Every Anime I Ever Watched03 Jun 2017
I haven't watched very many anime. I am a late bloomer to the whole genra, which I long dismissed as goofy.
This was misguided: there is a real diversity of styles and stories in anime. Many (if not most) of them do beyond the fairly rigid lines inside which most western TV shows are confined. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it is the willingness to fully explore a direction or incorporate unusual elements that often yields brillance. Animation is also a medium that yields a lot of creative possibilities on a much tighter budget than film. It's actually a shame that this medium is treated seriously only in Japan, while here it struggles to come out of the "for kids" box. If, like I did, you have an unexamined bias against anime, consider giving them a shot nonetheless.
This is a pity, as most shows on this list date from my high school (2002-2008) or even university (2008-2013) years. I, however, was totally unaware that anime was reaching some new (ongoing) golden era. In retrospect, I identified anime with things like Dragon Ball, Naruto and Bleach; all of which are long-running shonen (boy manga) adaptations. This probably explains why I identified anime as goofy and full of fillers (although shonen does not imply those things).
That being said, here is a list of all (15) animes I ever watched, with my appreciation of them. Don't expect dazzling insights here. Some of them I watched quite a while ago, and the impressions that remain are sometimes hazy. I think that's interesting though: what impressions remains when the rest is gone. When other people have interesting things to say about the show, I'll point to them as well.
The anime appear in chronological order of me watching them (as far as I can remember).
Sword Art Online
I got inspired to watch Sword Art Online because I liked its MMORPG theme. I had a bit of a love story with early World of Warcraft, followed by a subsequent disillusion about MMORPGs, which I think is a genre that is exploited well beyond its enormous potential.
As it turns out, MMORPG-themed anime are an emerging genra known as isekai. I didn't know that as I set out to watch SAO though, and was mostly drawn in by how gorgeous and ambitious the MMO featured in the show seemed.
This show became really popular, and attracted a lot of criticism as the show's popularity was perceived to be completely disproportionate to its quality.
For a comprehensive summary of the criticism against this anime, check out Sword Art Online - An Analytical Diatribe by anime commentator Digibro. I will simply say that while I agree with most of what he has to say, I enjoyed the show nonetheless. A bit like Doctor Who, this show works best when you don't question its premises too hard. The show works well with simple emotions and many sections manage to be touching.
I would have to rewatch the show to be able to articulate why I liked it so much. I think the first half of the first season is the strongest part of the show, while its second part is the weakest. The second season is more equal, packing great action in its first part and some emotional punch in the second.
With a show so polarizing, the best thing you can do is give it a try. No need to be particularly patient: if you don't enjoy the first few episode, the show is not cut out for you.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
Evangelion, or Eva for short, is one of the most iconic anime out there. It's a mecha anime, with a heavily cabbalistic motif, and psychological themes. Dating from 1995, it's also the oldest anime series on this list, a cult classic.
The aesthetics of the show are wonderful, and it's easy to see how it was such an influence (something which I was told rather than noticed myself).
My big problem with this show is it's main protagonist, Shinji. Shinji has troubles you see. Shinji is sad and just does not want to fight in the robot. Of course, that's supposed to be one of the big theme of the series, but after a while it just isn't enjoyable anymore and if you're like me, you'll find yourself singing Shinji get in the robot (also see the hilarious Yo! version). If you can get past Shinji, the show is well worth a watch though. I definitely don't regret watching it.
Edit 10 June: Youtuber Aleczandxr has put a video that, while called Why I Don't Like Neon Genesis Evangelion, actually does a very good job at explaining how alienation is treated very stongly in Evangelion.
Second sidebar: for some reason, anime showmaker seem to have a fascination with mystical, and often cabbalistic motifs. Considering only this list, these motifs can be found in Eva, Attack on Titan, Fullmetal Alchemist and Code Geass.
I enjoyed Evangelion very much. So much in fact that I went looking for a show like it, and that's how, in some roundabout way I ended up with Guilty Crown. Unbeknownst to me, Guilty Crown is actually much closer to Code Geass (see later) than Evangelion.
