Our staff’s review of the decade continues, and today I’ll be taking on the massive task of trying to list the best fifty anime that came out this decade, as I saw them. As is fairly obvious by now, I can only list the anime that I saw, and I’ve taken the policy of not putting ongoing series on the list, even though there are a couple of gems that are still currently airing (such as Cross Game and Kemono no Souja Erin). Also, some of the series on this list started airing in 1999, but ending in 2000. You can find a collection of other lists that have been posted on the blogosphere here, and our good friend gaguri, from Ha Neul Seom (하늘섬) has posted his Top 50 here, which I highly recommend.
50. Spice and Wolf
The concept of having a economics play such a heavy role in an anime’s plotline is utterly unique, but what makes Spice and Wolf really work is the relationship of the two leads. Great characters and a sometimes very intense and suspenseful atmosphere come together with its distinctive premise to make a story that is often creative and almost always unpredictable.
Bizarre premises aren’t a new thing for anime, so no one raises eye-brows at the prospect of an anime about mahjong, considering there was an anime about go a few years prior (Hikaru no Go, a series unlucky to not be on this list). But Akagi is different from the usual game-oriented shounen series, in that it’s utterly gritty and intense. The stakes are life and death, and the lead character, the enigmatic Akagi, succeeds through his (calculated) recklessness. This might be a game anime, but it’s set in a seedy underworld.
48. Spirited Away
I’ll admit I haven’t seen Ponyo yet, but no Ghibli movie this decade was of the same caliber of the masterpieces that Miyazaki and Takahata spun in the two decades prior. But that doesn’t mean they’re not great works nonetheless. Spirited Away is an utterly heartfelt, beautiful and often quirky film about a young girl’s time in a magical and lively spirit world.
47. Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai
I have a lot of admiration for this anime. It’s an amazing example of how to tie up a sprawling mystery, with numerous moments of intense drama and a refreshingly even-handed character analysis of its villian along they way. Sure, it’s a flawed work (the second last episode is woefully forgettable), but the scope of what it achieves in its story is immense and incredibly creative.
46. Kanon 2006
Kyoto Animation features prominently on this list, and for good reason, because in many ways, this was their decade in anime. Kanon 2006 is a much more realistic and visually impressive update of a Key adaptation that came out four years previously, and it features a heartfelt story, an excellent soundtrack and animation that was, at the time, at the forefront of what anime makers were doing for TV.
What a quirky, uncanny anime this is. It’s almost impossible to describe: set across multiple times and locations, from a speeding transcontinental train to the seedy New York underworld in the 1930s, the story unfolds in a completely nonlinear fashion, following not one but eighteen characters who cross paths in a most frenetic fashion. Oddball thieves, psychotic hitmen and sinister alchemists are all thrown into a mixing pot that’s rarely short of fun and entertainment.
An artsy anime, Yuasa Masaaki’s Kaiba is one of the best examples of his deliberately superflat artstyle and sense of storytelling. A very creative sci-fi premise is used to explore concepts like memory and existence in a strange and unsettling universe. The seiyuu performances are superb all-round, and Yuasa continues to defy the conventions of what anime should look like. It’s a strange anime, but its story is filled with emotion.
43. Seirei no Moribito
Kamiyama Kenji’s works tend to be filled with intrigue, complexity and a dab of political suspense. What makes Seirei no Moribito different to a lot of his other series is that this unfolds in a fantasy setting, but that doesn’t make it any less of an epic. A memorable and strong female lead, Balsa, battles in an immense and vibrant fantasy world to protect a young prince cursed to carry an egg that could possibly destroy an empire. An excellent soundtrack and superb visuals make this a gem, even if the ending is a little disappointing.
42. Hataraki Man
Anime from the Noitamina timeslot also feature prominently on this list, since I’m of the belief that the popularity and quality of a lot of its series made the josei anime genre credible again. Hataraki Man is an extremely down-to-earth story, slice-of-life in a much truer sense than we usually see in anime, about the difficulties of balancing work life and private life. Mature, even-handed and smart, it’s one of the most refreshingly believable and relevant slice-of-life anime I can remember.
