9. +10. Serial Experiments Lain & Haibane Renmei : I’m going to start this top ten list with a tie of two of most artistic anime series ever. Yoshitoshi Abe’s graphic designs for these series are unbelievable with the character designs and backgrounds being some of the best designs anime has to offer. These designs are so powerful that they are literally a part of the show, much in the way that music in certain shows is a key element. The animation of these designs is likewise unbelievably well executed and deserving of praise.
It isn’t just artistry within these shows that wins them a place on my top ten list. While these shows are very different works, they both share the presence deep and subtle thematic material. Serial Experiments Lain is a surrealist trip exploring the ever growing role of computers and technology in everyday life. It surprisingly was able to predict a number of actual advances in technology, and more interestingly to questions the role of computers in our lives. The repeated disturbing imagery and motifs of this show truly make it a mind bending and fantastic work. While just as abstract Haibane Renmei is a much mellower and clearer series. Haibane Renmei manages to be a very spiritual work and introspective, without being religious, rushed or obvious. The story focuses upon Reki being reborn from a giant egg into a world with no previous memory, and her difficulties adjusting to her new life in an unfamiliar place. This work covers a number of deep themes of remorse, death, salvation, the cycle of existence, friendship, letting go and finding ones way in a place. It moves at introspective slow pace, slowly revealing its themes and content while taking the viewer on a journey alongside its lead.
The other elements of these series are also similarly great. Both series use openings with music from the UK (Lain with a folk rock group, and Haibane Renmei a befittingly gentle Irish inspired theme), and each has music very much befitting of the series. Both works also feature fairly solid dubs for early era works; though it is the sub tracks that definitely are the better choice. Both of these works are so fantastic in their own special ways that I couldn’t really place one above the other. They both felt like major journeys, and have left a major imprint upon the anime industry and me.
8. Mononoke: The first thing a person will notice with Mononoke is that there is no anime series that looks remotely like it. Mononoke is a story of a wandering medicine peddler/exorcist that investigates and disposes of odd traditional spirits. The design of this show is a treat for the eyes with its intense colour pallet that mixes the surreal and disturbing with a traditional Japanese aesthetics. It appears like a moving screen print, with even aspects of the background like rain or fish tanks looking like they were lifted from a traditional print. This is another work that really earns its merits for an animation. The animation is just as strong as its design, moving with subtly and fluid mastery of motion, presenting characters as flawed and ugly beings and the lead as humble mystically powerful and mysterious figure.
Thematically Mononoke incorporates the tale of the heroic wanderer, but mixes it with the tale of the healer of supernatural woes (much like Mushishi). Kusuriuri the mysterious exorcist insisting he is merely a medicine man travels to a location where spirits are at unrest. The stories like supernatural mysteries as he slowly unravels for the viewer the true nature of a particular spirit and the situation. Each story is well paced, and feels almost like a miniature movie. The most interesting aspect of the stories for me though is that the stories arcs feel like a mixture of traditional Japanese mythology and surrealism, which gives them a translucent quality.
The music for Mononoke is a great blend of traditional instrumentation and orchestra with the creepy and supernatural. This blend goes great with the style of animation presented in this show, and is so strong that it is definitely a listen outside of the show. While this show is only subbed, it is clear even in the sub that a lot of work went into the voice acting of this show, especially with the lead character. It is a huge shame that this work has never been licensed in the states, and it definitely ranks as the show I am most eager to see an official release of (like Billybat I’d be willing to pay almost any amount for a copy of this work).
7. Revolutionary Girl Utena: This anime clearly has inspired so many anime series for good reason. Revolutionary Girl Utena is one of the first anime series to strongly employ many elements that seem standard place today such a vast variety of tone, the presence of deep symbolism and emblems and subtext, the mainstream inclusion of diverse sexuality and the inclusion constantly repeated motifs. Most importantly though is that this show still stands out todays as one of a kind and one the best anime series ever.
Revolutionary Girl Utena stars the heroine Utena who is brought out of despair as a child by a mysterious Prince who gives her a special ring with a rose emblem. Rather than play the traditional role is the grateful Princess though Utena is inspired to emulate her savior and become a prince herself. As she enters junior high she chooses to wear a male uniform, rather than accept the female one. She soon discovers that her ring makes her a duelist and is drawn a competition with the student council and others around her based on preservation of the world, and Anthy a girl who acts as the guardian of the winner’s sword and the ceremony of duels. Despite being only interested in giving Anthy freedom, Utena quickly becomes the most accomplished of the duelists and begins to connect with the mysterious upside down castle location the duels take place in.