The series start off on a strong premise, but its second half is a bit too much for me. And it suffers from the same flaw as Code Geass: plot developments are kind of ex machinima, and the series finds itself trapped inside the exponential development of its own "logic", threatening the suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy shows like this.
It's incredibly well animated however (it's from the same director as Death Note and Attack on Titan), and if you think that Code Geass is the best thing since sliced bread, you ought to watch this one as well.
The video How to direct mainstream anime by Digibro does a really good job of describing the appeal of the show, more eloquently than I could.
Fullmetal Alchemist & Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
The story of the brothers Alphonse and Edward Elric is great. So great, in fact, that it warranted not one, but two anime adaptations. One in 2003 and one in 2009.
Both are very good, but it is widely recognized that the Brotherhood (2009) version is the superior one by a very wide margin. Both shows are nearly identical for the first ten episodes, then diverge wildly.
The basic pitch is that young Alphonse and Edward live with their mother, their father having left for god-knows-where. Both kids show a rare aptitude for Alchemy (essentially transformative magic). When their mother dies, the grief pushes them to try something forbidden and bring their mother back to life. This doesn't work and backfires badly besides, as Alphonse loses his body (but not his soul, which Edward manages to bind to a big-ass suit of armor in extremis), and Edward loses an arm and a leg (to be replaced with bionic implements). Our heroes then embark on a quest to get their bodies back and uncover dark secrets in the process.
Both shows are very accessible: they fit our idea of what a cartoon depicting a heroic story should be. The story is great, the world-building frankly amazing (especially in Brotherhood), and the shows features a strong cast of secondary characters. Nevertheless, it is an anime, and it does feature some of the genre's quirks. The thoughts of many characters are very much on display. This focus on "self-talk" is commonplace in anime, but rare in western flits. The villains are also slightly disturbing, another thing that anime tends to do well.
Fullmetal Alchemist is perhaps the perfect gateway drug into anime, and even if you don't end up being an anime guy or gal, you might just end up liking this one. Brotherhood is currently the second-best rated anime on MyAnimeList.net, and that makes it as close to an anime plebiscite as you'll ever get.
While Brotherhood is the superior version, I suggest you start with the 2003 version if you intend to watch both like I did. Both are good, but I'm afraid the 2003 version will be a letdown after watching Brotherhood.
Like Sword Art Online, Log Horizon is about people getting trapped inside a MMO, but that's about where the similarity ends. Log Horizon is less concerned about the animation and drama, but more about building a fully-fleshed coherent worlds, where the protagonists have to contend with this new universe as they progressively uncovers its rules.
The cast is a strong reason to like the show, it's just eminently lovable. The main guy — Shiroe — is this bespectacled sly schemer, but with a heart of gold, and otherwise a perfectly sensible guy. His companions each bring something of their own, and it's a pleasure to see them work together.
The world is really well-done, and the mysteries are intertwined with the game mechanics (which will look familiar to anyone who ever played an MMO). The heroes attempt to discover how (and why) this world works, even while they have to deal the threats it throws at them.
The only bad thing about Log Horizon is that it is unfinished. But apparently work on the source material (a light novel) is still ongoing, even though it's barely ahead of the anime at this point. So there is hope.
Attack on Titan
It's hard to do justice to Attack on Titan with words alone, because this show is all about its over the top animation and its epic-sized story. The combat choreography is really impressive. Just watch this trailer.
The story takes place in a world where titans - almost indestructible monstruous giant humanoids roam free. To protect itself, what remains of humanity has erected three giant concentric walls behind which they found safety. Things are peaceful, until a giant titan appears and breaches the outer wall.
Whatever it is — and it is many things — Attack on Titan is never boring. I suggest you give it a shot.
The aforementionned video How to direct mainstream anime also touches on the greatness of this show.
As a side note, something that figures very prominently in Attack on Titan is the space given to the characters' thoughts. This is a somewhat common anime trait. Some long minutes are spend within some characters' inner monologue, and, somewhat amazingly, it (mostly) works.
Kanon is something very different from everything so far. It's a "cute anime". It was adapted from a successful visual novel (an interactive conversation-based video game).
