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Memorable: The 20 Best Anime of the Aughts

February 5, 2010

The decade has already past and we still can't agree on what to call it. It's not even clear what the contestants are: I've heard everything from the Ohs, to the Aughts, to the Lost Decade, to (and I cringe when I hear this) the Naughties. We better decide fast. This may be a mouthful, but here's my suggestion: the best decade for anime and possibly even animation, period.

Actually, that's only half true. As any student of history or chronicler of culture knows that decades are a terrible way to divide time. When people talk about the Sixties, for example, they're generally talking about a cultural milestone that lasted from 1962 to 1973. Anime has a similar predicament- as far as I can tell, the cultural moments in anime could be divided into two parts. The first half was a carryover from the successes of the nineties, and was a blossoming period where a lot of money flowed into anime, and out came an explosion of creativity and variety. Can you imagine any other time when works like Now and Then, Here and There and Haibane Renmei would be funded? Sure there was a lot of junk, but such is the nature of a bubble. We also saw a burst of fandom in the United States, and more importantly, the infrastructure for the American enthusiast press was laid down. It'll be interesting to see what happens next as the fan media and the anime academia continue to establish a presence, and whether they will be able to wield more influence in the next ten years. I may be biased, but I really hope so.

We've also seen a resurgence of interest in animation in general, and the quality of animated movies has been getting better and better in the theaters and television, from the movies of Pixar to adult dramas like Persepolis and Waltz with Balshir. For the first time, American fans are fully equipped to make an air-tight case for animation as adult entertainment that any pop culturally aware person can accept- assuming they're one of the few who haven't already.

The bursting of the bubble here and abroad has created some effects we're still living with today. The quality of anime is unquestionably down, though perhaps we've hit the bottom. More and more anime is being targeted at the safest group of consumers, the otaku, with series calculated to hit all their right buttons while spending as little money as possible. There are signs of hope for more variety in the near future, with FUNimation promising to fund more anime in the near future that they think will interest Americans, and projects like the Spirit of Anime making sure original works that showcase anime's strengths get on the air. But people who became fans because of series from the eighties, nineties and early 2000's are growing increasingly disillusioned, and if the chatter on the Internet is any indication, their numbers are growing and reaching even the newest fans. I can only hope we've hit the bottom here, since the most recent season has been a disheartening wasteland of mediocrity.

One final note: Compiling this list reinforced the idea that this was the best decade yet not only because of what I picked, but what I left off. There's a long list of honorable mentions that belong here, and even more encouraging, a longer list of anime that might belong on this list, but I simply haven't seen yet. Maybe in a few more years, I can write something more definitive, but for now, there's....

20. Aoi Hana (2009)
There has been a small surge of yuri anime recently, with the success of Sasemeki Koto, Maria-sama ga Miteru and similar titles. Yuri has been an element in anime for a long time, usually as tantalizing fanservice, but the last few years have seen manga and anime series that are willing to explore the full spectrum of relationships, from devout friendships to intimate lovers. Aoi Hana best captures the range of that spectrum with sensitivity and honesty. The characters and situations are recognizable, an invaluable trait in a hobby overloaded with an escapist mentality. Studio JC Staff also turns in some quality work, with beautiful watercolor backgrounds and a gentle score. But perhaps why I love it the most is because it's a timely anime- a quiet rebuke to those who try to relegate gay love as something less than its heterosexual counterpart, either out of bigotry or blind devotion to their god.

19. Samurai Champloo (2004)
To twist an old phrase around, it's the destination and the journey. Shinichiro Watanabe's sophomore project was obviously destined to be more than your run-of-the-mill "road trip" anime, but even then it still went places no one expected. And while its outcast friendly story and hip-hop swaggering makes it anime for the Western masses, it also carries a sharp message against the collective mentality of the Japanese. The characters are as memorable as they come; Mugen, Jinn and Fuu are effortlessly brought to life with a script that adeptly combines humor and heart, something it seems everyone attempts to do but few successfully pull off. Add top shelf animation by studio manglobe, a classic dub treatment and a sharp hip-hop score, and you have a durable title that will remain as popular and accessible as the pop culture it pays homage to.

18. Dennou Coil (2007)
We need Mitsuo Iso to helm more projects. The veteran animator has drawn some of the most impressive sequences in anime, and under his creative direction, he made one of the most eye-catching series of the decade. Many anime will try to ape the spirit of Ghibli, but Dennou Coil captures it effortlessly, since it seems to understand childhood and the mentality of children better than your favorite uncle. There's a lot of anime out there about children, and most of them come across as squealing stereotypes, overly precocious, or worse, so it's a relief to see an anime featuring children that recognizably act like children. It helps makes its theme of friendship, an old hat morality if there ever was one, seem genuine.

