This is an article I was working on for some time. I didn’t intend to release it before encountering at least ten candidates for the list but, well, I think a lot of us are currently stuck at home and maybe searching for some distraction. Hence I have decided to wrap this already overlong article up and post it now. I hope you enjoy.
I admit, as much as I like animation, anime is not really my forte. Partly this is simply due to time constrains. Even with Western Animation I usually have to draw the line at trying to see every theatrically released movie which exist, it would be impossible to add all the TV-shows too. Plus, anime is such a broad field, one has to be very dedicated to even just watch everything which belong to one single genre.
But it is also a matter of preference. There are certain anime tropes and genres (like mecha) I am not really into. A lot of those anime which regularly make it on the top of the list of the best anime of all time, I didn’t really care for, or I watched them exactly once and then never again, not because I disliked them, but because I never had the drive to do the journey through the narrative a second time.
And yet, once in a while I stumble over an anime which just clicks, for one reason or another. So I thought it might be a good idea to share some of those shows I appreciate the most. To be clear here: I am not claiming that those are the best anime out there, nor are they the most influential. They are just the ones I happened to stumble over at one point and personally ended up liking the most.
But first, here the rules for this list:
- Only genuine anime qualifies, TV shows which were created in anime-style by Western Studios don’t. So, sorry Castlevania, you are great, but not for this list.
- I excluded any TV show, which is based on a western book. Don’t get me wrong, you can watch the Japanese version of Treasure Island, Heidi or Litte Women and have a really good time with it, but what I was looking for were shows which are part of the whole manga/anime circle. Because they provide something “new” so to speak.
- It had to be a show which was good enough that I ended up watching it at least three times, without the desire to skip multiple episodes. That stipulation certainly lead to a LOT of shows falling off the list by default, but I feel a truly good story should stay interesting even if you already know how it will end. This had the side effect, though, that none of the “high-concept” anime made it. They are just not something I would rewatch.
Also, I simply listed the ones which made the cut in alphabetical order. I didn’t want to rank them because, well, somehow I ended up picking anime which belong into completely different genres. They aren’t really comparable on any level. What I did do, though, is a lot of comparing to other anime from the various genres which didn’t make the list. To all the fans of those anime: Don’t be offended, if I mention an anime it means that watched a decent chunk of it at one point, it just wasn’t good enough (or too depressing) to warrant a rewatch on my part. For other people those animes might play more into their preferences than they did for me.
Akatsuki no Yona – Yona of the Dawn
No anime had such a hard path to get on this list than this one. The first hurdle was to get me to watch it at all. I am honest, this one didn’t look appealing to me. It kind of looked like Robin Hood but with a princess and mythological dragons. Which it is, but it is a great take on the concept. The second hurdle were the first episodes, which didn’t really convince me. The third hurdle was the fact that this anime stopped after one season pretty much at the point at which the manga started to get really interesting. Watching it is a little bit like just being allowed to eat the appetizer of an high end menu.
But in a way, this is even more of a reason to give it more exposure. I really want to get more of this story in animated form (and yes, I read the manga, so I know exactly what we are missing out on if there is never another season).
I have a hard time to figure out what works so well about this story. After all, I am kind of tired of chosen one stories and I really, really have started to question stories which push the notion of “good nobility”, or watching noble families fighting each other with zero regard for the people involved in their wars. But then I guess this is part of what works about this story, a lot of it is about how the decisions of those in power affect the normal people, and what can be done about it. It is also unusual in that most characters aren’t completely evil, their motivations tend to be understandable.
But I guess what I like the most about the story is that it is less predictable, than I thought. I thought that in a story about an usurper killing the king, said usurper would be the villain, but that is not the case. I thought that romance would play a big role in a story like this, but it is more a side plot. I thought that the focus would be on getting the princess back on the throne, but instead the focus is on the fate of the country. I thought that the dragon warriors would be uber-powerful and while they kind of are, they are also blessed with sucks. I thought that the focus would be on hiding and fighting, but it is more on good vs bad governance. I thought that the story would fast become boring and repetitive, but if anything, the more details are added to the world, the more interesting it gets. I thought that it would be a very simple story, but there is actually a lot of strategy in it.
