I'm relatively new to the whole animation scene. I was familiar with Disney and Pixar films from a young age of course, but I only got seriously into it about two years ago when I watched Death Note. Anxious for more, I checked out the Japanese Cartoon section of "that one site with the Final Fantasy articles", one thing lead to another, and now I'm an active forum member, contributator, and Japanese Cartoon viewer.
There's a ton of great animated movies and TV shows, and I know that there's hundreds more out there, crying out for my attention. But this list comprises all my favorites out of what I've seen as of July 2011. If you have any comments or recommendations, rest assured I'm all ears. At any rate, here's my list.
10. Paranoia Agent
The late Satoshi Kon was, without question, one of the greatest directors in Japanese animation, if not film-making in general. His genius cannot be over-stated, and it would be absolutely criminal not to include at least one of his various masterpieces on this list. And while I think his sole television show was his best work, rest assured his feature films are all worth seeing as well.
Paranoia Agent essentially operates as a series of vignettes that detail the exploits of Little Slugger, a strange being, seemingly a young kid with roller skates and a bent metal baseball bat, who seems to be influenced by the rumors surrounding him.
The stories are mostly episodic and highly enjoyable. Highlights are the woman and her passive-aggressive answering machine messages, the mean-spirited kid (BOSCH) literally
cramming for an exam, and the eclectic group of internet friends who all meet up with the intention of committing suicide. All the episodes have the common threads of Shounen Bat and several other recurring characters running between them, all of which get tied together in the spectacular ending.
It's a fascinating, intensely rewatchable show, and it represents the very best output of an incredibly talented director. It was a tough decision to choose between this, Summer Wars, and South Park for the tenth spot, but while the best movie Hayao Miyazaki never made and the intensely funny satire of South Park make for stiff competition, I think Satoshi Kon beats out Mamoru Hosoda and Trey and Matt in the end. It's just a really good, smart show, and that's all there is to it.
9. Wolf's Rain
For the aspiring anime fan, one name almost as important to look out for as Satoshi Kon is Studio BONES. The BONES production team is responsible for Wolf's Rain, Full Metal Alchemist, Ouran High School Host Club, Soul Eater, Darker than Black, Samurai Champloo, and were originally built out of the splintered remains of the group behind a certain other show you'll get to read about later. They have a wide array of works, mostly characterized by stunning animation, and Wolf's Rain is without question one of their best.
Wolf's Rain is the rare kind of show that manages to be incredibly deep while also totally enjoyable on a purely surface level. It's magnificently animated and has a fantastic score of course (it is BONES), but the characters and story all so brilliant and stunningly original that it completely overshadows the presentation. There really isn't another show out there like Wolf's Rain, and I'm surprised I don't hear more people out there talking about it.
It is a little emotionally cold. The main character (BOSCH) seems especially distant, and it may be hard to relate to him and the other characters at first (it doesn't help that they're all animals.) It took me about six episodes before it really clicked for me. After that, I marathoned the remaining twenty episodes in one day, wrapping up at around 2:00 in the morning because I absolutely had
to see how it ended. The conclusion isn't exactly cheerful, but it's nevertheless beautiful and represents one of the best endings in Japanese animation. It certainly had me weeping buckets, and I stared at the TV for a good four or five minutes after it ended.
This is one situation where my recent entry into the Japanamation Connoisseurs Club kind of hurts my ability to talk about something intelligently. I've only had the joy of watching Wolf's Rain once so far, and I'm positive it's a show that needs multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. At least I get to look forward to my no-doubt numerous rewatchings to come.
No Top Animation list is complete without a Pixar entry, and I had a hell of a time trying to pick which of their works I'd choose to represent my love for the company. Finding Nemo was a serious contender. Which Toy Story I like the most depends on my mood on any given day. And I probably don't need to tell you Wall-E is ingenious.
In the end, I decided to go with 2008's Up. Up kind of represents everything that makes animation such a wonderful medium, namely in its ability to show the fantastical without stretching our senses of disbelief, and how it can tell a beautiful story without needing a single line of dialogue. Granted, I could basically say this about any of Pixar's movies, but Up's greatness comes from the myriad aspects that make up its cohesive whole.
Characters, for one. the montage at the beginning gets us immediately emotionally involved with the fantastic protagonist. Up manages to take a grouchy old man and fully realize him as a character, and his interactions with Russel work on both the comic and the dramatic levels. The villain is one of the best in Pixar's history, namely because of the way he parallels the main character's struggle and shows what he might become if he allows his past to consume him. I actually teared up three separate times during Up, and it was all genuine emotion and not shallow manipulation. Also the talking dog is really, really funny.