In the latter part of the decade, we started to see some gems from a small company called Brains-Base, with series like Baccano! and Natsume Yuujinchou (the latter of which is unlucky not to be on this list). Kure-nai‘s dialogue is a highlight, delivered in a chaotic approach that somehow works. It helps that its characters are so memorable and its themes about tradition and femininity are so engaging.
40. Maria-sama ga Miteru
Marimite has almost become a milestone in the shoujo-ai genre, despite itself only really being shoujo-ai in the most tepid sense of the word. A slow paced and elegant series, Marimite is filled with wonderfully memorable characters and an incredibly absorbing brand of melodrama. The show has charm and grace and is pretty much the most influential anime of its genre.
39. ARIA The Natural
People might disagree, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that ARIA has taken certain cues from Marimite. However, ARIA is a rarity in a number of ways, one of the only anime franchises I know of where each successive series was better than the last. It’s incredibly sentimental, but so honest, so heartfelt and so charming that I found it impossible not to buy into. This outing particularly struck me as very creative, which is refreshing in a time when most anime featuring moe forgo creativity.
38. Victorian Romance Emma
A lot of attention to detail has gone into Emma, a romance story that transcends the class boundary in a time and place where class was everything. This anime is grounded and absolutely meticulous in its depiction of Victorian England. But, more important than anything in a romance of its type, the characters share so much chemistry, which makes the romance so absorbing and enchanting.
37. 5 Centimeters Per Second
This decade saw the emergence of a director so talented and passionate that he may eventually be seen among the greats in anime. Shinkai Makoto’s beginnings are humble and rather amazing, in that he achieved so much with so little. 5 Centimeters Per Second shows what happens when he has more resources at his disposal… there’s no question that it’s among the most visually stunning pieces of animation this decade. The story is also great, particularly the highly romantic first chapter… the ending, on the other hand, isn’t what I’d consider typically Shinkai.
36. Clannad ~After Story~
The emotional end of the Clannad saga… while I wasn’t big on the first part of the second season, the latter part of it features some of the most dramatic scenes of any anime this decade. As a romance it differentiates itself from others in the genre by spanning several years, but as a story it’s remarkable for the amount and scope of the character development. It’s utterly memorable, even if the ending itself is a tad controversial.
35. Kara no Kyoukai – The Garden of Sinners
A seven film epic, Kara no Kyoukai is another strong mystery title (arguably one of anime’s best genres this decade), and is easily the best Type Moon adaptation to date. With a grim, gripping atmosphere, splashes of suspense and shocking gore and a big smattering of philosophy, Kara no Kyoukai is moody and utterly absorbing. Kara no Kyoukai shows a lot of respect to its audience, asking to be analyzed and interpreted by weaving symbolism and meaning into several different layers. It can be a puzzling anime at times, but it’s also a rewarding one.
34. Red Garden
Another excellent mystery, from the director of Kure-nai (Matsuo Kou), Red Garden is, IMO, one of the last great Gonzo anime. It’s a tad unfortunate that it didn’t get quite as noticed as Kure-nai, since I think it’s better. It’s a moody action/mystery that, interestingly enough, often foregoes the action for moments of character development. While it has a great soundtrack, an interesting visual style and simply brilliant dialogue exchanges and vocal performances, it’s at its best when it slows down to analyze its characters, which it does thoroughly.
33. ef – a tale of memories
I’m not sure there was a better visual novel based anime this decade than ef – a tale of memories. The Shaft take on the genre is heavily artistic, a frenetic viewing experience that’s filled with motifs and themes. The story itself is both romantic and melodramatic and the characters are flawed but fascinating. There are some absolutely riveting and unforgettable moments, though… Miyako’s messages in episode 7 were simply intense.