It follows protagonist Yuichi Aizawa as he moves in with his aunt and cousin, which live in another town and starts classes in a new school. The story revolves around Yuichi's encounters with a few girls and how he gets to know them and help them overcome their problems.
It's very well done. It's very innocent, mostly light but with some depth thrown in at the right places. There is a sort of poesy to it. This is not the kind of show that you want to binge watch. It requires a bit of a contemplative mindset.
As for me, I liked it. But it's the kind of show I wouldn't necessarily seek out, and I probably want to space them out healthily, lest they become a bore or lose their magic.
Code Geass is one of the most popular anime shows in the last decade. It follows the story of Lelouch, secretly the son of Brittania's emperor, who went into hiding after his mother was assassinated by a rival faction and Brittania invaded Japan.
Lelouch hates Brittania — and his father — with a passion, and has woved to avenge his mother. His dreams become possible as he acquires a very special power. So, using his superior intellect and enlisting the help of the Japanese rebellion, he sets to work.
The anime is good, but I have some reservations about it. Plot developments feel very ex machina. For a show that puts forward the intellectual and planning capability of his main protagonist, this is a bit jarring. This is a sharp contrast with Log Horizon, where Shiroe's ability is extremely believable.
The way Lelouch and Suzaku (his frenemy) reason is also really baffling at times. This holds true even when they make emotional or value-based decisions. This is relatively common in anime (and maybe a certain culture gap is to blame), but reaches impressive heights in Code Geass.
I tend to like the first season more than the second, which is apparently not the consensus. The second season escalates the stakes a lot. Accordingly, characters evolve and turn somewhat parodic as they try to juggle all these responsibilities. This seems interesting, but only magnifies the aforementionned flaws.
It's also interesting that I was much more positive while watching it. The first season went into a satisfying crescendo, although I object strongly to a big ex-machina at the end. The second season was less brilliant, but what really disappointed me in retrospect was the resolution. There are a few mysteries teased out during the show, and they aren't really resolved to my satisfaction. Some aren't resolved, while other are but don't impact the story. In particular, a very big mystery is unceremonioulsy expedited in one or two episodes, and happens to have very little bearing on the plot whatsoever, while on the outset it feels like this could underpin the whole thing.
Don't get me wrong, Code Geass is well worth watching. Nevertheless, if I had to pick the most overhyped one in this list, it would be this one.
While we're on the topic of overhyped, welcome Cowboy Bebop.
My impression of Cowboy Bebop is that it's an impressive anime — one with mature themes and a real reflection — which happens to be buried in a heap of goofy filler.
Cowboy Bebop is overhyped not because it's bad, but because it is held in an almost cult-like following by some people. Nevertheless, my critique (about fillers) is probably the one most frequently leveraged against the show.
The premise is rather simple, and I'll quote wikipedia here:
The original crew are Spike Spiegel, an exiled former hitman of the criminal Red Dragon Syndicate, and his partner Jet Black, a former ISSP officer. They are later joined by Faye Valentine, an amnesiac con artist; Edward Wong, an eccentric girl skilled in hacking; and Ein, a genetically-engineered Pembroke Welsh Corgi with human-like intelligence. Over the course of the series, the team get involved in disastrous mishaps leaving them out of pocket, while often confronting faces and events from their past.
The problem with the crew's misfortunes is that they are all really silly and sort-of slapstick, while the shows' aestehtic is more Noir/Western. This was a bit of a mood spoiler for me, in a show that is all about mood (featuring by the way, really great music).
Still, if you manage to power through the initial filler (I almost didn't), I don't think you'll regret watching Cowboy Bebop.
If you need convincing, listen to this elegy of the show by Digibro. I think Cowboy Bebop deserves that praise, but it's hard to see at first, especially if you're not looking at the right place like I was.
In the end, Cowboy Bebop leaves me with a bittersweet taste, and not only because it tells a bittersweet story. It could have been so much better with a few adjustment. I feel like there's a better, leaner story trying to get out.
Let's just say that if I won the lottery, a fan cut of Cowboy Bebbop would probably be a worthwhile project to saddle myself with.
