A long time ago, I did a post where I discussed my top 15 favorite anime series. However, now that it’s been a few years, and I have become more familiar with more series, and have rewatched some of the ones on my list previously, my opinions have changed somewhat. So now I am going to put out the definitive list. Here are the top 20 favorite anime that I have.
20. Black Lagoon
What do you get when you combine an 80’s action hero, Studio Madhouse action, and one of the most dark and violent gunplay styles ever made? You get this series. Telling the story of a band of mercs for hire – the Lagoon Company. This series has some of the best dub work of all time. It has violent shootouts, insane villains, and absolutely zero subtlety. It’s like someone wanted to bring the 80’s out of its hiding place and put it in the 21st century. With an amazing cast of characters, all of whom are complete scumbags, you have a series that is morally gray in the extreme, and too much fun to watch. I miss this style of cinema, but anime is keeping the flame alive.
After the success of Evangelion and what a cultural icon it became, there were a TON of imitators out there. Most of them never even went past the line of derivative, with people seeing them for the schlock that they are. However, then you get series like this one. Which took the formula for Eva and actually went further with it. In fact, I would say that it perfected it. A show about aliens who look like us, machines that are golems made of stone, and a focus on music and the power of sound, this was a very grim series that I would argue was better than the series it was riffing on, in more ways than one. Were it not for the ending which is kind of dull, this show would be able to easily stack up to the more famous predecessor. But quality animation, a fantastic score, and really good voice acting makes this series shine.
18. Darker Than Black (Season 1)
Another series where the second season just royally fucked the quality, this series was about darkness all around. In a world where some nameless calamity has stuck the Earth and imprisoned it under a cloud that has stars symbolizing people with special powers, our tale follows a clandestine group who does dirty work for a shady organization who is exploiting those individuals. Action that keeps you pumped, dark subject matter, and a kind of grotesque nature keeps you guessing. This series is cold, but for at least the first season you can see where it’s coming from.
17. Digimon Tamers
Given how this franchise had been so light-hearted by comparison, this series in the franchise took a decidedly darker turn. For a marketing vehicle, this iteration of the franchise was meta, had complicated characters who you like, and took some incredibly dark turns that as a child I was in love with, and as an adult I still can sit down and watch and feel very moved by. How a show this dark was able to get onto a children’s cartoon block is beyond me, but I am glad that it is, because there is nothing like it. Whether it is just for the nostalgia, or to just enjoy a children’s show that wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries of what is acceptable, it still holds up to this day.
16. Samurai Champloo
What do you get when you take the creator of one of the greatest anime ever made, add in hip-hop, and enough meta to make Deadpool proud? You get this series, of course. A stylistic, badass and overall too fun series about a bunch of travelers, I love this show so much. It’s not complicated. This is entirely style over substance. But that style is just so damn cool! The creator of Cowboy Bebop comes back to tell a story about three travelers in the Edo Period of Japan, trying to find a Samurai who “smells of sunflowers.” From the awesome sword-fights to the fantastic voice-work in English, nothing about this series doesn’t stick with me. Sure, there are some episodes which just die, but overall it is still a ton of fun to watch. Steve Blum steals the show as Mugen, but the rest are still so cool. If you can handle some history-twisting, this series is for you.
15. Gundam Wing
I am dying to know when FUNimation is going to re-release this series, now that they have the Bandai licenses. Here’s hoping they don’t do a shitty redub of it. The voicework in this series is classic. Telling the story of five youths who head down to Earth to get revenge for the murder of a leader of the Colonies, along with strike back at the clandestine Organization of the Zodiac, Gundam Wing is all about big robots and big battles. But more than that, it looks at ideas about war, the nature of good and evil, and how the changing tides of history can leave people behind. This series is classic, and while the animation hasn’t aged as well as you’d think, it still is pretty awesome. I’ll admit that my nostalgia goggles are on pretty tight for this. It is the first series that I watched as a kid that got me into anime. But I still love it, and in my opinion it holds up to this day as a gateway series into anime. Seriously, though, FUNimation, don’t do a redub of this. It can only suck.
14. Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad
When I watch this series, the whole time I think about what life was like growing up. But more than that, this series does something that so few stories about growing up does – feels real. When I see the grungy basements that the band is playing it, I feel like I am there. I feel like I could watch these shows and hear these instruments. It tells the story of a young man who is lost growing up, and just so happens to run into the lead guitarist of a band. From there begins a story of growing up, music, and the hardships that come from knowing that youth is temporary. Were it not for a totally forced plot later about a mobster which had no reason to be in there, this series would have been nigh-perfect. But I still feel each string of the instruments when I watch it to this day.