32. Sketchbook ~Full Color’S~
Sketchbook, on the other hand, is utterly serene. A calm, particularly slow-paced slice-of-life comedy, Sketchbook is intent on appreciating the little things. But it’s also filled with quirky characters, which is what makes it so appealing as a comedy. Sketchbook is delightful, sweet and charming, and one of the best moe slice-of-life comedies, alongside the likes of Hidamari Sketch and Minami-ke.
31. Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid
One of Kyoto Animation’s few action series, when watching it, it’s hard not to feel a tad disappointed that they don’t do more. And while the action sequences are phenomenal, what truly makes this series memorable is the new light in which we see Sagara and Kaname’s relationship and the trust they place in one another. The atmosphere is gripping and suspenseful, the dialogue is absorbing and there’s electricity and tension everywhere. Come for the action scenes, but the reasons for staying become obvious once we see that there’s more depth in this story than its predecessors let on.
30. Fullmetal Alchemist
One of the better examples of what the shounen action genre is capable of, FMA hints at a somewhat generic arc-based series at first, but opens up its scope incredibly with a heart-wrenching third episode. The rest of the series develops into an amazing tale of brotherly love in a war-torn world, and is filled with twists, surprises and emotional moments. For whatever reason, this show’s plot sometimes comes under fire, but there’s no questioning its storytelling and pacing, IMO. It’s meticulous, careful and well told.
29. Full Moon wo Sagashite
What starts out as a sickly sweet mahou shoujo series becomes an intensely emotional and dramatic experience, especially in its last thirteen episodes. Full Moon wo Sagashite is an oddity, but it shows what the genre is capable of with a well written story about life, death and music and characters worth caring about. The episodic stories in the first half have mixed entertainment value, but the pay-off is immensely rewarding, with one of my all time favourite endings in all anime.
Like anime with games? How about ones that are existential and intensely philosophical? Kaiji comes pretty much from the exact same team that brought us Akagi, and while both series are similarly dark and gritty, the bent is different in Kaiji, as the games are used to explore concepts about life, existence and society. Kaiji himself is a down-and-outer, relying on guts instead of the infinite talent Akagi had at his disposal. But I particularly liked the final conclusion Kaiji reached in his experiences: one which is ultimately reasoned and logical.
27. Read or Die
There’s not much in the way of logic or reason in this set of OVAs, Read or Die is just good old fashioned fun. Read or Die is an action series to its death, and some of the set pieces are simply spectacular. With superb animation, a grand soundtrack from Iwazaki Taku, some incredibly creative powers and a most unlikely action heroine in Yomiko Readman, Read or Die is one of the best pure, full throttle action series of the decade.
26. Fantastic Children
Fantastic Children is simply an epic, and its scope is always increasing as the story unfolds. Filled with surprises and incredibly moving moments, it’s intriguing from its first episode. However, it develops into a fantastic tale that’s truly grand. Aesthetically, it’s also wonderful; the art style is distinctly simple, but it fits and is aided by a moody atmosphere and an intensely dramatic soundtrack.
25. Dennou Coil
There were a few anime this decade aimed directly at children that turned out to be simply excellent, the ongoing Kemono no Souja Erin being one. Dennou Coil was another. At first a fun story set in a future where the real world can be transformed into a virtual playground by simply wearing a pair of glasses, Dennou Coil eventually turns into a heartfelt story about how children cope with loss. It’s amazing how diverse Dennou Coil is: at times fun, at others thrilling and in the end, poignant, it’s always impressive.
24. Le Portrait de Petit Cossette
Even before he started at Shaft, Shinbo Akiyuki has been making unique and unconventional works in a style which is now unmistakably recognizable. Petit Cossette is an intimidating and often disturbing story about love, vengeance and obsession, one which is brilliantly directed and morbidly beautiful. And while it’ll probably be remembered as another point in Shinbo’s remarkable career, it was also the anime that unearthed Inoue Marina.
