Here it is at last, everyone’s favorite aniblog staple! The venerable Top Anime List! I’d originally intended this to be a 6-month anniversary post for the blog, but it ended up being a much more massive undertaking than I’d intended. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it turns out I just can’t shut the hell up about shows that are this good. This list is probably the largest single post I’ve ever written about anime, so I hope it’s at least a worthwhile read!
As always, the usual round of disclaimers that nobody actually pays attention to: First of all, this is my list. My totally biased, inherently subjective list. If your Favorite Anime didn’t make the cut, I probably haven’t seen it, or didn’t like it. Sorry. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am down in the comments. Second, this list includes only completed anime series. So no movies, as I feel it’s a meaningless exercise to compare them to TV broadcasts; and no ongoing series, so don’t expect Naruto or One Piece to show up at any point. In fact, you shouldn’t really expect any super-popular mainstream Jumpish properties because I’m a massively conceited hipster who likes to talk about shit like themes and story-structure.
Lastly, this list is considered Spoiler Territory. I don’t like to talk about overt plot and story beats in general, I think they’re boring. All the same, there may be hints and vague reveals sprinkled throughout this list. If you’d prefer to go into shows totally blind, maybe just look at the pretty pictures, I guess. Ye be warned.
Also, these shows are not necessarily in order of what I think are “the best” anime, nor is this an absolutely rigid list of my favorites. This list is mostly reflective of whatever 40 shows I think deserve to be acknowledged, shows that deserve to be talked about, shows that I would recommend to newbies and veterans alike, and shows that have personally impacted me as a critic/fan. This list reflects exactly how I felt at the moment in time I was writing it, and would probably be totally different depending on what day of the week I’d started. As such, I reserve the right to make changes/alterations, because it’s my list and I’ll do whatever the hell I want to it. Why Top 40? I dunno, it works for Billboard and they seem to have a pretty good thing going, right? Even with that many spots, there were plenty of leftover Honorable Mentions. Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent, Gainax’s wild and insane FLCL, PA Works’ stunningly gorgeous Eccentric Family, the viscerally uncomfortable Koi Kaze, the woefully underrated Scrapped Princess; this list could have easily been double the size before I got into any shows I thought were actively bad. With all that said and done, without further ado, I present Redcrimson’s Top 40 Anime Series of All Time:
Seeing how this is the bottom of the list, it seems only appropriate to start off in Guilty Pleasure territory. Not quite my guiltiest anime pleasure, but I had to cut the list off somewhere. Nanoha itself is definitely an odd franchise. Originally a spin-off of a somewhat popular series of 18+ VNs, it wasn’t long before Nanoha had completely eclipsed its parent series, and pretty much set a new standard for Magical Girl Shows For Grown-Ass Dudes. And this won’t be the only one of those on this list. The first season also put now-ubiquitous Shaft staple Akiyuki Shinbo on the map, and his name will also come up again on this list(In fact, astute readers can probably already guess one of my higher picks). Nanoha would go on to spawn an enormous multimedia empire in Japan, and go down as one of the most bafflingly mishandled North American localizations of the Anime Boom. While I agree with the generally accepted wisdom that the franchise probably peaked with the second season, Nanoha A’s, there’s definitely something about little girls blasting the stuffing out of each other with talking magic laser-cannons that continues to give the series an almost miraculous level of staying-power in both the fandom, and my personal consciousness.
#39 – Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion
There was a time in my life when I thought Code Geass was the absolute pinnacle of anime. It had everything! It has Giant Robots, and butts. It has Magic, and butts. Tragedy, Drama, Insane Plot Twists, and even butts! So, so many butts! And although my feelings on Code Geass have changed slightly, it seems almost impossible to not like this show. Code Geass is so brazenly, passionately confident of its own absurdity that I just can’t be mad at how preposterously ridiculous the whole thing is. The cast is unwieldy, the fanservice is too blatant, and the story has holes you could drive a Knightmare through, but none of that feels consequential in the end. Machiavellian anti-hero Lelouch steals the show with his charismatic presence and cheesy dialogue, almost as if to cast his Geass on the audience itself. This show is an overblown and sensational blockbuster if there ever was one, without an once of the dour and tryhard self-seriousness that drags down so many of its contemporaries. Even the show’s darkest and most dramatic moments are tinged with a winking over-the-top energy. From the exaggerated character designs, the bright color palette, and a level of theatricality that makes the Tony Awards look like a somber reading of the dictionary, Code Geass is an undeniably fun adventure whose confidently unabashed lunacy is unmatched by just about anything I’ve ever seen.