What do you get when you combine a total lack of chronological order, supernatural powers, and the backdrop of early 1900’s gang warfare? You get a show that is so damn fun to watch! This series is a marvel. It’s a marvel how such an unapologetically violent series can exist but be so fun to watch. This series is brutal. You have dismemberment, a gleeful enjoyment of murder, and characters who are pretty much all terrible people but you love all the same due to how deliciously evil they all are. It tells the story of a train massacre, along with a drug war that goes on because of a substance that grants people immortal life. Between the phenomenal acting in the dub, and the cool style that it has, this series isn’t about the narrative. It’s about the crazy ride aboard a train that you can’t look away from for one second.
12. Outlaw Star
Some series are substance over style. Others are style over substance. Outlaw Star, on the other hand, is nothing but style and not a lick of substance to be found anywhere. But dear god is it cool! Gene Starwind finds himself going from a do any dirty job business owner to a starship captain outlaw who has a mysterious vessel and a mysterious woman who can pilot it in his care. What this show lacks if any form of substantive elements it makes up in some of the most fun that a series has ever had with its premise. This is science fiction escapism at its best. This show knows exactly what it is and doesn’t shy away from it. Hell, it embraces what it is, and does nothing but have fun with that every step of the way. If you like all the trimmings of a space adventure story (no joke, they don’t miss a single beat), you need to watch this anime.
11. Vision of Escaflowne
First off, let me say, FUNimation – shame on you for making a redub version of this series. If you hadn’t have included the original version in the blu-ray, I would be hunting you down. The redubbed version is just bad, no matter how you scratch it. A series that also retreads ground that we have seen before, but damn if it isn’t all the execution. The story of Escaflowne is as predictable as it gets. You have a girl taken to a mysterious world, who ends up becoming involved in a greater plot that involves fantasy elements in a world with animal people and fighting robots. Original as my pizza pops idea, but as I said, all in the execution. This series is incredible to watch! From the gorgeous visuals, to the fantastic voice-work, it has it all. Not to mention the soundtrack, which is so damn beautiful. You know exactly where it will go from beginning to end, but each step of getting there is worth it. Just wish the ending to the series wasn’t as flat as it is. I guess they meant for it to go further, but ran out of budget. Oh well.
This series is one that I saw when I was much younger, but when I rediscovered it as an adult, it grew on me so much. The best coming-of-age anime that I have ever seen, this short series tells the story of a young man who is dissatisfied with life, but has his boring days broken when a woman on a vespa with a guitar smashes him over the head and nothing in his life is the same. While this series does play with elements of eldritch horror and mecha anime, at its core it is about our young hero and his issues with growing up. He is a lonely kid, and I see so much of my own struggles growing up in him. Plus, it looks at the problems associated with sex, love, and emotional honesty in a way that feels mature. The guy who made it studied under the creator of Evangelion, but I would argue that this series does complex emotions better, simply because they capture what it’s like to be a kid better. If you saw this when you were younger, check it out again and see what you think.
9. Death Note
One of the most widely-known anime series, Death Note tells the story of a man’s rise to power. Light Yagami is a bored high school genius, who one day happens to come across a notebook dropped from a death god called the Death Note. He then goes from a soon to be lawyer to little Hitler and he fights to remake the world in his image. This series has zero subtlety. None. But dear god is it fun! The game of cat-and-mouse between Light and L is too much fun to watch. Too bad that the entire conflict just dies after that point, up until the very end of the series. Looking back on it now, I don’t have the same love for this series that I do for others on the list, but it is still an incredible show that has one of the best dramatic arcs to follow. At least for the first 25 episodes.
8. Wolf’s Rain
This series is probably the most thematically dense of any of the anime on this list. This is a cold and cryptic series that fuses religious allegory with bitter tragedy. It tells the story of a young pack of wolves, on their journey to find Paradise, all while the world is slowly descending into chaos and the end of everything is near. Between the truly incredible visuals, the voice acting that is at the top of its class, and one of the most gripping tragedies ever told, this series will make you cry, think, and question all at the same time. It isn’t for everyone, as the material is dense and there is virtually no exposition to let you know what is going on. However, if narrative rich in symbolism and with a lore that you have to pay attention to in order to figure out is your game, then check it out.
7. Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo
I find it so weird that the most true to the original story version of this series is done in an anime set 3,000 years in the future. That is just so strange to me. It follows a young man named Albert, who comes into the acquaintance of a mysterious Count. What follows is a tangled web of lies, manipulation, and a revenge story that will keep you hooked. But not only that, it also has a style that is all its own. This series animation is strange, to say the least. But that strangeness is what sets it apart. The style in it fits so perfectly. This series is almost impossible to analyze, because it is nearly perfect. Were it not for how bad the last two episodes are, I would almost call it a perfect anime. Some flaws, but too much fun. Not to mention having a villain who is just so awesome.
