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!
People have described Baccano as the anime version of a Tarantino movie, which to me seems like kind of an insult to Tarantino. Not because Baccano is bad, but because the things the two share – a penchant for non-linear structure and a love of ultraviolence – are basically the least interesting things about Tarantino movies. And Baccano itself is impressive in all sorts of other ways – ridiculous and fun and breathless and breezy, it juggles time periods, endless characters, and rampant subplots with an ease resembling controlled madness, coming off as a slight, entertaining crime caper in spite of all its ridiculous convolution. The end result is closer to Guy Ritchie than Tarantino, but Baccano is ultimately its own thing – an entertaining ride well worth the ticket.
Baccano is available on Amazon.
Though I don’t find it as compelling as Utena, Penguindrum is still stuffed with all the brilliant Ikuhara-ness that makes that show shine. Vibrant characters, plentiful visual inventiveness, a rich mix of ideas (this time concerning family, childhood, the nature of society, fate, and all sorts of other stuff I’d rather not spoil)… Ikuhara shows are busy, but Penguindrum manages to tie all this substance to a fast-paced, compelling central drama. What would you do to save the people you love? What composes your identity, and what is your identity really worth? The show is wild and absurd, but it stays grounded by virtue of the resonant issues it grapples with, along with the passionate, flawed, endlessly endearing family at the center of its spin.
Penguindrum is available on Amazon.
This show’s pretty textbook Urobuchi – one part compelling fantasy setting (a thoughtcrime-obsessed dystopian cyber-future), one part fun tweak on a classic genre (crime procedural by way of Bladerunner), and one part cynical yet optimistic attack on the inhumanity of utilitarianism, as well as the poignance of human nature. It’s fun as a straight crime drama, it works as a sharp-edged exploration of how society always creates friction with the individual, and its aesthetic is all kinds of stylish. Not Urobuchi’s best work, but standard Urobuchi is much better than most anime out there.
Psycho-Pass is available on Amazon.
Gurren Lagann is absolutely Not My Kind of Show, but it’s just so good at what it does that I have to love it anyway. The energy, the enthusiasm, the soundtrack, the fantastic visuals – it’s an exuberant love letter to mechs, hyperbole, and hot-blooded enthusiasm, and you’ll either absolutely hate it or end up swept away. It’s also pretty funny (though this is mixed with plenty of stuff that’s pretty not funny), has a broad and endearing cast, and even has one point of actual intelligence – Rossiu, whose arc and conflict possess a depth bizarrely out of whack with everything else the show is doing. Rossiu’s existence is probably the tipping point that knocks this show onto this list, but if you’re in the mood for pure, silly entertainment, Gurren Lagann is happy to entertain.
Gurren Lagann is available on Amazon.
Gargantia is both the most complex exploration of Urobuchi’s ideas he’s yet attempted and likely the most deliberately personal story of any of his works. By tying his usual ideas about utilitarianism and human nature to the story of one young man finding purpose in a new, unfamiliar society, he turns Gargantia into both a positive story about the rewards of embracing adulthood and an exploration of the purpose of society in the first place. Gargantia’s also just an enjoyable show to spend time with – the world of Gargantia is rich and beautiful, and the way the show shifts between full genres throughout its run does a great service to both Ledo’s journey and the impact of Gargantia as a setting. It’s fun, pretty, and possibly the most unassumingly thoughtful of all of Urobuchi’s shows.
Here’s my review of Gargantia.
Gargantia is available on 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 on 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 on 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.
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 on 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 on Amazon.
Grouped together because they really do feel like two sides of the same coin, both of Gainax’s Buster shows would also make this list independently. Flippant and heartbreaking, cynical and triumphant, personal and universal, each of these OVAs tells a story of humanity’s struggle against all the forces of the universe with style and heart. And each can stand alone, as well – Gunbuster is helmed by a pre-Eva Anno already exhibiting his unnerving style of direction, and Diebuster offers a very appropriate conclusion to the FLCL era of Gainax production. Only six episodes each, too – it’s pretty remarkable how much story each of these manage to tell.
Shinsekai Yori is basically tailor-made for fans of fantasy and scifi novels. Heavy on worldbuilding and questions of human nature, its story unfolds on a scale far greater than most anime, exploring a compelling dystopian society by following one generation from childhood through adolescence and well into adulthood. Though I often feel its characters fade into the background of its storytelling pretensions, it all works in service of an incredibly compelling central narrative, and its devastating conclusion justifies everything that came before. It’s a rare and valuable thing – few shows work on the scale of Shinsekai Yori.
