The 50 Best Anime Series of All Time

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10. Rurouni Kenshin
Original run: 1996-1998

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There was a moment, in 2003, when seemingly one in every three middle schoolers in America whose home boasted a cable television wanted to learn kendo—a martial art descended from kenjustu, the traditional Japanese art of swordplay. That would be thanks to Rurouni Kenshin, a shonen set during Japan’s Meiji Restoration whose protagonist, a scarred former assassin turned wanderer, pledges himself to protecting the innocent without ever killing again by wielding his reverse-bladed sword against all comers. The depiction of protagonist Himura Kenshin’s penance and a struggle to maintain control in the face of a reflexive return to past wrongs is perhaps the best redemption tale in any anime. The show’s second season, the “Legend of Kyoto” arc, is rightly revered in particular as an example of a near-perfect adaptation from manga to anime, with its original storylines fitting neatly beside those from the manga. A caveat: The property is deeply tainted by the actions of its author, Nobuhiro Watsuki, who was charged with possession of child pornography last fall. His involvement with the anime, however, was limited—and Kenshin’s own values, so centered on selflessly safeguarding those who need protection most at any cost to himself, serve as a resounding condemnation of his creator’s moral failures. —John Maher

9. Revolutionary Girl Utena
Original run: 1997

For those unfamiliar with the series, Revolutionary Girl Utena is often characterized as the “Evangelion of Shojo anime.” But that description, while apt in some respects, is insufficient to grasp what sets Kunihiko Ikuhara’s magnum opus apart. Revolutionary Girl Utena is the story of a girl who dared to become a prince and was told her whole life, “No.” It’s the story of that same girl’s loss of innocence, and her subsequent growth into a confident and heroic young woman. And finally, it is the story of a love between two women who each, in her own way, rescues the other from the depths of despair, hardship, and abuse. That the series manages this while being one of the most visually sumptuous and allegorically dense character studies of the late 1990s is no small feat. Revolutionary Girl Utena envisioned adolescence as one’s own personal apocalypse, with the end of one world signifying the beginning of something new—and, hopefully, better. —Toussaint Egan

8. Space Battleship Yamato
Original run: 1974

When it comes to anime’s stylistic maturation, it’s not a stretch to say that there’s a definitive line: before Space Battleship Yamato and after Space Battleship Yamato. The brainchild of Leiji Matsumoto, Yamato was the first animated space opera series to air on Japanese television, heralding the rise of “manly” space adventurism as the genre du jour. Set in the year 2199, the series follows the crew of the Yamato, now resurrected as a mighty starship, as they embark on a desperate voyage to the planet Iscandar in search of the means to save the Earth from the invasive, militaristic extraterrestrials known as the Gamillans. As much a work of allegorical postwar fantasy as it was a rollicking space drama, Space Battleship Yamato is one of the most influential anime series of all time, and Matsumoto is one of the medium’s brightest luminaries. —Toussaint Egan

7. Dragon Ball Z
Original run: 1989

In every practical sense, Akira Toriyama’s status as one of anime’s greatest creators was all but secured with Dragon Ball. Loosely inspired by the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, the manga and subsequent anime series of Son Goku’s misadventures to collect all seven of the mythical dragon balls inspired whole generations of manga artists and animators in Japan. The original series was a classic, but it was Dragon Ball Z that marked the series’ transition from a national treasure into a worldwide phenomenon. With hyper-kinetic violence, flashy energy attacks, dizzying spectacles of mass destruction, and tense moments of serial escalation, Dragon Ball Z is a singularly important installment in the canon of martial arts action anime and an enduring entry point for newcomers to the medium to this day. —Toussaint Egan

6. Astro Boy
Original run: 1963

What would anime be now, were it not for Astro Boy? Certainly not the global phenomenon it is today. Adapted from Osamu Tezuka’s long-running manga of the same name, Astro Boy, better known in its native Japan as Tetsuwan Atomu, or “Mighty Atom,” depicted the adventures of the show’s titular boy robot. Shunned by his creator and rescued from captivity by his adoptive father, Dr. Ochanomizu, Astro would soon grow into his role as a savior of the planet Earth, defending humans and robot-kind alike from evil-doers bent on nefarious ends. At 193 episodes, Japan’s first animated television series would become Tezuka’s magnum opus, a landmark work which would inform an entire medium’s aesthetic and thematic trajectory for decades to come. From 1963 to now, make no mistake: We owe it all to Tezuka’s little boy robot. —Toussaint Egan

