#10 – Psycho-Pass
Psycho-Pass is one part cyber-fantasy crime-drama, one part dystopian social commentary, and 100% Gen Urobuchi. Psycho-Pass distills Urobuchi’s raging hateboner for utilitarian systems to its most literal form, following in the footsteps of some of Sci-Fi’s most enduring legacies. And it is certainly not shy about telling you that. Psycho-Pass never makes a mystery of its influences, content to name-drop them whenever it feels the urge. Still, Psycho-Pass is very much its own beast. Though what makes Psycho-Pass interesting is that rather than focus on the unsurprisingly dubious consequences of its hypothetical society, Psycho-Pass focuses on the individuals that fall through its cracks. And it’s these fascinatingly twisted villains that almost steal the entire show. Main baddie Shogo Makashima is like an amalgamation of The Joker and James Moriarty, and every minute he‘s on screen is pure gold. Psycho-Pass is a dark, surprisingly sharp Sci-Fi thought-piece that is also unabashedly and unavoidably reminiscent of other works.
#9 – Kyousougiga
Kyousougiga is a frenetic, colorful, and sometimes confusing explosion of creativity and passion. It is, in its own words, “a story of a certain family’s love and rebirth”. A story of one odd little family finding meaning and comfort in each other. And that’s kind of it, really. For all its spectacle and energy, Kyousougiga is ultimately a very small and personal story. But the presentation is nothing short of monumental. This show is the directorial debut of Rie Matsumoto, who is quickly rising up the ranks of my favorite anime directors of all time. Where the hell was Toei even hiding this lady?! Matsumoto has such a unique way with space and color, this show simply looks fucking immaculate. From the sketchy, illustration-like quality of the cityscapes; to the expressive and nuanced character animation; to the myriad of visual symbols and metaphors; this show is striking and vivid in a way that can only be justifiably done in animation. Which isn’t to say this show is slouching in other areas. Oh, on the contrary. Kyousougiga is a confident piece of work all-around, even including what may be the strongest role of famed Queen of Tsundere, Rie Kugimiya’s career. Kyousougiga is the kind of show retroactively justifies all the schlocky nonsense that pays for passion projects like this, and affirms that anime can also be a legitimate art form.
#8 – Spice and Wolf
If you’ve read my About page, you know that Spice and Wolf was one of the most important shows I ever watched in my evolution as a fan. If you haven’t read it, well I guess I just told you. So yeah, Spice and Wolf was pretty much the show that got me out of my Shounen Jump Phase, and broadened my horizons as a viewer. Who knows where I’d be had I never seen this show? But its spot in the top 10 isn’t all nostalgia. If it wasn’t apparent this far into the list, I have a huge affinity for both romantic and character-driven stories. And Spice and Wolf delivers both in spades. The characters are vibrant, nuanced, and bounce off of each other with such ease that it honestly makes me a little envious as a writer. The banter is just too good! Spice and Wolf is the show that proves the old adage “never judge a book by its cover”(literally in the case of the first English print of the LN). This is a Light Novel adaptation about a cute girl with dog ears that barges naked-as-a-jaybird into the life of a lonely 20-something bachelor. Yet somehow is also a totally serious and intelligent period drama with remarkably charming romantic chemistry, in seemingly utter defiance of every expectation to the contrary. For a show that, by all accounts, seems like it should be the most blatant of setups for nerd wish-fulfillment to end up this good is nothing short of astonishing.
