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5. The Tatami Galaxy
Considering this is the only Masaaki Yuasa show I’ve actually seen, you can expect The Tatami Galaxy to gain some company over the coming year (edit: Ping Pong has arrived!). In spite of that, I strongly doubt the rest of his work will top it – though The Tatami Galaxy does feature Yuasa’s signature direction and a completely unparalleled visual aesthetic, it is equally buffeted by the sharp, lunatic writing of the source material, written by the author of The Eccentric Family. Either way, as I said in my review, The Tatami Galaxy is a ride. From a stint in the bike thief mafia to a daring blimp rescue, from colorful, impressionistic visuals to vivid, mile-a-minute monologues, it never lets up and it never calms down. As its protagonist desperately seeks the richness of life he never seems to find, the audience is treated to a rich spectacle as relatable as it is insane. There’s nothing quite like The Tatami Galaxy.
Though I love Monogatari for its sprawling, convoluted ideas, Katanagatari proves Isin is equally capable of telling a focused story as well. It works as a witty, poignant love story. It works as an engaging collection of vignettes, a travel diary in an evocative, beautifully depicted time of adventure. It even works as a meditation on the meaning of humanity, and on the ways we are all prisoners of history. Like Seven Samurai, it perfectly captures the strange beauty inherent in the end of an era – as the age of swords and heroes draws to a close, Katanagatari’s characters cling to relevance, power, or just each other. It made me laugh and made me cry, and it’s easily one of my favorite shows.
3. Revolutionary Girl Utena
Though it’s not at the top of my list, I think it’d be difficult to argue any anime tries to do more than Utena. It’s a story about adolescence and sex and identity and gender and performance, and maybe those are all actually parts of the same thing. It weaves in ten thousand visual motifs and then muddles them just for the hell of it. It catalogues the emotional hills and valleys of over a dozen characters, and yet even at the end you could still call half of them mysteries. It features an episode where a girl is repeatedly chased by elephants, and another where that same girl lays an egg. It also features the most thoughtful and piercing exploration of gender politics I’ve seen in the medium. It’s strange and circuitous and funny and profound, and if nothing else, it’s almost certainly one of the best anime of all time.
2. Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Considering it sits at #2 on my all-time list, I think it’s fair to employ a little hyperbole here: of everything I’ve seen, I believe Madoka is probably the “most perfect” anime there is. Its visual aesthetic is creative and stunning, its soundtrack is powerful and evocative, and it tells a gripping, smartly composed story of friendship, sacrifice, the tragic cycles of living, and the greater spirit of humanity. Its narrative and thematic elements lock into place like a perfectly crafted music box, and yet it still leaves room for rich interpretation. Though I like all of Urobuchi’s works, Madoka stands on a tier far above the others – its aesthetics are by far the most impressive, and beyond that, it’s also the most pure, iconic expression of the anger and hope at the heart of all his stories – an understanding of the callous nature of the universe forever challenged by the indomitable, irrational spirit of charity and love that makes us human. Madoka is a triumph.
1. Neon Genesis Evangelion + End of Evangelion
It might seem odd to place Eva over Madoka, considering I just stated I consider Madoka the “most perfect” show. But it’s true – Evangelion is not perfect. It has tonal issues throughout the first half, it meanders through a slowly building central arc, and little cracks and flaws indicative of its troubled creation are apparent throughout. But for all that, I strongly believe Eva is the best anime of all time. Why? Because it understands people. Because it respects and cares about people. Because it is people. There is just so much truth and empathy in Evangelion’s depiction of its characters that I find it hard even beginning to compare it to other anime.
And that character truth doesn’t just stand alone – the entire show is carefully constructed around it, with Anno’s wonderful, claustrophobic direction and all the show’s grand, apocalyptic aspirations working in service of the fundamental honesty of characters like Shinji, Asuka, and Misato. Because it is so very, very true, and because it is so deeply, honestly afraid, Evangelion’s statement in favor of human connection isn’t just a truism – it’s the bravest, most optimistic choice imaginable. In the context of how true and how overpowering the emotional struggles of its characters are, nothing short of apocalypse seems worthy of depicting them – in the mind of a scared, lonely boy, the decision to accept the pain of living might as well be the rebirth of the universe. Evangelion uses all the tools at anime’s disposal to tell the smallest and most important story in the most resonant, insightful, authentic terms imaginable, and in doing so it easily establishes itself as the most successfully ambitious anime there is. Flawed, convoluted, and deeply personal, Evangelion is anime’s masterwork.