I’ve been wanting to share my personal list of top anime for a while because it isn’t a typical list at all, and I really want to see if I can turn some new people on to beautiful stories they haven’t heard of before. My favorite anime of all time made me feel something incredibly special or came along at a time in my life where I was ready for that particular story and capable of being blown away.
Since my list is probably unusual and I have a lot to say about each one, I’m breaking it up into part one and part two. Part one may be a little less surprising. Part two gets pretty wacky… Mainly, though, it’s fun to share one’s gateway anime and also which shows appealed to them most growing up. There’s like a party game in there somewhere: share your gateway anime; then the one that made you cry the most; then the one that made you laugh the most… And do a shot every time someone mentions Cowboy Bebop?
Anime From the Lens of a 90s Kid
A bit of context before I start my list… My sis forced us to watch Inuyasha in the 90s, so that was my gateway anime. And this also means I started in the era of downloading fansubs on forums… you couldn’t even buy the ones you wanted to watch subbed in English, let alone find dubbed versions of your favorite anime. Then I was exposed to Escaflowne, the classic Vampire Hunter D, Cowboy Bebop which since became another classic, Twelve Kingdoms… I didn’t find out about the Studio Ghibli stuff until college. And college was also when Bleach exploded onto the scene and I went to my first anime convention.
The upshot of my particular list being… you may not have heard of some of these before. And they are all freaking wonderful. I should also note—I chose these, not for their quality or popularity. For me, it’s all about how each show made me feel; actually, how much love they made me feel. How deeply each one has impacted me and shaped my sense of humor or how I see life, and storytelling. So I’d say this is a list ranked by complete and utter subjective, illogical, instinctive, passionate love. You will not agree. But you will be highly amused.
So, my top ten are going to be completely different from a lot of people’s. My list is packed with the things I fell in love with while growing up and the things that—Otakon of all things—helped expose me to these days. When people query my life-long determined interest in anime or cartoons, sometimes kid’s shows, I explain my fascination to them: When I was a kid, I made a deal with myself. Never, ever to stop watching cartoons. Never to lose touch with what was on TV Saturday mornings or what was most fun and animated. Anime falls into that category, too.
I mean, come on, you don’t just walk away from one of the most beautiful artforms on the planet, just because a few years pass by in your life. Pish posh!
These days, it seems like everyone is watching Attack on Titan. Well, when I was younger, every. single. kid. on. the. planet. watched Inuyasha… I think the power of this story was in the music, the costumes, the drama, all that transported you back to the feudal era.
So many memories of hunting down fansubs online in the early 2000s (Japanese-language episodes subtitled in English by fans, often with footnoted cultural references), reading The Fluffy Mag (hilarious fangirl-run Sesshoumaru site that sadly, does not exist now), experiencing machinima for the first time, learning some choice words in Japanese: baka/idiot; korose!/kill him!); dakara/that is why… (essential phrasing before a dramatic love confession). Lots of great times, there.
Most memorable of all, though… Sesshoumaru. He was our first ‘bishonen’ and it was weird, and exciting too, to find out what it was like to see an animated antagonist actually portrayed as a seriously attractive, compelling character, no different than any soap opera bad guy. His rich voice and his cooler-than-thou aura was amazing.
We went through a kind of ‘eye of the needle’ experience with our first anime, Inuyasha. Once through, we’d become acclimated to one of the best art forms the world has to offer. (And when I try to explain things like Yandere Simulator to non-anime fans, I always, always forget that there’s an acclimatizing that they probably need to experience first.)
My favorite character: So, honestly… it was Miroku. The pervy priest always cracked me up with that ‘Will you bear my child?’ pickup line. Second-favorite was Sango. She had the best pet cat ever, it turned into this giant flying fire-cat from an adorable pokemon-sized kitten, and then that giant… boomerang thing. And I only strongly believed Sango and Miroku were -the- perfect couple since they were already being shipped, per cannon, and I liked them both. If you didn’t understand words in that last sentence because it sounded so fangirl, it’s okay. Context clues, you know? Anyway… Then Kagura, the bad-ass wind sorceress. (I did say Kagura at first, but re-read this and changed my mind. But Kagura was just that cool and frightening.) Liking Sesshoumaru was a given. Everybody was obsessed with him.
Favorite scene: Any time that Naraku showed up and made me hop out of my seat. Or, anytime Koga called Kagome his ‘woh-man’, which had much the same cringy effect.
#9 Cowboy Bebop
This one does not deserve to be so low on the list, because it is a CLASSIC, and that does definitely need to be in caps. However, I’m ranking this list by sentimentality, not quality… as far as quality, it should ranked up at #1 or #2. Cowboy Bebop was revolutionary. It’s just that if I really want to re-watch an anime that I’ve loved, I’m not always in the mood for Cowboy Bebop, and I’m not always going to reach for it first. It’s elegant, it’s addicting, it’s clever, hell, it’s spectacular, but I don’t go ‘squee’ and need to watch it whenever I think about it. I think I more… stand at attention and salute it.
I think people have seen a lot of this one over the years, but I found this clip online and it pretty much encapsulates the unbelievable magic the protagonist Spike is capable of.
