This site turned five years old back in October, and I’ve been thinking about how to celebrate it. I initially did a list of my top 20 anime back in 2014, and a lot can change in almost half a decade. While I’d still stand by the titles on my original list as quality watches (well…maybe not Death Note), my tastes have evolved and I’ve watched a lot of great series since that first list came out.
Here’s to five years of blogging, and many more. And my heartfelt thanks to all of you for coming with me on the journey. I couldn’t have done it without you.
20. The Vision of Escaflowne (1996)
In short: High-school athlete Hitomi is transported to another world called Gaea, where her fortunes always seem to come true and her dowsing pendant can see the unseen. She is quickly caught up in a war between nations, torn between wanting to get home and knowing she might be able to save those she’s come to care about on Gaea.
While I can often respect them, I very rarely find myself drawn to high fantasy or isekai series, and that goes double if you combine them. The exception to that is Escaflowne, a show where nobody can remember a good goddamn thing about the plot because it does not matter. What does matter are the characters, who fall broadly into archetypes but feel more subtly realized than many cookie-cutter series; and their feelings, which drive the plot literally and figuratively.
It is 200% sincere. It is the Les Miserables of anime, all FEELINGS all the time. It also has an astonishingly small amount of Anime Bullshit (though not none) and nails it as a metaphor for the journey of adolescence, with one of the most memorable soundtracks of all time. It is also just about every 90s thing distilled, with a veritable who’s-who of anime on the production team, and the most fun way to get a snapshot of the era with minimal exhaustion. They’re still good kids.
19. Paranoia Agent (2004)
In short: Character designer Tsukiko Sagi, under pressure to follow up on the success of her previous creation, is attacked by a young man on roller skates and wielding a baseball bat. Dubbed “Lil’ Slugger” by the press, he begins to appear in accounts across Tokyo, seemingly just as people reach their breaking point.
Paranoia Agent isn’t my favorite of the late, great Satoshi Kon’s tragically short filmography, but it’s indisputably his magnum opus. It touches on themes about sense of self (and the instability thereof), the recontextualizing of identity through media, found families, and mental illness, wrapped up in what I suspect to be a rather blistering critique of Japan’s cultural sense of self in the wake of WWII (one of those very culturally specific dialogues that, while I can see the edges of it, I am not well-studied enough to thoroughly grasp).
It leans far into the bleakness Kon’s work van showcase, casting an unblinking eye at some genuinely stomach-turning people, but it’s shot through with dark humor and a few all-important glimpses of hope. It’s a truly impressive work of art both in writing and in its visuals, which maintain Kon’s distinctive look and gorgeously gruesome surreality even on a TV budget, and it’s a crying shame that it’s been out of print for over half a decade now.
18. Samurai Flamenco (2013-2014)
In short: Masayoshi has wanted to be a hero since he was small, and finding out they weren’t real hasn’t stopped his efforts to create defender of justice Samurai Flamenco. Police officer Goto is pulled in by Masayoshi’s idealism, grumbling all the way, and quickly finds the world of heroes to be an ever-deepening mire of weirdness.
I don’t think any show has come to define the term “hot mess” quite as much as SamFlam, but it is MY hot mess. Sure the budget gave out entirely in the second half, and the creators are cowardly shitwads who backpedaled in interviews about the extremely overtly gay ending, and it treats its female characters pretty unfairly at points, and it’s kind of worth skipping the sentai arc because it sucks. And it’s true that a part of my intense fondness for the series will always stem from being one of the few people to ride the roller coaster from beginning to end in real time, but that’s not all there is to it.
While it was utterly bewildering as it aired, in hindsight I’m quite fond of the way the show uses each arc to examine hero stories through a different lens, beginning and ending with comparatively focused narratives about Masayoshi’s personal growth and Goto’s place in his world. It doesn’t always work, but I admire its ambition and the strength of its successes.
