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The Best ’80s Anime, Ranked

The 1980s is known as the Golden Age of Anime, which is weird because honestly right now feels like the Golden Age of Anime. But apparently some film historians got together and decided that I was “wrong” and that the ’80s is the actual Golden Age of Anime because anime started getting internationally popular during that time period.

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But was it really? I mean, I feel like 1980s kids got beaten up in school for liking anime. But in the modern day, kids get beaten up in school for not liking anime. That sounds like a Golden Age to me. Or maybe like a Platinum Age?

So to honor the “Golden Age” of anime that made this new “Platinum Age” of child abuse possible, I’m ranking the best anime from 1980 to 1989.

12. Bubblegum Crisis

The heroes of 'Bubblegum Crisis'
(Artmic / AIC)

Set in a post-apocalyptic future, Bubblegum Crisis centers on a group of women called the Knight Sabers, who wear powered exoskeletons to battle rogue robots. Just like in the Fallout games! But with less 1950s nostalgia! Without Bubblegum Crisis, there would be no magical girl series like Sailor Moon, though in this, the Knights Sabers’ magic is a little thing called SCIENCE.

11. Saint Seiya

The cast of Saint Seiya looking into space
(Viz Media)

Also known as Knights of the Zodiac, Saint Seiya follows a group of warriors known as Saints who are champions of the Greek goddess Athena. Each Saint wears a mystical armor known as a “Cloth” and embodies the power of a specific constellation of the Zodiac. Saint Seiya is an early blueprint for Sailor Moon—there’s just something about space-themed teenagers fighting cosmic monsters in defense of the Earth that puts butts in seats.

10. Gunbuster

The cast of 'Gunbuster' in key art for the anime series
(Gainax)

Gunbuster is a mecha science fiction anime that tells the story of a young girl named Noriko Takaya who dreams of following in her father’s footsteps as a space pilot. To do what? Maintain the ISS or fart around on the moon? NOPE. TO PILOT A GIANT ROBOT IN ORDER TO FIGHT AN ALIEN THREAT. Under the guidance of her coach, she trains to battle the aliens. Throw in some Interstellar time dilation complications and you’ve got yourself a dope series.

9. Captain Tsubasa

Characters from the 'Captain Tsubasa' anime in the '80s
(Tsuchida Production)

This CLASSIC sports anime follows the titular Tsubasa Ozora, a young and talented soccer player. Tsubasa’s dream is to win the FIFA World Cup for Japan. Captain Tsubasa details lil’ Tsubasa’s journey from a kid playing soccer on the streets to a professional athlete who is the pride of his country.

8. City Hunter

A man flicks a marble in the 'City Hunter' anime
(Sunrise)

City Hunter follows Ryo Saeba, a private detective known as the “City Hunter.” He’s a skilled marksman and an expert in all forms of combat. He’s totally impervious to all assaults, except for the ones on his heart. Like all hard boiled detectives, Ryo has a soft spot for the ladies, and often becomes infatuated with his female clients while on the job. City Hunter is for fans of guns, glamour, and cities where it is ALWAYS night.

7. Fist of the North Star

(Toei animation)

This series earns a slot on this list for pioneering the “nani!?” moment. For those who don’t know, “nani” is the Japanese word for “what.” It can also be used as an expression of shock and disbelief in the same way that “WHAT!?” can. And it is used that way in anime often. A nani moment goes like this: an overconfident villain challenges our hero in combat. Our hero launches an attack, which the villain easily overcomes. The hero then reveals to the villain that they actually didn’t overcome the attack, but fell victim to it. The villain then utters a shocked “NANI!?” before succumbing to the effects of an attack they thought that they avoided. It is always satisfying to watch.

The creators behind Fist of the North Star were largely responsible for bringing this exchange into the popular culture. Our hero, a road warrior named Kenshiro, is a master of a martial art called Hokuto Shinken. It allows him to strike an opponent’s secret vital points, which guarantees a gory death. However, there is a delay between the attack and its effectiveness. Kenshiro attacks his opponent, and his opponent shrugs off Kenshiro’s hits and taunts him. Then Kenshiro utters his iconic catchphrase: “Omae wa mo shindeiru” (you are already dead) to which his opponent responds “NANI!?” before hemorrhaging from every orifice. Needless to say, it’s an awesome anime.

6. My Neighbor Totoro

'My Neighbor Totoro'
(Studio Ghibli)

My Neighbor Totoro is as adorable as Fist of the North Star is bloody. One of Hayao Miyazaki’s most critically lauded films, it’s about two little girls named Mei and Satsuki who move into a cabin in the forest with their father. While exploring the forest, one of the girls discovers a large, fuzzy spirit named sleeping in the hollow of a camphor tree. She falls asleep on its belly, and names it “Totoro” based on the roaring sounds that it makes. Eventually, Mei is able to introduce Totoro to her little sister, and the three of them get up to a series of heartwarming hijinks. They grow gigantic trees in the backyard, fly around on a magical top, and ride a cat bus. Yes, it is a bus that is also a cat. The film is responsible for one of the most iconic scenes in anime history, where Mei and Totoro wait for the bus in the rain. Mei with an umbrella, and Totoro with a leaf on his head. It’s just precious.

5. Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam

(Sunrise)

The Gundam franchise pioneered the “mecha” anime genre, and inspired countless other anime such as Neon Genesis Evangelion and Code Geass. Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam is arguably the best the franchise has to offer. Set after the original Mobile Suit Gundam, the series concerns a group of rebels who pilot mech suits, or “gundams,” in order to wage war against a totalitarian regime called the Earth Federation that is in control of the planet. The Earth Federation contracts an elite group of counter-insurgency fights called the Titans, who pilot powerful gundams of their own. A young boy named Kamille Bidan is swept up in the revolution, and helps the rebellion capture an experimental new type gundam from an enemy facility. The series is part action, part political drama, and all dope.

4. Dragon Ball

The cast of 'Dragon Ball,' the classic anime
(Toei Animation)

It’s baby Goku y’all! This series marked the very beginning of the endlessly influential Dragon Ball franchise. It’s a retelling of the Chinese myth “Journey to the West,” about a monkey named Sun Wukong who rides on a cloud and kicks ass with a staff. The Dragon Ball series adds a sci-fi element to the classic tale, and reimagines Sun Wukong as a little alien boy with a monkey tail. The little boy, named Son Goku, goes on an adventure with a woman named Bulma in order to collect seven dragon balls to have a wish granted by the mystical dragon Shenlong.

This series is perhaps the most influential shonen anime ever made, and without it there would be no One Piece, Bleach, or Naruto. The show works because it follows a simple formula: the main character trains in order to overcome powerful foes and become the strongest fighter in the universe. It’s a formula that’s been copied by countless other shonen anime, and will inspire countless more.

3. Castle in the Sky

Studio Ghibli 1986 Castle in the Sky
(Studio Ghibli)

Castle in the Sky is another banger of a Miyazaki film about a little boy named Pazu who meets a girl named Sheeta after she quite literally falls out of the sky. She avoids dying immediately due to a magical crystal necklace that she wears, which allows her to float. Pazu and Sheeta then go on the run from a group sky pirates and an unscrupulous military commander who are both after the necklace, which they believe is the key to finding the mystical floating “castle in the sky.” The castle in the sky, known as Laputa, is said to contain an insane amount of sweet, sweet treasure. It also holds a mysterious power that the government believes can be used to create super weapons. Yikes. Pazu and Sheeta have to figure out a way to keep the castle in the sky’s power from being abused by mankind. There are also really adorable giant robots. What more could you ask for?

2. Grave of the Fireflies

(Studio Ghibli)

Warning: this movie will make you cry. Hell, even the box cover art will make you cry (yes, those are the shadows of warplanes in the sky). The film is about a teenage boy named Seita who has to take care of his younger sister Setsuko after they become separated from their parents in an American firebombing during World War II. The two struggle to survive in a brutal world at war, and are forced to rely on each other to survive. The film is gorgeous and devastating, and explores the human cost of armed conflict. It is critically lauded as one of the greatest war films ever made, and is a perfect example of anime transcending its own “limitations” in order become one of the finest films in existence. It is absolutely worth a watch, just make sure you have a box of tissues next to you. This one is gonna hurt.

1. Akira

Akira in Akira, is getting the live-action treatment from taika waititi.
(Tokyo Movie Shinsha)

Akira is not only the greatest piece of anime from the 1980s, but it is also one of the greatest films of all time. The film has inspired countless other anime in its wake, and is one of the most important pieces of animation ever made. Set in a dystopian megacity known as Neo-Tokyo, the film is about a boy named Tetsuo who is a member of a lawless young biker gang called the Capsules. One night, while engaging in a breathtaking motorcycle battle with a rival gang, Tetsuo crashes into a boy named Takashi. Takashi is a psychic child who escaped from a top secret government program, and is now on the run. The police arrive at the scene, and Takashi is recaptured along with Tetsuo.

Tetsuo is taken to a secret government facility, where scientists discover he has psychic abilities similar to Akira, the powerful psychic responsible for destroying the former city of Tokyo. The film is a hallucinatory science fiction experience that is both beautiful and horrifying, and offers a parable about the self-destructive nature of power. The film also serves as a cautionary tale against the relentless pursuit of scientific advancement. One could also argue that it is a poignant example of a coming of age film, and could even be considered to be a parallel for the experience of puberty and the overwhelming transition into adulthood.

The film has inspired countless critical analyses, and is revered as a cultural science fiction touchstone. Without this anime, there would be no neon lit cityscapes of Ghost in the Shell, nor would there be the teeming urban metropolis of modern anime titles such as Cyberpunk: Edgerunners. The film even made an impact on the fashion industry as well, as Shotaro Kaneda’s iconic red “Good For Health, Bad For Education” jacket is available for purchase in multiple online stores. Due its monumental impact on both anime and mainstream culture, many argue that this film is the greatest anime of all time. Honesty, they’re not wrong.

(featured image: Studio Ghibli)

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Author

Jack Doyle
Jack Doyle (they/them) is actually nine choirs of biblically accurate angels in crammed into one pair of $10 overalls. They have been writing articles for nerds on the internet for less than a year now. They really like anime. Like... REALLY like it. Like you know those annoying little kids that will only eat hotdogs and chicken fingers? They're like that... but with anime. It's starting to get sad.

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