As the title indicates, this list is about Madhouse wankfest personal favorites more than anything. Still, while there’s a lot of childhood experience and nostalgia that informed my selection, I’m confident enough about the lasting appeal of such entries to recommend them. I’m perpetually catching up with a bunch of acclaimed shows in recent times, checking out older classics, and re-assess stuff I’ve liked, so expect adjustments in updates to this list once every few months… or once a year… or whenever I feel like it, basically.
(series/OVAs/ONAs only, you can find my favorite anime films in the Film category along with live Japanese films. Also unranked, because I’m lazy I found such distinction mostly arbitrary)
ASTRO BOY (Tezuka Productions, 2003-2004)
There’s a lot about Astro Boy that appealed to me beyond its obvious historical significance. The older series (1960s and 1980s) have their own respective merits while also being significantly different takes on the lore, but I’d go with the 2003 series for my favorite. An energetic show laced with strong emotional undercurrent and thematic substance revolving around familial connection and existential angst, it has all the strengths that made Astro Boy a special thing while maintaining a perfect balance in tone and content. It’s also naturally the best-looking Astro Boy (including over the all-CGI 2009 film) thus far, and packed with fantastic orchestral soundtrack to boot. Also also, butt machine gun.
(it’s worth noting that a large part of what I wrote above only applies to the original Japanese version, which is significantly different from the official English dubbed version. The dubbed version of 2003 series in particular, has a cropped aspect ratio, completely different soundtrack, and streamlined content through heavy edits/cuts in order to make it more of a hip action series aimed at young boys demographic).
BLUE LITERATURE SERIES (Madhouse, 2009)
An anthology of extremely well-regarded Japanese stories, this is a great gateway to the works of literary luminaries Natsume Soseki, Osamu Dazai, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, and Ango Sakaguchi. It’s a well-executed concept, too; Madhouse really flexed their production muscles with this one, impressing through consistently breathtaking animation and bold re-imaginings of each story through various shades of tone and narrative technique. The presence of a narrator for each episode is largely useful to help contextualizing the stories and their writers for newcomers like me, and while not all stories resonated strongly with me (Soseki’s Kokoro, told through Rashomon Effect narrative, is my personal favorite), every single one of them commanded a lot of attention and thought in a way that I found simultaneously stimulating and enjoyable.
CHIHAYAFURU (Madhouse, 2011-2013)
You may not know a damn thing about karuta before Chihayafuru’s existence, but if you have the slightest drop of competitive streak in your DNA, it’s practically impossible not to relate with this series. It has the intensity provided by the high-octane matches set against the beautifully melancholic backdrop of Japanese poems, and in Chihaya Ayase, a damn fine protagonist and one of the fiercest competitors I’ve ever seen from the genre. Suetsugu Yuuki’s series obviously stands out because the sport being portrayed is a highly unconventional one, even in its country of origin, but Chihayafuru is also bolstered further by hard-hitting doses of camaraderie, understated romance, and prickly teenagehood.
COWBOY BEBOP (Sunrise, 1998-1999)
A boring choice, I know, but there’s a great reason why Soichiro Watanabe’s masterwork is listed in 95% of favorites list out there. Watanabe’s love letter to classic Western cinema, Cowboy Bebop is also an exemplary work in episodic world-building, audiovisual story-telling, and subtly powerful character dynamics. It might start slow and wouldn’t blow away anyone expecting Greatest Anime Ever from the get go, but it’s damn rewarding show with a sum greater than its parts and high re-watch value. Calling itself “a show that has become a genre upon itself” is an awfully cocksure claim to make, but I’d say they successfully backed it up.
DENNOU COIL (Madhouse, 2007)
There are many reasons to recommend Dennou Coil; the sheer talent of creator Mitsuo Iso, stellar world-building, and a level of production value that might not be the showiest thing possible, but so remarkably distinct and polished. However, what really impressed me above all is how Dennou Coil understands children. As much as it is a sci-fi adventure/mystery show, it’s also an affecting nostalgia trip into the later stage of childhood, a period where you collect cool stuff that kids your age are crazy about, raise your first pet, share urban legends, and have a petty fight with your siblings and friends. It didn’t hurt that the show also wielded probably the most likable cast of tweeners I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch; by the time the show ended, I only wish I could spend more time seeing them continue to grow up.
