Japanese animation series (abbreviated anime) are most known for colorful graphics, vibrant characters and wide variety of themes. These shows can also serve as a form of escapism and enjoyment to a viewer given the way the artwork is drawn. Financially, it is a multibillion dollar industry which reach has gone global with the United States and Europe as its main consumers outside Japan. This list features some of the best series of what this medium can offer. It only includes shows which finished airing, hence, the absence of big titles such as One Piece.
12. HONORABLE MENTION: One Punch Man
One Punch Man was the highest rated series in the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) during its run. Although it slipped from the top spot since then, it remains as the highest ranked Japanese show in the said list. The story revolves around Saitama, a bald man in his mid-20s who became bored with his life because he finishes his enemy using a single punch. The premise itself is interesting and it delivered what popcorn entertainment shows did.
One Punch Man is arguably the most fluid series to air in 2015 and is the best animated one as a result. Many thought it has spent too much given how glorious it was in terms of visuals. It is indeed expensive-looking but it is a product of young and talented animators who were given liberty while operating under a normal budget. In such case, this anime can be seen as a triumph of creative liberty. Every action scene in this series looks and feels epic. Normally you have to wait for climatic moments in anime series before you can see this kind of stuff but One Punch Man throws this like a recurring event every episode.
The soundtrack does not fall behind that far from the visuals. These songs are always high energetic using guitar riffs and accentuate epic action scenes. The main plot? This is the portion where One Punch Man falters a bit. It can make you laugh but it does not go further than that. It never answered your question of what if and what else in this show. Nonetheless, it is a comical riot at its best and even at its worst, this remains interesting due to its visuals.
11. HONORABLE MENTION: Dragonball Z
While not technically the best, anime fans will remember the value of Dragonball Z as an iconic image for Japanese animation. This is an epic story of Goku from his childhood to his merge with Shen Long while he protects the Earth and other planets from villainous invaders. It also includes the seven dragon balls which were dispersed all over the world (or in universe at times) and characters collect them for the sake for fulfilling any three wishes they want. This is a long journey which ventured and destroyed planets in the universe and even explored aspects of the afterlife from 1989 to 1996. Dragonball Z also featured some mythical characters normally seen in literature and animated it Japanese style. This is a good watch for those who long for childhood nostalgia or for those who want to subject it for critical analysis.
For those who are keen with the merits of the show, it has overly strong characters which only goes stronger as the episode count increases. This is also the main culprit as to why tropes exist in every action show ever aired in anime. Pacing is a serious issue in this show where enemies engage in staring contests and play on words before they engage in fights. However, this show is best remembered with the multi-faceted Son Goku who counts as one of the best protagonist in anime regardless of the genre.
DragonBall Z brought the appeal of anime in the rest of the world. While One Piece has since overtaken it to be the best selling manga of all time, this show is the main reason as to why Japanese animation has received this kind of coverage at the present.
10. Puella Magi Madoka Magica
One aspect of Japanese animation is the preponderance of pre-teen girls as main characters in its shows. Some of these are done just to exhibit their cuteness while some are throwing suggestive scenes which borders on sexual exploitation. The magical girls’ genre is actually one of these avenues which relies on the cuteness of the main leads to sell. It was so used that even its consumers got tired of it.
Then an anime used this theme and destroyed the prejudice of everyone in 2011. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is perhaps the most famous anime genre deconstruction in Japan in recent times. It follows the story of Kaname Madoka who encountered Kyuubey which can grant a wish in exchange for being a magical girl. Then these magical girls fight witches to maintain the balance of the world. Sounds your typical fluffy girls’ show isn’t it? Wrong.
Behind the cutesy first two episodes lies a dark foreshadow to everyone. There was an underlying sinister twist in those events that showed its ugly head on episode three. It is probably the only anime in this list which killed its most famous character in the most gruesome way. Since then, the show descended to darkness and unleashed its true nature. The anime showed interesting exploration of the human psychology, salvation and countless (yet fruitless) sacrifices which resulted in greater disasters. Madoka Magica also presented a stark take on being a magical girl. A spin which is akin in selling your soul to the devil. What is even more fascinating in this show is no one is a true antagonist. Kyuubey is just doing its deed for a greater cause in exchange of these girls’ lives while the world will not be doomed unless magical girls come to kill those witches. Talk about blurring the boundaries between right and wrong.