17. Baccano! (2007)
There seems to be common thread in my list so far where I favor series that have some sort relevance to or somehow mirror the "real world." Baccano! is the clear exception to that- it's pure, undiluted and unashamed escapism. So is most of anime, but Baccano! is probably the only series to pull it off with so much flair and style, from the crazed violence to its large cast of memorable characters. As I wrote in my review, it tells a story so large and so ambitious that the narrative shuffling of events like a deck of cards almost makes a certain kind of sense. But most appreciatively, it achieves something few things have- it takes full advantage of the medium to tell a story in a way only anime could, and only in a way a television series could do it. Now how many titles this decade could say that?

16. Genshiken (2004)
Obsession is something we all understand, but Genshiken is the most understanding. Fans who criticize it for being unrealistic can be forgiven- watching a series that's essentially about a bunch of losers who couldn't socially function their way around a Pictionary party shouldn't be this fun, or feel this good. But it does, and that's okay. In fact, it's more than "okay"- it's what easily makes this the best meta-series of the decade. Not only do we see our friends in its characters, but also see a lot of ourselves in each of them. As the fandom grows increasingly contentious amongst ourselves, Genshiken is a kind of haven of understanding, showing us a utopia where even our most awkward passions are "all good, man."

15. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: The Second Gig (2004)
The first season had to be a hard act to follow-up, but the gang at Production IG made making the follow-up to one of the biggest series in recent memory seem effortless. The philosophy that guided its success is pretty standard for sequels- more like the first time around, only bigger and better. But what set the second season apart from an already excellent first season and follow-up movie was that it was a series with sharp political teeth. It showed an intimate understanding of terrorism and what it means to make war with an ideology, something that would take the American military two more years to understand. But besides that, it takes the characters from the first season and fleshes them out further, making a cast that was already likeable more sympathetic and relatable. I liked the characters in Stand Alone Complex, but by the second season, I loved them.

14. Mushishi (2005)
Some series with no overarching plot are able to succeed with a charming cast and a good sense of humor. Mushishi has character, but most of all, it has a fascinating premise and lots of atmosphere. Most fictional creatures are grounded in a similar fantasy mythos, but the titular Mushi are fantastic creatures for an age of science, looking and acting like something we'd normally only be able to see in a microscope. With a serene Eastern philosophy and beautiful landscapes, it's easily the most distinct series from the last ten years.

13. FLCL (2000)
This OVA series is like an alien monolith- a profound achievement of a mind mere humans cannot understand and probably shouldn't try to without the aid of some serious mind-altering substances. It's a strange stew of tongue-in-cheek parodies, humor and oddness, with single episodes that can stuff references from the last forty years of Japanese pop culture into a single episode, making it inscrutable to Westerners, but all the more fascinating because of that. But as weird as it is, what makes it work are the recognizable problems its teenaged hero, Takkun, struggles with episode to episode. I've probably said something like this one too many times in this list, but here it is for the final time- having something we can all relate to in some crazy anime goes a long way to catapult it from "good" to "great." FLCL is the perfect example of this.

12. Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (2007)
An unabashedly" giant robo" series that's also easily accessible, and loveable, to even the most casual anime fan. The first half of the series is fully invested in being as cool and emotionally involving as possible for every minute it has your attention, and when the laughs give way to tears, then to triumph, you know you're watching something great. And then the second half does the same thing, but on a much bigger and grander scale. So what is better than merely "great"? Gainax has set themselves a pattern over the last decade of making otaku-pandering anime (He Is My Master, Hanamaru Kindergarten) that disgusts one half of the fandom while delighting the other, then making series with a broader appeal (Gunbuster 2, Shikabane Hime). And while it's nice to see that the studio is refusing to settle into any one niche, this series makes it clear that they do their best work when they tap into their oldest passion.

11. Monster (2004)
Naoki Urasawa is not only one of the best manga authors in Japan, he's also firmly established himself as one of the great graphic novelists, period. Monster is considered to be one of his best works, so when Madhouse adapted it for television, they handled it in probably the best way: by changing nothing. All the credit for this superb thriller goes to Urasawa, which makes me reluctant to add it to the best of the decade list. The animation is straightforward, with few frills, making it one of those series that if you've seen it, there's little point in reading the manga as well. But there's also no denying the sheer power of this anime: it's a suspenseful, twisty little tale masterfully told, and it also has the benefit of a good score and fine production values. In the end, there's no denying its power- I can't remember the last time watching 74 episodes went by so fast.

10. Nana (2006)
Some series can't wait to punch you in the tear duct, so speak, and use some shamelessly maudlin crap to do it. And then there's Nana, which is deeply affecting while still staying absolutely believable from beginning to end. The basic story might be summed up as "it's about the special friendship of two girls who have just moved to Tokyo and have the same name," but a better description might be "imagine moving to the big city in your early twenties, then just when you thought things were looking up, watching your life fall apart piece by piece." Shojou anime has had a long tradition of making the lives of its heroines a living hell, but this series makes it harder to watch because it feels like you're watching the story of someone you know.

9. Animation Runner Kuromi (2001)
Look: everything you ever needed to know about the Japanese animation industry, you'll learn from this two part OVA. After all, as the director is rumored to have said, 90% of it is based on fact. The other ten percent, presumably, is that animators don't become chibis when they're panicked about making the next deadline. And even if it wasn't an enlightening animated almost-documentary, it still rises to the top with its enduring humor and awesome opening ska theme. And it does all that in under three hours.

8. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)
Most of the notable directors from this decade are carryovers from the last one, but Mamoru Hosada is a notable exception. The movie was a gamble for Madhouse that ended up paying off very well, since it was such a smash hit in theaters that it went from a small run to a national one. And when the movie finally came over to the States, it's easy to see why. The characters could have stepped out of your local high school, and the simple gimmick of a girl who has the ability to time travel, then frivolously spends that ability on small things like eating pudding or creating the perfect welds perfectly with it. Either one of these would have made for a good movie- together it made for one of the best.

7. Nasu: Summer in Andalusia (2003)
Every other series I've named so far is more or less standard fare, and would appear on pretty much any other fan's list of the greats of the Aughts. But this is the exception, because I seem to be the only one championing this short movie from a veteran animation director for Ghibli and the folks at Madhouse. I'll admit that some of it might be a very personal attachment, but really, it's a dense forty minutes that has an exciting sports drama and a deeply personal family story wrapped up in one tightly plotted package. It resonates with me personally like few other things I've seen.

6. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (2006)
Can we just go on ahead and publicly admit that Haruhi Suzumiya has become this decade's Evangelion? There are plenty of parallels; for example, both series launched their respected studios to superstardom, both took risks with their storytelling while hedging their bets by pandering to fans. More examples would be its own three thousand word article, but here's one more: Haruhi has suffered a strong backlash, partly because it shot itself in the face with the Endless 8 arc, but also because there are only so many times any reasonable human being can stand seeing fanboys slobber over something before finally lashing out. So I understand that it's hard to see it as I did, before I became aware of the hype and the fandom: as a breath of fresh air, a compelling series that seemed to have more ideas than it knew what to do with, and in the titular character Haruhi, the most compelling lady to ever grace anime. And what made her that had little to do with what inspires the staggering amount of fan-made porn. It's because we not only understand how she thinks and why she does what she does without her or Kyon having to say anything, but at the same time, she is a complete mystery and continues to surprise us. I've never seen the like, and I'm never likely too again.

5. Spirited Away (2001)
I'll spare you my thoughts on this movie's politics, not only because they have been written about far too often, but also because it's a movie that wears its ideology on its sleeve, to twist a popular phrase. I've talked enough politics already. And why this movie is here hardly needs explaining either. So I'll just observe that it's the one thing on this list that everyone, even non-fans, can find it in them to love. It's a master's masterwork.

4. Fullmetal Alchemist (2003)
This was the series that took me from someone interested in anime into a diehard fan. The same goes for many other fans as well, thanks to repeated airings on adult swim. Nearly every aspect of this anime was well-executed, creating an epic with an ending that still gives me chills when I think about it. The series is so engrossing that when I saw it was a freshman in college, I would all track of time burning through episodes, missing a couple of classes without realizing it.

3. Now and Then, Here and There (2000)
There are a lot of anime out there decrying the inhumanity of war, and since it comes from a people who understand the terrors of nuclear apocalypse better than we ever could, we'd best listen. But few of them not only depicted the brutality with carefully constructed, beautiful "long shots," but then dug deep to find heroism at the bottom of a bleak pit of human misery. There are so many reasons why, on the face of it, this should have been another generic series about a boy who magically travels from Japan to a fantasy land that he must save from an evil tyrant. Instead, it's a brutal series that's both completely bleak and ruthlessly optimistic, and that's a potent combination.

2. . Paranoia Agent (2004)
I purposefully chose to only list one Ghibli movie, and one Kon movie, largely because I wanted the list to have more variety. Perhaps if I had more room, you would have seen me list everything director Kon has done in the last ten years somewhere in the top twenty, and he fully deserves it. But I only have room for one, so while movies like Paprika and Millennium Actress are all excellent, I picked his only television series for the simple fact that I enjoyed it the most. I'm inclined to love a series over a movie anyway, since when something is great, you spend a lot more time in it and become more attached it. This might also be Kon's most fleshed out work about reality and fantasy, Japan and modernity, perception and the mass media. He has a lot more time to work with here, and he used it judiciously.

1. Haibane Renmei (2002)
I don't rewatch much of anything, but I've seen this three different times, and each time it reveals a new layer to wonder at and ponder. Part of this is because it's a strange series set in a fantasy world that only explains what it has to, and leaves the rest to our imaginations. And it's a world that haunts me, with angel-like creatures who are born out of eggs with grey wings and given halos to wear. What this place is, who these angels are, who were they before they were "born"- these mysteries are never explained, and I'm happy that they never were, and likely never will be. One thing that is clear is that this series is a meditation on death, the kind of meditation that ponders and prods and examines, but never reaches any firm conclusions. That, too, would take away from the mystery. But as the excellent characters and story show, it intimately understands life as well, which makes losing it in future episodes all the more painful.

- Bradley Meek

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