DORAEMON (Shin-Ei Animation, 1979-2005)
No, this is not a nostalgia pick, at least not entirely. The cat robot was an essential part of countless Asian kids’ formative childhood years, and as hard as it is to deny how influential and universally appealing Fujiko F Fujio’s creation has been, it’s also just as hard to recommend the series to a modern adult audience without all the personal memories. However, without the much valued overarching plot or even a clearly defined end point, Doraemon offered plenty of everything else; whether it’s the simple comedy of gadget-based hijinks, the way Doraemon and the gang delightfully play off each other, or the occasional foray into poignant themes that struck you even harder when you get back to it as an adult. It’s an ageless classic, is what I want to say.
(I grew up with the 1979 version, but modern audience may prefer to check out the 2005 re-boot, the latest of three separate runs).
GHOST IN THE SHELL: STAND ALONE COMPLEX (Production I.G., 2002-2005)
My favorite incarnation of the franchise thus far, the TV series strike a good balance between Mamoru Oshii’s impressive but cold movie and Masamune Shirow’s mostly kitschy original manga. Gits:SAC is a sci-fi fan’s wet dream, exploring the ramifications of a well-fleshed futuristic world in intelligent manner, while also spoiling us with great action scenes, characterization (most notably buoyed by Motoko Kusanagi, one of the most iconic heroine in the medium’s history), and soundtrack. Whether it’s depicting a future chatroom, delving into the consciousness of sentient battle tanks, or just being a routine procedural show with atypically thought-provoking cases, it did a hell of a job in impressing me.
HAIBANE RENMEI (Radix, 2002)
A contemplative, heavy, story masking itself as a light-hearted slice of life with cute girls, it’s a beautiful show in many ways. Conceived and written by a true auteur in Yoshitoshi Abe (also responsible for Serial Experiment Lain and Texhnolyze), be aware that you’d somehow end up with more questions in the end compared to when you start it, and it’s not a bad thing. Haibane Renmei is a largely symbolic show with layers of subtlety, but it doesn’t confound for the sake of being confounding. The power and clarity of its themes should come through by the end, and the soundtrack, a compilation of soothing and evocative tunes, is exactly my kind of music.
HUNTER X HUNTER (Nippon Animation, 1999-2001 + Madhouse, 2011-2014)
I fell for the 1999 version in my junior high days, and then even harder for the 2011 re-boot. Yoshihiro Togashi’s masterwork may have the soul and some common tropes (e.g. hot-headed main protagonist with Missing Father syndrome, tournament arc, and power leveling) of a shounen action series, but these familiar elements are spiced with great world(s)-building and thrilling set-pieces that keep subverting my expectation in new and exhilarating ways. The execution ends up being so genre-fluid, possessing the level of ingenuity, thematic, and emotional depth that far exceeds its typical peers. It’s perhaps the only >100-episode shounen action shows that completely justified its entire length and the required investment, and one I’d recommend to absolutely anyone, even (and perhaps especially) if you’re already sick of the genre.
(as much nostagia as I have for the 1999 version, it’s the new version that I’d recommend for modern viewers; mostly by having the virtue of more content [the Chimaera Ant arc alone is worth the price of admission] and Madhouse’s superior audiovisual work).
KAIBA (Madhouse, 2008)
One of the shows most responsible in pulling me back into the anime scene after a significant period of time when I thought I was “over it”. Among Masaaki Yuasa’s works, this one might actually be my favorite, in spite of being an imperfect sci-fi adventure whose main plot stumbled significantly in the end. However, even as I knew that Tatami Galaxy and Ping Pong are overall better shows (I’ve got the sense that Yuasa did his best work adapting other people’s works, at least so far), parts of Kaiba are just so beautifully sublime I couldn’t resist, whether it’s the homage to the likes of Leiji Matsumoto and Fujiko F Fujio, the endless stream of visual ingenuity, the hard-hitting emotional punches, the daring and heady ideas, or the extremely haunting leitmotif in The Tree Song.
KAIJI (Madhouse, 2007-2011)
I watched most stuff with poker face, drinking my tea and nodding sagely while muttering “well I expected that”, but Kaiji is one of the few that could make me constantly flip out and spit my tea through my nose. Adapted from the long-running manga of Nobuyuki Fukumoto, the codifying mangaka for psychological deathmatch story, the show improved on the source material mainly due to the combination of deathly ominous sound effect and the unforgettable, ever present, narrator who kept making an overwhelmingly convincing case that you’re watching the Most Dramatic Thing Ever. As intense as it is though, it wouldn’t work without its eponymous protagonist; a deadbeat with balls of iron, heart of gold, and over active tear ducts capable of spewing glorious manly tears.