23. Voices of a Distant Star
While 5 Centimeters Per Second shows what Shinkai can do with a half-decent budget, Voices of a Distant Star is amazingly impressive because he essentially put it together on his Mac. Visually, it’s phenomenal, filled with brilliant lighting effects and a meticulous sense of attention to detail. But it’s memorable because of it’s story, it’s creative sci-fi premise and the touching and depressing romance tale at the heart of it all… a romance that explores Shinkai’s pet theme of distance.
22. Eden of the East
It might be a controversial thing to say, but Eden of the East is Kamiyama’s best anime yet, IMO. A beautifully animated mystery, Eden has a great grasp of when to be serious and when to be light-hearted, and arguably has the most likable characters to ever feature in a Kamiyama story, particularly the charismatic and enigmatic Takizawa Akira. To go along with an elaborate plot, filled with twists, is an analysis of some very interesting and relevant themes about Japanese society and the corporate structure.
21. BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad
While he does have a distinctive style, I find Kobayashi Osamu’s works a bit hit-and-miss. BECK, however, is a hit. It’s one of the best coming-of-age stories of the decade, and it has so much reverence for rock music and its culture. A great cast of characters with so much chemistry and a superb sense of pacing, BECK is a culturally and musically rich mix of east and west, and a lively tale about growing up and living the rock and roll dream.
20. Gunglinger Girl
Gunslinger Girl is almost poetic. Visually, it’s beautiful. It’s one of Madhouse’s finest animations, the use of light and shadow is symbolic and meaningful and the action sequences are first rate. But, story-wise, it’s fascinating. Dark, often depressing and filled with moral ambiguity, the show is thorough in its exploration of the relationships that bind the child assassins to their handlers. It’s a sad anime, but it’s sometimes also touching, chilling and rarely ever short of dramatic.
19. Zoku Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei
Bakemonogatari is making sweeping claims to being Shinbo’s best anime (it’s ongoing, which is why it isn’t on this list), but Zoku Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is easily his funniest. Satirical and often scathing, ZSZS rarely misses the mark comedy-wise, but is also very experimental. Arguably it’s Shinbo at his most unrestrained, as he plays with the most fundamental aspects of animation in a way that’s always tongue-in-cheek. Arguably the formula has gotten a bit stale in the most recent series, but ZSZS is the pinnacle series in a franchise that is truly bold and irreverent.
18. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that this is the most influential anime of the decade, certainly in the latter years anyway. It’s amazing, thinking back, how effective this was at grabbing people’s attention. It put KyoAni at the forefront of anime related discussions, and was adored for its larger-than-life characters and convention-defying flair. It was, in hindsight, an utterly unconventional mixing pot of meta-humour, sci-fi, moe, harem tropes and narration styles which worked because the characters were so quirky and their interactions were so entertaining. It’s been imitated several times (even by its own sequel), but never reproduced.
17. Haibane Renmei
At first a serene slice-of-life series set in a mysterious world about the day-to-day lives of a group of haibane (it’s hard to describe haibane without being misleading, so the best way to find out about them is to watch the series), Haibane Renmei develops into a very dramatic and symbolic story, that intensely analyzes and develops its characters. The soundtrack from Ootani Kou is masterful, and the fantasy world is glorious and incredibly detailed. But it’s the heartfelt story and charming, multi-layered characters that make this a gem.
16. Nodame Cantabile
Set in a music school, Nodame Cantabile is a romance between two unlikely people: Chiaki, a proficient musician who’s inclined towards order and cleanliness, and Nodame, an eccentric, messy and cheerful piano student. The chemistry between these two is wonderful, and the series is enormously fun to watch, even in its more serious moments. The soundtrack is filled with classical masterpieces, but the series is so full of life because one never gets a chance to doubt that, despite how important music is to their careers, the characters always enjoy it.
