You’ve read the title. You’ve probably seen the hype posts. If we’re really close, you’ve definitely heard me begrudgingly complain about how much time this ate up. But I’ll be damned, if I’ve watched [checks the database] 127 days worth of anime between 2010 and now, I better put those hours of staring at screens to good use and…continue to do that, this time with a bit more reflection and a lot of typing.
To be absolutely clear, this is nothing but me taking the chance to plug my hundred favorite anime of the past ten years as they sit with me right now. It is not an attempt at curating some “definitive, objective” list of anime from the 2010s, nor is it indicative of shows I A) might have loved once but outgrown, B) still like overall but haven’t felt as passionately about in the long run, or C) have yet to watch. As a result, I’ve inevitably left off a title or two or hundred that you love—but tough luck. My tastes, my biases, my list. Even as it stands, this isn’t an exhaustive rundown of what I felt was worth watching.
A quick word on eligibility: with one exception that I think you’ll find spiritually justified, all these shows began in or after 2010. Some are still being adapted or have greenlit sequels that have yet to be released, but as long as the series in question has—as of this post—fit that criteria and aired a majority of its episodes during the decade, it’s eligible for a spot. Standalone movies are not eligible (that might be its own list once I’ve seen more of them), but if they’re part of a parent franchise that aired an eligible TV counterpart, I may discuss them here. Episode counts don’t reflect OVAs unless otherwise stated, and all information on the graphics should be correct as of this article’s publication in early February 2020.
The specific rankings are largely arbitrary but broadly get firmer closer to the top. Licensing information changes often, so regardless of when you access this page, if you’re looking for any show’s legal streaming status, check out Becuase.MOE. And of course, there were far more than 100 great anime this decade, so if you don’t find your favorite here, check my AniList profile to see if I’ve even watched it. Consider all the remaining 8s and 7s there which aren’t listed below my honorable mentions.
And that’s it for the preface. Without further ado, my 100 favorite anime of the 2010s:
#100 – YOZAKURA QUARTET
Yozakura Quartet‘s first (and worse) anime adaptation aired in 2008, but it received a wonderful glow-up by Tatsunoko Production not long after. Sandwiched between two fantastic triplets of OVAs, the main rewrite of the series, Hana no Uta, aired in 2013 and did Suzuhito Yasuda’s original creation greater justice. As for the plot, Yozakura Quartet basically follows a group of supernaturally-gifted kids engaged in social work in a city where the human world and youkai world overlap and their inhabitants co-exist. As a chain of villains attempt to sever that connection, the heroes’ power and goodwill become more valuable than ever. In addition to those lovely themes and a captivatingly creative world (and a lot of fanservice, I acknowledge it), Yozakura Quartet is first and foremost super fun—it’s hard to deny the sense that this is a passion project, and it’s even harder to let that passion pass you by once you’ve tasted it in action.
#99 – MARIA THE VIRGIN WITCH
Lots of medieval fantasy fiction includes magic as a class of warfare, but Maria The Virgin Witch does something a bit more galaxy-brain with it: set in France during the Hundred Years’ War, the series’ titular character uses her power to halt pointless battles, eventually drawing the ire of both sides’ armies and the heavens themselves. Maria‘s explicit plot rests on the risqué threat that if she loses her virginity, she’ll lose her ability to intervene as well, but the series is richer for its nuanced understanding of war as a historical harbinger of financial gain and social cohesion. Maria’s intent is good, and I’d argue that she’s entirely justified in doing what she can to promote peace, but the real world operates on more complex systems than idealistic pacifism, and Maria The Virgin Witch depicts a daring, righteous, and sometimes raunchy struggle in coming to terms with that.
#98 – PLANET WITH
There’s something to be said for a work of art that presents its idiosyncrasy without feeling the need to justify itself at length. Such is the case for Planet With, which, when you boil it down, is a series about accepting that we have an active desire for vengeance, but not letting that anger consume us. What’s that MLK quote, again? “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that?” That’s Planet With‘s motto as easily-irritable teenager Soya Kuroi suddenly finds himself the antagonist of a ragtag Terran defense force. Both sides are convinced of their virtue, but can they communicate that and clear things up before the real villain appears? As long as you can stomach absurd sound design and a cat named Sensei swallowing Soya to turn into a mecha (what? I told you this show was weird), Planet With‘s eccentricity is sufficiently entertaining and its cosmic-scale ruminations on justice are well worth seeing through.
#97 – TSURUNE
A fantastic studio taking it relatively easy can still knock decent source material out of the goddamn park, and don’t let anyone tell you Kyoto Animation didn’t do just that with Tsurune. Though far from their most ambitious or unique TV series, their most recent effort focuses on a high-school kyudo (archery) team and its shyest member’s timid steps back to the sport after experiencing a discouraging, persistent bout with target panic. Thanks to some spot-on coaching and a lovely supporting cast, the show’s initially basic plot beats turn into something more personable by the time its final arc comes around, and of this decade’s many sports anime, Tsurune‘s understated patience helps it notch a spot as one of the brightest underdogs in its genre and one of the most overlooked entries in KyoAni’s beloved catalogue.
#96 – FLOWERS OF EVIL
Welp, let’s get the least-animated anime in the running out of the way on the early side, shall we? Flowers of Evil was mostly written off from the outset when it aired due to its unusual rotoscope animation, thoroughly unlikable protagonists, and static shot direction, and I won’t contest anyone who finds themselves understandably turned off by any of that. But it hides, not even that deeply, one of the most visceral stories in the “teenagers scare the living shit out of me” canon that I’ve ever seen, full of unsettling, cathartic scenes of wanton vandalism, blackmail, and deceit. Sometimes kids are very good. Sometimes kids are fucking monsters. Flowers of Evil revels in when they’re monsters, and its uncanny visual presentation just makes the cast’s misdeeds even more unforgettable. Oh, and this all gets set into motion by a literature snob stealing a female classmate’s gym clothes without realizing he’s being watched. You’ve already made up your mind about giving this one a shot one way or the other, I know. Let’s move on.
Anime is hardly a medium whose stylistic sensibilities can be summed up within a few select genres, but it does experience waves of fads, and none have defined the late 2010s so thoroughly as the “isekai” series, a subgenre of adventure show wherein a protagonist gets whisked away to another world and they indulge in its offerings detached from the trappings of their prior boring life.
That premise holds so many possibilities, but few isekai have capitalized on them to the extent that KonoSuba did, following the misadventures of a pyromaniac, a disturbingly masochistic warrior, a disgraced, alcoholic goddess, and their snide, petulant ringleader who’s only here because he found a loophole during his reincarnation from a truly pathetic death. It takes a while for KonoSuba‘s dysfunctional party to evolve from mildly humorous to hilariously resigned that they’re stuck with each other, but the longer their impoverished asses spend together, the more outrageous their ineptitude and facial expressions become. It’s not necessarily the gold standard of isekai parodies, but KonoSuba‘s reputation as one of the genre’s first and most famous is well-earned.
#94 – STEINS;GATE
I’ve never felt close to Steins;Gate‘s more otaku-centric elements, something that seems to be a make-or-break aspect for prospective fans during its lengthy, ominous slow burn of a first half, but I can acknowledge thrilling time travel fiction when I see it, and I can’t deny I otherwise had a fascinating time with the original Steins;Gate back in the day. For those of you who weren’t yet in the clutches of anime fandom in the far-off past that was 2011, it’s hard to express without spoiling a thing why Steins;Gate was so fawned over, but basically a group of mad genius deadbeats and their friends invent a way to send text messages to the past and the Butterfly Effect quickly spirals out of their control, forcing them to the brink of emotional torture in order to right their predicament.
5pb and Nitroplus’ semicolon series all attempt that same brand of casual conspiracy, but none of them have pulled off a series-long mental breakdown quite as well as Steins;Gate, which remains the most popular entry in its genre in anime to this day. A sequel/spin-off subtitled 0 also aired in 2018, though I’ve yet to get around to it.
#93 – ANGEL BEATS!
Jun Maeda’s material often feels torn between whether it wants to be mere slapstick comedy or cut deeper into what makes people tick, and between its grim backstories and rushed back half, Angel Beats certainly doesn’t escape that identity crisis. What it does manage to do is deliver heightened extremes in a setting where the whiplash doesn’t feel as contrived. Angel Beats is set in purgatory where a group of rebellious high schoolers, intent on not resolving hang-ups from their material lives, declares war on the student council president who’s trying to help them pass on.
As you’d expect in a world where most of the masses aren’t sentient and those who are know they can’t re-die from physical injury, the school turns into a playground of combat, everyone leisurely ticking the days away until thanks to the fun they’re having, the renegades start achieving peace of heart by accident. Angel Beats’ indulgence in trauma to that end is a little tone-deaf, but the ends justify the means, offering surprisingly poignant reflections on free will, the afterlife, and gratification…between campy Indiana Jones raids, impromptu rock concerts, baseball tournaments, and more.
On a drunken night out, a young programmer named Kobayashi meets a dragon in the forest and invites the beast to accompany her back home. Tooru, the dragon, takes full advantage of the opportunity, and per request transforms into a busty humanoid girl to work as the live-in maid of Kobayashi’s cramped apartment. As other mythical creatures begin popping their heads in, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid emphasizes the importance of community and the bridging of cross-cultural boundaries above all else. Its subject matter is often heavier than it lets on—and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t mind some of its deviant miscues in the opposite direction—but the series rights the ship when it matters most and 90% of the time Dragon Maid outshines a majority of found family anime from this decade in terms of originality. Its sharp writing and comfy, bright, and occasionally nutty visual presentation pull it through any suggestions to the contrary.
#91 – JUST BECAUSE!
At my core, I am a sucker for teenage rom-coms, and as a treat, I love when they fully embrace “mono no aware,” a profound recognition of impermanence. Thanks to my own experiences, that sensation is nostalgically intertwined with my senior year in high school; I moved halfway across the U.S. a month after graduation and knew that would be my plan for some time beforehand, and though the circumstances are a bit different here and cover five characters in depth instead of one, Just Because! also casts a light on the lingering warm fuzzies of those final days, their fleeting community and the growing uncertainty of what comes next.
That’s not a particularly uncommon tone for high school anime with more grounded, serious aspirations, but it’s somewhat rare to see that sensation become the whole ethos of a show, complete with tense confessions, college application pressures, and shared intimate moments you’ll remember for a lifetime. Just Because! at first looked to be weighed down by its own goals—the production can get very spotty due to new studio Pine Jam’s learning curves—but it hits every beat that matters and has a heart of gold.
It’s a cop-out to stamp any given Shaft show with the designation of “weird, but smart,” but it’s disingenuous to do the opposite and claim they’re not as bizarre or deep as they let on, leaving me with few satisfying options approaching this Ground Control to Psychoelectric Girl writeup. More commonly referred to by its Japanese shorthand title, Denpa Onna, the gist is this: a kid moves in with his spunky aunt and realizes for the first time that he has an absolute oddball of a cousin who’s convinced she’s an alien. Is she? No. Well, probably. The bigger question Denpa Onna raises is if that even matters. Through the studio’s signature dialogue-heavy development and eccentric visuals, what at first appears to be a harem full of weirdos slowly unveils its face as a story about the invaluable nature of human connection, tolerance of others’ quirkiness, and acceptance of one’s self. It gets to that endpoint in esoteric, roundabout ways, yes, but then again, what did you expect? It’s…weird, but smart.
I’ve waxed and waned in my appreciation of Food Wars over the years, from its humble, carnal beginnings as foodgasm ecchi to its more ambitious strides as a banner of culinary antifascism, but come what may in its final (?) arc set to air this spring, few franchises could take an idea like “what if it’s a shounen anime…but also The Food Network?” and turn it into something worth the 70+ episodes it’s received. I’ll go a step further and say it earned that length: though more recent seasons have toned down the action, watching a bunch of cocky teenage cooks put each other through the wringer hasn’t gotten old yet, especially with a cast as large as the one that Food Wars has accumulated. Whether you come for the mouthwatering recipes, timely political themes, or just want to watch characters strip in ecstasy at their dishes’ “mouthfeel,” Food Wars takes the tried-and-true “underdog aims for #1” formula and molds one of the most unique long-running shounen of the decade out of it. Bon appetit.
If, like me, you spent most of your life unfamiliar with the Lupin the Third franchise and want to change that soon, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine presents a conundrum of pros and cons as a first choice. For one, it’s uncompromisingly sultry, a thriller that depresses almost as much as it gets your heart pumping, and a stark tonal outlier in an otherwise more free-spirited canon of thieves doing what they do best: competing with one another.
But they’re not just running from cops this time—the past is an even greater menace, and Fujiko Mine has the chops to back up its uniquely noir aesthetic, approaching with tact Fujiko’s traumatic past and her challenging role as a woman in a chauvinistic underworld. Given the franchise’s sleight of hand with chronology, Fujiko Mine is also the closest thing Lupin the Third has to a “prequel,” introducing new viewers to every major member of its cast as a genuine “introduction,” though be aware, once you’ve experienced this grimier take on Lupin, it’s hard to go back to seeing them as happy-go-lucky conmen in other media. To be completely honest, that’s a sacrifice well worth the payoff of Sayo Yamamoto’s best work to date, though.
#87 – NON NON BIYORI
When a foreigner thinks of Japan’s environment, it’s likely they first envision the densely-crowded hustle and bustle of its cities, but Non Non Biyori is the first of several shows on this list set in the beautiful, pastoral, boring countryside. Having escaped to a similar setting on some of my own vacations over the years (albeit in Canada), I mean that as a compliment; this series isn’t much more than the daily shenanigans of one small village’s five remaining children, ranging from first to ninth grade, all attending the same one-room schoolhouse and desperately finding ways to assert their domain over an empty place. Far from the most ambitious series on this list, yes, but that’s precisely all it needs to be. If you want an atmospheric getaway from the clutter of your everyday life, Non Non Biyori is a fantastic introduction to “iyashikei,” a subgenre of slice-of-life anime that seeks to “soothe” or “heal” the viewer. Its inconsequential gags, adorable, youthful cast, and gorgeous visuals work in perfect synergy to accomplish just that.
