Like many segments of the entertainment industry, this year in anime was defined by an abundance of excellent works that came into being despite an array of labor issues. But unlike the American film and television industry, where creatives got a well-deserved happy ending in tentative new union contracts, 2023 signaled the continuation of brutal trends for those who create anime. Many series experienced high-profile production issues, like how conditions were so bad during the creation of Jujutsu Kaisen that multiple animators broke NDAs to speak out against studio MAPPA or how Zom 100 was met with mid-season delays that pushed its final three episodes months into the future. Despite the growing popularity of anime worldwide and an ever-increasing glut of greenlit shows, the production committees and studio executives who control the pursestrings continue to squeeze creatives, resulting in low pay, long hours, and worse output.
But while these poor labor conditions in the anime industry deserve ongoing scrutiny, the incredible work of animators, voice actors, screenwriters, and production staff who brought this year’s best shows to life still deserves to be recognized. 2023 was filled with showstoppers, and we had plenty of exciting premieres alongside long-awaited conclusions. Many thrust us into nuanced depictions of the past, while others painstakingly envisioned far-flung futures. And throughout, we were subject to impressive animation that realized exciting action set-pieces and conveyed swelling emotion. The following list, voted on by Paste editors, staff, and freelancers, is made up of established hits that found new highs, heavily anticipated newcomers that delivered, and a few under-watched shows you don’t want to miss.
Honorable Mentions: Undead Murder Farce, Ranking of Kings: The Treasure Chest of Courage, My Happy Marriage, I’m in Love with the Villainess, and The Ancient Magus’ Bride Season 2
15. The Magical Revolution of the Reincarnated Princess and the Genius Young Lady
The Magical Revolution of the Reincarnated Princess and the Genius Young Lady was the unexpected delight of the winter, steadily improving all the way to its gorgeous finale. Overcoming not only its hilariously overlong name but also the many pitfalls associated with isekai light novel adaptations, it is a thoughtful and generously directed production that takes glee in blasting apart longstanding tropes while developing heartfelt romance between its leading ladies. The story centers on Anisphia Wynn Palettia, a magic-obsessed princess who takes in Euphie, a noble who recently had her engagement to the prince publicly annulled. While the first episode conveys the series’ penchant for well-animated action and comedy, it eventually explores the complicated feelings of its deuteragonists as they break free from their assigned roles and societal expectations. Despite its fantastical premise and plenty of well-rendered action sequences, its shot compositions wring out intimacy and the interiority of its cast, communicating Euphie’s initial listlessness and Anis’ anxieties about her responsibilities. And most importantly of all, their burgeoning feelings build towards satisfying climaxes as they work to break down the oppressive structures and class systems that plague their kingdom. Through effectively bouncing between courtship, comedy, and political intrigue, MagicRevo is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. —Elijah Gonzalez
14. BanG Dream!! It’s My Go!!!!!
One of my favorite aspects of watching seasonal anime is that no matter how much knowledge you have going into a batch of shows—whether that’s having tabs on the next big adaptations or knowing which originals have an exciting staff—there will always be unexpected hits that come out of nowhere and steal the show. Despite its seemingly silly title (which somehow becomes thematically relevant later on), BanG Dream!! It’s My Go!!!!! is the unambiguous star of this summer in anime. It’s a spinoff of a multimedia music franchise I had never heard of, but considering the involvement of Flip Flappers’ lead writer Yuniko Ayana, I probably should have been paying attention. Many elements make this one special, but most immediately apparent is its ability to spin affecting drama out of its cast. The members of this act are a hot mess, each defined by complexes that make it difficult for their group to fully congeal, leading to misfires, breakdowns, and general dysfunction. But in the fleeting moments when they’re in sync, we not only see their potential as musicians but also how their performances give them something they’ve all been searching for.
