Picture not related, or maybe you can pretend that is me gazing into the wonderful world of anime.
And I’m going to ensure that I actually manage to knock it out this time; my list and analysis of it was beautiful last time, but I never actually got around to explaining the whys. As such, I’m going to force myself to justify here, then hash over stats in a separate post (i.e. looking at which studio is represented the most, which year is represented the most, etc.). Once again, though, I am using a particular tiered approach instead of a strict numerical ranking since, quite frankly, I don’t find it useful to delineate in a non-grouping method… there are a few shows I know I prefer over the rest of my favorites, but once I get past that, its all largely equal in how much I love any of these given shows. I really like Mai-Otome, and I really like Samurai Champloo, but the reasons for and ways in which I like each of those are fairly different.
So, three tiers – 2nd, 1st, and Favorite, because I do have one show that I enjoy above all others. I’ll start with the 2nd Tier; I’ve got them in no particular order, although I had originally intended alphabetical. Asterisks on series means I own them on DVD; unfortunately some of these have never been given a physical release in America, though.
Mai-Otome* (Sunrise, 2005)
I know this is mildly contrarian of me (and only mildly since many of the folks I’m friends with agree although fandom seems largely opposed), but I think Mai-Otome is in every way superior to the series that preceded it, Mai-HiME. In the immortal words of Erica Friedman, everyone is “…older, cooler, and gayer.”, and that is part of why Mai-Otome is enjoyable – you have the ultra-cool onee-sama-types chilling out, cool as cucumbers, situation totally in hand (even when it looks like it isn’t). And then, of course, there are the robes and the transformation sequences, followed up by explosions and ass-kicking. Basically, Mai-Otome is a magical girl show as Sunrise envisions it, and as a person who cut her teeth on Sailor Moon, how the hell could I not love a combo of one of my favorite studios and one of my old favorite genres? And while I could’ve done without some of the elements (Nina having the hots for her father figure is utterly gag-inducing), Mai-Otome has great fights, doesn’t drag, and never gets bogged down in soppy melodrama (the way its predecessor does). It also, at heart, is a story about a girl who goes from being a foolish bumpkin to being worthy of inheriting her mother’s legacy, and I’ve always loved tales of power passed matrlineally.
Jigoku Shoujo* (Studio DEEN, 2005/2006/2008)
Ok, I need to qualify this one slightly since I think that the second half of Jigoku Shoujo Futakomori sucks; however, since the first half of Futakomori I like just as much as I do the rest of the Jigoku Shoujo anime canon, I include all three seasons here.
I like horror, and I think Jigoku Shoujo is quite effective psychological horror, even if some of its episodic storylines are a bit wacky. Where many others deride the strict formula JS largely adheres to, the fact is that this formula is a key part of what the show is saying, which is that people are pretty wretched to one another, and that Japanese society can be incredibly cruel to its most vulnerable members, a message that gets dialed up quite a bit as the third season progresses. JS also provokes an internal debate that can never truly be settled – if you were pushed to the edge, would you send your tormentor to hell? Is it worth a respite in your mortal life in exchange for eternal suffering once you’ve died? What could force you to decide to make that deal? Is there anything that could?
To me, true horror is the sort where what happens becomes more and more disturbing as one considers it after consuming the tale, and that is exactly the case with Jigoku Shoujo.
Digimon Tamers (Toei, 2001)
Digimon Tamers is the show you get when you hire the scriptwriter of Serial Experiments Lain and The Big O (Chiaki J. Konaka) to write the script for an installment of a popular children’s series. Simultaneously the most toy advertisement-ish in the franchise to date, and the darkest outing in the entire franchise, period, this is a show that I both adore and think is good, and it is a show that is criminally under-watched because of the fact that it is part of a children’s franchise. Dismissing this as kiddie fare is foolish, even as it is perfectly suited to a young audience – it never condescends to its target audience, making it completely accessible for older viewers, but it doesn’t stab at GRIMDARK for the sake of GRIMDARK, either. The climactic arc treads territory that calls Lain and Evangelion to mind, spinning the earlier idea of danger as coming from something wholly external (the wholly alien Digital World) around to where the biggest dangers can lie within (D-Reaper, the final villain, remains one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen in anime). Digimon Tamers takes the best parts of the earlier series, makes a ton of great innovations of its own, and gives a depth that the franchise hadn’t possessed previously. Its a great show that not nearly enough people have watched.
