I don’t really have any sort of special relationship with anime. It didn’t find me during a particularly dark place in my life, it wasn’t something I’ve had an especially interesting history with, I don’t really have any interesting stories about when I first discovered it. I just watched lots of Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh and Sailor Moon on TV as a child and it all took off from there. I say this because I don’t want to seem like I’m claiming to bring some unique perspective to the conversation that nobody has ever heard before.
And yet, despite the fact that I don’t have any really unique history with anime, it's still one of the few things I keep coming back to. I care about it so deeply that it's been one of the biggest forms of entertainment in my life. So, with that in mind, here are the top 5 shows from one of my favorite mediums.
5. Daicon IV Opening Animation
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: Aug 1983
This was an entry I really struggled with adding to the list. It wasn't meant to be experienced as a self-contained entity, it's only a short film instead of a TV series or feature-length movie and it will never be officially released since that would be illegal. We'll get to that part later, but for now, some background information is in order. The Nihon SF Taikai convention is the biggest con for speculative fiction in Japan, running from 1962 to present day. It’s known for the various industry awards it presents (such as the coveted Seiun Award) as well as the official nicknames it gives to each convention it holds.
The Daicon conventions were just one such example and their third entry was made especially notable thanks to Takami Akai, Hiroyuki Yamaga, and Hideaki Anno, names many otaku will recognize as the founders of the legendary Studio Gainax. To make a long story short, they made a short anime film on a shoestring budget as a celebration of the SF Taikai. This became such an incredible success that they were able to amass a larger budget to make another short with much more production value and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 1983 the SF Taikai hosted Daicon IV and it brought with it one of the greatest and more important anime in history. Being the originator of one of the medium’s most legendary studios gives it an inherent historical value of course, but the short is still more than capable of standing up on its own merits. As the film’s soundtrack, the legendary Prologue/Twilight by The Electric Light Orchestra, began, audiences were treated to what can only be described as the ultimate celebration of fandom the world has ever seen and possibly the best it will ever see.
The narrative follows a nameless girl who fights off several famous science fiction characters in order to deliver a glass of water to a daikon radish and then sees her grow into a woman who gleefully surfs through the air upon the famous sword Stormbringer from the works of American fantasy novelist Michael Moorcock. This unorthodox, but incredibly badass, form of transportation brings her through practically every sort of popular fiction genre imaginable in a glorious parade of everything that can strike a chord with viewers. Every popular character you can imagine an otaku being interested in is here and so are many more and they’re all animated with more love and care than most anime afford their main characters, which is especially impressive when you consider the vast breadth of properties and genres being showcased.
Whether you like science-fiction, fantasy, superheroes, martial arts or anything else, there is something here for you to love. There isn’t really a plot, our heroine wrestles with Zaku one minute and has a lightsaber battle with Darth Vader the next, but it still feels connected through the sheer joy it expresses towards each fandom it encompasses. Between the wonderful send-up to everything that is loved about fiction and the absolutely amazing song used to score it, the short brings an overwhelming wave of positive feelings, to the point that I genuinely don't think it's possible to watch this and not be happy.
Unfortunately, that leads us to the reason I had such trouble putting this on the list. While the way Daicon IV pays tribute to so many characters without a license certainly makes for some muddy legal waters, there is one definite copyright violation that stands far above the rest to the point that it has made official sales of the film legally impossible. I’ve been raving about how great the use of the classic Electric Light Orchestra songs in this film are, but the downside is that they were used completely without permission and it cannot be officially sold as a result.
There have been unofficial laserdiscs released, but aside from the few extremely rare copies printed, the only way to watch this film in any capacity is through online unofficial streaming sites like YouTube. The various stories and characters being referenced in the film can arguably be written off under legal protections afforded to homages, but no matter how you look at it, the entire soundtrack was stolen. This is why it was so hard for me to justify adding Daicon IV to this list, but despite the fact that it represents a moral low point for the medium, it’s all in service of what are probably the greatest isolated 7 ½ minutes of anime on the planet and it deserves to be recognized for that.
Daicon IV stole from some of the greatest musical artists in history but its qualities make me love it all the same. And I suppose in a somewhat roundabout way, that’s some of the best praise I can give anything.
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: April 1998 – September 1998
Almost every action anime from the classic to modern eras has had some moral message it follows rigidly, often being learned and/or taught to others by the main character who believes in this message unflinchingly. Kenshiro believed in an honest living, Goku believed in pushing oneself beyond their limits, Naruto believed in his peers, Luffy believes in the importance of personal ambitions and the list goes on. Trigun also has a strong moral theme, but it explores it in an entirely different way than its contemporaries. Not to show off, but simply because it’s the only way you could reasonably discuss this message in an action show. You see, what Trigun’s main character Vash the Stampede believes in is peace.
To be fair, peace is something every action hero strives for in some capacity since trying to resolve a conflict is almost always their modus operandi, but Vash is one of the few who focuses on finding a pacifistic resolution to these conflicts. But Trigun doesn’t just let Vash get away scot-free because of his moral fiber, it delves deep into the consequences an absolute rejection of killing will bring. Although both the story and the hero are initially presented to us as a lovable bundle of goofiness, it becomes increasingly clear as the story progresses that this is only a veil for much darker things. The more we learn about Vash, the more we see just how much he and others have to pay for his pacifism.
