Part two of the faves list! You can read part one here.
I’m gonna level with y’all, you’re gonna recognize some of the titles on this one.
10. Baccano! (2007)
In short: In 1931, a gang boards a transcontinental train in order to stage a heist. In 1932, a group of old friends reunite. In 1930, a man finishes an elixir said to grant immortality. In 1711, a group of immigrants on a ship crossing the Atlantic summon the Devil. Depending on where you start, and who you ask, each of these connected stories is different.
The summary sounds a bit po-faced, but I assure you that Baccano is fun personified…if you don’t mind Re-Animator-like buckets of gore, that is. That is decidedly part of the fun factor. The large ensemble cast is vibrant, the writing is snappy, the violence is honestly kind of fantastic. It’s not a shallow series, but it chooses to express its themes about embracing joy in a dark world by putting an unexpected laugh in during a nail-bitingly tense scene, or bowing to the completely ridiculous and fuck physics. It is also, once again, a series that makes me strenuously give a damn about several of its straight relationships, the majority of which are out of the “will they won’t they” stage and into just doing cool action hero things together. It’s kind of great.
This is one series where I strenuously recommend getting hold of the dub. While the sub track is perfectly serviceable, the localization team went above and beyond to fill the adaptive script with actual language from 1930s America, and the cast of mostly-unknowns (though a few have had big breaks since) are pouring their heart and soul into the material. It’s one of the best English dubs ever made, maybe the best, and to get anything less is to have a subpar experience.
9. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju (2016-2017)
In short: On the day he’s released from prison, Yotaro seeks out famed rakugo performer Yakumo and begs to become his disciple. Yakumo agrees, on two conditions: that Yotaro will listen to the story of how he became a performer, and that he will save rakugo from death as an art form.
I don’t know where to begin with this one. It’s a well-researched, fictionalized historical piece that gently welcomes the viewer into an art form most western audiences have never experiences. It’s a fantastic, understated character drama with nuanced characters performed by some of the greatest actors in the medium. It’s an expert examination of how stories are constructed—in oral performance, personal narrative, and historical legacy, and how the lines between those things blur. Its story is infused with queerness and a palpable frustration at proscribed gender roles.
The story has maybe one sour note in the entirety of its two cour run, and it’s definitely the sort of series where knowing about Japanese history and culture will enrich the experience (Dee has you covered, thankfully). But it’s maybe one of the most technically perfect series out there that also manages to be extremely emotionally rewarding.
PS: where the fuck is my blu-ray release, Funimation.
8. A Place Further Than the Universe (2018)
In short: Mari Tamaki is a by-the-books high school student whose desire to experience new things has always been undercut by her fear and insecurity. When she meets Shirase Kobuchizawa, a driven young woman determined to follow her vanished mother to the Antarctic, Mari is finally inspired to take a leap of faith.
This is Atsuko Ishizuka’s first outing as an original series director, and she knocked it out of the park. The story takes the character arcs of its four leads, combines them with a fantastic adventure narrative and keeps it all grounded in a way that feels inspiringly achievable even if it’s reeeeeeeeeally not. I cried literally every episode, my heart swelled as I watched these well-realized characters grow up, I laughed, then I cried a whole bunch more.
I’d recommend this series to just about anyone, so well does it tell its story about discovering yourself, overcoming grief, and finding meaningful friendships—all in a realistic setting that isn’t afraid to have male characters, but still makes the choice to prioritize its women and their relationships. Also, if one more person calls this a “cute girls doing cute things” series (it’s not; the excellent Laid-back Camp from the same season is, but this is something different), I’mma break their fucking fingers.
7. Kino’s Journey (2003)
In short: Kino is a traveler, visiting and learning the cultures of the many different countries of their world. There is only one ironclad rule: they must never stay for longer than three days.
