top 20 anime

A wise man once said:

“One top 20 anime list is worth a thousand blog posts” -flomu

The same man also said:

“Judge a man not by his blog posts, but by the content of his top 20 anime list” -flomu

I’ve found it hard to talk about which anime are “good” and “bad” without any context. How can you trust my judgment of Shirobako when you don’t even know what I’ve seen before? What if I’ve only seen Berserk 2016 and Berserk 2017? Maybe Shirobako isn’t so good, then. At the same time, it’s overkill to have to look through my entire anime list — a top 20 should be good enough to tell you what I’ve seen and what I like. And here’s that top 20.

Also before I get into it, I’ve made some “Top N” lists in the past.

  • 2009 post: back when I was stepping into & really into the fandom
  • 2013 post: just an excuse to post my top 10 list

I’m going to go off on a small tangent here and say that it’s really dumb to in-depth review everything. Not everything requires a well-planned-out review a la the Nihon Review. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “this anime made me laugh, so I like it” instead of having to ask “why did this anime make me laugh?” and “what are the sociopornoeconopolitical ramifications of the cause of my laughter?” You could say I just don’t have a good reason for liking an anime, and that’s basically it – I don’t. But I like it anyway.

So in the blurbs here hopefully you can at least get a sense of how much I like each entry, even if my incoherent ramblings don’t give you a good answer to “why?”

Honorable Mentions

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Grave of the Fireflies takes a… different look at war. While Barefoot Gen and Ushiro no Shoumen Daare try to shock the audience with raw, horrific scenes, Grave of the Fireflies takes a calmer, more effective approach. It’s almost slice-of-life at times, comparing daily life before and after the war hits home. And instead of a sudden impact, Grave of the Fireflies shows the slow yet certain march towards despair.

I’ll finish off by plugging again Barefoot Gen and Ushiro no Shoumen Daare, which are both worth watching in their own way.

Nichibros (2012)

The proper title is Daily Lives of High School Boys (Danshi Koukousei no Nichijou), but given its release right after Nichijou, it will forever be known as Nichibros to me. It’s a little unfortunate, too, since at the time I was so dazzled by Nichijou that I couldn’t really appreciate the comedic brilliance of Nichibros. It’s more straightforward than Nichijou, but at the same time there’s nothing to keep my interest if the jokes fall flat. The Literature Girl scenes are comedic gold, owing mostly to Tomokazu Sugita’s (of Kyon and Gintoki fame) performance as Hidenori.

Really, it’s the all-star voice actor cast that makes this anime so good. The other boke/funny man of the trio is Kenichi Suzumura, who voices Sougo Okita from the Shinsengumi in Gintama. You also have the guy who voices Katsura as the President, and it’s produced by Sunrise, the same company that churns out Gintama. Hmm…

Dennou Coil (2007)

This and the next entry are marked in red because, frankly, I don’t remember enough about them to write a meaningful bit. (Give me a break — it’s been ten years!!) Because of this, I’ve kicked them off my top 20 but with a rewatch they’ll probably get back on.

Baccano! (2007)

The Good

20. Alien Nine (2001)

This OVA doesn’t adapt the whole manga, which is only 3 volumes, but what it does cover captures exactly the unsettling uneasy feel of the series. “Elementary schoolers fighting aliens” sounds like a magical girl number, but instead Alien Nine presents four episodes of a cute girl’s disgust at aliens spiralling down into fear and trauma. It’s much more disturbing and uncomfortable to watch than it should be, and that impresses me.

19. Kannagi (2008)

Kannagi never quite made up its mind on how to combine drama with comedy. In the end, it mashed both together in a disjointed mess and quit. But when it tried to stay on comedy, it did really, really well. It plays off of magical girl tropes by portraying Nagi (and others) as basically a shitty idol with a knack for tantrums. It’s one of the first comedy series I watched, and still one of the best.

18. Gunbuster (1988)

Gunbuster is one of Gainax’s first series, and one of its best. It gave birth to the “Gainaxing” meme with Noriko’s wildly bouncing breasts, and was the stepping stone for Evangelion 7 years later.

What impresses me about Gunbuster is how Gainax managed to stuff in such a complete, satisfying mecha story of self-sacrifice and love and all the usual stuff into only six episodes. No time is wasted, yet it’s not rushed and tells its classic (read: stereotypical) story well.

