In honor of that anniversary, this month’ll be blocked out for a conversation on Awesome Stuff. This time around, I’ve divided out my top 20 favorite anime. By its nature the list is always in flux, particularly those at the high end of the countdown (I haven’t managed yet to touch Spice & Wolf or Mawaru Penguindrum, for example). But! Whether or not they move off of the formal list in the future, these are all series that captured my imagination, that showed me something new, creative, or different in idea or execution, and that I fully stand behind recommending.
(And if you want to lay down bets as to what the coming weeks will bring, please do be my guest).
20. Eden of the East (2009)
Watch it on: Youtube
In Brief: Who is Akira Takizawa? He couldn’t tell you, since he apparently wiped his own memory while taking part in a certain high stakes game: 12 individuals were given 10 billion yen and told to find a way to steer Japan toward a better future, and running out of money or being beaten to the finish line is a death sentence.
What we have here is a high concept thriller, the kind that overshoots its eleven episode constraints and has to wrap up its madcap conspiracy of a plot with two movies (you have to track those down separately, incidentally). And I love me some crazy mind games and completely absurd cat and mouse games, but that’s not why this show is on the list. Rather, it’s down to the amazing chemistry between the two leads, Akira and Saki.
Even for someone who hates meet-cutes with an ardent passion, the show sells the awkward but sincere attraction between our heroes with everything it has. More importantly, it lets them have other stakes and concerns beyond getting to their next date and (rather unusually for anime) we can actually bother to root for them getting together rather than just awkwardly blushing while standing in the same postal code and perpetuating ‘hilarious’ misunderstandings (sometimes anime makes me tired).
And for all the crazy cell phone explosion hijinks, there’s a grounded sensibility to EotE that sets it apart from its more mediocre cousins. The show’s a very timely thing, born of the worldwide financial crisis and post-2000 terrorist anxiety; it’s sincerely interested in examining the place of the new generation graduating into Japan’s workforce, and the tension between new modes of thinking and the salaryman mentality. It’s an overzealous series, but its heart is more than in the right place.
19. Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011)
Watch it On: Crunchyroll
In Brief: Madoka is an adorably average middle school student who is offered the chance to become a magical girl. Ignore the ominous girl in the corner, this show is entirely sweetness and light.
Are there people who don’t know the Madoka conceit yet? If you’re one of those people and might like to watch this show ever, skip over this section (and the rest of the internet), and come back after you’ve seen it. We’ll be here for you.
Meanwhile, I’ll be making cutesy remarks to dance around having to talk about one of the single most talked about anime of the last five years. Madoka’s virtues and flaws are something pretty much everyone’s weighed in on at this point, and I find myself struggling not to be redundant. So yes, the art design is gorgeous and Homura’s arc has the sinking, inevitable momentum of a most excellent tragedy. And yes, sometimes the characters are less people than they are puppets for the viewpoints they represent, and the plot is constantly dancing on the line of shameless emotional tragedy-porn. And for all that the plot is dark it’s also a straightforward genre work almost as often as it’s broody deconstruction.
So it comes down to the decidedly unscientific phrase, ‘it just works’ – to my eye, the benefits significantly outweigh the flaws. That art design does count for a lot. As much as Urobuchi is working his puppets the series is also driven by the characters and their desires, allowing me to invest in them (a contrast to the intellectually fascinating but emotionally icy Psycho Pass). It’s just balanced enough between the ‘cute girls having cute relationships’ and ‘grimdark edgy’ that it feels engrossing rather than exploitative. And I’ll take a flawed, ambitious project over a safely mediocre one any day (a theme to which we shall return).
…Let’s not talk about Rebellion Story.
18. Lupin III Part I (1971)
Watch it On: Hulu
In Brief: Debatably-gentleman thief Lupin III and his gang pull off elaborate heists and strange adventures around the world
I spent the first six months of the blog’s life talking about this show, so I’ll put it briefly: integral to the development of anime, birthplace of some of the industry’s greatest creators and inspirer of man more, weird and uneven and sometimes brilliant, it tickles my fancy both as a historical document and the birthplace of a great pop culture icon.
