Asking certain rooms of people what the best anime is could start a fight. This is a question that tends to elicit very strong emotions, as anime generates strong emotional connections. I already said, for example, what I think is the best anime episode. But comparing a series that has been running for twenty-five years to a series built only to have twelve episodes is a bit like comparing apples to a walrus. Is it even possible to break down the best anime of each decade?
Dear reader, I tried. When the decade in question was difficult to circumscribe (thus, all of them), I found that the criteria on which I relied the most were legacy. Was there a certain beloved series from each decade that left an indelible mark on the genre and/or its reception, without which the world of anime wouldn’t be the same? The answer, for each decade, was generally “yes”.
1960s: Tetsuwan Atom, aka Astro Boy (1963)
Atom Tetsuwan was the first-ever Japanese cartoon made specifically for a half-hour block on television. While there were smaller three-minute series, Japanese TV had previously filled its half-hour cartoon blocks with imports like The Flintstones. As such, Atom Tetsuwan — better known to Western audiences as Astro Boy – became the first “real” anime. The series was so popular that it went overseas, establishing a market for anime in the West. Even rooted a bunch of still-used anime tropes like big eyes and fancy hair are rooted in Atom Tetsuwan. It’s quite important in the history of the anime.
Honorable mentions: Kimba the White Lion, Speed Racer
1970s: Ashita no Joe, aka Tomorrow’s Joe (1970)
One of the first sports anime, Ashita no Joe was an institution in 1970s Japan, and its influence is still felt. The show’s animation also looks amazing, and its scoring rules. Watching clips of Ashita no Joe, it’s hard to believe the show was released in 1970. You can draw a straight line of Joe getting punched in the ring, blood spitting from his mouth, dark lines at galore, to Eren Jaeger giving gloomy looks forty years later.
Honorable mentions: Lupine III, Mobile Suit Gundam, Future Boy Conan, The Rose of Versailles, Heidi Daughter of the Alps
1980s: Dragon Ball / Dragon Ball Z
I like A play. But even I know there wouldn’t be A play – neither narutoneither Bleach – without dragonball. dragonball is the grandfather of modern shounen, and anyone who loves the Big Three or any of the series deluges inspired by them owes him a debt of gratitude. did i see dragonball? No. But I owe him a debt of gratitude.
The 1980s were known as the “golden age” of anime. We’re only talking TV series here, but nowhere has this been seen better than in animated films. Studio Ghibli was formed in the 80s. Akira, ghost in the shelland an influx of classic Ghibli films – including My Neighbor Totoro – all came out in the 80s.
Honorable mentions: Saint Seya: Knights of the Zodiac, Ranma 1/2, Captain Tsubasa
1990s: Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995)
One of Hayao Miyazaki’s top animators quit to start his own studio, got horribly depressed, and gave the world Neon Genesis Evangelion. This series and its quirky, bizarre original ending is one of my favorite things that exist. evangelization parades like it’s a mech anime, but at its core, it’s one of the most impactful investigations into depression in television history. Plus, anything that can balance biting action scenes with two teenage girls giving each other the quiet treatment in an elevator is a real work of art. evangelization is so good that while it’s very weird in many ways, it’s still ridiculously popular, especially in Japan. Get ready for evangelization Pachinko and similar machines. And the THEME SONG! Get in the robot, Shinji, m’boy.
Honorable mentions: Cowboy Bebop, Serial Experiments Lain, mf’in Pokemonand of course – A play
2000s: Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood (2009)
remember when i said Neon Genesis Evangelion was one of my favorite things that exist? Good, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood also falls into this camp. Last time I checked, the popular opinion was still that this is about as close to a perfect anime as you’re going to get. fraternity follows Hiromu Arakawa’s manga much closer than the previous one and very bizarre Fullmetal Alchemist series. That means it nails the overall character dynamic and heartbreaking story about – sniff – the friendship between hardships that makes Full Metal such a triumph.
The characters are really what makes Full Metal shine so bright. Edward Elric is a treasure of a protagonist. But the supporting cast – like Izumi Curtis shouting “I AM A HOUSEWIFE!!!” before kicking ass – is just as strong. Also also, Full Metal was written by a woman, so bonus points! Whoo Hoo!
Honorable mentions: FLCL, Death Note, Code Geass, Mononoke, Bakemonogatari, Mushishi, Samurai Champloo
2010s: Attack on Titan (2013)
Listen. The 2010s are impossible to top off, as they could be seen in the second golden age of anime, which we are still currently living through. If I attributed it to personal taste, I’d probably crown The Tatami Galaxy here, though it’s sort of a Spiderman circle-scoring situation with every series I put in the honorable mentions.
But, in terms of raw cultural power internationally, you kind of have to give this one to The attack of the Titans. Try transporting yourself to 2014 for a second. The attack of the Titans was a fucking phenomenon. You could make a very persuasive argument that the series that catapulted the modern wave of anime popularity in the US and elsewhere and propelled anime into the age of streaming is, indeed, The attack of the Titans. As The polygon indicatesremains one of the most popular TV shows overall world.
Also, when I started looking The attack of the Titans, the effect of its incredibly strong and refreshing cast of female characters cannot be overstated. I was Mikasa for Halloween that year, because it was so rare — especially back then — to see (arguably) the biggest badass in a show being a woman. And the one who is not sexualized, in addition. For his various controversies in his politics, The attack of the Titans always continued this thread with Gabi, who is one of the most interesting characters of the 2020s so far.
Yes, demon slayer is the most popular anime ever, I know. But I would argue The attack of the Titans helped pave the way for this popularity. Also…uh…I think that’s overrated please don’t kill me.
Honorable mentions: Puella Magi Madoka Magika, Mob Psycho 100, Steins; Gate, the Tatami Galaxy, Yuuri! On the ice, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu… And so that the crowd does not pursue me, Hunter X Hunter and my hero academia and demon slayer
2020s (so far): Spy x Family
Listen. LISTEN. I was all ready to give Jujutsu Kaisen this place. The first block of Spy x Family the episodes aren’t even over yet. He feels presumptuous as hell to give him first place. And yet… After each episode of this delicious show, I say aloud: “Damn, I love this show. The characters worked their way into my heart in such a way that I laugh audibly at some point in every episode. The series is a masterclass in setting up stereotypes and then breaking them down, thwarting your expectations. More importantly, though the main characters trick each other and are forced to live in a harsh Cold War-like world, they and the show are warm and kind. Even if one of them is an assassin. How is it possible? It’s a miracle.
Honorable mentions: Jujutsu Kaisen, Hands Off Eizoken!, Odd Taxi, King Ranking
Image credit: Studio Gainax
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