Although the threat of an impending band breakup hangs over the entire season, this dynamic never gets old because these characters’ many hang ups are thoughtfully explored along the way. For instance, we learn that Tomori, the lyricist and heart of this group, has always struggled to fit in, but she’s finally able to communicate her feelings through songwriting. Soyo works as a more ominous parallel as fleeting memories of her old band make her desperate to recreate what they had. Director Koudai Kakimoto uses recurring mannerisms and evocative framing in concert with expressive animation to clue us into what these people are going through, which like many of the best freshman albums, feels tactile and raw. This craft culminates in musical performances that burn the house down as dynamic camera work, thematically resonant songs, and character growth comes together in perfect harmony. Don’t let BanG Dream!! It’s My Go!!!!! slip past your radar; it’s one of the best acts of the year. —Elijah Gonzalez
13. Skip and Loafer
Although there is no shortage of anime about high school, Skip and Loafer differentiates itself through its boundless warmth and thoughtful treatment of its protagonists. We follow Mitsumi, a student who moves to Tokyo to attend an elite academy so she can eventually make her dream of revitalizing her rural home come true. While she’s initially overwhelmed by life in the bustling city, she is taken under the wing of Sousuke, a helpful first-year boy whose outwardly pleasant demeanor seems to hide traces of lingering pain. One of the series’ standout elements is how virtually every character is afforded an inner life—their charms, struggles, and flaws making each feel like fully rendered people instead of archetypes. For instance, although our heroine is hard-working and effortlessly kind, she also tends to stress herself out with self-imposed expectations, resulting in many sleepless nights.
This complexity is also reflected in Mitsumi’s eclectic friend group, made up of popular folks who have had to deal with unwanted advances or assumptions about their personality due to their looks, as well as those who have built up walls due to past judgment. In particular, it does a beautiful job representing the friendships that form between its young women, deftly avoiding tired tropes that would pit them against one another over a love interest. And though this work is buoyed by a general sense of levity, as reflected in its warm color palette, charming art style, and bounty of affecting moments, it isn’t afraid to add tension by introducing conflicts that threaten to spoil the burgeoning romance between its central pair. In a spring stacked with heavy hitters, Skip and Loafer was the show that never failed to brighten my day, its kindness and multifaceted cast making it one of the most brilliant high school dramas in some time. —Elijah Gonzalez
12. The Apothecary Diaries
Combining court politics with weekly medical-themed mysteries, Apothecary Diaries crafts a tantalizing concoction elevated by its immensely charming lead. Set in a fictionalized rendition of Ming-dynasty China, we follow Maomao, a young apothecary who is kidnapped and forced to work in the Imperial Palace as a servant. While she initially tries to keep her head down to avoid the dangers of being involved with the royal court, she can’t stop herself from solving a series of enigmatic illnesses, which raises her profile considerably. Watching Maomao use her abundance of scientific knowledge to deduce ailments and shady happenings delivers the same satisfaction brought when hyper-competent detectives piece together a case, making for a thoroughly captivating ride. And more than its twists and turns, these conundrums reveal the struggles of those living in the rear palace as our poison-loving heroine shows her soft side for fellow victims of this oppressive system. Maomao meets many companions and adversaries turned allies, and thanks to delightful dynamics between the cast, there’s a lot more here than just dour conspiracies and diseases. Toho Animation Studio and OLM further place us in this historical setting through gorgeous background art and consistently lavish animation that renders medical procedures and intimate gestures with care. Altogether, it makes for a potent mixture. —Elijah Gonzalez
11. Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead
While Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead couldn’t maintain the blistering momentum of its opening episode, I was pleasantly surprised that it continued to reiterate the main argument of its premiere: working under modern capitalism sucks so bad that a zombie apocalypse would be a welcome change of pace. As Akira realizes he won’t have to return to his exploitative job ever again, he starts on a bucket list to make up for lost time. Even after our protagonist finally embraces the idea he won’t be going back to the office, the series continues to hammer home its themes about work as other characters reconcile their miserable relationships with their labor. We see how most couldn’t realize their dreams, and even if they did, broken economic systems spoiled what should have been fulfilling. Even if its later stretches couldn’t quite match the freneticism of the premiere, vibrant animation captures the contrast between these characters’ newfound freedom and their tedious pasts. This isn’t to imply that the zombie apocalypse is entirely a vacation, as the group has to deal with plenty of life-or-death situations, but these stretches are usually more campy (i.e., zombie shark) than tense in a way that feels consistent with the generally lighter tone compared to its peers.
