A packed decade of excellence
The 2010s overflowed with great anime. So much so that I’ll probably spend the next few years just trying to catch up on all the amazing shows and movies I’ve overlooked. The decade saw same day, streaming video become the norm, new creative voices step into the spotlight, major companies invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the industry, a massive unsustainable bubble of content swell, and much more. A lot changed in exciting ways, a lot frustratingly stayed the same but through the highs and lows, we saw an overwhelming amount of top-shelf anime.
In throwing together this list, I at one point had around 50 titles that my gut told me needed to be here. Shows and movies that I still regularly revisit or think about, that left lasting impressions that in many cases changed the way I approached art or life. Titles that in one way or another enriched my experience as a person. But it was a little too long and had a bit too much overlap of creative voices, themes, and aesthetics I’m into to the point where stretches would have been “all of Masaaki Yuasa’s output, most of the decade’s Lupin entries, half a dozen Gundam pieces.” And though certain franchises, voices, or styles do show up multiple times here, I see them as distinct presences, offering unique qualities.
So before the first part of my alphabetized list (ranking would be even harder than doing only 25) here are my strong runners up, many of which would probably be on there if I threw it together in a slightly different state of mind: Attack on Titan, Chihayafuru, Fate/Zero, Yuri Kuma Arashi, Kyousougiga, Ping Pong the Animation, Shirobako, Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn, Planet With, Promare, Hunter x Hunter (2011), Lupin the Third: Part 5, Yuri!!! on Ice, Pop Team Epic
At a glance, Evol doesn’t appear all that notable. Boob jokes, sexually confused teenagers, CG robots, nonsense end of the world prophecies. The early part of the decade was lousy with near-identical shows. Leave it to lead director Shoji Kawamori and writer Mari Okada playing off of each other’s talents to deliver a show so wholeheartedly embracing of its own shlocky genre trappings that it manages to elevate the whole affair into the stratosphere. There’s an entire character whose main schtick is talking about holes and he somehow skips right past being an annoying creep to incredibly endearing. The pun usage is off the charts. The main story, where reincarnation factors in heavily, hinges on mistaken identity ghost sex. And this barely scratches the surface. Let’s not even get into the guy who got too horny in a robot, almost died as a direct result, and is now a cyborg. Evol is routinely hilarious, constantly one-upping its own weird bullshit, surprisingly heartfelt when it wants to be, and 1000% earnest.
Masaaki Yuasa had a hell of a decade with multiple series and movies deserving to sit on best-of lists. It was hard cutting my selection down to just two (the other is in part 2), so I went with my gut. And nothing this decade hit harder than Crybaby. Adapting the classic early ’70s manga about a boy battling demons as the world goes to hell, Science Saru’s take modernizes the setting and focuses many of the scattershot ideas on the margins of Nagai’s original. Queerness, sexuality, and an impassioned call for empathy take center stage in a series that is absolutely not for the faint of heart. Crybaby will hollow you out long before the end and then it just keeps on hitting. Not a fun ride, but one that couldn’t be more appropriate for the disaster that was the late 2010s.
Dragon Ball Super: Broly
Dragon Ball came back! Not that it was ever really gone, what with a constant flow of games, small specials, and spinoffs; brands don’t ever die after all. But it came back in a big way, with a slew of new movies and a full-on sequel television series, with Broly being the crème of the crop. Series creator Akira Toriyama served as screenwriter and reshaped Broly, a one-note disposable villain from several of the early ’90s films, into a sympathetic victim of abuse. In the past, the Broly character was little more than an evil smirk on top of a mound of muscles ready to get blown away by Goku and the gang. Here he’s the most memorable character. Toriyama bites off a little more than he can chew with a story that tries to find common ground between Goku, Vegeta, Broly, and even Frieza while presenting extensive flashbacks detailing the extermination of the Saiyans and bad parenthood before even getting to the main punching match but it gets points for easily being the most ambitious Dragon Ball movie to date. And once the fisticuffs start, Toei pulls out all the stops animating the most thrilling throw down yet. And at the heart of it all is Toriyama’s upbeat attitude that a good fight can be the start of a long friendship. After years of thinking I was done with Dragon Ball, Broly sucked me right back in.
Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo
The third and only entry in Hideaki Anno’s four-part remake/reappraisal of Evangelion to land in this decade is without a doubt the hardest hitting and most personal (not to mention most divisive) thus far. Stepping away from the familiar plot points and iconography of the 1995 television series that largely guide the first two films, Redo turns everything upside down as Anno hurls the cast into a bleak future and spends the runtime interrogating his desire to continue retelling Evangelion, looking to repetition as a means of catharsis and growth, and exploring trauma that is far from fresh but still aches. The first two Rebuild entries felt like safe retreads, offering toy ready redesigns and a more approachable story, Redo skips right from the early somewhat comfortably formulaic episodes of the TV series straight to the daring, deeply personal struggles writ large across a bloodsoaked sky of The End of Evangelion. I’ll love it forever.
Flowers of Evil
In adapting Shuzo Oshimi’s dark coming of age manga (that I really should get to), director Hiroshi Nagahama made the risky choice to use rotoscoping over traditional animation and the payoff is immediately clear. Flowers shoves its viewers to within an inch of painfully awkward teenagers as they hurt themselves and each other. And it never lets up or gives more than a moment’s breath before another deeply awkward silence or explosion of frustration. The quiet intensity of so many sideways glances and subtle shifts in weight say more than any words could. Flowers is both a technical home run and a triumph of interpersonal tension.
