Synopsis: One chilly March day, Kansei University fourth-year Kiyose Haiji (Haiji) encounters Kurahara Kakeru (Kakeru) running uncommonly fast through the streets at night and forces him into living at the Chikusei-so (AKA Aotake). Haiji has a dream and ambition. He became discouraged after suffering an injury in high school, but he wants to run again. He wants to participate in the Hakone Ekiden and show off the running ability he’s been pursuing. He has only one year left to turn that dream and ambition into reality.
Why You Should Watch: I’m a pretty big sucker for the shonen sports formula, and while stories about a group of plucky high school boys coming together to win a tournment before their seniors graduate can get a little repetitive after a while, they tend to embody a lot of the best qualities shonen has to offer so it’s hard to get too upset about it. Now having said all that, Run With the Wind is an interesting sports anime in how far it veers away from that typical formula. For one thing it’s about a group of college boys instead of high schoolers meaning that in addition to being a little more grounded to reality than the typical lineup of pretty boys in this genre, these are all characters who are much closer to actual adulthood, and the uncertanties of things like finding a good job and actual life aspirations. These are also characters who, baring a couple of exceptions, have no serious attachement to the sport their participating, and are mostly amateurs with little experience. That allows this show to be both an effective underdog story, as the members of the Kansei running club really have the odds stacked against them, making every little victory they achieve feel satisfying, while also allowing it to break free from the constraints of a typical sports anime in order to tell a more nuanced story about personal growth. For many of the members of the club, running isn’t so much about winning as it is about bettering themselves and hopefully coming to better terms with the struggles they face, and it allows for the show’s surprisingly minimal drama to be really strong when it needs to.
The boys themselves are also all really fun characters, and while some of them get a little more to do than others, they all feel pretty fleshed out for the most part, and it’s hard not finding at least one that you can kind of relate to (King’s bit towards the end hit really close to home for me). Even if you are in for this purely as sports drama, Run With the Wind certainly doesn’t slouch with it’s productions and while it does cut some corners with the usage of CGI for the running sequences every now and then, on the whole it’s a very polished looking production, and certainly up there with Haikyu when it comes to high-quality sports animation (fitting, since the two shows share some staff). While many sports anime are about how the players have built their lives around the sport, Run with the Wind is more about how the sport has affected the lives of the players themselves, and the way it chooses to wrap up, really drives that home beautifully. Like I said with Chihayafuru, there was a lot of quality sports anime to choose from this decade, but this one really touched me the most on a personal level, and it’s honestly the most I’ve ever enjoyed a sports anime about an ensemble cast as opposed to just mainly following one character (see Hajime no Ippo). It’s a wonderful story, and one that like several others on this list, deserves way more attention than what it’s gotten so far.
Synopsis: When a small-time crook is released from prison, he is determined to turn his life around by apprenticing himself to the great rakugo master Yakumo VIII, inspired by his performance of “Shinigami” during his incarceration. Surprisingly, the old man agrees to train him and brings his new apprentice to his own house to live, giving him the name “Yotaro”, a classical word used in rakugo meaning “fool”. Yakumo has much to teach about the art of rakugo, but both he and his ward Konatsu- a hot-headed young woman whose father was also a famous storyteller- are difficult people with a shared dark past. Yakumo refuses to train her, claiming that the world of rakugo is no place for women, and Konatsu has vowed to kill him, claiming that Yakumo murdered her father!
