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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 thinkers...it 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 clichés can be refreshed and renewed. If your idea of a holiday is extreme sports and jumping out of airplanes, this might not be your thing, but if a leisurely cruise with good friends would be your perfect day's relaxation, you ought to spend some time with this crew.

10. Spirited Away

While the only Oscar-winning anime may not top my charts, it's an exceptional film, filled with a world of wonders. A vaguely snotty girl grows up quickly when she becomes an unwilling servant at a bathhouse for spirits, learning to see beyond herself. Filled with memorable moments, slightly scary but undeniably creative, this movie finds the sweet spot between Hayao Miyazaki's child-oriented works like Totoro and his films for older audiences like Princess Mononoke.

9. GitS: Stand Alone Complex universe

Long-time readers know that I was one of the few detractors when it came to Mamoru Oshii's overly-talky film that started this franchise on celluloid. How amazed I was, then, when the Stand Alone Complex version of this universe totally knocked my socks off. Both TV series keep the intelligence of Oshii's film while ramping up the action and tension considerably. Characters like Batou and Major Kusanagi are fully developed, and at its best, it even pummels similar live-action shows like 24.

8. Lupin III: First Contact

Lupin III hasn't been great in some time. With a long-running TV series over thirty years ago and yearly movies, the franchise has gotten a little moldy. With First Contact, though, we get a fantastic adventure that not only looks better than almost everything in the Lupin canon, it plays out brilliantly. Like the recent Star Trek movie, we get a story about the origins of our beloved thieves, and while it sometimes plays with our expectations -- we're not sure if all of it is true or just a ruse -- it's incredible fun. If they could create more Lupin of this caliber, all the other made-for-TV movies can be forgiven. (This is finally getting a US DVD release in 2010; keep your eyes peeled for it on the Internet, as the distributor is a relative unknown in the anime field.)

7. Welcome to the N.H.K.

A darkly funny tale about a deeply disturbed young man who has essentially grown scared of real human contact and the girl who thinks she can cure him, NHK is a show that makes you cringe and smile at the same time. It's the ultimate spyglass into a world that every introverted otaku can relate to in some fashion. While it ridicules many of fandom's obsessions, such as the mostly ridiculous realms of H-games, visual novels, hentai, and so forth, the show never ridicules Sato, our hapless protagonist. NHK exposes the twisted sides of the fandom experience, both indentifying with those who have trouble living in the "real world" and pointing to something more...all in a thoroughly enjoyable package.

6. Paranoia Agent

With Paranoia Agent, Satoshi Kon proves his directorial chops extend to the TV screen. Although Kon specializes in stories of mental confusion and paranoid reality, the space that thirteen episodes afford helps his creations breathe life. At first, we seem to have the elements of a simple criminal procedural -- a baffling case, a couple of interesting detectives, a creepy antagonist -- but it rapidly builds into something more. The show crisscrosses plots and weaves in and out of linear time, but it all comes together as a contemplation of alienation in the modern world and how the stress of our ever-more-rapid lives may be pulling apart the very fabric of our existence. Combined with a visual acuity rarely seen in televised anime, Paranoia Agent stands out as a highlight of what can be done over the course of a short series.

5. Fullmetal Alchemist

On the other hand, to find a long anime series that stays fresh and compelling throughout its run is darn difficult, but Fullmetal Alchemist is captivating from start to finish. The story of two young brothers on a quest to restore their bodies after a terrifying accident with an alchemy experiment, it eschews many shonen clichés from the very beginning. What appears to be a simple journeyman show evolves into a multi-layered juggernaut that starts asking deep philosophical questions. But even at its most complex, it's grounded in the love of two utterly believable brothers who care enough to risk themselves over and over again for one another. I have no idea if the new "retelling" of FMA will be worthwhile, but I can tell you the first go-around is already a classic.

4. Tokyo Godfathers

Have you ever had a movie you thought was good the first time around grow into great the second or third time? That's what's happened with me on Tokyo Godfathers. On its original release, I gave it an A, but I also said it was my least favorite picture by Satoshi Kon (whose catalog so far is utterly impeccable). I was wrong. A couple more viewings, and it blossomed into my favorite. A runaway, a hobo, and a transvestite become unlikely parents when they find an abandoned baby, and they set off on a series of misadventures trying to find out the little one's story. Set at the winter holidays, there's a surreal beauty to the whole thing...strange and wonderful. While Satoshi Kon's mindtrips may still be great, this film is easily his most life-affirming.

