Anime is a complicated medium, one riddled with landmines if you don’t educate yourself. So don’t just go willy-nilly on Netflix and click on every anime title you see. Sure, you’ll eventually land on a good one, but there are also lots of duds. It’s really not all that different from what’s on television: loads of garbage with the occasional gem waiting to be absorbed. There are anime series out there carelessly crafted with one-dimensional characters and bogged down by shallow writing. It doesn’t help convert any naysayers and it’s no fun for the experienced viewer to watch.
So why do that to yourself? These days we can hit the Internet and read dozens of reviews on a particular series to determine whether we might like it. And let’s suppose that’s why you’re reading this right now. You’re new to the anime world and you want to start off on the right foot. Well, we’ve got you covered. If none of these 15 titles tickle your fancy, well, you’re out of luck. These are the cream of the crop in this writer’s opinion. And that being said, there are still anime series I have yet to enjoy that may force my hand in revisiting this list in the future. There is a ton of anime out there waiting to be uncovered, you just need to avoid the garbage—and trust me, there’s plenty. If you’re not new to anime and just want to yell at me for some bad choices, well hey, you can do that too.
In any case, here is our list of the top 15 best anime series ever made:
15 Sword Art Online (2012)
As far as premises go, it’s tough to beat Sword Art Online. The story follows Kirito, a beta tester for an anticipated virtual reality MMORPG, who must escape the perils of the virtual reality as the players are captured in its world. The only way out is to defeat the final boss. Oh yeah, and death in the video game equates to death in the real world. Awesome. Running 25 episodes, Sword Art Online doesn’t require a lifelong commitment like its anime brethren Naruto and One Piece. It’s short, action-packed and tons of fun. Not every storyline needs to be packed to the gills with intellectual insight if it’s just plain fun.
14 Dragon Ball (1986)
If you’re a 1980s or 90s kid, chances are you grew up watching Dragon Ball every weekend. The first entry in the trilogy series spanned 153 episodes and carried a lighter tone than its two successors. While it may not hold up as well for fans who are now adults, it still carries a wonderful sense of nostalgia and child-like glee. It’s fun, packed with adventure, and witnessing Goku’s transformation into what he eventually becomes in Dragon Ball Z is worth the watch alone. If you’re a fan of DBZ and Dragon Ball GT, there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t give Dragon Ball a fair shake. And if you skip past the filler, it’s not a lengthy commitment.
13 Death Note (2006)
Death Note was inconsistent during its 37-episode run, and Light Yagami was never a compelling character for my taste, but overall the story was gripping and unpredictable. And while I would have enjoyed stronger characters to match the quality of the subject matter, the storyline is ultimately the most important aspect. Possessing a notebook that has the ability to kill anyone whose name is written inside is an interesting premise, one that is explored to the fullest degree. And despite Misa Amane being an irksome character, her inclusion in the series as a wild card adds an interesting dynamic that pays off.
12 One Piece (1999)
One Piece is loaded with adventure, action, touching moments and everything in-between. It’s also loaded with, well, episodes. The series is approaching 700 episodes and is ongoing, so a fair portion of its catalogue is reserved for filler—which has no effect on the main storyline and serves no purpose other than to buy time for the manga to produce additional volumes. That being said, One Piece gets away with this by showcasing developed characters. Luffy and Zoro lead the cast and as long as they’re on screen it’s bound to be a good time—and really, that’s what quality anime is all about.
11 Naruto (2002)
Naruto is similar to Dragon Ball in that it started with a lighter tone before shifting to more action and darker subject matter in its follow-up series, Shippuden. Naruto was long-running, too, airing 220 episodes—also with its fair share of filler, unfortunately. Still, like One Piece, Naruto’s strength lies in its characters, and one advantage to stretching out the story is allowing your characters to develop more organically. Ultimately, the adventures of Naruto were secondary. What made this anime so successful and still a classic are the characters inhabiting its world. That’s something an anime under 50 episodes will have a difficult time accomplishing.
10 Naruto Shippuden (2007)
Naruto Shippuden is the more violent, bloodier successor of Naruto. It follows the adventures of our whiskered hero now grown up and established as the strongest ninja in the village. Yes, Naruto centers on ninjas. If you can’t dig that, this anime is not for you. But more than that, its main themes revolve around friendship, personal growth and overcoming the odds during dark times. There’s also ninjas. Lots of ninjas. As one would imagine, the fight scenes are thrilling and strengthened by a cast of characters viewers can invest in, which raises the stakes and leads to some heartbreaking developments. Have I mentioned there are ninjas?
9 Fullmetal Alchemist (2003)
Fullmetal Alchemist is a classic. I have a difficult time thinking of two characters more relatable than Edward and Alphonse Elric. The two embark on a quest to obtain the Philosopher’s Stone after a failed attempt at reviving their dead mother through the use of alchemy. And that’s really the heart of Fullmetal Alchemist: how far would you go to help your loved ones? It’s a wonderful story filled with elation, heartbreak and moral dilemmas. While the action plays second fiddle to the story, it still thrills when Edward and Alphonse are forced to clash against some memorable foes. There are villains aplenty here, each with a unique and interesting personality that begs to be explored.
