Needless to say, this list is purely subjective. While I’d happily argue that the majority of anime featured here are of at least a decent quality, the driving factor behind my choices is purely personal. These are all shows that I’ve loved and continue to love through multiple re-watches, regardless of their flaws (or popular opinion). As such, I have no particular interest in defending my picks aside from what I’ve already written about them here – this page is simply so that readers can get an idea of what anime I like and why. My aim is to update it annually.
Note that in an attempt to narrow things down, I have only included televised shows on this list (so no movies, specials, OVAs, etc., sorry).
20. Toradora! (J.C.Staff, 2008-2009)
Funnily enough, I didn’t much care for Toradora! at first. In hindsight, my mistake was probably that I tried to view the show as a comedy, when in fact it’s really more of a drama that just happens to have a few genuinely side-splitting moments along the way. Critics seem quick to label Toradora! as a fanservicey title (in the most general sense of the word, not in the random panty-shot kind of way) masquerading as a meaningful story, whereas I see it as a meaningful story masquerading as a fanservicey title. And yes, there are also love triangles, misunderstandings, and Complicated Feelings™ galore, but there’s also a ton of heart to this series, and some interesting twists on otherwise done-to-death themes – to say nothing of some surprisingly fantastic character dynamics. This is slice-of-life high school romance done right, and it’s my honest belief that Toradora! breathes new life into the genre.
19. X (Madhouse, 2001-2002)
This was one of my first major anime loves as an adult, and while I’m no longer the total X fangirl I once was, it’s still a title I’m proud to feature on this list. Thankfully, the trainwreck of the movie I saw prior to watching the TV series didn’t put me off, because X is well-paced, lovingly-crafted, and choc-full of characters who are very difficult not to feel for. This is CLAMP at some of its darkest and so as you’d expect, it’s also apocalyptic fantasy done almost to perfection, skillfully combining supernatural action with plenty of drama, sprinkles of romance, and no shortcuts in telling any of it. While tragedies often put me off due to their predictable nature, shows like X serve as a great reminder that just because an anime sounds like your typical teenage angst-fest on paper, it doesn’t mean it can’t also be genuinely profound and emotionally moving.
18. Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo (Gonzo, 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. Stunningly, at no point does the show ever come across as cheap despite all this. Melodrama normally annoys the hell out of me, but Gankutsuou pulls it off with so much flourish and flair that its very ostentatiousness somehow becomes a good thing. However, this isn’t to say that the series goes for style over substance; if you can look past all the purposeful flamboyance, Gankutsuou is an exceedingly finely-crafted show not only in terms of technical production but also in emotion, and it manages to hit all the high notes of the latter when it counts. Showy but smart, Gankutsuou may be campy extravagance personified but still manages to remain deadly serious from beginning to end – something that takes both balls and talent.
17. Azumanga Daioh (J.C.Staff, 2002)
I don’t often do moe titles. I appreciate some of them, sure, but whole shows that are based around nothing but moe don’t tend to thrill me. Azumanga Daioh makes the list because despite being very much one of those ‘cute girls doing cute things’ kind of titles, I genuinely find it funny 99% of the time… even when the logical part of my brain knows I probably shouldn’t. It certainly helps that the girls aren’t drawn in a way that seems in the least bit sexualised to me, and it also doesn’t hurt that that the series doesn’t attempt to make any deep and profound statements about life or really anything else. In other words, Azumanga Daioh never tries to be something it’s not, and I can respect that. It’s nothing more or less than an oddball, sometimes surrealist, drama-free sketch comedy about a bunch of school girls being their own dumb yet hugely entertaining selves. And sometimes, that’s all I really want.
16. Ouran High School Host Club (Bones, 2006)
As the only harem or reverse-harem show 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 that reason. It’s simultaneously a parody of its own genre and is also strikingly genuine, and so ultimately succeeds in doing what most other comedy-dramas fail hard at: being both hilarious and heart-warming, often in the same episode. 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 to make the whole premise seem weirdly and charmingly earnest. The purposefully over-the-top comedy might have been biting in any other parody but is handled with plenty of affection here, and manages to tip the story to the point where it comes full circle. It results in a series where the romance actually comes across as sincere despite all the self-mockery – and that’s a rare and beautiful thing.