Why You Should Watch: Like Chihayafuru, this is another one of those things where any basic explination of it’s premise is going to make it sound like the most boring thing on the planet, and that’d be a great disservice to how ridiculously well crafted it is. Rakugo is another thing specific to Japan’s culture that I was unfamilar with, and this show served as a very compelling introduction to it as we learn about it through the eyes of Yakumo, a rakugo master who has lived through some of the most tumltous eras of Japan’s history, and the relationship he formed with another performer named Sukeroku which has more than a little queer subtext on Yakumo’s end. That relationship gets complicated when Sukerou gets mixed up with a geisha named Miyokichi, and it results in a tragedy that continues to haunt Yakumo well into his old age, and leaves him wanting to take the very artform of Rakugo itself with him to the grave. However standing in his way are a reformed Yakuza thug named Yotaro who wants to be Yakumo’s apprentice, and Konatsu, the daughter of Sukeroku and Miyokichi, who was raised by Yakumo and also wants to enter into the world of Rakugo. It’s a tale both about how haunting the past can be, and how certain things are inevitably passed down regardless of our intentions, with the show fittingly framing it’s two seasons between Yakumo’s long and painful recollection of his past taking up the first one, and the second being about how his relationships with Yotaro and Konatsu allow him to better come to terms with that past, and eventually pass on the future of the future of rakugo into their hands.
The show also goes to pretty great lenghts to demonstrate the beauty of Rakugo as an artform thanks to Studio DEEN and director Yuki Taneda’s incredible eye for presentation. You’d think a bunch of sequences featuring people talking to themselves for sometimes half an episode would be incredibly boring, but use of cool visual metaphors, combined with some absolutely stellar voice acting from each of the performers, really sells it’s appeal, and the show does a great job at handling it that as time goes on you can gradually tell the differences between good and bad rakugo performances, and how that effects certain aspects of the story, Speaking of acting, the show also features Akira Ishida giving what is quite possibly the best performances of his career as Yakumo as he plays the character both in his youth and old age, and really gets across how weary and bitter the years have made him. Calling this show “prestige television” sounds a little pretentious, but there really isn’t any other way to describe it, as it’s the kind of slow burn art, that only adults would really appreciate, and while the show almost stumbles with a last-minute tease that threatens to upend it’s most important character dynamics, it remains just vague enoug about it, that you don’t have to think about that if you don’t want to, and it’s easily one of the most powerful dramas of the decade.
Synopsis: Souya Kuroi is a high schooler living a peaceful life despite having no memories of his past. One day, however, his town is attacked by one of the mysterious Nebula Weapons. Together with the cat-like “Sensei” and the gothic lolita Ginko, Soya gets dragged into a battle against… seven superheroes who protect the town! What is Soya’s reason to fight? The answer lies in his memories.
Why You Should Watch: I’ve been a pretty big fan of manga author, Satoshi Mizukami, ever since I read Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer a few years back, and while none of his manga have ever had the opportunity to get anime adaptions (that Spirit Circle in particular doesn’t have one is a crime, because it’s really high up there as one of the best manga I’ve read, period) when it was announced he was going to be putting out an original work with J.C. Staff, I was eager to check it out, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Like some of Mizukami’s other works, the show starts out kinda slow and very weird, with the initial premise involving a boy with amnesia getting mixed up with a group of heroes who are trying to save humanity from a hostile alien threat. The twist here is that the boy in question is a alien himself, but from a different faction than the ones currently invading Earth, and his primary goal is to take out the heroes because of the role their technology played in his world’s destruction. If that sounds like a lot it both is and isn’t as while the show dumps out a lot of information at you, it’s all pretty easy to digest, and the general tone of the show is very tongue-in-cheek about the tropes it’s playing with, and is often quick to get straight to the point of whatever it’s doing, before throwing out new twists that change the nature of the story pretty significantly. In fact, saying it’s quick to the point is kind of an understatement, because Mizukami takes a narrative that any other mecha series would have told over the span of two 26 episode seasons and maybe a couple of films, and grinds it all down into 12 episodes without ever feeling rushed, and it’s an impressive feat in and of itself.