3. Haibane Renmei

You will not understand Haibane Renmei, but you will enjoy it. It takes the best elements of slice-of-life shows and puts them in a unique setting that is deeply resonant. The Haibane -- are they humans becoming angels? angels being reborn? -- live a quiet life of grace in a small town they never really leave. But who were they before? What is this life's meaning? The characters themselves ask these questions, and though they aren't answered in a straightforward manner, it all somehow works. And unlike many slice-of-life shows, it's willing to get dark when it needs to. While some shows like Evangelion play around with Christian symbolism and pretend to be meaningful, Haibane Renmei is the real deal. It won't sell you on any particular religion or belief system, but it will make you ponder well after the show has faded to black, and that's a good thing in my book.

2. Ponyo

There's been a lot of hater-ism towards Ponyo in the American anime community for a few reasons: Miyazaki is overrated, the film looks silly and cartoonish and juvenile, blah blah blah. It reflects the general maturity (or immaturity, as the case may be) of the typical anime fan, and that's just sad. Because Ponyo wasn't made for teens with nothing to do looking for excitement or twenty-somethings obsessing over an art form. No, Ponyo is a film for young children and their parents who love to see their children enraptured with something made just for them. As such, it is exquisite. It is a gorgeous film with no fewer marvels than any of Miyazaki's other enchantments. Playful, bold, exciting, and yet understanding of a child's point of view, this take on The Little Mermaid is simply the best anime I saw in 2009.

1. Voices of a Distant Star

Makoto Shinkai is amazing. He directed this short film by himself on a shoestring budget, casting himself and his wife as the leads in its original incarnation to save money. And yet it looks better than many major studio efforts. But graphics aren't everything, and if Voices didn't have a story to match, it wouldn't top my list. It does. A story of love that transcends time and distance, Voices uses sci-fi trappings to lure us in only to smack us right in the gut with an emotional powerhouse. Deeply resonating stuff, and here's the kicker -- his other films are incredible in their own right. I didn't include them in this list because I wanted to give other filmmakers a shot...and, for their magnificence, they echo the exact same themes as Voices. They are special in and of themselves, but Shinkai got everything right the first time out.


The Best 5 Anime Trends of the 2000s:

5. Anime on TV. There's no doubt in my mind that anime was greatly boosted by its presence on television in the last decade. Adult Swim may pretend to hate the stuff, but they keep broadcasting it! The broad expansion of televised anime gave many teens their first taste and gave them reason to check out more.

4. Fandom becomes younger, more female-friendly, and even vaguely mainstream. Do you miss the days of a bunch of vaguely unattractive guys in their 30s sitting around a 20" screen watching the latest anime at anime clubs? I don't (even though I'm now in my mid-30s myself). While the youth of modern fandom has its own problems (which I'll mention below), there's no doubt that fandom exploded amongst teens and women in a good way during this time. This has helped to expand the kinds of titles available in the US, for one. For another, it means that anime is no longer the hobby of aging bachelors sitting around in mom's basement. Fans of anime are still sometimes looked at askance, but the truth is, you can now be the cool kid in school and still be an otaku. You can find actual romance in the anime kingdom. Booyah.

3. Through Oscar and Lasseter, anime gets some respect. While anime isn't going to have another breakthrough like Spirited Away, the respect that film earned -- along with Pixar's John Lasseter pushing for Miyazaki mainstreaming through Disney -- gave anime a new legitimacy. While we've had a champion in Roger Ebert for some time, Lasseter actually got classic anime on our shelves and in the minds of Academy voters.