Proof that a really good adaptation can completely outclass the source material, the series tightly interlacing horror and heart as it traces its meditative steps through a series of episodic encounters. Kino is often cast as the neutral observer, absorbing the Twilight Zone-esque thought experiments around them—and when they aren’t neutral, it’s a very serious thing indeed.
That’s not to say this is a show where one should just pick up “the good episodes” and call it a day, though I suppose you could. There’s a sense of emotional build-up around Kino as an outsider, sometimes melancholy and also afraid of what it might mean for them to settle down and give up traveling. They’re a compelling lead, and also basically everything I’ve ever wanted in a transmasculine protagonist. While the series is deliberately paced, it never feels overly self-serious, dull, or hopelessly predestined. If you don’t mind mood pieces, it’s one of the best.
6. Land of the Lustrous (2017)
In short: In a world where humanity is long gone, immortal gem-beings pass their days on Earth defending themselves from the mysterious Lunarians, who frequently attack and attempt to harvest the gems for jewelry. The youngest of the group, Phos, is too fragile to fight and is instead tasked with creating a record of lost knowledge about their world.
This series was Made For Me. Probably you’ve heard a thing or two about it, as I’ve spent quite a lot of time writing about it this season alone (including talking with the translators), in hopes of getting more eyes on it.
It’s a beautiful character drama focusing on an endearing and distinct ensemble cast. It’s often funny and dreadfully stressful, as part of the fun comes from being gutted by each new cliffhanger. It’s gorgeously produced, pairing daring visual direction and colorful, nuanced CGI with smartly implemented 2D mapping in order to keep the show from becoming (accidentally) uncanny. It has an almost entirely genderless cast, which is all but unheard of.
It’s a story about identity, bodies, and how the latter can determine your place in society. It’s about wanting to reach out to others without knowing quite how, and the balance between truth and comfort. There’s a heaping element of body horror and a disquieting air of suspicion around the gems living under the supposedly-beneficent tutelage of a patriarchal leader, but Ichikawa’s writing handles tough issues with a light touch in all the right places, and knows how to rip your guts out without ever making you numb.
But I probably can’t speak more highly of it than to say that it’s the one and only time I’ve ever rushed out to buy the still-ongoing manga after the series ended, because while the anime does its best to create a complete emotional arc between Phos and the loner Cinnabar, it leaves plenty of questions unanswered. Season 2 when.
5. House of Five Leaves (2010)
In short: Masanosuke is a ronin, but while his imposing looks and impeccable swordsmanship seem ideal for the job, he’s actually a shy and gentle person. After being hired to play the intimidating muscle during a ransom exchange, he finds himself falling in with a group of so-called “noble” kidnappers—and fascinated with their enigmatic leader.
Quiet and contemplative, this series has a feel not dissimilar to Rakugo—a historical drama that’s about slowly uncovering, piece by piece, the stories that led the cast to where they are now. Natsume Ono’s stories are often extremely emotionally restrained, but human puppy Masanosuke brings a radiant warmth to the slow-burning growth of his new found family and deepening fascination with Yaichi.
It’s one of those “well, nobody SAID it was gay (but it gay tho)” stories that’s nonetheless all about these two men circling one another’s orbits and realizing that each was the missing piece in the other’s life. The journey unfolds with delicate artistry, trusting its audience to put things together and relishing the little moments of connection that sustain us even when life is hard. Watching it is like being wrapped in a warm blanket while snow falls softly outside, and someone you love brings you something warm to eat.
4. Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine (2012)
In short: Fujiko Mine is a woman of mystery, a thief with a thousand identities who’ll steal your heart and valuables without a second thought. She crosses paths with a hotshot young thief, an expert gunman, an erstwhile assassin, and a crooked cop—all under the eyes of watchful owls, who seem to want something from her.
God, but I adore this series. Okada and Yamamoto make an unbeatable team, matching Okada’s angry and cutting writing with Yamamoto’s technical craft and expertise at depicting sexuality into one of the most striking series I’ve ever seen. In fact, I’ve talked about it so much over the years I’m almost at a loss for what to say here.