Of course, that wouldn’t mean much of anything if the material itself wasn’t strong, and boy howdy is it. Souya and the heroes are all pretty delightful characters, and even with how many story beats the show has to work through in a 12 episode timespan, it still finds plenty of time to develop them beyonf the archetypes they’re intially presented as, and they feel very relatable and human in their own way (even the giant cat, who is unironically the most heroic character of the whole story). More than anything though, what really makes this show shine is are it’s messages about the dangers of extremism, and demonizing entire races in the name of “righteousness” and how powerful forgiveness and empathy for others can be, as opposed to raw violence. It accomplishes all of this while also just being a lot of fun to watch, both in terms of Mizukami’s weird but effective sense of humor and how he uses that to play with your expectations, and just as a straight up mecha show, as while the production doesn’t look the greatest (and J.C. Staff certainly didn’t spare this show the resources to match how ambitious some of Mizukami’s storyboards got) it’s still pretty solid, and both the 3DCG mecha animation, and the music capture all the energy of a classic super robot anime. It’s a shame this show kinda went under the radar last year (if partially because it wasn’t promoted that well) because it’s really something special, and while I might still be sitting here hoping for a Spirit Circle anime someday, if this is the only work of Mizukami’s we ever get to see animated, he certainly made a heck of a great one.
Synopsis: In the future, a system called Sibyl presides over the country and provides order to every facet of life. It dictates which job fields citizens should go into based on aptitude tests, and can even read each resident’s mental state and predict which ones are likely to commit crimes in the future. Fresh from exams, Akane Tsunemori is beginning her career as an Inspector, a specialized police officer who works to apprehend these latent criminals and stop crimes before they happen. But not all that get caught are eliminated or jailed, some join the police force as Enforcers to provide insight into criminals’ minds, and Akane is warned not to get too close to them, as they’re considered little more than hunting dogs. Though skeptical of this advice, and Sibyl’s judgement, Akane is determined to work together with her Enforcers to protect the peace of her city and its inhabitants.
Why You Should Watch: I should preface this by saying that when I refer to Psycho-Pass, I’m talking strictly the first season, both because I never got around to the movie, and because well…we don’t talk about that second season. With that out of the way, I have to say that I came into this show with some pretty high expectations back in the day, both because it was coming of the heels of Gen Urobuchi’s success with Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and also because the character designs were being done with Akira Amano of Reborn! fame, meaning they were gonna look pretty stellar. Typically setting my expectations through the roof has tended to result in disappointment, but in the case of this show, it met my expectations and then some. While it isn’t exactly my favorite anime genre, I’m pretty into sci-fi and cyberpunk especially is an aesthetic I can really get behind. This show really runs with that from a visual standpoint, as a lot of the style really harkens back to some of the best elements of Ghost in the Shell, and it’s a strong looking production both in terms of animation, and it’s great musical score. The story actually being told here is what really makes it shine though, as Psycho-Pass depicts a futuristic dystopia where Japan has isolated itself from the rest of the world, and has created an “perfect” society through use of the Sybil Systerm which can scan brain waves to detect a person’s potential for criminal behavior and punish them accordingly. It’s a concept that is equal parts interesting and extremely dangerous, and the show allows us to view it through the lenses of Akane, a rookie detective whose capacity for crime is deemed incredibly low, and Kogami, a veteran enforcer whose duty it is to punish criminals Sybil has judged, and kept on a leash by the system as he and the other enforcers are deemed to have a high capacity for becoming criminals.
Much of the show’s early episodes function as a procedural crime thriller with Akane and the enforcers dealing with a variety of criminals who are either trying to hide within the system or have little fear of it. Many of these criminals are manipulated by the show’s primary antagonist, Makishima, a man who is clearly a dangerous and charasmatic killer, but has been deemed by Sybil to have no capacity for crimes, and thus isn’t a target for enforcement. Makishima’s schemes serve as the driving force behind the show’s second half as he sets out to expose Sybil as a dangerous system that can be easily exploited, and sets out to sow as much chaos as possible by demonstrating how apathetic it can make society as a whole. While this all sounds a little theatrical, it ultimately serves as a pretty strong allegory for our own strict adherance to laws, and how bystander syndrome can cause us to easily ignore atrocities commited right in front of us. The show argues as to how much these laws can actually protect people, and if not, whether or not they should be ripped apart entirely. As is often the case with Urobuchi’s writing, the answer he comes to on this isn’t an entirely happy one, but it’s certainly powerful, and while the actual plot gets a little over the top towards the home stretch, it still manages to deliver on that answer in a way that sticks with you. Psycho-Pass is a really cool and really compelling piece of allegorical sci-fi, and while neither of it’s sequel seasons seem to quite get what that allegory was supposed to be, the first season is self-contained enough that you don’t really need to bother with them anyway, and it’s definently the genre standout for the decade.