#86 – YURIKUMA ARASHI
Revolutionary Girl Utena mastermind Kunihiko Ikuhara came back swinging this decade with three new cult classic series, and while neither his best nor his worst of that bunch, Yurikuma Arashi was sure as hell the most meme-able. Taking the director’s passion for catchphrases, transformation sequences, taboo love, theatrical framing, and s t a i r s to new levels, a surface-level read would have you believe Yurikuma is about…lesbian bears, and that’s not wrong, per se? But Ikuhara uses that absurd backdrop to weave together an insightful (and often abruptly humorous) commentary on how lust, censorship, and indoctrination to fear intersect. I’ll be honest, when I first watched this one, I was just here for the laughs half the time—but that absence of expectations just made the show’s sudden dramatic peaks all the more powerful. Coupled with spectacular setpieces and exquisite voice acting, Yurikuma remains the auteur’s most tightly-written one-cour series to date.
#85 – WAGNARIA!!
It feels like forever ago since Wagnaria!! (more often referred to by its original, Google-unfriendly title, Working!!) aired, but its early material kicked the decade into gear and the series ended up becoming one of the longest-running workplace gag comedies of this period. Set in a sit-down chain restaurant of the same name, Wagnaria follows one location’s financially desperate teenage waitstaff, scheming young adults who want to watch the world burn, and laughably incompetent management as they go about their shifts and stumble into some of the most convoluted unrequited love webs imaginable. This cast of wackos quickly establishes their signature quirks, but the witty writing and new scenarios never get old over three cours. A less impressive spin-off with new characters entitled WWW.Working also aired in 2016, but the original vastly overshadows it and stands the test of time very well.
#84 – VIOLET EVERGARDEN
Transitions to peacetime after brutal war have historically been an extremely weird condition, and Kyoto Animation cranked the intertwined heartbreak and healing of one such invented period up to eleven with Violet Evergarden, their biggest TV hit of the last few years. Mostly episodic, Evergarden follows its titular protagonist, a wounded, cold, child soldier, as she adjusts to life as a letterwriter at a post office. The series’ long-term pacing is a bit shaky, accelerating or halting Violet’s emotional growth at its own convenience, but taken in smaller doses, her one-on-one experiences with clients lead to several of the most heart-wrenching episodes in the medium, bar none.
Backing that drama up is KyoAni’s satisfaction guaranteed visual polish, and Violet Evergarden is arguably their prettiest, most film-like title to date in a repertoire already overflowing with competition for that crown. Even if its plot beats are somewhat inconsistent (a flaw I’ll chalk up to the source material), Violet’s journey from a taciturn, dutiful combat pawn to a more self-aware, sensitive civilian is nonetheless incredibly touching, as is her struggle to come to terms with loss as the series’ small and large-scale developments converge.
#83 – THE MAGNIFICENT KOTOBUKI
You’ll soon see that a Mizushima-Yokote tag-team production rarely goes astray in my book, and their most recent work, The Magnficent Kotobuki, is no exception to that despite its (unfairly) maligned CG visual style. In a rugged, desert world, the skies are the key to transport and commerce, and Kotobuki follows one squadron of pilots as they go from bodyguards for a zeppelin to rebels against a tyrant rapidly ascending in power through deals with pirates. Kotobuki is something of a slice-of-life/action hybrid, allotting almost equal time for spectacular midair dogfights and conversations about if pancakes alone could sustain a person’s nutritional needs. Its worldbuilding trickles out naturally, its dialogue is ceaselessly lively, and its final form as an all-guns-blazing repudiation of totalitarianism is just icing on top of an already delicious cake. These attributes are nothing new to these two creators, nor is Mizushima’s love for antiquated war machines, but they come together mighty well with this particular cast.
#82 – LOG HORIZON
Taking the title of Least Expected Threequel Announcement, Log Horizon will actually be back later this year, so if you missed the ride when it first aired, now’s a great opportunity to hop aboard! In its heyday, this series was often touted as the more cerebral take on what would happen if you found yourself stuck in a video game, the counterpoint to Sword Art Online‘s edgier power fantasy. But make no mistake, this show is still very much a power fantasy, just fetishizing a power that’s way more my speed than deus ex machinas and harems: the power of diplomacy. Log Horizon‘s characters find themselves spirited away to an MMORPG they all used to play, and upon scoping out the limits of their abilities, one of the best teams around essentially devotes their time to using those mechanics benevolently, building a functioning, equitable, and peaceful society in virtual reality.
The series’ use of internal game functions is still among the most comprehensive in this subgenre, and its cast, ranging from kids playing at warriors to adults running guilds to NPCs with full autonomy to William Fucking Massachusetts, is impeccably diverse and jovial in spirit. Earlier MMORPG fantasy anime walked so that Log Horizon could run, sure, but all these years later, no competitor in its class has managed to catch up to it.
After catching the demanding eye of her country’s bumbling prince, a young apothecary named Shirayuki flees her homeland and stumbles into a neighboring kingdom’s much nicer, more responsible prince named Zen, and the two swiftly hit it off. Eager to repay him and his comrades for ushering her to safety, she takes a job as an apprentice court herbalist and a patient romance ensues, stitched into a framework of slightly above-average fantasy politicking and episodic adventures. Snow White With The Red Hair is based on far from the most original idea out there, but its spectacular visuals and endearing cast make up for its more derivative plot devices. The first season is a little sluggish (and with Shirayuki and Zen’s reluctant personalities, that shouldn’t be a surprise), but once they get closer, it blooms into one of the best played-straight fantasy romances from the medium in recent memory.
#80 – THE GREAT PASSAGE
Get this: people…living, breathing people…make dictionaries. Wild, I know. The Great Passage is in part about the nuances of that process—I certainly never thought about how in modern contexts, editing a print dictionary happens at a slower rate than language itself changes, for instance. But in a wider sense, The Great Passage is a mature and quiet drama about how language shapes us, gives feelings a name, and helps us understand the world and people around us a bit better, even if we traverse life with different gaits. Mitsuya Majime, a low-energy, socially awkward, middle-aged man is the central character of this story, often lost in his own head and spacing out to his peers’ frustration. Through his new position as an editor with this dictionary team, he begins finding the words to verbalize his thoughts more clearly, and it subtly starts to show as he finds a place to belong.
The Great Passage doesn’t offer much in terms of excitement beyond Mitsuya’s adorably awkward romantic advances with his landlord’s granddaughter and a setback or two on the job, but the series’ no-nonsense, adult tone is a breath of fresh air from the medium’s abundance of youth-centric work and its characters are nothing short of heartwarming.
#79 – WANDERING SON
Let’s face it, as a cis white male, most works of art in our media landscape are tailor-crafted by executives in business meetings to try to satiate my demographic’s tastes. But being challenged by seeking new perspectives is key to growth and not getting bored with a medium, and to that end, Wandering Son was not only monumental for me, it might as well be required viewing for anyone who A) doesn’t feel comfortable around trans people and B) thinks that LGBTQIA+ issues are non-existent in Japan just because the country’s media rarely focuses on them.
With any luck, both of those ill-conceived notions will begin to disappear for you as they did me thanks to Wandering Son, which follows two trans kids as they experiment with coming out of the closet from a young age. It’s a fantastic drama on its own merit, examining the ways our society conditions us to think about gender and ostracize those who don’t fit into traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity, and it’s all the more valuable for someone like me who, at the time I first saw it, didn’t know any publicly trans people in person. In the absence of meatspace voices, art becomes one of the easiest ways for people to learn of perspectives beyond their own, and in that regard Wandering Son is an informative watch that ultimately encourages those of us in a position of privilege to pay heed to the experiences of the marginalized.
#78 – GOLDEN KAMUY
After the Russo-Japanese war, the good-hearted “Immortal Sugimoto” sets forth on an expedition through Japan’s northern frontier of Hokkaido in search of stolen gold, but after getting saved from the wild by an Ainu girl named Asirpa, they decide to continue the journey as a duo. The government and a variety of opportunists also have their eye on the treasure, though, and the resulting adventure sees Golden Kamuy get utterly batshit.
But like, in a funny way—though its Ainu-Japanese relations are kept tasteful and the series can be serious when the stakes call for it, this show works hard to intentionally undercut its concept’s toughness in almost every other context. After the first few gags, you think you know where Golden Kamuy‘s going, but then it just…keeps…going…until you’re well into season two and realize the hunt has brought a dozen extra oddballs into the fold. There’s a bit of filler and a general tendency to meander, dialing the show’s pace back a bit, but Golden Kamuy remains one of the silliest adventure series of the decade, and its flaws on paper circle back around to providing the show personality that it and it alone has the charisma to make work.
#77 – ASTRA LOST IN SPACE
In the semi-distant future, space travel is not only possible, but a rite of passage, and this group of high schoolers get more than they bargained for on their Space Camp when a mysterious portal sucks them all into deep space. They only survive thanks to split-second planning and a nearby unmanned vessel providing shelter, but trying to figure out why this happened, the nine kids soon deduce that it was no accident and some darker plan is afoot. In the meantime, they have to bear each other and figure out why they’ve been sent to die as they try to reach humanity again.
No spoilers for Astra Lost In Space‘s many subsequent twists and turns, but this show is the most fun experience I’ve had with a Cliffhanger City type of series in some time. Its endearing characters, creative worlds, and big-picture sci-fi ambitions all enjoy their day in the limelight, and while it almost gets a bit too big for its britches, Astra‘s heart is even bigger, championing themes of cooperation, self-autonomy, and the pursuit of knowledge on the crew’s zany adventure back home. Go in as blind as possible and enjoy the fiasco.
#76 – BEASTARS
Studio Orange emerged late in the decade as the most promising CG animation team in the game, and I think part of their success thus far has hinged on their decision to adapt works that don’t feature conventional human beings, sidestepping the uncanny valley and giving themselves more freedom to play with design. To that effect, Beastars is a resounding success; set in a world of humanoid animals where carnivores find it shockingly easy to get away with murder, one timid wolf battles his conscience and heart, trying to block out his instinct for bloodlust and get to know a rabbit girl he has his eyes on.
There’s much more to the story than that (especially with a greenlit sequel coming our way soon to hopefully wrap up loose ends), but while Beastars‘ first season bites off a bit more than it can chew, the flavors it exudes are fantastic, offering insightful, creative thoughts on gender politics, social power, and carnal desire. Keep an eye out for when its delayed release on Netflix drops this March.
#75 – DURARARA!!
As the first anime I watched from this decade, one of the first I watched in general, and the chief reason I met my For Great Justice co-writer Haru, Durarara!! was bound to nab a spot on this list one way or another, but it’s even better that it largely earns that spot on its own merit as an urban fantasy that goes off the rails early and stays off those rails for a very long time.
Ryohgo Narita was no stranger to throwing a bunch of conniving, murderous city folk in a blender and seeing where his pen would take him; he did just that in Baccano!, set in 1930s New York, and Durarara!! transposes that to 21st-century Tokyo, where gangs weaponize the internet, pharmaceuticals are conducting human experiments, superstrength sociopaths look to settle grudges, and a bunch of loafers get in over their heads with the resulting chaos. Durarara!! can be (and often is) a serious drama, but it knows the parameters of its premise are ridiculous, and as the cast grows larger and larger over its five cours, it never misses an opportunity to intertwine its character arcs with dumb fun whose longevity may surprise you.
In the distant future, most of humanity has long left behind Earth to fight ferocious lifeforms called the “Hideauze” in deep space with the promise that at the end of one’s military service, they’ll get to live their remaining life in comfort. That idea goes down the drain once a young ensign, Ledo, and his robot crash land all the way back on Earth, which is now completely covered in water and inhabited by stragglers on banded-together fleets of ships. Taken aback with culture shock, Ledo attempts to integrate into a non-militaristic role for the first time on Gargantia, challenging all he’s ever known…with another surprise twist or two lurking in the depths below. Gargantia‘s writing is splendid and the way its characters challenge each other is fascinating, but for me the world itself and all its picturesque splendor is the biggest selling point, a prime place for Gen Urobuchi to get to work with his usual Uro-butchering.
#73 – SWEETNESS AND LIGHTNING
It may not be clear yet based on what’s been listed above, but I utterly adore a well-written family-themed anime, and I also adore home-cooked grub. Family and food are kind of one in the same, right? One helps us grow up, the other helps our bodies literally grow, and the two combine during mealtimes. In Sweetness and Lightning, a kindly teacher whose wife recently passed vows to cook better meals for their energetic young daughter, which is easier said than done with his demanding work schedule and her realistically childlike picky tastes. One of his students then offers for them to come down to her family’s restaurant, and from that point on the trio, occasionally joined by other friends and family, begins regularly meeting for meals. The more, the merrier! Sweetness and Lightning celebrates the homely connection of cooking and eating together and portrays the highs and lows of single parenthood with a keen eye and open heart. It’s a lovely overlooked gem, and I hope I can turn more people onto it.
#72 – NORAGAMI
Central to some components of Japanese mythology is the understanding that deities are only powerful when they’re recognized, and Noragami, which follows a “stray god” named Yato who’s almost bit the dust and takes any job he can for chump change and a bit of street cred, is a fascinating look into one way that relationship might pan out. Yato’s past is awfully bleak and his fall from grace is stark, rendering him a cunning and dark-humored sort in the present, but he still manages to strike a deal with a young woman whose soul keeps accidentally slipping out of her body and a recently-deceased spirit who proves that even dead teenagers have their fair share of angst to wade through. Noragami is ostensibly an action anime, and fair enough, its fight scenes are pretty rad, but its particular balance of character drama and morbid comedy is what really seals the deal and makes this show a standout title among other entries in its genre.
#71 – KAGUYA-SAMA: LOVE IS WAR
What happens when two haughty rich kids are clearly in love with each other but they both refuse to confess, interpreting that move as a sign of weakness? You get Kaguya-sama, a stupendous skit comedy that not only pokes fun at upper class self-seriousness, but the more universal phenomenon that is teenagers embarrassing themselves while flirting. The lead duo in this show has enough volatile chemistry to entertain for days on their own, but their mischievous friends only make it even sillier, constantly stirring the pot, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unwittingly. As is the case for most great comedy anime, the cast’s versatile voice acting and Shinichi Omata’s bold direction elevate this adaptation beyond the already superb heights of its source material, and I’m eagerly awaiting the series’ sequel due out later this year. If you missed it, now’s an ideal time to catch up.
