Top 30 Anime Series of All Time

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!

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Rough Notes Archive: Katanagatari

Management: So, I’ve gotten a few requests here and there to post the rest of my Katanagatari notes – I actually did post pieces for episodes 1/2 and episode 3, along with a final essay, but I never posted the rest of my episodic notes. That was mainly because around episode 4, my notes started getting pretty shorthandy – I wasn’t really explaining my thoughts in an entertaining way, I was attempting to break the show down for myself as I was watching it. But people still seem interested in reading that sort of thing, so I’ve decided to post them anyway – just keep in mind this is much more bare-bones than the writeups tend to be, since it was originally only intended for me. If that still sounds interesting, read away!

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Katanagatari and the Weight of Legacy

Legacy is a funny thing. It can inspire the greatest acts of artistry or heroism, but has no tangible form. It can form the cornerstone of societies or empires, or just as easily lead to their ruin. It can inform all our actions, but when our actions are reduced to mere history as well, what does legacy leave us?

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Katanagatari – Episode 3

Today’s syllabus:

This show so far seems pretty direct in its intentions (a classic drama of identity, legacy, and impermanence cast in a stylized version of an evocative era dipped in Isin’s witty comedy and stabilized by two standout lead characters and a variety of creative self-contained adventures… okay maybe that’s actually not so direct after all), so I’ll probably just be talking about characterization and elements of craft. I’m also pretty much programmed to like something as meta and storytelling-focused as Togame’s focus on her memoirs, so that might get some love too. Either way, I hope it continues to be as good as those first two episodes.

Episode 3

0:38 – Man, these backgrounds are gorgeous. #1 art design.

2:11 – Dem OP lyrics – the beauty of the flower in the wind as it falls. Big red warning light

Pointing that out kinda makes me want to talk about foreshadowing in general, but that topic might require a full essay or something. For now, I’ll just say that after a certain point in media consumption, huge, unbelievable twists generally just cease to exist. To paraphrase Dr. Manhattan , most good stories carry reflections of their whole in every facet – their themes, their tone, the underlying structure, all consistent throughout. This doesn’t mean shows should hammer on the foreshadowing – it means that for many styles of stories, they really shouldn’t have to, because the pieces just fit. I think Madoka might be anime’s most flawless example of this, at least among shows I’ve seen – every element of that show’s structure, characterization, narrative, and themes are all perfectly representative of each other. And in most cases, “foreshadowing” is really just good storytelling – like in a musical arrangement, narrative strains should often be introduced lightly, one note at a time, so their ultimate prominence arrives as a seamless element of the whole.

By the way, I’m not trying to imply all stories should be predictable or anything – I’m saying internal consistency lends storytelling weight. It’d be pretty impossible to see the first couple episodes of Kino’s Journey and extrapolate the rest from there, but that show still has plenty of internal thematic and narrative consistency. For more classically structured shows, the beats are generally more transparent, but the specifics don’t have to be – I don’t know what the stories the rest of this show tells will be, but I can hazard a guess at where the character’s emotional arcs will take them, and what will happen at the end.

3:04 – The size contrast between them is always pretty crazy

6:40 – The crimes of all the restless shrine maidens are crimes against their family or family name, and this denies them inner peace. Ding ding ding

8:42 – “Two of the swords that General Kyuu could not.” Wait, have we heard that name before?

12:47 – “They are most likely tied together by fate.” You don’t say!

16:18 – Our unfaithful samurai shares Togame’s white hair, and as the show just pointed out, hair doesn’t get like that without some serious cause

19:33 – Man, this ninja is camp as fuck. The villains all seem to completely agree with Togame’s thoughts regarding characterization in epic storytelling. “S-so… cool…”

20:02 – Even if they are crazy, these shrine maidens are still adorable

25:42 – “Sympathy tactic, failed.” Sorry lady, Shichika’s pretty much true neutral – his loyalties do not correlate to any standard morality

This “sword-as-strength” stuff is interesting, but I don’t think they’ve fully explored it enough for me to comment yet. But it’s clear that between this episode, last episode, and Shichika’s status as a swordless swordsman, it’s something they’re going to continue working with

26:18 – “It’s because I’m a sword. My body and soul don’t move for anyone but Togame.” Oh. Well. There’ssomewhere they’re going with this – sword as emotional support, swordsman as complete human. It also fits with his absolute neutrality, since a weapon does not care who it strikes, and concerns of morality only lie with the swordsman

28:36 – “I also slew my father.” Well doesn’t that just horrifically complicate everything

36:00 – “Yes, I believed in it. It was my everything.” This identity stuff is interesting, but it pretty much articulates itself. I’m getting put out of a job

36:54 – “Father died, along with every one of his disciples.” Yeeeep. Identity, legacy, impermanence.