Grim, disturbing and gory, Shigurui is a suspenseful and unapologetically brutal portrayal of swordplay in a sadistic samurai world. A revenge story, Shigurui is as much about the mastery of the sword as it is about the loss of humanity that accompanies it in a world devoid of morality. Possibly the most bleak and misanthropic anime I can remember, Shigurui is filled with disturbing characters and chilling moments of violence. The animation by Madhouse is amazing, artfully rendering the convulsing anatomy of the swordsmen during fight scenes.
14. Fruits Basket
Fruits Basket is a simply adorable shoujo anime that has a great balance between comedy and drama. At some points absolutely hilarious, and at others, heart-wrenchingly tragic, Fruits Basket is always charming and its main character, Honda Tohru is always earnest and lovably optimistic. But pretty much the entire cast is delightful and the character interactions are almost always entertaining. Past its premise and its fun quirky characters, it’s a relatively down to earth story that has a funny knack for delivering some incredibly moving dramatic punches, at just the right times.
13. Bokura ga Ita
Fruits Baskets‘ director, Daichi Akitaro, also did Bokura ga Ita, another shoujo anime that has a near perfect balance between comedy, romance and drama. However, Bokura ga Ita is much heavier than Fruits Basket. Its characters are flawed, but the series shows them so much respect, and gives its small cast every opportunity to let the audience into their space. It has a minimalist style which it uses to full effect for its highly dramatic moments. It’s a love story, but it’s completely unabashed about showing the tumultuous highs and lows that come with young love between troubled people.
12. Honey and Clover
Maybe one could say that Honey and Clover is a more mature version of Bokura ga Ita, since it, too, manages to blend drama and comedy almost perfectly. It’s an anime about life, but it excels because of its amazingly lively, deep and genuine characters. I don’t think there’s another anime that so well captures what it’s like to have unreciprocated feelings for someone. The characters are eminently believable, and their experiences and situations are relatable. An emotionally rich anime, it’s filled with moments that are unforgettable.
11. Kino’s Journey
A vignetted anime set in a fantasy world, Kino’s Journey is an extremely even-handed and intelligent examination of humanity and society. It has a simple, minimalist art style, and the two main characters don’t reveal all too much about themselves. But, by following their adventures through the diverse countries they visit, we see a rich, sometimes cruel world, filled with all different types of people and cultures that combine into something wondrous. Kino’s Journey doesn’t shy away from the ugliest parts of humanity and nature, but, in an ironic fashion, it always finds a way to celebrate its beauty.
10. ARIA The Origination
The final season of ARIA is the best, and it’s here that we see how the episodic stories of the earlier series tie into a grand story about growing up and finding one’s place in life. Like its predecessors, ARIA is highly sentimental, but its characters are so charming and delightful that it’s hard to hold it against it. Neo-Venezia is simply stunning and vibrant, and makes for the perfect setting for all of The Origination’s memorable, special moments, of which there are numerous. ARIA is heartfelt, earnest and touching and comes together with such perfect execution that I consider it a near miracle.
9. Koi Kaze
Incest in anime is unfortunately typically used as an excuse for fanservice or cheap melodrama, but Koi Kaze has been, to date, the only anime to take it on in a hard-hitting, yet respectful manner. It asks the audience to put judgments to one side, presenting a romance that is utterly tender yet intensely dramatic. The changes in the characters as the relationship between older brother and younger sister develops are stark, and the love between them is completely palpable. Koi Kaze is a superb story of forbidden love, asking challenging questions about the very fundamentals of romantic relationships, but being considered enough to not pose overly simple answers.
8. Millennium Actress
Kon Satoshi’s Millennium Actress is his best work yet, IMO, a story that spans 70 years across the tumultuous career and life of an actress. Kon loves to play with perception and does so again here, as the episodes of Chiyoko’s life and the films she made blur into each other. Millennium Actress is gloriously animated and scored, but its brilliantly written story about chasing love is immensely dramatic… particularly during the surprising and heart-wrenching twists that come near the end.