Synopsis: When Jonathan Joestar was just a baby, his mother tragically died in a carriage accident, and his father George was saved by the kindness of a stranger, Dario Brando. At least, that’s what George believed, unbeknownst to him that Dario was just attempting to steal from the victims. Thus, when Dario later dies and his son, Dio, comes to his doorstep, the wealthy George eagerly adopts the boy. But what should have become a budding friendship between two siblings quickly becomes a nightmare for poor Jonathan, as Dio is cruel, calculating and will go to great lengths to become George’s primary heir. Little does Jonathan know that this unfortunate childhood is only the harbinger of things to come…
Why You Should Watch: So I know it’s kind of cheating to list Jojo’s without picking a specific part, but picking which of the parts is your favorite is kind of like picking your favorite child (the correct answer so far is Diamond is Unbreakable you simpletons) and pretty much everyone’s answer is going to be different. It hardly matters though because in all honestly, pretty much all of Jojo’s is great and each season has it’s own charms. On the surface, Jojo’s is a pretty straightforward battle of good and evil, pitting the (mostly) heroic Joestar family against the vampire Dio Brando, and basically anyone his influence has effected by extension. What’s helped to make it such an enduring franchise though, ultimately comes down to three things. Firstly that it’s extremely adapable as each arc, or part as they’re called, follows a different protagonist from the Joestar bloodline making each part it’s own story, and allowing the series to constantly try new things with it’s characters, settings and themes, making it pretty likely you’ll find at least one arc will have something that appeals to you. That adaptability even applies to how the show structures it’s fights as it rather famously abandons hand-to-hand combat after Part 2, in favor of more strategic battles involving psychic ghosts called Stands that all have their own specific abilities, and it makes almost every battle in Jojo’s it’s own unique puzzle to solve, which means it’s rarely boring. Second, it’s absolutely bursting with style, and whether it’s the increasingly outlandish fashion choices for the characters, or their signature poses, Jojo’s has a unique look all its own, and David Production’s work on the anime takes that ball and runs with, as each new season has an increasingly unique sense of color of and storyboarding, and while it’s rarely well-animated, it’s directed so well those shortcomings are almost never apparent. Lastly, and very true to the show’s name, it’s very bizarre, and throws in everything from talking cyborg nazis to vampires that can stop time and shoot lasers from their eyes, while somehow making all of it never feel out of place or like the series is trying too hard to one-up itself in insanity. It’s a strange, but incredibly fun formula, and while it goes through many different changes in style, it’s heart consistently beats with the same level of sincerity as any other shonen franchise, and series creator Hirohiro Araki’s passion for it can always be felt throughout. Jojo’s is very odd for a shonen series and there really is nothing else out there quite like it, but it’s that oddness and it’s consistent willingness to evolve that have allowed it to endure so well over the years, and however much more of the franchise we get animated, I’ll always be eager to check it out.
Synopsis: Ten years before Shirou Emiya’s and Saber’s fateful meeting, Japan is the stage for the fourth Holy Grail War. Seven Masters, each with his own dreams, step forward to win the boon of the mystic relic. Into this fray comes Kiritsugu Emiya, the enigmatic “Mage Killer” who wants to use the Grail to make a better world. Can he, paired with the indomitable Saber win the War? Or will he fall to the ambitions of the other mages?
