Who decides what are the best anime series of all-time? Me? You? Or perhaps it’s a matter of personal taste. There’s so much to consider when putting together a list like this. Like, whether or not to place quality over fan favourites or if the most influential anime series deserves a special place at the top.
After receiving a considerable amount of love and hate for my 15 Most Powerful Anime Characters list, I figured I’d give a list of the Top 10 Best Anime Series of All-Time a go too.
Let’s dive in.
Watching Anime Series
For many anime fans, they may have inadvertently started with the likes of Dragon Ball Z. The show was wildly popular throughout the ’90s. However, many of those viewers may not have gone on to become long-term fans of the genre. This, too, was almost my story. It wasn’t until over a decade later when I got back into anime through a series of circumstances. It quickly went from being a casual watcher to an avid fan.
After watching many of the best anime series, and rewatching some of my favourites, I’m fairly confident of providing my take on what I found to be my personal favourites. Even as I type that sentence, I realise that it wouldn’t be of the same opinion for many others, with each fan having their own personal favourites.
Anime, referring to animated productions made in Japan, is said to have first come about more than 100 years ago in 1917. But its popularity wasn’t as widespread until the 1960s when the first anime broadcast on television. This honour belongs to Astro Boy (a.k.a. Mighty Atom). Today, there are 100s of new anime series broadcast every year, only growing in popularity year-on-year.
The Top 10 Best Anime Series Of All-Time
I have a special relation to each of the series selected. Not only did they draw me in, each for their own reasons, but the art styles, voice acting, music and score, difficult themes and thought-provoking nature of many of them are what make them stand out to me. I could, and have, watched each of these shows more than once, with the second watching providing a lot more appreciation for each.
Looking for good anime to watch? We’ve got you.
Re:Zero − Starting Life in Another World
Re:Zero starts off simple enough, but quickly turns into a series based on time loops, character development and unique villains. The adventure isn’t linear, and the time loops don’t always follow the expected path once reset.
The lead character, Subaru, is thrown into another world, Isekai, with his adventures kicking off after a chance encounter with the heroine, Emilia. It has quite a lot of comedic undertones, with Subaru, an anime fan, initially trying to predict all that will happen in his surroundings based on his experience watching anime. But things don’t turn out this way for him.
After discovering a notebook capable of killing people when their names are written into it, the series revolves around a highly intelligent high school student, Light Yagami. Death Note is based on a manga of the same name, which ran between 2003 and 2006.
The show is popular largely in part thanks to its mystery and horror genre themes. It’s enjoyed by both Japanese and international audiences. The story is relatively short, spanning less than 40 episodes, making it concise and to the point without deviating too much, which can often happen with extended series.
Naruto the anime series ran between 2002 and 2007, with Naruto: Shippuden airing between 2007 and 2017. The series is based on the Weekly Shonen Jump manga by Masashi Kishimoto released in 1999.
The series revolves around a fictional world of Shinobi, where Naruto learns to become a ninja master with the help of his friends and other masters. The Ninja techniques used in battles are derived from chakra energy.
Dealing with topics on strong bonds with friends and family, betrayal and overcoming various situations, the show is an intriguing adventure for the ages. The show is easy to get into, especially for newcomers and is widely regarded by many fans as a top anime deserving its spot on all top 10 lists and, for many, even at number one.
Naruto probably has one of the biggest anime fan bases across the genre.
Rurouni Kenshin: Wandering Samurai
Rurouni Kenshin is an anime based on a wandering swordsman who attempts to put his tormented past behind him. It takes place in Japan’s Meiji era with a glimpse into the life of people during that time. After stumbling upon a struggling martial arts school, he decides to help out, trying to live a simple life but turns out to be anything but.
The series takes on a wide range of topics, but there’s an underlying tone of remaining humble and giving of yourself to help those less fortunate and in need. There are numerous adventures in the series packed with great action with an anime style that pairs brilliantly. It’s just an all-round great story.
Rurouni Kenshin definitely deserves a place on everyone’s top 10 best anime series of all-time list.