I watched Konosuba! after hearing Digibro praise it so much (see for instance this video).
The basic premise is that this is a parody of the isekai "trapped in a MMO" genre (things like Sword Art Online and Log Horizon).
Unlike Digibro, I wouldn't call the show hilarious, but it's strangely endearing and it almost always brought a smile to my face.
I know I complained a lot about goofiness before, but this is goofiness done right, and for its own sake. Despite that, the story-telling and world-building are strong, and we're not just fed a series of clip, but rather an adventure in a universe that feels alive. Like Digibro alluded to, the story builds upon its own gags as a way to move the plot forward, and that's a big part of the appeal.
Highly recommended if you're looking for something light.
Yuri!! on Ice
An anime about gay figure skaters. Doesn't that sound awesome?
Well it is. I watched this one with my girlfriend, who's totally a fan, and we had a blast. It's a nice story, sentimal at times, but in a way that works.
A few notables things about the show (some of which are, again, inspired by Digibro's commentary):
It's rare for a show to feature a main character this age and position. Yuri is 24 and he's an ice skater nearing the end of his carreer. He doesn't have to prove himself, but rather he wants to go out in style, and that's an interesting change. While he's obviously great at figure skating, he's also not a "genius" the way some other characters are. He spent a huge amount of time practicing (and sacrificing some of his youth in the process). That's a nice difference from most anime heroes who seemingly get all their skills for free.
The first half of the season is better than the second half, which focuses a bit too much on the skating competitions. However at this point you're likely to be fully on board so you shouldn't feel the pain too much.
The show is very realistic. The skating is realistic, maybe too much so as you sometimes can't tell who is doing well and who isn't. The characters are colorful, but authentic. The show features social media heavily (mostly Instagram and online streaming) in a way that is familiar, clever and relevant to the story. This contributes to firmly anchor the show in our modern world.
Serial Experiments Lain
I have little to say about this one as I stopped watching right after the first episode. Serial Experiments Lain is widely considered to be a masterpiece, but I really didn't dig the mood.
From what I knew beforehand and the first episode, I would say that alienation and, more broadly, psychology of the less happy kind are pre-eminent themes of this show. This is amplified by an oppressive art direction.
Evangelion was almost too much for me, and it has awesome colorful robot fights. So I didn't pursue. Maybe I'll revisit some day.
But then again, many people think it's the best thing since sliced bread, so do get other opinions.
Gurren Lagann is awesome, as per the dated definition: "Causing awe or terror; inspiring wonder or excitement."
In a brief I wrote about it, here's what I had to say:
The anime is completely over-the-top, but somehow it all works out beautiful. It's an ode to fighting spirit, and the force of will. It's pure motivation cranked out to 10. I know it will stay with me a long time.
But it's actually more subtle than that. Yes it's over-the-top, but the rules that preside over the world are so loose that the story does not seem disjointed or driven by ex machinas. The logic driving the show has its own consistency; and despite how miraculous things turn out, one never feels betrayed.
Second, the show has a surprising amount of maturity to it, albeit this maturity is hidden beneath the surface. This is mostly manifested in the character's reaction to some pretty shaking events; and how, ultimately, they react to them in a way that is, for lack of a better word, healthy.
There is a very good analysis of these aspect of the show by Aleczandxr, but it completely spoils the plot: Gurren Lagann's Underappreciated Maturity.
This is one of my two favorite anime of the list (along with Log Horizon), and so of course it comes highly recommended.
PS: Epic Music
Black Lagoon tells the story of a former Japanese salaryman that integrates a small crew of mercenaries. It was recommended to me by a few friends who said it was their favorite anime.
What this show gets right is the mood: this is what I expected Cowboy Bebop to feel like (adjusted for context). Some charcters also undergo interesting character development, especially towards the beginning of the season.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing with this anime is that it doesn't have a proper ending. Very much like Log Horizon, it is based on a manga series that is ongoing (albeit very slowly). The ending we got may qualify as a pseudo-ending but it was definitely below the expectations set by the beginning of the show.
A solid anime, well worth a watch.