#70 – SENYU
Ever play that game in grade school where you get a sheet of paper, a writing utensil, a bunch of friends, and you pass the tools in a circle, each person adding to a story on the page until the thing looks like a complete mess and the plot doesn’t make a lick of sense anymore? That’s basically what Senyu is like. Airing right at the start of the “a hero has to go defeat the demon lord” trope boom, this sub-5-minute short series (the only one of such a length on the list) never really has enough time for its plot to get going, so it just flings its devious characters in every direction, invents contrivance after contrivance to situate them in increasingly terrible situations, and puts its one (1) straight man, Alba, through hell from the first episode onward. Senyu is supposed to be a parody of its genre, and I guess it is, but in this cartoonish hellscape where heroes become villains and vice versa, it actually winds up having more personality than most of the things it’s mocking.
#69 – SEIREN
Outsiders comment all the time that anime is “weird” and “wacky” and they’re usually letting surface aesthetics and biases dictate the way they approach the medium. But sometimes…sometimes they’re right and anime is just really fucking weird. Seiren, for instance, is a series about an aggressively average boy who dates three different classmates across three separate mini-arcs. The normal character archetypes get thrown out the window. So do many of anime’s token rom-com plot devices. Instead, and in the most mundane manner possible, Seiren gives us conversations about deer mating simulators, Christmas-themed undergarments, and accusations of vending machine molestation. This show is a hurricane of hormones diluted through sandpaper, existing in a realm where the particulars of teenage horniness are always taken with a straight face just beyond a sensible person’s foresight.
That’s surprisingly refreshing. Exciting. Bemusing. Three years later, I can still feel the depravity in my pants. I could never call Seiren a “great” show, but it’s too earnestly ridiculous to be “bad” or even boring, and as such it’s endured as one of my cult classic favorites.
#68 – HANASAKU IROHA
Mommy issues have been a recurring theme in Mari Okada’s original creations, and Hanasaku Iroha may not be the most true-to-experience of the writer’s projects, but it sure as hell feels like it could be. Protagonist Ohana Matsumae’s mother just up and leaves one day, beckoning the teen to move into her grandmother’s rural resort inn…as long as she works as an employee there too instead of freeloading. Between trying to make new friends with the other staff to mixed results and realizing through trial and error that physical labor isn’t her natural strong suit, Ohana does a lot of reluctant growing up on the inn’s premises…if only she could get the two generations of women before her to also stop being so stubbornly fixated on past grudges. Hanasaku Iroha plays fast and loose with additional love subplots that may or may not just be there to pad out side characters’ personalities, but the series’ comedy, core themes, and enthusiasm are contagiously exciting and its visual presentation is superb. It’s a damn good family drama well worth your time.
Middle schooler Asuta Jimon had just run away from home without much of a plan when he bumped into someone whose plans are perhaps a bit too lofty: a 10-year-old named Kate Hoshimiya intent on taking over the world. Initially writing Kate off, Asuta soon realizes that she’s found a way to amass immense energy and it’s caught the eyes of the government. To extend their plans and safeguard her comrades, Kate formed her own organization called Zvezda which welcomes anyone who needs a bed to sleep on and a meal to eat…like Asuta currently does.
Once he reluctantly joins, World Conquest Zvezda Plot takes full refuge in audacity, the makeshift army hiding in plain sight and staging all sorts of ridiculous stands to further their agenda. The show is probably most famous nowadays for its legendary anti-smoking episode, but Zvezda Plot‘s imagination and charm overshadow its specific crusades, emphasizing the importance of chosen family and declaring there’s a place for every lost misfit who wants to be found. Believe in the Kate that believes in you. Or something. Zvezda is just really, really fun.
#66 – SEKKO BOYS
Idol anime generally aren’t my speed unless they do something bizarre to the framework, and whew does Sekko Boys ever. So, picture this (I mean, you kind of already can with those screenshots): the idols are…sentient, marble busts of St. George, Mars, Hermes, and one of the Medicis. They seemingly can’t move by themselves (even though they do off-screen), their visages never change, and yet…they’re a functioning, albeit dysfunctional, boy band and nobody bats an eye.
Except Miki Ishimoto, their new manager/chauffeur, who bears a grudge against the very concept of busts after they put her through hell and back in art school. Sekko Boys is a short with episodes around 10 minutes in length, and it’s for the better that way; the series gets as much mileage as it can out of the original punchline and bows out confidently after a couple surprisingly serious character arcs. It’s a novelty comedy, yes, but there’s absolutely a place for those on this list, especially one this easy and fulfilling to rewatch.
#65 – SSSS.GRIDMAN
I’m not generally inclined towards mecha anime for the engineering, but titles in that canon which prioritize its characters can resonate with me regardless. SSSS.Gridman is one such anime that won me over, likely because it’s more a case study about lonely kids wanting to feel powerful than it is a beatdown between giant robots and kaiju for its own sake. It does play the amnesiac blank slate protagonist card, and that’s a bit of a bummer, but the rest of the cast is excellent and the series’ depictions of teenage angst, lethargy, and fleeting motivation are spot on to an uncomfortable degree. Its secretive, creeping worldbuilding also had me on the edge of my seat for weeks, and as for the remarkable payoff at the end of it all, I won’t spoil anything, but rest assured Gridman‘s occasional stupor is worth seeing out for the sprint in the closing stretch. Few anime this decade have replicated the self-serving darkness of isolation and the light at the end of the tunnel as well as it did.
#64 – UN-GO
In a disaster-ravaged Tokyo, the calm and collected “Defeated Detective” Shinjuurou Yuuki and his enigmatic associate Inga are ingeniously solving cases left and right, but due to some baggage from Shinjuurou’s past and a tense social climate, the credit for their deductions always ends up going to somebody else. When a reality-bending figure enters the picture and Un-Go evolves from a mere supernaturally-aided whodunnit into a total mindfuck, the pair’s mettle is truly put to the test.
Though set in the future and utilizing non-existent technology to that end, the series was mostly pulled from the writings of Ango Sakaguchi, a mystery author who was most active in the decade following WWII before his untimely death in 1955. Un-Go‘s setting in turn combines a menagerie of material and psychological influences across time, and its worldbuilding remains some of the most fascinating I’ve ever seen from anime. If you don’t mind your mysteries on the wild side, it’s a deeply intriguing watch with loads of style from start to finish. Make sure to catch the short film prequel Episode 0 afterward as well.
#63 – MY HERO ACADEMIA
In case you’re still holding out hope, allow me to let you down easy and early; between their massive episode totals and generally formulaic structures, I’m not the biggest fan of long-running shounen series. Every once and a while, though, I catch one whose themes align with things I find interesting and jump aboard early enough to experience the ride in real time instead of slogging through heaps of episodes late.
For the latter half of the decade, HeroAca been that show. I’m not sure it’s possible to be into current anime without at least knowing of this superhero high school jamboree, but if you somehow aren’t, a Quirkless (superpowerless) kid gets hand-picked by the world’s most famous superhero to inherit his abilities and arc after arc of righteous heroism ensues. With an ensemble cast that’s like 95% enjoyable (they still need to do surgery on the grape) and a handful of some of the most inventive fight matchups in recent memory, HeroAca’s masterful pacing of peaks and troughs keeps viewers hooked and carries a much-needed torch for all ages of anime fan: the belief that responsibility, empathy, and courage can vanquish mankind’s most destructive impulses.
#62 – TSUREDURE CHILDREN
Puberty is fucking strange and we’re all lucky to have made it out the other side with what remains of our dignity relatively intact. The distance of time allows us to laugh at our mistakes, and that same distance likewise allows me to laugh at Tsuredure Children instead of feeling its teens’ disastrous flirting as a sharp pain in my gut. This short series follows a seemingly endless stream of new or prospective couples as they attempt to get over their own racing hearts and [kids, please turn away] hold hands in public. And- and…kiss?
Even beyond their inexperience, external circumstances often end up making their situations more harrowing than they ought to be, and whether you end up watching a duo experience mere puppy love for the first time or someone’s mom walking in on their kid learning about the birds and bees like a diving instructor throwing an infant into the deep end, Tsuredure Children chases down its skits with a good-natured, “we’ve all been there” pat on the back.
#61 – ZOMBIE LAND SAGA
I mentioned earlier that if I’m watching an idol anime of my own accord, there’s a good chance it’s pretty unconventional. Zombie Land Saga sure is. Any guesses why? No, not because they’re zombies (okay, yes, because they’re zombies). But also because it’s set in fucking Saga, like, the Delaware of Japan. That prefecture might as well not exist if not for its historical significance, and as a result, tourism moolah is screeching to a halt, and through some exact process withheld from our knowledge, a producer decides to reanimate seven dead young girls from the last few centuries, hand them all mics, and yell at them to earn some bread for the glory of their new homeland.
Zombie Land Saga is an uproariously funny collision of two distinctly separate genres, and that would be good enough on its own to land a spot here somewhere, but it also treats its recently-undeceased leads with patience and love, allowing them to come to terms with their deaths and seize this new opportunity, however twisted, to not let shit luck destroy their visions of grandeur. It’s a riot.
#60 – PSYCHO-PASS
In a rare move, I’m actually not praising this franchise as a whole; the series’ second season swapped hands and its new team didn’t retain the thematic poignancy of the original material, discouraging me from checking its accompanying movie and eventual third season. But that first season of Psycho-Pass is something truly incredible, following a rookie cop’s crises of conscience in a society where one’s mental state is judged by weaponry to be either “threatening” or “safe.” It’s obvious to the cast from the get-go that they’re doling out an imperfect practice, dismissive of trauma victims and people with mental health problems, and the squad’s resolve is put to the test in the other direction once Makishima, a psychopath who never triggers the system’s alarm, goes on a killing spree.
Psycho-Pass is one of the grittiest dystopian crime procedurals in the medium, not for its goosebumps-inducing bloodbaths, but for its eloquent and incisive attacks on automation, cognitive bias, and the police as a weapon of the state. The aforementioned later seasons lose those brainier talking points, but the franchise’s first installment remains laudable in isolation.
#59 – CHIHAYAFURU
Chihayafuru uses the same structure as a sports anime, and I guess it technically is one, but it’s not a sport most of us in the west would be familiar with: uta-garuta, a karuta (“playing cards”) game in which a series of poems is announced by a card reader and two players have to slap the corresponding cards on the floor for each turn as fast as they can. The first to get rid of their cards wins, and while the game can be played in easier forms, competitive karuta is truly cutthroat to the point that masterful players will swoop for the right cards in fractions of a second after hearing their first syllables read. This anime follows a group of high-schoolers of various strengths in their karuta club and off-campus karuta society, eager to eventually master the game and have it provide some sense of direction.
Chihayafuru is a slow burn, but it’s a masterfully composed one, balancing romance, levity, and swings of victory and despair without a single bobble. The fact that I only got around to the series last year and still happily breezed through its then 50-odd episodes is a testament to how gripping it is, and its monumental ongoing third season has only made me appreciate it even more.
Seeing as this decade has encompassed my life between the ages of 13 and 23, it should come as no surprise that a lot of my favorite anime are set in schools and feature kids growing into themselves. Sometimes that’s a relatively graceful process, but O Maidens goes for broke on the assumption that smart kids are not wise kids, especially in regards to puberty and first love, and boy is the resulting trainwreck exhilarating. Kick-started by one member of a literature club requesting to talk openly about the S word, all of her peers and some of their crushes get flushed down a whirlpool of questionable decision-making, pent-up frustration, and naive sexual advances.
Depending on how promiscuous your youth was, O Maidens may either be too uncomfortable to watch or too uncomfortable to not watch, but while its vicarious pleasure-seeking in cringe was understandably divisive, the show’s soul comes back full circle by series end, getting so weirdly empowering that I couldn’t help but smile.
#57 – TERROR IN RESONANCE
Between government conspiracy subplots and the oft-ridiculed airport chess scene, Terror In Resonance is a show that many could easily write off as a thriller too big for its britches, and depending on how you determine the confines it’s trying to shoot within, you’re not necessarily wrong. But when its outcast lead characters codenamed Nine and Twelve go on a spree of property destruction and accidentally rope an ostracized high-schooler in with their criminal antics, Terror quietly becomes a show that’s less “about terrorism” per se and more a cathartic release of payback for a trio who aim to harm no one but make their presence known.
In the solace they start to find with each other, their resolve to attain political ends starts to fade, and as the authorities close in on leads, external institutions start interfering to twist the felons’ narrative and conceal state secrets. Criticism of the military-industrial complex is always welcome, and within that, Terror interrogates our innate desire to avenge wrong and our dedication to self-sacrificial causes. It’s one of the most visually cinematic anime of the decade and stars what might just be the best standalone OST of this period in Yoko Kanno’s Sigur Rós-inspired foray into dream pop and post-rock. Sometimes aesthetic and thematic grace can overcome weaker series composition, and that’s precisely the case with Terror In Resonance.
#56 – BLOOM INTO YOU
Yuu Koito grew up enamored with shoujo manga but never felt those same warm fuzzies from other people in real life until one of her upperclassmen, Touko Nanami, confesses with the stipulation that Yuu not love her back. Bloom Into You‘s status as a frontrunner in queer anime is well-earned: its central romance is interpretive but regardless of how you read Yuu and Touko’s dynamic, the series features explicitly lesbian and asexual characters in a multi-faceted light that de-fetishizes their lives and refreshingly treats them like ordinary, complex people.
That disarming of yuri tropes allows Bloom to double as a grounded series about self-actualization, pushed along by the student council’s efforts to revive a school play at Touko’s behest. All sorts of unaddressed baggage comes flowing out during the group’s progress, but Bloom never presents it in an exploitative fashion, instead letting these characters feel out their place within each other’s lives at their own pace. It’s one of the most intimate and thoughtful romances of the decade as a result.