Samurai Champloo* (Manglobe, 2005)
So far, Samurai Champloo is the hardest for me to explain why I love it so much that I count it as one of my favorites – its just one of those shows where I want to say, “I love it because I love it.” But, with a little more effort, I can point to the fact that Samurai Champloo integrates its anachronisms and historical revisions seamlessly into a post-Amakusa Rebellion Japan, from Americans showing up to play baseball about a century before America was a country, to the ever-present hip-hop music (as well as its accompanying aesthetic). Watching Samurai Champloo, one feels wholly convinced that breakdancing could absolutely have existed as a fighting style in 1600s Japan. And for a show that has its male protagonists so often eager to visit the Floating World, this anime is the second most honest about the realities of life for women in Edo-era Japan (hint: it was pretty crappy) of anime that I’ve watched, surpassed only by an emotionally brutal short arc in Tenpou Ibun Ayakashi Ayashi. A stylish show that jumps around a bunch in the first half while waving swords in every direction before digging deeper (with a detour for baseball) and that has held up just fine on each re-watch.
Nabari no Ou* (J.C. Staff, 2008)
Ah, yes, the show that was, unfortunately, tagged with the description “that gay ninja show” (unfortunate since it was fairly misleading), and then further saddled by misguided fans who vehemently insisted to anyone who would listen, “But, no, wait, this is SERIOUS, OK? Its not like that Naruto shit!”… and, yes, it is an anime with a fairly serious tone, but, let’s face it, it still is asking us to suspend a bit of belief, because it is still a story about ninjas with magical abilities and sacred scrolls. However, at its core Nabari no Ou is a story about a boy who has tried to detach himself from life as much as possible coming of age, something that comes about as he is forced out of his careful public persona and forced to deal with the fact that simply because he wants the world to leave him alone doesn’t mean that it will. Nabari no Ou is a sad series; people do die, but where other shows wallow in the melodrama, the characters here instead are shown to move on, even as they acknowledge that they’ll continue to carry at least a piece of it with them. Perhaps what is most noteworthy, though, is that Nabari no Ou had the guts to actually do what it had said it would all along, and there is no deus ex machina to fix things up nice and shiny at the end.
Battle Athletes Victory* (AIC, 1997)
Oh, lordy, Battle Athletes Victory. This is the sort of show that inspires a lot of cringing on my part when I re-watch it, but I still can’t help but count it as a favorite. There’s some really awful racial/ethnic stereotyping (that the dub manages to make even worse), the story is riddled with cliches, but it remains as one of few sports anime that I’ve ever managed to finish (and the only one I’ve ever re-watched). We get to watch a bunch of girls working their ass off, accomplishing astounding physical feats, competing with each other, supporting each other, with a bit of yuri thrown in, as well as, GASP, character designs that were done by someone who apparently actually had some idea of what a sixteen year old girl’s body looks like. Holy hell, do I wish they were still making shows like this!
Weiß Kreuz TV*/OVA (J.C. Staff, 1998/1999)
Oh, Weiß Kreuz – or should I say “Web Cruze” as a lot of mistaken fans used to pronounce it? A show that is an utter mess of plotholes that one could drive tractors through, stunningly horrible animation (during the middle part of the show the characters are so frequently off-model that their poorly-drawn iterations are the consistent versions), hideous wardrobe choices, egregious melodrama (your murdered girlfriend was also your HALF-SISTER!!!!), and an ending that is so, so much better than the show had any right to, Weiß Kreuz is for me the standard-bearer of trainwreck TV anime, setting an incredibly high bar for would-be challengers. There are parts of this show that are so madly over-the-top that I watched them with tears streaming down my face, short of breath and sides aching from too much laughter. If anything, I swear this is at least worth trying out to see what happens when Koyasu Takehito manages to convince an anime studio that he has a really, really fantastic idea for an anime (Takehito was basically sick of playing goofy roles, so the obvious solution was to make a SUPER DARK AND GRITTY show about florists/assassins in which he voiced the broodiest of the the broody characters). The OVA ups the stakes by having everyone bleed like a hemophiliac who has fallen into a rose bush, throwing in nonsensical conspiracies involving Americans, upping the animation budget by a factor of about six, and by starting it all off with the characters brutally murdering one another. I love this show with all my heart, and I will never, ever feel differently.
