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!
10. Wolf’s Rain (2003)
Watch it On: Hulu
In Brief: In the last days of a parallel Earth, four wolves (long rumored to be extinct) disguise themselves as humans and attempt to make their way to a legendary Paradise.
Wolf’s Rain is kind of the equivalent of a famous arthouse movie in the anime community: sometimes people are called together to acknowledge how very pretty and well made it is, and then new marks nod dutifully and never watch it. And that’s an awful shame, because the show is much more than the sum of its high pedigree.
The show’s often accused of being cold and holding its audience at arms’ length, though if that were true it wouldn’t so thoroughly destroy me each time I watched it (but oh, what a beautifully drawn and gorgeously orchestrated heartbreak it is). Rather, this is a show that demands engagement, and rewards the effort with a dazzling amount of layers. You have the bittersweet melancholy of the apocalyptic world, the emotional ties between the main characters, the interlacing of the plot’s desperate undertones with the tightening machinations of the nobility’s machinations, and the utter rawness of its emotional moments.
Beneath that is surprisingly subtle world building and a tone that’s among the genre’s most successful at balancing the inherently warring themes of finality and hope (most apocalypse narrative tending to use the setting more as window dressing for a survival and rebirth story rather than grappling with the larger implications of the end of the world, while a rarer subset go running in the other direction and traipse merrily into violent nihilism). And bound to the story’s heart are strings of metaphor and allegory of the journey to Paradise, rich for interpretation but never a crutch for a story that doesn’t feel like making sense.
9. Paradise Kiss (2005)
Watch it On: Youtube
In Brief: High school student Yukari is dragged into acting as a model for a group of students from the nearby arts’ school. Finally experiencing something outside of her mother’s crushing academic expectations and dazzled by the club’s charming leader George, Yukari begins to question what she might want for her future – and if she’s the one making the decisions for herself.
This recommendation, to my eternal pain, comes with a big old asterisk attached. It is eleven episodes of beautiful, well-developed slice of life character drama, and one episode where the anime looked at the story’s themes of discovering oneself and learning to become self-reliant and decided that it would be way better to go the soap opera route. A literal two steps from the finish line it doesn’t so much stumble as it stops, wanders drunkenly off the race track, and proceeds to lick a series of rusted tire wheels. This is the best way I can explain the anime’s ending.
And yet, I can’t give up and say ‘call the anime a wash, go read the manga.’ The animation and beautiful pastel colors bring the fashion that makes up the bones of the story to vibrant life, and the understated, naturalistic voice acting (the dub’s a little flashier, but still solid) brings the characters to a nuanced life that the vastly inferior live action drama couldn’t touch.
Whatever the version, ParaKiss is brilliant in its quiet exploration of a young woman coming of age, trying to suss out what she wants in a society that’s constantly pressuring her to conform to the wishes of others. And while it could be a straightforward melodrama or a Club Anime it chooses instead to ground itself in the real world – Yukari’s mother might be overbearing, but it’s difficult to blame her when her daughter’s moved in with her first boyfriend after only a few weeks; by the same token, there’s a chilling air of reality to the condescending concerns in response to Yukari’s desire to enter the fashion world (“are you sure you aren’t just making these decisions because you’re dating that one guy?”). It’s subtle and unhurried and more emotionally honest than a dozen live action dramas.
Seriously though, watch 11 episodes and pick up volume 5 of the manga. That last episode is fucking awful in every moment that the manga finale is satisfying and deft.
8. Princess Tutu (2002)
Watch it On: Hulu
In Brief: An author dies before finishing his story, “The Prince and the Raven,” and the characters escaped from their story. To keep the raven from wreaking havoc, the prince removed his own heart to seal it away. Hearing this story, a Duck wished to save the prince and became a girl (named…Duck) attending a very strange ballet school at the heartless prince’s side.
On paper this sounds like the most unbelievably stupid show: a duck turns into a girl and attends a ballet school filled with talking animals and strange things, and she takes back pieces of an emotionless boy’s heart by turning into a ballet princess and dancing with people about their feelings. It’s a hard sell. But I’ve never met a single person who’s bothered to sit down with this series and come away anything other than thrilled.