38:05 – Her bandit outfit is similar to Togame’s. Her current outfit mirrors the shrine itself

45:35 – I like Togame’s hesitance to control him here. I’m not sure exactly what the message is – whether it’s that she doesn’t want to admit the blood is really on her hands or not, or whether she just doesn’t want to admonish him in general, but it makes for a nice little parallel with the whole fate thing. Neither of them really have control of the situation, and so they’re just playing their roles to whatever end this must go

And Done

Breaking news: this show is still good. The consistency of its themes and their articulations make it actually harder to write about, since I feel like I’m pretty swiftly repeating myself. Tune in next time!

Katanagatari – Episodes 1/2

Okay, I’m gonna keep this reasonably sized if at all possible. Briefly…

Katanagatari! I’m actually pretty excited this one was picked, mainly because it’s always sort of hung on the borderline of shows I should probably get to, but ehhh the new Hunter x Hunter is out and I’m kinda tired anyway and etc etc etc. I really love what I’ve seen of the visual style, and the adaptation’s by White Fox, who’ve brought us both Steins;Gate and Hataraku Maou-sama! Both of those adaptations have significantly impressed me – I feel Steins;Gate deftly managed the herculean feat of adopting a VN with multiple routes in a way that actually made sense as a single central narrative, and Maou-sama has regularly juggled written humor, animation, and storytelling in a way that constantly reveals how much they’re refining the source material. So I’m guessing this show is in good hands studio-wise.

And then, of course, they’re adapting a work by Nisio Isin.

Honestly, I’m not the biggest Isin fan. I do like how much of his individual voice and personality goes into his work – the characters in Monogatari speak like characters in no other shows. But a part of that is because they speak in a way no human beings ever would – he stylizes his dialogue to the point of near self-parody, and often uses his characters’ mouths as faucets for his own insane ramblings, adding very little to the narrative or characterization.

And of course, that’s his style, and that’s what a lot of people like about Monogatari. And it might seem weird for me to be so critical of Isin, what with the amount of ink I’ve spilled covering Bake and Nise – but honestly, almost everything that impresses me about that series can be attributed directly to Akiyuki Shinbo. His visual flare makes scenes that would be tedious vibrant, and his precise and goal-oriented direction makes a series that on paper would come across as pretty sketchily focused on the questionable sex drive of its writer actually rise as a fairly progressive and scarily ahead-of-its-class comment on sexuality and the medium. Isin himself is creative and driven, but what I get out of Monogatari exists largely in spite of him.

That’s not to say I generally dislike his stuff – I think his storytelling fundamentals are solid (the base concept of Monogatari is excellent, regardless of my feelings on his dialogue), I think he has occasional moments of dialogue or character-writing brilliance (the stars episode of Bake, every scene with Kaiki in Nise), and I pretty much have to respect such a distinctive and uncompromising voice. But without the counterweight of someone as talented as Shinbo, I can’t help but be a little worried this will end up being twelve episodes of Isin stand-ins bantering about nothing while holding swords.

Alright, that’s enough prologue. Let’s get right to it.

Episode 1

2:12 – Worries about direction so far unfounded. Excellent first scene

6:14 – Fears about Isin seem unfounded as well. These characters seem much more grounded than anyone in Monogatari

7:48 – …yeah, it’s still definitely Isin, though

9:01 – I like her soldier-appropriate bluntness, and I like his offhand confidence. This will probably be a good pair

13:45 – “You said no?” Great gag there. For a strategist, she’s not particularly adaptable – repeatedly going ahead with her preplanned strategy for situations regardless of actual circumstances

23:40 – I like these characters, but there is a bit of that problem I was anticipating – Isin just lets himself go entirely when it comes to dialogue, and without a very dynamic visual style (though I do like the character designs), it makes scenes drag on. But this is the first, establishing episode, so they’re dumping a lot of exposition and establishing the initial character rapports. Hopefully their relationship itself will be dynamic and interesting enough to maintain momentum in the future

24:40 – “Does everyone from the mainland talk as much as this?” I’m really liking this guy

29:00 – The ninja insulting his father’s style prompts maybe his first unreserved display of emotion… no, wait, that was when the ninja damaged “the house his father built.” So yeah, pretty clear where our protagonist’s priorities lie