While the animation has dated slightly from its release the repeated sequences and style of the Shojo remains highly intriguing to view due to their emblematic nature. Another interesting aspect of this show is how it handles major story arcs, and often (at least in the first season) has a radical changes in tone from the extremely dramatic to the comedic. The character designs take the concepts classical design of shojo women and bishonen men to a whole other level that I have yet to see topped. The lush orchestral score and use of choice in this work likewise gives it a truly classical and timeless quality, as does the classic J-Pop opening. While the dub fails to do this work justice, the sub once again makes up for this with its excellent quality. Utena is truly one of a kind and worthy of its spot among my top ten.
6. Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex: You know that you are looking at impressive list of anime series when this show is not placed within the top five of this list. Regardless this series is impressive in every aspect, and clearly does the Ghost in the Shell series much more justice than any other adaption save perhaps the first movie. Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex is a futuristic police/espionage drama, where the blending of machine and human has reached a point where it is often hard to determine which is which, and what it means to be living. This title follows the secret government task force section 9 a force designed to fight the highest levels of terrorism, cybercrime and governmental matters. Despite the wide cast, each cast member is given a good amount of time to develop a detailed and interesting personality befitting their role in the story.
In terms of quality of animation from a technical stand point this is one of fluidly animated shows, blowing away even the best imitators to this day. Production I.G. went all out, and the result is a futuristic masterpiece making the blending of technology and realism seem believable. This animation also allowed the super human level of conflict within this show to really look fluid and to be so outstandingly gripping to view, while still making the more introspective moments just as noteworthy and profound. This is the type of work where clearly no expense was spared animation wise and it shows.
The sound quality for this show is again top notch. You know that you are going to have an outstanding soundtrack considering the composer, but even among Kano soundtracks this one is particularly memorable. Her mixing of electronic music with her brand of scoring creates a very unusual blend that sets this anime apart. While the first opening’s CG hasn’t exactly dated well, the second opening is much more visually successful and the score for both really make them accomplishments worthy of praise. This is another one of those anime series where I feel that I can claim that the dub is for the most part entirely perfect, despite a strong sub cast as well. The dub cast really helped to definite the personalities of the vast cast, and all fit really perfectly into the roles they were playing. This is definitely a science fiction classic and Cartoon Network was extremely clever to have this masterpiece on its Adult Swim block and to continue showing it (if only Adult Swim showed shows with this much quality now).
5. Princess Jellyfish: Princess Jellyfish has but one major flaw, which is that it ended leaving me wanting even more. This is one of the cutest and more humorous shows I have ever seen. Jellyfish Princess stars Tsukime a shy nerd who lives together with a bunch of anti-social nerds with special obsessions. She ends up stumbling into a cross-dressing politician’s son Kuranosuke, who ends up deciding he likes the building (as he is fashion obsessed) and goes there constantly despite the no men policy of the building (lucky the other girls are too thick to ever discover his secret). Soon it is discovered though that the building is in danger of being torn down by a redeveloping firm, and Kuranosuke most push the various antisocial tenants to try and work together to save the building. Meanwhile his brother Shuu is being blackmailed by an egotistical seductress working for the redevelopment firm tricks him and takes a fake sex picture. She is unaware though that he is actually terrified of women outside of a work situation and has fallen for Tsukime when she is dressed up by her brother.
This show is tons of fun, and has lots of wonderful humor. Since I have reviewed this work before I will try to keep this description short, but it does deserve note as to why I love this series to those who haven’t read my review. While not the most memorable works musically the score works well, the opening is outstanding despite not really relating to the show directly. While the animation isn’t as flashy as many other works on this list, it is extremely adapt. The movement and ability for this work to create realism in the backgrounds is truly outstanding, despite not being as noticeable as some other works. The characters are really what make this show so funny and charming though, and give this work so much charm. Each character has so much personality and is a real comedic treat to watch, while rarely if ever feeling over the top or forced. I was blown away by the dub for this show, though this anime also has a great sub track as well. Despite most of the actors in this work being pretty obscure and rarely cast in major roles they shine in this series. Even though this series might seem expensive providing the short episode count, the quality of the extra features and the show in general make this anime worth every cent of its asking price.