However, one unavoidable issue is the show’s massive production problems. Multiple delays have hurt its weekly pacing, and even months after it was supposed to conclude, its last few episodes still haven’t been released at the time of this list’s publication. Far worse are the likely implications for its staff, as these kinds of botched releases generally mean that the studio is being overworked to meet unreasonable deadlines—the exact thing this story is harping against. It all makes engaging with the series’ messaging much harder than it should be. —Elijah Gonzalez
10. Heavenly Delusion/Tengoku Daimakyo
From its opening minutes, Heavenly Delusion’s sense of place is stunning. We switch perspectives between a hidden technologically advanced society and a post-apocalyptic landscape, both worlds rendered via visual storytelling and economic dialogue that avoids the kinds of exposition dumps found in so many less confident stories. At one point, the camera lingers on two figures walking down a dilapidated highway until it pans out into a sweeping wide angle of a city overrun with vegetation, the solemnity and odd beauty of this image keying us into both the state of this place and the tone of the proceedings.
We primarily follow this pair of travelers, Maru and his bodyguard Kiruko, two young people looking for a mysterious place called “Heaven” in this near-future Japan. Containing not only the type of cruelty you’d expect from its end-of-the-world scenario but also frequent moments of kindness, the show makes for a tonally unique mishmash bolstered by inspired direction and animation. All that said, it should be mentioned that its last two episodes are marred by a sordid turn that doesn’t treat its heavy subject matter with the respect it deserves (content warnings for violence and sexual assault). It’s a thorny series that I wish made some different choices, but at its best, it captures this setting so convincingly that it’s difficult to look away from its desolation. —Elijah Gonzalez
9. Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury
Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury has a lot going on. Not only does it borrow heavily from Revolutionary Girl Utena, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and other Gundam series, but it also has its own complex political machinations and a massive cast. However, despite all these spinning plates, the show brings together its pastiche, worldbuilding, and references in a way that almost always feels additive instead of convoluted. Season 2 continues to follow Suletta Mercury, an ace mobile suit pilot and student at an elite academy, who finds herself caught up in a web of schemes surrounding a powerful interplanetary corporation, as her romantic relationship with Miorine, the heiress of said corporation, is tested. While the last season was primarily dedicated to school drama and relationships, intrigue bubbles to the forefront of this run, resulting in these sympathetically portrayed characters being placed in increasingly fraught circumstances. The days of ceremonial duels between giant robots are gone, replaced by life-or-death skirmishes fought by desperate factions.
Although these many groups and their plots are introduced in a somewhat dizzying fashion, these events are reiterated enough to make them parsable, establishing a sci-fi world where people are motivated by believable socioeconomic realities and personal beef. Along the way, it sets up plenty of crushing moments as these students face cruel twists that threaten to unmake their core beliefs. And seemingly unlike everyone else, I mostly enjoyed the rapid-fire series finale. While I admit the show could have used at least another episode or two to fully flesh out its characters’ fates or its larger thematic conflicts (particularly its political circumstances), the conclusion wrapped up this journey in a way that I emotionally bought into. Through battles that are equally exciting and devastating, corporate thriller machinations, and its central queer romance, The Witch from Mercury delivered on a considerable chunk of its sizable ambitions. —Elijah Gonzalez
8. Attack on Titan: The Final Season – The Final Chapters
Since its explosive premiere more than a decade ago, Attack on Titan has towered over the anime scene to such an extent that the series’ popularity has often been cited as a major cause for the medium’s recent increase in global popularity. Between its eyebrow-raising premise of a walled city besieged by man-eating giants, non-stop barrage of mysteries, fastidiously animated action acrobatics, and uncompromising bleakness, the series has cashed in on a unique brand of sensationalism to captivate a massive audience. After many years and a sometimes painful release schedule, the end of this story is finally here, and this climax largely delivered thanks to cathartic set-pieces and the types of brutal turns we’ve come to expect. Its apocalyptic action sequences were further elevated by the tangled motivations of these deeply flawed people, each caught in a recurring cycle of bloodshed that seems to have no end. Even as someone who has had a very up-and-down relationship with the series due to its overbearing cynicism and sometimes questionable political allegories, this conclusion provided small moments of humanity nestled in between its frantic battles, which kept audiences invested despite the author’s misanthropic outlook. Attack on Titan ended much like it began, in a messy eruption of violence that was impossible to look away from. —Elijah Gonzalez
7. [Oshi no Ko]
[Oshi no Ko] kicks off with a feature-length behemoth of a first episode, clocking in at 90 minutes of one of the most turbulent emotional rollercoasters I’ve had the pleasure of riding. The episode never lets you get comfortable with what you think the show is, kicking off on an intriguing (and then uncomfortable) note with a premise that seems to embody some of the most obnoxious anime tropes. But over the course of the episode, it slowly warms you up to its lovable and compelling main characters, and its increasingly captivating animation—all before pulling the rug out from under you with a cruel sucker punch, revealing the true nature of what you’re watching.
