very tranquil show, and one that just keeps the ball gradually rolling until you suddenly realise there’s a loveable, sympathetic, and fully-realised cast of both human and non-human characters right in front of you, as natural as can be. The joy of Natsume is that it never once seems like it’s trying too hard to earn the viewer’s attention, and yet it somehow also exists as an extremely poignant drama; the atmosphere is such that it rarely strays into melodramatic territory, but still manages to tug at the heartstrings – almost without the audience noticing – until they’re sitting there ready with the tissue box in front of them. And that’s an unusual thing for any series, let alone one that stretches out past a certain number of episodes.
Bakuman (75 episodes)
If there’s one anime demographic and genre I tend to dislike more than any other, it’s a shounen battle series. Yet this is exactly what I perceive Bakuman to be; it’s just that people fight with their pens rather than with fists, swords, or superpowers. And I think Bakuman actually understands and plays this notion very well. It’s not a parody, but it is self-aware, and much of its good-natured humour and spirit is derived from these shounen-style friendships and rivalries. Unlike most anime stretch past a certain number of episodes however, there’s relatively little filler to be had, and the overarching storyline never loses its focus. While there are almost always other things going on in the background – romances and various other side-character subplots – these almost always bring some worthwhile material to the table while never outshining the main duo and their goals. Whatever its faults, Bakuman is an excellent blend of surprisingly realistic human drama and genuinely funny writing, placed alongside that same burning desire to succeed which shounen battle titles are so well known for to begin with.
Saiunkoku Monogatari (78 episodes)
Saiunkoku Monogatari is one of those incredibly rare (and quite possible only?) creatures that’s both a reverse-harem series as well as an intensely political one. It’s a tiny bit like Fushigi Yuugi in that it’s heavily inspired by historical China, and also in that there’s one main female character and a pretty large cast of pretty good-looking male characters. That’s where the similarities end however, since Saiunkoku Monogatari is not only far better-written and far better-looking (thank god for that last), but also just cannot even compare to Fushigi Yuugi in terms of maturity levels. It’s still a drama, but generally much more an actual political drama than anything else, complete with intricacies of court life and government, a highly intelligent and motivated lead, and a diverse cast whose lives do not in fact revolve entirely around their romantic feelings for her (if they have those feelings at all). Judging by the synopsis, you’d think Saiunkoku Monogatari would trade in plenty on romance and sex, and not be bothered by much else, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a complex and sophisticated series, and one that actually grows stronger rather than weaker as it progresses through all 78 episodes.
Question of the post: Is there a certain point at which an anime show will likely become too long for you to sit through? And if so, are there any exceptions to that rule that spring to mind?