I am a sucker for anime which involve battle plans and political strategizing, I just rarely bother to watch them multiple times. Partly because they get less interesting once one knows how the strategizing ends, partly because they tend to be on the depressing side. There is nothing depressive about Akatsuki no Yona though. And I can’t express enough how much I hope that there will one day be a second season. And a third. And a fourth.
If there is something I appreciate about anime, then the ability to take completely off the wall ideas and make them work somehow. Assassination Classroom is one of those off-the-wall ideas. Honestly, what the hell did the writers smoke when they came up with a setting in which pupils are supposed to kill their alien-like teacher? The whole thing is so strange that it is easy to overlook what the show actually is about: The development of the pupils, and how their teacher influence them.
I might be wrong here, I am not Japanese after all, but I get the impression that the show is also meant to be a criticism of the Japanese school system, which very focussed on competition. Though it is not the competition aspect itself the show criticises. It is mostly emphasising the need for teachers who recognize the individual strength of their pupils and helping them to reach their full potential, not through pressure, but through encouragement.
Which is exactly what I like so much about the show. One would think that the crazy assassination attempts would be the most interesting part, but what got me hooked were more the school events, the lessons which are taught and the personal arcs of the various students. If there is something which bothers me about the show is that it gets distracted from exploring the various pupils on a deeper level a little bit too often. Also, the whole reveal of what is really going on with the “alien teacher” wasn’t really my cup of tea. The show requires a lot of suspension of disbelief as it is, but it still stretches it a little bit too far in the end for my taste. Also, the notion of killing is treated a little bit too causally at times. Other than that, it’s an enjoyable watch from start to finish.
Carole & Tuesday
I love music anime. Weather it is classical or contemporary music, I don’t care, there is just something really great about watching a combination of music and anime. But for me, Carole & Tuesday stands out between all of them.
See, most music related anime aren’t really about the music at all, instead the music tends to be the backdrop for a romance, or a tortured genius story, or about the struggle of live. Carole & Tuesday tells the story of two talented musicians, but they are not portrayed as overly special, all the other musicians who turn up are just as talented in their own right. There are some hints of romance, but they are never on the forefront of the story, they are more happening in the background as part of life. And while the dark sides of the music business are thematised, it never goes grim and gritty over it. And frankly, I don’t think that the various plot points really matter all that much, what matters are the songs. What they mean to the various artists, how they impact the listeners and how they influence each other.
The quality of the songs is also top notch, and they cover a wide variety in genres. Unlike all the other shows I picked for the list, this one started as an anime and only now gets a manga adaptation. It makes completely sense why. The songs are basically 80% of what makes it work. There is so much told not just through what is sung, but also how it is sung. There are more songs in three episodes of Carole & Tuesday than there are in the entire run of other music based anime, songs, which cover a lot of different genres and show the beauty in all of them. I am actually tempted to do a favourites list with them.
In addition, this whole show is just so unbelievable wholesome. Maybe a little bit too wholesome, because while it hints at some of the darker aspects of the music business as well as the downsides of technological progress, the edges are always softened. Or, to put it differently: There is no way that anyone could star in a talent show without having to sign some iron clad contract beforehand, or that said talent show wouldn’t mercilessly exploit tragic pasts and sensational stories, or that a reporter wouldn’t publicise and sensationalise any information he would be able to get about a politician. But in a way, I don’t really mind the wholesomeness. Maybe it’s because I watched an anime, which had apparently decided to depress the audience as much as possible, before giving Carole & Tuesday a try, but having a show which actually believes in humanity was a nice change. And a message I simply needed that very moment.
The anime isn’t perfect by a long shot, as much as it shines in terms of music and animation, as much as I like the different angle it takes on a story like this, there is no denying that it is sometimes on the shallow side, narratively speaking. Plot points are set up and then smoothed over way too easily, and when the finale curtain falls, there are still a number of question unanswered. Most likely intentionally so. Because I have the feeling, that is isn’t really about the various subplots at all. At the end of the day, Carole & Tuesday is just about celebrating music and the power it has. All kind of music, weather it is created by two young talented musicians who speak from their heart, or by an AI. Music which speaks to people, which gives them hope when they are down, which is sometimes an outcry and sometimes a question to the world. And which can give us hope in the darkest of times.
