A lot of the time when we think of our favorite anime, more likely than not, they weren’t originally anime. Now-a-days it seems like more and more anime are adapted from a source material, whether it be manga, light novel, or even visual novel. While anime isn’t by any means the only medium to do this, its rise in popularity over the last twenty years or so has demanded that more and more series be created to compensate for the demand, causing an influx of new stories being adapted into TV form. While the term “Original” can also relate to the freshness of ideas presented within a work, the emphasis here is simply the best anime series that weren’t adapted from other works. Put literally, the best original anime ideas.
As always, note that this is a list of my own favorites that I feel are the best from what I consider objectively (or subjectively) qualified. I would recommend the series that make this list on the basis that I think they’re good-quality works and are remarkably strong in most departments, but I would be lying if enjoyment didn’t play a role in their placement, as well. This list is also not all-inclusive, as I have not seen every original anime ever. Based on the three-hundred-something series under my belt, these are the ten best original anime within that swamp of completed anime.
#10: Mawaru Penguindrum
This is the third time I’ve spoken about Mawaru Penguindrum at length, so I’ll keep this spot relatively short.
More notable for his involvement in Revolutionary Girl Utena, Mawaru Penguindrum is Kunihiko Ikuhara’s second full-fledged project, exhibiting a lot of the symbolic whimsy that the former series made famous. It’s expressive, colorful, and jam-packed with dark subject matter that make the series a little unhinged, resulting in some tensely thematic situations. It manages to capture the imagination of the viewer’s expectations and molds it into an, albeit somewhat confusing, adventure of magnanimous proportions.
There’s some repugnant aura of overexertion that somewhat overshadows the series’s efforts, though this ultimately lies on the individual’s tastes. Characters play within the plot beautifully, and with enough flair to keep even the most confused individual paying attention, many may not even care that the entire series flew over their head. It’s a riveting specimen of Ikuhara’s strengths as a storyteller and director, one that shouldn’t be ignored by anyone who adored Utena.
#9: Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica
Going from one colorful series laden with ultra-dark subject matter to another. Irony at work.
Unlike the last series, I probably won’t need to convince many to give this one a shot, as anyone who was interested has already watched it. The popularity behind this series is astounding, with over 310,000 users interacting with this series in some way on MyAnimeList. People seem to really enjoy two things: magical girls and the reversal of expectations.
This popularity should also be indicative of its quality, as while I found the characters somewhat dull, the story is something intriguing in and of itself. Pacing and mood are two tremendous factors to this series’s psychologically-twisting nature. It takes an established trope surrounding the magical girl genre and turns it into something far more sinister, something a young girl couldn’t possibly manage to combat on her own. It speaks to the true manner of responsibility and pressure one within a position of power undertakes to keep an entire world safe from harm.
This alone makes this series a recommended watch, even if only for the sake of watching something truly unique within the medium. Not only is the series popular, but it’s nearly universally acclaimed. Its thought-provoking message and ability to capture the spirit of the magical girl and turn it into a new light speaks volumes for the commitment of the series to its quality. Now if only the characters didn’t feel so dispensable…
#8: Neon Genesis Evangelion
* * * CLASSIC ALERT * * *
Neon Genesis Evangelion is the greatest series of all time and it’s non-negotiable. Any opposing opinions can click the [x] tab on their browser, for they are wrong and should feel ashamed. This is why this series is listed at #8.
Almost in the same dimension as Madoka Magica, Neon Genesis Evangelion is credited for adding some psychological mindfuckery to the Mecha genre, imposing dark subject matter and the weight of world-threatening conflicts upon three young teenagers. This torrid mix of trying to handle traumatic experiences while also trying to mature into their own identities gives this series a multilayered take on the Mecha genre. It handles these themes with precision and clarity, though struggle at times to convey them due to the low budget this series had towards animation cost.
There’s an air of mystery to this series due slightly to what had to be muddled down to stay within the budget, resulting in an ultra-confusing last two episodes. It made the resulting sequel movies all the more essential in realizing what the hell even happened. Some noted it as trying to be “Too deep for you,” though I feel it’s more just the series being conservative and open-ended for the sake of conserving their reserves. Plus, it certainly becomes all the more memorable when the series ends on an acid trip dream sequence that seemingly makes zero sense.
Even if animation is somewhat of a struggle to sit through, and individual plotpoints somewhat repeat for the sake of establishing the monotony of responsibility, it remains an all time great series, original or not. Its impact on Japan is evident enough of its popularity.
#7: Cowboy Bebop
It has style, it has pizzazz, it has the atmosphere; Cowboy Bebop was the gateway to anime for many young enthusiasts. Full of memorable misadventures, subtle character development, and a rambunctious crew of lovable kooks, the series is a classic in every sense of the word. Popularity is one thing, its impact is something that I’ve even noticed in my lifetime. Whenever I think of Cowboy Bebop, I think of Toonami. The two seem inseparable to me.
The series sticks out with its style of storytelling, using an episodic approach to bring the crew together and give them further depth as their pasts come back to haunt them. Or hungry killer leftovers try to digest everything. If this doesn’t seem cool enough, add in some future-setting environments and a number of small hints as to the foundation of the galaxies that they explore and the people along the way. In a sense, Cowboy Bebop is a series about surviving in life, however one can see fit. There will be good and bad times aplenty, with enough spice to keep things interesting, so long as one keeps an adventurous attitude.
While I don’t consider the series a classic, I can appreciate what this series did in dispelling negative stereotypes associated with anime for a good while. It’s a good enough series on its own, but it came out at a time when anime wasn’t quite as “mainstream” as it is now, a time when anime was simply seen as something a little different. Cowboy Bebop proved that anime is different, and it could assimilate into something that can be universally accepted. Most of all, it is super quotable.