4. Princess Tutu: Those who have never viewed Princess Tutu might ask why a series with such an unpromising name would be appearing so high on my list. Those, however who have an open mind and who have seen Princess Tutu clearly understand why I adore it so much and why it is here on my list. Princess Tutu is one of my favorite children’s anime series, with an amazing combination of humor, dance, fairy tale elements, and of course a wonderful soundtrack. Princess Tutu is the story a duck named Duck that is in love with a beautiful prince Mytho, a boy who shattered his heart to seal away an evil raven spirit. She is given a magical necklace that transforms herself into the magical girl and dancing heroine Princess Tutu. Unfortunately this fairy tale world is ruled over by the malevolent spirit of the author of the Prince and Raven fairy tale who has a distinct love for tragedy, and who has given Duck her powers only conditionally. He warns Duck that if she professes her love to the Prince, she will vanish forever from the story. With becoming Princess Tutu comes the challenges for Duck of retrieving shard despite the objections of prince Mytho’s controlling best friend Fakir, and his girlfriend the prima ballerina at Duck’s dance school with a secret Rue, and the fact that she is forced to remain anonymous despite her efforts. It also soon becomes apparent that the rebuilding of the prince’s heart has other unforeseen consequences, marked by the arrival of the Raven’s daughter Princess Kraehe who is also in love with Mytho.
While perhaps not as consistently good as some of the other shows in my top ten in terms of animation, Princess Tutu does clearly have bursts of amazing animation where it really matters. The dancing animation and the sense of ballet like joy, conflict and drama are all played out well. This is a show where the music clearly is major part of the work. Princess Tutu has a breath taking score comprised almost entirely of Ballet music or music clearly inspired by classic Ballet scores. The full orchestration of these tracks graces Princess Tutu with one of the greatest soundtracks ever to be included in an anime series. Both the Sub and Dub are excellently preformed, and I have had no trouble listening to this show in either format. Both give the characters a strong personality and are worth hearing, with the dub being stronger with distinguishing some of the cast such as the storyteller Drosselmeyer and the Duck’s dance teacher Mr.Cat, while the sub overall does a slightly better job capturing the voices of Duck and Mytho. This is a real treat to watch and hands down one of the most complex and successful magical girl series ever created.
2&3. Wolf’s rain & Gankutsuou: The Count of Monticristo: Again we come to a point where it would be too painful for me to decide between these two shows. Both of these works are nearly perfect in their own ways. I have tried time and time again to decide between which one I felt was better, but every time I do I always end up unable to choose between these two works.
Wolf Rain combines the sense of an adventure and spiritual journey. This series takes place in a world that is dying out. Suddenly after being extinct for more than 200 years wolves begin to populate the world and gain the ability take upon the appearance of human’s. Wolf’s Rain follows Kiba a white wolf, who eventually ends up grouping up with a variety of other wolves to take a mystical flower maiden to a place known as paradise. Meanwhile humanity is still trying to figure out what is going on, with the elite nobles still at war and rest of the human race trying best survive and to make sense of what is occurring around them.
Not only is Wolf Rain’s a journey towards mysterious paradise (both a physical and mental one), it also is Buddhist inspired story of death and rebirth and the damage caused by the inability to move on or connect with each other. Wolf’s Rain is deep work that explores human nature and isn’t afraid to end in a truly tragic way. Being that the score for Wolf Rain is by Yahko Kanno it is a guarantee that it would be fantastic. The combination of eclectic orchestral strings, blues and bossa nova makes this soundtrack remarkably different from even any other Kanno scores, and fits perfectly with this the mood of the show. The dub for this show is pretty much perfect again, even surpassing the subtitled version. The cast contains an interesting variety of major stars voice actors, as well as a few excellent lesser known actors all playing their parts spectacularly. This is another show also where you can clearly see that no expense was spared in terms of animation. Even just by watching the opening you can see that every shadow, tree blowing in the wind or little motion of the characters was animated with intense detail. This level of detail is something that only few shows or movies can master, and it clearly shows a distinct care and love was put into this work.