Detective Conan/Case Closed
Easily the longest running anime of this list, and one of the longest running anime in general. I am not kidding here, the anime is currently moving towards the thousand episodes mark, which it should reach at one point next year. I am talking proper 24 minute long episodes with an ongoing story, not five minute shorts or an anthology series. The franchise also includes OVAs, specials, games and yearly movie releases. In short, the anime is crazy successful and yet, it rarely turns up on any “best anime” list, unless it is one specifically about the mystery genre. In this area it is often considered the unrivalled king, though.
I have a complicated relationship with mystery. While I enjoy a good riddle very much, most mystery stories don’t really capture my interest. This is partly, because I usually peg who the Täter is early on, even if I haven’t figured out the details of the case. Hell, I often know who will be murdered by whom before the murder actually happens, too. There is just something about the way those kind of stories are set up which make them extremely predictable, especially when they are done in the whodunit-format. I also have a deep dislike for getting strung along for some overreaching mystery for multiple seasons, mostly because I often get the impression that the writers themselves have no idea what they are actually setting up with all the clues they insert. It’s not fun to work on a riddle if the solution can change arbitrarily.
Detective Conan not only has a case of the week structure, it also has an overreaching plot which has strung the audience along for nearly three decades by now. It is basically everything I hate about mystery show in one neat package amped up to eleven, and yet I can’t stop watching and yes, I also re-watched older episodes, as crazy as this sounds. So, why does this show work for me even though by all rights it shouldn’t?
The overreaching mystery plot most works, I think, because there is never a pretence that the audience can solve it. When clues are given, it is always pretty clear that they will come together eventually, and it is kind of fun to guess in which direction the story will go, but it is just that, guesswork, the same kind of guesswork one would do for any other TV show. The mystery isn’t really there to keep the audience interested, it is there to have an excuse to amp up the suspense once a while, to have an enemy for the main character to fight.
The cases of the week work because the focus is not really on the question how it was done. They do work as functioning riddle – even if the solution sometimes hinges on overcomplicated constructions – but this is never more important than the people involved, and the question, why the murder (it’s usually a murder) happened in the first place. The answers are often fairly tragic, especially when someone murdered out of desperation, or because of a misunderstanding. And the show does pathos really, really well.
What it also does well is their main character. You know this stories in which the arrogant genius has to eat a piece of humble pie, learns his lesson and then returns triumphantly? This show is that, except that the hero is still stuck with his “punishment” of having been turned into a little boy. There is something fascinating about watching a child acting more mature than most of the adults surrounding him, and how everyone reacts to him.
At the end, though, I guess the show simply works because it is the perfect mix of suspense, humour, drama and a little bit action. It’s a little bit odd to go back to the early episodes, because they feature the very rough animation style of the 1990s instead of the polished one the show uses today, but it is nevertheless always worth a rewatch for me. Well…maybe minus some of the Filler episodes (Episodes which are not based on the Manga, but added to stretch the run-time of the anime). Those are hit and miss.
The Disastrous Life of Saiki K.
Japanese Humor is in general difficult to translate, because it often relies heavily on word plays or knowledge about a specific cultural context. In addition, I am not really a fan of the over-the-top humour anime tends to favour, I prefer situational humour. I would therefore be a lie to claim that The Disastrous Life of Saiki K. made me laugh all that much, but it made me chuckle quite a bit. Enough that I can even overlook it being a flash anime. Granted, the meta humour is hit and miss for me. The comments of the show on anime tropes are mostly boiling down to just pointing out “that is a thing which exist in anime”. But the observations are so spot on, they often work for me nevertheless.
There are also some jokes which I don’t care for at all, because they rely on either body shaming or making light of deeply troubling behaviour. But what I appreciate about this anime is the creativity of the set-up and how it is used. It is interesting to have a character who has nearly all the power in the world and yet his main goal is to just blend in. It is funny to still see him dealing with the various downsides of those powers, like never being able to watch a movie unspoiled and being forced to constantly moderate his strength. The powers might be supernatural, but the struggles themselves are still very human and relatable.
This is also the only anime on the list with an English dub I would truly recommend, mostly because of the performance of Saiki’s voice actor. I somehow dig it whenever he sighs “What a pain!”. I can relate.
I am pretty sure that at this point there is some anime for every sport which is just halfway popular in Japan and I have watched my fair share of them. I never bothered with any of them a second time, though, not once. Nevertheless I am currently at my fifth watch of Haikyuu!, knowing it won’t be my last. So, what makes this one work so well for me?