Red Garden* (GONZO, 2006)
Red Garden is the last good thing that GONZO did – there, I said it (Nyanpire is initially cute but wears itself out pretty fast… also, no accolades to shows there the ED takes up twice the runtime of the story material). It is an excellent horror show that takes a few older tropes and puts a fresh enough spin on them that many of the people watching didn’t even suss out the underlying tropes being utilized. It also, unfortunately, has some truly ear-damaging musical numbers, but these mercifully are few in number and are primarily focused in the first half. But while the horror here is fantastic (and it gets progressively more unsettling as the series goes on), the characters are top-notch, which elevates it above many other horror shows. These days, a lot of horror is synonymous with casts of characters that have little to no development being hacked to pieces in some manner, something which, while I do find it gross, doesn’t strike me as terror-inducing in the slightest; it is far, far more disturbing to watch fully-realized characters get slowly unwound across a narrative before finding themselves in a wholly unenviable position. Red Garden starts cruelly and ends the same; I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Princess Tutu* (Hal Film Maker, 2002)
When I was a young girl, I took ballet; however, I eventually traded my leotards for swimsuits and military training ground the last bit of grace out of me completely. However, watching Princess Tutu made me wish I’d stuck with it (and then I saw Black Swan and went, “Holy shit, bullet dodged.”). Princess Tutu is, honestly, the perfect ballet anime – it is somewhat a fairy tale in anime form, it directly draws on such tales in its individual storylines within the early episodes, and many actual ballets have taken their basic story from fairy tale and folktales, so it ends up staying remarkably true to the art form. Princess Tutu also simply appeals to me because I am a lover of fairy tales and folktales, and I have been since I was a kid; when I was in a military training setting where we weren’t permitted to have any reading materials that weren’t manuals or religious, it was a paperback copy of Grimms’ fairy tales that I selected as the book I would smuggle in my gear. Meeting some of the tales of the Grimms and of Hans Christian Andersen, among others, here in slightly different clothes was delightful.
The Big O* (Sunrise, 1999/2003)
The Big O is my second Chiaki J. Konaka-penned show on this list, this one a show targeted toward young adults instead of the elementary and middle school set, and maybe that shows in how wholly baffling everything gets a few episodes into the second season. Ultimately, the ending of the Big O is as much of a head-scratcher to me now as it was when I first saw it in its premiere run on Toonami (and I will note here that whenever I hear someone diss the Cartoon Network when it comes to anime, I want to smack them since without CN there would never have been a second season of Big O), but there’s no denying that the second season in particular provokes a lot of interesting questions and inspires endless discussion. The Big O also features one of my favorite characters ever in the form of R. Dorothy Wayneright, one of those rare taciturn female characters who actually has a character and isn’t just “aloof girl”. The Big O takes a noir-flavored, Batman-inspired premise, adds giant robots, and turns it all on its head, and it is enough to drive one mad trying to unravel the whole thing. Pity a third season never happened.
Taisho Baseball Girls* (J.C. Staff, 2009)
I love baseball; I do not, however, usually love baseball anime, as I find the prospect of watching an animated baseball game disheartening compared to watching an actual baseball game. But I also love feminism, and Taisho Baseball Girls avoids having Dragon Ball Z-style multi-episode baseball matches while being one of very few anime that can claim the mantle of feminism. Taisho Baseball Girls is a gem of a show that has unfortunately not gotten the attention it deserves. Like the sprawling Sakura Wars, the story here is set in 1920s Japan; unlike Sakura Wars, though, one gets a real feel for the era, a time of hope, ambition, and flourishing personal freedoms when it seemed as if the only place Japan could go was up (I try to not think about how the cast will fare during WWII), and in the middle of it all was an exciting new sport called baseball. Taisho Baseball Girls is absolutely about baseball, but it is also about a society undergoing great change, and it is about a group of young women who are navigating their way through changing social standards and through their own feelings that they aren’t meant to simply be decorative ornaments or useful household tools for future husbands. This is a fantastic show that deserves more love.