It is hard to adapt work, let alone to create material in an adaption that adds something new and meaningful to an original piece. The Count of Monticristo anime by Gonzo though not only is a successful interpretation, but is one of the best appropriations of a novel (especially of such a large size) that I have ever seen. Gankutsuou is the story of Albert a young noble who comes upon a mysterious alien royal calling himself the Count of Monticristo. Albert is instantly drawn by the strangers charm and grateful after he is saved from bandits through the eccentric Count’s charity, despite warnings from his close friend Franz. He invites the Count to his home in Paris unaware of his true intensions, and that the Count is cunningly plotting revenge against those who wronged him in the past including Albert’s father. Gankutsuou takes the major story tenants and intent of original the novel, but it also changes them to fit futuristic setting involving space travel and aliens, while focusing just as much upon the betraying general’s son as the Count himself as he is thrown in the middle of conflict and used. The anime does an excellent job both making the Count malicious and larger than life, while retaining a level of internal struggle and remorse, and building up the tension into shocking crescendo’s.
This is another anime where the style of and quality of animation places this work apart from all others. The detail of the colour scheme is truly outstanding, but it is the cut out fabric overlays in the animation that really draws the eye. Yota Tsuruoka also truly deserves credit for his work on the score of this series, and a number of other momentous anime scores (include Lain and Inuyasha to name just a few). Not only does he do a wonderful job incorporating wonderful classical excerpts into his score, but he also is responsible for a great deal of the wonderful scoring elements that reflect the action and are worthy of hearing again and again. The opening and ending are visually and musically are wonderful. The opening has a calm, sorrowful feel that reflects the great artistry of the series. The ending acts much more like an opening normally would with the music reflecting the anger of the Count and bright fast moving imagery that at time borders on the surreal attracting exciting the eye. Amazingly enough both the opening and closers music both composed and performed by the western artist Jean-Jacques Burnel, and sound almost as though polar opposites to one another. This is an anime where it is clear that the sub is definitely the way to go. While the dub does a serviceable job with trying to live up to outstanding performance of Jouji Nakata as the Count, Jamieson Price cannot begin to compete with show stealing voice presented in the subtitled version. Sadly the same cannot be said about Johnny Young Bosh’s performance of Albert which felt unconvincing and as though Bosch were going through the motions, and never really invested himself in the character clearly shows that he was extremely miscast in the role. This is the main reason why I feel the subtitled version is far superior and definitely the version of choice for viewing.
Both of these series are truly masterpieces that are so good that it pains me to even not have placed one of them in the top series spot. Both present some of the best work anime has to offer and I would be surprised if I didn’t see either of them in or even at the top of other peoples top 10 lists who have seen them.
1. Cowboy bebop: I know that many people who are reading this are likely now calling foul. How could a person like me with a list with so many obscure, artsy and intellectual shows choose such a popular and cliché choice as Cowboy Bebop to put on the top of the list? Before you start crying though please first consider that this is a list of my personal favorites, not an objective look at the best series and also consider why this series has been continually playing on Adult Swim pretty much non-stop since its initial release in 2001 (around 12 years since I am posting this) and why it remains such a popular work. Cowboy Bebop is truly a timeless work that lives up to its timeless reputation and it are important to remember that it has set many standards within the anime industry. While episode to episode Bebop might not hold up as the best work, as a whole and complete package this work personally leaves me the most satisfied of any anime work. I have seen Bebop more times than any other anime series and would gladly watch it again many times. While a few episodes are skip worthy most are well worth seeing, and when an episode works it presents the viewer with something truly special.
Cowboy Bebop is a work set in the future where other than space travel and technology little has actually really changed in the world’s workings. It follows an eccentric crew of bounty hunters just trying scrounge up enough cash to live off of. Ironically despite being qualified professionals none of the crew ever can seem to hold onto a major reward for long and they are constantly at odds with one another other, thus they are continuous is in search of new criminals to chase. Everyone in the cast, however are also chased closely by their own past. The cast includes Spike Spiegel who is in search of his old flame and is often being followed/is chasing his past partner in crime the cruel Vicious, the extra weird hacker girl Edward who is running from her mundane past in search of adventure, the femme fatale Faye Valentine who is fleeing from her debts and her past life from 21st century when she was cryo-frozen, the gruff ex-cop and head of the main ship the Bebop who is escaping his disappointment with corruption within the police force and broken dreams, and even the ship dog character Ein has escaped from a lab where he was experimented on.