Since it's Pixar, I don't need to tell you the music and animation are excellent. Even so the soundtrack in Up is probably their best yet. The character designs are as cartoonishly endearing as ever. Everything about the movie's presentation shines, and yet still while taking a backseat to the perfect story.
Up is just a really, really good movie, for anyone of any age group. It's funny, emotional, and best of all meaningful. Cars 2 not-with-standing, Pixar is the world's best movie studio, and I cannot wait for their next work.
If I had to describe FLCL in one phrase, I'd pick ... uh ... "very hard to describe." I don't remember what exactly I was thinking when I first watched the OVA, probably because I wasn't thinking much at all. I was basically just enjoying the pretty pictures and fantastic music.
FLCL's presentation is probably its greatest strength. The animation is manic, surreal, and utterly bizarre, and while it switches art style constantly, it's never anything other than spectacular. The soundtrack by The Pillows is brilliant as well, and the show boasts what might be the best ending theme to an anime ever.
But where FLCL really gets rewarding is with multiple viewings. Buried beneath all the crazy imagery and overall balls-to-the-wall insanity is a surprising amount of depth. Identifying all of the symbolism and meaning behind what basically amounts to a coming-of-age story is very rewarding, and it's a lot like Revolutionary Girl Utena in that there's so much of it you could watch the show a hundred times and still find something new every time you watch it.
I only kind of liked FLCL my first time through, but I had a feeling there was something truly amazing in it that I just hadn't quite reached. My suspicions were correct; the second time I watched it I had an absolute blast. I've known several people who've flat out hated it but then had it really grow on them later. What I'm saying is, FLCL might not appeal to you immediately, but rest assured it's a lot more than "random" humor, and I hope you'll give it the chance it deserves.
No one has had more of an impact on the history of animation than Walt Disney. His Snow White and the Seven Dwarves illuminated the possibilities of feature-length animated film, and his other works, Dumbo, Pinocchio, etc. solidified those possibilities. Brilliant films like Beauty and the Beast (a movie about a girl who ignores the handsome jerk in favor of the eventually caring monster) and extremely well-made
movies like The Little Mermaid (a movie about a girl who abandons her family and sells her soul to the devil for the chance to be with a guy she's never actually spoken to, purely
because he's hot) are all thanks to his influence. Pixar exists thanks to him, which is grounds for a medal as far as I'm concerned.
And it's not just Western animation (as woefully under-represented in this list as it is) that has him to thank. If you've dug at all into the history of Japanese animation, chances are you've heard of Osamu Tezuka. He was the creator of a slew of incredibly important manga, such as Metropolis (based on the poster for the famous 1927 silent film), Astro Boy, Phoenix, and Black Jack, among many others. He is commonly referred to as the Father of Anime, and anime as we know it would be completely different, or nonexistent, without him.
And thanks to the pervasiveness of animation in Japanese culture, even entertainment with no immediate surface connections to anime and manga like video games can be traced back to Tezuka. Mega Man was originally meant to be an Astro Boy game, and the resemblance is still crystal-clear. Dragon Quest wouldn't exist as we know it without Akira Toriyama and his Dragon Ball franchise.
And call me crazy, but I don't think Final Fantasy VII would be anything like its current form if it hadn't been for the existence of Evangelion.
So why is all this important? Because all
of Tezuka's work was directly inspired by Walt Disney's. The big eyes, the exaggerated expressions, the fairy tale imagery, all Disney. One of Tezuka's first works was a mangafictation of Bambi, and Astro Boy is essentially a scifi take on Pinocchio. Essentially, animation, both Eastern and Western, video games, and even live-action film (ask James Cameron, Steven Spielburg, and the Watschoswksi brothers if they've ever seen Ghost in the Shell, or just watch Scott Pilgrim) can all be traced back to Walt Disney.
Basically, Walt Disney is one of the most important people to have ever existed, ever. If didn't include at least one work of his on this list, I'd be trivializing the history of the entire medium.
And his masterpiece is, naturally, Fantasia.
Oh, we're finally talking about the movie now? Good.
Fantasia began its life as an extended Silly Symphonies short entitled The Sorcerer's Apprentice, named after and featuring the classic Dukas piece (which itself is notable for featuring one of the most recognizable bassoon solos in musical literature). The short's budget bloated to the point that it couldn't possibly turn a profit, so to offset the production costs Disney included it in a set of other shorts to be released as a theatrical film.
