There’s a not-so-invisible chasm on the Internet between folks who tend to mostly watch popular series – such as those that air on American television – and viewers who watch a wider slate of shows. Unfortunately, I think the latter group sometimes comes off as snobby (oh, your favorite series is Naruto, huh?), even though both sides are equally avid about their hobby. Further, there are a lot of anime that are both popular and excellent. And that’s what we’re focused on today – popular anime series that we also consider to be very, very good.
Our guest for today’s column is Anime Reporter, who over the past year and a half has developed a terrific aniblog with a huge index of anime reviews covering series old and new, popular and niche. Check out his site – the Anime Reporter puts a lot of work into his excellent reviews! And he also put a lot of work into his contribution below – one much lengthier than those we normally post from guests, but it’s worth the read (and maybe somehow appropriate when we’re talking about some series that have 10+ seasons in the books!).
Anime Reporter’s Picks
- Death Note
- One Piece
- Attack on Titan
For me, a good anime is a good story, or at least one that resonates with the viewer personally. While each of my choices on this list were chosen primarily as top examples of popular anime series, each of them also ranks highly on my overall list of anime. Here’s why: Death Note is the immediate go-to when I want to draw a non-anime fan into the wonderful world of Japanese animation. Death Note is dark and driven, it’s twisted and tragic and it has exactly the right mix of psychological thriller and supernatural suspense to draw in viewers who are used to seeing the likes of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and the Walking Dead on Western television. Death Note is the top of this list because it’s not only a phenomenal example of a popular anime, but an exemplary piece of storytelling. Full stop.
One Piece is next on my list because it’s a great piece of anime in exactly the areas that Death Note isn’t. In all respects, it meets the criteria to be a pretty traditional Shonen. It’s got the virtuous, though not too bright hero, the seemingly impossible quest that makes up his life-goal and a series of intense, escalating battles. What sets it apart from other series is the blend of sheer hilarity, dysfunctional but deeply likeable characters and an acute awareness of exactly how and when to take itself seriously. The One Piece story spans years, even decades and it’s still very much the simple tale it was at its beginning but its characters and their goals have been allowed to grow and develop without dragging the story back. Good clean fun and a story that grows over the years, what more could you want?
Next on my list possibly seems to be a strange one, partly because it’s basically just there to sell video games and Pikachu merchandise, but also because it’s one that I haven’t actually watched in years. Pokémon makes the list because it was probably the first anime that I really became a big-time fan of. Pokémon was a story of a kid who was kind of a loser, but he made friends with some pretty amazing animals that helped him do great things. I guess something in that must have hit home for me as a kid (hint, it’s not the superpowered animals or the great acheievements), but I genuinely couldn’t get enough of the early series of Pokémon. Every morning I watched Ash bond with his Pokémon, triumph against inept villains and often help someone else out. It was cheesy, but it meant the world to me and so it has to get its place here, even seventeen years later.
Now, Attack on Titan is easily the newest anime on this list. Like Death Note, it carries with it darker tones and a grittier approach to storytelling than any of the other series. Characters feel loss and pain from the moment this anime gets started and they never really stop taking beatings from life. What makes it Top 5 worthy has to be its animation. As characters fly around on complicated mechanisms, the effect is a little like Spider-man on drugs and it really is, overall, a very visually impressive anime, creating an immersive and heart-pounding viewing experience. For this reason, it’s also one of the few instances where I’d undoubtedly recommend the anime over the manga.
Finally, we come to Naruto (both the original series and Shippuuden). Naruto, like Pokémon, takes a young boy who is, by all accounts, a little bit of a loser and it gives him the determination, (and a near unlimited power source growing inside him), that he needs and he slowly, agonisingly, over hundreds of episodes, manages to claw his way towards respect, confidence and friendship. Naruto as a series is pretty comparable to One Piece, though it takes on a much more serious tone as it progresses, it grows and develops, as do its characters and their relationships. The only reason Naruto isn’t a wee bit higher on this list is that it has a tendency to rely a little too much on filler seasons which grind the story to a halt from time to time. It’s nonetheless moving and entertaining to see how Naruto, and so many of the people in his life, find purpose, find strength and find each other. That’s all there is from me, though I’m sure there’s something I’m forgetting. (I might have almost risked the fury of the internet by daring to put Avatar the Last Airbender on this list, but I’m not that brave.)
