22. Hunter x Hunter 2011
As the only long-running shounen on my list, HxH’s a bit of an outlier. But HxH is not your typical shounen – directed by Madhouse (likely my pick for the best studio of all time) and adapted from a source by the writer of Yu Yu Hakusho, Hunter x Hunter is basically a master class in what makes adventure entertaining. Though it starts off “only” demonstrating it knows how to make challenge-based television entertaining (in lieu of actual fights, it generally sets up compelling puzzles of all shapes and sizes for its heroes), it ends up jumping from genre to genre, dabbling in crime thriller, tournament shounen, and even war drama. And through it all, the show’s fantastic aesthetics elevate it above almost everything out there – in direction, in sound design, in pacing, in animation, in basically every relevant aesthetic metric, Hunter x Hunter triumphs. That it’s been maintaining this level of quality for well over a hundred episodes is nothing short of astonishing – in fact, I’d say Hunter x Hunter has only gotten better over time.
Mushishi is one of those strange, special shows that seem to just emerge confident and fully constructed, exude excellence for all of their running time, and then go quietly on their way. Its vignettes are dreamy and ambiguous, full of resonance and compelling ideas but never didactic. Its world is mysterious and enchanting, evoking both a more resigned and possibly more dangerous version of Miyazaki’s mystical forests. Its production is fantastic, with beautiful backgrounds matching a wonderfully understated musical score and a great sense of pacing to conjure its powerful, singular atmosphere. And all this works in service of a show that’s fundamentally just incredibly calming and sedate – a series of long, lazy afternoons spent enjoying the company of a master storyteller.
20. Gunbuster! + Diebuster!
Grouped together because they really do feel like two sides of the same coin, both of Gainax’s Buster shows would also make this list independently. Flippant and heartbreaking, cynical and triumphant, personal and universal, each of these OVAs tells a story of humanity’s struggle against all the forces of the universe with style and heart. And each can stand alone, as well – Gunbuster is helmed by a pre-Eva Anno already exhibiting his unnerving style of direction, and Diebuster offers a very appropriate conclusion to the FLCL era of Gainax production. Only six episodes each, too – it’s pretty remarkable how much story each of these manage to tell.