#30 – Mobile Suit Gundam: 08th MS Team
The only Gundam entry on the list, and it’s a side-story OVA series about the average grunts that get blown to smithereens in the background of every other Gundam story. That’s kind of the magic of 08th MS Team, though. 08th MS Team is a War Drama, and shifting the focus away from beam-spamming Newtypes in a struggle for the future of the galaxy to the career-military soldiers just trying to do their jobs without getting fragged on their lunch break effectively reigns in the typically larger-than-life conflicts of the series to something more personal and relatable. Like most Gundam series, the script is definitely a little hokey; with more than a few soap opera-level moments of pure WTFery. Though the show manages to keep all that grounded on a solid dramatic foundation. A lot of that has to do with show’s all-too-obvious Vietnam War allegory. Mobile Suit Gundam: Apocalypse Now would not have been an entirely inappropriate title for this show. 08th MS Team understands the hazy ambiguity of war. Quick to paint the Federation as morally dubious as their adversaries, the Zeon as more than faceless thugs for the hero to blow up, and highlighting the futility of naive optimism in the face of a conflict that neither side is willing to back down from. The ending is appropriately bittersweet, with a sobering reminder that this isn’t a story about invincible super-soldiers. It also helps that the show’s digital remaster looks absolutely pristine compared to most anime of the same era. From the character animation to the lumbering mech suits, everything is crisp and has a real sense of weight and motion. 08th MS Team is easily one of the best-looking “Real Robot” anime out there. The show’s star-crossed romance subplot didn’t quite work for me, but it’s certainly not enough to keep the show off this list.
#29 – OreGairu (My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU)
OreGairu is a story about growing up that truly and deeply understands exactly what that means for its characters, and it doesn’t pull any punches. The characters of Oregairu all feel like full-fledged living people with their own personalities, desires, and insecurities. So, so many insecurities. Some of them wear their insecurity like armor, while others bury them beneath a delicate façade, but every character in OreGairu has something to learn. And the show is going to teach them whether they like it or not. One of the biggest lessons everyone has to learn on the way to maturity is that the world outside is never quite as simple as the one inside your head. Nobody has all the answers, not even the people who think there aren’t any answers to be had at all. That’s a painful, and often terrifying thing to comes to grips with. I know, I was a Hachiman once. I wallowed in my cynicism. I retreated into my loneliness. I convinced myself that people just weren’t worth the time or effort. I knew I had all the answers and it was the world that was wrong. It took a long time for me to figure out that I was the real common denominator in all my problems. I still have social anxieties, and difficulties making conversation, and I’m still pretty cynical about this big screwed-up world, but I don‘t have any delusions about that now. Like Hachiman and company, I have fears and jagged edges. Growing up isn’t a race to a finish line, it’s a marathon that never ends. And the characters of OreGairu are just off the starting line. Well, that got a little personal, huh? I said in my review of S1 that everyone has a little Hachiman inside them, but that’s what makes OreGairu such a brilliant show. Few shows are so broadly relatable for so many people, and yet well-realized enough to actually be a genuinely thoughtful production.
#28 – Shiki
Shiki is probably one of the best vampire anime to date. Stylish and atmospheric, Shiki is reminiscent of old vampire lore. Long before they sparkled and teenage girls wanted to date them, vampires were enigmatic and deadly creatures of the night and Shiki does a great job of recapturing that essence. The vampires’ assault on the town is unnerving, if not genuinely frightening. The characters, human and vampire alike, are compelling and unique. The show does a very good job of portraying both sides of the conflict as sympathetic but ultimately misguided. Though, what makes Shiki truly outstanding is the ingenious twist on the age-old vampires-as-metaphor conceit that the genre was built on. Shiki isn’t just about a town at war with vampires, it’s about a town at war with itself. Shiki is about a culture war. Shiki is about superstition and traditionalism under assault by modernity. With the clever twist that age-old tradition is actually not represented by the undying supernatural creatures as you’d expect. Shiki flips nearly everything about its story on its head and back again, while still managing to root itself more firmly in the mythology and history of its genre better than anything I’ve seen in a long, long time. Whether you want smart, razor-sharp allegory or just a good old horror story, there’s a lot to love in this show.
#27 – Serial Experiments Lain
The anime poster child for the word “mindfuck”, Lain is mostly remembered for being incredibly weird and nearly impenetrable. Which are charges I’m not really going to dispute, but I obviously also think there is much more to the show than that. There’s a lot to unpack about Lain, and its questions of identity in the digital age. Both for the ones that seem almost eerily prophetic, and the ones that now seem hilariously backwards. Lain is show that excels at tone and atmosphere. Every moment of Lain is a strange, neurotic foray into the terror and isolation of the human experience. Even the sun-bleached streets of a warm Summer day are littered with crimson-splotched shadows, as if to serve as unnerving signs of the vast unknowable darkness that lurks just out of frame. Lain is definitely a weird and convoluted show, but it’s also an incredibly unique and rewarding experience. Albeit one you will probably have to go through multiple times.
#26 – Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo
Based on the legendary French novel of the same name, but just barely. Gankutsuou is a testament to the power of cross-media adaptation. Despite having mostly the same cast, as well as most of the same events as Dumas’ original novel, Gankutsuou is very much its own story. In the uncharacteristically inspired hands of Studio Gonzo, the classic tale of betrayal and revenge evolves into something much more. Even despite the show’s odd sci-fi update and uh… unique visual aesthetic, Gankutsuou manages the unenviable task of recapturing the spirit of its source material without being beholden to it. There’s honestly not much else to say about this show. Gankutsuou brings a classic novel to life, while giving it a life all its own. A thrilling, nigh perfectly-told version of one of the most notoriously unadaptable stories of all time by one of most notoriously inconsistent anime studios, Gankutsuou is nothing short of miraculous.