The premiere sets the tone for what the rest of the series provides: a constantly unpredictable plot that never lets you know its next move, a balance of lighthearted fun and emotional turmoil as it delves into the darker side of the entertainment industry, and the sharp character writing original manga author Aka Akasaka (also known for Kaguya-Sama: Love is War) has made a name for himself with. Akasaka returns to and expands upon themes which he established in Kaguya of defining the self, and questioning the line between the version of you that you put up for the people around you and whatever constitutes your true self—“where the lies end and the truths begin.” The characters are all trying to figure each other out, and you come right along for the ride, trying to pick out what makes these complex, and often deeply scarred, individuals tick.
Oh, and the opening and ending themes are absolute bangers. —Hope Pisoni
6. My Hero Academia
It’s hard to believe that an internationally successful series like My Hero Academia can be seen as flying under-the-radar. However, after an underwhelming fifth season, it seemed that the hype around Season 6 was particularly muted. Was Season 5 a sign that the series was now on the decline? Was MHA going to be spoken about in the same way pundits discuss the modern day Golden State Warriors: a dynasty in the midst of fading, now having to make space for new players vying for the throne for which it had occupied for so long?
Following the series’ mantra, “Plus Ultra,” Bones abolishes any thought that MHA best days were behind them, producing a season that is arguably the best in the anime’s entire run. Opening with an epic conflict between the heroes and The Paranormal Liberation Front that takes up almost half the season and closing with the heroes (and the society that has been built around them) shattered seemingly beyond repair, MHA‘s darkest season delivered everything that people had grown to love about this series: intense and beautifully drawn action scenes, a world that continues to stand out in an era where we all are saturated with superhero content, and individual moments that showcases the depth and growth of our young heroes. With the disappointment of Season 5 now in the past, MHA‘s sixth season propels it back to its rightful place as one of anime’s elite shonen series. —Christopher Inoa
5. Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End
While the current anime landscape is swamped with rote high-fantasy worlds, Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End provides a strong counterpoint to this trend through its melancholic undertones and thoughtful treatment of its heroine. The story follows Frieren, a several thousand-year-old elf who was a mage in the legendary party that defeated the demon king. While she initially has a hard time seeing things from her companions’ perspective, as the decades pass, and many of her friends with them, she comes to understand the meaning of the time she spent with them.
Even though the show draws on many familiar Lord of the Rings-inspired trademarks, it finds emotional nuances and interesting worldbuilding that make it feel distinct. At one point, we see how the rapid proliferation of magical technology has completely negated a spell that used to be a weapon of mass death, elegantly demonstrating that despite a seemingly archaic setting, standards here can still rapidly change given the need. Another essential detail is that Frieren’s extremely long life isn’t just a fantastical afterthought on a D&D character sheet but a fundamental element of how she views her surroundings. Although she initially struggles to see things from her companion’s perspectives, thanks to these bonds, she’s granted new viewpoints on loss, grief, and the passage of time. Many from Frieren’s past may be gone, but their actions have changed her and left an indelible mark on the world in the process.