And the beating heart of that central love story (anyone who claims otherwise are cowards or fools, or possibly both; yes, them too) holds it all, sometimes tenuously, together. Masayoshi and Goto are well-rounded, interesting characters both together and apart. While the secondary cast occasionally get moments to shine, these two are the glue that makes the whole mess work, and watching them grow together is a truly rewarding experience.
PS: still waiting for my US blu-ray release, you bastards.
17. Michiko & Hatchin (2008-2009)
In short: Hana is an orphan living a miserable life with her adopted family until one day escaped convict Michiko Malandro comes crashing through the window, claiming to be on a quest to find Hana’s father Hiroshi. The two cross the country on the run from the cops, drug cartels, and their own pasts in search of paradise.
I’ll say right up front that there are several aspects of this series that others are better equipped to talk about than me, and I recommend checking them out. This series is an unforgettable road trip with a somewhat high bar for entry—director Sayo Yamamoto doesn’t shy away from showcasing the brutality of the world her characters inhabit, and the first half can at time be an emotionally exhausting experience. Not a hopeless or lurid one, but not everybody’s going to find it valuable to sit through quite realistic depictions of child abuse or police brutality.
As the relationships deepen and the leads chalk up a few wins, the show opens up a bit more room to breathe and smile without losing that undercurrent of darkness, becoming a joyous road trip with three completely kickass female leads. At the end of the day, despite ostensibly being about one woman’s quest to hunt down her man, cares infinitely more about relationships between woman and their stories of personal growth. The soundtrack and palette are unique and daring, and if you’re at all a fan of Yamamoto or of Shinichiro Watanabe’s work, do yourself a favor and check this one out.
16. Samurai Champloo (2004-2005)
In short: Welcome to the Edo period, but a lot more hip-hop. Looking to hunt down “the samurai who smells of sunflowers,” teenager Fuu hires icy ronin Jin and reckless outcast Mugen to be her bodyguards along the way—insisting they can get back to killing each other once she’s achieved her goal.
It seems fitting to put this one here, given its status as the blatant spiritual predecessor to Yamamoto’s series (she even worked on it as Watanabe’s protégé before becoming a series director herself). Champloo is less well-known than Cowboy Bebop, but I’ll go to bat for it every time as having better-developed characters, a more cohesive narrative amidst its episodic shenanigans, and truly impressive visuals tied to its memorable soundtrack.
The series’ tone contains multitudes: flexible enough to do a psychedelic weed episode and a mock-Very Special Episode while still hitting hard with a one-off love story (an extremely hard sell) and some poignant bits of backstory. You can feel the main trio’s bond growing over time, and each adventure is more than the sum of its parts. Watanabe is well-known for what he can do with music, and the post-modern mashup the series has going on between 20th-century music and 16th century sword fights makes for a hell of a show, out there and grounded at once.
15. Flip Flappers (2016)
In short: Cocona’s quiet life is interrupted when a mysterious girl named Papika pulls her into a land called “Pure Illusion.” Soon Cocona is traversing alternate universes under the orders of the organization Flip Flap and its unknown agenda.
Part psychedelic magical girl series and part queer coming-of-age story, FlipFlap is messy but memorable. The series is tonally divided into halves due to a change in writers halfway through—meaning the first half is packed full of surreal visual metaphors for adolescent sexuality (Yuniko Ayana) and the second half coalesces into a conspiracy plot and also that one episode where the girls are in their swimsuits and buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuutts (Naoki Hayashi). You can definitely tell which episodes had a female writer, is what I’m saying.
But despite that, the whole is much stronger than its individual parts. This is that rare, coveted example of a genre series that’s also a queer love story, with breathtaking visuals, vibrant creativity, and clever writing.
If you need more convincing, I’ve poured out plenty of I DON’T KNOW, FEELINGS about this one in audio form.
14. Paradise Kiss (2005)
In short: Yukari spends every day focused on studying in order to please her mother, but academics neither come easy to her nor make her happy. A chance meeting leads her to a group of fashion students who beg her to be their model, and open her world to new possibilities
This is a little bit of an odd duck—I can’ t put it higher on the list because the anime recontextualizes the manga’s ending in a way that completely undermines what makes it such a powerful and stupendous coming-of-age story (do read the manga, by the way, I say that without reserve); but I also can’t leave it off, because before that finale it’s such a treat to see the story in motion.
