Every great TV show deserves a great intro, and in the anime world the task of creating a fitting opening is often taken quite seriously. But not all openings are created equal. In the worst cases, it’s the part you skip as quickly as you possibly can. In the best cases you just keep watching them over and over, enjoying the perfectly-matched music and noticing something new to love every time.
Then there are the super-popular long-running shows that have so many openings it’s hard to keep track. Those have their charm, for sure, but for the most part they follow similar tropes and formulas and just end up re-mixing old ideas. We’ve all seen the “standard” anime opening scenes: Have your characters run for no reason, pan left as sunbeams shine behind a character, throw in a flock of birds somewhere, etc. After a while it all gets kind of old. But there are a few anime intros that break free and stand out.
We’ve decided to take on the difficult task of ranking our favorite opening sequences from anime. What we’re going for here are the truly creative and innovative intros that broke free of the usual — openings that strove to be something special, and succeeded. Considering the vast number of openings out there, we’re sure we might have missed a couple, so read on and see if your favorite made the list.
10 Ergo Proxy
This was one hell of a mind-bending psychological series, and its intro really set the tone right off the bat. It’s a dystopian tale with all sorts of social commentary and a grim look at the future, so it should be no surprise that the opening is full of gritty, grungy imagery. But all that gloom and doom is juxtaposed with a sad but hopeful theme song. “Kiri” by MONORAL is a melancholy English language song that’s reminiscent of something Lifehouse might have put out, but the intro’s visuals are more like Nine Inch Nails fare. The dark, ominous graphics are fitting for this bleak future world with skies shrouded by global ecological disaster, but there are times when it looks like the animators might have gotten a little heavy-handed with the grunge brushes in Photoshop. But, despite a few flaws, it’s still a good intro that does a lot of things well, and if it had been live action instead of animation, the opening would have felt right at home in a cable TV drama.
9 Death Note (Opening 2)
This series had the difficult task of living up to the legend of the wildly popular manga, and it did not disappoint. But TV is a medium that provides a lot more options. The intro is a hectic assault of imagery backed by a driving death metal tune that slaps you in the face and demands your attention.
Most of the openings in this list could be called beautiful, or catchy, or poignant. This one is none of those things. It’s just raw emotion, portrayed in audio-visual fury. It’s the perfect tool for conveying the wrath of Light Yagami and the darkness of his soul.
8 Great Teacher Onizuka (Opening 1)
GTO, as it is often affectionately called, has an opening that features the lead/title character being a crude miscreant in various imaginative ways, all drawn in a black and white style with a bit of fish-eye lens effect added every now and then for additional flair. His irreverent attitude draws you in, and it’s clear this dude just doesn’t give a damn as he lives his life 100% YOLO style.
The intro starts with our lead character flushing a toilet and sauntering out of his bathroom buck naked. Then it just gets wilder from there. Onizuka spray paints a wonderfully suggestive picture of a girl on the side of a building, and at one point he grabs a brush, paints a bullseye on his belly, grabs a pistol, and shoots a mirror image of himself right in the gut. It’s all creatively dysfunctional, and made even more interesting when you learn the guy is an ex-gang member turned school teacher. Throughout the first few episodes, the intro is a recurring reminder of Onizuka’s ruffian past, which comes in handy when his life as a teacher ends up being just as wild and dangerous as his life on the streets.
7 Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad
There have been many anime about bands, but none of them ever had an opening that captured the essence of what it’s really like to be young, rebellious, and making music with your buddies. But then there was the Beck anime, and we had a great example of a successful manga-turned-anime making the most of the audio-visual capabilities a TV show provides.
The core of the Beck intro is the catchy pop-rock song “Hit in the USA” that provides the audio foundation for what really feels like a music video for a new teen band…which is exactly what it should be. Beck tells the story of Koyuki, a 14-year-old boy who gets involved in a rock band called BECK. His life changes dramatically as the band forms and makes its way towards American rock stardom. It’s simply a great, dramatic, funny story of teenage life told with a backdrop of surprisingly good rock music.
The intro sets the tone for the series. It’s full of classic Las Vegas style signs and billboards, t-shirts with rebellious phrases, band mates fighting, and scenes of the band rocking out and enjoying life on the road, touring the varied American landscape from desolate desert roads to the bright lights of Times Square.
6 Samurai Champloo
This is the story of three unique characters in feudal Japan… with a modern hip hop soundtrack and urban vibe that creates something unique in all of anime. The intro is a perfect blend of new and old themes, and it sets the tone for the series many consider to be one of Shinichiro Watanabe’s greatest works.
The animation in the intro is quite well done, and it showcases fine Edo style artwork in the backdrops as our three heroes are featured in the foreground displaying their signature personalities and styles. But the animation by itself honestly wouldn’t warrant inclusion in this list. Take this same intro and pair it with a song that matched the time period or culture (maybe with some shamisen or taiko drums or something) and it just wouldn’t be that great.
But much of the craft of creating a great anime opening is about song selection, and the greatness in this intro is all about the anachronistic inclusion of a hip hop song playing over all this imagery of Japan’s distant past. “Battlecry,” performed by Nujabes and Shing02, is the samurai-inspired rap/hip hop track with the fat beats and smooth verses that give this intro its punch. One of Watanabe’s notable skills is the way he blends genres and cultures to make seemingly disparate elements work harmoniously in a creation with universal appeal.