#7 – Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Ghost in the Shell is one of the most oft-adapted and recognizable manga properties in history. After two successful and acclaimed film adaptations by veteran auteur Mamoru Oshii, Production IG would go on to launch a TV adaptation under the direction of Kenji Kamiyama in 2002. What resulted was one of the most expensive TV anime ever produced, and also one of the most iconic series of all time. Stand Alone Complex is to this day arguably the definitive Sci-Fi political drama anime, rivaled only by behemoths like Legend of Galactic Heroes. It’s not difficult to guess how SAC managed to garner such broad appeal. Stand Alone Complex was ahead of its time in a lot of ways. For one thing, it has one of the best dubs ever, from a time when faithful and not-mortifying dubbing was just starting to be a thing. It also grafts the episodic but still continuity-driven storytelling of contemporaries like Star Trek or the X-Files onto the then-nascent trend of Crime Drama Procedurals that would rule North American airwaves in a few short years. Stand Alone Complex was engineered to be the near-perfect TV show of its era, and it would unsurprisingly go on to rerun on Adult Swim’s anime block for several years. Just being a timely product isn’t the only key to SAC’s success, though. That may be the reason for its overall popularity, but the reason it still endures over a decade later lies in the beating heart of the show: SAC is just smart, sharply-written Science Fiction. From android sex-bots to internet terrorism, SAC uses its episodic format to explore more cyberpunk and techno-future-adjacent ideas than you can shake a tachikoma at. SAC proves that you can have talking robots with machine-guns, and still have them say important, thoughtful stuff. Contrary to popular belief. *cough* Michael Bay *cough*
#6 – Neon Genesis Evangelion
What do I even say about Evangelion? It’s one of the most divisive, groundbreaking, and successful anime franchises of all time. Evangelion is a goddamn cultural institution. Anything I could write about this show has been written before, and by way smarter people than me. So you know what? I’m not even gonna talk about the show. It’s famous for a reason, and it’s a damn good reason. Go watch it. The end. Instead, I’m gonna talk about my experience with the show. The very first time I ever saw Eva was when I was a teenager, only a little older than Shinji. A friend of mine had borrowed the Eva boxset from someone else, and brought it over to my house one Friday afternoon so we could watch it together. Neither of us had any fucking clue what we were in for. We marathoned the whole show well into the wee hours of the morning, hitting those last two infamous episodes around 1:30 AM. Needless to say it blew our teenage minds. Even now, I’m still the weirdo who genuinely prefers the original TV ending over the film version. Evangelion is basically one slow, terrifying descent into the characters’ psyches, so I feel it‘s pretty appropriate for the story to ultimately end there. Anyways, a decade or so later, that same friend would tragically lose a long battle against Leukemia. That night we watched Evangelion together remains among my fondest memories. Evangelion is a special show, and a phenomenon that anime has never quite duplicated. More than anything though, Evangelion is a deeply personal and devastatingly human story. One of the truly great anime classics.
#5 – Eureka Seven
Eureka Seven is one of those shows that I don’t think would have ever existed without Evangelion’s influence on the industry. I actually asked writer Dai Sato about it when he came to Anime Boston. Even though he denies that the similarities were intentional, I think they are definitely still there. Renton is pretty obviously cast from a Shinji-esque mold. He’s trapped in his father’s shadow and can’t reconcile the expectations of him that creates in others with his own desires and beliefs, and so he’s just kind of a whiny pain in the ass. Sound familiar? He’s basically what would happen if you mixed Shinji with like, Naota from FLCL. Which actually makes a lot of sense. Eureka Seven is primarily a coming-of-age story, after all. Via the framework of giant robot battles, because anime. The reason E7 is higher up than Evangelion also comes back to something Dai Sato said at his Anime Boston panel: that he wanted Eureka Seven to take something like Evangelion beyond the love confession. Because you see, Eureka Seven is also a story of young love. A story about embracing people, both literally and figuratively. It’s a story about how people tear themselves down, but build each other up. It’s a story about regret, and loss, and forgiveness. It’s story about what it means to be human, and I also mean that pretty literally. So while I think Evangelion is probably the sharper narrative, E7 is paced better, structured better, better-looking, and has a much clearer idea of what it wants to be. Eureka Seven is just a damn good show, and all without ever losing sight of also being a damn fun show.
#4 – Revolutionary Girl Utena
Although it doesn’t quite clinch the top spot, I still think Utena is damn near the best anime ever produced. It is undoubtedly one of the densest, at any rate. Utena is the last Ikuhara show on the list, and is almost unquestionably destined to go down as his magnum opus. I don’t think there is anything else in any medium that has more things going on under the surface than Utena does. Utena is upwards of a dozen different shows all at once, deftly weaving together multiple character arcs, countless visual motifs, and an endless barrage of symbols and metaphor into an intricate braid of themes and messages. Utena is a story about growing up, and all the complicated, contradictory, and just plain crazy feelings that come with it. Utena is a psychological character study that never loses its sense of humor, a sparkly fairytale that never shies away from harsh truths, and a pointed social commentary that never forgets to ground its ideas in relatable human conflicts. Utena is probably more deserving of the title “masterpiece” than anything else on this list. With the caveat that it is also a very particular kind of show with a very particular kind of appeal. There certainly isn’t anything else quite like it.
#3 – Bakemonogatari (et al.)