#55 – AMAGI BRILLIANT PARK
You know back in the day when Pokémon seemed all fun and games until you actually read Pokédex entries to the effect of “this creature feeds off the excitement of young children and will die if the people around it don’t have fun anymore?” That’s…sort of the conceit behind Amagi Brilliant Park; it’s an amusement park staffed by magical beings from “Maple Land” who need the energy of happy humans to survive, but their attractions have grown less appealing to contemporary audiences, they’re not taking in enough revenue as a result, and they don’t have long to turn their sinking ship around.
So what do they do? Hold an arrogant high schooler named Seiya at gunpoint and appoint him as their new park director. That vital decision helps Amagi Brilliant Park work as a two-way street, the park adapting to Seiya’s practical demands and the narcissist slowly growing more compassionate towards those around him. Amaburi is one of Kyoto Animation’s better comedies, full of bizarre episodic escapades and scathingly witty dialogue, but its larger goal as a plea for teamwork, flexibility, and care propel it to truly grand heights.
#54 – LITTLE WITCH ACADEMIA
Considering we’re all getting rightly fed up with J.K. Rowling’s verbal incontinence these days, Little Witch Academia is timely proof that not all fiction about wizardry set in Britain is an inherently terrible idea. The full-length TV series takes the cast of Yoh Yoshinari’s two LWA short films and rewrites them into a larger overarching story about novice Akko Kagari’s attempts at showing off magic that she doesn’t really know how to channel. As she grows into a more capable witch, bad blood between two of her professors spawns a schism within the school, and Little Witch‘s ultimate message is that neither hardline conservatism nor reckless trailblazing can sustain a tradition. Each approach to a craft has its own advantages and drawbacks, and overcoming that difference of opinion and working together is the truest way to keep a discipline relevant for generations to come. As you might’ve guessed, the witchcraft-as-metaphor-for-animation thing isn’t exactly subtle, but with passion this contagious on display, it doesn’t need to be. Little Witch Academia is simply delightful.
If you weren’t already in seasonal anime hell for it—and it occurred about a year before I took up that mantle—it’s hard to imagine a world before Madoka Magica‘s iconic shit-hitting-fan third episode, a time where this show existed and people weren‘t aware it would quickly descend into psychological horror. The fact that someone can still throw on Madoka knowing any number of the boundless mega-spoilers it contains and still viscerally feel each twist of the knife when it arrives is no small feat.
Unfortunately, Madoka‘s reputation as the dark “deconstruction” of the magical girl genre often precedes the reality that it’s not the first of its kind, but I can’t blame anyone for feeling that way either. The torment it puts its characters through—not being able to save your friends, having your ethics manipulated, and more—isn’t horrifying because the aesthetic of the show seems so unassuming at first, but because we’re hardwired to intuit when something’s too good to be true. Madoka‘s cast does just that, but they’re cocky about their ability to handle matters when the time comes, and watching the ramifications of that naivete is still a breathtaking experience nearly a decade on from when it first shook viewers to their core.
#52 – NICHIJOU
Arguably the definitive gag comedy of its generation, watching Nichijou‘s cast of eccentrics tussle is tantamount to tuning into late-night TV, where ad space blends with scheduled content, you’re not entirely sure if anything has a reason for existing, and lung-burstingly funny punchlines hit you harder than a cinderblock to the pinky toe. Even if you haven’t seen Nichijou, you’re likely tangentially aware of its classics; scenes like “Yuuko tries to order a coffee,” “the shrine of destruction,” and “the principal suplexes a deer” have reached an omnipresence within the subculture that most shows branded “moe” can only dream of attaining.
As I’ve hopefully just made clear, the “everyday life” of Nichijou is so enticing because about a third of the time, it’s relatable, casual silliness, another third of the time, it’s exaggerated slapstick, and the final third will leave you stupefied. It’s all bundled up in overachieving sakuga, abundant eye-catches, and disconnected skits that call forward and back to themselves across the entire length of the series. Marathoning Nichijou is something of a tall order, but we all have friends we wouldn’t want to live with who make for thrilling memories in shorter bursts, and that‘s the strand of excited energy Nichijou‘s flexes its mastery of.
The “hero vs. demon lord” trope was ripe for subversion from the get-go, and The Devil is a Part-Timer! played with it three ways over: making the hero the aggressor, teleporting the cast into modern-day Tokyo, and playing the conflict for laughs more than drama. Frustration steadily builds and when the divine beings regain some of their magic power, civility gets thrown out the window, but in the meantime, Satan has a gig at McDonald’s and the demi-angel hero works at a call center. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
In other words, despise your shitty job and the clutches of poverty more than your nemeses. The Devil is a Part-Timer! is an absolute hoot; between its stellar voice acting, fun as hell fight scenes, superb comedic versatility, and constant shifts in dynamic, this series closed the door on its foundational trope before it even had time to truly saturate the market. In its day, I predicted no one was going to do The Devil is a Part-Timer! better than The Devil is a Part-Timer! and what do you know, no one has since.
#50 – BUNNY DROP
We don’t talk about the manga’s ending in this house.
That out of the way, Bunny Drop is another entry in the “single parent raises a little kid” collection, and it’s notable in that it’s also an adoption story; 30-year-old bachelor Daikichi meets 6-year-old Rin at his grandfather’s funeral and whispers among the relatives reveal that Rin is the old man’s illegitimate child. After being shunned by the rest of the family, Daikichi resolves to take Rin in and give her a place to feel welcome after a life of being the elephant in the room.
That takes some adjusting for the two of them, and safe to say early on Daikichi has no goddamn clue how to parent, but the duo becomes utterly heartwarming to watch over the course of the series. Bunny Drop isn’t all rays of sunshine, either; though the joy that the new father-daughter pair emanates is palpable, so are the logistical challenges of an adult trying to raise a child that’s not technically his, especially one with self-esteem issues. Partially because it’s relatively older and partially due to its source material’s very not good conclusion, Bunny Drop doesn’t get much attention these days, but this anime adaptation is still positively charming.
“Chuunibyou,” basically translated as “eighth-grader syndrome,” is an expression that encapsulates embarrassing middle-school behavior, specifically that unhealthy delirium where you pretend fantasies are taking place in the real world. If you’re aware at all of this character archetype, there’s a half-decent chance Love, Chuunibyou & Other Delusions was your introduction to it; moving into high school, Yuuta Togashi wants to put his chuunibyou past behind him and start anew, but his neighbor Rikka Takanashi is in very deep with it and won’t leave his side (the blackmail helps, too).
Chuunibyou‘s cringe comedy is its defining feature, but what really elevates the show is its compassionate understanding that Rikka’s theatrics are partially a coping mechanism for her insecure family life. As her relationship with Yuuta progresses, so does their understanding of each other, culminating (after a shakier but not catastrophically bad second season) in the full-length film Take On Me, which is one of my favorite movies of the decade and caps off the franchise with a brilliant last hoorah. The ride getting there is no bore on its own and absolutely worth it.
#48 – MAOYU
Maoyu is one of the few comparatively serious takes on the “hero vs. demon lord” subgenre, disarming the animosity from its first minutes and following the two figureheads as they pursue a rocky relationship and aim to stall out a war between their realms’ respective armies. Despite carrying over fantasy elements that it may or may not subvert on a whim, Maoyu is a thorough commentary on the economics of conflict and how fear of the unknown stokes unwarranted resentment.
Its feudal social order is cemented yet malleable—none of its characters have names beyond their supposed roles, but those roles aren’t set in stone—and the demon lord and hero’s mission to unite the two realms runs into several roadblocks as they struggle to convince the masses that they can offer the foundation of a comfortable life without the need to prolong their crusading. In public the cast puts on a diplomatic air, but in private they’re vulnerable to love and doubt like the average person. There are more “fun” fantasy anime out there, but in terms of real-world resonance and goals that shoot for the stars, Maoyu‘s revolutionary fervor set a high bar.
#47 – DEVILMAN CRYBABY
I don’t have a very large threshold for gore and misery unless it’s backed up by mighty powerful writing, and Devilman Crybaby‘s R-rated brutality certainly is. Transposing Go Nagai’s original premise into the present day, Crybaby is an accelerated apocalypse, a cosmic war between vice and virtue, and in its final moments, a firm rejection of the worldwide nihilism that precedes it. If light shines most poignantly surrounded by darkness, characters like Miki and Akira, the latter of whom spends the series as an unwitting half-demon pawn for his friend’s dastardly plans, might as well burn bright as the sun for refusing to give into paranoia.
This show tests its heroes almost as much as it tests its viewers; Crybaby is grim even before the end times reach the point of no return, graphically depicting emotional manipulation, substance abuse, and murder without a second thought. Unlike almost all its horror-thriller competition, it manages to feel truly scary despite how desensitized modern audiences are to witnessing such violence in fiction. Crybaby doesn’t give you time to catch your breath. It’s a barrage of tragedy designed to overwhelm, and that destruction’s service to a defeated hope is a visceral warning for us to not follow the same road to ruin.
#46 – FLYING WITCH
And now for something completely different, how about an anime with childish wonder, beautiful scenery, and no antagonism whatsoever? Whether you just finished Crybaby or simply need a distraction from life’s turbulence, this slice-of-life about a kindly young witch named Makoto moving in with some relatives in the countryside around Hirosaki is sure to soothe your soul and spirit you away to a happier place.
Flying Witch‘s sorcery is rarely extravagant, but it’s always enthralling, predicated on simple tricks, rustic traditions, and friendly monkey business. The less-is-more approach is part of the appeal, and gleaning the inside of this witching world through the eyes of Makoto’s 9-year-old cousin Chinatsu means we get to glide through a magical everyday life with the same curiosity and awe as a literal child. Fleshed out by a witty and chill supporting cast, Flying Witch remains one of the breeziest anime I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.
#45 – PENGUINDRUM
Two brothers and their sickly little sister are out enjoying an afternoon at an aquarium when the girl, Himari, collapses. Just when all hope seems lost, a sentient penguin hat from the gift shop revives her and inhabits her body, demanding that the boys search for something referred to as “the Penguindrum.” With no leads on what that actually is, the tough-faced Kanba and pretty boy Shouma go on a wild goose chase, meeting even more nutcases and confronting harsh truths about their late parents on the ensuing breadcrumb trail.
Penguindrum is my personal favorite production by esteemed director Kunihiko Ikuhara, balancing his common inquiries about love, purpose, and connection with a zaniness, lurking dread, and in-universe maze of deception that only a multi-cour time-span allows enough space for. While not the most famous title in his catalogue, it’s arguably his most diverse work thematically and the pinnacle of his ambition, an uncomfortable watch that shows someone grabbing the medium by the horns and unabashedly having his way with it from start to finish. Go in as blind as possible and you’ll soon see why it’s so…electrifying.
#44 – ASOBI ASOBASE
Don’t let its lighthearted opening deceive you; Asobi Asobase may not be the first or last schoolgirl gag comedy on this list but it’s by far the most extra. Voice acting? Inhumane. Reaction faces? Contorted to hell and back. Hit-to-miss joke ratio? Way better than it has any business being. It’s never fun watching terrible people terrorize good people, but Asobi Asobase‘s good eggs are thankfully few and far between. The series’ three lead middle schoolers are awful to each other and only remain friends because no one else can bear them at length. You would hate to have to interact with these characters in real life…but on a screen, where they deserve every unfortunate event they bring upon themselves and then some, mean-spirited humor has never felt oh so justified. Don’t eat or drink while watching Asobi Asobase. Be it from laughter or shock, you will choke.
#43 – LAND OF THE LUSTROUS
Land of the Lustrous is currently in “sequel please?” hell and its first and thus far only season doesn’t resolve much for the time being, so the fact that it’s this high up the list anyway should indicate just how conceptually unique and emotionally charged it is. Set on a desolate island inhabited by anthropomorphic gems, the brittle youngling Phos just wants to be useful to their peers but ends up inconveniencing them at every juncture. Land of the Lustrous outlines their attempts to become a rock worthy of respect and able to fend off the enigmatic Lunarians who attack their sanctuary, but they soon find this may come at the cost of their identity. Beyond the series’ mind-bending visual direction (it’s no exaggeration to crown this the future of CG in anime), Phos’ uneven path forward provides both some of the funniest and some of the most gut-wrenching character moments I’ve ever seen. I’m fervently holding out hope that the series gets the continuation it deserves someday.
#42 – MOB PSYCHO 100
Overpowered protagonists can be a tricky character type to pull off, and in his two hit series this decade, mangaka One demonstrated precisely how and how not to go about it: In One Punch Man (sorry, it doesn’t lay ahead), Saitama’s effective invincibility is only good for the same one-note punchline so many times. In Mob Psycho 100, Shigeo Kageyama is…an actual character. Wielding unparalleled psychic power but too reserved to use it, all Shigeo really wants is to be a “normal” kid, and after a conman named Reigen enlists the boy into his struggling business under the guise of an apprenticeship, the duo end up discovering a cult organization using similar powers to evil ends. In the short term, Shigeo, Reigen, and their associates have to come to grips with what they truly want, and over the long haul, Mob Psycho sees our heroes rebuke radicalization and elitism. Also, it’s uh, kinda fucking crazy how virtuosic the show looks; its battles are storyboard ecstasy, the sort of stuff that any seasoned animator or newcomer alike would be hard-pressed to criticize. The fact that we get a cogent, clever, and compassionate story with it just makes me feel spoiled.
#41 – SAKURA QUEST
Yoshino Koharu’s post-graduate job hunt isn’t paying dividends in Tokyo, so as a last resort, she accepts the offer to be one rural town’s “Queen.” The village of Manoyama used to have a stable tourism industry due to a micronation gimmick, but between the rapidly-aging population and lack of functioning attractions, that’s fallen by the wayside and sent the region into economic decline. As Queen, it’s Yoshino’s job to be the new face of Manoyama and, along with her new friends at the tourism office, get the town back in the spotlight. Returns don’t come quick, and Sakura Quest is slow to dive deeper into each character’s motivations for carrying on with what appears to be a futile effort, but their work starts to revitalize Manoyama as a community first, bridging generations and environments by connecting its locals from near and far. Even though the ball takes a while to get rolling, its accrued momentum and diverse character writing carry the show the rest of the way.
