Reincarnated idols, disembodied detectives, pacifist gunslingers, you name it. This year delivered another embarrassment of hype-worthy anime riches — from debuts like the Astro Boy–inspired Pluto to comfort food like Skip and Loafer, to the exciting conclusion to the latest show in the Gundam multiverse. A number of creative and thoughtful works across a range of styles pushed the medium this year, through the gorgeous high fantasy of Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End or the chilling post-apocalypse of Heavenly Delusion, or the boldly expressive 3DCG experimentation of Trigun: Stampede. Here are ten of the best anime TV shows from this past year, followed by a few honorable mentions.
Trigun is a beloved anime and manga franchise. Not all of its adherents loved Studio Orange’s new character designs and unfamiliar take on creator Yasuhiro Nightow’s story. But for those who were happy to watch the new show on its own terms, this adaptation of Nightow’s sci-fi western was a shot in the arm at the start of 2023. (It also sparked one of the funniest displays of soft power of the entire year — when one of its fan accounts pushed a queer sci-fi novelist’s work to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list.) Trigun Stampede is a boundary-pushing display of cartoony expressivity in 3DCG animation, a style often maligned for its stiffness compared to more traditional methods that nonetheless looks beautiful here.
Though it retains a lot of the goofiness of Vash the Stampede — a man so wanted that he has a 60 million “double-dollar” bounty on his head due to the chaos he brings to every town on the planet of No Man’s Land — Stampede doesn’t blunt the edges of its source material, jumping into heady mythology around the mysterious “Plants” that the settlements depend on for survival. Vash also contends with an evil twin brother, called Millions Knives (the name is more literal than you’d think), who destroys an entire town not long after he first shows up. Stampede delivers one of the year’s finest animated shows, bold enough to strike out into new narrative territory while it raises the bar for 3-D animation in anime. Bring on season two.
Available on Crunchyroll and Hulu
A murder-mystery spin on a sci-fi classic, Pluto adapts a manga byNaoki Urasawa (creator of Monster) that reimagines Osamu Tezuka’s famous Astro Boy series for the 21st century. Urasawa’s story begins with a beloved, dungaree-wearing robot named Montblanc, a mountain guide in the Alps, found murdered. Inspector Gesicht, a detective who is also a robot himself, follows the trail of the murderer of the world’s most advanced robots and advocates for their rights.
The show beautifully translates Urasawa’s manga artwork, like his expressive eyebrows and characterful features, while adding new dimensions through its bright, surreal digital-coloring and visual effects, befitting an artificial world gone awry. Underscored by an excellent, ominous score, the show also devoutly adapts Urasawa’s slow-burn storytelling, favoring sprawling narratives that render the supporting cast and their backstories in elaborate, often heartbreaking detail through in-depth conversation. Take an early example from the first episode, which moves from Gesicht’s investigation into the story of Paul Duncan, an aging composer, and his robot butler North No. 2. It’s an already devastating tale made more so by the show’s incorporation of a Proustian moment of sensory memory, an AI singing a song to help a man recall his mother. As well as such intimate stories, Pluto deals in more far-reaching political allegory, particularly in its depiction of a war that stands in for the invasion of Iraq — complete with a blatant George W. Bush knockoff who manufactures consent via a search for “robots of mass destruction.” A nightmarish depiction of foreign interventionism is one of many reasons Pluto remains gripping, even through hour-long episodes.
Available on Netflix
Tsurune: The Linking Shot
Continuing the story of a kyūdo (Japanese archery) club in its quest for national tournament success and one team member’s gradual return to form, Tsurune: The Linking Shot is a lavish and considered sports drama. Directed by Takuya Yamamura, what sets it apart from a number of popular sports series is its tightly contained action — it’s all in the flight of an arrow, a solitary moment rather than the continuous back-and-forth of a team sport. Nonetheless, the production from respected studio Kyoto Animation delivers perhaps one of the best-looking animated shows of the year. It’s hard to overstate the beauty of it, whether that’s in a practice hall bathed in a sunset glow or its close-ups on archery form.
Tsurune: The Linking Shot amplifies the incredibly deliberate nature of archery, examining the routine of martial arts down to the most minuscule detail, emulating the tension and exhilarating release of the bowstring in its very craft. Through its lush production, the accumulation of repeated behavior and focus on the refinement of technical skill, it becomes thrilling to witness the arrows in flight, as the camera always finds creative angles from which to follow the whistling projectile. It’s satisfying not only to see it land, but also to see what that represents for its characters.
Available on HiDive
Skip and Loafer
Skip and Loafer is a mellow romance of burgeoning friendship between a pair of high-schoolers diametrically opposed in their demeanor: The go-getter country bumpkin Mitsumidreams big and plans in obsessive detail, while Sosuke is much more laid-back and even wayward in his lack of ambition — or perhaps his deliberate avoidance of it. As the former panics on her first day at school, lost amidst Tokyo’s labyrinthine transit system, the two meet and their story begins.