From the very start, Fantasia was a brilliant idea. Make a program out of some of the greatest pieces of classical literature in the repertoire, as played by a world-class orchestra, and set it to animated shorts produced by some of the best minds and pens in the medium, with a theatrical budget and no limit but imagination. It is the perfect compilation of the highest minds of two mediums, a painted ballet, a symphony of art. How could Fantasia not have been a masterpiece?
A fantasia, in musical terms, is a composition that doesn't follow any strict musical form, like a symphony or a sonata. It's poetic free verse, with notes instead of words. It's a very fitting title for the film; each short is its own unique entity, its only goal to complement the music rather than overshadow or neglect it.
The animators themselves are in a form of free verse. The animators rarely let pesky things like the composer's original intent intrude on their creativity. A few shorts have pieces with very clearly defined stories attached to them that are totally ignored in favor of what the animators felt like drawing, like Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, which got turned from the story of Herr Drosselmeyers magical toy into the dance of fairies, spreading the morning dew. The animators were free to turn their visions into reality, and the result is one of the most aesthetically beautiful works of animation ever created. It isn't just gorgeous - no, gorgeous isn't good enough to describe it. It's like a moving painting. It's spellbinding. And when combined with the music, it's positively mindblowing.
And the music is marvelous, as if it needs to be said. Many of the greatest composers in history are present in the film's eight pieces, from Bach, to Mussorgsky, to Pytor Tchaikovsky (Number two on my celebrities I'd go gay for list, which is both more and less realistic than a gay crush on Johnny Yong Bosch, as while Tchaikovsky actually was
a homosexual, he is also dead.)
I'd also like to note that while Night on Bald Mountain didn't make me bat an eye, I could not watch the Sorcerer's Apprentice alone when I was a kid. That haunting bassoon solo used to terrify me when combined with the unending march of the brooms. Badda badum bum ba ba ba bum be bum be bum be be be be bum be bum...
I'm guessing many of you here, like my brother, don't share my adoration for classical music, though you may respect or occasionally admire it. There's nothing wrong with that, everyone has different tastes. But even if you're not a connoisseur precisely, Fantasia is still a wonderful experience I think can be enjoyed by anyone with an open mind. And since it's a series of shorts, you don't necessarily need to watch it all at once if that prospect intimidates you. I know you may be tempted to dismiss Fantasia, but it really is a film that deserves to be seen by everyone.
5. Cowboy Bebop
Cowboy Bebop is probably one of the most popular Japanese animations ever produced, and for damn good reason. It's got fantastic animation, well-developed characters, legendary sound design, a brief but involving overarching story, and a whole mess of wonderful one-off episodes. It's a magnificently tight, well-made show that clearly had tons of love poured into it by its creators, and it deserves every bit of praise it gets.
I said the sound design was legendary for a reason. There's all kinds of music, mostly jazz, with some rock, a singular heavy metal episode, and even blaxploitation punk
in one case. I can only think of one show in the medium that uses music better, and you'll get to read about that one in just a bit.
The characters and story are definitely what give Cowboy Bebop the leg up on its Space Western cousin Outlaw Star. Whereas Gene Starwind and his crew are basically the same characters in episode one as in episode twenty-six, each member of the cast in Bebop has an interesting backstory and a great development arc. The wordless reveal of Spike's past in Episode Five may qualify as the single best 'moment' in any Japanese cartoon ever, and his character climax in the show's conclusion is so perfect that Toonami used it to close its own doors in 2007
, despite Bebop only ever airing on Adult Swim.
Bebop is pretty unique in that there are only five "Plot" episodes in the whole series, but with the rest being anything but filler. Some people criticize the show by saying its more style than substance, and they're right. But when there's still more substance in the five complex episodes than 98% of other cartoons, and when the stand-alones have plenty of life lessons and character developments of their own to share, and when it really is that stylish
, it doesn't matter in the least.
Cowboy Bebop was the show I mentioned earlier who's production staff ended up forming BONES, and it's writing staff went on to make Wolf's Rain. Interesting; while some complain Bebop is all style and no substance, others find Wolf's Rain so substance over style that it can be emotionally alienating. Whatever, I love them both.
Cowboy Bebop lives up to its claim of being a genre unto its own. There's really not an Eastern or Western equivalent anywhere to Bebop's mastery of animation and sound. Like Wolf's Rain, I've only had the pleasure of watching this show once so far, and I look forward to viewing it many times in the future.
4. Princess Tutu
Woowhee. Last time I tried to write everything I loved about Princess Tutu, I ended up with something better suited as a feature on the site than as an entry on the list, so I'll try to keep this one brief. Just go here
if you want my extended thoughts on the series.