Why You Should Watch: In my early years of anime fandom, Fate only really existed as the 2006 adaption of Fate/Stay Night from Studio DEEN, which wasn’t very good, and which diehard Type Moon fans insisted was a poor representation of the material. Today, it’s nearly impossible to be a dedicated anime fan without having heard about Fate, and there’s at least two or three new anime projects coming out fot the franchise every year. That massive explosion in popularity can be largely attributed to Fate/Zero, and how the team at ufotable adapted the original novel from Gen Urobuchi. Much like Fate/Stay Night, which this series is a prequel to, the basic set up of this show involves a battle between seven mages who have each summoned a heroic warrior of legend dubbed “Servants” to do their bidding in order to win the Holy Grail and have their wish granted by it. It’s a pretty good setup for an action show, and the production really takes advantage of that, as the fight scenes all look fantastic, and the show takes full advantage of digital effects to make every Servant’s ability stand-out and look as cool as possible.
The character writing is no slouch here either, as the show also takes advantage of the Servants all being based off of historical figures of legend from our own world, to give each of them unique personalities and perspectives that bounce off of their respective masters, and influence the actions they take over the course of the series. Whether it’s Rider teaching Waver how to loosen up and fight his own battles, or Gilgamesh slowly convincing Kirei to give into his dark side and go from priest to absolute monster, these dynamics are a ton of fun to watch, and they help to turn what could have otherwise been a straightforward battle royal, into a more complex look at varying ideologies and morality. That can best be seen through the arc of the protagonist Kiritsugu and his servant Saber as he wishes to use the Grail to save the world, and be a hero, only to find himself wondering if there truly is a way in which all people can be saved, and if he can even save himself from the things he’s done on the path to his goal. It’s all really compelling material and the best part about it is that despite being a prequel (and also despite what diehard fans of the franchise will tell you) it’s a perfectly self-contained story that doesn’t require any prior knowledge of Fate, and doesn’t require you to commit to the rest of the franchise if you don’t want to. Frankly nothing else from the franchise has kind of measured up to it, which is kind of a shame, but for what’s effectively served as a new-ish starting point into such a massive franchise, it’s hard to think of anything as well-executed as this was.
Synopsis: The protagonist Akira Fudo learns from his best friend, Ryo Asuka, that an ancient race of demons has returned to take back the world from humans. Ryo tells Akira that the only way to defeat the demons is to incorporate their supernatural powers, and suggests that he unite with a demon himself. Akira succeeds in transforming into Devilman, who possesses both the powers of a demon and the soul of a human. The battle of Devilman and Akira Fudo begins.
Why You Should Watch: Devilman was always one of those things in the anime sphere that I was vaguely aware of, but never gave much thought beyond acknolweding how influencial it was. Now that we’ve gotten a retelling of Go Nagai’s original tale from the mind of the crimininal underrated director Masaaki Yuasa, I can see why. As is kind of evident by it’s title, Devilman Crybaby starts off as a superhero tale of sorts with the protagonist Akira being a mild mannered teen until he goes to a rave with his friend Ryo one night, and gets possessed by a devil, turning him into the titular Devilman, who goes toe-to-toe with various demonic threats surrounding him. However as the story progresses and the devils Akira faces prove to be more complex beings than he first thought, it evolves into a cautionary tale about how easy it is for society to label those who don’t fit into it’s norms as threats that must be exterminated, and the horrors that can be committed in the name of fighting that percieved threat. It is this aspect of humanity that the show argues is the real danger, and the conclusion it comes to on that end, while extremely depressing, hits in a way that will absolutely leave an impact on you. At the same time though, the show isn’t totally devoid of hope, and while pretty much every character gets put through the meat grinder, it shows that love and compassion can be powerful in dire circumstances, even if our self-destructive nature tends to prevail over that. Those messages are aided by the show’s unique visual design which mixes flash and traditional 2D animation to give it a look that can grasp both the simple and gentler side of human natue and the violent destruction that lurks beneath it. While time will tell exactly what kind of impact this adaption leaves on anime going forward, it certainly left an impact on me, and as my main introduction into Go Nagai’s work, it was one heck of a first impression.