Well, for starters, the sport itself. As a general rule, team sports in which different players have different roles and interact with each other work the best on a narrative level. Sorry Free!-Fans, but no matter how much someone tries, swimming and every other sport which is just about going higher, further, faster will always be difficult to dramatize, because there will always be only two possible outcomes: the character is fast enough or isn’t. There is little opportunity to built tension, little room for variation. But with a team sport, you can explore how the players support and push each other, how their abilities can be mashed together to different kind of attacks, how the game play can change depending on the opponent. And Haikyuu! take full advantage of this.
But the anime also does a really good job of pulling the audience in. I am not a fan of Volleyball. Not at all. I hated it when I had to play it in school. It is nevertheless not my first Volleyball-based anime, I watched Attack No. 1 (in Germany known as Mila Superstar) back in the day. And yet, this is the first time I actually understood the rules of the game, why other people are so fascinated by this sport, and how much tactic truly plays into it. Haikyuu! takes its time to explain the positions, the rules, the tactics in a way that even people who know nothing about Volleyball at all can keep up. And, what might be the most important, you can feel the passion the writer had for the sport. It also helps that unlike most sport Animes, Haikyuu! is fairly grounded. Yes, it has its moves which are slightly exaggerated, but it never feels like it ventures into outright impossible or stupidly over-the-top. Again, take Attack No. 1, which had an early plot point in which the main character learned to receive a ball while doing a somersault in the air. Now, I get the notion that doing it on the ground as a last ditch attempt to reach the ball and be back on your feet as fast as possible makes sense, but routinely receiving a ball flying through the air – well, I don’t need to be a volleyball expert to know that this would be just a waste of energy and inferior to a controlled receive from a stable position. Haikyuu! has some improbable moves, but they never feel impossible, and they always look like a true advantage if you can pull them off. In addition, while Haikyuu! features some players who are labelled as “talented”, they never reach the level of basically being Superheroes, like the characters in a certain basketball anime. They have talent, yes, but they also have to work hard on their abilities, and there will always be someone able to challenge them one way or another.
And they are all memorable characters. Sure, there are some characters who are more in the background (the main team has twelve players, ten of which are fleshed out at one point in the story, four get their own major arc). While there is a main character, the true star of the show is the team as a whole. In addition there are also supporters and opponents, which are explored to a different degree (meaning: Some characters play a big role, others are just hushing around in the background), with a few selected ones having their own mini-arcs. All this provides a very rich world as well as additional narrative opportunities.
Interestingly, the opposing team isn’t necessarily cast in the role of the antagonist. A number of characters are even on friendly terms and train with each other outside of the competitions. The antagonists which do turn up are usually driven by more personal motivations than “just” wanting to win a game: Anger over conflicts from the past, fear of the superior talent of another player, the clash of opposing character traits, just to mention a few of the simpler ones. Often they are just as relatable as the main characters, which has lead to a lot of them becoming fan favourites over time.
Praiseworthy is also the structure. Which matches are won and which are lost tend to be fairly predictable in any sports anime. After all, the story would be over way too early if the team is knocked out in the first round. Often the training matches are at least in this regard the more suspenseful ones, because while there is nothing directly at stake, the outcome is more difficult to parse. But Haikyuu! has three very effective tricks to keep things interesting, no matter what kind of match is played.
One is a change of perspective. Especially in matches in which it is obvious, that our main characters have to win, there is often a switch to the loosing team. Seeing the main characters from a different perspective is interesting in its own right, but it also allows for narrative opportunities. How does someone feel who is playing against a much stronger team? What kind of lessons can be learned? Those are stories which can’t really be done with the main characters all that often, because narrative convenience demands that they have to be at least reasonable successful, but they are well worth exploring.
The second trick are a number of mini-arcs which play into the games, moments, which showcase character development. This can be a character succeeding (or failing) to use a new skillset, this can be realisations during the game, this can be flashbacks to flesh out motivations. It is not just about the question if a team will win, it is also about personal stakes. And those personal stakes can lead to exactly the same attack (or defence) having an entirely different meaning depending on the context. Which in turn ensures that they won’t become boring over time.