When the writing and animation is on it’s as strong as any classic comedy, and the animation suits itself well to some pure and Warner Brothers-grade slapstick. And even when it’s bad it’s fascinating, particularly when the most blackhearted pieces of surreal madness run wild and you can only laugh and ask how on earth you’re meant to be rooting for these people.
Fuck it, I’ve got nothing. Like Lupin himself it’s rough and awkward on the surface with a creeping sense of brilliance and straight up weird underneath.
17. Samurai Flamenco (2013)
Watch it On: Crunchyroll
In Brief: Beleaguered cop Goto accidentally stumbles into the life of fashion model, sentai otaku, and amateur superhero Hazama Masayoshi. To say anything else would spoil the ride.
It feels like this show should be a gimme, doesn’t it? But Samumenco isn’t on my favorites list because I spent so much time writing about it. Rather, I kept finding new things to write about because the show is so damn fascinating. It’s a study in extremes: the slow burning, naturalistic progression of Masayoshi and Goto’s relationship versus the show’s infamous penchant for twists, the candy color slice of life slammed up against spots of violence Tarantino would be proud of, and some fucking stupid middle episodes sitting comfortably alongside some really excellent meta commentary about storytelling and escapism.
It’s not a perfect show by any means, but the total commitment and earnestness that radiates out of every frame and weird plot development makes it almost impossible to hate. Even at its strangest it’s solidly anchored by its leads, and oh yeah in case I haven’t mentioned it before, how rare is it to find a show with a queer romance that isn’t consigned to the Ghetto of Nonexistent Consent?
That, and it’s one of the most bizarre cases of Death of the Author I’ve ever seen – when the creators sit down and state that the characters didn’t grow or change at all over the whole series, and the casual viewer can point out about six different ways that isn’t true, then you’re looking either at master trolls or incomparable idiots.
16. No. 6 (2011)
Watch it On: Crunchyroll
In Brief: Sheltered child prodigy Shion plummets from his life of privilege in No. 6 after helping young runaway convict Nezumi escape the city. Six years later, Nezumi shows up to rescue Shion from being in the wrong non-governmentally-approved place at the wrong secret-conspiracy time – and Shion’s desire to save the people of his home is only matched by Nezumi’s desire to burn it to the ground.
Rarely will you see a show so gleefully eager to accumulate every dystopian sci-fi cliché as No. 6. Sparkly utopia with a dark secret? Distressing slums with better people to contrast the soulless megacity? Secret death police? Love story between a sheltered idealist and a broken survivor? Yes, all this and more. By more I mean killer parasitic death bees. It’s also eleven episodes long and desperately needs to be twelve.
But this show is also, in context, a fucking miracle and the fulfillment of something I always wanted as a kid: solid genre stories (and yes, for its relative lack of originality No. 6’s sci fi dystopia is pretty well executed with some genuinely chilling moments) with characters and relationships I could see myself in, adventure stories with queer, respected cast members rather than jokey flamboyant sidekicks or yet another story about the Tragedy of Gay (don’t get me wrong, I think Brokeback Mountain’s a great movie, and I appreciate a good coming out story, but it would be nice to have, God forbid, some variety). Or worse, one of those BL anime where the plot is a mere ill-conceived hat designed to fancy up the fanservice (and here I am thinking of shows like Sukisho and Mirage of Blaze, some of the most teeth-gritting endurance runs of my anime watching career).
Nezumi and Shion’s concerns in falling for each other has all to do with trust issues and none with the cliché ‘BUT HOW CAN ROMANCE IF DUDE?’ Their fondness for each other, despite having a few of the hallmark romance genre moments, feels natural in its pace and growth. And it’s a sweet breath of release from the toxic, strangling stereotypes of BL. Despite appearing to conform to the broody dark haired seme/naïve light haired uke binary, the show takes delight in undermining those appearances: Shion is violently protective and at times coldly, scientifically practical; Nezumi is far more prone to emotional ‘weakness,’ and isn’t pursuing Shion so much as finding himself unable to be without him. If I get another like it I’ll be damned surprised. Won’t stop me from hoping, though.