- Hunter x Hunter (2011)
- Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
- Attack on Titan
- Naruto and Naruto Shippuden
- Hetalia (both Axis Powers and World Series)
I didn’t take Hunter x Hunter seriously at first, although I enjoyed it. But as the story built and the characters developed, I was increasingly impressed. And HxH only has three recap episodes, and no other fillers to distract from the story. It’s 148 episodes long. Just let that sink in a moment. Now, about the others on my list: FMAB’s characters, stories, and themes grab me, but it’s not fresh in my mind. I need to re-watch it, this time without taking a long break between episodes. I like the art in Attack on Titan, and I’m a bit intrigued by how the Titans work. Naruto brought me into anime fandom, so it’s special to me. Now, I’m over a year behind on Shippuden. Thanks to the fillers, I forgot to be excited about the next episode, so I stopped watching in the middle of an epic fight. But I still care a lot about the characters, and I appreciate how they struggle with big topics like the meaning of peace. Finally, I’m including Hetalia because, while I don’t obsess over it as much as some fans, it has enriched my view of the world. If a text mentions interactions between countries, I think of Hetalia characters. Also, that show introduced me to Sealand, the smallest and oddest country I know. It’s a fun series of five-minute episodes that happens to be somewhat educational.
- One Piece
- Code Geass
- Fairy Tail
- Sword Art Online (arc 1 and 4)
One Piece is amazing, the only real complaint I have with the show is that it is such a commitment to catch-up, that is why I tend to focus more on the manga. Code Geass is one of my personal favorites, but the show is wonderful as well as really messed up at parts. Fairy Tail is basically Alternate Universe One Piece, with a very wide range of characters and lovable flying cats. I love Psycho-Pass!!! It can be hard to watch though, because of many horrific scenes. Sword Art Online has some amazing stories and story arches, my only complaint is so of the messed up and creepy scenes that ruined arcs 2 and 3 for me.
- One Piece
- Sword Art Online
I started out as the typical anime fan that most seasoned fans would sneer at. You know, the one that says Dragonball Z or Attack on Titan as the “greatest anime ever!”. That was me, and I did not know any better! To be honest, I’m still a big fan of those more mainstream anime’s than I am of the lesser known ones, like One Piece and Bleach which I religiously read the latest chapter of every week (when will One Piece ever end!). Steins;Gate I had the privilege of watching thanks to Beneath The Tangles mentioning it and it quickly became one of my favorites, as well as Sword Art Online (except the arc where they are fairies….meh). Now, Naruto is a little different as I am not a big fan of the series, but I have watched enough of it where I do appreciate it enough to make the list. The new manga of his son is a good one too.
- Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
- Spirited Away
- Steins; Gate
- Ouran High School Host Club
- Soul Eater
Fullmetal Alchemist: brotherhood was huge. Sometimes it’s the only anime I and a more casual fan will have both watched. It deserved every ounce of it’s popularity, and it was so good it actually made me dissatisfied with lots of other anime for a while because it had raised my expectations way too high. Spirited Away was a movie I noticed long before I knew what anime was, and when I was finally able to watch it a few years ago, I was enchanted by its beautiful art and intriguing Alice-in-Wonderland-type story. Steins; Gate was an anime that took me very much by surprise. While I expected and enjoyed the time-travel aspect, I was really impressed by how heart-breaking it was, and the main couple is one of my favorites. I watched Ouran High School Host Club years ago, but I still remember laughing really, really hard, and it was one of the first anime that I finished in under a week. Soul Eater is an anime I’ve been watching recently, and funnily enough, I actually hated the first few episodes, but now I love it. Most of the characters are somehow both archetypical and either unique or well-written, which I find pretty impressive, and the plot and action scenes are very intense and gripping.