Gundam Build Fighters
What could have easily been nothing but a cynical commercial to push Gundam merchandise on kids turned out to be a shockingly engaging show with a strong sports story backbone supporting it. Yes, Build Fighters is awash in background cameos, catchphrase callbacks, and fanservice matchups, yet they rarely get in the way of the propulsive trip through a memorable cast of rivals and friends as pals Sei and Reiji try to make their way to the top of Gunpla Battle. While sequels in the subseries have never recaptured the magic and felt more insular, Build Fighters is something crusty old Gundam fans and newcomers can all enjoy. Gunpla is freedom.
Gundam Reconguista in G
G-Reco is one of the few entries on this that required no thought whatsoever. Like its writer and director, Yoshiyuki Tomino, G-Reco is an absolute, outside of the bounds of qualifiers like good and bad or “makes sense.” Playing out as something like Xabungle or a jovial Turn A Gundam, mankind still hasn’t learned its lesson after the Universal Century and is getting up to those war shenanigans with robots again. Right away you’ll find that things are off: strange editing choices, the flow of information is frequently coming from left field and also backwards, characters are forever at an unfathomable distance even when monologuing. And I find it all fascinating. There is a lasting charm to these bouncy characters rattling off proper nouns we’re just expected to know beforehand and flying around in beautifully animated robots. Tomino’s quirks as a director and writer over the years are fully solidified here and parsing through them has become a favorite hobby of mine. The robots have built-in toilets, there’s a court-ordered Char character that just goes by Mask, in spite of everyone already knowing him personally, and the main character is a cold-blooded killer in blissful denial. The whole thing is needlessly opaque and strange and I cannot look away. They’re doing a five-part movie version that I hope is even weirder. Gundam rarely gets better than this.
Heybot is a true motherfucker of a cartoon. Even trying to explain the premise is sabotaged by the series itself, both ludicrously complex with enough deep lore to fill many a wiki page and so simple that many episodes can barely be said to even have a plot. Taking equal cues from Pokemon and other monster battling adventures and seemingly Western anti-comedy like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and the work of Tim and Eric, Heybot is an effort to demolish its viewers’ sense of humor and rebuild it into something new, all while wearing the guise of a harmless toy-centric children’s show. The pacing of the jokes, quite frequently knowingly pointless, is god-damn relentless. I cannot believe that the final episodes openly referencing movies regarded for their intense gore effects like Day of the Dead and John Carpenter’s The Thing is accidental. Heybot is violence and it inspires a strong fight or flight mentality almost instantaneously. I would consider my life post-Heybot, but if I’m being honest, it never truly left.
While Studio Trigger is responsible for several of the best anime of the decade, several of which did not make my list simply because it would over-saturation, their first original work stands above the rest in my mind. Done with still character images sliding around the screen, heavily reused assets, and questionable taste, episodes of Inferno Cop were said to have been put together in the middle of the night after work on Kill la Kill had finished for the day. And that tracks. The logic that gets the “badge from Hell” from point A to C (B is often skipped or hastily mentioned in confused narration) is dubious at best. The humor is high-octane nonsense. Inferno Cop’s journey lasts barely an hour, but his justice will burn forever. I’m still waiting for Trigger to release officially licensed refrigerator magnets so I can make my own episodes while I cook dinner.
Japan Animator Expo
This one is kind of a cheat because it’s really a diverse collection of 36 shorts from a variety of studios and directors with no central theme or aesthetic. Most are wholly original, though several are manga adaptions or serve as small sequels to existing television shows or movies (with a few going on to become their own series). Pieces range from a collection of key animation for the original Mobile Suit Gundam to ambitious experiments with new techniques and technology. “until You come to me.” is a small mood piece, quietly dwelling in the broken post-Evangelion 3.33 world. Hiroyuki Imaishi pushes his manic style into intolerable territory in a short with a title that verges on self-depreciation with “Sex and Violence with Mach Speed.” “Tomorrow from There” is a wonderful look at getting through the everyday grind. Kazuyoshi Katayama of The Big O fame gives us a silly robot brawl at an international exhibition with “Ragnarok: Hello from the Countries of the World.” There’s even a special Patlabor short that sees a new SV2 in the modern-day dealing with social media fallout. The project has a lot to offer and it remains a crime that it isn’t more widely available.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure
It still feels weird that by the end of the decade, JoJo’s is five seasons and more than 150 episodes into Hirohiko Araki’s sprawling saga of a stylish family fabulously battling evil. The idea of tackling JoJo’s as a whole, with Araki’s continually evolving style, a splashy visual language very geared for its original medium, and the length still sounds like an unfairly tall order. Covering the first five story arcs, David Pro manages to improve production quality in every possible way with each new adventure. Not that things started badly, but it’s been a joy seeing JoJo’s make leaps and bounds and become a sharper, shinier version of itself over the years. Everyone has their own favorite Part, my own being Battle Tendency and Diamond is Unbreakable, but I’ve always recommended starting at the beginning. If there was one overarching, reliable source of fun this decade, it was JoJo’s.
Land of the Lustrous
The big sweeping selling point of Lustrous is undoubtedly Studio Orange’s jaw-dropping use of three-dimensional computer graphics as the primary animation style. Using techniques that all too often end up as weightless and jarring and skillfully pulling them off with a strong underlying artistic intent feels like a miracle after years of junky Polygon Pictures output. And then underneath the gorgeous coat of paint is a fascinatingly understated story about identity, personal growth not being a linear path, and dealing with failure. The first time through, Lustrous didn’t strike me as something truly special, but the atmosphere, soundscape, and central character’s journey had quietly sunk in and I couldn’t get them out of my head. Now I’m hooked on Haruko Ichikawa’s original manga, which is visually very different from the adaptation (both are great for different reasons!), and desperately hoping Orange gets to make a second season. If only to see how they make it move and hear their sound design choices.
Continued in part 2