#20 – Cowboy Bebop
What the hell is there to say about Cowboy Bebop? The crisp animation? The arresting soundtrack? Shinichiro Watanabe’s masterful cinematic touch? The clever and bold storytelling that explores a cast of nuanced and endearing characters through stylish pop-culture vignettes? Cowboy Bebop has all that and more, and I’m hardly the first person to figure that out in the nearly two-decades since its release. Bebop is one of the most celebrated anime titles ever created, and for damn good reason. Cowboy Bebop is almost more visceral experience than it is TV show; a timeless sci-fi action-adventure and an anime classic in the truest sense. Really the only reason this show isn’t way higher up on this list is because I’m not actually a huge fan of jazz or funk. But if you like Jazz and Science Fiction, and haven’t seen Bebop, you have made some categorically incorrect life-choices. Cowboy Bebop stands as one of the great pillars of the anime pantheon. Cowboy Bebop is practically the anime to show your friends who think all anime is just boobies or Pokemon. Cowboy Bebop proves that style and substance aren’t mutually exclusive, and arguably proves they can even be the same damn thing! Nostalgia or not, there’s no denying Cowboy Bebop is an enduring triumph of the industry.
#19 – Great Teacher Onizuka
GTO is a tough anime to pin down. Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? Is it pervy? Is it smart? Well, the surprising answer is that it’s all of those things. The secret to GTO’s success lies in how gracefully it handles being a goofy sitcom, an After School melodrama, and everything in-between. The reason GTO succeeds where so many shows have failed is that it never feels calculated or disingenuous. GTO swings for the fences in everything it does, be it raucous humor or heartfelt dramatic moments. To put it in one word, GTO is a show that despite its over-the-top nature always feels totally sincere. GTO is completely committed to every single gag and teary-eyed monologue. That one simple element is why GTO is a near-perfect version of the “unorthodox teacher inspires troubled students” cliché. Also, in an unusual twist, I actually recommend the wonky 90s dub for this show. Yes, the same three people play half the cast. Yes, the script takes massive liberties with the material. Yes, it’s not really acted or directed very well. But it is undeniably overflowing with the exact same kind of passionately goofy charm that GTO runs on.
#18 – Hyouka
Understanding people, even yourself, is pretty tough. So it’s rather brilliant that Hyouka frames this conflict through the lens of classic-era detective novels. As Oreki, Chitanda, and the others go about solving the somewhat necessarily contrived mysteries that crop up around them, they also begin to grow as people and understand each other. Though Hyouka ultimately admits that people aren’t a mystery that you can just solve. And this serves as the foundation for Hyouka’s poignant insight. Hyouka is a story that totally understands its own characters. Every aspect of the main cast, from seemingly innocuous gestures to their respective character arcs, are all reflective of their idiosyncrasies and their personal faults. I can’t even count how many little moments just made me chuckle at the screen thinking “Ohoho that is so Chitanda!” Supported, certainly, by KyoAni’s gorgeous technical work. Hyouka is a beautifully animated and stirring character study. The story of a few endlessly likable characters and their search for love, understanding, and personal truth. Like all good mysteries, the satisfaction lies not in the solution, but the journey. As is the nature of all truths, though, sometimes the answer you’re looking for isn’t the answer you want to find. People, like mysteries, are sometimes best left unsolved. Hyouka on the other hand, is definitely not a show that is better left unwatched.
#17 – Seirei no Moribito
Moribito is probably the most successful attempt at a TV knock-off of a Miyazaki movie. And I mean that as high praise. Moribito is very reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s early work, with a strong female lead, themes of humanity’s place in the natural order, and uniquely eastern fantasy elements. Also like a Miyazaki work, the background environments are lush, colorful, and painstakingly detailed. Though Moribito’s most striking feature may be its OST, courtesy of Kenji Kawai. The battle songs are intense, the quieter tracks are haunting, and few soundtracks just perfectly fit their show like Moribito’s. While the actual story has more than a few stumbling points, the show has plenty of interesting things to say, and boasts what is easily one of the best female protagonists that anime has to offer. Moribito is an enchanting and beautiful fantasy adventure that seems almost more classical mythos than anime series.
#16 – Gunslinger Girl
Gunslinger Girl is my all-time favorite manga. So it stands to reason that the anime would make its way onto this list somewhere. While the anime only covers a fraction of the full material, it remains a sobering reminder that security and turmoil are often two sides of the same coin; that perhaps the line between righteousness and sin is far murkier than we like to believe. Gunslinger Girl is an absolutely soul-crushing exploration of revenge, extremism, and conflict escalation in the name of the “greater good“. It’s probably no coincidence that the story is set in Italy, the birthplace of Fascism. Though an unfortunate change in studio for season two results in a drastic step down in aesthetic quality, the base material is arguably some of the strongest in the show. Including one of the single most emotionally exhausting flashbacks I’ve ever seen. Make no mistake, this is a much more grim and measured story than you’d expect from something with “gunslinger” in the title. But if you’re willing to give the show your attention, it is an incredibly powerful experience. It probably goes without saying that I highly recommend giving the manga a read as well.