From this point, director and writer Kotomi Deai follows Mitsumi through classic anime high-school experiences: student councils and culture festivals and more, witnessed through elliptical episodes that hopscotch ahead in time, little by little. The stakes are rather small-scale, mostly around her trying to make a good impression on her new classmates or slowly unpacking the enigmatic Sosuke’s past as he slowly opens up to her. At the same time, Mitsumi begins to bring a group of varying personality types together, her earnest demeanor breaking through some long-held insecurities and rivalries. Watching them warm up to each other is a comfort emphasized through Mitsumi’s broadly comedic acting and the animation, produced by PA Works (Akiba Maid War) with gentle, round-edged artwork. It’s an incredibly funny, sweet, understated delight.
Available on Crunchyroll
The Apothecary Diaries
The feudal medical mystery The Apothecary Diaries boasts one of the year’s most charming protagonists in Maomao, a peculiar, dry-humored loner and savant with medicines and poisons who prefers to be left alone. Her determination to keep her daily excursions and workload at a minimum is admirable, but if she succeeded, we wouldn’t get the series’ beautifully animated vignettes. Maomao falls into her role by a combination of bad luck and insatiable curiosity. Maomao was an apothecary in her hometown’s red-light district, she winds up a servant to the emperor’s concubines after being kidnapped and sold. Amusingly, she’s rather unfazed by the whole ordeal, and decides to keep her head down — before her interest is piqued by a mystery illness plaguing the emperor’s newborn babies and their mothers.
She solves it, but this catches the attention of higher-ups, who then recruit her as a taster for poison, then as a lady-in-waiting, which of course leads to more detective work, and more attention, and more frustration with people who don’t fully understand bodily health. Its gorgeous fourth episode, “The Threat,” cements Maomao’s complexity as a central character beyond her remarkable fortitude against poisons, and introduces some extra tension to the series. Its combination of palace intrigue with the upstairs-downstairs perspective of the servants and an incredibly likable main character makes for a compelling story. It may be quieter than the more action-packed entries from this year, but no less exhilarating.
Available on Crunchyroll
Vinland Saga season two
Four years after its initial run, the long-awaited second season of Vinland Saga adapts a watershed moment in Makoto Yukimura’s historical drama: its tortured protagonist Thorfinn committing to pacifism instead of the path of vengeance that ruined his life in the first season. After maneuvering through war between the Danes and the English, this follow-up is decidedly smaller-scale: Thorfinn now hides his past as a warrior and lives on a farm in Denmark. The show had always considered the sociological and personal impact of violence on its characters and doubles down on those themes here, mostly leaving the battlefield behind for introspective drama about its protagonist’s rehabilitation.
The show and Thorfinn’s gradual interrogation of his quest for penance, and how his decisions impact the world and the people around him, is incredibly moving, but Vinland Saga also excels in giving the supporting cast rich and complicated inner lives, building those into crucial emotional context for its sweeping historical drama. Thorfinn’s companions Einar and Arnheid endure their own tragedies, both of which inform his worldview, and eventually, poignantly lead him to a simple and touching declaration from a character who once swore bloody vengeance at all cost: “I don’t have any enemies.”
Available on Crunchyroll and Netflix
Scott Pilgrim Takes Off
It feels funny to place a story so intrinsically connected to Toronto on a list of the “best anime,” but here’s Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, challenging expectations. It does that within its own text too. Rather than the more faithful remake that audiences expected upon catching first glimpses of its comic-accurate character designs, it’s a meta reboot that works with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight. In the world of Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, the comic book happened, the events of the movie happened, and now there’s a chance for Ramona — and her evil exes — to take a different path to fix things about themselves. It’s equal parts funny and melancholic, alternating between hyperactive action and quiet moments of introspection.
With animation production by Science Saru, it’s also a visual feast — whether that’s through its dynamic, reality-bending fight sequences, or just a character showing off on a skateboard. Through its chunky linework and rounded faces, it lovingly recalls the visual stylings of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic while adding its own, pleasing embellishments, from its reality-shifting fights to something as small and specific as the shared lightning-bolt silhouette in Ramona and Scott’s hair. Abel Góngora’s direction keeps things feeling fresh when original creator O’Malley and co-writer/co-showrunner BenDavid Grabinski aren’t being playfully subversive. It’s the platonic ideal of a remake: one that’s not content to just relive the past, but instead seeks to take an untraveled path, to explore facets of its characters and world previously left untapped. If only more adaptations were like it, free to reinterpret and directly question their source material rather than use it as a blueprint.
Available on Netflix
Oshi no Ko
A genre-bending drama that excavates the worst parts of various entertainment industries, Oshi no Ko explores how those abuses and bad habits go hand in hand with the allure of showbiz. The story’s route into this exposé-like atmosphere is about as unconventional as you could get. Its deuteragonists Aqua and Ruby Hoshino are the secret children of an idol, Ai. But they’re also reincarnations of two fans of hers, the former an obstetrician who treated her and then gets pushed off a cliff, the latter a cancer patient in the same hospital. Their lives dramatically change again when Ai is murdered by a stalker — but the true villains may be an elusive figure in the entertainment business and the twins’ father. Years later, Aqua is making moves into the film and television industries to find the one responsible, while Ruby dreams of being an idol like her mother.
