In honor of the one year 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.
Let us continue!
15. Paranoia Agent (2004)
In Brief: A young woman is attacked one night by a young man with roller skates and a baseball bat: Lil Slugger. The attack quickly becomes a spree, visited upon people whose lives are all on the brink of breakdown.
Every time I type the name Satoshi Kon I shed a tear, knowing that we are poorer as a creative community for his untimely death. The filmmaker loved themes of madness, psychology, and self-perception versus media; was one of the founding members of the anti-moe superflat movement (which went along with his work’s iconic pseudo-realistic art), and made gorgeous films dripping in surrealism. This was his one foray into TV, and it’s obvious he was determined to make the new format count.
The visuals and tone dance along a spectrum of strangeness from the everyday oddity to the full out dreamlike and absurd, and it never feels either dull or unfitting. The story moves along like a mosaic or a loosely connected game of exquisite corpse: each episode follows a different character who will be visited by Lil Slugger, and each of them is somehow connected to the previous victims while also telling their own standalone stories. This makes for an almost anthological first half that can be tried from a number of points, though getting to the ending without having seen what came before will leave you in a world of hurt.
This is not a story that flinches away from depicting dark subject matter, and it’s probably the most disturbing show on this list (indeed, it happily dips its toe into psychological horror at times). But it’s undeniably unique, brilliantly executed, and one of the few works left to us by a one-of-a-kind auteur.
14. Samurai Champloo (2004)
In Brief: When they accidentally burn down the tea house where she was working, 15 year old Fuu contracts two wandering swordsman to act as her bodyguards. Her quest? To find the mysterious samurai who smells of sunflowers.
A confession: this show battled long and hard for a while with Space Dandy for a place on this list. Both are excellent Watanabe-helmed shows. Both follow a trio of characters on episodic journeys with a tentative narrative backbone, and both used that structure to be playgrounds of innovation to some really talented guest directors (in particular, when Space Dandy is on top of things it’s one of the most breathtaking adventures in recent history). If you’re wondering why Dandy’s not here, call it a redundancy check – I’ve yet to meet a Watanabe show I don’t like (though I’ve not yet seen Terror in Resonance), so it came down to favoritism.
What ultimately put Champloo on the list is a matter of greatness-concentration. Dandy’s first season is unbelievably strong and creative, balanced in absurdity and small moments of emotional warmth. The second half was good but less uniformly so than the first half, and at the end of the day the show undermined itself a bit: while we certainly like Dandy he’s more our guide to a multiplicity of potentials than a static character, which hurts the emotional investment a touch when it’s time to wrap things up (and speaking of that finale, it really needed to be a two-parter if things were going to sink in properly).
Champloo, meanwhile, started out alright and knocked its second half out of the park (starting with “Gambling and Gallantry,” which was an early directorial effort of Sayo Yamamoto). Without the trappings of science fiction we are, to a certain extent, tied down to our trio of dunces and their perspective. When the more melancholy episodes begin to weave their way in its less a serious interlude than it is a gradual sense of stakes and ending – the story is a journey, and the plot slowly brings us and our heroes from impromptu roadtrip to genuine hardship. By the time the end comes around it feels undeniably earned and its scope is appropriately epic. Jin, Fuu, and Mugen are all given their moments of closure, the plot has time to tense and to breathe, and the audience is given sufficient time to say goodbye to this journey we’ve invested in.
It’s a show that creeps up on you, apparently stylish but frivolous with a sharp-sighted core at its heart and a wickedly funny sense of humor (…although there are a few episodes that don’t work at all. I’m looking at you, secret marijuana cult).
13. Cardcaptor Sakura (1998)
In Brief: Fourth grader Sakura is tasked with collecting the magical Clow Cards with the help of her guide Kero.
A personal anecdote: I was deeply in love with the (editorially butchered, back when that was commonplace) US dub of Cardcaptors as a child. However, the show went through absolute scheduling hell for the second half (to the point where I don’t remember it being shown on TV at all, though minor digging reveals the atrocious dub in entirety on Youtube), so I went looking for the manga, where I happened upon a very important moment in my life.
For those unaware, young Sakura spends much of the story with a crush on her older brother’s friend, Yukito. She finally works up the courage to confess to him, and the first part goes about as you’d expect: he nudges her toward realizing she loves him as family, and that in truth she’s developed romantic feelings for someone else. But then, Yukito says that there’s someone else he’s in love with. And, without missing a beat, this happens:
That one little scene was a revelation for me: the me who was growing up in Wyoming and needed to see a hero I admired accepting people without question, and the me who would one day need that loving acceptance from others (though I was only beginning to have words for it at the time). It was something I’d never seen before, that was considered ‘too adult’ to be put in material for my age group despite the fact that these were things I needed to hear more than anyone. And at heart, that’s what the series is. CLAMP gave an interview stating that “[They] wanted a story with a protagonist who had an open mind towards different family structures, different kinds of love, and different perspectives from society.” (Further on in that same interview they mention that the main couple shouldn’t be praised/liked just because it’s the ‘normal’ one, and that Sakura would’ve fallen in love no matter Syaoran’s gender).
My own emotional ties to it aside, this is absolutely a show I would choose for my theoretical child-beings: it’s warm-hearted and open minded with a genuinely charming cast, sweet and lively and earnest without being vomitously sweet (with that good old Miyazaki mindset that the very best villains are really just antagonists), encouraging of dialogue and understanding of others, and just plainly joyous and well executed in its craft. This is the show that, along with Sailor Moon, would become the bedrock for a whole generation of genre work. If only its protégé had been more actively interested in exploring the whole ‘themes of acceptance and open mindedness’ less shallowly than ‘this cutesy archetype who I won over with FRIENDSHIP but is basically the same as me in how they live their life.’