In a not-too-distant future, Major Motoko Kusanagi, or simply just Major, and her group of officers as part of the Public Security Section 9 fight high crime around Japan. Ghost in the Shell is set in 2030, where science and technology have advanced allowing humans to become cyborgs with varying abilities to help humanity progress. However, Japanese syndicates have started to use these to their advantage.
Ghost in the Shell has inspired a generation of other anime, TV series and movies thanks to its concepts and art style, directed by Mamoru Oshii. While its live-action movie may not have received similar praise, it remains one of the best anime series of all time.
Steins;Gate is in the top 10 highest ranked anime series of all time across many of the rating platforms. This isn’t the only reason it deserves its spot on my list. Its sci-fi and time-travel themes are one of the best around, across TV and film. The show is takes place in Akihabara, Tokyo, which is a location for many fans to visit.
Rintaro Okabe, a university student, discovers time travel, and along with his fellow co-workers at Future Gadget Laboratory, must try to prevent an evil corporation from fulfilling their plans. There are a number of plot twists and surprise moments to keep you tuned in episode after episode.
The anime series is split into two series, Fullmetal Alchemist and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. The series is based on a manga series, which both shows follow fairly closely at the start. The former, however, proceeded to its end without the manga series having concluded, much the same as Game of Thrones. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is based on the entirety of the completed manga.
After an attempt to revive their deceased mother using alchemy, two brothers are badly inflicted when it goes horribly wrong. The older brother, Edward, loses his arm, while his younger brother, Alphonse, loses his entire body, and takes the form of metal armour to save him from death. Reviving someone from the dead is a huge taboo in the world of alchemy, with serious consequences, as the results prove. They set out in search of the Philosopher’s Stone in an attempt to right their wrongs.
But this is just the start of a wild adventure for the duo. As they leave their small home town, they’re thrusted into a world much bigger than them, having to overcome quite a lot of challenges and also to prevent an evil group from also finding the Philosopher’s Stone to achieve their goals.
After a chance encounter, Fuu, a teenage waitress working in a teahouse, rescues two master swordsmen, Mugen and Jin, who have been arrested by the Japanese police after their battle inadvertently result in the death of a son of the local magistrate. At the time, the son was harassing Fuu, who saves the duo as a result of assisting her. She tasks the two to accompany her across Japan in pursuit of the Samurai who smells of sunflowers, and this is where the adventure really begins.
The show takes place in Edo-era Japan. What’s great about that is that Samurai Champloo attempts to be historically accurate with the time period, not just in the lifestyles, but also the events that take place, which the characters happen to be indirectly involved in.
It’s an easy-going anime series that’s funny and, at times, over-the-top. But its art style and comedic elements makes it an easy watch for first time anime watchers.
Samurai Champloo is also only one of three anime shows my fiancé has indevoured to watch through its entirety. The hip-hop music themes are also relatable, bring a unique style along with it, to accompany the great sword battles throughout the series.
A decade ago, a mysterious anomaly known as Heaven’s Gate appeared over the majority of South America. Soon after, another of these appeared in Tokyo, known as Hell’s Gate, which altered the sky and wreaking havoc on the surrounding area. As a result of this, the stars in the sky disappeared, replaced with fake stars. Each of these fake stars are linked to people who possess special abilities, known as Contractors.
These Contractors have been found and trained by various governments to utilise as spies and assassins. However, whenever they use their abilities, they have to “pay the price”, which comes in various forms, eating excessively, do self-harm, change their bodies and the likes. The powers come at the cost of their humanity, murdering through objectives and rationale, suppressing any emotional and other human hinderances to stop them from achieving their goals.
Darker Than Black is one of my all-time favourite anime series. It’s highly rated by many, but doesn’t often appear on many lists, unfortunately. I love the show, and requires at least two series watches to appreciate all the details and meaning extracted from the show. It may be a relatively short span of episodes, but isn’t an easy watch, especially for any new anime fans. Despite Contractor’s lack of humanity, Hei, the lead character, is a slight contradiction of this, battling against other Contractors through a group known as the Syndicate.