This show essentially marries the charming, heartfelt sincerity of Cardcaptor Sakura and the beautiful allegories and visual metaphors of Revolutionary Girl Utena to create a one-two punch of emotions and artistry. Much of the soundtrack draws from classical ballet, for example (meanwhile, as a former dance student I geek out about the choreography every time), but the show doesn’t stop there – the music becomes the foundation for visual elements of the story, while the themes of the story behind the music inform (without ever being intrusive) the goings on of Tutu’s story. And like many fairytales, the abstracted nature of the storytelling allows it to dig its claws into deep and delicate themes without being dragged down by them.
But the show’s real strength is in the frame it places on its world, for Duck’s every move is watched by the deceased author Drosselmeyer, increasingly irritated that things aren’t going as a fairytale is ‘meant’ to. The story begins with a Duck wanting to be a girl, and ripples outward into questions of role, purpose, nature versus nurture and the ability to determine one’s own path, as well as a wonderfully woven examination of how stories are told – and how those stories become larger than themselves, spreading out to affect the lives of others.
(Also add on about eighteen million points for a bickering romance subplot that proved endearing rather than driving-ice-picks-under-my-nails painful).
7. Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995)
Watch it On: Despite being practically compulsory viewing for anime fans, not a single one of the legit streaming sites hosts this show (and it’s also out of print in North America!). What the hell. Sorry darlings, but you’re on your own
In Brief: After the catastrophic Second Impact decimated Earth’s population and climate, the remains of humanity throw their efforts into protecting themselves from the alien invaders known as ‘Angels’ using the mysterious robots called Evangelion. Enter Shinji Ikari, the Commander’s son and pilot of the Eva Unit 01. Already shy and depressed, Shinji is pulled between wanting to escape the life-threatening trauma of battle and wanting to protect the tentative friends he’s coming to care for (and, always, to please his distant father).
One does not recommend Evangelion, in much the same way one does not ask ‘do you like Batman’ but rather ‘which Batman do you like.’ One takes a stance. For the record, that stance is ‘if you’ve any longstanding interest in anime as a genre you will go out and see this thing, and whether you ultimately like it is immaterial.’ Anyone who tells you NGE is perfect is a teller of delusional falsehoods (I might go so far as to say that the show wouldn’t be the part of history it is if it weren’t such a daringly ambitious failure, since future directors learned as much from its gaffes as its triumphs – certainly Japan’s TV censorship standards would never be the same). Anyone saying it isn’t hugely important is trying to sell you beachfront property in North Dakota.
But I don’t like it because it’s An Important Historical Document (ehhh, okay, it’s a little bit of that). I like it because it holds up damn well as a character drama, and because its best moments of horror successfully tap into a primal level of fear that surpasses the ineptitude of the back half’s budgeting. For all the hilariously blunt Freudian and Lacanian theory that ham-fistedly works its way into that infamous TV finale, the show’s characters are fully formed, sympathetic beings one and all (even Gendo is a right tragic bastard, despite being the single worst father alive).
Those characters feel like real people, and it’s part of what makes the bleakness of the second half work as well as it does – we’ve spent so long investing and seeking to understand these characters that seeing things break feels more like finally noticing cracks that were there all along. Every one of them interests and engages me to some degree, a fairly rare distinction especially in a show that eventually devolves into People Making Bad Decisions.
For that matter, I’m a fairly ardent defender of Shinji as a well-rounded and sympathetic character (if an often frustrating protagonist). His character arc taps into a seething, lonely insecurity and desperate need for approval that was certainly extremely true to my own memories of that age. If he becomes frustrating, it’s mostly in knowing that there is a way out of his mental hell – but it’s not manning up and getting in the fucking robot, it’s counseling and a general increase in empathy (from and for others)…something he’s just not likely to get in the world he lives in. He won’t click with everyone, and it’s an interesting experiment in exploring the demands of ‘hero’ as role versus ‘character’ as realistic person, but that’s a subject for another time. What I won’t stand for is the endless complaining that he’s whiny or poorly written. (For that matter, I love the spectacular point missing that goes on in the show’s exploration of Asuka and Shinji as representing the opposite sex’s idealized traits. Outstanding work, increasingly insulated and tautologically incestuous discussion forum of ill repute….oof, there’s just something about this show that makes a person fighty, isn’t there).