15. Eden of the East (Production I.G, 2009)
My list of decent mystery anime shows are few and far between, but this one is everything the genre should be and more; it features a gradual but solid build-up, it’s cleverly scripted, it breaks up the tension exactly where it needs to without losing focus, and it’s generally well-crafted while never coming across as elitist. The great artwork and top-notch voice acting in both Japanese and English come second only to Eden of the East’s attention to detail and weirdly charming cast, who take the series in directions that are not only smart but also often lighthearted – the series knows it’s slightly ridiculous but has no trouble selling its story anyway. Everything just seems to fall into place on its own, resulting in a production that’s effortlessly cool and totally different in feel to almost any other anime series out there.
14. Eureka Seven (Bones, 2005-2006)
Much of my love for Eureka Seven can be put down to its brilliant and unique world-building. How many other shows present such fleshed-out subcultures within the main storyline without losing focus of the actual plot or its characters? Yet alongside the perfectly blended hippie-surfer ideals and depictions of political and environmental movements, the characterization is as strong as anyone could possibly wish for; quite a feat given the large and incredibly diverse cast. Their actions, motives, fears, and secrets are all so beautifully portrayed that I can’t not love Eureka Seven, despite the fact that neither sci-fi nor mecha is generally my thing, and even less so shows of this genre that run past the two-cour mark. Add to the mix some interesting visuals, an outstanding soundtrack, and one of the best English dubs I’ve heard from any anime to date and Eureka Seven is clearly one of a kind.
13. Hyouka (Kyoto Animation, 2012)
Far and away the best Kyoto Animation title to date, Hyouka is also an unequivocally excellent anime in its own right – visually stunning in every respect, far more subtle in storytelling than I would’ve ever expected, and with writing that’s only complemented by a small yet emotionally complex and entertaining cast. At first little more than an episodic and fairly lighthearted mystery series on the surface, Hyouka goes far deeper than the first several episodes might suggest, not because of any complex plot but because the relationships at the heart of the series are showcased so incredibly well. With a story that has enough humour to be relatable but enough tension to remain compelling right the way through, Hyouka is tightly crafted, far more subtle than it has any right to be, and in general offers a lot more than meets the eye.
12. Samurai Champloo (Manglobe, 2004-2005)
Normally when anime tries to be slick and edgy and appeal to the cool kids, it only ends up coming across as trying way too hard. Samurai Champloo, on the other hand, goes a long way in demonstrating why Watanabe Shinichiro is indeed the anime king of cool. Everything about the series oozes style, from the sharp character designs and smooth action sequences to the quick-witted dialogue and brilliant incorporation of hip-hop subculture with an Edo-Period setting. I don’t even like hip-hop, and Edo-Period Japan has been done to death in anime, but Samurai Champloo puts these things together as though it’s the most natural thing in the world, which is exactly what makes the unlikely combination work in the first place. The spunk and enthusiasm with which it’s handled is matched only by the sly, tongue-in-cheek humour, and ensures that the series ends up being smart and funny as opposed to simply dumb or crude. It’s an episodic mish-mash that should be a big hot mess but is instead a ton of fun, and weirdly charming to boot.
11. Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun (Doga Kobo, 2014)
Anime comedies have to work particularly hard to impress me at the best of times, because anime humour so often just doesn’t work for me. Yet Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun blew me away, not only because I went in expecting trash and instead got pure comedy gold, but because the show takes a seemingly unoriginal and unremarkable premise and turns it into one of the wittiest building blocks for comedy I’ve ever come across. I anticipated tired slapstick and cheap fanservice material and was instead presented with something fresh, vibrant, and above all innovative, thanks to a truly fabulous cast that bounce off each other like its nothing at all and a brilliant sense of comedic timing. There are a couple of other comedies that make this list, but only Nozaki-kun actually makes my stomach hurt from laughter even after repeated watches.