P.S. Diebuster is just average…

17. Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess Mononoke has two really badass main characters. That’s it.

16. Clannad After Story (2008)

When I watched Clannad After Story, I had just plowed through a long string of very similar romance shows: Air, Kanon (2006), Ef memories and melodies, True Tears, Clannad, and finally Clannad After Story. Toradora was airing at the same time, too, but it drowned in comparison to the tear-jerking melodrama of After Story. Actually, maybe “melodrama” isn’t really appropriate, since the story that After Story tries to tell isn’t too unrealistic. It’s the pits, a tale of finding happiness in tragic times, and a huge swing from the pseudo-comedy that was Clannad. Though I have some issues with the ending, I can’t deny how much After Story made me feel for Tomoya.

15. Mushishi (2005)

It’s hard to rate Mushishi. It’s so slow-paced at times that I actually dozed off watching it, but the world-building is so perfect… and you know I’m all about imaginative, immersive fantasy settings (a recent example in Kabaneri?). The stories are all sort-of similar, with recurring themes like familial ties and people messing around with mushi when they shouldn’t be, but each story is unique in its use of the mushi: from mushi that seek rain to those that literally travel through time, the mushi are always the focus. But maybe what’s more impressive is how the stories are told with little dialogue. It’s always almost shown rather than told.

I have to admit that even though I’ve bought and read and reread the entire set of manga (including that huge 3-volume monster of an omnibus), I haven’t finished the full series. Because of its episodic nature (and because I know what’s going to happen from reading the manga…), it’s not a show I can binge-watch. So over the years I’ve watched one or two episodes at a time with months in between. Maybe I’ll get around to finishing it eventually.

The Great

14. Gintama (2006)

[relevant, but useless post]

Gintama has a great cast of memorable characters. It taught me (falsely) the names and roles of the Shinsengumi so that I keep getting confused when watching or reading stuff about samurai (Ruroni Kenshin, for example). The jokes are crude and sometimes excessively stupid, but always get a laugh out of me. There are enough running gags that most stuff doesn’t get old, and even when it does, the excellent delivery by the voice actors (Tomokazu Sugita for Gintoki in particular) makes up for it.

Gintama is a rare example of a shonen anime adaptation outperforming its manga source material. There are tons of jokes that break the fourth wall and talk about the animation, voice actors, and even the audience, and the rapid-fire jokes come across far better than when they’re crammed into small panels in Jump. Come to think of it, I’d consider Gintama the best Jump anime by far (with a distant #2 for Hunter x Hunter 2011).

13. Legend of the Galactic Heroes (1988)

I just recently spent three weeks watching this… which sounds like a long time, but that comes out to over 5 episodes a day for 21 days. I was going to write a post about it, but it’s such a daunting series to write about. It’s the kind of show that you’d expect on peoples’ personal “top 10 anime” lists: a 110-episode-long 1980’s space opera dialogue-fest? Definitely the kind of thing that’s cool to like. A perfect snob show. And now I have become one of the snobs.

Unlike what some reviews say, I don’t think it’s hard to appreciate LOGH‘s strengths: the epic proportions, in terms of number of characters, character depth, the vast setting, and the years of story that it tells. Rarely do anime series show the entire lives of its characters, but LOGH does that. There’s no ambiguity in its storytelling, since the audience is given the story from the very beginning. The only problem is that beyond the central Yang Wenli and Reinhard von Lohengramm (and some other main characters), the minor characters, in particular the Imperial admirals, become a jumble of Wahlens and Keslers and Mullers and Lutzes.

I’ll end this with the best sentence ever written on MyAnimeList.net:

Basically, it follows two homos and a guy who drinks tea on death star.
-ManlyTears (source)

12. Code Geass (2006)

Much like LOGH (#13), Code Geass is a scifi epic about one guy’s rise to power… among other things. But unlike the long, drawn-out dialogue of LOGH, Code Geass is fueled by dramatic plot twists and cliffhangers at every turn, its frenzied pace showing anime at its most anime-like. It represents the beginning of my and so many others’ adventure into the anime fandom, and it’s the first thing I would recommend to anybody from this entire list.

Or it’s just a long advertisement for Pizza Hut.