Here’s my review of Shinsekai Yori.
As of this posting, Shinsekai Yori’s first half is available on Amazon, with its second half soon to come.
Unless KyoAni performs some tremendous about-face in priorities, it seems like Hyouka will stand as their masterpiece for a long time to come. Not that that’s a mark against it – Hyouka is a fantastic show, and easily makes best use of KyoAni’s mastery of small character moments and subtle, human animation. It’s a mark to how impressive I find this show’s character work that I enjoyed it in spite of not really caring about any of the mysteries – of course, the fact that the show’s ridiculously gorgeous and filled with lush animation doesn’t hurt, either. If you’re in the mood for a more meditative character story, Hyouka’s as good as it gets.
Hyouka has sadly never received a western release.
Considering I haven’t seen Toradora since it actually aired, its position on this list may be something of an open question. But if memory serves, Toradora certainly deserves it – it’s basically the high school romcom/drama all other such shows wish they were, populated by multifaceted characters, driven by relatable, human drama, and crescendoing in a long line of iconic moments. Its conflicts emerge naturally from the base nature of its well-drawn protagonists, and perhaps most importantly, its writing actually understands the fundamentals of banter and chemistry. Anime could use a lot more shows like Toradora.
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 on Amazon.
Anime doesn’t really have the best track record with horror – there’s just something inherently difficult about portraying visceral dread in animation, and few shows manage to pull it off. Fortunately, Shiki neatly avoids falling into any “this isn’t scary” traps by being more about creating an oppressive atmosphere, and focusing less on visceral horror than on the horror of human nature. Its slow-burning story depicts the breakdown of an entire community from basically every possible position within that community, making for a remarkably well-realized cast of dozens of characters. And its runtime is peppered with stark moral questions, thrilling twists, and moments of pure adrenal shock. Its themes of community and the meaning of a monster are classic ones, but Shiki infuses them with vitality and modern relevance, along with a sense of campy fun that almost tricks you into embarking on one of the darkest rides the medium has to offer. Shiki is a vivid, tense, and deeply angry show.
Here’s my essay on Shiki.
Shiki is available on Amazon.
There’s a whole lot to love in Kyousogiga. It’s a family story, populated by a diverse set of characters and full of personal reflections on sibling and parental relations. It’s a world unto itself, a beautiful fairy tale city filled with evocative details. It’s an exercise in aesthetics, with top-notch direction, visual design, and music. And it is all of these things at once – its central conflict of a family that has fallen apart and must come back together makes brilliant use of all its aesthetic strengths, and the world they inhabit fills every frame with personality and color. It also has the best brother-sister relationship I’ve seen in any show, and as the brother of two sisters, I can really appreciate how well this show understands people.
Here’s my review of Kyousogiga.
Kyousogiga is sadly not available in the west.
Shinichiro Watanabe’s first and arguably best original production, Cowboy Bebop has a venerable and well-deserved reputation as a classic. Its stylistic mix of noir, western, scifi, and jazz feels so natural that it’s hard to believe it was basically invented by this show. Its direction is fluid and assured, its stories are incredibly varied and regularly poignant, and its characters are as iconic as they are relatable. It’s cool and funny and confident, diverse enough to have an episode for everyone, and ambitious enough to aptly demonstrate anime’s strengths as a medium. It’s as remarkable today as it was fifteen years ago.
Cowboy Bebop is available on Amazon.
If you’ve gotten this far in my list, you probably won’t find it surprising to learn that Ping Pong is not exactly a sports show. It contains sports – and has a variety of thrilling and aesthetically stunning matches, in fact – but in truth it is a story about people, and about what brings them to ping pong and to each other. Its characters bounce off each other and grow continuously, their sharp edges and loves and ambitions all reflecting in how they change those they compete with. Its scale stretches beyond the court, with ping pong serving as either gateway to or guardian from engagement with the real world. And all of its poignant turns are framed by Masaaki Yuasa’s tremendous direction, full of beautiful interpretive flourishes and scored by a careful soundtrack that constantly elevates the proceedings. Ping Pong demonstrates that any conflict can be made gigantic through empathy for the characters involved, and goes above and beyond with its tremendous aesthetic merits. Even if you don’t consider yourself a sports show fan, Ping Pong is something special.
Here’s my essay on Ping Pong.
Ping Pong just came out! It may get a release, but Yuasa’s shows have a poor track record.