10. Neon Genesis Evangelion (Gainax, 1995-1996)
Critics will happily list all the things that are ‘wrong’ about this series – that Shinji ruins everything by being a whiny bitch, that Anno Hideaki ruins everything by trying to be arty, that the franchise ruins everything by becoming a soulless cash cow. And that’s fine, because while plenty of people discount Evangelion as being pretentious and self-indulgent, that doesn’t stop the series from speaking to plenty of others on a deeply personal level. I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about Evangelion, and I certainly don’t claim to understand everything that goes on in it, but the show has undeniable heart. It’s not just the complexity of story that appeals to me but also the way in which the characters break and rebuild, over and over again until attempting to analyze them on any psychological level comes secondary to loving (and/or hating) them for who they are, deeply flawed as every single one of them is. Is Evangelion the be all and end all of anime? Nope – but it sure comes pretty close to being a masterpiece of the medium regardless.
9. Mushishi (Artland, 2005-2006)
Mushishi is one of the quietest anime I’ve ever seen, and that’s quite something given its elements of both physical and psychological horror. Even more intriguing is the fact that it somehow contrives to be a feel-good anime, comforting and calming in just as equal doses. If that wasn’t enough, Mushishi also just happens to showcase some of the most finely-crafted and consistently stunning atmospheres of any anime regardless of genre. That it does all this with hardly a single voice being raised throughout the entire series is a major feat in and of itself – but that’s Mushishi; muted and dreamlike, highly episodic and yet somehow intensely compelling. With little action of any kind to speak of and only one major character, who himself is more often than not a witness to events rather than the main focus of the show, Mushishi sounds like it ought to be dull. Instead, it’s highly thoughtful, wonderfully executed, and simultaneously simple and sophisticated, with the stunningly smooth visuals just the icing on the cake.
8. Durarara!! (Brain’s Base, 2010)
This first season of Durarara!! is basically everything I could ever want in a decent… whatever this is. Urban fantasy, crack-tastic supernatural comedy, socially intriguing drama – Durarara!! tackles it all with enough humour, sass, and oddball cast members that regardless of whether the focus is on street gangs and shady corporations or high school love triangles and really weird sushi, it’s impossible not to be entertained. And when you get right down to it, the way in which the lives of these characters intersect, whether they’re even aware of it or not, is the main draw of this show; a show that’s as cheerfully and violently energetic as they come. Putting it this way, Durarara!! sounds like it should be a clusterfuck of frenetic action and terrible pacing, but everything pulls together in such a way that so long as you can suspend your disbelief, it’s a completely satisfying ride.
7. Angel Beats! (P.A.Works, 2010)
I get that it’s cool to hate on this anime now. 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 is ultimately little more than 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 even after several re-watches. Interestingly enough, I also find the show hilarious. It’s one of the only anime titles I can think of that cracks me up and has me reaching for the tissue box in the same episode. While I’ll readily admit that it would have been nice for some of the characters to receive more development or 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 not only the soundtrack but also the characters and indeed the entire thing to pieces, and I don’t particularly care if nobody else does.
6. Yuri!!! on Ice (MAPPA, 2016)
Yuri!!! on Ice is a pretty special series, and not just because it’s the only sports anime to make this list. The sports aspects of the show are nothing to sneeze at, mind you – I have a huge amount of respect for the effort put into making the art and choreography of figure skating a largely authentic and realistic part of the anime. Craft-wise, Yuri!!! on Ice doesn’t stop there either; the voice acting is top-notch, the soundtrack is gorgeous, and both the writing and pacing are extremely solid. However, the most compelling aspect of the show is, for me at least, the continually developing and incredibly moving relationship between the two main characters. This isn’t just yaoi-baiting and it isn’t just pandering to a female audience with shitty BL tropes; here, finally, is a genuine, reciprocal, and canon gay romance in a mainstream televised anime, and one which is not only healthy for a change but also inherently tied into the character development to become one of the main focus points of the entire thing. That’s not just cool – that’s more extraordinary and more beautiful in ways that fully deserve their own post at some point, and even after re-watching had me tearing up at multiple points throughout the series.