Throughout the first chunk of Trigun you see Vash carrying this frighteningly large revolver around, but he always avoids shooting it (that could kill someone, after all) until he finally finds himself backed into a corner and is forced to draw his weapon and while he still manages to avoid ending his attacker’s life, it’s clear that the show is beginning to truly test Vash’s faith in pacifism. And test it does, as increasingly powerful opponents begin hunting Vash down and we learn more of his past, all while he narrowly escapes the brink of death again and again and even fails to save the innocent people he tries to protect because of his morality.
Throughout all its beautiful action, Trigun is always asking if pacifism is the right path and it does so with endearing characters, memorable scenarios and one of the best-looking examples of the classic manga and anime art style and that’s why it stands out amongst all its peers. Well, all but 3 of them.
Trigun - Official AnimeLab Trailer
3. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
- Episodes: Movie
- Aired: March 2004
The beauty of the Ghost in the Shell franchise is that every installment shares the same elements, but each plays up a different one, leaving every fan with one entry that appeals to them over all the others. Those who like meticulously detailed technical explorations of potential future technology will prefer the manga, those who like introspective character explorations will prefer the 1995 movie, those who like dramatic police procedurals will prefer the Stand Alone Complex television series and those who like fast-paced, over-the-top action will prefer the Arise OVAs. But I'm someone who looks for provocative thematic explorations through story and visuals alike and that's why Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is my favorite of the franchise.
Innocence is not only a great anime film but a film that will completely change what you think about anime. Using its gorgeous visuals, captivating sound design and intoxicating cinematography, it sets out to question common concepts about the world we live in universally accepted as truth, while outright disproving concepts about anime we as fans accept as similarly ubiquitous. Common otaku platitudes like “CGI never blends well in anime”, “smart anime don’t have cool action scenes” and “sequels are never as good as the original” and shoots them down in every scene. Innocence takes the ideas of transhuman existentialism the other entries had commented on and commits to a thorough exploration of them while being broad enough not to make any claim of what the correct answers are, only showing as many angles of the question as possible and letting the viewer decide what to think for themselves. It's my favorite part of one of my favorite franchises and deserves recognition for it.
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence Trailer
2. Little Witch Academia
- Episodes: 25
- Aired: Jan 2017- Jun 2017
So many anime encourage viewers to follow their dreams that it often feels insincere now. And with how these shows are almost exclusively led by committees and sponsors rather than creative visions, it's not hard to see why. Thankfully, we have Studio Trigger, which has been funding more creative auteur pieces than any other company and few will know that better than Yoh Yoshinari and his chef-d'oeuvre, Little Witch Academia.
Little Witch Academia is a show about a young witch who uses hard work to chase her dreams in spite of a complete lack of natural aptitude, but the story behind its creation, is that of a dedicated animator who proved himself to studio founder Hiroyuki Imaishi after years of working with him on his most successful creations like Gurren Lagann and Kill La Kill. Imaishi then gave Yoshinari the green light to make his dream anime into a reality and because of this, the love and care Yoshinari was able to put into his show without the compromises for the sake of marketability forced on other productions are apparent.
Every character has a striking enough design to be the star of their own show and the animation overflows with energy and attention to detail, all set against beautiful pastel colored backgrounds whilst the writing combines meaningful characterization with expertly timed humor. Whether it’s trying to be action, slice of life, comedy, or a complex character study, the show always feels like it’s doing whatever it’s doing out of love for the characters and scenarios on screen and Trigger thankfully has the know-how to make it all work.
Little Witch Academia Trailer:
1. Cowboy Bebop
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: Apr 1998 – April 1999
Yeah, I know, you all saw this coming. I did say I didn’t claim to bring much new to this discussion, didn’t I? You might think that this is the part where I try to justify predictably putting Cowboy Bebop at the top of my list by saying that there’s a reason that everyone calls it the best anime, but that’s not what I aim to do, because there are a practically endless number of reasons for this. My favorite things about the show are the same as yours probably are. From the characters, the stories, the world, the visuals, the soundtrack, the dialogue to even the impossibly good English dub, Cowboy Bebop exhibits nothing less than mastery in each aspect of its production.
We would be here all day if I tried to list all of this show’s qualities and other people have already analyzed them better than I ever could anyway, but what I love about this anime is not just that every aspect is enriching, but that each fits together so well. Every time I watch it, I always discover something new about it, like how you can follow the inner workings of the many futuristic machines often found in the background if you pay close attention, or how the character Faye drops an extremely subtle nod to the show’s thematic color coding at the end of episode 13, Jupiter Jazz Part II.
I’ve yet to find more than a few different pieces in any artistic medium I can honestly say these sorts of things about, but thanks to this anime I don’t intend to ever stop looking. But until that time comes, here’s to Cowboy Bebop for showing me and so many other fans what a true magnum opus is.
Cowboy Bebop Official Trailer:
It looks like this is the end of the list, but not the end of our time with anime. I’m sure there will be many more show and films vying for a spot on this list and hopefully, I'll have a brand new set of favorites in a few years. Until then, stay posted to Honey's Anime for more.