These sentiments are further elevated through studio Madhouse’s loving rendition of this space: vibrant pastoral backdrops and falling stars against a magenta sky help conjure our protagonist’s inner life as she’s lost in bittersweet recollections. Evan Call, who previously composed the gorgeous score for Violet Evergarden, crafts a soundtrack with bucolic undercurrents that further amplifies each heart-rending turn. While the prevalence of stale fantasy milieus in anime has sucked much of the wonder out of this setup, Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End’s contemplative bearing and tremendous aesthetic execution bring back much of this magic. —Elijah Gonzalez
Despite a widely celebrated body of work, only a handful of Naoki Urasawa’s beloved manga have made the jump to the small screen. One of these few adaptations is Pluto, a murder-mystery reimagining of the seminal Astro Boy, and the results are dazzling. It follows a detective named Gesicht as he unravels a case that invites questions about the personhood of androids and ties into the scars of an unjustified war. On its face, many of this story’s ideas have been interrogated ad nauseam, stretching as far back as when Asimov first penned the laws of robotics, but where it differs is in its execution. While science fiction can often feel as cold as these machine lifeforms’ chrome exteriors, this tale focuses on the warmth found in the buzzing circuity beneath. In half an episode or less, we’re endeared to the trials and tribulations of seven robots in the crosshairs of a rogue killer as flashbacks reveal a horrible conflict etched into their unchanging digital memories. The winding mystery at the center of the story smartly connects anti-war sentiment and ruminations on artificial consciousness, and while there is a lot to keep track of, the propulsive pacing of Gesicht’s investigation keeps everything focused. It all makes for a beautifully constructed work of sci-fi that, much like the robots at the center of this story, is full of humanity. —Elijah Gonzalez
3. Spy x Family
To the surprise of exactly no one who watched the first 25 episodes of last year’s hit comedy Spy x Family, the latest season is just as gut-busting and heartfelt as what came before. We continue to follow the Forgers, a “phony” family that consists of Loid, a spy working for this setting’s Western equivalent in a Cold War-styled stand-off, Yor, an assassin for the Berlint government, Anya, an adorable goblin child who has telekinetic powers, and Bond, a dog that can see the future. The previous season excelled because of its proficiency at combining creative jokes, stylish action sequences, and wholesome family bonding into a consistently charming package, and the latest arc ticks these same boxes. As Yor takes on a dangerous mission aboard a cruise ship, she’s dismayed to learn that Loid and Anya are aboard the same vessel, forcing her to put up a façade as she battles a procession of deadly killers. It’s a stretch that embodies the series at its best, full of frantic gags and plenty of everyone’s favorite assassin demolishing her opponents in thrilling fashion. Like a master of disguise, Spy x Family continues to switch between its many masks with great success. —Elijah Gonzalez
2. Scott Pilgrim Takes Off
Despite what the marketing suggests, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is not a shot-for-shot remake, but a meta reimagining of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World that tells a (mostly) new story. The result is a delightful animated series that approaches this narrative from a new perspective. Following the movie’s established beats through the first episode (Scott Pilgrim [Michael Cera] must defeat Ramona Flowers’ [Mary Elizabeth Winstead] seven evil exes before he can date her), it doesn’t take long until Scott Pilgrim Takes Off deviates from the tale we know. The main difference is that in this rendition, we largely follow Ramona as she confronts her previous significant others and tries to piece together why events have gone off course. It synthesizes a transmedia whirlwind as it brings back the movie’s cast and evokes the comic’s art style through creative bursts of animation. Most importantly, it retains the underlying tone and messaging of what came before as it successfully reenvisions this story with Ramona at center stage. In the end, it manages to do something tricky, transposing a more than decade-old tune while barely missing a beat. —Elijah Gonzalez
1. Vinland Saga
Despite taking place during a particularly brutal period of human history, Vinland Saga continues to nurture a seed of optimism amidst the carnage, building towards explosive moments of catharsis that make its latest season nothing short of a masterstroke. We continue to follow Thorfinn, a former Viking warrior living in early 11th century Europe, as he moves past his quest for revenge into something more. While the first season also had resonant commentary on the needlessness of violence, its tendency to frame battles as “cool” could muddy its messaging. By contrast, the most recent run doesn’t fall into this trap. Instead of continuing to follow the perspective of Norse raiders, the latest stretch is more focused on their victims, repeatedly conveying the suffering wrought by this culture of bloodletting. It took guts to pivot away from the more action-oriented approach of its initial episodes into the more contemplative, grounded hardships of the second batch, but this switch more than pays off. As our protagonist struggles to remember the words of his father, a legendary Viking warrior-turned-pacifist, he forms deep connections with those around him and stews in newfound guilt over his past deeds.
The result is one of the most satisfying arcs I’ve seen in quite some time, as a young man contends with the fundamental wrongness of the warmongering that surrounds him. One of the most resonant aspects of the series is that instead of focusing on individual acts of inhumanity, it instead depicts how systems of cruelty come to be through cultural and political structures, positing that building a better world is attainable if these forces are challenged. And although this all may sound didactic, it naturally arrives at these conclusions through its characters, building up the friendships and bonds between its beleaguered cast. The show’s aesthetic approach further emphasizes the tactile details of these people’s lives: cracked nails, scarred skin, and calloused hands portraying their daily struggles and unjust treatment. The result is a work that can shatter your heart into a million pieces, its humanist undercurrents coming across with resounding clarity. —Elijah Gonzalez
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