#40 – SPACE BROTHERS
If you prefer your adult character dramas long, so long that the lack of a proper ending doesn’t even matter, then I don’t have a better suggestion for you than Space Brothers. The tale follows siblings Hibito and Mutta Nanba as the younger one fulfills his childhood dream of being the first Japanese man to step on the moon and the elder is at a career impasse. Re-inspired by his vow to his lil’ bro, Mutta applies to become an astronaut as well, and through hard work and his connections, he manages to nab a spot as a trainee.
Set back and forth between Japan and the U.S., Space Brothers never sways in its earnest awe of the cosmos and its love for all people back on the pale blue dot we call home. Character arcs come and go, different faces get their due, and the realities of business and heartbreak come knocking, but the brothers step up to face each challenge with resilience and a competitive streak that hasn’t diminished with age. As mentioned, it’s a shame the series just kind of…ends without much closure, but if you enjoy the eight-cour journey for its plentiful highs, just continue the story via the manga afterward, who cares.
#39 – PRISON SCHOOL
You’re probably new around here if you didn’t see this coming. I almost—almost—skipped Prison School when it aired. After all, it looked like it’d be desperate porn. It screamed “look at me, I’m desperate porn.” I was morbidly curious. I gave the first episode a shot. The rest is history. I regrettably found myself hooked. Prison School is basically porn, shade-censored like mad to stay on the air and blatantly sexual even if no graphic penetration occurs. But the kicker is this: it isn’t desperate. The plot takes precedence. Five boys at a newly co-ed school violated the privacy of their classmates and were to be rightly punished for it, but the “Underground Student Council” turned their in-school suspension into a literal prison sentence as revenge.
No one in this cast is fully righteous and the framing reflects as much; the boys are perverts, the girls are sadists, it’s fuckin’ Femdom City up in this place and it shouldn’t be this entertaining, but the dynamic duo of Mizushima and Yokote make it work. Between the surreal, serious dialogue and the hardened, dirty visual aesthetic that almost convinces me I’m watching a genuine mob thriller and not just…porn, I’m not proud to admit I laugh my ass off through Prison School‘s toilet humor as an adult man, but I do laugh my ass off to it, this has been documented, and I’d be disingenuous if I excluded it here for what remains of my tattered dignity.
#38 – RUN WITH THE WIND
As glad as I am to have received so many high-quality high-school anime during my formative years (and I don’t see that trend declining beyond them), college-set anime are a rarer breed, and this past year’s Run with the Wind is among the best in that category. The series follows a group of ten dormmates who, at one of the upperclassmen’s beck and call, pick up jogging in preparation to enter a university marathon event.
Run is no speedy Rocky montage; it takes weeks for the team as a whole to get to a level where they aren’t passing out after a couple miles, and the group’s interest fluctuates as they encounter dilemmas in their personal lives. This is a sports psychology anime as much as it is a proper “sports anime,” whatever that even means in this context; sports are about the people who play them and the sense of camaraderie they foster among supporters, and in this underdog story, this team goes from a house of misfits to a band of true friends with the public’s respect. It’s just a moment in time across their whole lives—and I won’t spoil how far exactly they get—but the old adage is true: you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Run‘s message in response is clear: if something gives you joy, do it and share it. You’ll be surprised who sticks around.
#37 – TAMAKO MARKET
Whether K-On! is eligible or not as a 2009-2010 show is a moot point given my indifference to it (I know, I’m surprised too, lower the pitchforks), but the whole team who worked on it also brought us the overshadowed Tamako Market, a series of similar charm with just as much youthful exuberance and more engaging characters. Tamako Kitashirakawa helps out her single father at their mochi business in a jubilant town market and as the girl nears adulthood, she starts to recognize that her days as a happy-go-lucky kid are numbered. Between sugary romantic drama and the arrival of a pompous talking bird, both the TV series and the sequel film Tamako Love Story explore this dazzling cast’s coming of age, hopeful to retain the magic found in their current life as the clock keeps ticking.
I’ve made that sound kind of suspenseful, but that’s just how I absorbed it as a viewer; as an experience on its own terms, Tamako Market is wholly absorbed in nostalgia in a good way. It’s comfort food after a long day, a slice of heaven that you know won’t last forever, but satisfies a need for sweetness in the moment which you can remember fondly for years to come.
#36 – GATCHAMAN CROWDS
The first season of Gatchaman Crowds and its sequel subtitled Insight are some of the quirkiest and most timely political commentaries anime has given to us over the last ten years. Prompted by a new recruit’s unbreakable high morale, a squad of superheroes starts shedding their secrecy in order to prioritize the promotion of public goodwill. That’s pretty damn Great Justice, and in a way, very grassroots 2010s.
God willing, it had better stay pretty damn 2010s; among the antagonists the Gatchaman take on are weaponized internet trolls, a supernatural being who feeds on fear, and a smooth-talking fascist. Crowds resolutely demands we face such challenges headfirst, and more importantly it clarifies that we have to rise to the occasion together. The series’ premonitions of our current-day problems are more inevitable than coincidental: the social climate was obvious before shit hit the fan, and now that it has, Crowds provides a framework, however idealistic, to govern our reactions by.
#35 – THE PROMISED NEVERLAND
I tend to cool on thrillers faster than I do other genres, so recency bias may be coming into play here, but The Promised Neverland is one of the best in the game when it comes to shoving edge-of-seat cliffhangers at you without pause and somehow delivering on all of those twists in the long run. Set in what at first appears to be an idyllic orphanage, two of the house’s elder children witness the terrifying truth of their confinement and scheme up a way to usher all 30+ kids outside the premises, where they may not know what lies beyond, but they know they aren’t necessarily doomed.
Their supervisors aren’t idiots, though, and much of the series’ intensity stems from their cat-and-mouse secrecy; both sides have reason to suspect the other knows what’s going on, but neither can make the first move on the limited information they have without forcing the other’s hand. As their days passed in the heart-pounding stress of stalemate, I found myself riveted. New episodes couldn’t come fast enough when I watched it weekly, and although it reached a comfortable stopping point, its greenlit second season has me curious where it will go from there once plans firm up. If you consider yourself a thriller buff and haven’t checked out The Promised Neverland yet, you’re missing out big time.
#34 – BARAKAMON
Hotshot calligrapher Seishuu Handa doesn’t take criticism very well, and after punching an elderly appraiser in the face for calling his work dull, his father sticks him on a plane to the Goto Islands as a forced sabbatical. He’d dwell on the turn of events if he got any time to think, but the islands’ kind residents and their rascally kids rarely leave Sei alone long enough for him to gather his thoughts. To appease his new neighbors, he reluctantly agrees to share the process of his craft with them, and Barakamon follows the narcissist as he grows out of his implosive habits and finds inspiration in the experiences he shares with his new friends.
The kids are some of the most adorable in all of anime to boot, and though Sei’s effectively having a career crisis, Barakamon rarely feels more stressful than a lazy summer vacation. It’s popcorn and poetry, and at the precipice of my adult life, it taught me no artist has the right to retaliate to constructive criticism unbecomingly, especially since you’re never too old to stop learning. A prequel named Handa-kun aired some years later, but what I saw of it missed the whole point of the original series, so just stick with the OG stuff.
#33 – FLIP FLAPPERS
Not long after social outcast Cocona meets a strange, energetic girl named Papika, the pair gets pulled into Pure Illusion, a dreamlike realm that never materializes the same way twice. Papika explains that the organization she’s a part of, Flip Flap, is trying to access Pure Illusion in order to collect amorphous shards, but they’re not the only ones frolicking in that space, and Cocona and Papika’s relationship is unstable, hindering their ability to truly connect.
There is a plot—Flip Flappers is basically a story about learning to trust others and embrace the fact that you’ll get hurt in order to grow—but the real draw for me is its inventive and gorgeous genre buffet visuals. The background and set work in Flip Flappers are some of the best in the medium. Ditto for the sakuga. Though your mileage will surely vary for her final character arc, Cocona’s uneasiness from start to finish is an immense mood; the series is steeped in dread and watching it often makes me feel like a mouse too distracted by cheese to notice I’m walking into a trap. Add its zipped lip narration and episodic diversity and it’s almost impossible to stay a step ahead of Flip Flappers; the journey is one I’ve never forgotten and rewatching it still whisks me away.
After forcibly receiving a form of supersight at the expense of his sister’s vision, Leonardo Watch’s search for answers brings him to Hellsalem’s Lot, the former site of New York City and a metropolis where mutants, aliens, and everyday humans coexist in erratic dissonance. It doesn’t take long for Libra, an X-Men-like organization, to enlist him for his unique abilities, but the kid’s still out of depth in this urban jungle.
Blood Blockade Battlefront is a tale of two seasons with marked tonal differences—the first tackles Leonardo’s spell with a mysterious love interest while introducing us to the cacophony of life in Hellsalem’s Lot and the second fleshes out the many brilliant side characters with a goofier, episodic focus—but despite the changes in mood and crew, the franchise coalesces into a smooth whole. It’s simultaneously one of the zaniest and one of the most conventionally Westerner-friendly anime of the past decade, hitting plenty of the same character beats as blockbuster superhero media while also retaining a fully-realized and enthralling identity of its own. BBB‘s comedy and drama elements are fantastic in their own right, but if you’re skimming for fantastic action anime in the shounen desert that is this list, look no further.
#31 – HINAMATSURI
Half-competent yakuza underling Yoshifumi Nitta is just minding his own business when one day a capsule materializes in his living room and spits out a stoic young girl named Hina who bears tremendous psychic powers. She puts them to use quick, too, destroying his apartment and threatening violence if he doesn’t give her a place to stay. As Hina’s days idly pass, she decides to enroll in school for the hell of it and adopt a “normal” life, though it stays anything but that. Hinamatsuri is a magnificent dramedy about finding family in unlikely places, a roller coaster of surreal situations, and an unexpectedly empathetic look into Japan’s class disparities from the homeless to the stupid rich.
Well, everyone‘s kind of stupid in Hinamatsuri, and that’s what makes it work; the kids are more mature than many of its actual adults, and the two-way learning curve skews towards those in power becoming the butt of the joke. Well-intentioned and tonally flexible, Hinamatsuri is one of those “summation of the human experience” shows that just about anyone should be able to find something resonant in.
#30 – HUMANITY HAS DECLINED
Humanity Has Declined is a set of whimsical adventures narrated by a sarcastic UN peacekeeper in an age after little magical gremlins dubbed “fairies” have become the new predominant form of life on Earth and humanity’s role on the planet has…declined. An ulterior motive exists within this plot, though, and that is to troll the fuck out of its audience. Sometimes that’s done through whole confounding arcs that only hit any note of resolution due to a last-minute pun(chline). Sometimes that’s done with an experience so surreal (looking at you, suicidal bread) it goes semi-viral. If neither of those provide much of a challenge, telling the whole damn story backwards and ending on its least fulfilling arc might.
And yet despite leaving viewers scratching their heads, there were equal moments of clarity in critiques of over-industrialization, unregulated capitalism, and pandering artistry. But the more Humanity Has Declined played hard to get, the more unwavering my admiration of its satirical whimsy became; I laughed, I teared up, I sat stunned and bewildered, and I wanted to punch my computer and then myself because of this show, sometimes all in the same episode. It’s a lot. Your mileage will definitely vary, but one thing’s for sure: dark humor has never looked this happy since 2012.
#29 – SHIKI
Not that I’m any expert on the genre, but from my perspective, the best horror media isn’t the stuff that makes you squirm once in the moment, it’s the sort that refuses to evacuate your brain afterward, generating timeless discomfort from an inability to prove your safety. Shiki‘s leads confront this phenomenon early and often; denizens of all ages in their remote mountain village of Sotoba start dying and keep dying, and try as the clinics and priests might, no one knows how to stop the kiss of death from spreading…because it’s not a disease.
Yep, it’s the early 2010s, and vampire fiction is still all the rage, but Shiki‘s rendition of it isn’t a Twilighty romance, it’s a slow motion skid of fear, isolation, exhaustion, and eventually, violence. It’s one of the few anime I’ve been genuinely scared by—and cheesy as it may be, the human faction’s desperation almost frightened me more than the “monsters'” ways. Exploring our petty, desperate reactions when up against inescapable terror, Shiki is a fascinating case study of a community imploding in the face of unforeseen dangers, making just about every right move too late if it’s made at all. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best horror anime of the decade.
#28 – AFTER THE RAIN
It’s a tremendous shame that After The Rain was marketed as a manager-employee sugar daddy romance, turning thousands of prospective viewers away before the show had a chance to do anything, but I also can’t fault it for trying to conceal its hand for a while. Injured, soft-spoken high school track star Akira Tachibana starts getting the hots for her boss at a restaurant and the divorced old man, Masami Kondou, deflects as much as he can, but the young’un is committed. When the two get to talking, a relationship emerges, albeit not exactly a romantic one. Rather, After The Rain is a series about two people recognizing they’re spinning their wheels but not moving anywhere. Kondou put a career in literature on hold in a manner similar to how Akira is currently hesitating to start running again, and despite the age gap, they encourage each other to pursue their prior passions again.
The visuals, as you’d expect from Wit when they’re on their game, are splendid, and the show’s portrayal of the debilitating frustration that accompanies periods of inertia is spot on to my experiences with it. For something that looked prone to turn out much skeevier, After The Rain‘s rallying cry is far more wholesome than you’d expect. If you neglected it fearing the worst, give it a second look.
#27 – SILVER SPOON
Hilarious to think that a review of Silver Spoon, way back in 2014 before our focus shifted to seasonal coverage, was the very first thing posted to For Great Justice. Not unlike its protagonist Yuugo Hachiken, I was intent on killing time somewhere outside my parents’ supervision—only difference is I spent my free time weebing out online and he spent his moving to an agricultural school where life isn’t as breezy for a city boy as he thought it’d be. Silver Spoon bleeds a passion for life in the countryside, but its characters deal with real problems maintaining the fields and operating their businesses. Yuugo’s ignorance lingers after his hubris fades, and the gravity of his privilege, that he had the choice to run away from his family problems, takes longer for him to face even after he starts to adjust. Add in commentary about where we get our food from, and with a cheerful but mindful working class cast, Silver Spoon is a lovely fish out of water story that I still wish got more recognition than it has.