See you, space cowboy.
This is where my artsy-fartsy side comes out.
What is Tsuritama? An anime about fishing? Ducks? Secret agents? Aliens? What does it all mean? Why is this even an anime, and why is it on this list above Evangelion? Because it’s great, that’s why. With all the fuss about showing what anime truly is, Tsuritama is a nice, laid-back series about swimming through life at one’s preferred speed, while getting past the anxieties that hamper one along the way. It’s just told in the most bizarre way possible.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t Evangelion’s ending incarnate cranked up to 11/10. It’s a silly little series full of eccentric characters and light on seriousness. Drama is involved, but not to the extent that would make this tiring to watch. It’s fairly easy-going, with a clear moral message hidden behind some articulate symbolic messaging. Tsuritama is pretty tame compared to the rest of the entries on here, and that’s part of what I like so much about it. It doesn’t try to do more than it has to.
There’s a groove to it that really speaks to me, and I’m sure it’d speak to others, too. With animation taking center stage, it shows a good amount of sunshine in a compressed attempt to convey that the world is better when you express yourself. Friendship, family, and independent reliability. Keys to a better life.
#5: Kyousou Giga
Speaking of artsy-fartsy, this is probably the worst offender outside Mawaru Penguindrum. Much like the previous spot, and others before that, Kyousou Giga is pretty efficiently stylized in its own universe. More than anything else, Kyousou Giga is an anime that has an astoundingly creative world to explore.
I feel I’m going to get redundant the more I go on like this, so I’ll try and keep my perspective on similar strengths fresh. The focus of this anime specifically is family, the bond of being wanted and wanting to help your loved ones in times of need. This helping of emotional depth, combined with the vividness of the world and animation present, keeps Kyousou Giga incredibly engaging through each episode, as the audience finds out more about the family dynamic of the female lead.
This may seem somewhat troubling, but the series packs so much punch that I can’t even remember a lot of what happened within. There’s just so much to take in and try and memorize that it ultimately slips out in spurts. On the bright side, all the more reason to rewatch the show, and relive the moments that made watching it the first time all the more invigorating. For the longest time, a single shot of this anime’s background was my Twitter banner. That was no mistake.
#4: Kill la Kill
Studio Trigger’s response to Gainax’s Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. It makes it all the more special seeing as both series were spearheaded by Studio Trigger’s founder: Hiroyuki Imaishi.
I won’t go and say this series surpassed its predecessor (Hint, hint), but it did a damn good job of holding its own as an anime classic. My love for Kill la Kill runs deep, with the same type of enthusiasm Imaishi is known for putting into his works. Its clear, concise, and bursting with emotional outbursts and proclamations. Sheer insanity awaits whoever watches this series. And that’s what makes it so tremendously entertaining.
Every aspect of this series checks out, whether character, story, animation, and even humor. Kill la Kill has a knack of incorporating both serious and non-serious into a unique blend of a product for all viewers. Violently chaotic, sexually stimulating, rambunctiously humorous; Kill la Kill seems to embody the spirit of adventure and outright emotional “badassery.” It pumps you up, it drags you down, it punches a hole through your stomach and insults your weak intestinal fortitude. The series is an absolute treat and the pinnacle of Studio Trigger’s madness.
And next we have a series that’s not like that at all!
What makes Shirobako exciting, worth caring for, and altogether great is how grounded in reality it is, rather than through animated theatrics. They say truth is stranger than fiction, and in this case, the truth can be a wonderful outlet for emotional feedback.
The making of anime as an anime is probably among the most meta premises ever. Shirobako is more than that, however, as it highlights the feelings of motivation and ambition and finding one’s place in this crazy world. It’s a coming-of-age story for the more adult crowd, as the concept is usually aimed at kids transitioning into teenagers. For that, it’s a fresh perspective that doesn’t sugarcoat the drive one needs to have in order to survive in the real world, especially in a cutthroat industry such as television.
It doesn’t have the sort of hook that many others try to embellish early on. Slow-going and constantly building, the world of Shirobako becomes more splendid as time rolls on. Characters get more depth, and their experiences are shown to us on a day-to-day basis as we grow with them. It’s very easy to empathize seeing as I’m twenty-three and still huddled within my own fruitless ambitions, so anyone else fascinated with a slice of life on the more modern and adult spectrum, Shirobako is sure to please, assuming one isn’t expecting all the tropes that come with the standard anime crop.
#2: Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
Remember that “(Hint, hint)”? Did you get it? Good job!
This is a nostalgia pick. This is a serious pick. This is a pick that will drill me straight to the heavens. To make this entry incredibly frank, just copy/paste what I said about Kill la Kill and place it here, except magnify it all by five.
Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is the magnum opus of Imaishi’s career. Just go watch it, for Kamina’s sake.
#1: Dennou Coil
Among my five favorite anime, this is the only one that wasn’t adapted from something else. Dennou Coil is completely original, and damn did they hit it out of the park here. The sense of exploration, a world slightly adapted from our current technological limitations; there’s a magic here at work. Almost in the way Studio Ghibli makes most feel at ease and completely within the world it creates, Dennou Coil does the same with me. Except it’s not Studio Ghibli.
In terms of my body’s ability to tell me of true objective quality, all of the notes were struck by this series’s tune.
- Kept me wanting more (Marathoning wasn’t a chore).
- Allowed genuine emotional investment (Almost cried).
- Destroyed me by the end (Left a gaping hole of relief upon finish).
It excels in every category. It keeps itself relatively free of clichés. It transcends the expectations of what an anime series can do. It’s the best case of an original anime story I’ve ever seen, and I’m glad I was able to see it.
Honorable mentions: Michiko to Hatchin, Hanasaku Iroha, Code Geass (S1)