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The Best Anime of the 2000s (and the Trends That Defined the Decade)

January 15, 2010

Several months ago, my friends over at THEM Anime invited me to participate in a project that immediately caught my interest. The question we would all address: what were the best anime titles of the last decade? It's a completely subjective issue. Who can say? And yet we all have an opinion, sometimes one we would defend passionately. Throughout the month, THEM Anime is publishing responses from their core of reviewers, their readers, and a few web guests like myself. If you've been looking for great material to watch (or just want to see what everybody else thinks about the best anime of the Aughts), you couldn't do much better. I encourage you to go read the entire series at their website, as I will. And if you just happen to be reading this on THEM Anime, well, much thanks for my invite.

So why this list? Why these twenty? I have to confess my viewing habits right up front. I'm a fan of shows that are sharply intelligent and impressive to watch. I have a soft spot for sci-fi. I'm a Christian pastor strongly interested in spirituality that's not superficial, actions that have consequences, and entertainment that ultimately means something, whether it makes me laugh or cry or think. And perhaps most importantly for this list, I'm a film fan with a family and a limited amount of free time, which means that I don't watch a whole lot of anime television series. Will this bias my list towards films? Certainly. And yet that means that the TV shows that made it onto this list are truly impressive. I'll also give some honorable mentions to shows that nearly made the cut, as well as programs I'm working on that I haven't finished that are showing true promise. And then stick around afterwards for my discussion of the top five best and worst trends in anime in the first decade of the 21st century.

So without further ado...

Honorable mentions in alphabetical order: Boogiepop Phantom, Five Centemeters Per Second, Eureka Seven, Millennium Actress, Monster, The Place Promised In Our Early Days, Read Or Die OVAs, Wolf's Rain, Utawarerumono.

The Top 20 Anime of the 2000s:

20. Cromartie High School

One of the funniest shows that most people haven't seen, Cromartie High School breaks apart all the shonen stereotypes about young punks and ridicules them in bite-size bits. Where else can you see an anime that gives us a delinquent robot, a gorilla, and Freddie Mercury all in the same classroom? The humor is absurd, sure, but for a quick laugh (since most episodes neatly split into two unrelated parts), you can't beat it.

19. Tekkon Kinkreet

It's rare to find an anime film that takes risks, but Tekkon Kinkreet does exactly that. With character designs more French than Japanese and a plot that weaves together two street kids on the edge with the yakuza, aliens, and more, this isn't your normal fare. Granted, it makes some mistakes along the way, especially if you don't expect the surrealistic final act. But it's sumptuously animated and surprisingly moving. Great for those who want something out of the ordinary.

18. Witch Hunter Robin

For its first third -- about eight episodes -- Witch Hunter Robin threatens to be a "monster of the week" show where Robin and her cohorts take down genetically unfortunate folks with nasty powers. But soon after that, it morphs into a deeply engaging, intelligent drama that makes us debate the nature of discrimination while layers of plot unfold around us. Unpredictable and thoughtful, this show is a treat for the patient viewer.

17. Captain Herlock: Endless Odyssey

Not only is it new Harlock, it's good Harlock, perhaps the best since Arcadia Of My Youth. While the story covers some old ground -- really, did we have to introduce Tadashi again?? -- the captain is still as stoically enigmatic as ever and the plot is darn tootin' creepy. With the darkest villains for a Matsumoto title yet, we have an adversary worthy of the greatest space pirate who ever lived. While it's best if you've seen at least Arcadia to fully appreciate this show, even newcomers can appreciate the latest adventures of the man behind the skull and crossbones.

16. Samurai Champloo

Did you hear the one about the berserker, the ronin, and the samurai who smelled of sunflowers? Shinichiro Watanabe's follow-up to Cowboy Bebop isn't quite as perfect as that now-legendary show, but its anachronistic approach to Japanese history that mixes hip-hop and swordplay is loads of fun. Mugen, Jin, and Fuu are perfect foils for one another as they cross the countryside, and its seemingly random story threads tie together nicely by the end. While it tries a little too hard, I found it thoroughly entertaining.

15. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

The rare anime feature where the characters are stronger than the already-compelling plot. This story about a girl who learns she can manipulate time, only to realize that it might have more complications than she's willing to deal with, is cheerful fun. But more important than that is the movie's careful drawing of its lead character Makoto. She's so imbued with life that you'd like to jump back in time and meet her during your own high school experience. In fact, she's so interesting that the time jumping aspect of the film becomes in some ways superfluous...but that means this should appeal to those who might pass it up due to the sci-fi elements.

14. Sky Crawlers

Mamoru Oshii makes good films, let there be no doubt. But Sky Crawlers affected me in a different way. Oshii's work is usually brilliant but cold, and this film shares his trademark slow-burn. But whereas I felt emotionally distant from Ghost In The Shell, here the human element lingering below the surface moved me. A multi-layered experience, Sky Crawlers is best seen with a crowd of will have you talking for days. And if you're like me, you won't be able to shake the emotional underpinnings for some time.

13. Metropolis

Perhaps the only anime film that I have seen more than once in a movie theater besides Akira, I was drawn to this film upon its American release, and it's stayed a favorite ever since. The fusion of manga giant Osamu Tezuka, pioneer Katsuhiro Otomo, and directorial curiosity Rin Taro, this movie has giant action pieces, strong pacing and plotting, and above all, characters with heart. Inspired by the silent film classic, this story of robotic slaves, government coups, and young love is a wonderful mix of creativity.

12. Animation Runner Kuromi 1 & 2

I would have missed these discs if the now-defunct Central Park Media hadn't sent them to me, and that would have been a shame. This two-part OVA series about a young woman making her way up the ladder in an animation studio is hilarious and heartfelt. While there are plenty of shows that make fun of otaku habits and peccadilloes, Kuromi is a fun blast through the process of actually making anime. It's a lot of fun, especially for those of us who enjoy tales from the industry.

11. Aria the Animation

Who knew that a show where nothing happens could be so refreshing? Aria's tale of a gondolier in training on a watery vacation spot far from Earth isn't full of plot or meaning; it's simple pleasure taken at a relaxed pace. Akari, the lead character, is charming, and the stories in this 13-episode first season show that ancient anime clich

- Jason Huff

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