9. Full Metal Alchemist (and Brotherhood)
Full Metal Alchemist is probably one of the few series which was able to unite the mainstream crowd’s taste and the critics. Shows from the shounen genre are not exactly hailed critically as they feature full of character tropes, dragged pacing and drawn fights. What hurts more in these series is the subpar animation which diluted the impact of the fight scenes.
Currently the highest rated anime in MyAnimeList.net, it used alchemy as a backdrop in fleshing every character and exploring a wide variety of themes in a span of 64 episodes (or 51 episodes in the original series). It began with a grim lesson on how wishful thinking could go wrong in many ways. Edward lost his arm and a leg while Alphonse lost everything except his soul in an attempt to bring their dead mother back to life. From there, they would go on to an epic journey while meeting many characters. This anime does not shy itself in portraying genocides, dirty politics and strong sibling bond. Then here you are, thinking this show is just for the kids.
While it can drag at times, Full Metal Alchemist is just perfect in terms of soundtrack, artwork and animation. The background music ranged from beautifully crafted to cathartic. The fight scenes are the best you can find in this genre (Roy Mustang and Lust’s fight is a must see). Every character in this show is fascinating while showing high levels of development towards the end. It also ended in a manner where everything feels complete – a rarity in this genre.
8. Honey and Clover
The slice-of-life genre may not be associated with great titles at the moment but its shows in the early 2000s were great with Honey and Clover as its magnum opus in 2005. Do you want to see the most hilarious and the dramatic moments of your college life in anime medium? Honey and Clover follows the unrequited love life of our characters and their complicated relationship webs. This anime is a rare beast where the comedy can leave one in stitches while the drama was just as effective in making people cry. Don’t worry, no one died in this anime. It is just heartbreakingly sad at times.
The first season was a balance of comedy and drama which also presented the best coming of age arc one can see in anime through Takemoto’s journey throughout Japan using a bicycle to search for himself. Then its follow-up is the ugly (and tearful) emotional fallout where it shows that who you want is not the one you will be with in the end. This is the most realistic slice of life anime to date for its thoughtful portrayal of the struggles of young adults meet in university and in their early years of employment with romance as its linchpin. Be careful with drama bombs though. These are prominent in Honey and Clover especially in the second season.
The visuals in this series were also certainly JC Staff (the animation studio) in its prime as it was able to use pastel-like drawings with dreamy palettes and fluid animation. The background music is quite simple too but was always effective in inducing the emotion it wants from the viewers. Yet the soundtrack is the clincher as to why Honey and Clover is in this list. This anime felt like an album which plays a song every episode and the scenario which the characters got involved with was its respective music video.
7. The Tatami Galaxy
The award-winning Tatami Galaxy is an ode to internal hardships someone undergoes in his life and how somehow should enjoy the journey before his destination. While Honey and Clover kept itself realistic, this anime took the other way around and showed how Haruhi Suzumiya’s detestable Endless Eight should be done. The artwork is so unique (but is never ugly) that it is always mistaken as an anime for elitists.
Poised as a coming of age story aired on 2010, The Tatami Galaxy told the missteps of our narrator in the search for his rosy campus life by joining several clubs. Sounds bland, isn’t it? The main spin of this series was he has to go back in time (or in parallel universes) whenever his plan backfires to join a different club only with the same set of side characters later. He kept doing that deed for some time until he realized that there was no such thing as comfortable campus life and he locked himself in a parallel universe only comprising of building full of tatami mats. What happened after is a cathartic finale which illustrated the narrator’s willpower which did not only leave the viewers highly satisfied but also with a new perspective in life.
Once you get over the bullet-train like speech of the unreliable but lovable unnamed main lead, what you get is an anime that tells you that it is okay to be imperfect, a rosy life does not exist and grab the opportunity presented in front of you.
