Yep, I’ve finally put together a top shows list. As I hopefully made clear in part one and part two of my critical biases post, this is obviously my list – it represents the things I think are most valuable in stories in the way I think they’ve best been articulated. It’s also just a list of shows I enjoy – there’s no hard criteria here, so I wouldn’t stress the numbers too much. Also, it’s a bit front-loaded – I only started watching anime seasonally about two years ago, so the last couple years are disproportionately represented. Incidentally, I’m not including movies here either – I think direct comparisons between shows and films are a bit of a stretch, but if they were included, this list would certainly be somewhat different. And finally, I’m absolutely (and thankfully) certain this list will change over time – there are still piles of widely beloved shows I’ve never seen, so I’m sure the current rankings will be filled out in the years to come. So with that all said, let’s get to the list – Bobduh’s Top 30 Anime of All Time.
-edit- I have now created a Top Shows Addendum for shows that have either fallen off or just barely missed this list. Please enjoy these additional almost-top shows!
There are few shows that create such an engaging, consistent sense of place as Haibane Renmei. The town of this show is vivid and inviting, and there is a sense of warmth and peace permeating much of this show. The atmosphere is the greatest strength here, but the rest of the show is no slouch – the writing is understated but effective, and the show’s mysteries offer ample reason to explore the strange corners of this world. Haibane Renmei is sitting back on a lazy Sunday and watching the sunlight play through the trees. Creating such a sense of peace is a rare and excellent thing.
Haibane Renmei is available at Amazon.
After nearly a decade’s absence, Shinichiro Watanabe returned to direction with a serious change of pace – an understated period drama/coming-of-age story. Surprising as that was, perhaps even more surprising was how good Kids on the Slope turned out to be. Its postwar setting is compelling, its characters act like people, and it, perhaps more than any other Watanabe show, beautifully demonstrates his love affair with music. Every element of this production exudes polish, and when its characters come together for a performance, the results are always transcendent. Though it’s not among my absolute favorites, I’d consider Kids on the Slope one of the most “perfect” shows I know – every element is used well, every character leaves a mark, and its understanding of the tension, release, and even unfulfilled longing of youth is remarkable. And those songs!
Kids on the Slope is available at Amazon.
Gatchaman’s a goddamn busy show – in the course of a 12-episode run, it covers everything from internet culture to crowdsourcing to the necessity of leadership to social responsibility to human nature to… well, you get the idea. And it explores all these ideas while also staying remarkably light and breezy – you could enjoy the show purely as a fun, visually interesting, musically brilliant adventure without even thinking about how identity is constructed in the digital age, or whatnot. And when you combine these two strengths, you get a show that proves you don’t have to be dry to be smart – you can make awesome points about how the internet will change the world without ever giving up a sense of fun and moment-to-moment excitement. Brain food and comfort food at the same time.
Here’s my review of Gatchaman Crowds.
Gatchaman Crowds is available at Amazon.
Half witty, endearing slice of life, half thrilling time-travel drama, Steins;Gate is a strange mixture of elements, but the end result has a lot going for it. The story is really compelling, for one thing – the tension it slowly builds is released in a thrilling second half, full of twists, turns, and all the quirks a good time-travel story should have. The humor is surprisingly sharp, too – this was a show I actually picked up in the first few episodes, and the pitch that sold me on it was “it’s like an anime comedy, but good!” And underlying both of these strengths is the great cast – in the midst of all the scifi shenanigans and episodic tangents, Steins;Gate finds the time to also tell one of the better love stories in anime, featuring a couple that are compelling independently but completely adorable together.
Steins;Gate is available at Amazon.
Considering how much I’m disliking the second season, I’m probably gonna have to revisit my feelings on this show at some point, but for now, all I’ve got are incredibly positive memories. The first season of Chuunibyou has focus – though it’s comedy-heavy, almost every episode of its first half is indispensable in setting up its cast’s personalities and dynamics. And once the die is cast, it tears out of the gate, covering more romantic drama in six episodes than most shows manage in a season. It’s also a great example of all the things KyoAni really does well – it’s full of small character moments and beautiful colors, and its sense of comedic timing is best in class. Tie it all together with a legitimately thoughtful thematic center, and you’ve got a pretty impressive romantic comedy.