12. Death Note
In Brief: Bored, brilliant high school student Light Yagami finds a Death Note dropped by an equally bored Shinigami. Learning that he can kill someone by writing their name in the Note, Light vows to create a world free of crime and evil – and to become the god of that world.
Death Note is the kind of show where you get all the caveats out of the way first, so here we go: its second half is noticeably weaker than its first, the byproduct of supposedly having to continue on past the intended ending; it is nowhere nearly as philosophically deep as its initial fanbase would’ve like to promote, nor does it seem interested in being so if sparkly potato chips are any indication; and it bats absolute zero with every single one of its female characters, unfailingly writing women who are either quickly offed or are introduced as competent allies/threats only to slowly lose any intelligence or agency they once possessed. That last one is a big fucking caveat.
But despite that, sitting down to this show – whether by myself or with someone new – sucks me in all over again. It’s beautiful, for starts. Talk heavy anime like this are in constant danger of becoming absolute visual bores. And while people mostly remember the show’s debatably successful attempts to Up The Tension (sparkly potato chips, epic pen writing), the clever little touches often go unnoticed: the use of artfully composed still shots to heighten certain moments as tableau, the attention to little details like lip movement or casual gestures to match the high-realism of the character designs, and the cleverly employed color palette.
And while the show’s iconic mind games might not be as realistic as its art, they are absolutely electric in maintaining an in-universe reality and tension. It’s like the mental equivalent of a shonen fight: you don’t believe a real person could ever do those moves, but you believe they absolutely follow their own consistent set of rules, and that there’s a clear train of logic to be followed in hindsight (this is one of the second half’s biggest problems, where by the author’s own admission Mello has to be constantly hobbled and shoved out of the narrative to keep his pragmatism from simply ending the game – the rules violate themselves to keep the story going). L and Light are well suited as foils, generally amoral people with strong goals and brilliant intellects, just alien enough that their every move is a fascinating guessing game that attempts to mimic this ‘human emotion’ thing (all the more powerful since they are surrounded by fairly grounded universe).
Death Note is a show with commitment to its idea. Frequently a high concept show like this will bat its idea around without changing too much of the status quo outside the sphere of the main characters. Not so, here. The story takes place over nearly a decade, and it’s fully invested in exploring how Light shapes the world – and what that means on both macro and micro levels. Characters grow and change (not always for the better – I am eternally mourning Misa’s character arc that might have been), and consequences leave permanent effects. And it ends on one hell of a mic drop, providing one of anime’s alltime great finales.
And, of course, it helps that Light is up there with Walter White in the pantheon of ‘great villain protagonists of modern fiction:’ characters who start with a core of selfishness that we’re willing to ignore in the name of a good justification, a rationale that we cling to until we very abruptly can’t anymore – only to look back and see that this is no sudden fall, but one we’d tricked ourselves out of noticing in the name of clinging to POV sympathy.
(By the way, both languages have extremely strong casts, but you’d be cheating yourself not to listen to Alessandro Juliani as L).
11. Michiko & Hatchin (2008)
In Brief: Hana is rescued from her cruel foster home by escaped convict Michiko Milandro, who insists that Hana is the child of her lover she promised to protect. Convinced the man is not as dead as the news reports, Michiko drags Hana on a road trip across not-quite-Brazil looking for a man she isn’t even sure she wants to know.
This is a show with Champloo in its very bones (it stands to reason, of course – series director Sayo Yamamoto got her start working on Watanabe’s show): a part-episodic, part-cumulative road trip in search of a man who’s more symbol than human being, centered on a deadly but childish fighter and their more vulnerable and more emotionally mature (sometimes) charge. But you know what? I don’t mind one bit. I’ve said before that all artists borrow from one another, and when it results in an anime this sparkling and unique, it’s not worth a breath of complaint.
I can count the number of high-profile works by female anime directors and have fingers left over. Switch tacks to a show about relationships between women that actually feel like real people and not cute figure-selling meat puppets, and I’m freed up to make myself a sandwich. Michiko and Hatchin’s relationship is richly drawn and realized, growing at a pace that makes sense for the oddity of the narrative but also never feels forced or cheap. And what a rare relationship it is, at that – part strange bedfellows, part mother/daughter (and it’s not always clear which is which), part bickering but loyal siblings. Gilmore Girls with a lot more gang violence and ass kicking.
Yamamoto’s career is very young, but she’s already shaping up to have a talent at expressing confidently sexual female characters that don’t feel exploited by the camera, and there’s always agency and power in their expressions of desire. No Strong Female Characters™ here.
And that’s before I even touch upon the series’ other merits. The unique setting bursts with life and a vibrant color palette, taking the opportunity to draw us through a whole swath of lives (and as an aside, dogged detective Atsuko has quite comfortably entrenched herself as one of my favorite characters in anime). It’s got a real sense of desperation at times too, in a way that even Champloo didn’t – some of these places are allowed to be downright gross, and a sense of weariness grinds down on us and our leads in the moments of quiet between action scenes. Said action scenes comfortably run the gamut from indulgent fantasy to harrowing deathtrap, never sacrificing mood or pacing for the sake of a set piece. It’s a damn fine first effort from a director I’ve come to love, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.