I legitimately believe the Monogatari franchise is good fiction. But that isn’t because it’s espousing some big complex theme, or because it’s an unassailable bastion of great literature. No, Monogatari is good because of how well it plays within its own confines. I usually call it “the thinkin’ man’s harem anime”, and that really is essentially the entire conceit. It’s a harem anime that takes its concept and its characters completely, 100%, stone-faced seriously. What I mean is that Monogatari takes the typical teen power-fantasy narrative that the harem genre is built on, and uses that to build the entirety of its dramatic structure. It makes the story about a hapless everyman white-knighting a bunch of cute girls, by having him battle the manifestations of their own literal inner demons. It ruminates on what kind of emotional trauma people would need to carry in order to fit into customary harem archetypes, and it explores what that kind of trauma and psychosis would do to the girls who don’t “win”. Monogatari is about human experience, emotional growth and self-acceptance; about adolescence and self-identity; about moving forward and letting go; about how people construct realities, and escape into themselves. Monogatari is a story about people. Dynamic people with complex flaws and contradictory desires. Life is a big scary, confusing, ugly thing. Sometimes it can also be wordy and dull, too. There’s the occasional pair of boobs or loli-butt in there as well. Nothing’s perfect. Monogatari does feel like it comes pretty damn close sometimes, though.
#2 – Black Lagoon
Anime’s homage to 90s anti-hero action flicks. The colorful characters of the Lagoon Company blast, crash, and smash their way through the criminal underbelly of the South Pacific in this brutal shooting-spree. This may seem like an odd choice for the #2 spot, but there’s just no denying that Black Lagoon is my second favorite anime. I’ve rewatched it a dozen times, and it still resonates with me. Some people begrudge the “armchair philosophy” amongst the gratuitous action-movie violence, but I appreciate an action show trying to inject some depth into its narrative, even if it’s still not all that smart. It takes the time to examine its characters, their relationships, and their varying psychoses. It goes a long way towards humanizing them beyond typical power/image fantasy archetypes, and making them more like actual people. Broken and morally bankrupt and homicidal people, but still people. It sports an assortment of strong, and capable, and intelligent female characters that still look pretty damn good covered in the blood of hapless mooks. Black Lagoon even has genuine themes! The contrast and relationship between Revy, who chooses to become a beast in order to survive in an unfair world and Rock, who serves as the story’s sole anchor to humanity, is the most compelling thing in the entire show. Black Lagoon’s philosophy undoubtedly lands dead-center in the realm of darkly cynical nihilism, though. The show has a lot of things to say about humanity, and none of it is exactly flattering, but at least it has something to say at all. It would be so easy for a show like this to mindlessly indulge in its violence, with a cast of threadbare anime archetypes, but Black Lagoon is better than that. Black Lagoon isn’t brilliantly clever, or intricately complex, but it’s not simple or brainless either. It’s just a wickedly entertaining action blockbuster that is exactly thoughtful enough to set itself apart from its contemporaries, and has more than enough style and wit to be the runner-up on this list.
#1 – Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Here we are, at the end of all things… Or at least the end of this list. Have you ever seen a show that you felt was made just for you? Madoka Magica combines dark, labyrinthine psychological horror with kickass Magical Girls beating the crap out of Lovecraftian abominations. So yeah, Madoka Magica is that show for me. Madoka isn’t just cool though, it‘s damn good. Teetering on the edge of perfection, even. This show is operating on a level most pieces of fiction can only dream of. Skirting such a precarious balance between popcorn blockbuster and thoughtful parable that it’s almost bewildering just how well the whole thing comes together. Madoka is an intricately layered narrative, with each singular element reflecting and resounding off all the others. Every frame, every line of dialogue, every track on the OST, and every cruel revelation is perfectly planned and adeptly executed. Madoka subverts one of anime’s most beloved genres by dressing a Faustian tragedy in a frilly pink skirt, but also serves as yet another of Gen Urobuchi’s passionate take-downs of Utilitarianism. Madoka isn’t just a story about Magical girls fighting monsters, it’s a story about the importance of what Magical Girls represent, and fighting for those ideals. Madoka is a beautiful exercise in the emotional craft of storytelling. It is a passionate affirmation that stories don’t have to be about only plot and characters. They can be about other things; abstract, emotional, and important things. It is literally a story about the incorporeal forces of compassion, femininity, and hope overcoming a rigid systemic force that is explicitly designed to exploit those emotions. Madoka is not good because it’s a violent grimdark subversion of Magical Girl anime. Though it is good, dark, and a subversion. What truly makes Madoka special is how rich and fulfilling it is. Madoka plays out like a classic novel, with the same themes and messages about humanity, life and struggle that make those stories timeless. And that’s what Madoka is: a timeless, impeccably well-told story that reaches far beyond the frilly trappings of its genre and the crushing darkness of its themes. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a story that truly aspires, and against all odds, succeeds. It is a testament not only to what anime can achieve as an entertainment medium, but also what animation itself can achieve as an art form. That is what earns it the number one spot on this list, and the distinction of being my all time favorite anime.