6. Stein’s Gate
When time travel, fate, and the changing of reality collide, you get Stein’s Gate. Telling the story of a young man and his band of misfits who stumble upon the ability to change time, a young man learns the true price of changing reality, and what it takes to set things right. So much of what I love about this series centers around the main character. A lot of people see it as a gripping thriller about time travel, and that is true, but that isn’t what keeps me loving this series the way that I do. Every single one of these characters all feel like people I could know and love, but as I said, it’s not what keeps me coming back. The real reason that I love this series the way I do is the character of Okarine. His anti-social nature and awkwardness in the face of life and the hardships he comes across resonate so much with me. His fight to be a good friend all while battling his own awkwardness feel so true to me. Not to mention the fact that he lives in his own head, desperately trying to make sense of it all. It’s a cold story, but seeing how far he will go to save his best friend hits me right in the heart.
5. Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion
A lot of people have made comparisons between this series and Death Note, and while I do see those, I believe that this is the better series. Why? All because of the main character. The story goes that Lelouch is a disaffected youth living in the occupied nation of Japan. He has no thoughts about life and is looking to strike back at the Holy Britannian Empire who he blames for ruining his life and crippling his sister. As fate would have it, he gets his shot when a mysterious woman gives him the power of Geass. Now it’s a battle of wits to destroy the people he hates, and manipulate the world on his ultimate chess board, that grows bigger and bigger with every battle. Light is an interesting character, but his corruption is ridiculously immediate. Lelouch, on the other hand, is one we can watch grow and slowly become turned by his own power. To the point that he has to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to bring about total peace.
4. Mushi Shi
Anyone who knows me knows that my first love is animation. I love to watch animation that has quality and a look all its own. It’s why I love the film Bambi to this day, even if it is cutesy to a sickening degree. The animation is a step above. To that end, this series is much the same. Telling the tales of the wandering Mushi Master Ginko, this series is just so peaceful. It’s kind of like a lullaby. I can watch this series anytime that I need to just feel better about my day, and it works wonders. But dear Groj, the animation! This series is a visual marvel. Each episode seems to play around with a different style, and man do I love it for that.
3. Fullmetal Alchemist (Original)
I honestly don’t think much of Brotherhood, so I’ll head that off. But the original series is a brilliant character study into the Elric Brothers, and their tragic tale of trying to get their bodies back. This series is nearly a flawless tragedy. Telling the story of two brothers and how their quest to get their own lives back destroys the lives of countless people around them. This series is a near-perfect character study. Edward and his brother are so likeable, which makes the fact that they are doing irreparable harm to the lives of everyone around them that much worse. This series is also almost perfect, save for the ending. I am one of the few people who calls bullshit on that ending. How does sacrificing memory for Al’s life even make sense. This series would have been a perfect tragedy if it ended with Al giving his life, and Edward realizing that in the end, he has to accept that some things cannot come back, and he has to move forward with his life. But it is still a transcendent anime that is another perfect gateway series.
2. Avatar: The Last Airbender
How America was able to create an anime this good is beyond me. This series did something that few anime have done before – transcended the gap between kids show and adult. This series is incredible. There isn’t a single bad episode. There isn’t a single wasted character. There isn’t a single frame that doesn’t fit in one way or another. When you learn the insane amount of research that went into this little masterpiece, then you realize that anime can be more than just a niche market. The story of Aang and his journey to learn the four elements and save the world combines incredible animation, lovable characters, and so much fantastic story-telling in all the best ways. I honestly can say that this series is perfect. Right down to the ending, it gets everything right. For those wondering what I think of its sequel series, then it can be boiled down to this – Season 1 and 3 are amazing, while 2 and 4 go from terrible to boring.
And my favorite anime is…
1. Cowboy Bebop
Everyone and their brother has said about how awesome this series is. Most people will call me a sheep for loving it the way that I do. But so be it. This series is perfect. From the very beginning where you see Spike going to what is likely his doom in order to escape his life in the mob, the end of the first episode that sets up the tragic nature of the series. Taking elements from tons of genres and blending them all together, this series cannot be defined by any one genre. The story of the Bebop and its crew of misfits goes from pensive look at tragic characters, to beautiful elements of action set-piece, all of which are set to the best music that anime has ever or will ever have. This series is astounding. People sing its praises, but you know what, it’s earned that. No series has ever done it like this, and I doubt another series ever will.
So, what are your favorite anime? Let me know down in the comments.
Until next time, a quote,
“I’m just in a dream that I can’t wake up from.” – Spike Spiegel, Cowboy Bebop