Aside from its unhinged backstory, the real fun of Oshi no Ko is the drama it mines from its analytical portrayal of the entertainment industry and how business conflicts with art. An arc about reality shows carefully lays out the differences in production style and the practical requirements of these shoots, building it around stories of the pressure of the spotlight on young actors and the dark side of parasocial relationships. These insightful digressions from its revenge plot help build the show’s central theme of performance: The central characters have played a role since the day they were born, after all. Director Daisuke Hiramaki and animation studio Doga Kobo balance this with both good humor and expression of the feelings driving these characters to perform, like Ruby’s passion for dance portrayed in a storm of hypnotic color as her mother teaches her, or in the frantic maximalist spectacle of her idol concert that closes out the season.
Available on HiDive
Heavenly Delusion (a.k.a. Tengoku Daimakyo on streaming) rivals Oshi no Ko for the honor of being the strangest show on the list. Hirotaka Mori’s adaptation of Masakazu Ishiguro’s postapocalyptic manga is willfully, tantalizingly opaque — even its characters don’t really know where they’re going. All the leads Kirukoand Maru have to go on is the vague idea of somewhere that could be compared to “heaven,” as the former is tasked with protecting the latter as his bodyguard. The world they inhabit is infested by a plague of “man-eaters,” grotesque eldritch monsters that appear as nightmarish parodies of real animals — say, a large deformed bird, or even a fish with prehensile limbs.
Moribuilds the mystery through two parallel plots, that of Kirukoand Maru’s search across the countryas well as a story set within an isolated orphanage-slash-school-slash-laboratory, building toward an unknown purpose. Part of the pleasure of Heavenly Delusion is being bewildered and terrified by it, so I’ll leave the plot details at that. Its season-long journey slowly unfurls connections between one story line and the other. Along the way, it grows into one of the year’s most compelling and idiosyncratic shows, full of creative and terrifying creature design, but also a sensitivity that balances its action with both quiet tragedy and a winsome sense of humor.
Available on Disney+ and Hulu
Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End
While the title of this show’s comic source material translates as the slightly more hard-core Frieren at the Funeral, the emotional drive of the television series is evident in its subtitle: Beyond Journey’s End. This reflective fantasy begins with a group of adventurers returning home after killing the demon king, the rest of their lives ahead of them. For the taciturn elf mage Frieren, the rest of her teammates’ lives pass in barely any time at all, her life span measuring in centuries rather than decades. Distraught at their comparatively fleeting existence, she embarks on a new journey, keeping her friends’ memories alive and helping to foster a new generation of heroes while she does it.
Frieren’s sense of scale and world-building belies a somber undercurrent: Each place Frieren visits is touched by her fond memories of traveling with her companions, a couple of whom she has outlived by the time the fourth episode ends. It’s fascinating to see theworld change, and Keiichirō Saitō(director of my favorite anime of last year, Bocchi the Rock!)evinces this through lived-in visual details — depicting shifting architecture and aging monuments in Frieren’s beautiful, textured backgrounds, or even smaller-scale changes like the gradual modernization of costumes. Madhouse’s animation production feels just as home in moments of quiet observation, studying its characters’ subtle emotivity, as it does with broader comedy and its (infrequent) battle scenes, each full of weighty and impactful action choreography and effectswork. When the show steps up its immediate stakes, it’s a morbid pleasure to see Frieren’s vindictive hatred toward the demons she’s sworn her long life to destroying, and just how in over their heads these supposedly all-powerful menaces are.
Available on Crunchyroll
Other Anime Highlights From This Year
Throughout the year, Kambole Campbell maintained a personal list of the best anime TV series of 2023. Many of those selections appear above in our top ten. Below, the rest of the anime shows that stood out to him this year, presented in order of release date.
Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch From Mercury season two
A highlight from last year, The Witch From Mercury crossed slice-of-life school drama with Gundam’s usual sci-fi space opera by way of corporate espionage and Shakespearean drama. The second part of its story continued from the first part’s surprisingly brutal coda, as its entrenched systems of power begin to fall apart. While it rushes to its conclusion a little, it’s held together by memorable characterwork and excellent mech duels.
Available on Crunchyroll
Jujutsu Kaisen season two
While the season has had its ups and downs (thanks in no small part to a tumultuous production), the second season of Jujutsu Kaisen has also set up some of the year’s best anime episodes — an early highlight being “Premature Death,” the fifth episode of its first arc.
Available on Crunchyroll
Undead Girl Murder Farce
Directed by Mamoru Hatakeyamaof Kaguya-sama: Love Is War fame, Undead Girl Murder Farce is a razor-sharp, wonderfully verbose series that throws a wealth of 19th-century fictional characters into its plots with reckless abandon — everyone from Sherlock Holmes to the Phantom of the Opera might show up in one of its locked-room murder mysteries.
Available on Crunchyroll
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Kambole Campbell , 2023-12-08 20:00:01