Episodes make this list for being able to stand on their own, first and foremost. Secondly, they need to be really, really good. Sometimes, almost inescapably, contextual holes pervade each one each time, and no one can fix that, no matter how flowery or nad-pumpingly ejaculatory the praise I or anyone else lauds upon them. But what I’ve found, regardless, is each of these episodes has the ability to encompass the best features of anime, in one way or another.
Anime is anime. If you think you’re just watching a “cartoon”, or mere, over-sexualized, hacky sci-fi nonsense…well, sometimes you are, but that’s never the alpha and the omega of any series. You’re always going to find a surplus of literary goo-gaws involved—those things which make you cry, thrill you, grip you or inspire you in ways you couldn’t have been otherwise. (Sometimes you’ll find these to be absent, but those missed targets are just the bottom of an otherwise very large, very imaginative, well-storyboarded barrel.)
Even without a full context, I believe, these episodes will give most anyone a strong feel for what anime truly is. I’m certainly no expert, if an expert could ever trick people into thinking an expert could actually exist in a field like this, but these are not only episodes that encompass the fullest range of literary devices (though, in fairness, rarely will they be exhaustive), they are emissaries to neophytes and skeptics who long to experience more from the emotion-plucking, juicy front-end products of visual storytelling than what living human beings can act out, and whose prejudices haven’t fully convinced them to write off anime (or animation) in its entirety.
These episodes are more or less listed in reverse order, but that can be loosely interpreted.
“Fake Family” – Myriad Colors Phantom World (Episode 4)
The imaginative, visually stunning, neuroscience-fiction series Myriad Colors Phantom World can be pretentious at times (citing an 18th century German philosopher when discussing matters of actual brain science), the plot progression inexplicable (maybe from having to select material from a dozen volumes of a comic book and then trying to cram it into a dozen episodes of an anime) and moments can contain poorly placed anime tropes and poorly written character utterances. But, all that being said, it’s got a really interesting premise, the animation is superb (drawn by the superb Kyoto Animation Co.) and, overall, I’d say it was done pretty well. Mostly.
Unfortunately, it’s got all the characters types you come to expect in anime (what you sometimes dread and hope to avoid, if you watch a lot of it, though some shows do pull the stereotypes off well): the sullen, withdrawn teen with the troubled past who, every time she opens her mouth, says something either keenly observant or roguishly standoffish, and, when it comes to fighting, always does the right thing at the right time; the rich, sheltered, overly-feminine airhead who never does quite realize she’s falling in love with the male protagonist; the cute, wide-eyed eight year-old, who loves the protagonist, too; the buxom tough girl who likes to punch everything and everyone and who would rather sock a boy in the face than confess that she likes him; the wimpy, clueless, handsome boy, befuddled by his own emotions at times, who doesn’t realize he’s gaining a harem; and that one girl, incredibly small in stature (in this case, a 12-inch fairy who strongly resembles a stereotypical genie), who’s loud, argumentative, unlucky and has a voice an octave higher than all the others. You don’t always get that exact same arrangement in harem anime of whatever larger theme, but you do always get some mishmash of teens fundamentally built with those exact same traits, kind of like a bunch of colorful, slender, pretty, well-dressed Mr. or Mrs. Potato Heads of Personality: buxom, pugilistic, airheaded, sullen, wimpy, overly feminine, lovestruck, etc., etc., etc.
But in this episode in particular you’ll find a deeply touching story that successfully stands above others in anime, and deserves to be called one of its most representative for how it plumbs the depths of humanity’s simple desire to love and be loved, and deals with its fracture, when and if it comes about: the moment when either the giver or receiver decides necessarily and selflessly (or selfishly, depending on which way one looks at it) to relinquish it, because they weren’t ready for it, and because, in the end, the exchange of affection between them and the edifice from which that particular foundational groundwork and lifelong union would be erected was never meant to be.
Because love is so often like that.
“Beginning” – School Live! (Episode 1)
I’d read all about the show’s gravely horrific theme coming into it, so I knew there would be no surprises in that regard. Nonetheless, I spent the entire first episode with my jaw dropped, blinking and grinning like I was part of some kind of gag being put on me by the show itself. I was waiting for the theme that I’d read so much about to actually materialize. Which it refrained from doing, all the way until the final two minutes of the episode. And not only that—not only did I really wonder what the hell I was watching that entire time—but the diametrically opposite theme that occupied the initial 20 minutes (including the opening credits) was so light-heartedly full of teen anime tropes, overblown silliness and happy pop music that it made me question whether or not whatever developer or engineer had paired the show’s directory page with the pages that contained the actual video files hadn’t made some kind of egregious error.