#26 – DEATH PARADE
As a nearly-lifelong agnostic, I’ve learned to love creative conceptions of the afterlife in fiction, absorbing whatever I can from art that doesn’t prescribe to the black-and-white morality so predominant in the Christian traditions I’ve grown up around. Death Parade is at once a manifestation of that duality and a betrayal: in several episodes, two newly-deceased people with hazy memories deboard from an elevator at Quindecim, a bar whose owner is mandated to test the ethical fortitude of its clients before damning their souls to the void or giving them a pass to heaven. For years, that’s just been the way it is, but the bar’s arbiter, Decim, is having trouble contextualizing the emotions of his subjects, and a few of his higher-ups in this spiritual fulfillment center are in disagreement about the very morality of their long-unquestioned process.
Death Parade has a really gutting, cruel first episode that almost appears to uphold arbitrary damnation, but the whole rest of the series dives into the grey with devoted responsibility and an eye for more humanist justice. It’s a hard watch on the heart, for sure—but one that ultimately champions empathy and forgiveness.
#25 – MADE IN ABYSS
In the center of a sprawling, picturesque island lies The Abyss, an inhospitable pit flush with strange habitats and dangerous creatures. From the surface, the best of the best “Divers” descend in search of treasure or out of scientific curiosity, but it’s rare that anyone comes back alive. Riko’s famous mother didn’t, but convinced that she’s still down there, the young girl and her new amnesiac robot friend Reg plummet into the depths of the Abyss for answers.
They find…torture instead. Made In Abyss is still being adapted via movies and a greenlit second season, neither of which I’ve been clued in on, but this first season is reason enough to rank the show this high; it’s one of the most captivating adventure series I’ve ever watched, stuffed with wondrous environments, shot compositions that constantly evoke doom, and a dynamic duo so optimistically ill-prepared for this journey it’s a miracle they’ve managed to survive as long as they have. Abyss lives its adventuring spirit—and that also means it knows when things go wrong, they can go very wrong. The show’s darkest hour was controversial and it had some sketchier moments beforehand as well, but that’s nothing one of the best worlds and soundtracks in anime can’t fix…by making crazier.
SNAFU, more often referred to as Oregairu, is one of a long line of high school anime with cynical protagonists that I can squarely cite as examples of how not to act at that age, recognizing the larger causes and consequences of teenage self-defeatism. At the insistence of their school counselor, lone wolves Hachiman Hikigaya, Yukino Yukinoshita, and their more sociable new friend, Yui Yuigahama, form the Volunteer Service Club and help each other grow up even more than they help actual clients. Oregairu has great moments of levity and rarely gets “dark,” but it’s often downtrodden and always complex; its cast feels like genuine high schoolers, people on the edge of adulthood taking themselves and others more seriously than they need to. To that end, it’s one of the sharpest character dramas of the decade, and its attention to detail only intensified once it shifted hands from Brain’s Base, who still did an alright job with it, to Studio Feel., who made every wince, glare, and relaxed sigh shoot straight to the heart.
#23 – LAID-BACK CAMP
Try as I have to enjoy it over the years, I can’t stand camping. I’m not fit for nights in the elements, sleeping with a mere tarp between myself and the ground and another tarp separating me and my food from the wild. But I love the idea behind camping in the abstract, where there isn’t any right or wrong way to adjust to nature; camping can be a recreational activity or a test of self-reliance, and Laid-Back Camp doesn’t fret about making camping hardcore, just enjoyable.
For most of its characters besides the reserved Rin Shima, camping is an excuse to hang out with pals, enjoy delicious grub, and take in breathtaking views. Rin’s style had always been more independent, taking her motorbike to scenic overviews in the mountains of Yamanishi and bundling up solo, but after getting to know the members of her school’s Outdoors Club, she begins to branch out and join them for the occasional trip. Beyond its plethora of rustic, breathtaking setpieces, Laid-Back Camp graciously validates both the chatterbox and the loner; people of all personalities are welcome to marvel at the natural world at whatever comfort level they see fit. True to its name, this series is one of the most relaxing I’ve ever watched, and if you’re stuck in the city or the conditions make the outdoors truly unwelcoming where you live, Camp should do the trick as a surrogate getaway.
Daily Lives of High School Boys, or Nichibros, as it’s affectionately called, defined my adolescence. All the series does is follow a bunch of dorks at an all-boys school (and some dorks at a neighboring all-girls school) as they kill lazy days with their overactive imagination. There’s nothing deep to Nichibros; it offers little in terms of character development, mind-blowing sakuga, and outlandish behavior, so relatability in anticlimax becomes its go-to principle.
Not that everything these lads do is something you’ve done or even want to do, but Nichibros scrounges up vignettes of awkward fraternity better than almost any bro culture series I’ve ever seen. It’s a world where everyone at some point becomes the butt of a joke—especially the narrators—and laughing with these bros and at them eventually stops being two distinct experiences. The absence of high expectations makes Nichibros one of the most casually well-crafted slapstick comedy anime out there, and as it aired alongside my carefree, mischievous early days in high school, it resonated as hard as it possibly could’ve. Even though I find it a bit spottier these days, frequent rewatches have proved its nostalgia lingers strong.
Stand as I do by Nichibros, if you prefer your slapstick high school comedies a bit more unpredictable and boisterous, my 2019 pick for Anime of the Year has you covered: Wasteful Days of High School Girls uses a similar formula with a more compact cast, milking role-specific humor out of a bunch of unstoppable goblin-children.
That it’s my favorite series from last year and still outside the top 20 might be misleading; almost all these shows have had years to grow on me and cement a topshelf spot, and I’m still clearly riding Wasteful JK‘s highs from its four-month-old conclusion, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it stands the test of time even better than I’m currently giving it credit for. The series’ knack for truly erratic punchlines is refined as hell, and Tanaka, Wota, and Robo comprise one of the most unhinged “jittery moron/loud straight-man/aloof third wheel” dynamics ever. The supporting cast doesn’t disappoint either and Wasteful JK even manages to pull off genuine tearjerkers in its closing episodes without sacrificing the high-octane nonsense. Other comedies of this sort may have garnered more fame, but this is one underdog you won’t want to overlook.
#20 – SAMURAI FLAMENCO
Y’all remember that movie Kick-Ass, right? Everyday kid inspired by superheroes tries to become one despite having no superpowers? That’s Samurai Flamenco. Or at least, that’s the first leg of Samurai Flamenco; after luring you in with the prospect of a self-righteous vigilante getting in over his head, the series takes so many turns it effectively becomes four different shows, each arc a parody of itself and the content which came before. At first, Samurai Flamenco only fights petty crime without permission. Soon enough, he and his sidekicks, which include an idol unit, super sentai soldiers, and a TV star, are basically taking on the world as they know it—and worlds beyond their comprehension.
Samurai Flamenco is the sort of show that confounded weekly viewers who understandably thought it was shooting itself in the foot out of incompetence. In retrospect, the opposite was true: this series blissfully throws logic out the window, fabricates its own internal terms of service, and then shreds those up too as soon as it gets bored with the constraints. It’s a series in constant escalation, accumulating plot twists with reckless abandon, and it only stops when it realizes the only place left to go is back to the start. Samurai Flamenco‘s character beats make sense and its heart on sleeve devotion to justice never wavers; the wardrobe it wears just constantly changes, and every piece it tries on is a thrill determined to make you crack up. JoJo isn’t coming up. How could it, when Samurai Flamenco exists?
Determined to follow the footsteps of her late mother, Shirase Kobuchizawa has been trying to navigate the legal channels that would send her to Antarctica for years, and just as a Japanese expedition to the continent announces it will take off, she and three new friends, all feeling stuck in diverse but typical adolescent ways, manage to convince the crew to let them aboard.
Getting to the mass of ice takes time, and once they arrive the physical and emotional work starts to take its toll, but the whole journey A Place Further Than The Universe, or Yorimoi, presents is impeccably paced and rich with scattered emotions, fabulous acting, and flawless attention to detail. Few trips of self-discovery travel this far, and by the time the crew leaves suburban Japan, the series simultaneously feels like the world’s most daring field trip and a counseling session that pushes everyone to the brink. Director Atsuko Ishizuka had been a brilliant name just waiting in the wings to take on an original script, and Jukki Hanada proves once again why he’s one of the best in the business. With Yorimoi as a production (and within it as a set of narrative coincidences), everything just comes together cleanly, resulting in one of the most cathartic coming-of-age adventures I’ve ever seen.
#18 – SOUND OF THE SKY
Seizing the most obvious opportunity available to her, the kind-spirited Kanata Sorami joins the military in order to pick up the bugle, which had inspired her since she was little. Stationed in the quaint ancient city of Seize, the new recruit gets to know the locals and fosters goodwill easily due to the area’s relative unimportance in an ongoing war. Once tensions begin to escalate, though, Kanata and her squadron find themselves thrust into making tough calls to protect the city they love so much.
In spite of that desire to safeguard, Sound of the Sky isn’t guided by xenophobia; the show pleas for peace and aspires to mend the hearts of all those who have suffered loss. Seize’s peaceful scenery and its benevolent outpost officers belie the nature of the world beyond their jurisdiction, representing a notion of the harmony that could spread if not beset by state conflicts. Partially because the locale is based on the Spanish city of Cuenca and partially because the collision of ancient traditions and military innovation is so central to these characters’ everyday lives, there’s a distinctly early 20th-century tone to the series, though its chronology and ethnology aren’t immediately sourced from our world. Names carry over, as do emotions, but Sound of the Sky’s universe is its own, and its condemnation of conflict from the institutional level down is truly exceptional stuff. Also the girls get sloshed on homemade brandy at one point. It’s a classic.
#17 – THE TATAMI GALAXY
This one’s hard to talk about. The Tatami Galaxy‘s nameless narrator is a self-centered smartass who wastes his collegiate life hung up on the possibility that a more fulfilling timeline awaits him, if only he’d done things differently. He tries. Each episode he pursues a role in some new club or society, outdone by his shadowy friend Ozu and led along by intimidating seniors and love interests. And like literal clockwork, each episode ends as he gives into frustration and the series rewinds, exploring a new opportunity no more fulfilling than the last. Before entering college, I saw The Tatami Galaxy‘s protagonist as a carrier of self-destructive behaviors to avoid. After leaving college, I see I became him anyway.
But that’s not an uncommon remark: we expect that as “adults,” we should have our shit figured out by our twenties and beat ourselves up for infractions that honestly don’t matter as much as we make them out to. The Tatami Galaxy has a happier ending for its sullen, woe-is-me lead than it lets on, but it puts him through hell and back in order for him to hone in on what exactly he wants out of this stage in his life to begin with. It’s easy to say you crave a place to belong, but if all you do is doubt, it’s equally easy to miss the fact that you help make that place a reality. Growing up is hard, and whether The Tatami Galaxy reflects your insecurities or not, it’s still a masterpiece of stellar voice acting, heart-racing dialogue, and visual creativity turned loose upon a speechless audience.
#16 – MONOGATARI
Easily the most daunting experience on this list for its length in episodes and breadth in tone, I don’t even know where to begin talking about the Monogatari franchise. On paper, it’s about a devious teenage boy with self-sacrificial tendencies, Koyomi Araragi, who tries to help people (almost exclusively girls around his age) through trauma that manifests as “aberrations,” supernatural phenomena that eat away at your mental state. Monogatari doesn’t let Koyomi off the hook to live up his harem as a savior; to some he is, and to some he is a foolish child. The scope of this franchise allows for wide ranges in read, but the consistent themes I’ve internalized are that you can only be “saved” if you’re willing to be, and that you have to make peace with your limitations.
Regardless, characters blur the line of omnipotence. The “unreliable narrator” is in constant play. Monogatari is many things, but only insofar as it wants to be, for it will invent exceptions to its rules whenever it pleases and only justify itself far down the road. You probably won’t appreciate all of Monogatari equally, if at all—but whatever your perspective on it, the franchise offers some of the most unorthodox visuals and boldest, razor-sharp character writing I’ve ever witnessed from the medium. You kind of can’t jump around for highlights, but if you’re interested in committing for the long haul, it’s dangerous to go alone. Take this.
#15 – SOUND! EUPHONIUM
In terms of total material produced and the size of the fanbase, I’d be confident calling Sound! Euphonium Kyoto Animation’s “biggest” franchise of the decade. Fair enough; it’s a remarkable coming-of-age story about your typical everygirl, Kumiko Oumae, resolving to continue playing euphonium in her school’s concert band. They just got a new music director and he caringly wants to go big or go home, whichever way the class is leaning. They say “big,” and the following arcs depict cross-grade tension between slackers and workaholics, charged romantic subplots, and the impending end of high school life.
I wasn’t in concert band in high school (choir boy here, close enough, sorta) but regardless of your extracurricular of choice, Eupho meticulously makes that high school experience feel real. Like a piece of music, it plots its dynamics effectively and places due importance on texture and detail. Besties, rivals, strangers, and extras all get brief moments in the limelight, and though the series is ultimately Kumiko’s to direct, its many side character arcs imbue Eupho with a heart even larger than the one its protagonist decides to accept within herself. Well-rounded as hell and notably featuring some of the best sound design in anime, the Eupho franchise deserves every morsel of praise it’s received and then some.
#14 – THE LOST VILLAGE
No, I’m not joking. Shitposts are a form of art, and The Lost Village, more renowned as its untranslated title, Mayoiga, is the single greatest shitpost in anime this decade. Thirty deadbeats board a bus en route to the abandoned village of Nanaki, and upon arrival they start disappearing, leading to a witchhunt within the already unstable crew of escapists.
Touted as a drama-turned-horror/thriller, Mayoiga is actually a comedy, and that should be pretty fucking obvious with how often it deliberately undercuts itself, but sometimes people just can’t see the forest for the cheese. It amazes me this many seiyuu could recite their lines with a straight face. The characters are either terrible people or born to be punchlines. And as it attempts to piece its stupid large cast back together, Mayoiga scolds them all in-universe for being so uptight and irritable, the cause of their own problems. The wheels on the seriously unlucky hippopota-bus never stop spinning, and neither will my appreciation for the most intentionally unintentionally funny anime I’ve ever had the pleasure of laughing at. It’s not a backhanded compliment. There’s actually zero difference between good and bad things. You imbeciles. You fucking morons. Give Mayoiga the credit it deserves.