Yumeiro Patissiere (Studio Pierrot, 2009)
I hemmed and hawed a little about including this, but ultimately I opted in favor as this show was a surprise hit for me – I checked it out when it began airing and found that it was my steady go-to show on a weekly basis for the entirety of its run. YumePati is a delightful shoujo series about a girl who enrolls at a fancy school in order to become a pastry chef, but also as she is trying to re-create a dessert her beloved grandmother, also a pastry chef, made for her years ago. Its a pretty straightforward show, and it isn’t exactly innovative, but it executes with aplomb, and it also opts for a tournament-style approach as protagonist Ichigo pursues her goals that is exciting and engages despite the audience knowing that our hard-working heroine will ultimately triumph. Where I think the show excels most, though, is in demonstrating that Ichigo’s family’s prevailing opinion about her – she’s the below-average sister with little to no prospects to the genius girl imouto – is flat-out wrong; Ichigo isn’t an idiot, Ichigo just hadn’t found her niche yet and isn’t “smart” in a way that was traditionally recognized by the circles her family runs in. YumePati is the perfect antidote to shoujo fare that is romance-focused and where the girls can never be as good as their would-be beloved. Also: those desserts. OHHH THOSE DESSERTS
Senkou no Night Raid/Night Raid 1931* (A-1 Pictures, 2010)
I am well-aware that I’m in the extreme minority on this show, but I really enjoyed it. 1930’s China is a dangerous place to set an anime, and some of the criticism of the show focused on characters stating that Japan is acting as it is because it wants to help the rest of Asia – however, that is what the ruling elites of Japan felt they were doing since they viewed other Asians as racially inferior, so that isn’t revisionism (although the show certainly could’ve dispensed with the Chinese restaurant owner who speaks the entire time like she has a mouthful of acorns). What I enjoyed about Senkou no Night Raid were the lengthy political discussions, as well as the complete repudiation of the notion of lone, would-be heroic characters being able to prevent large-scale bad things from happening. Senkou no Night Raid is a spit in the eye of the Naruto/Bleach/Dragonball Z school of shounen, and it is one which I welcome. Several characters struggle against what we know from the perspective of the 21st century is inevitable, and while there are a couple spots where they at least secure small, more personal goals, the fact is that Japan continues to march its way toward the brutal butchering of East Asia and the twin craters of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
UN-GO* (BONES, 2011)
I kept pushing UN-GO further down this post because I’m really not sure how to explain my enjoyment of it. UN-GO is the sort of show that makes one think, and it also presents us with a fascinating setting in a near-future Japan that has been ravaged by war and terrorism and now operates under the close eye of Big Brother. I honestly can’t articulate anything else about this without getting long-winded or sounding pompous; UN-GO challenges ideas about what it is to be a human being, and is sharply critical of governmental limits on human expression, demonstrating again and again that stuffing people into socially acceptable boxes often yields horrifying results. Its ending is fairly open, yet also completely satisfying, even as I wish it had just a couple more episodes (as a half-season noitaminA it only features eleven TV episodes, as well as one OAV). My original fears about how they were adapting Ango Sakaguchi’s work were completely unfounded, and I’m looking forward to watching it again.
1st Tier (again, no particular order here)
Mobile Fight G Gundam* (Sunrise, 1994)
Here it is, folks, the biggest toy commercial to ever come out of Sunrise. In the wake of Bandai’s purchase of Sunrise, there was one thing that they demanded – a show stuffed to the brim with mobile suits, all the better to increase that margin when it came to merchandise sales. So that good chap Hajime Yatate sat down, thought for a bit, and came up with a brilliant idea – everyone gets a Gundam! Or, well, every nation. And they fight each other tournament-style! Thus, G Gundam was born, the sort of anime that made committed fans of the likes of Zeta Gundam or Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket gnash their teeth in horror as they strenuously denied that there’d been anything at all goofy in the Gundam franchise prior to the AU series (apparently ZZ and 0083: Stardust Memory never existed). G Gundam is a super robot show to its very core, featuring ham-tastic voice acting (I swap back and forth between the Japanese and English language tracks throughout episodes), loopy attack names (ERUPTING BURNING FINGERRRR!), enough ethnic stereotypes to make Pat Buchanan look like a slouch, a horse that has its own Gundam, and a man who goes by the name ‘Master Asia’ who can defeat mobile suits with rhythmic gymnastics. Even the tragic backstories frequently induce stitches, such as the guy who is terrified of clowns since his mom was taken away by clowns when he was a child. And did I mention that all the Gundam Fighters don latex suits to do battle? And that it all wraps up in a gloriously cheesy battle where love saves the universe? If you haven’t seen this, I weep for your ignorance.