Really, I wondered that. Which was a first for me. And an omega.
But there is a gag being put on the audience the entire time, I wasn’t wrong—not by the show, but by the show’s main character. And everyone else was voluntarily in on it, playing along for a very good reason.
It was highly effective.
“There Is Butt a Fine Line Between Persistence and Stubbornness”
– Gin Tama (Episode 8)
This was the funniest anime episode I’ve ever seen. Also, one of the funniest TV show episodes of anything I’ve ever seen. It’s presented as a spoof of the popular TV show Cops, but if the Cops’ camera crew were, say, transported to 18th century Japan not long after space aliens had landed and took over, living lopsidedly and at the same time more or less harmoniously with their subjects, and then proceeded to document 24 hours in the life of the absurdist, inept samurai police force, the Shinsengumi (based historically on, well, the Shinsengumi). Start there, and you’ve got a recipe for some potentially raucous funny, if done properly. Which this was. But, then, the episode was so good that you could take out the premise and that pseudo-Cops camera crew, and still find some of the funniest antics taking place elsewhere. For example, during lunch at Restaurant Orchid. You had Gin’s face getting literally smashed into his sundae by Otae, shattering the tulip glass into pieces; Kagura silently eating a giant bowl of ramen the entire time as part of a giant-bowl-of-ramen eating contest (then sitting silently in a food coma in the background for the rest of the scene); Gin breaking the fourth wall, angrily reminding the regular camera crew that he’s the star of the show and complaining that it took too long to put the cameras in front of him (even though the opening :30 is nothing but him, asleep on a couch, with a comic book over his face); the opening credits rolling about ten minutes in after Gin commands them to be; and, finally, this initial exchange between Gin and the chief of the Shinsengumi, who’s trying to court Otae in some of the creepiest ways imaginable:
Gin: Stalker perv, where are you at? I’m serving you a bowl of justice!
Chief (crawling out from under a table): What did you just say, scumbucket? I’d like to see you try it!
Gin: Boy, you sure are stupid to come out when somebody calls for a stalker. Have you decided to admit the fact that…you’re a stalker?
I think, in the end, if you had taken the exact same script and done it in live action, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. And that, right there, is the power of animation: to realize that the suspension of disbelief inherently wrought from animation actually catalyzes it to somehow reach a level of funny (or otherwise entertaining) that couldn’t have been achieved, were it not.
“The Prince and the Beast” – Darling in the FranXX (Episode 13)
A story within a story. And while the narrative that Darling in the FranXX tells might not be for everyone, this particular story told within is one of the best I’ve ever seen. “Not for everyone” is a statement that could be made about most anime, sure, but as far as futuristic, mecha anime goes (a sub-genre that contains some of the best stories anime’s ever told, by the way: Mobile Suit Gundam, Robotech, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gurren Lagann), this one does seem a little heavy on the adult themes of fertility, intercourse and reproduction. I won’t elaborate on the necessity of the FranXX being physically piloted in such a sexually suggestive way (the males were called ‘stamens’ and females ‘pistils’, and that’s all I’ll say about it), but if you can get past the strangeness of kids, 15 and younger, being the protagonists of a narrative like that, you’ll eventually arrive at episode 13, “The Prince and The Beast”.
And you’ll be mesmerized, perhaps, like I was.
It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking tale of a languageless monster girl and human boy who impetuously broke free of their lifelong captivity and, for one brief afternoon in the freezing snow, became friends, vowing to marry when they became grownups. The vow was inspired by the contents of the eponymously-titled picture book the little girl cherished as her only possession, and became much more poignant when, not long afterwards, they were again captured by the authorities and had their memories of the day forcefully erased, thereon held as captives until the time they could either become pilots, or be dealt a different, more mysterious fate.
As “parasites”, they had both been bred by the sterile, immortal human race to pilot anthropomorphic ships (“FranXX”) with which to fight subterranean monsters (Klaxosaurs) who surfaced after humans began extracting and utilizing the planet’s magma to power civilization. Told as a flashback by the young man the moment the consciousnesses of the boy and girl, who hadn’t seen each other since that afternoon in the snow and had now fatefully become combat partners, fused violently in a FranXX during combat some ten years later, it gave the most insight into the world of the young parasites, whose histories didn’t exist, and whose futures often held nothing more of value to their human captors and breeders.