#13 – PING PONG: THE ANIMATION
My favorite director in the medium has worked on more films than TV series lately, but that didn’t stop him from churning out some spectacular TV shows this decade as well, and this is Masaaki Yuasa’s best from this period. Though the distinction is nebulous, we’ve also at last reached the highest echelon where, when prompted to respond with a number, I have no qualms about flashing that distinguished “10/10” as an endorsement. These thirteen remaining shows aren’t necessarily “perfect,” just ones that have had a deeply personal, long-lasting influence on how I view art and the world, usually with evident craftmanship taking my breath away to this day.
Few of these are conventionally bulletproof, but I’d reckon Ping Pong comes close if you can stomach its art style; it’s a brutally honest portrayal of prodigies accepting the fact that every sport has to have a loser. In just eleven tight episodes that pull heavily from the source material to the point of straight-up paneling scenes like a manga, childhood table tennis rivals Peco, Smile, and a scattering of other hotshots take on each other and themselves, learning that as much as they’re consumed by a desire to win, their success with the paddle isn’t the end-all be-all of life. That road is shaky for all of them—almost as shaky as Yuasa’s freeform, unusual animation techniques—but Ping Pong exemplifies grace in defeat and the courage to continue beyond it with resounding success.
#12 – THE ROLLING GIRLS
It took until a very recent third rewatch of The Rolling Girls for me to put my mixed thoughts on its late red herrings aside and acknowledge that its narratively dense, uncompromisingly colorful adventure (that probably could’ve used two cours) did all it could with the space it had and I should stop nitpicking. It doesn’t get much more Yatacore than punk rock girls on motorcycles traveling a fractured country as well-meaning but almost-useless peacebrokers. After an incredible opening arc that took the sakuga community by storm, interest in The Rolling Girls unfortunately waned within the anisphere at large. Those of us who stuck around saw that its main quartet kind of weren’t the main characters; their clients of several locales were.
Is that so bad, though? The Rolling Girls still shines brightest in its cramped, side character-centric arcs. The visuals wow from the first second you lay eyes on them, but the stories themselves take time, often multiple watches, to fully unravel. Way more is foreshadowed here than you can possibly catch with one viewing. The creativity on display is bursting at the seams. If any criticism can be levelled at The Rolling Girls, it’s that it tries to share more of its vibrant world than it actually has time to. But with places and people beaming with this much passion and pride, I’m done pretending the joy it gives me is worth anything less than a place among my absolute favorite anime of the decade.
As a kid, Jinta Yadomi was the de facto leader of his band of friends, but the accidental death of Menma, one of their numbers, led to the group tensely dissolving. Now a shut-in nearing adulthood, Jinta suddenly finds himself haunted by Menma’s ghost, who asks to have a wish granted but can’t remember what it is. Since no one else can prove the spectre is real, his old friends think Jinta is finally losing it, but his insistence in getting the remaining quintet back together forces everyone to catch up and disclose some painful, suppressed thoughts from their youth.
Everybody has a different threshold for how much melodrama it takes to shatter their suspension of disbelief, and with that in mind I think I understand why AnoHana has amassed the divisive reputation it has. Putting that aside, the series’ threatened complete loss of friendship pierces the deepest parts of my soul. The three times I’ve felt compelled to marathon the series aligned with three rough patches in my life where I felt increasingly reclusive and guilt-ridden: Jinta’s Casper is more than a manifestation of unaddressed past mistakes, she’s a reminder that in the wake of the tragedy, he’s stopped trying to live. Convinced he’s the only one suffering from a depressive spiral, it takes until this unforeseen event for him to realize that the bond between he and his former friends isn’t entirely frayed, and may even be repaired if they actively seek to clear the air. The tearjerker finale is iconic in its own right, but the heftier character arcs that comprise the bulk of AnoHana diagnose shortcomings I’ve seen in myself and others when friendships start to fall apart. It’s an intimate, important series for me beyond the ghost antics as a result.
If you’re unfamiliar with rakugo, it’s a form of storytelling entertainment wherein the performer recites a dialogue-heavy tale—often comedic, though sometimes darker—as every role in the story without ever getting up from his sitting position and with minimal use of props. Dating back to at least the 18th century, this art separates those who have fully honed their skill from those less talented: the slightest differences in flow, tone, and expression can lift or kill a performance, and if you thought an anime about rakugo performers would be a dry affair, you’re wrong on both counts.
For starters, a great rakugo sketch wouldn’t be perceived as impressive despite the lack of movement involved, it’d be impressive for it; Studio Deen rarely cutaway to fantasy sequences during their adaptations of these scenes. You’re supposed to be there in the moment, reading the room, either feeling the crowd’s uncomfortable pity for the inexperienced or the collected, commanding confidence of a master at work, and you do. It’s truly remarkable how much Deen get away with by virtue of clever shot and sound direction, a less is more approach that may tire someone who’s easily bored but transmits a strong impact for those more patient.
The other reason this show isn’t stale is because it’s about so much more than just the art itself. Rakugo Shinjuu is a true summation of the human experience, following a lonesome child’s path in rakugo from childhood to his twilight years across the near-entirety of the 20th century. The first season is almost entirely flashback, a selective first-person narration of major events and a story that adds up about 90% of the time but leaves certain voices unheard or uncriticized with intent. The second season is presented more omniscientally, snapping to the elder’s declining days and his uncharacteristic decision to take an apprentice, a boisterous ex-felon looking to right his course in life.
From there, not only does Rakugo Shinjuu depict the highs of falling in love, earning vindication from one’s peers, and molding a tradition to be adaptable enough to continue in a new cultural age, it doesn’t shy away from old bodies succombing to depression and physical ailments, old haunts coming back with a vengeance, and tension between the new and young generations. Overflowing with wit, dramatic irony, and thorough thematic explorations, Rakugo Shinjuu is a must-watch for slow burning, period piece fans and anyone with a broad appreciation for drama.
#9 – KATANAGATARI
In a flamboyant rendition of Edo period Japan, where social peace is slightly easier to come by but the tides of change have begun to roll in, a “strategician” from the capital, Togame, has been tasked with collecting a shrewd swordsmith’s “Twelve Deviant Blades” from all around the country. To this end, she ventures to a remote island whose only inhabitants are an exiled family that passes down the “Kyotouryuu” style, a swordfighting technique that uses no actual sword, just the human body. Enlisting the assistance of the family’s young head, Shichika Yasuri, the duo embark on a journey stuffed with restless banter, heart-racing action climaxes, and a resurgence of baggage that tries their resolve when the end of their time together approaches.
Katanagatari is the closest you’ll see to a conventional “adventure” anime in my top ten, one where there’s a clear goal in mind at the conclusion of Togame and Shichika’s winding travels, but it’s even larger in scope than the pair we focus on and the exaggerated environments they visit. With twelve double-length episodes, each dedicated to collecting one of the twelve swords and functioning more like a set of connected short films than a TV series, this show is impeccably structured, wise with its animation, and written with elegance. Though Togame can be cunning, her relationship with an easygoing, devout partner like Shichika cuts through Katanagatari‘s weighty happenings like…that’s right, a sword. So many swords. Why does Katanagatari have such a hard-on for swords?
For one, swords are cool. That should be reason enough. But without spoiling too much, to our modern eye, swords are also antiquated, and in Katanagatari, Shichika’s power (which has to be taken at face value to work, just get used to that now) proves that the blade is on the way out, not unlike a certain governmental institution at large. The show’s ending may leave a bitter taste in your mouth, but not before showcasing one of the single most intense anime episodes of all time, the culmination of a journey both fulfilled and intentionally unfulfilling. Katanagatari questions legacy; whether the bonds of our past are worth sustaining in the face of a brighter future and if we have the determination to let ourselves grow into our own people instead of mere inheritances of previous generations’ grudges.
The sly accept this to their benefit. Our heroes are less flexible, and thus less lucky. Though it’s ultimately a tragedy, the specifics add so much gravity that the only way to truly feel the brunt of Katanagatari‘s blows is to strap in for the adventure. For anyone who wants a more easily-accessible version of author Nisio Isin’s signature style, consider this show a prime place to start.
#8 – KIDS ON THE SLOPE
Considering how often Shinichiro Watanabe utilizes jazz motifs in his work, it was only a matter of time before he took on a project explicitly about the genre like Kids on the Slope. Set in 1960s Kyushu, an uptight, classically-trained pianist named Kaoru meets a half-American, tough guy drummer named Sentarou and the two classmates become unlikely friends.
Kids on the Slope has sometimes been maligned for its dedication to the young musician’s circumstances, but that’s actually a point in its favor in my eyes. Love triangles abound, coordinating rehearsals gets harder, the soul doesn’t always shine through when you’re playing, and eventually the band, or the idea there might be a band someday, falls apart. Few people scrape by making a living performing music if their heart isn’t in it, and though these two jam partners aren’t always playing together (and bicker about as much as they perform), don’t be fooled, Kids on the Slope wears its passion for jazz on its sleeve.
It’s just…there are a lot of other things going on, too. About two decades have passed since the end of World War II; these kids are the first of their kind to grow into adulthood without experiencing their nation’s surrender. True to the time (and a firm refusal that art and politics can be separated), the ongoing ramifications of stationed American soldiers, university student riots, and lingering post-war racism are on full display, intertwined with its cast’s personal trajectories through life. Kids on the Slope shows how music can be used to bring people together, but it doesn’t turn a blind eye to the same ways it, and culture, more broadly, can be used to tear us apart. Its leads also get torn apart, or rather they let each other go, and that’s not a spoiler so much as it is an inevitable outcome, but their time together enabled them to grow and bask in the glow of a fulfilling youth that they’ll always treasure.
Oh, and uh, Kids on the Slope looks marvelous. I dunked on certain other shows’ rotoscoping earlier, but this one’s musical performances show how to do rotoscoping right, smoothly and carefully tracking motion to get the most accurate instrument-playing animation possible. The soundtrack is a superb hour’s worth of jazz standard covers by some of Japan’s finest and originals arranged by Yoko Kanno, but for that to register as wonderously in the show as it does on its own, it had to have the visual element to match, and it does. The background work is also great, letting the viewer sink into the series’ homey, seaside villages and dingy practice room basements. Kids on the Slope is just one of those period pieces where every component works wonders to elevate the whole. That it’s an ode to connection through music is just a Yatacore bonus.
#7 – THE ECCENTRIC FAMILY
I could count all the times I’ve truly wanted to live inside a fictional setting on one hand, and whether it’s, say, the Pokémon universe, Eureka Seven, or the aforementioned Rolling Girls, that’s not because there’s no element of danger—in those three alone, dastardly criminal organizations and despots bent on destroying the world are well on their way to bloodshed—but because the warmth and joy they manage to emit despite that is just so tantalizing. The Eccentric Family falls into that category for similar reasons. Its modern-day Kyoto is laced with a fragile hierarchy of oblivious humans, crafty, shapeshifting tanuki, and vaguely superpowered tengu, the last of whom have no qualms about boiling up the raccoon dogs for their banquets. Within the tanuki society, respected elder Souichirou Shimogamo meets his fate to those hands, and it takes some time for the rest of his family to address how exactly that grisly night went down.
That’s the first season, anyway. Villains rarely accept defeat that easily, and the mastermind of Souichirou’s murder comes back for more in season two, but as gripping and emotional as the overt plot can get, half the fun with The Eccentric Family is, well, the fun. Lead protagonist and third son of the Shimogamo family, Yasaburou, is laid-back as hell and wanders into more trouble than he needs when he starts crushing on Benten, a tengu who’s not only vocalized how tasty the lad looks, but has the bite to match the bark, having participated in the dinner where Souichirou fell. Fear doesn’t hold him back from also visiting elderly tengu or stumbling headfirst into conspiracies, try as his family might to rein him in.
The other Shimogamos are also oddballs in their own right: fourth son Yashiro is an easily-frightened little kid still, second son Yajiro is battling a severe bout of depression estranged from his folks as a frog in a well, and new head Yaichirou is doing his best (i.e. failing) to keep everyone in line. Yasaburou commands The Eccentric Family by his brazen initiative, but every Shimogamo gets their due time to shine and then some with a cast that just widens and widens as the action ramps up.
And it all looks so damn good. There’s a special middle ground between realism and cartoonishness and The Eccentric Family walks it without a worry in the world. Its color and shading work are to die for; nearly any one of its kghjillion setpieces could be a wallpaper. The voice acting is fantastic, the sound design and soundtrack likewise, and with all that power combined, the series demonstrates a flawless handle on its versatile tone. Its themes are a bit less adventurous, but that’s by design: Souichirou engrained in Yasaburou that a fun thing is a good thing and that you should enjoy all you can with the time you have to live. Walking into traps may not be smart, but it does make for a memorable experience and a great story—after all, an appealing world isn’t necessarily an ideal world—and this idiot led by his idiot’s blood forges one of the best stories in the medium this decade.
#6 – GIRLS’ LAST TOUR
“Getting along with the sadness” has been my mantra these past few years as tyrants dismantle democracy all around me, our planet’s warming climate has effectively passed the point of no return, and my student loan bills keep leeching from my ability to like, save money to “be an adult ‘right.'” It’s a shitsack world we’re inheriting, and platitudes only mask the fact that we’re in this struggle for the long haul. That probably sounds really depressing, but I’ve just accepted it. I’ve learned to start getting along with the sadness. That doesn’t constitute closing oneself off to causes that can change the world incrementally for the better, nor does that mean we should stop looking for happiness which is definitely still out there—it just means not letting that crushing, aimless despair that will come get the best of us.