Animation and all its elements bring vivid life to the story. The colors in particular do a great service to the beautiful clothes, which are key to the world the characters inhabit. The closing song by Franz Ferdinand is a banger with completely adorable animation. And ParaKiss remains one of my all-time favorite josei manga: concise, mature, and unafraid to let its romance be bittersweet in pursuit of doing right by Yukari’s arc.
13. Yuri!!! on ICE (2016)
In short: Figure skater Yuri Katsuki has given up on competition ever since he choked in his last performance. That changes when his idol, gold medalist Victor Nikiforov, arrives at his house and offers to be Yuri’s coach.
Yeah, the good show everybody likes is good. YOI has become so ubiquitous over the past two years that it’s reached “well it isn’t THAT great” hot take status, which does a massive disservice to this beautiful work of art. Yes, the large ensemble means that the tournament moments can feel a bit overstuffed, and the ending feels clearly rewritten late in the game to change from a definitive finale to an open-ended one, but those are ultimately minor elements of what the series does magnificently.
This is a majorly successful queer love story and sports series not pigeonholed into BL budgets or tropes, backed by beautiful MAPPA animation and Sayo Yamamoto’s gorgeous directing. It broke the anime fandom bubble to reach the world at large, so that you can buy stickers of the queer ice boys at Wal-Mart. Yamamoto fought tooth and nail to include episode 7’s famous kiss, even in its obscured form.
It is a product of fierce passion, both of characters and crew, and the fact that it became successful is not a knock on its artistry—it is a triumph to be celebrated.
12. Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996)
In short: 15 years after the apocalyptic event known as “Second Impact,” the remnants of humanity struggles to defend itself from invading alien beings known as Angels. The last line of defense are mechs called EVA, which can only be piloted by adolescents.
It is completely wild to me to realize that a whole generation of anime fans have been unable to legally access Evangelion, because for me this series likewise falls under “yup, the anime people think is good is good.” Thinking about it brings me back to being the depressed college student reduced to hiding under my bed by the raw emotional pummeling of episode 25.
While 20 years of Discourse has worked to frame this series as a brilliant universally applicable statement on human nature, I think that does the series a disservice. It’s a hot mess with some really good characters, a very personal work of art born of the director’s personal struggles with mental illness. He was in the thick of his recovery during production, and the result is somewhat inevitably that Anno is FEELING his way through these battles rather than looking back on them from a position of distance and reflection. So while it definitely resonates, it’s hard to call it a coherent statement as much as a mood piece.
But it’s still one hell of a gut-punch—Shinji is certainly a specter of my own vulnerable but selfish adolescence, portrayed with painful clarity. And the moments of emotional honesty the series captures, above and beyond its admittedly groundbreaking narrative (I do love those Lovecraftian elements, even if I couldn’t give two shits about the fake science or the nitty gritty of SEELE’s conspiracy), that make it worth coming back to.
11. Princess Tutu (2002-2003)
In short: Once upon a time, the writer Drosselmeyer died, and the characters of his unfinished fairytale escaped their tragic story and into the world. Elsewhere, a small bird named Duck is granted the ability to become a girl, and the legendary heroine Princess Tutu, in hopes of saving the prince from his tragic fate. But who is in control of their destinies?
One of the all-time shoujo greats, hands down, this is an incredibly smart exploration of genre archetypes and storytelling. It perfectly captures both the pastel softness and harrowing darkness of magical girl stories, walking a line of respecting a young viewer’s intelligence without ever getting too gruesome for a 12-year-old.
The dancing is gorgeous, the meta elements are smartly executed in inventive ways, it actually makes me give a damn about a straight romance, and I don’t think I’ve ever made it to the end of the series without bursting into tears. People who say shoujo is frivolous have never taken the time to sit down with this show.