7. Now and Then, Here and There
Now and Then, Here and There is another brilliant directorial effort from Daichi Akitaro and is remarkable for its strong anti-war themes. Despite a chillingly psychotic megalomaniac villain and a brutal world of dwindling resources, where children are forcibly recruited as soldiers, Now and Then, Here and There still manages to find reasons to be positive about humanity and society. The soundtrack from Iwasaki Taku is epic, and the series is replete with dramatic and affecting scenes, made all the more moving by its “show, don’t tell” attitude to storytelling. And what it shows is often highly disturbing.
6. Azumanga Daioh
A number of the series listed here have had an incredible influence on their respective genres. Azumanga Daioh did for slice-of-life moe comedy what Suzumiya Haruhi did for otaku meta-comedy, what Marimite did for shoujo-ai and what Honey and Clover did for josei. Its vignetted format, absurdist sense of humour and ultra-cute art style, unique for its time, have been adopted by so many other anime that they’re pretty par for the course now. I still reminisce about some of its jokes years after seeing it, but when I first watched it, I was reminded of so many of the silly and pointless conversations I had back in high school. Azumanga Daioh was a revolution for a genre that has since merely evolved.
An amazing crime story chronicling more than two decades, Gungrave follows Brandon and Harry, best friends, as they rise through the ranks of the Millennion crime syndicate. There’s so much complexity and drama in this series, and the characters and their stories overflow with emotion. The plot is extremely well written, filled with twists and surprises, and there’s meaning and thematic richness in almost every event. Gungrave seems like a revenge story, but what it’s really about is loyalty and sacrifice and the price paid to protect someone. The soundtrack is amazing and the ending is like a poetic sledgehammer of pathos.
4. Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo
A true revenge story, Gankutsuou is a modernistic adaptation of Alexander Dumas’ classic The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s visually rich, with a distinctive textured art style, while the soundtrack is melodramatic and heavy. The dialogue is elegant and meaningful, the characters, particularly the titular Count, are charismatic yet intimidating, and the plot is filled with ironic twists and turns. Gankutsuou is utterly absorbing, it has a few moments of intense pathos, but almost everything is executed with a fanfare. As an adaptation of Dumas’ classic, it’s unique, but worthy.
3. Honey and Clover II
The sequel and conclusion of the Honey and Clover saga is much more somber than its predecessor. The comedy is toned down as each of the stories come to a head, with bouts of drama and sadness along the way. Often dealing with complex, morally questionable situations, Honey and Clover II has an incredible knack of justifying the actions of the characters without trying to absolve them. The characters are so believable and so well fleshed out that their choices are understandable, even if you don’t completely agree with them.
Mushishi is an episodic series with an absolute mastery of short storytelling. Aesthetically, it’s brilliant: the natural landscapes are rendered with great detail and are picturesque, while the soundtrack is somber and haunting. The stories themselves are excellent… hardly any of the 26 episodes fall short of enthralling, and many of them are so well developed and so well paced that they end up being poignant and moving. Mushishi doesn’t neglect its main character either: Ginko’s backstory makes for one of the most memorable and dramatic episodes in the entire series. This title is a superb example of an iyashikei anime, and one of the few anime this decade which I’m comfortable labeling a “masterpiece”.
An epic and a masterpiece, Monster is, in my eyes, the anime of the decade. Managing to maintain an extremely high level of suspense and intrigue for 74 episodes, Monster is both a gritty psychological thriller and a superbly layered mystery. The plot is gripping from the first episode, and the pacing is deliberate, which builds the tension and the characters are well developed and often shown to have depth beyond what one might first expect. While the animation and soundtrack might not be top-tier, anime is ultimately a storytelling medium and this is where Monster excels. I have to nitpick to find flaws in the script, arguably one of the best in anime of all time. Overall, Monster is a spectacular achievement.
Tomorrow, Akira will be looking at anime that were so bad that they rocked, as well as posting his predictions on where he thinks anime is going in the next decade.