I bought Princess Tutu on a whim after I saw it on Amazon for thirty dollars. I'd heard some good things from a few reviewers I like, and I knew it was heavily based in classical music so I figured I'd likely enjoy it.
After the first couple of episodes, I was hooked. I finished the first season in a couple of days, then blazed through the second in an evening. If you had walked into my room at 1:30 in the morning that day, you'd have seen a
grown man sitting on the floor in front of a TV crying his eyes out
at a dancing cartoon duck.
This is a series I just connected with on a very deep emotional level, and so far every single person I've shared it with has loved it. It really is a show for all tastes, and it genuinely deserves your time.
3. Higurashi no Naku Koro ni
My dad raised me on horror films. From age seven on, we were watching Alien, The Thing, The Exorcist, and dozens of slasher films that all blended together. This was both good and bad; good because it gave me an appreciation for horror from young age, but bad because it meant nothing scares
me anymore. Sure, I'm not having nightmares at the slightest sight of blood, but being scared is fun
. The only pieces of entertainment I can think of that legitimately frightened me in recent memory were the Silent Hill games, Ridley Scott's Alien and Higurashi.
That alone would be grounds for liking the show, but not for obsessing over it like I have for the past year and a half. I've watched the show, bought the out-of-print DVD set for seventy dollars, read the manga, and even read some of the sound novels. What do I love so much about Higurashi?
Well, it's scary, like I said. Shows like Elfen Lied throw so many limbs, organs, and blood splatters at you that it's hard not to be desensitized to the violence and just enjoy the spectacle, but Higurashi (and Silent Hill and Alien) know the importance of atmosphere and pacing. There's only one particularly brutal scene in the first arc, and it's something like twenty or thirty seconds long. There's not a single jump scare. And yet it's scary as all hell, because the reserved sound design, unsettling character moments, twisted facial animations, creepy setting, and spectacular voice acting (in Japanese, not so much in English) build the atmosphere so that when the violence does show up, it's a hundred times more powerful than Random Guard #37 getting his spleen ripped out or Horny Teenager 7B getting chucked through a window.
But that can't be all Higurashi has going for it, because the second season drops the horror almost entirely and it's still an absolute blast. It must be the characters. Each and every one of them have the perfect amount of backstory, development, and personality, and watching them die is heart wrenching each and every time. The whole mystery is fascinating as well. When I was watching Higurashi Kai for the first time, I was up until four in the morning watching episodes, desperate for a conclusion, or at the very least a stopping place. But the cliff hangers kept on coming, and I kept watching.
The show has its fair share of flaws, mostly involving squeezing the lengthy visual novels into considerably shorter episode arcs. As a stand alone show, I don't really think it's quite in the same league as Cowboy Bebop and Princess Tutu in that it's not one I'd recommend to every person here. But for people like me who loooooove being scared, and enjoy a good mystery as well, there really isn't anything better in the medium than Higurashi. If that sounds like something you'd be interested in, by all means give it a watch.
Also, I don't say this a lot since I don't read much manga, but the comic version is amazing, maybe even better than the show in some respects. If you're more of a reader than a viewer, it's well worth picking up.
2. Serial Experiments Lain
I think to kick off this one I'll use a few words from everyone's favorite online celebrity Roger Ebert, who had a few choice words about 2001: A Space Odyssey in relation to its initial screening:
The film did not provide the clear narrative and easy entertainment cues the audience expected. The closing sequences, with the astronaut inexplicably finding himself in a bedroom somewhere beyond Jupiter, were baffling. The overnight Hollywood judgment was that Kubrick had become derailed, that in his obsession with effects and set pieces, he had failed to make a movie.
What he had actually done was make a philosophical statement about man's place in the universe, using images as those before him had used words, music or prayer. And he had made it in a way that invited us to contemplate it -- not to experience it vicariously as entertainment, as we might in a good conventional science-fiction film, but to stand outside it as a philosopher might, and think about it.
Serial Experiments Lain is among the best science fiction ever crafted, and as such there are many, many people who avidly dislike it. Like Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ghost in the Shell, or a good Philip K. Dick novel it's an intellectual feast, but is seriously lacking on the emotional level. It's far more concerned with feeding your brain than your heart. Think less Gurren Lagann and Resident Evil 4 and more Evangelion and Silent Hill 2.