5 Serial Experiments Lain
Back in 1998, before Facebook and MMOs and Skype and NSA scandals, there was Lain.
This anime featured Lain Iwakura, a socially awkward teenage girl with not much going for her. She wasn’t attractive. She wasn’t interesting, and she wasn’t particularly remarkable besides looking and acting younger than her actual age. But her world, and the entire world, changes when she discovers The Wired, the pervasive cyber-network that connects people and machines in interesting ways. It’s a remarkable sci-fi series with complex characters and themes, and it doesn’t pull any punches.
The intro shows the two personas of Lain. There’s the plain, ordinary girl with a questionable fashion sense, walking along the streets of her home. Then there’s the powerful Lain who lives in the digital landscape of The Wired where she can view pretty much anyone through the viewport of a CRT monitor. She chats with some, and judges others. Though the intro does have a few anime tropes including the dreaded flock of birds, it’s still a clever piece of work that hints at the story’s events without giving away too much. It’s all augmented by the smooth pop sounds of “Duvet” by Boa (the British band, not the Korean singer). It’s a beautiful song with beautiful lyrics, starting with “And you don’t seem to understand”; a perfect opening line for a psychological cyberpunk drama that can leave you scratching your head sometimes.
4 Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
This opening is a wonderfully composed sci-fi vignette. Although the renderings of Motoko do look a tad dated now, this is still one of the best anime openings to use 3D animation. The tachikoma’s, those ever-useful military robots with the adorable AI personalities, really steal the show and are animated as shiny heroes using the full power of 3D animation available at the time (the tachikomas were usually 3D animated in the show itself, but using a shader that made them appear more like hand-drawn characters).
The intro does have a few of the usual anime tropes (flock of birds and sunbeams), but it is special nonetheless. It’s all backed by the techno-pop sounds of “Inner Universe”, sung by Origa and composed by the legendary Yoko Kanno, both women who are revered for their skill and technique, much like Motoko Kusanagi herself. Major Kusanagi is quite a force in this intro, kicking ass with remarkable precision as usual. But the intro also portrays a poignant part of Motoko’s life, as we see her dreaming of her childhood and the days when she didn’t have full control of her cybernetic body. But we also see her as an adult, and fully capable of jumping out of a building and destroying a tank by herself. It’s a nicely done mini-story that is just as beautiful as the visuals.
3 Paranoia Agent
This one often ranks high as one of the weirdest openings in anime history, but that weirdness is also what makes it awesome. Showcasing anime director Satoshi Kon’s unique style of ironic humor, Paranoia Agent’s intro features characters laughing maniacally, all while your ears are introduced to some guy doing what can best be described as Japanese yodeling.
Once you get past the initial feeling of “What the f$%^ am I watching?”, you can appreciate the little details that make this opening remarkable. The characters are all in the throes of menacing laughter, yet their surroundings are often far from the happiest places. In one scene, it appears a young lady is about to jump off of a building. In another, a middle-aged man laughs his ass off as a mushroom cloud blossoms behind him. And later, two women share in a moment of insane hilarity amidst a sea of trash. It’s art that makes a statement (one that is open to interpretation and opinion), and it’s a fitting introduction to the provocative and often perplexing themes in each of Paranoia Agent’s 13 episodes.
2 Elfin Lied
Sometimes anime transcends all the cliches and tropes, and advances into what is undoubtedly modern art. This intro is beautiful, haunting, clever, and even a little bit erotic. It features the lead characters blended into artistic poses/scenes based on the paintings of Austrian symbolist artist Gustav Klimt. The result is something like anime mixed with art gallery pieces. Each shot is like a work of art, painstakingly detailed and true to the essence of Klimt’s work. The visuals alone would be stunning, but when paired with the haunting music of “Lilium,” sung in Latin by Kumiko Noma, the intro becomes something truly special and unequaled in all of anime.
It’s a shame more people haven’t seen it.
1. Cowboy Bebop
Cowboy Bebop flawlessly combined jazz, film noir, and sci-fi, so of course its opening would be a perfect miniature representation of genre-crossing goodness. Blending smoothly-animated silhouettes of the main cast and their beautifully designed spaceships, this opening was a spectacular combination of color, sound, and style that introduces director Shinichiro Watanabe’s magnum opus.
Composer Yoko Kanno once again showed her musical acumen with the composition of “TANK!”, the energetic jazz tune by The Seatbelts that serves as the foundation for the intro. The animation is perfectly synced with the rhythmic peaks of the song. The driving horns and saxophone bring to mind the theme from seventies classic Lupin III, which was one of Watanabe’s inspirations for the series. The song itself was a unique choice for the sci-fi anime genre, and it melded perfectly with Watanabe’s goal of appealing to Western adults through a carefully-crafted mashup of cultures.
The intro does have a few of ye olde anime tropes (characters running for no reason and silhouettes), but it makes expert use of those old tricks and combines them with stylistic touches and expert art direction that no anime opening had tried before or since.
So concludes our 10 Favorite Anime Openings list. Did your favorites make the cut? Got a few intros you think should have been included? Let us know in the comments!