6. Neon Genesis Evangelion
There is no need for any further introduction as this anime is the most famous (and notorious) among fans aside from Dragon Ball Z and it aired in 1996. The grandfather of deconstruction and mecha series, it shows what can you experience if horror is mixed to the robot genre. If Dragonball Z introduced action packed Japanese animation series to the West, this probably the reason as to why Japanese robots became famous worldwide.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is another anime featured in a dystopian world where Shinji Ikari was brought to Tokyo-3 to pilot a unit called Evangelion to fight monsters which are ironically labelled as Angels. This also explored the twisted psychological nature of human beings where it always puts humans to their limits. Main characters grow to become a different person through the course of this series with their motives explicitly stated. Do not expect a normal person in Neon Genesis Evangelion though for everyone is psychologically broken in one way or another. The story is also well-written albeit controversial that even the main writer received death threats. Also, what’s a mecha series without excellent and entertaining fights? This anime has also lots of it!
What I can only say is that you have to watch it to see an example of a series that does things so well that the ending it received caused uproar in the anime community. You can never really experience anime without watching Neon Genesis Evangelion and not have a reaction to this series. Did you like Attack on Titan? If you say so, it is really certain that you will love this one too as these two shows are ridiculously similar. Neon Genesis Evangelion is just hundredfold better.
5. Steins; Gate
Time travel is already a tired element in many films and anime shows. A concept being popularized by science fiction, many of these tried and failed because they presented more loopholes than answers in their presentation. Come Steins;Gate, the best Visual Novel adaptation of all time which aired in 2011 and was able to present a time travel theme which does not feel forced.
Okabe Rintarou is a self-proclaimed mad scientist who runs the Future Gadgets Lab with Hashida Itaru and Shiina Mayuri. He then witnessed the murder of the scientific prodigee Makise Kurisu. As he fled from the scene, he sent a text message to Itaru about the murder then he found himself in a world where no one else remembered what happened in the last five days. To his shock, Makise Kurisu is alive.
This show uses many real life references intelligently such as John Titor and the Hadron reactor from CERN. It was able present its own set of rules in time leap which is at par with its American counterparts through the use of parallel universes. This does not come free from plot holes but these are barely noticeable due to the execution. Stein’s;Gate is a slow burner though. The first eleven episodes of this anime sans episode one featured their daily lives and their hijinks. Although it must be noted that these are done expertly with hints thrown along the way. However, these quirks are also deemed necessary for the audience to develop the trust and emotional investment with these characters.
When it zings, it really delivered. The next twelve episodes are arguably the best you can see in mystery or drama of anime shows. The time element component of this show is deeply explored which came with a fantastic resolution. Character relationships are either strengthened or broken with Okabe left with a painful dilemma between saving either of these two persons which means so much in his life. A sequel is rumored to be in production but Stein’s;Gate is already an accomplished series on its own.
If there is an award given to a show for using crazy symbolisms for sexual tension, FLCL takes the win from everyone else with a very wide margin. Do not even try to comprehend this 2001 six-episode series on your first try. FLCL is a type of show where you have to watch it at least twice before you can grasp of what it is trying to tell. Worry not, you will not get bored of its antics and it even gets more addictive the more times you watch. This is a show of a comical ride laced with most amazing animation anime has offered despite being 15 years old at the time of this writing. Not to mention it has the coolest rock flavored soundtracks ever used in anime.
Enter Naota, a grade six schooler who encountered Haruko, a voluptuous alien who is in search of an extraterrestrial being. In his defense, Haruko shows suggestive advances on Naota who just entered adolescence. So what do you think is FLCL’s way to portray Naota’s rising sexual urges that time? Robots, weapons and even a fully formed superhero which comes from his forehead whenever he gets aroused or gets beaten by Haruko’s guitar. Then what followed were amazingly choreographed fights which are still unbeaten today to most action shows. Other main characters in FLCL are greatly developed too despite the sparse episode count.
FLCL is a show that can also be poignant for portraying teenage issues with realism despite its out of the world themes. Puberty is not exactly the best era of your life as your hormones are in record-high fluctuations during those times. You think you are sorely isolated and misunderstood while being at the bottom of the society’s order. The ending of this show is just heartwarming as Naota realizes he was still a kid back then and is trying to grow up.