11. Spirited Away (2001)

This is a bit from a scrapped “Ghibli movies” post I was planning on doing:

Spirited Away was the talk of my class back in 5th grade, but unfortunately I was too cool for anime (despite watching Dragon Ball Z reruns on Toonami after school) and got around to watching it four years later. What I remember most about this movie is its setting – a modern, more imaginative Alice in Wonderland. It probably helped that I couldn’t connect with any of the Japanese folklore, making the whole package seem more exotic than it would be to a Japanese audience. All of this contributed to my 0% retention of the actual plot – I was so caught up marveling at the world that everything past the first 20 minutes never made it into my memory.

Watching it over 10 years later, it seems like I had the right idea the first time. Not only is the plot cliche by modern standards (and most definitely 2001 standards, too), but also not much happens at all. And that’s good, in a way. I got so much time to appreciate Chihiro’s growth as a character, and to hark back to my days of youth and again marvel at Miyazaki’s imaginative world. This movie was far, far more impressive than I remember, and induced a level of childish excitement I didn’t even feel the first time I watched it.

10. Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (2007)

Gurren Lagann takes everything stereotypical about the mecha and shonen genres and amps it up to 110%.

The entire universe is depending on you for this one fight, and you’re up against the strongest being imaginable. You have your friends and comrades at your side, and you’re fighting this impossible battle for all those who couldn’t make it this far. And as your weapons stop working and you’re left with nothing but your inner spirit, Sorairo Days starts to play.

This is Gainax and Imaishi at their very best, a series that holds nothing back.

9. The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya (2010)

A return to form for the legendary Haruhi series. Not even six months after Endless Eight had destroyed the patience of fans everywhere, Kyoto Animation showed up and shut us all up. I remember that for us in the West, the first thing that came on the internet was a shitty camrip: some guy brought a video camera into the theater and taped it from his seat. The actual theater screen took up like 1/4th of the screen, but I was still so impressed. Haruhi was back.

It’s hard to describe that feeling. I had started watching anime when Haruhi hype was at its peak. Season 2 coming out was the biggest news, and it turned out to be such a letdown. But while I watching that sideways 1/4th-screen shit on some sketchy site, I felt shivers. The story was unlike any I’d ever seen in previous iterations of Haruhi: an actual conflict, and one that required time travel and alternate universes and Kyon was the center of the whole thing! I was so glad to have gotten into anime.

8. Seto no Hanayome (2007)

Seto no Hanayome is here for one reason: I’ve never laughed so hard at any other show.

The gags are stupid, but the execution is spot-on. Look at Lunar’s stupid smug face in the picture above. She’s living in Nagasumi’s house while calling him her servant with such a smug smile on. It’s so ridiculous, and the voice acting conveys such a superior, conceited tone that it’s impossible for me not to laugh.

7. Shinsekai Yori (2012)

[relevant post (spoilers)]

I loved the “unsettling” vibes I got from Shinsekai Yori, especially when the “Traditional” song came on. It’s such a chilling song, reminiscent of the opening to Elfen Lied. The only gripe I have with the show is that the actual events, though shocking, weren’t as crazy as what I expected after constantly being on edge. Much more in the linked post above.

6. Perfect Blue (1998)

This is the most recent addition to the list. I watched it just this week, but I’m convinced it belongs this high on my list.

It’s a real thriller. I felt my mind slowly warping into the main character’s mindset, and it was so frightening, confusing, and exciting.

HOWEVER, the best part is that I went in blind. The only Satoshi Kon movie I’d seen was Paprika (which was okay…), and I refused to read any reviews about this thing before watching it. So I’ll pass on that same gift. Just don’t watch it with your family.

The Very Best

5. Shirobako (2014)

[relevant post (there’s nothing to spoil)]

Shirobako was a complete surprise for me. The five main characters looked EXACTLY THE SAME. Sure, the hair colors are different, but the eyes are straight-up copy/pasted. Besides, it sounded like a “cute girls make anime” a la K-ON and its many spiritual successors (New Game in particular).

It turned out to be a MUST-WATCH for anybody at least knee-deep into the anime fandom. It’s edutainment on the anime industry, and has the potential to improve your anime-viewing experience overall. I can now appreciate, for example, the shitshow that is Berserk 2016: when you have a dozen production companies working on it, how can something good come out? From seeing Aoi barely make it in time for her Exodus anime, I can see why it’s a miracle Berserk 2016 isn’t all recap episodes.

