If you’re being parodied, you’ve definitely done something right. It means you’ve managed to become noted for a given characteristic trademark, and this is definitively the case for Shaft.
Mentioning the name of this company will most likely produce a specific image in any serious anime fans’ head: stunning, often weird and unusual animation, a story set in a high school featuring a lot of schoolgirls but not as much fan service as one would expect, a LOT of references to American and Japanese popular culture, and, last but not least, the infamous head tilt.
Shaft has managed to build a reputation as one of the most distinctive animation studios in the past few years, largely thanks to the excellent direction of Shinbo Akiyuki – the "father of the head tilt". Loved and hated in almost equal amounts, Shaft has produced a surprisingly varied repertoire of anime that will please both the casual rom-com lover and the anime connoisseur.
But enough talk, let’s dive into the best shows of one of the best anime studios out there: below is our picks for the top ten anime made by Shaft (as the prime contractors for the anime listed).
10. Hidamari Sketch
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: January 2007 - March 2007
Although it’s set at an arts high school – Yamabuki Art High School to be exact – that’s just the backdrop in this totally unpretentious, cute story about three friends. After finally passing the entrance exam of the school, Yuno Yamabuki moves into a new apartment, befriending the other occupants, two senior students named Sae and Hiro. Later on, she meets genki girl Miyako, and the two become best friends.
The contrast between Yuno and Miyako’s opposing personalities drives Hidamari Sketch forward, making it an enjoyable viewing experience that is a tad quieter than other, similar series. Akiyuki Shinbo (together with Ryoki Kamitsubo) was of course behind the wheels, giving the anime the unmistakable shaftiness.
9. Dance in the Vampire Bund
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: January 2010 - April 2010
After hiding for many years, Mina Tepes, the Prinsess-ruler of vampires, reveals their existence to common people, and is allowed to open a district for vampires in Tokyo. While she and her werewolf friend Akira Kaburagi do their best to let humans and vampires peacefully coexist, it will prove more difficult than initially thought. Of course.
Dance in the Vampire Bund was Shaft and Shinbo’s second flirt with the vampire genre (the first you’ll longer towards the bottom), and was a commercial hit for the studio.
Dance in the Vampire Bund - Now Available on Blu-ray+DVD Combo Pack - Anime Trailer
8. Arakawa Under the Bridge
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: April 2010 - June 2010
A guy whose number one guiding principle in life is not to make himself indebted to anyone, becomes indebted to a girl named Nino, as she rescues him from drowning after he falls of the titual Arakawa bridge. In order to pay her back, Kou Ichinomiya promises to become her lover, and goes on to spend his days under the bridge, together with a wide range of crazy characters.
Arakawa Under the Bridge is fast paced, beautifully animated (okay sorry for repeating this over and over), and manages the art of being over the top while not too over the top, if that even makes sense – Shaft style, in other words.
Arakawa Under the Bridge Trailer
7. ef: A Tale of Memories.
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: October 2007 - December 2007
If you’re looking for something more serious, for example a series that might even go as far as to make you shed a tear, you might want to consider Ef: A Tale of Memories. With a darker tone, this romance slash mystery starts on a christmas eve where two former strangers coincidentally end up spending the evening together. Some moments earlier, Hiro Hirono had just found Miyako Miyamura passed out on the ground, after she tried to steal his bike. They discover that they’re students of the same school, and, unavoidably, feelings start to emerge.
Ef: A Tale of Memories gets both beautiful, dramatic, sad and confusing as the backstories all the characters slowly unfold, a good anime, in other words. It is notable due to the fact that it’s directed by Shin Onuma and not Shinbo Akiyuki, although the former assisted the latter in directing other notable Shaft series such as Pani Poni Dash!.
6. Maria Holic
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: January 2009 - March 2009
She can’t stand boys, so luckily, she’s already found her safe, same-sex romantic partner at an all-girls high school. A perfect execution of a carefully thought-out plan. Apart from the fact that it’s not, as she’s been led to believe, a girl, but a perverted young cross-dresser, and, with such an interesting premise we’re almost guaranteed an interesting anime, which of course, in the hands of Shaft, results in a particularly enjoyable tale of a nosebleeding lesbian. What more could we possibly ask for?