The second part that makes the show pop (the one everyone remembers) is that NGE gets psychological horror in a chillingly direct way. Its monsters channel fears of loneliness, of isolation, invasion, betrayal, and the corrupting of the emotional and physical self. It’s not subtle, and it really can’t be. What makes it memorable is how clearly it’s an open wound for Anno to explore the experience of depression and anxiety, and it comes closest to visually representing the experience of mental illness of anything I’ve watched.
And as I’ve mentioned here or there, it’s a strangely hopeful series for all that darkness, relentlessly hammering home that no matter how seemingly impossible it is for people to understand and connect with each other, it is always worth fighting to do so. Give me well-written dysfunction with a hope at the end of the tunnel, and I’ll go an awful long way for ya.
A word, briefly, on the Rebuild films (which, in the States at least, are the only bit of legally available NGE): they’re gorgeous bits of explodey action with some interesting underpinning ideas (provided the time loop theory comes through) and more concise and streamlined worldbuilding, but they trade that off with much weaker characters (besides perhaps Kaworu, who gets the benefit of more screentime this go round) both in the sense of less development and relying more on the crutch of stock tropes than undermining them. A fun enough experience, but no replacement for the original.
Also, I find the gratuitous T&A shots of a bunch of emotionally damaged teenagers to be rather disturbing, not least of all because the original series predominately used nudity to portray alienation and emotional rawness in the most unsexy way possible (see: Rei’s apartment, Asuka in the bathtub, and most of End of Evangelion). I know, I’m the weird one here.
6. House of Five Leaves (2010)
In Brief: Talented ronin Masanosuke’s timid personality keeps getting him fired, so it’s a stroke of great fortune when the enigmatic Yaichi offers him a job as a just-for-show bodyguard…until he realizes that he’s been hired by a gang of kidnappers. Masa swears off any involvement, but his curiosity about Yaichi and the others keeps drawing him back in, in spite of his better judgment.
Understated and unusual from its art to its storytelling, Five Leaves is a show that demands patience and pays the investment back tenfold. I love it so much that I’m having difficulty constructing a proper pitch beyond why are you not watching this thing right now.
More coherently, Five Leaves pulls off a feat I don’t usually see in period dramas, mostly by not letting the former get in the way of the latter. The setting isn’t window dressing for a modern sensibility, but nor does the plot become bogged down in providing the audience a show-and-tell tour of How Ye Olde Things Were. It sells itself as a window to another world, unique unto itself but with the commonalities of human relationships shining through like anything.
The way those relationships blossom is a real coup, too. Resisting the urge to have Masa charm his way into each character’s good graces and let them spill their life stories Bioware-style, each vignette lets him spend time getting to know them as they are in the present, along with whatever little thing they might feel the need to share as Masa does his best to help. Meanwhile, we the audience see bits and pieces of the past that brought them where they are – answering the questions in a way that keeps us in Masa’s questioning newcomer position without also forcing him into the soothsayer therapist role. There are some mysteries and pasts Masa never does find out, but that doesn’t matter to him so much as understanding who they are and will be.
At the heart of that web of stories is the faltering relationship between Masanosuke and Yaichi. I want to call it a romance, but it’s not quite there yet (though the opening and closing numbers are both surprisingly peppy love songs, and it’s certainly not for lack of historical accuracy – this would’ve been the time when homosexuality was defusing out of the disbanded samurai ranks and into brothels, and away from adolescent boys and toward basically any dude who adopted the ‘youthful’ appearance. And hey, guess where our heroes take up residence).
Instead, the story spends its entirety watching the two leads fumble over mountains of awkwardness and personal wounds to reach any kind of starting point. It’s refreshing to see such a genuine bond that’s also practically random in its spark. There’s never any sense of capital-d Destiny about these two winding up in each other’s lives. The right awkward meeting at the right moment brings them together, hesitant fascination and prickly amusement (increasingly suffused with dismayed affection being stomped down as much as possible) keep them orbiting while also hiding anything like genuine openness until Masa’s dogged pursuit of honest answers topples over a lot more than he would’ve initially figured. It’s very small growth that manages to feel monumental and fulfilling, paced so that every small breakthrough feels like ‘finally’ but also the most sudden of pleasant surprises.