5. Natsume Yuujinchou (Brain’s Base, 2008-2012)
While not my number one anime overall, this is certainly my number one anime purely in terms of feel-good titles. If I want to cry like a baby, not out of sadness but out of a sense of heartwarming sincerity, I know I need look no further than the first four seasons of Natsume Yuujinchou. I’ve always loved a decent slice-of-life/supernatural drama, but where this show is leagues ahead of the countless other titles in the same genre is in its heavy-hitting themes and occasionally harrowing events, which are nonetheless portrayed with a huge amount of quiet but incredibly poignant sensitivity. The emotional payoff, particularly when it comes to Natsume’s character growth, is worth every second of the pain he goes through to get there and more. That said, there’s plenty of mellower content to be had as well thanks to the episodic nature of the show, helped along of course by easily one of the best anime mascot characters of all time. All complimented by a soft art style and lovely soundtrack, there’s really nothing about Natsume Yuujinchou that’s not to love.
4. Cardcaptor Sakura (Madhouse, 1998-2000)
Cardcaptor Sakura wasn’t my first magical-girl anime and there’ve certainly been some wonderful additions to the genre since then, but I can think of no magical-girl title that I love more. It’s a lovingly-crafted and uplifting work regardless of genre though, and is also a far more subtle and mature series than I think a lot of people give it credit for. At face value, this is a children’s fantasy show, and on that level alone it already does very well for itself. On a deeper level though, it’s a remarkably sophisticated work with some of the most charming and fully-realised characters and relationships that I’ve seen from any anime title to date; as wonderful a watch for adults as it is for younger audience members. Rarely do I finish an anime feeling so absolutely satisfied.
3. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (Bones, 2009-2010)
I’m not here to bash the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime, which truly had a lot going for it. What I will say is that Brotherhood goes above and beyond anything I tend to expect out of a remake; everything I already liked about the first series is elevated here, from the intricate and internally consistent world-building to the wonderfully rich and diverse cast. The story doesn’t weaken but only grows in strength the further along it progresses, the pacing is spot-on, and the production values are amazingly good given the length of the series – nice artwork, smooth animation, and a definitively excellent soundtrack. My tastes don’t tend to run to shounen action/adventure shows, but Brotherhood is everything such a work should be and more. It has all the heart and soul that any anime fan could want, and the entire thing is executed with a fantastic amount of love and care.
2. Usagi Drop (Production I.G, 2011)
This’ll no doubt sound laughably over-the-top, but I’ll go ahead and say it anyway: it’s not that I love Usagi Drop so much as it is that Usagi Drop is love. I know, such a vague and seemingly exaggerated statement to make, but it’s exactly how I feel, and putting into words exactly how much I love the series and why is a fairly daunting task. Luckily, Usagi Drop is a series that’s all about showing rather than telling – and every piece of that is gorgeous. From the watercolour-like artwork and the subtly detailed surroundings, to the unseen and largely unspoken bonds of trust slowly growing between two once-strangers and now family members, everything about it pulls me in. There’s actually very little drama here in the usual sense of the word, but that’s a big part of what makes it so beautiful; after all, why bother with melodrama when keeping it simple and quiet is so much more emotionally effective.
1. Cowboy Bebop (Sunrise, 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 entirely accurate. Long after the 90s have become an entirely forgotten decade, I’ll still be sitting in front of this show with a huge smile on my face, because this is basically the anime version of Firefly, in that it’s the space western to end all space westerns. With jazz. Cowboy Bebop is such an amazing fusion of different stories and ways of telling them that many of the words I’d pick to describe the overall work are contradictory; sad and funny, original and classic, smart and silly, simple and stylish. What I don’t have are the words to adequately describe what the show means to me personally, both as an anime fan as well as just a fan of stories in general. However, I can say with absolute confidence is that Cowboy Bebop is deserving of every bit of praise it’s received over the years. Calling it a masterpiece is no exaggeration, and neither is my own respect and affection for the show.