Attack on Titan is the only series on the list that is still ongoing. The series is based on a manga released in 2009 with the first episode airing in 2013. After eight years, the show is in its final season, due to end within the next month or so. The story starts off on the Paradis Island, where its inhabitants have built huge walls to protect themselves from attacks from mindless titans.
Things quickly take a turn for the worse when two titans break through the walls, sparking a war that spans almost 13 years from the start of the series. Eren Yeager and Mikasa Ackerman join the Survey Corps as they seek revenge on the titans after destroying their home and eating Eren’s mother. But what starts off as a simple battle against titans, there is a lot to uncover beyond the walls. Having initially thought of themselves as the last humans, there’s even more to discover further across the oceans.
Even beyond the show, there is a lot to unpack. There’s rich lore that has the potential to be explored beyond the show’s episodes, with just as many questions. The plot twists are crazy with bombshells at almost every turn. The voice actors do a great job for both the Japanese and English dubs, making the emotional connection what brings me back for more.
Having watched the series again a second time around, there’s far more to understand. You realise that each action has a consequence on the history of the war, dating back to many generations before Eren and Mikasa are involved. Even with the show coming to its conclusion soon, with quite a lot of lore to still unpack, one can only hope for a prequel series to bring fans back for more.
But wait. There’s more.
How can we forget these shows?
I could have easily ended the post with the list of 10. But it may not be fair to some other great anime series. These are great in their own right, but just didn’t make the cut for my list.
The series follows the adventures of Monkey D. Luffy, along with his pirate crew. They attempt to find the greatest treasure, left by the legendary pirate, Gold Roger. The show’s title is derived from this treasure, known as “One Piece.”
The show is beloved by many, and for most fans deserves its spot in the top 10. This is true, and fully agree. But personally, it doesn’t match the connection and personal preference from the shows on my list. Where it loses me, most is the continued run, still running after two decades. That shows its staying power, but where it loses me.
Having been sent back in time some 18 years, 29-year-old Satoru attempts to prevent his mom’s death in his teens, a story which began after a series of kidnappings when he was in the 5th grade.
The show is a slow grind, but worth it. The premise may not be real, but the struggles and emotion displayed by Satoru is very realistic, dealing with themes about society and real-world struggles.
Cowboy Bebop is a story about Spike Spiegel, a futuristic bounty hunter with a laid-back lifestyle, despite his deadly skills in martial arts. Alongside his partners, Jet Black and Faye Valentine (later in the series), they roam across the galaxy in search of high-priced bounty for fugitives.
The show has an authenticity about it, despite its futuristic themes. The realism is what draws you in and keeps you entertained with action, comedy and a killer score to round things off.
The story is viewed through the lens of a post-apocalyptic future. Here, humans live in peace with AI-powered androids. But things quickly take a turn for the lead, inspector Re-L, after a series of murders, which cause tensions and threaten to dismantle the state of peace.
The story is vivid and feels too real. With quite a lot of focus on philosophical and moral questions we face in the real world, the show deserves to be watched at least twice to grasp all the nuances and concepts it brings to the fore.
One Punch Man
One Punch Man is a relatively new series, compared to others on the list. With only two seasons having been released, spaced across four years between them, it continues to leave fans wanting more.
The series revolves around a seemingly oblivious hero, Saitama, who does it just for the fun of it. As the title suggests, he is able to defeat his enemies with a single punch.
Dragon Ball Z
A young warrior named Goku, along with his friends, are tasked with defending their planet from an onslaught of attacks from extraterrestrial enemies. But things aren’t as straight forward as it is on paper, with Goku learning that he, too, is from another planet, and a crazy number of twists through the show’s ’90s run.
Most kids growing up in the ’90s would have watched or come across Dragon Ball Z. In South Africa, the was a huge hit, as I recall all my friends rushing home between 4pm and 5pm when the show aired. Whether we were in the middle of a game of football or cricket, the streets would clear. This was the impact of the show, which many still remember fondly today.
And there you have it.
That’s my list of the top 10 best anime series of all-time. I can imagine that at least five of these shows would be on many lists, with quite a few being challenged.