Voices of a Distant Star
Rule No. 1 when watching anything animated: disbelieve. If you can’t do that, you’ll never make any kind of real connection to it. Fortunately, most people, from Generation X on up, because they grew up with it, do it without thinking or realizing it.
Now, Rule No. 2 when watching anything animated: keep disbelieving. This second rule applies mostly to those who watch anime. Stories and characters can seem so silly or overblown at times that it becomes easy for most to want to stop and walk away, or just never start in the first place.
The actual premise of Voices of a Distant Star may have just been a vehicle for a single animator, the now-famous Makoto Shinkai (Your Name, The Garden of Words, Weathering with You), to bring his cellular-telephonic love story to the world, but the whole thing worked so very, very well that it didn’t really matter. A single animator, by the way, who wrote, directed, drew and ultimately produced the entire video alone, using several pro software programs, on a Power Mac G4, in 2002.
The background artwork was beautiful, despite the mecha theme, or maybe because of it; ditto the animation, for as little as it took to produce, relatively speaking (and to take nothing away from the actual physical work involved). The space battle scenes were as good as any I’ve seen, and the music was effectively moving.
The general premise of literal star-crossed pre-lovers around which the action and drama were built could have been without the particular storyline found here, and conveyed in some other story involving contemporary technology, the prodigiously unfathomable bounds of the solar system and humanity’s desire to go beyond it (that may or may not have involved combating aliens and sending teenagers into space in giant flying robots to do so). But for an anime fan who watches anime for all the emotion-stirring boxes that can be checked in a single run, what a story it was. And since the whole thing is a single, 25-minute original video animation, it qualifies as a stand-alone episode.
“Lemillion” – My Hero Academia (Season 4, Episode 11 )
“One For All” – My Hero Academia (Season 3, Episode 11 )
Equally compelling, both. So much so that they earned a spot on this list.
Well, I mean, obviously. But I didn’t want to understate how good they were.
Different plots and perhaps different emotions may be the result of watching them, but the execution was very similar, both thematically and structurally (except in one, the hero wins, and in the other, the hero loses), and for that, I chose to enter them both in the same slot. Spoiler: These won’t be the last My Hero Academia episodes to make this list, so it’s probably fitting to give up the premise of the show here.
By the time the story opens, 80% of humanity possesses some kind of special, inherited, latent ability called a “quirk”, and every one is different, resulting in a range of outcomes from a trifle to the potential for mass destruction. A little boy, the child of parents with quirks, wants nothing more than to be a hero one day when his quirk manifests, which is what the bravest of society’s meta-humans choose to become, to stop those who choose (or were compelled) to become villains, because villainy has always been everywhere for as long as humans have been crammed together to form societies, and placed a monetary value on the goods and services found therein. Humanity is complex that way.
But he’s part of only the 20%, it turns out. Quirkless. It wasn’t anything else but the unextinguishable desire to do good that made him want to be a hero, however, so one day, without any superpowers, he instinctively rushes out to fight a monster that all the heroes are afraid to, because that monster is consuming his friend (a one-sided friend, actually, who holds little but contempt for the boy, which is also what makes the scene so powerful). And the world’s greatest hero witnesses this and, in an alleyway after the fight, confronts the boy and lets him in on a secret that winds up changing his life forever.
That’s about it.
I’m guessing, as the series goes on, there will be more episodes like these, episodes of such a superlative caliber. In five seasons and (so far) two feature-length films, so many others have already come close. This is why My Hero Academia would get my vote, if I ever saw a ballot for it, as the best anime series ever made.
“Mitsoba” – Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun (Episode 8)
I found Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun by accident. I had to check out what it was about for the name, alone. Only when I was finished with the first season did I jump on the internet and discover the show was a huge hit. (I watch a lot of anime, and nothing on my menu is based on algorithm, human recommendation or streaming website service. I pick things mostly randomly, sometimes based solely on the title.)
Visually, Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun (with its unfortunately funny English-language title) is a cut above. Not so in how stylistically motility can be conveyed, be it human or machine, sometimes defying the laws of worldly physics, or in the imaginative storyline, or the novel takes on the human condition playing out in world after world of science-fiction, or anything else—but in its simple, static presentation. The pastel colors, shrunken frame placement against a black background, the fading in or out on a static shot, one which conveys a great deal of action—it’s very much like reading a comic book or graphic novel. More so than most anime, I would say, almost all of which are actually based on comic books or graphic novels. But, again, cut above here. And the most gripping episode, which didn’t at all feature one of the show’s two main characters (and only showed the other for half the duration) was the episode entitled simply “Mitsoba”.