At the same time, Shirobako is an amazing show in its own right. Read my post linked above if you want to hear more praise.

4. Welcome to the NHK (2006)

For a while, I used to go by “misaki” and used various pictures of Misaki as my avatar. Those days are long gone and now I go by some meaningless garbage with a crippled girl as my avatar. But my love for Welcome to the NHK has stayed with me.

Since watching this anime, I’ve discovered that the manga is even better – I bought the whole eight volume set. I hear the light novel is the ultimate version, but I haven’t been able to find a cheap copy on Amazon for years.

Regardless of the version, Welcome to the NHK is a look at a loser’s life that starts at rock bottom and somehow gets even worse. It’s (dark) comedy for the most part, but hits home at times, deep and heavy, with Satou screaming his heart out. It’s funny and sad and painful, yet always excellent.

3. Made in Abyss (2017)

When I started reading the Made in Abyss manga, I immediately realized it was something special. The art is so much softer than anything I’ve seen before, and the characters designs are more fit for a children’s manga than a… whatever genre MiA is. And good god – the story. It sounds so stupid and limited: some kids go down into a hole with different levels. But the imagination of the author fills that hole with such a wide variety of characters and monsters, and the story races along at a frantic pace — none of that shonen bullshit (a la Bleach or basically anything you can think of).

This anime adaptation refines and improves on one of my top 5 favorite manga series. The entire time I was watching the show, I was thinking, “how can it possibly be this good?? It hasn’t even gotten to the GOOD parts yet!!” The voice actress for Ouzen had such a haunting voice, something that the manga version could never fully portray. Then it just got better as Nanachi showed up, and they still haven’t gotten to the Bondrewd arc.

With the announcement of a second season, I’ve never felt this excited for an upcoming series.

2. Eureka Seven (2005)

[relevant post]

Eureka Seven is a mecha anime with aliens and flying surfboards, but its focus is on love, familial and romantic. It’s a story about Renton Thurston growing up from an annoying-as-hell brat to an admirable young man who can support not only his love interest Eureka, but also his new Gekkostate family. It’s a story about freaky alienesque girl Eureka learning to deal with and embrace her newfound emotions. But really, the story is about the two of them overcoming the greatest hurdles, a Romeo and Juliet with nature itself against their love.

It’s sappy and really anime, and Renton is hard to watch in the beginning, but watching the gradual changes over the 50 episodes is just so satisfying.

1. Nichijou (2011)

[relevant post #1] [relevant post #2] [there’s a lot more]

I didn’t have any pictures from Nichijou on this computer, so I decided to go to some random episode and take a screenshot. I ended up watching the whole episode.

Nichijou is my favorite anime, and has been since the day it finished airing. It’s a show that instantly brightens my mood, and puts a smile on my face the entire time I’m watching it. Kyoto Animation is clearly the king of anime adaptations. From Haruhi to K-ON, from Lucky Star to Nichijou, much of what they make is better than the source material. A 4-koma like Nichijou basically acts as the storyboards, but KyoAni gets so much mileage out of it. When watching the anime, it just feels right. The dramatic sound effects, the huge range of voices for each character, and even stupid things like the little white dog flopping its body back and forth in the background all add up to convey the comedy far better than the manga ever could.

The best way to appreciate Nichijou isn’t by writing or reading about it — it’s by watching it. So in that spirit, here’s a favorite of mine (Episode 5, “God is dead”):

Just the list:

  1. Nichijou
  2. Eureka Seven
  3. Made in Abyss
  4. Welcome to the NHK
  5. Shirobako
  6. Perfect Blue
  7. Shinsekai Yori
  8. Seto no Hanayome
  9. The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya
  10. Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
  11. Spirited Away
  12. Code Geass
  13. Legend of the Galactic Heroes
  14. Gintama
  15. Mushishi
  16. Clannad After Story
  17. Princess Mononoke
  18. Gunbuster
  19. Kannagi
  20. Alien Nine
  21. Baccano!
  22. Dennou Coil
  23. Nichibros
  24. Grave of the Fireflies

Some fun facts:

12 before 2007 (the year I started watching anime)
12 since 2007

5 watched while airing: Nichibros, Kannagi, Clannad After Story, Code Geass (R2 only), Nichijou
19 watched after they finished

1.5 Nichijou
22.5 not Nichijou



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