#38 – World Conquest Zvezda Plot
Zvezda is an odd little chimera of a show. One half Pinky and the Brain meets Team Rocket absurdist comedy, and one half genuinely touching surrealist drama. It’s also, for one episode, about exterminating all smokers. Director Tensai Okamura has some weird hang-ups. But it’s Zvezda’s strong emotional core that makes the show tick. Zvezda is about finding comfort in the people you surround yourself with, and finding identity in the world of masks and grown-ups. It’s not a show that will work for everyone. The main heroine is an oft-scantily-clad little girl with a stuffed techno-magic bunny-rabbit. If the show’s absurdist comedy stylings don’t work for you, it’ll probably be tough to engage with the show any deeper than that. If you can get on board though, Zvezda is a rewarding show packed with raw, unfiltered humanity. Very few shows are so much more than the sum of their parts.
#37 – Zankyou no Terror
Over the course of this list, you’re probably going to see me say something to the effect of “I like the idea of this show more than the show itself” quite a few times. Starting with this show. Zankyou no Terror is a deeply flawed anime. The story’s slavish devotion to its core message and aesthetic trappings is ultimately a double-edged sword that the show can’t quite wield gracefully. That being said, I think the show just might be more beautiful for its flaws. I’m not even sure I’d realistically be able to handle a perfected version of Zankyou no Terror, as a critic. This show takes its Youth in Rebellion theme to a literal extreme, and then continues to layer idea upon idea, and motif upon metaphor until the sprawling framework of the story is a work of art all by itself. Which is to say nothing of Shinichiro Watanabe’s masterful craftsmanship or Yoko Kanno’s haunting score. Zankyou no Terror is not a perfect show. Far from it, in fact. But it is the kind of show I respect the hell out of. I’ll take a flawed work of passion and ambition over a flawless piece of boilerplate genre work every time.
#36 – Mawaru Penguindrum
Director Kunihiko Ikuhara is one of my favorite anime directors of all time. He’s also a notoriously eccentric madman. So it’s fitting that his first appearance on this list is the messy, convoluted, and totally insane Mawaru Penguindrum. As usual, Ikuhara relentlessly assaults the viewer with abstract symbolism, metaphor, and obscure literary references to the point of utter bewilderment. Nevertheless, Penguindrum explores themes like fate, family, and sacrifice while tying them to an uplifting central message about personal identity. All of this amid a flurry of gorgeous imagery, complex characters, and peppy insert songs. I’d almost be willing to say that Penguindrum is actually overly ambitious. The sheer number of ideas at play feels poised to tear the show apart at the seams with every passing frame, but having too many ideas is hardly the worst problem a show can have. While I don’t think Penguindrum is Ikuhara’s most graceful or coherent work, even a mediocre Ikuhara show soars far above most anime productions. And it is more than deserving of a spot on this list.
#35 – Haruhi Suzumiya
There was a time not long ago when Haruhi Suzumiya was almost literally a cult phenomenon. While the fervor has certainly died down, with a continuation beyond the film looking all but impossible at this point, there’s really no understating Haruhi’s impact on anime. From being the vanguard of both modern otaku-centric moe comedies, to the current deluge of Light Novel adaptations with no end in sight, Haruhi’s mark on the industry seems indelible whether you like it or not. And while I do somewhat lament the industry’s apparent takeaway from Haruhi’s success, Haruhi itself works for so many reasons beyond the obvious. For one, KyoAni is to this day essentially unrivaled in overall aesthetic work. Every frame of Haruhi is as vibrant and lively as its eponymous heroine. They also boast a sense of humor just as strong. The staff at KyoAni understand comedic timing like nobody else in the industry. With that razor-sharp wit on top of an already clever script, it’s no wonder the result was one of the most successful anime of the last decade.