The first five minutes were characteristically hokey, which you see a lot of in anime drawn for teens, about teens. But after that, once you realize what’s happening, you’re pulled in. A ghost, who died at 14, just wanted to be remembered. So, he was granted a wish to come back and be seen by the world, or at least by some other kids in his class, in the hopes that he would finally make some friends. But he only finds one who does, a descendant of exorcists who can perceive ghosts much as his forebears could and his contemporaries can’t, and that one person becomes enough. Then, as an extraction for payment, something awful is taken from that 14-year old ghost, by the ghost who first granted his wish.
This is not necessarily an original plotline. But in its discourse on the regrets of the dying; in the puppetmaster’s genuinely affectionate, gentle touch upon the face and lips of his doomed puppet; in the admission to his own worldly killer that the puppetmaster enjoyed being murdered and still loves the one who did him in; in the exorcist’s tear-laden pleas for the doomed puppet to return; and what the payment actually was, lay the draw of it all.
And then there’s this remarkable exposition on the finality of death: “It’s pointless. Don’t you know? Because that’s the way death works. Wandering the world of the living, unnoticed, as a spirit—that isn’t a continuation of life. When you die, that’s it. There’s nothing more. Nothing new begins. No matter how much you regret or wish, if you couldn’t do something in life, you can’t suddenly do it when you die. That’s just the way it works.” And these wise words for the living: “A lesson for you: Don’t work so hard for the dead. It’s wasted energy, you see. We no longer have futures to fight for.”
The best stories—the ones that make you laugh, cry or fill you with pity or empathy or wonder, no matter how mundane or predictable—are rife with the unexpected, made up of both the brightest and dimmest hues. They yield surprise after surprise. This episode is a great example of that.
“Culprit” – Astra Lost in Space (Episode 10)
The beginning of what was to be several jaw-dropping moments in this 12-episode series actually began in the final minute of the previous episode, after the end credits had rolled. It was picked up and ran full bore, with a small digression, in Episode 10, entitled “Culprit”. The discussion in the ship’s conference room which revealed the history of modern civilization (with just one jaw-dropping gap to cover later on); the setup to trap the person responsible for the predicament the entire cast was in, which the audience wasn’t let in on; that failed-assassin’s revelation after being caught; the assassin’s admitted, initial mistake, which had accidentally allowed everyone their one chance at survival (and the very human reason for committing it); and the final revelation of the episode, occurring in the final seconds, as to what the assassin’s true identity is.
Any of that make sense? No? Well, go and watch it. But not before starting from the beginning. You won’t regret it.
“Pierrot le Fou” – Cowboy Bebop (Episode 20)
For those of you who watched this legendary anime series religiously (like I did), whether in its initial broadcast in Japan or a few years later on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, you stayed until the end of each episode to glimpse next week’s preview. And you were haunted, and maybe even a little frightened (like I was), by the preview for Episode 20, “Pierrot le Fou”, or, as it’s translated into English, ‘Mad Pierrot’.
By way of sound or dialogue, it encompassed only a man laughing maniacally throughout the entire 30 second clip, over the usual scene fragments, before ending with the man saying, quite calmly, “Next episode: Pierrot le Fou”. From the preview to the full episode, and from its opening scene—where the main character of the show almost gets beaten to a corpse—to its cryptic flashbacks (part of what the show was known for) to its unexpected and disturbing ending, it was a hell of a ride. And the most memorable episode among a host of memorable episodes in what was arguably anime’s most memorable series.
“Infinite 100%” – My Hero Academia (Season 4, Episode 13 )
Whenever anyone asks me what the best episode of anything, ever, that I’ve seen on television is, I say this. Everything My Hero Academia (and television, for that matter, animated or not) is known for is encapsulated fully in this episode. The action, drama, heartbreak, heroism, bravery, abnegation, loss, strength of will, the singular and clever storytelling, the struggle of good vs. evil, the humane characterization of both, overcoming one’s limitations in a single moment, the apotheosis of excellent, episodic writing and the overall human condition, and how effectively it can be set to music, is all here. Unfortunately, a context is needed to really get what’s happening, so, if you’re curious, I recommend backing up a few episodes to when the raid on the headquarters of the Shie Hassaikai first begins. If you’re an anime fan, an adventure fan, an action fan, or if your frontal lobes are developed such that you can stifle your prejudices for maybe twenty minutes (or preferably the two hours it would take to watch all 6 ¼ episodes), you won’t regret this one, either.