And the third tick is the the addition of game discussions by third parties. Those are usually done by the audience, and have two purposes: for one, they allow to show something other than just the players and two, they basically keep the audience in the loop regarding the different tactics used. In games which cover multiple episodes, there is often chain of the teams adjusting their strategy to each other. The comments help the audience to keep track of who is doing what and why.
And on top of this, the anime also excels on a technical level. From the score to the the animation, there is little to complain about (as long as you avoid the English dub). The visual story-telling in Haikyuu! is top notch. I can’t emphasis enough how difficult expressive mimic in animation is, especially in anime, which tend work with only a few face lines. But in Haikyuu! not only does every character look differently, they also move differently, which allows to convey a lot regarding their personalities without the need to use any words at all. One moves fast and energetic, the next stiff and unapproachable, the next aloof, the next somewhat nervous, and if you know the show, you most likely know exactly which characters I am describing. In addition, the game scenes are also very dynamic. Every anime has budget restrains, there is always a need to decide in which scenes the animation can be kept more simple and when it should go all out. Haikyuu! is mostly on point in this regard. And pretty much regarding everything else, too.
Honestly, I have a hard time to categorize Kakegurui. On the surface it is either a gambling or a school anime, since it is about an elite school in which gambling is a way of life. But in reality, the school setting is just an excuse to get all characters permanently at the same place and the gambling seems to serve more as an analogy of life itself. Some of the games played barely even qualify as “gambling” because they aren’t really about bluffing or luck anymore. But they always have some sort of philosophical point to make. So maybe the best way to describe Kakegurui is as “psycho-sociological macabre”.
The macabre element comes in due to the way the characters are drawn. When they gamble, perspective and close-up details make them look monstrous. Otherwise they fall into the “sexy school girl” trope. Yeah, maybe I should mention that the anime is “ecci”, meaning there are a lot of upskirt shots of the mostly female characters, and a lot of sexual tension between them. I always have split feelings towards this kind of anime, but the upside is, that even though the show’s “sex appeal” is clearly meant for a male audience, it ends up featuring lot of female characters with interesting personalities.
Describing them would spoil too much, though, so I’ll leave this with the assurance that even if you know how it will end, watching the matches again is still enjoyable. Which is always a good sign for this kind of anime.
Shokugeki No Soma/Food Wars
Speaking of an anime which stays interesting even if you know the outcome of the battle, Shokugeki is another one of those. I am usually not into battle Animes at all, but whoever got the idea of combining this concept with cooking struck gold. Now, the first two seasons are better than the later ones, partly because it had better recipes, but also because I like the concept of tests and students challenging each other better than some evil organisation which has to be fought off.
Granted, some of the recipes don’t really convince. In one episode the notion to use self-made herb butter in combination with fish is treated like a big revelation. But then, maybe it would be in Japan, who knows. All in all, there are a number of interesting dishes introduced in this one, and a lot of knowledge about food and the various challenges of leading a restaurant.
This is also yet another anime which features a collection of compelling characters. Nearly each cook has his or her distinctive style and the fitting personality to go with it. Seeing how they challenge but also learn from each other is the main reason why this anime is always worth a rewatch. Even though it always makes one hungry to do so.
And that is my little list. To conclude it, here are two anime which I seriously considered for it, but which don’t quite made the cut. The first one is Black Butler, a revenge anime aber a young lord who has made a pact with a demon. Now, the thing with Black Butler is that as an adaptation is is just confusing. The first season is largely manga based, but with a completely contrived finale tacked on. The second is completely original. The third basically ignores the end of season one and the complete second season in oder to continue the story the same way the manga did, without any explanation. When I first watched the anime, I didn’t know any of this, and yet I immediately noticed the drop in quality in the anime-only part. Maybe you still get something out of it, though I have to warn you: This story is kind of sadistic with a strong cynical streak in it.
The same can be said about with my second honorable mention: Death Parade. This show is about the souls of recently died people being tested to see if they deserve a second shot in live or should be pushed into oblivion. How rewatchable it is, I can’t say for sure at this point, because I discovered it fairly recently. But at this point I would say that I would watch around half the episodes again eventually, because they provide a lot food for thought, but I might also skip one or two. In any case, though, of all the high-concept anime, this was the one which came the closest to getting on my list. Hence I felt it was worth a mention.
I hope you found something which might interest you. And maybe you could drop your own recommendations in the comment section. Some people might be desperate for the distraction at this point.
Stay safe, all of you.