Favorite character: Going to be very transparent here and say Spike. He was enigmatic and fascinating to watch.
Favorite scene: Was it episode two or three? When Fey goes to the city with no women in it and is accidentally hit on by a jazz musician who is actually a woman? You guys know what I’m talking about. Pretty much the ‘king’ of awkward scenes…
#8 Samurai Champloo
I heard folks didn’t really like this one… I’m not sure if that’s accurate or not, but I loved it. The creators of Cowboy Bebop went for it again, this time with a historical drama-meets modernity theme instead of a futuristic, yet close-to-home setup. Two superior fighters team up with a girl who is searching for the ‘samurai who smells like sunflowers.’ Badass fight scenes, hip hop swatches, record scratches and hilarity ensues, homie.
I loved how creative this anime was. I didn’t like every single episode… I think the one about baseball didn’t appeal to me too much, but that was mostly a taste thing on my part. The storyline was really great, too. The final battle was unbelievable.
Favorite character: Jin. He managed to be cuddly in those glasses but also so very strong and talented.
Favorite scene: When they go to the red light district that one time and Jin surprises all of us with losing the coin-toss to sleep with the three not-so-pretty ladies of the night… But the part I’m really thinking of is right after (once he’s dressed again): the three women are fawning over Jin–who knew he was such a ladies’ man!–when he’s attacked and (just as) ably gets up to end the attacker with a clean sweep of his sword. Something about that transition from lover to fighter is really cool-looking. Subtle, but it’s there.
#7 Vampire Hunter D
This one is incredible. You begin loathing the vampire for whatever it is that you think he did. By the end of it, he is in some fancy spaceship and you are yelling at the screen for him to take off and please make it safely away from the other villians, for the love of God! I loved the twists, the dark theme, Dunpeal the protagonist, all of it… And every time I talk about it, I have a craving to go and watch it again.
Favorite character: Dunpeal/Vampire Hunter D (of course), because he is one epic dude.
Favorite scene: So many good ones, hrm… I have to say the very beginning, where the girl is dramatically stolen away from the room and she swoons in the vampire’s arms in dramatic fashion. It could have been straight out of a noir, that was impossibly elegant.
#6 Twelve Kingdoms
A great anime to end part one on. I would love for everyone to watch it and adore it as I did. To be really honest, I never finished watching all of Inuyasha, Cowboy Bebop or Twelve Kingdoms. You may laugh at the reason why. So… at the time, my sisters and I were locating this stuff on random internet forums and downloading fansubs (fan-made recordings of the anime that had their English subtitles, sometimes with footnoted cultural references) because we couldn’t really watch them any other way. And we also tied an onion to our belts, because that was the style at the time. These anime just didn’t exist yet on the American market, which was a shame. My generation was the generation that drove the hunger for more and more anime that now makes it possible for Americans to watch almost anything they want on Crunchyroll or walk into Best Buy and peruse the special anime section…
Twelve Kingdoms, my friends, is not even on Crunchyroll, from what I can tell. So if you’re intrigued by this title but you can’t get easy access to it (I do think it’s on Netflix), you know how I used to feel as a kid.
Twelve Kingdoms is stunning. I don’t think I can put it better than that. Based on a series of novels, Youko, a terrified girl who cannot fit into her life no matter how hard she tries and really struggles emotionally for it, is suddenly the center of attention when swept away into another world—and it is a higher, heavenly realm—created by the gods to watch over Earth. A more perfect world created by the divine ones, and she is fated to be the queen of one of these twelve perfect kingdoms. But, boy, she has a long, long way to go. She is aided by mystical beings, including a creature that is very reminiscent of a unicorn, and all of the characters are so well developed. The mythology is compelling. There are wars and moral rules to this new world. I remember there were a lot of big questions posed about morality, life and death, personal strength, sacrifice… you are just swept away, like Youko, into a very meaningful, incredible story.
Twelve Kingdoms means a lot to me because I think it is the first anime that taught me how much more there was the genre, besides stories like Inuyasha. Inuyasha was the hot show at the time, and it had all the bishounen, chibis and love triangles you could shake a stick at. And there were intense themes as well… but Twelve Kingdoms made my heart ache. It made me care. At times, worrying about Youko and whether this perfect world would break, it was agony. Twelve Kingdoms made me… completely signed on to this thing called anime, for life.
Favorite character: Okay, this one is hard. I so admire Youko’s strength, but… I am going to go straight-up fangirl and say Shouryuu. He was tough, he was sophisticated… and he was handsome. You don’t need anything else.
Favorite scene: Lots of beautiful and compelling moments… but what stands out for me, for whatever reason, was this scene my sister made me re-watch with her. Youko is alone with the voice in her sword, toward the start of her journey. The sword is telling her that she’s worthless, that she’ll never make it… it was a heartwrenching scene. And I like the near-madness Youko experienced, being in this new world, facing all these horrible challenges. Almost anyone would go through that if they were ripped from their home, even a home they weren’t so comfortable in. It felt so realistic.
For even more context about how Twelve Kingdoms came to be, check out this great video.
Alright, guys. More next week in part two… the stranger, sillier anime at the top of my well-loved list.
Have you ever watched Twelve Kingdoms? What was your favorite scene?