2. Online fansubbing of shows virtually lost to time or licensing issues. Let's face it...nobody wants to touch Macross properties any more due to the rights issues faced not only in Japan but in America due to Harmony Gold's rabid protection of its license. And yet, many of us have been able to watch Macross 7, Macross Zero, etc. Why? Fansubs. And if you have moral qualms with downloading shows that might someday get a license, certainly you could still feel good about finding lost programs like Anne of Green Gables or Space Runaway Ideon. Not all of them are classics, by any means. Yet some like Legend of the Galactic Heroes are. While fansubbing via VHS greatly helped the hobby, online downloading expanded it beyond those die-hards willing to track down fansubbers and to pay megabucks for a 4th generation copy that's barely watchable.

1. DVD. Without it, anime would never have made the breakthrough it did. DVD revolutionized the industry. At its very inception, it made subs and dubs possible on a single disc. It made anime rentals possible online, expanding the fan base. It made box sets feasible at first and essential by the end of the decade. And eventually, it would lower the price point for anime to a level impossible to imagine even ten years ago. While Blu-Ray may look nicer and promise delights like lossless audio, DVD is what made the anime industry explode...at least for a time.


The Worst 5 Anime Trends of the 2000s:

5. Fandom's immense immaturity at virtually all levels of existence. Simply put, if we as a collective group acted better, anime would have a much better reputation. From demanding recalls for one mistimed subtitle and refusing to buy legitimate releases because "the fansubs are better" to wildly inappropriate personal conduct at conventions, fans are our own worst enemy. When we were those guys in mom's basement, we did have better manners. Things have gotten better as convention staff have cracked down and industry types have realized the needs of the fan base, but seriously, we all need to grow up.

4. The sheer impossibility of keeping up with everything. I've mentioned this many times, but to keep up with everything in the anime industry would take more hours than there are in a day. We've seen folks who are players in the field lose marriages and family and jobs from the sheer weight of it all. At one point in time, licensing used to at least provide some gatekeeping. Now, everything is available from Japan immediately, and it's like trying to keep up with everything on American television. Not only is it impossible, but it's ridiculous. And here's the reason why...

3. Anime has become far less creative. You could, instead, say that American television has just caught up. But now, you can find tons of quality programs on both the networks and cable. Many of us who loved the serialized nature of anime now have it through 24, Lost, BSG, you name it. Twenty-five years ago, we'd never seen anything like anime. Now, most of what's broadcast on Japanese TV is an imitation of something else. This is a situation where Japan is mostly to blame, not America, though the Japanese think they are catering to our tastes more now. In reality, the strangeness and foreign-ness of anime is still a selling point. Anime needs to stand out as something uniquely different.

2. The implosion of the anime distribution sector in America. While a few major players like Funimation exist, the late 2000s have seen distributors go belly-up (Central Park Media), become virtually irrelevant (AnimEigo), or become new entities in an attempt to survive the horrors of bad deals (ADV Films/Section 23). This means that we'll see less competition in the next decade, as well as fewer licenses picked up in general. I believe we have just begun to see the ramifications of this, especially since I am not convinced that the "free ride" of streaming anime is going to continue for very much longer without Japanese companies finally defending their international copyrights. But beyond that, I'm saddened by this because it stems from a moral failing that has touched the whole of this community, and it's this...

1. Fansubs of new, promising, licensable products have damaging every economic sector of the industry. Just because you can fansub something doesn't mean you should, and just because you can download something doesn't mean you should. Countless programs, good programs, are being ignored by distributors because those most likely to buy the shows on DVD have already seen them and moved on. I will defend fansubs of ancient and archaic gems from the past, but the "day and date" obsession of the anime community needs to end. Services like Crunchyroll are a stopgap, but they won't solve the ultimate financial problem. I admit that many anime television programs are not worth owning, but there's got to be a solution where the companies and artists who create the programs actually get paid for them.

In Conclusion:

I'm not sure where the next decade will take us as a community of otaku. Trends that began the decade are now forgotten. Some things on the anime horizon may be over and done within a scant few years. What I do know is that it was a great decade to be an anime fan...but I'm not sure that will be true in the years ahead. Still, this hobby is cyclical, and the new burst of creativity may be just around the corner. There's still plenty to see and read and enjoy. And while I have no idea whether or not I'll still be writing anime reviews in ten years, 2010 marks my twenty-fifth year in this hobby...I'm not planning on going anywhere soon.

- Jason Huff


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