#15 – Kino’s Journey
The world is not beautiful, therefore it is. So purports Kino’s Journey, the episodic tale of a young traveler named Kino and her talking motorcycle named Hermes. Kino’s Journey is somewhat unique as an anime, being less of a grounded linear narrative and more of a series of episodic vignettes that double as philosophical parables. Kino explores questions about human nature through the lens of a travelogue-style adventure show. That’s just a brilliant premise all on its own, but Kino’s executes on those ideas with grace and insight far beyond most of its contemporaries. And Kino herself is also an impressively graceful balancing act. At once passive and soft-spoken, but not without personality or agency. The only real downside to this show is that there just isn’t enough of it. Kino’s world is so compelling and unique that it’s one of very few shows I would consider watching until the end of forever.
#14 – Higurashi no Naku Koro ni
What Higurashi lacks in visuals, it more than makes up for in a mind-bending story fraught with twists and turns, eerie sound design, and a genuine cheesy sincerity that belies its darker moments. Higurashi is a great mystery story that holds all of its cards close to its chest until the exact right moment, but it also has an impressive mastery over both atmosphere and tone. It has endearing protagonists that are worth cheering for, and engaging antagonists that are easy to simultaneously loathe and sympathize with. Good stories are often comprised of countless little-tiny moving pieces underneath the surface, and Higurashi has adept control over a remarkable number of them. There are so, so many ways for a show like Higurashi to go wrong, and it skirts that line with enviable finesse. While it’s hardly perfect, the fact that it succeeds without turning into a disastrous collision of tryhard and edgelord is a feat worthy of acclaim.
#13 – Fate/Zero
The first but certainly not last Gen Urobuchi anime to grace this list, and it seems only appropriate to have it in at lucky number 13. Fate/Zero was originally a series of novels serving as a prequel to a Visual Novel written by a totally different author, that was later adapted into an anime twice by totally different studios. And that convoluted family history is hardly the show‘s only idiosyncrasy. Essentially occupying some weird space between “Who would win in a fight…?” and “If you could have dinner with one historical figure..?”, Fate/Zero is less a clash of magic and steel than it is a clash of ideology. ButchGen is often accused of writing characters as mouthpieces, and Fate/Zero’s case is probably the closest that has ever been to actually being true. Each character embodies their own unshakable ideals, rigidly following them to their often inevitably tragic conclusions. The story attacks all manner of subjects from every conceivable angle, weaving a densely-packed but ultimately straightforward story. Fate/Zero speaks harsh truths and sweet lies, all the while delivering some of the best-looking action sequences ever seen in a TV anime. Fate/Zero is such a stark contrast to its sequel, it’s hard to believe they’re even the same franchise.
#12 – Princess Tutu
Princess Tutu is arguably the best children’s anime ever made. It doesn’t talk down to its audience, it doesn’t sugar-coat its story, and it doesn’t dumb-down its messages.
Princess Tutu is essentially an attempt at High Art For Kids, and is about as successful as you could expect that to be. Ostensibly an animated ballet, Tutu uses music, dance, and metaphor to tell large swaths of its story. This allows Tutu to retain much of the depth and resonance found in the classic works it draws inspiration from, while still being engaging enough on a surface level to hold a younger audience. The characters are complex, dynamic, and written in a way that makes them broadly relatable and still seem like fully-realized people. Even the one that’s actually a duck. But the story never feels too slow or stilted, either. It’s a narrative high-wire act that children’s entertainment rarely pulls off outside the realm of Pixar’s best movies. Simple enough for children and engaging enough for adults, Tutu is a meticulously crafted piece of work in just about every way.
#11 – Steins;Gate
Steins;Gate is easily one the best visual novel adaptations I’ve ever seen. The characters, especially Okabe, are compelling and likable and bounce off each other in a way that is incredibly fun to watch. Which is a damn good thing because like most VN adaptations, Steins;Gate is a whole lot of characters sitting around a small number of reused locations just shooting the shit with each other. This can give the early impression that the show is meandering or even dull, but I think it’s actually kind of ingenious. Just when you’ve taken the characters’ peaceful everyday lives for granted, the story goes and turns everything on its head. When it eventually does raise the stakes, it feels profoundly significant. It’s tense, fascinating and unusually well-researched. The muted color palette, gratuitous use of dutch angles, and other tricks set a deliberately uneasy atmosphere that pervades even the most mundane scenes. As a Sci-Fi thriller, this show is a must-see. That’s not quite enough to get a show on the edge of the my top 10, though. Amidst all of its conspiracy-thriller time-travel nonsense, Steins;Gate also manages to build a shockingly compelling and believable love story. Steins;Gate is fun, thrilling, nerdy adventure that also succeeds as a compelling, surprisingly poignant story.