Chuunibyou is available on Amazon.
Giant Robo is Bombast Incarnate. Featuring an epic clash between the Experts of Justice and Big Fire, there’s no room for subtlety in this production – it’s all massive robots and deadly superspies and fights for the fate of the world. It’s also a beautiful thing – a series of seven OVAs released over most of a decade, the show is a gorgeous ode to classic super robot storytelling, brought to life with strong animation and rich colors and epic orchestral scores. And yet for all its larger-than-life size, the show also tells a gripping story, full of fully-articulated characters and reflections on family and human ambition. Giant Robo essentially feels like the final act of the Greatest Robot Story Ever Told – it has absolute confidence, and earns the viewer’s trust through constant dramatic hooks and total polish in execution. Even if you generally like smaller stories, I’d give Giant Robo a chance.
Here’s my essay on Giant Robo.
Giant Robo is vaguely available on Amazon.
Kyoto Animation excel at making quietly excellent little dramas, and Sound! Euphonium counts as one more feather in their distressingly pincushioned cap. The show is as gorgeous as you’d expect, the drama is understated but well-articulated, and the episodes are full of those alternately funny or poignant little moments that KyoAni’s mastery of animated storytelling always provokes. And Kumiko is one of the most fun people you could possibly follow around a story like this, with her snark and clumsy bluntness making her a refreshing and relatable protagonist. You can enjoy this show for its close viewing of the classic band experience, for its funny mess of jokes and characters, or for its well-articulated personal drama and reflections on goals and identity. It succeeds on all levels, making it one of the most impressive and fully realized high school dramas around.
Sound! Euphonium is licensed but not yet available in the west.
It may not be apparent from this list, but it turns out I’m an incredible sucker for romance. Chemistry, banter, moments of sacrifice for the one you love – all it really takes is one great couple to get me through a show. Unfortunately, most anime is really bad at portraying romance – it flounders in cliches, it creates artificial drama, and it doesn’t understand actual rapport. Standing as one of the premier counterexamples to this sad trend, Spice and Wolf is about as endearing and well-drawn of a romance as you could hope for. Its characters are distinctive and bounce off each other well, its dialogue displays great personality and chemistry, and it’s apparent again and again how much its protagonists care for each other. Though I also am a great fan of its aesthetic and economic focus, the thing that makes Spice and Wolf a top show for me is the fantastic romance at its center.
Spice and Wolf is available at Amazon.
As the only long-running shounen on my list, HxH’s a bit of an outlier. But HxH is not your typical shounen – directed by Madhouse (likely my pick for the best studio of all time) and adapted from a source by the writer of Yu Yu Hakusho, Hunter x Hunter is basically a master class in what makes adventure entertaining. Though it starts off “only” demonstrating it knows how to make challenge-based television entertaining (in lieu of actual fights, it generally sets up compelling puzzles of all shapes and sizes for its heroes), it ends up jumping from genre to genre, dabbling in crime thriller, tournament shounen, and even war drama. And through it all, the show’s fantastic aesthetics elevate it above almost everything out there – in direction, in sound design, in pacing, in animation, in basically every relevant aesthetic metric, Hunter x Hunter triumphs. That it’s been maintaining this level of quality for well over a hundred episodes is nothing short of astonishing – in fact, I’d say Hunter x Hunter has only gotten better over time.
Here’s a critical breakdown of HxH episode 116, and here’s an essay on the recently concluded (and breathtaking) Chimera Ant arc.
Hunter x Hunter 2011 has not received a western release.
Mushishi is one of those strange, special shows that seem to just emerge confident and fully constructed, exude excellence for all of their running time, and then go quietly on their way. Its vignettes are dreamy and ambiguous, full of resonance and compelling ideas but never didactic. Its world is mysterious and enchanting, evoking both a more resigned and possibly more dangerous version of Miyazaki’s mystical forests. Its production is fantastic, with beautiful backgrounds matching a wonderfully understated musical score and a great sense of pacing to conjure its powerful, singular atmosphere. And all this works in service of a show that’s fundamentally just incredibly calming and sedate – a series of long, lazy afternoons spent enjoying the company of a master storyteller.
Here’s my essay on Mushishi.
Mushishi’s first season is available at Amazon.