Mushishi follows the story of Ginko as he encounters and tries to live with mushis throughout his journey. This anime aired its first season on 2005 and its last season on 2014. Mushishi makes use of the hypothetical microbial biosphere on Earth where there is an organism called mushi which lives using different biochemical functions than most life on the planet. These organisms (similar to bacteria) can afflict harmful or supernatural effects to humans whenever they made a contact. Hence, Ginko is always coming up with unusual ways of healing persons affected with mushis while also saving these in the process. The show made bold emphasis to the society’s grim outlook versus Ginko’s pacifist approach in dealing with these organisms. Mushishi also made great efforts to present mushis uniquely and explained how those organisms interact with humans as they live with them hand in hand. Yet the most haunting aspect in this show is its no nonsense exploration of how dark and deep the human nature can be.
The absence of a central plot made its offerings very episodic which granted the access of a newbie to this show very easy. Even if you start right in the middle of its run, you are not going to lose much. Given its story of the week nature, it is a tall task to keep the audience hooked with every tale it tells and still feels it told a complete one. Then it delivered with flying colors. Episodes portrayed whole stories and developed characters which many anime shows could only wish to establish. Mushishi has a languid but atmospheric pacing that range from somber to chilling which makes the audience extremely immersed to the story. That is also due to the superb soundtrack that highlighted the emotional resonance of every episode.
If you want a series with an ambient setting which explores the human nature, this one is for you.
2. Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo
This 2005 loose adaptation of Alexander Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” is probably the best novel adaptation of a Japanese anime of all time. This entry might probably be a cheat due to the strength of the source material but the way on how it was animated also holds some substance as too. Set in a futuristic version of Paris, Gankutsuou is an anime which is a marvel of visual flairs which combined technologies which were new when it was aired. The resulting artwork is probably one of the weirdest you will see in anime shows (and for good reason too) but is also one of the most colorful too. While not as visually crisp as today’s outputs, it supported the avant-garde version of Paris in Gankutsuou with thoughtful details.
The way on how Gonzo (the studio) handled the novel is a bold but an admirable move. Instead of a typical adaptation, the studio decided to start right at the middle of the source material then took care of what happened earlier through a series of flashbacks. That is where the series excelled and presented a good way of storytelling with its consistent pacing. Due to its masterful interpretation, the finale is just as cathartic as a top tier anime series could be. To support the already excellent story about revenge and redemption, the studio leveled up in terms soundtrack which was utilized in every way possible to highlight the important scenes in the story.
Lastly, all characters are portrayed as multi-dimensional in this show. Every one of them was given proper amount of screen time to develop nicely. There are no anime tropes here but persons with clear motives from the start and their reasons thoughtfully explored. The Monte Cristo in particular is an enigmatic character who captivates the audience with his charisma but deadly goals in seeking revenge.
1. Cowboy Bebop
Perhaps the critic community’s darling as the best anime ever created, Cowboy Bebop is your romantic equivalent of Cyberpunk meets Space Opera. Imagine a downtown portion of your city on space – it is a fairly accurate and short description for this great 1999 series.
This is a story where humans were able to live in various parts of the Solar System in 2071 and the Earth was destroyed due to an accident in construction of these space subways. As a result of the varied community, criminals got too rampant in space that authorities cannot handle them all – the rise of the need for bounty hunters. It is an episodic series which follows the lives of Spike Spiegel, Faye Valentine, Edward and Jet Black as they search for criminals.
The justifications alone as to why this is placed at number 1 have some substance too. The soundtrack alone is an age defying standout music. Many list (and even mainstream lovers) cannot deny how jazz and symphony were handled in this show. Even without the association with Cowboy Bebop, these pieces of music can stand on its own. The anime is relatively visually stunning too and was able to present different environments ala Mushishi only with lots of fun and action. Now that a re-polished version is now available on DVDs, one can enjoy the fluid animation this show has offered even on its original run. If you want some fight scenes which are just as amazing as FLCL’s but without the insanity, this one will not only satisfy you. It will leave you craving for more.
Character-wise, this show succeeds on a level which their chemistry feels natural. Spike is probably the only lead from an action genre who is multi-dimensional. He can be a goof, merciless killer and an empathetic lead given the circumstance. Other characters are likable too who also emits ray of awesomeness. If there is only a major flaw in this show, that is the episode count. It is nothing short of excellent but the audience were left to crave for more.
Do you think we miss anything in this list? Tell us more with your comments!