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The Best Anime From Every Decade

New Evangelion stuff. What does it mean? Who knows.

Asking some rooms of people “what is the best anime?” could start a fight. It’s a question that tends to elicit very strong emotions, because anime generates strong emotional ties. I’ve already stated, for example, what I think the best single episode of anime is. But comparing a series that has run for twenty-five years to a series constructed only to have twelve episodes is kind of like comparing apples to a walrus. There are many “best” anime out there but is it even possible to break down the best anime of every decade?

Dear reader, I have tried. When the decade in question was a difficult one to narrow down (so, all of them), I found the criteria I relied most on was legacy. Was there a certain beloved series from each decade that left an indelible stamp on the genre and/or its reception, without which the world of anime wouldn’t be the same? The answer, for each decade, was usually “yes.” Here are the best anime from every decade.

1960s: Tetsuwan Atom, a.k.a Astro Boy (1963)

Image from the theme song of the 1963 Tetsuwan Atom series, aka Astro Boy

Tetsuwan Atom was the very first Japanese cartoon made specifically for a half-hour block on TV. While smaller, three-minute series existed, Japanese TV had previously filled its half-hour cartoons blocks with imports like The Flintstones. As such, Tetsuwan Atom — better known to Western audiences as Astro Boy — became the first “proper” anime. The series was so popular that it went overseas, establishing a market for anime in the West. Even rooted a bunch of still-used anime tropes, like the big eyes and fancy hair, are rooted in Tetsuwan Atom. It’s rather important in anime history.

Honorable Mentions: Kimba the White Lion, Speed Racer

1970s: Ashita no Joe, a.k.a Tomorrow’s Joe (1970)

Screenshot from Ashita no Joe, aka Tomorrow's Joe

One of the first sports anime, Ashita no Joe was an institution in ’70s Japan, and its influence can still be readily felt. The show’s animation also still looks amazing, and its score rules. Watching clips of Ashita no Joe, it’s hard to believe the show came out in 1970. You can draw a straight line from Joe getting punched in the ring, blood spewing from his mouth, shadowy linework galore, to Eren Jaeger giving dark looks forty years later.

Honorable Mentions: Lupin III, Mobile Suit Gundam, Future Boy Conan, The Rose of Versailles, Heidi Girl of the Alps

1980s: Dragon Ball / Dragon Ball Z


I love One Piece. But even I know that there would be no One Piece — nor Naruto, nor Bleach — without Dragon Ball. Dragon Ball is the grandaddy of modern shounen, and anyone who enjoys the Big Three or any of the deluge of series inspired by them owes it a debt of gratitude. Have I seen Dragon Ball? No. But I owe it a debt of gratitude.

The 1980s was known as the “Golden Age” of anime. We’re only talking about TV series here, but nowhere was that better seen than in anime films. Studio Ghibli formed in the ’80s. Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and an influx of classic Ghibli films — including My Neighbor Totoro — all came out in the ’80s.

Honorable Mentions: Saint Seya: Knights of the Zodiac, Ranma 1/2, Captain Tsubasa

1990s: Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995)

Asuka Langley in Neon Genesis Evangelion

One of Hayao Miyazaki’s best animators quit to form his own studio, got horribly depressed, and gifted the world with Neon Genesis Evangelion. This series and its original weird, weird ending is one of my favorite things that exists. Evangelion parades itself around like its a mech anime, but at its core, it’s one of the most impactful surveys of depression in TV history. Plus, anything that can balance nail-biting action scenes with two teenage girls giving each other the silent treatment in an elevator is a work of true art. Evangelion is so good that, even though it’s very weird in a lot of ways, it’s still ridiculously popular, especially in Japan. Get ready for Evangelion Pachinko machines and the like. And the THEME SONG! Just get in the robot, Shinji, m’boy.

Honorable Mentions: Cowboy Bebop, Serial Experiments Lain, mf’in Pokémon, and — of course — One Piece

2000s: Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood (2009)

My boy Edward Elric giving some sass in Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood

Remember when I said Neon Genesis Evangelion was one of my favorite things that exist? Well, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood also falls into that camp. Last time I checked, the widespread opinion was still that it’s about as close to a perfect anime as you’re going to get. Brotherhood follows Hiromu Arakawa’s manga much more closely than the earlier and very bizarre Fullmetal Alchemist series. This means that it nails the ensemble character dynamics and heart-wrenching story about — sniff — friendship among hardship which makes Fullmetal such a triumph.

The characters really are what makes Fullmetal shine so bright. Edward Elric is a treasure of a protagonist. But the supporting cast — like Izumi Curtis shouting “I AM A HOUSEWIFE!!!” before kicking ass — is just as strong. Also also, Fullmetal was written by a woman, so bonus points! Whoo-hoo!

Honorable Mentions: FLCL, Death Note, Code Geass, Mononoke, Bakemonogatari, Mushishi, Samurai Champloo

Related: Best Anime Soundtracks, Ranked on We Got This Covered

2010s: Attack on Titan (2013)

Listen. The 2010s are impossible to crown, because you could are they saw in the second Golden Age of anime, through which we are currently still living. If I chalked it up to my own personal tastes, I would probably crown The Tatami Galaxy here, though it’s kind of a pointing-Spiderman-circle situation with every series I put in the honorable mentions.

But, in terms of raw cultural power on an international scale, you kind of have to give this one to Attack on Titan. Try to transport yourself back to 2014 for a second. Attack on Titan was a goddamn phenomenon. You could make a very convincing argument that the series which catapulted the modern surge of anime’s popularity in the US and elsewhere and propelled anime into the streaming age is, indeed, Attack on Titan. As Polygon points out, remains one of the most popular television shows in the whole world.

Also, when I first started watching Attack on Titan, the effect of its incredibly strong and refreshingly large cast of female characters could not be overstated. I was Mikasa for Halloween that year, because it was so rare — especially back then — to see (arguably) the biggest badass in a show be a woman. And one who isn’t sexualized, at that. For its various controversies in its politics, Attack on Titan has still continued that thread with Gabi, who’s one of the most interesting characters of the 2020s so far.

Yes, Demon Slayer is the most popular anime since forever, I know. But I’d argue Attack on Titan helped pave a road for that popularity. Also … uh … Ithinkit’soverratedpleasedon’tkillme.

Honorable Mentions: Puella Magi Madoka Magika, Mob Psycho 100, Steins;Gate, The Tatami Galaxy, Yuuri! On Ice, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu… And so the mob doesn’t come after me, Hunter x Hunter and My Hero Academia and Demon Slayer

2020s (so far): Spy x Family

Listen. LISTEN. I was fully prepared to give Jujutsu Kaisen this spot. The first block of Spy x Family episodes isn’t even over yet. It feels presumptuous as hell to give it the number one spot. And yet … After every episode of this delightful show, I say out loud, “Damn, I love this show.” The characters have carved their way into my heart in such a way that I audibly laugh at some point during every episode. The series is a master class in setting up stereotypes and then twisting the hell out of them, thwarting your expectations. Most importantly, despite the main characters deceiving one another and being forced to live through a rough Cold War-type world, they and the show are warm and kind. Even if one of them is an assassin. How is that possible? It is a miracle.

Honorable Mentions: Jujutsu Kaisen, Keep Your Hands Off Eizoken!, Odd Taxi, Ranking of Kings

Image credit: Studio Gainax

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Kirsten (she/her) is a musician, audio person, writer, and nerd. When not talking about One Piece or Zelda (among other anime and games), she's finding surprising ways to play the guitar.