5. Mobile Suit Gundam
Original run: 1981-1982

In 2018, it’s easy to forget—considering the countless spinoff series, films, manga, and model kits—that this legendary 1979 mecha anime was… really, really freakin’ good. The animation may look dated. The mechanical designs and character models may not move with the consistency of the later series. And the implications of its world-building, in which a separatist faction of humans abandons Earth for space colonies, hadn’t been perfectly fine-tuned. Nonetheless, Mobile Suit Gundam’s core arguments hold up four decades later: The people we ask to fight for us—often before they can maturely engage with the world—come back broken or don’t come back at all; Nazis and Nazi-lookalikes are bad; and giant robots are compulsively watchable. —Eric Vilas-Boas

Original run: 2000-2001

FLCL was intended to feel unlike anything else you’ve ever watched, anime or otherwise. It’s got an incredible Japanese alt-rock soundtrack from the band The Pillows. Its editing is frenetic. Its characters interact in extremes of manic, moody, or forlorn. Its plot—in which robots pop out of a young boy’s swollen, injured head, heralding the return of a powerful extraterrestrial being—kinda doesn’t matter. None of that stuff matters, according to series director Kazuya Tsurumaki. “Difficulty in comprehension should not be an important factor in FLCL,” he once wrote in a comment thread for Production IG. “I believe the ‘rock guitar’ vibe playing throughout the show is a shortcut on the road to understanding it.” Rock on, brother. —Eric Vilas-Boas

3. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Original run: 2009-2010

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There’s a reason Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood sits so high on anime fans’ list of favorites. It’s compelling and gets dark fast, like half an episode in, and being scarred by early and ultimate episodes alike is a universal experience in the anime community. There are plenty of silly, wiggily animated moments and endearing characters (like Alex Louis Armstrong, the most positive body of all time) to balance out that tension and tragedy, which is good, because hoooo boy, we need them. Also, all five theme songs are bona fide jams. —Sarra Sedghi

2. Neon Genesis Evangelion
Original run: 1995-1996

Is it a psychodrama about growing up? Is it a giant robot action show about the apocalypse? Is it an allegory for how humans are doomed and can’t communicate? If Neon Genesis Evangelion seems like a figurative roller coaster, guess what: it has an actual VR roller coaster, too. The thing is, Evangelion does manage to find treasure in all its complex digging into those questions, and it never feels bloated or boring in the process. Series director Hideaki Anno frames his characters’ traumas through horror imagery; crucifixion, sexual misconduct, child abuse, and the literal melting of humankind are all ideas he visually worked into this crazy, decades-spanning franchise. In the hands of someone else, it’d probably fall apart completely. Evangelion, however, is beautiful enough to use a cover of “Fly Me to the Moon” as its credits track and make it all work. —Eric Vilas-Boas

1. Cowboy Bebop
Original run: 1997-1998

Every debate over whether or not Cowboy Bebop—Shinichir? Watanabe’s science-fiction masterpiece, which turned 20 this April—is the pinnacle of anime is a semantic one. It is, full stop. Its particular blend of cyberpunk intrigue, Western atmosphere, martial arts action, and noir cool in seinen form is unmatched and widely appealing. Its existential and traumatic themes are universally relatable. Its characters are complex and flawed, yet still ooze cool. The future it presents is ethnically diverse and eerily prescient. Its English dub, boasting some of America’s greatest full-time voiceover talents, somehow equals the subtitled Japanese-language original. Its 26-episode run was near-perfect, and episodes that might have served as filler in another series are tight, taut, and serve the show’s thesis even as they do not distract from its overarching plot, which is compelling but not overbearing. It’s accessible to new hands and still rewards old-timers with every repeated watch. Yoko Kanno’s magnificent, jazz-heavy soundtrack and score stand on their own. Its opening credits are immaculate. It’s an original property, not an adaptation. It feels like a magnum opus produced at the pinnacle of a long career despite being, almost unbelievably, Watanabe’s first series as a director. It is a masterwork that should justly rank among the best works of television of all time, let alone anime. We eagerly await a rival. We’re not holding our breath. —John Maher

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