Outlaw Star* (Sunrise, 1998)
Outlaw Star is my most-watched anime series; I have watched it through five times now, starting back with its original Toonami run when they accidentally let through the word ‘bastard’ in the broadcast. I’m not sure that if I came to Outlaw Star now that I would find it quite as endearing, but it is an old favorite that I truly enjoy re-watching. Its a fairly standard quest-type show with a Wild West-style outer space setting that has a lot of energy, a fairly colorful cast, and what is honestly the coolest weapon I’ve ever spied in an anime. Gene Starwind’s Caster Gun is inventive, and, well, cool – instead of shooting regular old bullets, it basically shoots spells. While I wouldn’t call Outlaw Star tactically intriguing, having several different options on hand in the form of the Caster Gun’s shells does add to the fights, and it does invite curiosity about what any particular round will do. The one area where I do think that Outlaw Star totally trips up, though, is in the character of Fred Luo, a gay man that is pure stereotype and has a cringe-inducing affection for eleven year old Jim Hawking; its one of those few times where a dub cuts out material that is best left out. Nevertheless, Outlaw Star stands as a show I return to again, and again, and again, and I don’t at all see that changing any time soon.
Shiki* (Daume, 2010)
The best horror anime, and I wish to hell that the novels would get licensed by someone; I actually own all the novels even though my Japanese comprehension is horrid and all I can really do is gaze upon them longingly. Shiki takes the vampire tale largely back to its roots (not wholly since the vampires here are not the mindless creatures of the original folktales), stripping out much of the different details that were grafted on at later dates, and in boiling its story down to a very basic one – odd family moves into remote village, people begin to die mysteriously. Its a slow boil narrative that ends up all the more horrifying because it takes its time to carefully set things up before it goes for the gore. It brings us, ultimately, to the truly unsettling idea that we as humans are every bit as horrible and animalistic as that which we fear. As the first anime in a decade to put me on the edge of my seat in anticipation whenever each episode started up, Shiki’s inclusion here is an absolute no-brainer. Also, the first OP is fantastic.
And the #1…
Revolutionary Girl Utena* (J.C. Staff, 1997)
Where to even begin here? Hasn’t it all already been said? But, no, it hasn’t, which is part of the beauty of RGU – we can hash it endlessly, endlessly, and we will never have managed to run out of things to pick at and analyze, argue about, and reinterpret. Director Kunihiko Ikuhara has certainly encouraged this approach himself in his dogged determination to never answer things, or to give different answers to the same questions in different interviews and appearances. RGU is the sort of show you point to as evidence that anime is art, but its also the sort of show that is bad to show to the new fan lest they then experience disappointment when they realize that there are a mere handful of shows that are anything like this. As much as I love all the other entries on this list, this is the only one that I would point to and say, “If you are an anime fan, you must watch this.” It is one of the greatest works I’ve seen in all visual media, I own both its North American DVD releases, and I cannot possibly express how much this show means to me – just know that it is my favorite.
Quick notes on your top list…
I really like how varied and unique it is. Also quite a few things on here I haven’t seen yet. People have told me I’d like G Gundam but I haven’t gotten to it. Should get to that.
And I LOVE Utena. It’s definitely my favorite thing on here.
Yeah, that 2nd half of Futakomori blew monkey chunks. It was actually going in a direction I kind of dug for a bit, but then that kid came and ruined it.
I freaking hated that kid’s guts; the first season did a way better job of introducing a running arc partway through, and its child character had it all over the stupid little boy.
G Gundam is a wonderful show. Its the sort of show that I try to cajole folks into watching even if they aren’t into anime.
As for varied, well, when I started to actually type up this post (I’d previously compiled my list of favorite shows in a notebook), I will confess that I was a bit amused as I placed shows such as Mai-Otome in the same list as stuff like Samurai Champloo.
Oh Red Garden, I remember watching that a few years back and while I liked a lot of the show I just didn’t like the ending (and then I watched that OVA set afterwards, Dead Girls, and was even less happy with that). It’s been a few years so I can’t be specific what I didn’t like but it just got kinda, weird, by the end.
And man I need to remember to pick up Night Raid sometime on BR, I seem to recall that the fansubs for that series were really erratic and slow so I really want to rewatch all of it at my own pace.
Dead Girls was completely unnecessary; I prefer to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Sometimes when studios give their folks a bunch of money to make their fanfiction dreams come true, you get fun material (see: Mai-Otome), but here it was just utter crap. I did like the ending to the TV series myself, though.
What about Hanasakeru Seishounen? 😦
Haven’t finished it, although it is a pretty great show.