36:51 – Right in the gut! Welp, glad they didn’t drag out that tired trick

37:23 – “Can’t recognize faces that quickly.” That’s pretty great

40:31 – Hahahaha. Trying to turn him against her by explaining how all her actions stem from reverence for her father? Yeah, that’ll sway him

And Done

Very nice! That episode cleaned up nicely in the second half, and that last speech was excellent. Shichika’s motivation and respect for Togame are abundantly justified, though her own feelings towards him will take some more explaining/expanding (plus, so far her status as a strategist has mostly been played for laughs – it’ll be nice to see she isn’t entirely terrible at her job). The visual design is great, and both protagonists have strong, distinctive personalities. Their epic quest is suitably epic and questy. Isin’s tendencies towards endless wordiness haven’t been stifled entirely, but they’re certainly more controlled than in Monogatari, particularly in the second half, and Shichika’s personality seems like it will act as a natural buffer against the banter. More, please!

Episode 2

1:43 – Jeez, complaining about him sticking out, Togame? You’ve got main character written all over you

2:44 – I really do like this art style for the characters, with each of them being defined by such distinctive repeating colors and symbols. Shichika’s new outfit maintains the brown leaf visual motif of his prior one, which also matches the actual shape and color of his hair – he’s perfectly recognizable even in silhouette

4:23 – “I can’t kill them? Is that a mainland custom?” Man, basically everything Shichika does makes me like his character more. He doesn’t really have anything resembling a default sense of morality – he just has specific things he values, and otherwise acts in the most direct and unassuming manner possible. Togame’s certainly a solid articulation of her style of character, but Shichika seems to actually be pretty damn unique

7:31 – What do you even call a scene like this? Togame’s too proud and Shichika too blunt and unconcerned with standard customs for this to actually read as very tense – it’s like they’re already an old married couple. Isin certainly has some ideas about intimacy

10:31 – I like how he takes one step for every three of hers, as well as how well their personalities are portrayed in their walking body language alone

12:11 – “No matter how I worded it, that ninja stood out more than you.” C’mon Togame, surely you can appreciate the novelty of a protagonist who gives this few fucks.

Also pretty typical of Isin to draw attention to how interesting his protagonist is

13:15 – “There’s a ninja who always speaks backwards.” “What’s the point of that?” “He’s trying his hardest not to be boring.” Are we still talking about ninjas, or are we referring to shitty writers at this point? Like how so many films after Pulp Fiction thought unorthodox structure and witty banter were the key to success – no, it’s mainly just making something that’s good

13:45 – “The readers will come to understand you better.” Curse you Isin, who told you I was weak to meta storytelling humor?!?

15:40 – Yeah, Isin’s pun-based nonsense from Bake just tends to bore me, but if his banter is going to be about the annoying hoops crappy writers set for themselves, I am totally on board with this

19:18 – I like how they don’t even need an interior monologue for him anymore, I can still hear “Why won’t she stop talking. Why won’t she stop talking.”

19:47 – Who’s this grandmotherly narrator, anyway?

30:58 – “I’d be the laughing stock of my dead fathers.” Man, sins of the fathers left and right up in this show!

Also some nicely underplayed jokes throughout, like her justifying her elaborate outfit by musing on how it protected her from the sword

31:40 – “I am most definitely a swordsman.” I wonder if they’re doing something with the implications of that term. I’ll keep an eye on it

43:00 – “I just wanted to protect something.” More parallels with Shichika. I like where these ideas are going

17:15 – This whole speech about the importance of final words is giving me a baaad feeling

And Done

Again, fun stuff. The style is great, the characters are excellent, and I’m interested in seeing where they take these themes of family, legacy, and impermanence. I get the feeling I’m probably missing a decent bit of cultural relevance, what with my only passing familiarity with the spiritual side of classical Japanese swordsmanship, bushido, and the tenor of the warring states period, but it’s such a vivid and interesting setting regardless that I can’t feel too bad about that. It also can’t be an accident that three of the four developed characters (our main two and this second episode opponent) are trapped in cycles brought on by their family – that plus the fact that Shichika and Togame ought to be born enemies makes me think there’s pretty much no way this series will end happily. I know it’s an odd comparison, but this show is kinda reminding me of Cowboy Bebop – the snappy protagonists, the distinctive and comprehensive style, the distinct but thematically linked episodic adventures, and that base theme of living in the inescapable shadow of your past…

Anyway. Starting to ramble at this point. These episodes were really interesting, and I’m looking forward to more.