8 Berserk (1997)
Berserk is not for the faint of heart; it’s 625 minutes of non-stop graphic violence and character development. What’s not to like? While it only lasted 25 episodes, Berserk does a fine job of developing its characters and forcing viewers to care for their well-being. It also tackles enlightening themes such as mortality, which isn’t common among animes. The ending has been criticized by some, but I found it to be one the better conclusions to a series. While the animation is a little uneven at times, it’s really the only drawback for Berserk. Plus, the voiceovers are solid, and that’s a rarity in anime.
7 Hunter x Hunter (2011)
Hunter x Hunter debuted on television back in 1999 and had a 62-episode run. It was well-received but also strayed from the manga once it reached a certain point—much like the original Fullmetal Alchemist. In the reboot, however, the series followed the manga closely and came to an end in September 2014 after 148 episodes. While Hunter x Hunter begins on a lighter note, it quickly transitions to bloody battles and meaningful character development. Even the villains are well fleshed out here, as if the writers intended to make each character as likeable as possible. If you’re new to the series, skip the original version and take up the reboot.
6 Steins;Gate (2011)
Steins;Gate is a meticulously crafted anime series that revolves around the concept of time travel. I know what you’re thinking: another story revolving around time travel? Lame. Well, you’d be wrong to think that. Steins;Gate not only adheres to the laws of physics and modern science, it crafts a clever story ripe with character development and drama. While the series starts off slowly, akin to most series worth watching, it picks up the pace after a few episodes and every plot point starts to mend together. Smart writing is really the show’s biggest strength, and that’s never a bad thing.
5 Attack on Titan (2013)
Attack on Titan’s opening episode is one of my favourite pilots ever. It’s touching, heartbreaking and sets the pace for how the rest of the season plays out. With no knowledge of the outside world, the inhabitants of a city surrounded by towering walls intend to live out their days protected from the titans, who are gigantic monstrosities that devour humans for pleasure. Utilizing maneuver gear that launches grappling hooks, those who defend the city walls battle titans in thrilling aerial battles. The animation is fantastic, the action is awesome, the voiceovers are superb and the story begs to be unravelled. It would be a crime not to continue this series with the outside world yet to be explored.
4 Dragon Ball Z (1996)
Dragon Ball Z is a timeless classic and if you disagree you’re probably a bad person. The story is preposterous, the characters are eccentric and it had its fair share of filler before the Kai version came along. So it’s not a perfect anime series; far from it, in fact. But DBZ is just plain ol’ fun. Lots and lots of fun. The fight scenes span several episodes—well into the double digits—and have men of various races flying through mountains and punching and kicking each other at lightning speed. Oh, that’s not enough fun for you? Well, they can fire energy blasts out of their hands, too. Awesome.
3 Cowboy Bebop (1998)
What makes Cowboy Bebop so special is that it accomplishes so much in so little time. It aired in 27 episodes, each filled to the brim with character development, action, adventure, and a blend of various genres. To put it simply, Cowboy Bebop plays by its own rules, much like its protagonist bounty hunters. The animation is top notch, too, which is evident during the aerial battles, car chases and shoot-outs you’ll experience during the bittersweet ride—bitter in that it ends so abruptly. Still, Cowboy Bebop should be the gold standard for brief anime series. It just goes to show that if you have talented writers you don’t need hundreds of episodes to flesh out the characters and storyline.
2 Code Geass (2006)
Code Geass is something special. Its story incorporates politics, history, drama, action, romance, you name it. It’s the amalgamation of every anime you have ever loved. Better yet, its main character Lelouch is one of the most complicated and multi-faceted anime characters ever created. He’s an anti-hero, so he’s not your typical good guy, but the series is worth watching for his development alone. In fact, every character in Code Geass will surprise you at some point or another. And the story has plenty of twists and turns and political intrigue to keep you hooked until the very end. Oh, the end… what a brilliant conclusion to the series. It’s by far my favourite ending in anime.
1 Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2009)
That’s right, Fullmetal Alchemist has made the list twice. And that’s because Fullmetal Alchemist:Brotherhood is everything the original series was but better. Brotherhood, which launched after the manga ended, opted to reboot the series with improved animation and by remaining faithful to the source material. While the series starts out almost exactly like its predecessor, the story soon takes a drastic turn as new characters are introduced and the story changes completely. It’s at this point where Brotherhood truly shines and takes it place atop the anime kingdom. The animation, voiceovers, action, story and character development are all top notch, and the series checks all the same marks that made the original such a classic. But it’s not the terrific story that warmly lingers in your mind after watching this masterpiece, no, it’s the characters. Brotherhood is the gold standard of character development and making you care for these fictional heroes. It’s a touching, inspiring journey about friendship and love. It’s absolutely worth your time.