#25 – A Certain Scientific Railgun
Railgun is somewhat unconventional for a shounen action series. Most obviously, it is a spin-off side-story based on the To Aru Majutsu no Index Light Novels. Luckily, Railgun more than stands on its own. Secondly, the cast is 99% female, from the heroes to the villains. Which frames the characters and their struggles from a somewhat different angle(for both good and bad) than the show’s mostly male-centered contemporaries. Railgun is also much more character-driven than its counterparts. While it does still stick to the arc-based bad-guy-of-the-month storytelling that is a hallmark of the genre, it also allows itself to slow down and explore its characters. And the cast is what truly sets Railgun apart. Misaka, divorced from role as tsundere love-interest to Index’s Touma, stands on her own as a competent but flawed heroine brimming with personality and nuance. The rest of the girls sport equally colorful personalities and a fun group dynamic, while being fully-realized characters in their own right. That Railgun actually allows its characters to be characters instead of hollowed-out action-hero cliches is its greatest strength. Railgun understands that good storytelling, even action-heavy storytelling, is all about investment and empathy and not the size or frequency of explosions. Ultimately, Railgun is a solidly entertaining action anime amidst moments of genuinely smart and emotional storytelling. Supported by a cast of likable and dynamic characters.
#24 – Katanagatari
Stylish, beautiful, and epic. These are the only words necessary to describe Katanagatari’s engrossing, albeit wordy, story. But it’s pretty smart too. Katanagatari is a rich and resounding affirmation of “living for tomorrow”. The characters chain themselves to their pasts, to their grudges, and to their self-imposed obligations so utterly that they have given themselves no future. Thematically, Katanagatari is treading a lot of the same ground as Penguindrum. Katanagatari, however, has a ninja in a penguin outfit, so it‘s obviously much higher up on the list. I am a simple man with simple desires. Original writer Nisio Isin is a notoriously offbeat storyteller. His penchant for personable, idea-driven stories is made abundantly clear in Katanagatari. The story at one point deliberately building to an epic confrontation between hero and antagonist only to resolve the whole thing off-screen, as if to chastise the audience for even being invested in the show’s overt conflicts in the first place. However, the show’s most striking feature has to be the stark contrast between its light, colorful, almost comical presentation and its dark, thoughtful narrative. Katanagatari is a show of extremes, and one that effortlessly balances them against each other. It is certainly one of the most unique anime out there, and more than deserving of its spot.
#23 – Gatchaman Crowds
Gatchaman Crowds may have the absolute strangest disparity between base premise and actual content of any show on this list. GatchaCrowds is the story of costumed superheroes who defend the Earth from alien threats… and also internet trolls. Okay not literally, but pretty close! It’s more like the kinds of attitudes and systems that allow internet trolls to thrive in the digital landscape. And the only one who can challenge them is our savior Hajime, human personification of optimism, earnest connection, and scrap-booking! I said it was weird! Unsurprisingly, the narrative ends up being a little messy, but it certainly doesn’t want for ambition or passion. While GatchaCrowds is almost childishly naïve in its unflappable optimism, it surprisingly kind of works for a show that‘s a re-imagining of a superhero cartoon for actual children. There’s just no way for me to be mad at a show that’s so goddamn stylish, and still manages to be About Things! It helps that the whole show is just ridiculously fun, too
#22 – Simoun
Magic flying ships powered by kissing teenage girls? Simoun is a show that could only be made as an anime. However, don’t let the yuri and candy-colored hair fool you. This a serious, thoughtful and dramatic show. In the end, the yuri fanservice seems like it was just a gimmick to get this show produced. And shows like this don’t get produced very often. Simoun is a very cleverly disguised, thematically rich coming-of-age tale. Specifically, Simoun deals with both the naïve reverence of adulthood that only children possess, and the nostalgic lament for childhood that only adults cling to. Simoun is a deceptively thought-provoking and powerful show. Selling itself initially as a yuri romance, Simoun evolves into a brilliant and compelling drama steeped in moral greys, hard truths, and emotional depth.
#21 – The Vision of Escaflowne
Escaflowne is very arguably the best “Girl Whisked Away to Magical Fantasyland” story that has ever been done, anime or otherwise. Contrary to a lot of shows on this list, Escaflowne’s strengths are not its thematic ambition or well-realized characters; Escaflowne’s strength is pure forward momentum. Escaflowne is a perfectly-paced, tightly plotted adventure story that never wastes a single gorgeous frame and never overstays its welcome, but still ties all of its disparate parts together. That a show comprised of one-half boilerplate fantasy and one-half 90s cheese could end up so good and so memorable is a testament to how important sheer execution is in storytelling. Not that this show doesn’t have interesting characters or things to say, that stuff is just working in the background. Escaflowne’s storytelling is somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades scenario, and it’s hard to make that seem exciting. Fortunately, having the ludicrously talented Yoko Kanno on board to compose the music is more than exciting enough to push Escaflowne from merely good to practically a classic. Overall, Escaflowne is probably the most well-rounded show on this list. It doesn’t really excel in any one category, but I’d be hard-pressed to come up with any really egregious failings either.