MOBILE SUIT PATLABOR (Sunrise, 1989-1990)
More than a decade after a brief tangle with Masami Yuuki’s manga (which I eventually dismissed due to “not having enough fights with laser and explosion”), the franchise finally won me over through the underappreciated 47-episode TV series. A classic police show that more often deals with red tape, petty crimes, and office drama/shenanigans over swashbuckling action and global threats, its true asset is the supremely endearing cast of dorks and misfits whose charm, sense of humor, and gender-progressive sensibility had flown over my head the first time around. I was also wrong about the robot fights: they’re very well-choreographed in their own raw and grounded way, and you don’t get much more awesome in terms of real robot design than the good old Ingram. Still, it’s the characters like Noa, Asuma, Kanuka, and Captain Goto who are Patlabor’s heart and soul, the kind that tend to stick with you for life.
MORIBITO: GUARDIAN OF THE SPIRIT (Production I.G., 2007)
Its slow burn nature and lack of high drama may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the series’ end struck me with a belated realization of how low key excellent it was at basically everything. Anchored by the awesome pair of a 30-year old (!) female spear-wielder and a crown prince with maturity belying his very young age, Moribito bypasses common genre tropes and instead taps into a rich vein of Eastern folklore and spiritualism to tell a spellbinding character-driven tale. Production I.G. brought their A-game for this adaptation of Nahoko Uehashi’s novel, resulting in tremendous production value to accompany a rock solid narrative populated by characters far more mature and reasonable than what you can typically found from the medium of anime. It’s oftentimes pure poetry in motion, sound, and especially in its poignant lines of dialogue and bittersweet character relationships.
PARANOIA AGENT (Madhouse, 2004)
This isn’t a ranked list, but if it is, Paranoia Agent would’ve been my easy pick for #1. Bearing the visual and thematic signature marks of brilliant auteur Satoshi Kon, who had left us far too early, this is a mind-bender of a series with challenging structure and narrative. Taking form as a psychological mystery told in interwoven manner, Paranoia Agent is packed with meanings all the way from the deceptively joyful OP with its evocative lyric; but it’s also a few degrees removed from frustrating obtuseness, nailing that sweet spot where someone who likes to decode and unpack stuff could have an absolute ball while maintaining relatively high accessibility for everyone else. Beneath its grim celebration on the worst of human nature and macabre sense of humor, however, there is a big, beating, heart providing unforgettable moment of emotional clarity for me. A stone cold masterpiece.
RUROUNI KENSHIN (Gallop & Deen, 1996-1998)
Set in the middle of Meiji period, Rurouni Kenshin is a samurai combat show with weighty historical and political background, made palatable for younger demographic through the oftentimes comedic cast, idealistic worldview, and its charming badass of a protagonist. The manga is almost certainly better by virtue of not having mostly inane filler material, but it also doesn’t have a heavenly soundtrack (probably my favorite anime OST ever) and strikingly animated swordfight scenes. And, as disposable as the last stretch of fillers are, the show’s depiction of Kyoto Arc remained the best combat series arc I’ve ever seen. The prequel OVA Trust and Betrayal is a mandatory viewing as well, despite (and because of) significantly different tone and art direction.
SHIROBAKO (P.A. Works, 2014-2015)
The most recent entry by a considerable margin, this is a show I happened to watch at exactly the right period in my life. As enjoyable and edifying it is as a behind-the-scene look at anime production (along with countless references and in-jokes that naturally entailed), this part of the show is mostly icings; the cake itself, at least to me, is the heavy emphasis on the daily grind of people (un)fortunate enough to pursue a creative career. It brings to mind my own failures, triumphs, and problems in a production team under constant deadline pressure; when a certain character wondered if she would ever be good enough to gamble her future “on this thing”, she might as well voiced my own professional insecurities and fears. However, in the end what I’ve really appreciated is how gentle and compassionate the show ultimately is for people like myself.
SUPER DIMENSION FORTRESS MACROSS (Studio Nue & Tatsunoko, 1982-1983)
Alright, with this one I can say with utmost confidence that it’s not nostalgia, not least because I actually watched it for the first time three decades since its original airing. It has everything: space war drama, romantic triangle, sociopolitical commentary, comedy, and tragedy. While these days that kind of hodgepodge will result in unmitigated disaster more often than not, this is a rare example when it really worked—in no small part because of how goddamn earnest and sincere it is. Macross just has its own distinctive flavor that’s harder to replicate than it seems, with a bunch of wrinkles (dated animation, soap drama tendency near the end, the existence of Lin Kaifun) that’s easy to forgive because of how powerful the whole package is. Even at its silliest, it charms instead of frustrates.
