(This article is part of our Best of the Decade series.)
The 2010s have seen an interesting change in the world of anime. Anime was once a very niche community with just a couple of shows becoming widely available every few years. But by 2019, anime has become as close to mainstream in the west as it ever has, with fans being able to watch new episodes right after they air in Japan, and seasonal anime bringing dozens of new shows every few months.
This last bit was instrumental in making this such a good decade for anime, yet a nightmare for anyone attempting to summarize the entire decade in a top 10 list. There is simply an embarrassment of riches, and with as wide a variety of anime shows and movies as there is a variety of anime fans, no two people will have the same list. Because of that, this list is alphabetical, because all of these entries have their own different merits.
A Place Further Than the Universe (2018)
Not only one of the most inspirational and uplifting anime shows of the decade, but one of the few shows to make it to the New York Times’ best shows of the year list. A Place Further Than The Universe is the story of Tamaki, a teenage girl who always dreamt of doing something extraordinary, but is too afraid to actually act on her dreams. That is, until she decides to set out on a journey to Antarctica with three other girls.
It’s a high-spirited, funny, and very emotional coming-of-age story that perfectly captures the youthful optimism and adolescent spirit, showing how friendship can help overcome anxiety and grief. The animation is stunning and the voice acting really makes you believe in the chemistry between these girls. More than anything, it’s an inspirational show that will make you want to finally get up and do something extraordinary.
A Place Further Than The Universe is streaming on Crunchyroll.
A Silent Voice (2017)
An already emotional and tragic story was made even more tragic with the arson attack on Kyoto Animation’s studio offices earlier this year. A Silent Voice is a beautifully crafted movie about bullying, which follows the story of a girl with impaired hearing who is mercilessly bullied in middle-school, and what happens after her former tormentor reaches out many years later to make amends.
This is an unflinching depiction of teenage cruelty, and it becomes hard to watch at times as A Silent Voice depicts the self-hatred and the cruelty of its main cast with brutal honesty. What makes this such a powerful film is the way it explores the psychological impact of bullying in both the bully and the victim. This is all aided by subtle yet detailed character animation that conveys all the emotions better than many live action dramas do.
A Silent Voice is streaming on Netflix.
Attack on Titan (2013)
When the first season of Attack on Titan premiered, it was probably the biggest thing in anime, even managing to cross over into mainstream audiences within a single season (it was also the inaugural article in our ongoing anime column). But with a very long break between the first two seasons, the show isn’t as big as it once was, even if it is still one of the best anime in recent years.
Attack on Titan tells a relatively simple story of a dystopian world where humanity is all but annihilated, forced to live hidden behind giant walls, fighting for survival as giant humanoid “Titans” devour them for absolutely no reason. But with time, the show has evolved into an exploration of fate, hopelessness and whether the cycle of violence can ever be broken. The world feels lived-in and full of rich detail, the animation is simply stunning, the score is full of bangers, and the story is meticulously crafted to the point where you can watch the show multiple times and still find little hints and teasers that pay off big time later in the series. With the show set to end with its next season, now it’s as good a time as any to revisit what may end up as the defining anime of this generation.
Attack on Titan is streaming on Hulu.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2010)
The story about a boy who loses a leg and an arm, and his brother who loses his entire freaking body, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has a very broad appeal. No matter your age, gender, favorite genre, or how familiar you are with anime, you will find something to enjoy here.
Fullmetal Alchemist has a gripping character-driven adventure, which follows two brothers trying to restore what they lost in an ungodly attempt to bring their dead mother back to life. It is a story of redemption, which also manages to be darkly comedic and emotional. It is also a complete story that adapts the entirety of the manga, so things do pay-off.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is streaming on Netflix.
Ping Pong the Animation (2014) / Haikyuu!! (2014)
Yes, I’m grouping the two best sports anime in one entry, sue me. While these shows are vastly different in their approach, they show how great sports anime can be. Ping Pong the Animation features some of the absolute best animation in a show, with misshapen lines and inconsistent proportions that perfectly recreate the fluidity of the sport as well as the psychology of the characters.
Haikyuu!! on the other hand, focuses more on the relationships and emotions that go into being a part of a team, specially the lowest of the underdogs. This volleyball show features exhilarating action, but at the same time, it makes you feel like one of the team, cheering on their victories, and drowning in sorrows after their defeats on the court.
Ping Pong The Animation is streaming on Crunchyroll. Haikyuu!! is streaming on Netflix.
Made In Abyss (2017)
The closest thing to Made in Abyss is the Cartoon Network mini-series Over The Garden Wall. Both are about cute and optimistic siblings being thrown into an eerie and dark world full of danger and monsters.