Girls’ Last Tour‘s whole thing is getting along with the sadness, and it couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Two kids, the bookish, cautious Chito and the instinctual, blasé Yuuri, are two of the last surviving humans on Earth, fending for themselves through a destitute, sprawling cityscape and trying to piecemeal what they can of the remains of culture, pondering what it even means to be human without a society left to continue. It’d be easy to say Girls’ Last Tour is a search for meaning, but the truth is both girls find it early: Chi wants to leave a record behind in the unlikely chance someone finds it (not unlike how she’s absorbing knowledge from others’ now) and Yuu wants…to eat a lot? Not all dreams are equally ambitious, but they’re both valid, especially since they also consciously realize what they really want is to stay together until the bleak, impending end.
Because Girls’ Last Tour presupposes almost nothing, not even the resilience of language, Chi and Yuu nearly start from scratch in their attempts to understand their surroundings. They ponder the very concepts of trust, food, remembrance, music, and divinity. They find beer and get drunk out of their goddamn minds because they don’t know any better. All their actions are imbued with the joy that they can still experience something, dulled by the sadness that it probably ultimately won’t matter.
And yet the series virtually never feels “hopeless.” Chi and Yuu get along with the sadness inherent to their conditions and keep moving onward, wherever their vehicle and determination can take them. Add some fantastic last-minute twists about the background of this world, and you’ve got a tale perfect for a time where all seems futile. Vast, atmospheric, and more profound than the moeblob character designs would have you believe, Girls’ Last Tour won’t cure you of your material hardships, but if you’re like me, it might help you get out of bed in the morning…after it’s done ripping your heart out.
#5 – SHIROBAKO
An ocean away, it’s sometimes easy for Westerners, especially kids, to forget that the people who make all this anime they enjoy are, you know, people. Before Shirobako came out, I rarely consciously thought about that. Granted I was also in high school then; a bit of self-centered egotism isn’t out of the ordinary, and it’s partially what led a band of five friends in an animation club to pursue jobs in the industry following higher training.
We rejoin them in their scatterbrained twenties for fatigue from long hours, mixed success with auditions, and mountains of stress. It’s naive to expect anything different and even more ignorant to not internalize just how demanding jobs in the anime field can get. If you hadn’t appreciated all the personnel behind your favorite projects before, Shirobako will compel you to, from the delight of smooth, finished titles to the disappointment of crashing and burning delays.
Those happen more often than we realize. If it’s true that it takes a village to raise a child, it takes teams upon teams upon teams of individuals to create an anime and get it on the air. When you’re relying on this many people, even the slightest setback can snowball into a larger problem, and the fictitious Musashino Animation runs into dilemmas at an alarmingly frequent rate. From a production-centric standpoint, though with forays into animators, voice actors, modelers, researchers, businessmen, and more, Shirobako is a love letter to its own grueling industry and a celebration of what makes the craft so worth it, absorbed through a new generation of fans-turned-artists eager to take part in a vision larger than themselves. I mean that in two ways: the in-universe plot is about creating anime, yes, but Shirobako is a metatextual accomplishment to that end as well.
You can feel it, too. There are earnest portrayals of self-doubt, failure, and unfortunate extenuating circumstances, but there are also brilliant moments of success and absurd, exaggerated comedy beats. Watching Shirobako is like flipping back and forth between a mid-life crisis and a stand-up special. Its dialogue whizzes by at breakneck speed, its daydream sequences imaginative and its snaps back to reality especially sharp. Like just about every great sitcom, it straddles the line between conceivable drama and heightened insanity, using each to its advantage precisely when called for. Key industry figures get blatant cameos, new talent gets a chance to make their mark, and from start to finish on not just one but two in-universe series, the cast of Shirobako give their all and then some to show us the ins and outs of their work and the personal highs and lows that accompany it. It’s a celebration of artistry in all its forms unlike anything else from the medium, and frankly, a must-watch for just about every anime fan out there.
To escape from his emotionally distant foster family, 17-year-old shogi prodigy Rei Kiriyama moves into an unfurbished Tokyo apartment alone. Lacking friends and close relatives all his life, the kid found the time to get distressingly fantastic at the game, but on the border of adulthood, he hasn’t figured out how to come to terms with his own solitude. That starts to change when he grows close to the Kawamoto family, three tight-knit sisters of various ages who live with their uncle, a confectionary owner. In the ensuing drama, Rei confronts his depression, climbs the shogi ranks, and even begins to reach a place where he can cognizantly guide others through their own hardships.
By far the longest-running series in this top ten (and it needs all the time it can get), March Comes In Like a Lion is less an anime pushed to the brink in its own right and more a solid adaptation of truly cathartic source material. That’s not to say that Shaft don’t craft some utterly incredible sequences here—Rei’s mental breakdowns are nothing short of gutting, sensory evisceration—but March generally isn’t a “loud” show. It doesn’t feed off the company’s typical rambunctious, bold, and dialogue-heavy nature, and the few characters it has who do fall more in line with that side of the studio’s reputation are reduced to marginal importance. March is more atmospheric. It follows a cast often either too young or too reclusive to think with their mouths, instead brewing all the disquiet internally until it boils over. To say March contains the most heartwrenchingly accurate (to my experiences) depiction of depression in anime is an understatement. It’s honestly almost too real to watch.
And yet through that darkness, light emerges. I’m eternally grateful that the show doesn’t offer a quick fix for Rei’s anxieties. Mental illness isn’t something that can be “cured,” just mitigated, and finding a stable, supportive environment is but step one of many on Rei’s path to becoming a person less burdened by his brain chemistry. The series’ first season primarily focuses on his progress from his darkest hours to a less precarious place, but by the second, he’s well on his way to recognizing the kindness shown to him and eager to repay it.
That comes with its own set of challenges, and supporting characters taking their turn in the limelight give him plenty of chances to step in, but whether Rei remains the most relatable character here or not, March doesn’t go easy on its cast at large. I love this franchise’s shogi bits too, but I’m running out of space and they’re ultimately secondary to what makes March Comes In Like a Lion so special: its people. They rise and falter, branch out and cave in, shun and accept. They’re a full scope of the human experience and come out the rocky seas reflecting a net positive beacon of hope for those lost in its waves. And that’s something I—and we, overall—could always use more of, especially with art this beautiful.
#3 – TSURITAMA
Yuki Sanada has never been good with public speaking. Forced to repeatedly move due to his guardian’s job, he hasn’t built up a rapport with anyone long enough to know what friendship can be, and assuming that’s just his lot in life, he finds it easy to stay that way. Upon arrival to his new home in Enoshima, however, an eccentric boy toting a water gun and a fish bowl introduces himself as an alien named Haru and requests Yuki’s assistance with going fishing. As you’d expect, this draws people’s attention right to the new kids, and a local fishing ace classmate as well as a mysterious man in a turban get in on the action too. Yuki’s definitely gonna learn how to communicate with people now…but for what? What are the depths hiding?
Aliens who want to fish? At this time of year? At this time of the day? In this part of the country? Localized entirely within the waters around Enoshima? It’s more likely than you think, and no matter what details I emphasize when I describe the initial premise of Tsuritama, everybody raises a bemused brow. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing. Part of Tsuritama‘s charm is how singular an experience it is; to my knowledge, this combination of ideas hasn’t been done before and it’d take guts to try pulling it off even better. But part of the show’s charm is ironically how universal it is; strip away the cosmetics and Tsuritama is a coming-of-age narrative about crawling out of your shell, learning how to make friends, finding a place in your community, and devoting yourself to a passion. On paper, that sounds generic, but fuck it, life is generic. That’s presumably why the fishing aliens are here to perk you up.
I didn’t realize it back when I first sat through Tsuritama mesmerized by its inviting visuals, relatable moods, and unexpectedly grandiose payoff, but near-annual rewatches have confirmed something for me: this is basically a perfect show. Every element, from its soundtrack to its voice acting, backgrounds to key sakuga scenes, and last but not least the writing are all stellar and synergistic. It makes the predictable feel fresh, the inevitable a surprise. I’ll admit there’s some bias in nostalgia—I grew up spending my summer vacations in a friendly fishing town which since 2015 I’ve actually resided a quick jaunt down the road from, and while Enoshima is more urban, the atmosphere is quite similar—but even if you don’t share that connection, Tsuritama is a concise, playful, and adorable series about the value of friendship that also tries its hand at sci-fi comedy about saving the world from global disaster and somehow works. To this day, it never fails to plant a smile on my face.
#2 – KYOUSOUGIGA
In the distant past, a wily monk named Myoue could turn anything he drew to life. He created for himself a wife, Koto, and two kids, and not long after the couple adopted a third, their village deemed them all disruptive and demanded they leave. Myoue moved the family inside a mirror world city of his own making, and all was peaceful until the day the parents disappeared. Left alone as the years passed, the siblings’ bonds became frayed, but the arrival of an energetic young girl also named Koto forces them to reconvene and figure out what exactly is going on. Or as the series describes itself: “Once, when many planets intermingled, the boundary between man and god was vague. This is the tale of a particular family, a tale of birth and rebirth.”
At its core, Kyousougiga is precisely that and doesn’t try to mask it. Growing up with somebody doesn’t inherently mean you understand how they think, feel, and respond, and Myoue’s hodgepodge of a family doesn’t always put the work in to try to understand. Even descendants of a god, and the god himself, have their fair share of interpersonal woes to work out, and once running away became the easier option, the family hasn’t done much else since.
Family is central to Kyousougiga, but it doesn’t sugarcoat the reality that even relatives don’t always click or make each other’s lives easier. It’s the love you share in spite of that which makes a family truly special—and just because the exchange isn’t always equal doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing. “Fake” family or not, Kyousougiga issues its ultimatum well: you can humble yourself, listen for when you’ve wronged your loved ones, and request forgiveness, or you can turn your back on everything in a futile effort to outrun responsibility. One of these outcomes is much cheerier than the other.
The series explores both, but even in its grimmest moments of anger and despair, Kyousougiga as a production oozes a sense of grandiose wonder. This is a story involving divinity, after all, and it goes for broke with majestic setpieces, dignified arc climaxes, and an unsheddable vibe of bravado to match. Metaphorically dense, bursting at the seams with creativity, and highly rewarding on rewatches, I could probably write whole essays picking apart each of the show’s ten episodes and all the ways it brilliantly fuses mythology with mundanity. More than any other fantasy anime of the past decade, Kyousougiga at once feels untouchably powerful and intimately vulnerable, the kind of series that’ll leave you crying, snickering, and reflecting in stupefied awe every time you subject yourself to even a chunk of it. What more can I ask for?
Well, other than…
#1 – HYOUKA
Houtarou Oreki is your average shy, laid-back teenager; he doesn’t want to be burdened by any extracurriculars and spends most of his free time just vibin’. But at the behest of his sly older sister, he finds himself a member of his school’s Classics Club, a literature club currently headed by Eru Chitanda, the insatiably curious, polite daughter of a wealthy local family. Together with her aspiring mangaka friend Mayaka and his own socialite bestie Satoshi, Houtarou suddenly becomes the group’s go-to detective for uncovering the numerous mild mysteries of their daily lives.
Change is inevitable, especially during adolescence, but in many cases so is the fear of change. Hyouka has been branded a “mystery” series, a slice-of-life series, a romantic drama, and more, but in my mind, those genre distinctions all come second to the fact that it’s a tale about fearing change. Houtarou is afraid that he’ll have to reckon his intellect with his self-esteem eventually and closes himself off to avoid situations where a more emotional side of him will leak through. Eru is afraid she’ll lose the friends she treasures as they go off on their own paths and she inherits her family’s business affairs in the place she’s always called home. Mayaka is afraid she’s not yet the artist she hopes to be, a fear whose goalposts shift accordingly with every ounce of progress made. And Satoshi is afraid of the status quo changing, period, which would require him to address his façade as someone happy to be a supporter and not a star.
“Wow, that sounds deep, I think you’re maybe reading too much into thi-” am I, though? If I am, that’d be in the spirit of Hyouka, analyzing situations to a debilitating fault. But I don’t think I am, and here’s why: Hyouka actively seeks to present this quartet of high-schoolers who chill by killing time in a club room as people. Even teenagers have motivators, desires, and anxieties this deep; it’s just a matter of if they’re conscious enough of them to realize it. Some people in Hyouka are, some aren’t, but the causality is always there if you look.
Granted, you might’ve been distracted by the actual visuals, which are so mind-blowingly great for a two-cour TV anime I still question how in the world KyoAni pulled it off, and they’re already the best in the business. I cannot stress enough just how integral shot framing (and I mean every shot) is to the narrative storytelling in Hyouka. The slightest of details in the character animation, voice acting, and script elevate this series from a thoroughly meticulous one to a bar that has yet to be matched by any TV anime since.
Technical achievements aside (and I could spend paragraphs on those alone, but simply watching the show will make what I mean pretty obvious), Hyouka was one of the first times I felt seen by anime. In high school, I immediately identified with Houtarou’s “don’t do anything you don’t have to” approach to life, only realizing through his growth in this series that I wasn’t actually proud of that philosophy—I was using it as a crutch because I feared change. At my worst, I still see myself in him, and in Satoshi, Mayaka, and Eru’s flaws as well. I see all that because Hyouka saw it for me and showed me how shallow the actions that stem from that fear can be.
But it also showed me what can happen once you allow that fear to dissipate. Not everyone gets what they claim they want or actually want when the series’ final episode concludes, but it presents each member of the quartet vocalizing the insecurities that have irked them and—I can infer—endeavoring to move beyond them. Our teen years are when that change is most unavoidable, but ideally, you should never stop learning about others, the world, and yourself. Since 2012, the artistic triumph that is Hyouka has held me accountable in that pursuit. That anime can have the power to do that is pretty damn cool.
May all those who perished in the senseless Kyoto Animation arson attack last July rest in peace. Thank you for sharing your art with the world and progressing the industry with your incredible craftmanship and humane business practices. The chasm of your absence has been felt the world over and you will all be sorely missed.
Sorry to end on a down note there, readers, but if you actually made it this far, I applaud you. That was a lot of rambling, but hopefully you either found vindication in these selections or discovered new titles that piqued your interest. What were your favorite anime of the 2010s? (You needn’t rattle off one-hundred, don’t worry). Leave us a comment below or reach out over on Twitter, where as always, I’m happy to chat. Until next time, this has been Yata from For Great Justice. Thank you so much for reading. See you around.