Two things really set Bebop’s story from so many other series. First off is the quality and artistry of the presentation. Where so many other series pander to the viewer’s sentiments and only write in a way that directly plays to a specific target audiences interests (such as genre or theme works such as shonen, harem, shojo, moe, romantic comedy, fantasy adventure, sci-fi ect…), Bebop often writes material that goes above a specific category. Even within a genre based episode there are multiple layers of complexity, such as the noire influenced episode Black Dog Serenade or the tragedy of Waltz for Venus. This allows Bebop to last on as a classic many years after its premiere in the United States where so many other series including once popular ones have fallen into obscurity.
This lack of direct genera leads into the second major aspect that sets Bebop apart, which is the radical variety of tone. It is clear that it was highly influenced by works like Revolutionary Girl Utena, which would often change radically in tone. Cowboy Bebop however takes this one step further by presenting a huge variety of tone and thematic material, and mixing serious themes into even comedic episodes and comedic sarcasm into serious ones. A wonderful example is the parody episode Cowboy Funk involving Spike competing with an obnoxious and thick rich bounty hunter cowboy fanatic Andy for the bounty of a teddy bear obsessed terrorist spouting an anti-consumerism philosophy (that no one is interested in hearing), this episode is then followed and contrasted by an episode where the Bebop’s crew chases after a mysterious cult leader claiming to have the power to copy a person’s soul into the ether computer and that explores the prospective of reality. Another interesting aspect of this variety is that Bebop switches between a series of episodic adventures which are connected by the crew’s backstories. While only three stories specifically follow Spike’s backstory and a few others follow the rest of the cast’s backstory these stories are extremely important to creating strong sense of world building and feel like they balance the show between backstory and standalones.
The technical aspects of Cowboy Bebop are just as impressive (if not more so) as the story format. Sunrise clearly went all out with the animation and soundtrack budget for this show, and the dub for Bebop remains one of the most famous of all dubs for good reason. Despite this show being many years old the detail and impact of the animation still makes this one of the best looking animated series. Everything from the fantastical aspects of the space travel, to the smallest shadow and moment of a characters body is captured by Sunrises animation team (the same fantastic team responsible for the detailed animation found in Wolf’s Rain).
The soundtrack for Cowboy Bebop goes beyond simply being an important part of the series. The music in Cowboy Bebop is a key element to the show’s success and is even directly referenced constantly with the episodes titles and dialogue. It is not surprising that the soundtrack for Cowboy Bebop is the source that really popularized Yahko Kanno in the U.S., since the without the soundtrack there could be no show. Not only are her Jazz and Blues tracks that are included within the openings and ending (which both appeared as number two on my top opening and closers list) beyond remarkable, but the various styles and experimental nature of soundtrack make it one of the most successful and ambitious anime scores of all time. As a result of this show many other shows such as Baccano have placed a much greater emphasis on musical aspects.
To round out this show, this is one of the first works to perfect and set the standard for dub quality. While a few works before Bebop had notable dubs, Bebop clearly set a standard for dubbed works by modeling what a dub could be. Cowboy Bebop was really the first work to present a dub that adapted its source material in a way that was nearly perfect. Dialogue was not just spoken like in many previous works, but was instead presented in a form of subtle and passionate acting. This sort of quality dub helped set the bar extremely high for other series, and was very much a wake-up call to many dubbing teams as to what sort of dub the audience wanted and now expected from an anime work.
While Cowboy Bebop might seem like a predictable show to place on the top of the list, I have good reasons both personal and objectively for placing it at the pinnacle of my list. This was the first anime series I really remembering watching and falling in love with. I remember seeing Cowboy Bebop during a special broadcast and marathoning the entire series until around three in morning start to finish. It blew me away, and to this day it continues to blow me away every time I see it. Cowboy Bebop is both in story and production process a magical show and there was no question even when I began this project that it was going to be at the top of this list.
I hope you all enjoyed my list and found perhaps a few new shows to view or at the very least a few show to revisit. If you enjoyed this list please let me know, and also feel free to suggest what sort of top lists you’d be interesting in reading in the future. See you space cowboy!