That's not to say it's boring. There's a very significant sense of style to Lain, and a great deal of attention was paid to the visual and sound design. Shadows appear as portals to some ever-shifting alternate dimension, and the constant buzz of the electrical lines is as unnerving as it is clever. A fantastic electric guitar montage makes Lain's recap episode the best television has ever seen. One sequence at the end seems ripped straight out of Akira. It's a well-produced show, but, like Wolf's Rain, as stylish as it is, it's far more focused on its substance.
And what amazing substance it is. Those interested in prying deeper beneath the somewhat inexplicable surface will find all sorts of fascinating questions into the nature of reality, self, a hypothetical collective humanity, and what exactly constitutes God. Lain is a show that won't just entertain you, it will make you think.
This show also marks some of the first works for three extremely talented artists: writer Chiaki Konaka, director Ryutaro Nakamura, and character designer and original creator. Yoshitoshi Abe. Chiaki Konaka served as writer for the excellent Ghost Hound, Texnolyze, Digimon Tamers (i.e. the best one), and several (particularly good) episodes of Princess Tutu. Nakamura acted as director for the aforementioned Ghost Hound and Kino's Journey, a nice set of philosophy parables centered around the travels of its title character and her talking motorbike. And Abe was the character designer for Texnolyze and original creator of a little masterpiece
you may have heard of called Haibane Renmei.
All three of these men have an impressive array of work, and whenever they get together, such as in the upcoming Despera, it's definitely worth paying attention to what results.
If the stuff I've said tickles your fancy, give it a watch. If you've tried it and don't really care for it, that's fine, but I will just say that I think Lain is a lot like FLCL in that it really starts getting engaging with multiple viewings. I'd say if you're on the fence after watching it once you might want to give it another shot.
Now, what could possibly follow an intellectual marvel like Lain, a show as beautiful as Princess Tutu, a visceral master of horror like Higurashi, or the incredibly stylish Bebop? What could top all of these shows in my mind? Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex? Princess Mononoke? Haibane Renmei? Baccano? Beauty and the Beast? Grave of the Fireflies? Evangelion? The Simpsons? All good guesses, but my favorite animated work of all-time as of July 2011 is...
Here's a show with an incredible cast, a unique setting, kick-ass action, awesome music, and some intriguing themes that just might change the way you view the world. I watched Trigun for the first time about a year ago, and it was the first Japanese cartoon I bought on DVD. And as of July 2011, it's my absolute favorite work of animation.
What might be most fascinating to me about Trigun is how universally likeable
it is. I've introduced some seven or eight people to Trigun in the past year, and every single one of them has had an absolute blast with it. My little sister couldn't stand Princess Tutu for whatever reason (the only feasible reason is that she's an alien), but she loved every second of Trigun.
I think in the end it really comes down to Vash. Johnny Yong BOSCH is my favorite voice actor, and he really can't be given enough credit for his work on this series. The amount of heart and care he poured into an already extremely compelling character is just astounding. He carries the comedy marvelously, but unlike his seiyuu counterpart he (almost) never flounders the very serious drama that kicks in later in the series. If you haven't shed at least one tear by the end of Episode 24 (or Episode 23 for that matter) then you either have a heart of stone or you're a sociopath.
In fact, the only people I've come across who avidly dislike the show are people who really can't stand Vash. Some of them just find him overbearing and preachy, which is understandable, I guess. But generally the people who hate Vash also tend to think Light Yagami was the hero/anti-hero of Death Note and a savior for humanity. You know. Sociopaths.
The rest of the cast can't be understated either. Nicholas D. Wolfwood might be even more popular than Vash among the fandom, and the way the two characters counter each other is amazing, as is the juxtaposition between Vash and Legato, my favorite anime villain by far. Between Vash's relentless idealism, Wolfwood's tired cynicism, and Legato's resigned but destructive nihilism, the "main" villain Knives seems almost boring in comparison, being basically just a straight-up racist.
What sticks with me most about Trigun though is how it actually changed my personal beliefs. This is the one work of entertainment that seriously altered how I viewed the world, aside from the very stupid three years of my life I sincerely believed in the tenets objectivism as described in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. But while I thankfully outgrew Miss Rand's Virtue of Selfishness, Trigun's form of redressed Christianity will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Trigun is meaningful, smart, beautiful, dramatic, funny, stylish, tragic, and heartwarming, and it's the only anime I can think of that might actually make you a better person just for watching it. If you haven't already, go watch Trigun. You won't regret it.
And that's it! All of my favorite works of animation as of July 2011. I reiterate, I'm young, and I know I haven't even seen two percent of all the great stuff out there. But I know for certain that each and every entry on this list is well worth watching, so I hope you'll find the time to check out anything you haven't seen. In any case, thanks for reading.