#34 – Yurikuma Arashi
The second Ikuhara anime on the list, and to get it out of the way now, yes you can expect the third one to show up at some point. Yurikuma, like Penguindrum before it, suffers from being a 20-gallon show in a ten-gallon hat. The story is rushed, the characters are a little flat, and the show can’t quite clear its own emotional hurdles. Yurikuma is a tragically flawed show. So why is it higher than Penguindrum? Because Yurikuma is also an immeasurably important show. I maintain that one of fiction’s greatest powers is its ability to speak to a captive audience. To invest people in issues and ideologies that they would never have considered otherwise, even if they don’t realize it. Fiction has the power to transcend simple messages and be an open dialogue; to ask questions and give answers, even if it has to Trojan Horse them into narrative entertainment. And YuriKuma Arashi is a show that absolutely needed to exist, and reach people in the here and now. YuriKuma is a show about lesbians. Not just a show about lesbian characters, it is a show about all lesbians; it is the story of the lesbian experience. A story about what it’s like to grow up homosexual in a cultural climate that oppresses and erases you. And it is a damning account. YuriKuma viciously wags its finger at the very genres that make up its DNA. It demands that we do better. That we treat these women not as dangerous predators or ephemeral flowers, but as people. And that is a goddamn topical message for the world today. That more than anything else, is what makes YuriKuma a great show.
#33 – Sound! Euphonium
Kyoto Animation is often accused of glorifying Otaku Nostalgia; taking viewers back to safer, quieter, easier times. Despite having seen and enjoyed a sizable chunk of their output, I’ve never actually understood that impression of KyoAni. That was, until along came Sound Euphonium. I was never in band, mind you. I don’t even play any instruments, but the emotions and conflicts of Euphonium are broad enough to resonate with anyone who has ever had a serious passion or hobby. Personally, Euphonium made me nostalgic for my Magic: the Gathering days. I spent many a Friday night at my local card shop with my friends, slinging spells and summoning Legendary creatures. However, once a few of us decided to start playing competitively, and going to tournaments, it alienated some of our group. Playing competitively was tough work, and expensive, and not the kind of thing that everyone can just throw themselves into. That’s pretty clear to me now. In hindsight, dragging my buddy and his Mono-Black deck to Vintage Tournaments was kind of a dick move on my part. And those are exactly the kinds of emotions and conflicts that Euphonium trades in. It is an achingly personal story about the intersection of passion and strife. Told through shot framing and cinematography that is nothing short of breathtaking. Euphonium may be KyoAni’s best-looking show, and that’s saying something. Every frame is emotive and evocative, practically works of art unto themselves. That the script also manages to wring a compelling personal drama out of a large ensemble cast without ever feeling bloated or empty is doubly impressive. Euphonium proves that nostalgia is not always about escapism, and that through masterful storytelling even the smallest of conflicts can seem larger than life.
#32 – Haibane Renmei
Haibane Renmei was the first show I ever really “got” without having to read reviews or other interpretations online. I remember the exact moment I sat up in my chair and thought to myself “Oh shit, I get it now! I know what this is about!” And that was an important moment for me, in my evolution as a critic, as a writer, and as a fan. Haibane Renmei is a mature fantasy that does not spell out any of its answers for the audience. It’s a purgatory story. And while the enclosed city and angelic imagery makes that pretty apparent from the start it is figuring out why the characters, why the Haibane, are trapped there that is the show’s compelling central hook. And again, it doesn’t give any easy answers. In doing so, Haibane Renmei shows its audience a level of respect that most anime don’t bother with. Haibane Renmei is very much a Show For Grown-Ups, and not just “a show for teenagers that we legally have to give an Adult Rating”. That unfortunately also means that it’s nearly impossible to market. Which explains why the show has essentially bottom-of-the-barrel production values. To make things worse, it was also very early digipaint show that has not aged well in the least. Haibane Renmei looks like a blurry slideshow of little girls working odd-jobs and occasionally crying. Though the art direction and atmosphere do a decent enough job of masking that. The script is certainly doing almost all of the heavy lifting in this show, but it’s more than strong enough to carry the show to a spot on this list.
#31 – Star Driver
Let it never be said that I don’t like dumb fun. That’s not to say that Star Driver is all dumb fun, but you‘d be forgiven for thinking so. As is typical of showrunner Yoji Enokido, Star Driver explores the intersection of adolescence and personal identity, sexual awakening, and just plain ol’ youthful exuberance. There’s definitely some meat on those bones, it‘s just deep-fried and slathered in BBQ sauce. Provided you can stand the Robot-of-the-Week format, it would be no difficult feat to just ignore the show’s thematic threads entirely in favor of the fabulous robot-on-robot action. Star Driver is lavishly animated, gorgeously colored, and sports an absolutely stellar soundtrack. Star Driver also boasts a fantastically vibrant cast of characters, lead by one of my favorite anime protagonists of all time. If Mamoru Miyano enthusiastically yelling “galactic pretty-boy!” doesn’t sound like reason enough to watch Star Driver, then I really have no idea what to tell you.