Made in the Abyss is the story of two siblings who stumble upon a robot who looks like a young boy, and decide to descend into uncharted territory (a giant abyss in the middle of an island) to discover where the robot came from. The show has great world-building that revolves around the mysteries of the abyss, and it always keeps your asking questions. This is also one of the best looking anime of the decade, both in terms of character and production design (thanks in part to the few Ghibli alumni who worked on this show), and also how the world comes to life the minute you start watching it. The landscapes are especially impressive, as the rich retails makes the siblings look incredibly small in comparison to the towering cliffs and giant forests. Also like Over The Garden Wall, this is a show that doesn’t shy away from being incredibly dark and brutal, but you’ll come out the other side having experienced something very unique.
Made in Abyss is streaming on Prime Video.
One Punch Man (2015) / My Hero Academia (2016)
Superheroes are so popular right now that it was only a matter of time before the genre reached anime, and we couldn’t have asked for two better shows than these. One Punch Man not only broke the internet due to the intense, stunning and also breathtaking action by Madhouse studio, but a hilarious deconstruction and satire of the superhero genre with a story about a “hero for fun” who defeats his enemies with just one punch. It’s a smart, witty and really funny show. Even if it suffers a heavy dip in its second season, the first one is so good that it deserves a spot on this list.
My Hero Academia, on the other hand, is less about the commentary and more about using the tropes and clichés of the superhero genre and presenting them in slightly different ways that results in one of the best superhero stories in recent years – no matter the medium. The shows follows a kid who is born without superpowers in a world where everyone has a superpower, and his journey to becoming the number one hero in the world. The action is fantastic, but the character-driven story is what keeps you invested in these characters, though victory and defeat. Plus, it has a fantastic motto in “Plus Ultra!”
One Punch Man is streaming on Hulu. My Hero Academia is streaming on Hulu.
Time travel stories are a tricky thing. They always get convoluted trying to explain the rules of their science, and end up sacrificing either the story or the logic. That is not a problem in Steins;Gate, which is the best sci-fi anime of the decade and one of the best time travel stories period. The show is about a scientist who accidentally invents a phone which allows the user to send text messages through time.
Steins;Gate follows the typical “butterfly effect” story of the main characters trying to change time and then altering the future in way bigger ways than anticipated. The story is airtight and incredibly well thought-out. There are several time jumps, but it never gets confusing, just complex. Even if the art is fairly standard compared to others on this list, the writing and the voice performances are enough to make this head-scratcher one hell of a roller coaster ride, and the best sci-fi anime in years.
Steins;Gate is streaming on Hulu.
Terror In Resonance (2014)
One of the few completely original anime on this list, it’s little surprise that Terror in Resonance comes from Cowboy Bebop-creator Shinichiro Watanabe.
Two teenage terrorists begin a series of bombings in Tokyo, but they take great care not to kill or injure anyone, instead going the distance to make sure buildings are empty before bombing them, and leaving videos with riddles to reveal where they’ll strike next. The show then deals with the cat-and-mouth game between the terrorists and the cop who is trying to catch them, while at the same time the exploring the ways even good people can be broken by flawed social systems, all while delivering an intense edge-of-your-seat thriller.
Terror in Resonance is streaming on Hulu.
Your Name (2016)
There’s a reason Your Name became the biggest anime movie of the decade. Makoto Shinkai’s phenomenon is completely deserving of the praise and the box office success. It masterfully combines grand scale sci-fi with a very intimate and personal love story between two high-school kids who find themselves suddenly swapping bodies.
The film has simply the most beautiful animation seen in a theatrical film, with a particular style that pairs CG 2D animation for character, but hyperrealism for backgrounds and landscapes. Plus, the soundtrack is extraordinary (if watching anime dubbed is your thing, the band that composed the music also recorded an English version). Your Name is a film that explores the contrast between Japanese traditions and modern Japanese culture though a story that mixes spiritism and sci-fi, make no mistake, this movie is guaranteed to break your heart.
Bonus: Vinland Saga (2019)
Vinland Saga was not only one of the most anticipated anime of 2019, but it turned up to be such a big surprise that despite it not having aired its full season yet, I simply had to mention it here before it ends up dominating every “best of” list whenever the show ends.
Vinland Saga tells the story of a young kid who was taken under the wing of his father’s killer and his band of mercenaries. While the show isn’t based on any particular historical event, everything in the wider world of the show remains true to history, including characters and settings. Vinland Saga is also a rare anime that tries its hardest not to romanticize violence. Sure, you get excited for certain fights, but for the most part the show relies on its realistic approach to the story in order to fully portray the horror and the brutality of history. There are no dragons or zombies to tone down the violence here, but instead a battle is portrayed as a horrifying massacre, and a duel is a tiring and ugly endeavor that destroys the souls of both combatants.
Even though the entire season hasn’t aired, we’ve seen more character development so far than other shows get through their entirety. Most of all, it’s mostly conveyed through silence and action rather than words, as we’ve seen our main character go from a joyful kid to a silent and merciless killer, and the show treats it as a tragedy rather than a badass turn. Vinland Saga is a show that promises a truly epic and long-spanning story, and if the animation, writing and score continue to be as good as with this first season, this could end up being the Legend of the Galactic Heroes of the modern age.
Vinland Saga is streaming on Prime Video
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