Tier 4: Greatness

The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi

This one I find hard to talk about. Probably because I respect it more than I like it… maybe. I do like it a lot.

Why it’s on the list

If I’m going to reduce this show into a sentence it’s about finding the fantastic the ordinary. While most stories with that theme revel in the fantastic once the cat’s out of the bag, Melancholy revels in the ordinary. This is a show where there are like six plot episodes that “matter.” But the argument for this show isn’t for those six episodes, if that were the case it wouldn’t be ranked this high. They’re some of the best episodes and it really works in the show’s favor that it tells the story it needs to tell at the right pace and just uses the right number of episodes it needs to tell that story. But this is a story about high school ennui, and you can’t capture that feeling if important plot stuff is happening all the time. Or maybe you can? I dunno. It also helps that this show had a real animation budget, which allows for a lot of subtlety in getting the expressiveness of the characters, especially Haruhi, across. Aya Hirano’s voice performance as Haruhi is also amazing. The light novels the show is working from are clearly well thought out and clever, but it’s the way the show brings Haruhi to life that really sticks with me.

Why it’s not higher

All but two of the characters are just props. The show got probably too much pleasure from trolling its audience, airing episodes out of order, and then most notably airing the endless eight, basically the same episode for eight weeks in a row during the second season. Look, the show is boring sometimes. I don’t hold that against it or anything but we’re to the cutthroat part of the list. And while our main character, Kyon , can hold his own with Haruhi, none of the others can really stand toe to toe with her. That’s not really a flaw as much as it is a feature, part of what makes the show succeed at what it is trying to accomplish. But it also means the show can only top out so high on this list.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica


So… this show is about witches and I watched it after seeing When the Seagulls Cry, which forever changed my relationship with fictional witches. Madoka ties into that newfound understanding surprisingly well (Completely unintentionally I’m sure). As much as I love this show I don’t know that I could talk to someone else who loved it if they did not also share my affection for When the Seagulls Cry. Yeah, I’m enough of a snob to think that people can like something for the wrong reasons. If someone praises this show just on its face value premise, I’m questioning that person’s taste. A show about Magical Girls dying brutally isn’t necessarily a winning formula is what I’m saying.

Why it’s on the list 

Taking a genre that’s primarily for kids and trying to make it “darker” and/or “more adult” is a dangerous and difficult task. It’s also often undertaken in the wrong spirit, revealing a cynicism and disdain for the core principles of what makes what it’s working from appealing in the first place. (i.e. The Transformers movies) From what I’ve seen, the way to do it correctly is pretty simple though: You can be dark, but don’t be cynical. And try to be smart about it. Yes, Madoka is dark and involves little girls being killed by monsters, but it’s also still a Shoujo anime. It’s still just a story about trying to save your friends. It never demeans the cheesiness of that idea, or gives up on it. It’s still the core story of this show and the way it handles that story is what makes it so good. The animation on the monsters and their environments is incredible and worth seeing all on its own.

Why it’s not higher

Ok so, late in the show there is a reveal about the nature of this world that might be the dumbest reveal I’ve ever heard. I was warned about it ahead of time and it still almost ruined the show for me. Luckily it doesn’t really matter very much and there’s another late reveal that’s actually really good and is the actual driving plot point for the ending. That twist is great and the key to the whole show. But man, that one part is fucking terrible. At its core it’s still a pretty basic Shoujo anime. It elevates itself, but it’s not nearly the most interesting Shoujo anime out there.

Sword Art Online (1-14)


The story of an MMO player base becoming trapped in the game and death being for real. SAO blends the “trapped in another world” trope with the structure and rules of an MMO. It’s basically Digimon if everyone were as nerdy about the world as Izzy. And if there were way more people around to be cannon fodder. And a lot of other differences.

Why it’s on the list

The thing that strikes me most about SAO is how well paced these 14 episodes are. A lot happens, and a lot of time passes, but the show is very good at quickly establishing the way the world has changed and how people are adjusting to their situation. The show is thoughtful about what people would be worried about and how they would adapt. I love that there’s an episode about how eating and cooking work in this virtual world. Yes people want to escape, but without the choice they adapt and try to get on as best as they can. I also really appreciate any show that can capture the feeling of a city, a large community of people, that’s small enough that you run into people you know, but big enough that you’re still basically anonymous. SAO manages this by having a pretty large cast that we spend brief focused time with before moving on to the next story.

This virtual world feels lived in. I also think the show does a good job at being about an MMO. There’s an episode about collecting the matts to craft a sword. It’s authentic enough to make me reminisce about my own time with MMOs. To go back to the pace thing, how many shows are confident enough to introduce a romantic pairing, have them form a relationship, show them spending time together, just being around each other, and even have them get married. All that happens within 14 episodes, and it doesn’t feel rushed, the emotional progress makes sense.

Why it’s not higher

SAO is not the greatest thing in existence, but it’s very good and it’s very tight. What rises it up is the amount and quality of the world building that happens in addition to telling its story well. But that tops it out here. I am kind of cheating again by not including the latter episodes, but everything that gets it here is lost after this first arc. The large cast is abandoned, along with the show’s entire premise and world it established. The first 14 episodes are enough of a complete whole that I’m just counting them and ignoring the fan fiction the series followed them up with.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

This is a big one. If this were a list that valued importance and influence this show would probably be right at the top. The landscape of anime past 1996 just doesn’t make sense without Evangelion. There’s really nothing to compare to Eva that came before it. There’s plenty of stuff that came after, but those only exist because of the original. Trying to understand anime without Eva is like trying to understand American pop music without Nirvana; or superhero comics without Watchmen, It’s a seismic event as much as it is a show. I’m saying it’s worth watching at least.

Why it’s on the list

Gainax started making Eva with the ambition to create the most popular anime of all time. Their plan was to make a giant robot show with really impressive animation. It even aired in a time slot meant for kids cartoons. But director Hideaki Anno gave no fucks and the show quickly began to depart from its original script, becoming darker and more introspective as Anno battled depression. So what started as crass commercialism, Giant Robot Anime For Kids, became an auteur driven show about psychologically broken characters. The show was moved to a more adult timeslot and by the end almost all of the sponsors had backed out. All the changes to the story also meant that the show was constantly up against a deadline, so the intricate impressive animation gave way to a much more minimalist style. There’s so much going on here and I’ve barely talked about the show itself. It’s a very flawed show, but it’s also incredible, in a way the countless imitations can never match.

Why it’s not higher 

Did I mention it’s a flawed show? Basically from here on out I think all the shows on this list are pretty much perfect (with one major exception). This is a show where I think anyone who says it’s the greatest show ever is overstating it, but I’m equally weary of people who want to dismiss it. This is a mess, but it’s a glorious mess.