Maria Holic is based on a manga written by Endo Minari, also known for Dazzle, and was aired as a special broadcast on Animate TV.
Maria Holic trailer
5. Mahou Shoujo Madoka★Magica (Puella Magi Madoka Magica)
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: January 2011 – April 2011
Madoka is different from most other Shaft anime because of it’s darker tone – the usual humor is seemingly missing. This is probably due to the involvement of scriptwriter Urobuchi Gen, whose work is often characterized by tragic and nihilistic plots. The visual style is, however, unmistakably Shinbo/Shaft-esque – flawless, psychedelic and beautiful, particularly the fights with the crazy "witches". The characters are beautifully designed, strong and dynamic, and it has a surprising and interesting twist at the end.
Many critics rank Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which is one of the only original Shaft anime, as one of the studio’s best, in fact, many consider it one of the best anime series ever made. No wonder it became such a critical hit, with each of the of the BD volumes selling over 50,000 copies within the first week of release.
4. Mekakucity Actors (Kagerou Project)
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: April 2014 - June 2014
Originally a vocaloid song series called the Kagerou Project, it follows the shy nerd Kisaragi Shintaro as he takes a rare walk outside his house, because his computer broke. As fate has it, however, he get’s caught in a hostage situation at the mall, the start of a strange journey that sees him get caught in a mystery revolving around the so-called titular Blindfold Organization.
The original music project was a big hit online, with the most popular song getting over 3 million views. Mekakucity Actors followed up this success, and, while receiving some criticism, was also praised by critics for it’s original plot, fantasy setting and, yes you guessed it, outstanding visuals.
- Episodes: 15
- Aired: July 2009 – June 2010
You’ll understand what kind of show Bakemonogatari is when you, in the first episode, hear the self-proclaimed tsundere character listing the recipe for her "harsh remarks": 40g of copper, 25g of zinc, 5g of hiding her embarrassment and 97kg of spite. It falls somewhere in between taking and not taking itself too serious, and maintains an interesting, sometimes serious plot with supernatural elements, while still preserving classic Shaft-esque parody and self-reference. In fact, Bakemonogatari is one of the most representative example of a Shaft anime there is out there, in terms of style, animation, characters and dialogue. Bakemonogatari was Shaft’s first venture into the vampire genre, something which proved both a commercial and critical success. It won the Users’ Special Award, and has, together with the follow-up Nisemonogatari sold over one million DVDs and BDs.
2. Nisekoi (Nisekoi: False Love)
- Episodes: 20
- Aired: January 2014 - May 2014
A recent entry in to the Shaft library, the anime adaption of the popular manga of the same name has become quite a success both in Japan and abroad. We meet Raku Ichijou, a typical high schooler except for the fact that his father is the head of a local yakuza gang, who gets forced into a relationship with Chitoge Kirisaki – probably the most stereotypical tsundere character since Naru Narusegawa of Love Hina (which Nisekoi most certainly was influenced by) – in order to make peace with a rivaling yakuza gang, whose head happens to be Chitoge’s father.
Throw in a childhood promise, a sweet classmate, and the colorful Shaft animation, we’ve got all the ingredients needed for a top-notch romantic comedy, that is sure to please people of both of the aforementioned categories.
NISEKOI: OFFICIAL TRAILER (30 sec) by SHONEN JUMP Alpha
1. Koufuku Graffiti (Gourmet Girl Graffiti)
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: January 2015 - March 2015
Koufuku Graffiti is the newest member of the Shaft family, and is a slice of life anime largely about cute girls and food, where a girl named Ryou Machiko makes friends through her outstanding cooking. Or, that’s the official story anyway – many viewers have noted that the many eating scenes undeniably contains a lot of sexual innuendo, but I’ll let you be the judge. Koufuku Graffiti was, as Nisekoi, directed by Tatsuwa Naoyuki and, of course, Shinbo Akiyuki. One could say that Koufuku Graffiti represents the best and the worst of a typical Shaft anime – it looks excellent, but it isn’t really all that deep. Not that that bothered any of us, though, as we were drooling over the delicious FOOD the Ryou Machiko prepared for us.
While the haters are most likely going to continue doing their thing (hating, that is), the rest of us will continue to be amazed, if not by all the storylines, but at least by all the beautiful frames and interesting characters Akiyuki Shinbo and Shaft continues to offer us.