THE TATAMI GALAXY (Madhouse, 2010)
Masaaki Yuasa took an already strong source material in Tomihiko Morimi’s novel and injected a crazy amount of flair to construct easily the most compelling variation of Groundhog Day I’ve ever seen. In comparison to static, garden variety, visual story-telling from most of media products, watching the first episode alone is like having ice cold water splashed on my face: machine gun monologue, trippy LSD visual, and characters jumping in and out of the story with casual disregard toward the concept of time and space. All these didn’t obscure the unmistakably coherent main narrative though, and while the main point it’s eventually getting across is something that has been done countless time, rarely it is told with such clarity and style as the case here.
TIME OF EVE (Rikka, 2008-2009)
I’m a sucker for Isaac Asimov-esque slice-of-robot-life stories, and this mini-series (later cut into a feature film) hits that sweet spot like a cold lemonade in a sweltering summer day. It’s a deceptively modest story, composed entirely of episodic small-scale conflicts and primarily set in a single location, but it also has a strong sense of aesthetic, chunks of world-building information smartly conveyed through unintrusive means, and an assured focus in its characters and their interaction. It barely takes a couple of hours to watch the whole thing, and yet it presented a more fleshed-out and thoughtful world than other shows tripling or quadrupling its length. Director and screenwriter Yasuhiro Yoshiura is a name I’ve never heard prior to watching this, but since then he’s firmly on my radar.
THE TWELVE KINGDOMS (Pierrot, 2002-2003)
Persevere through its unconvincing and familiar beginning (a high-school girl is whisked away to a fantastical world after an encounter with a man from said world, is going to fulfill her true destiny there), and you’d be rewarded with an amazing show that excelled in plot, setting, and character. Based on Fuyumi Ono’s series of novels, Twelve Kingdoms/Juuni Kokuki is a sprawling geopolitical fantasy with a very, very, rich world-building and in Youko Nakajima, it has perhaps the most compelling heroine arc in the medium. It’s unfortunate that the adaptation only covered small portion of the series, although the structure (four big and relatively self-contained arcs) helped in that regard. If I can choose an anime series for a re-boot, this would far an away be my #1 choice.
Entries that were in my Favorite Manga List, because I’m either more familiar with/prefer the manga version. Jump into that list for my gushing on the following, while I noted general comparisons between the versions here.
A lot of manga fans are reportedly unhappy with the changes made (which included significantly different ending and personality of a crucial character), but at the very least I’d say that Chiaki Ishikawa delivered couple of stellar songs for this.
- Cross Game
I think Mitsuru Adachi’s style tend to work better on manga pages, although the anime version does have some extra content while also covering the full extent of the story.
- Death Note
Well, anime is more (overly) dramatic with a bunch of meme-worthy moments, which can either be a good or bad thing depending on your preference.
- Dragon Ball
My optimal recommendation if you’re interested is to watch the anime until the transition point into Z, then switch to Dragon Ball Kai. See the infamous DBZ Abridged if you prefer to see a fan parody version instead.
- Flowers of Evil
Anime has an interesting (albeit predictably controversial) roto-scoped approach that makes it a starkly different experience, albeit it only covered around the first half of the manga.
As far as I know, anime is a more compressed version with minor differences.
- Glass Mask
Two anime adaptations (1984 and 2007) sandwiched by an OVA for this legendary shoujo. The 2007 version isthe most representative due to its highest episode count alone, although probably still not come close into covering the whole breadth of the manga.
- Hikaru no Go
See Genshiken above.
- Kids on The Slope
Reportedly truncated ending, but Shinichiro Watanabe’s directing and Yoko Kanno’s music should be more than enough to alleviate concern in that department.
- Kindaichi Case Files
There are 150+ episodes available, and only slightly more than half have been fansubbed. Still, considering the episodic nature of the story, I’d say even partial viewing is worth it. Plus, there’s a bunch of anime-original cases. Take note not to confuse this with the very recent Kindaichi shows, which is based on sequel series I’m not nearly as fond of.
- Please Save My Earth
Only 6-episode OVA existed, which essentially serve more as a gateway to the 21-volume manga.
Pretty faithful adaptation, although stopping just short of the original season’s ending and rather abruptly at that.