Saturday morning cartoons were a ritual for me as a child. It didn’t matter how late I’d gone to bed the night before, I wouldn’t want to miss the latest adventures of Cardcaptor Sakura and Sailor Moon. Around this time my mother was a librarian, and I spent many long after-school hours in the manga section at her library. I discovered that many of my favorite manga had been adapted to anime. It didn’t take long before I found I could watch all these shows online. Not only that, but I found hundreds of others I hadn’t even heard of!
Having watched anime for the majority of my life, what I look for in a series has changed as I’ve grown older. While anime like Tokyo Mew Mew and Pokémon will always hold a special place in my heart, I no longer relate to them on a personal level. Instead I find myself enjoying emotionally evocative anime with complex storylines and believable characters. I also prefer series that are short and sweet, rather than committing to hundreds of episodes. This list is a list of series that I have discovered with that in mind, comprised of my all-time favorite shows.
5. Ookami to Koushinryou (Spice and Wolf)
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: January 2008 - May 2008
Set in a fictional world reminiscent of medieval Europe, Spice and Wolf follows the story of Lawrence Kraft, a travelling salesman. He has been living a nomadic and solitary life for quite some time, moving from town to town selling his wares out of his wagon. One night he finds something in it that isn’t exactly on his inventory. There appears to be a young girl with wolf ears and a tail sleeping in his cart. She introduces herself as an ancient goddess of the harvest, Holo. Through a bizarre turn of events, the two become the most unlikely of travel companions.
A lot of anime are fast paced, but Spice and Wolf takes it’s time and there’s something very refreshing about that. Even though it could be described as a bit slow, rather than making the viewer impatient, watching it is an almost zen experience. This is a technique that recalls classic Japanese cinema, and something I appreciate. Lawrence and Holo’s relationship develops in this way also, gradually throughout the series. I cannot say enough about how much I adored watching Holo as a character, which solidified this series on my list.
Spice and Wolf Trailer
4. Saishuu Heiki Kanojo (Saikano)
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: July 2002 – September 2002
This could have been another high-school romance anime about two awkward teenagers navigating the pitfalls of romance together. The story is set in modern Japan, which in this universe is a country on the verge of war. While Chise and Shuichi are falling in love, the world around them is falling apart. As tragedy approaches, the two continue to try to live normally, but this becomes increasingly difficult. Before long something unimaginable happens to Chise that will change their lives, and possibly the world, forever.
The relationship between Chise and Shuichi feels extremely genuine, one of the great strengths of Saikano. Chise is sweet if not a bit naïve, and is extremely easy to empathize with as a character. Watching the struggle she goes through as she tries to reconcile her new responsibility with her humanity is a particularly emotionally evocative experience. Saikano is a tearjerker, but I’m a huge fan of any series that can make me feel as much as this one did, earning it a place on this list.
3. Hachimitsu to Clover (Honey and Clover)
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: April 2005 – September 2005
One of the few anime about university age students, this series takes place at an art college located in Tokyo. Honey and Clover follows a group of students through the ups and downs of college life as they build friendships, fall in love, experience tribulations, and work to discover themselves. Each character in this series is charming in their own respect, having their own distinct personalities and dreams, and the viewer is invited to experience the joy and sorrow of each as the series progresses.
Honey and Clover is a bittersweet show, but it is this balance between happiness and sadness that sets this series apart. It is also notable that this is a josei anime –a genre aimed at young adult women which is primarly restricted to manga. There are a few good josei anime titles out there, this being one of the best. As an adult, I still enjoy shoujo, but it’s sometimes a bit too unrealistic and exaggerated for me to enjoy. Though there is drama in this series, including an impressively tangled web of love triangles, it maintains an incredibly authentic feel. It’s this remarkable authenticity that makes this one of my favorite shows and earns it a mention here.
Honey and Clover PV
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: April 2005 – June 2005
The one person Ritsuka could rely on was his brother, who has recently died. In the world of Loveless people battle in two person teams, poetically referred to as the “fighter” and the “sacrifice.” When Ritsuka meets his brother’s former battle partner, Soubi, he learns that his beloved sibling’s death may have actually been an organized hit. Ritsuka and Soubi team up to get to the bottom of this murder, each with their own separate motivations. They uncover buried secrets that they may not be prepared to handle, as their relationship deepens.
This show is visually stunning – it’s beautifully animated, and the protagonists aren’t too hard on the eyes, either. That being said, this show is far from shallow. The series is very emotionally charged as a result of Ritsuka and Soubi’s respective internal conflicts and in terms of the dynamic between the two characters. It is important to note that this relationship is considered highly controversial, due to the age difference between the two characters. Even considering this taboo, the characters and their stories are complex, tragic, and beautiful. A bit is left unanswered, possibly as a result of reaching completion before the manga, but it didn’t cause me to enjoy the show any less. Loveless is sure to tug on your heartstrings, part of what makes this show my second favorite.
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: January 2003 - July 2003
In a dystopian future, a group of travelers cross paths through a strange series of events. They have one thing in common – they are wolves. Wolves are extinct now, or so most people believe. There are a few left, but they hide in alleyways, persecuted as monsters, or are forced to submit to humans by masquerading as dogs. They live in fear or denial, but this can hardly be called living at all. There are legends they hear of a place called paradise, though none of them know exactly what that means. Hungry for something more, and with nothing to look back towards, they set out on a journey chasing the promise of a better place if it even exists at all.
When I first saw this show, I was too young to fully understand it, though the characters and heart-breaking story won me over immediately. It doesn’t pull any punches, there are no hollow happy endings here. Though set in a brilliantly crafted pre-apocalyptic universe of fantasy, every facet of this show feels believable. A couple years ago I revisited it, and fell even more deeply in love. This show makes me feel hope and despair in the same breath, something I’ve rarely encountered in an anime at this intensity. In addition to every single character holding a dear place in my heart (Hige in particular) this series is also deeply intelligent, more full of metaphor and allegory than any I’ve ever encountered. It is without a doubt my favorite anime of all time.
Wolf’s Rain Official Trailer
Many people who are unfamiliar with anime claim that it is a medium targeted at a younger audience. I have a lot of friends who were initially convinced that they wouldn’t enjoy it before I showed them certain series, some of which are on this list. The truth is there are many anime that tackle more mature and complex themes, and that anime isn’t restricted to children’s shows. As you can see, I prefer series that are character driven, based on emotion and intricacy. If you do too, I sincerely hope you give at least one of the series on this list a try if you haven’t already.