It’s stunning as an action noir. It’s often deceptively funny as a black comedy. It’s unflinchingly brutal through the lens of its impeccable aesthetic. It’s a brilliant meta commentary on how women’s stories are told—and more often, coopted and silenced. It produced one of my all-time favorite anime characters. While it’s definitely a show that sometimes asks to be appreciated more than loved, as just about everyone in the cast is some degree of terrible person, it is an ironclad work of art that belongs up there with every other classic of the medium.
3. Tiger & Bunny (2011)
In short: In an alternate universe where superheroes not only exist but compete for points and sponsors on reality TV, veteran hero Kotetsu is feeling the strain of being “past his prime.” When his sponsor is bought out, his new boss pairs him with a hotshot rookie named Barnaby, who flies in the face of everything Kotetsu believes about heroism.
If Baccano! is fun personified, then T&B is fun squared and writ large by a sky-plane. Its world is bursting with personality and memorable characters, and a unique narrative style due to its head writer coming from a live-action background. It is at once a show written for adults, encouraging you to pay attention to body language, unspoken cues, and easter eggs; and a bombastic and emotional series that believes so hard and with utter sincerity in the concept of heroism.
I love the characters with all my heart; I love seeing a series about adults and their problems. I love the well-choreographed action and the homages to western film and the explosion of feelings and the heartwarming love story. There’s a reason this series became a cult classic with a doggedly loyal fanbase—familiar and new, it’s completely unforgettable.
2. Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997)
In short: Utena Tenjou came to Ohtori Academy looking for the prince who gave her a rose-crest ring many years ago. Instead, the ring links her to a strange underground competition at the school, where students duel for possession of the Rose Bride, who’s said to hold the power of revolution.
Oh God, what do I say about Utena that hasn’t been said before, or that I haven’t said myself. You might’ve noticed these top contenders are all backed by lengthy episode-by-episode analyses, just so that I could have more time to talk about them. But seriously, if you consider yourself an anime fan and haven’t seen this series yet, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
Ikuhara is one of the most beloved names in anime for a reason—his series are always visually stunning, open to a wealth of interpretation, and frequently extremely queer. If Evangelion is a messy mood piece by an artist working out his own issues, Utena is a cohesive thesis statement carefully constructed and explored from multiple angles. It touches on love, identity, adolescence, sexuality, fairytales, oppressive gender roles, patriarchal structures, and a whole bunch of Other Deep Shit, all without ever feeling like its characters are flat mouthpieces for the script’s philosophical musings (hi, Urobuchi).
It isn’t just one of my favorite anime—it’s one of the best ever made.
1. Gankutsuou (2004-2005)
In short: On a trip to Lune to celebrate Carnival, young noble Albert de Morcerf meets a mysterious noble known as the Count of Monte Cristo, who dazzles the young man by saving him from a group of bandits. Albert eagerly agrees to introduce the Count to Parisian society, unaware that he’s bringing disaster to his own doorstep.
Yes, it’s The Count of Monte Cristo IN SPACE, now with BLUE SPACE VAMPIRES. It’s also, for my money, the single best adaptation of Dumas’ novel. And would you look at that, I’ve written a whole bunch about it too.
One of the most visually stunning anime ever created, it’s also incredibly skillful at keeping its many, many pieces ticking along in a seamless fashion, spinning the wheels of courtly drama and simmering tension without ever leaving the viewer behind or letting the pace drag. The decision to re-orient the story as a tragedy with Albert as the focus character gives it newfound weight, particularly in the final third as the series departs almost entirely from the wish-fulfillment good fortunate of the novel. And let me not forget the fantastic acting—you’re basically looking at an Escaflowne reunion, plus Jun Fukuyama in his first major role.
“Anime doing classic literature” is a hard sell, but this series never falters in crafting a beautiful world, an engaging and complex plot, and fantastic characters. From the first time I watched it at fifteen to now, I’ve only grown to love it more.