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Top 20 Guide's Favorites

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Here's twenty anime favorites from my own shelf - titles which I've loved and cherished over the years, and which I recommend enthusiastically to others. Note that some titles may not be in print due to the changes in ownership for various anime distributors, but most of them should be easy enough to find.

1. ×××HOLiC

© CLAMP / KODANSHA / Ayakashi Workshop / FUNimation
Kimihiro Watanuki is your average teen-aged boy, apart from the way he attracts baneful spirits the way a lamp draws flies. Desperate for a normal life, he turns to Yūko, a mysterious woman who runs a shop where wishes can be granted for the right (read: hefty) price. A creation of the all-female manga collective CLAMP, this show mixes cautionary Twilight Zone-esque tales with Japanese mythology and a decadent visual sensibility; the visual design’s at least as much fun as the story itself. Elements from another CLAMP series, Tsubasa, are intertwined with this one but it’s not crucial that you watch one to understand the other.

2. Berserk

© NTV / VAP
A grim but utterly gripping fantasy that makes Lord of the Rings look like Anne of Green Gables. Set in a land vaguely akin to Europe during the Thirty Years’ War, it tells the story of Guts, freelance mercenary drafted into the warlords-for-hire group named the Band of the Hawk. Soon he and the Hawk’s charismatic leader, Griffith, are in a three-way struggle for the heart of female sword-swinger Casca—a rivalry that could in time doom the rest of the world. Its violence is brutal and disturbing, but it’s epic storytelling with unforgettable characters. Dark Horse publishes the manga in English, of which the TV show covers only the first dozen or so volumes.
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3. Paranoia Agent

© Satoshi Kon • MADHOUSE / PARANOIA AGENT COMMITTEE

Paprika director Satoshi Kon created this jolting TV series shortly before working on that film, and it’s as unnerving and bleak as Paprika was spry and visionary. An urban legend circulates about a phantom figure nicknamed “Shonen Bat” who attacks without warning, but from what we see most of the victims have it coming. Soon they discover it’s a lot more complicated than that, and not only their sanity but the fabric of reality itself is splitting at the seams. The show works by default as straight-up horror, but eventually also becomes a parable for the way a society lies to itself to continue functioning … whatever the cost.

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4. Claymore

© Noirihiro Yagi / Shueisha / DNDP / VAP / AVEX Entertainment / Madhouse
When man-eating demons threaten humanity, the terrified masses turn to a near-superhuman hybrid of man (actually, woman) and monster to save them. Among these “Claymores”, as they’re called, is Clare, whose solo career as a monster-hunter takes an unexpected turn when she acquires a human hanger-on. Adapted from a no-less compelling manga series, it’s equal parts violent adventure and deep emotional bonding. It’s also one of the few shows to feature a predominantly female cast without becoming a parade of fanservice. Consider it feminist in the most constructive sense of the word.
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5. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

© Filmlink International/Hideyuki Kikuchi/Asahi Sonorama/Vampire Hunter D Production Committee
This spectacular adaptation of one installment from Hideyuki Kikuchi’s long-running series of novels is just as dazzling now as it was when it first appeared ten years ago. Far in the future, half-vampire half-human “D” accepts a job to liberate a young woman stolen away from her family by a vampire of great power, but everything suggests she went of her own free will. D also must match strengths with a family of bounty hunters who sport a bevy of exotic powers of their own. The last third of the movie departs heavily from the book, but is all the better for it. Director Yoshiaki Kawajiri is best known for the Ninja Scroll motion picture, but contributed segments to the Animatrix and Neo-Tokyo anthologies.
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6. Twelve Kingdoms

© Fuyumi Ono / Kodansha/Nhk / NEP21 / Sogovision
The setup is predictable: high-school girl from Japan is thrown into another world, a pan-Asian pastiche reminiscent mainly of ancient China. Sounds like any number of anime (e.g., Fushigi Yugi), but this one stands way out from the pack. It sports strong character development and a thoughtful story along with big helpings of adventure and intrigue. Adapted from a series of light novels now also coming out in English from Tokyopop.
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7. Mushishi

© Yuki Urushibara / KODANSHA / MUSHI-SHI Partnership
“Magical” doesn’t begin to describe this achingly beautiful and thought-provoking series. A lone wanderer named Ginko has the power to perceive “mushi”, homunculus-like organisms that thrive as freely as bacteria and have the power to alter all life—especially human life. The top-notch animation is complemented by a storyline with the intelligence and insight of good literary fiction. It’s a meditation about man’s often uneasy co-existence with nature, and while many anime deal with this as a theme in some form few of them do it this well. Derived from an equally excellent manga published in the U.S. by Del Rey, and adapted into a live-action film (also worth your attention) by none other than Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo.
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8. Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo

© Mahiro Meda / GONZO/MEDIA FACTORY / GDH
Yes, this is an anime reworking of Alexandre Dumas (pére)’s novel, but it’s been catapulted into the future and outfitted with an animation style so eye-popping and distinctive there’s no confusing this with a mere Classics Illustrated production. It retells the story from the POV of one of the lesser characters in the original—Albert de Morcerf, the son of hero Edmond Dantès’s archenemy. The plot deals not just with Dantès’s revenge but the death of Albert’s innocence and his journey towards true maturity. Loaded with far-future tropes (the Count’s underground mansion has its own holographic ocean!), it’s an emotional and visual rollercoaster ride worth taking more than once to spot all the nuances.
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9. Blood+

© Production I.G / Aniplex / MBS / HAKUHODO
The original Blood: The Last Vampire was a spectacular production, but at barely an hour’s running time it was way too short for its own good. Blood+, the two-season TV series, remedies that problem and then some. Schoolgirl Saya Otonashi discovers she’s the only one who can stop the onslaught of the “Chiropterans”, monsters with a complex and disturbingly clandestine history that is deeply intertwined with her own. Even the quasi-obligatory romantic subplot is well worth it.
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10. Kino's Journey

© Keiichi Sigsawa • Media Works / "Kino's Journey" Production Committee
Another unlikely-sounding premise for what turned out to be a brilliant show: Young Kino and his talking motorcycle Hermès (he’s a far more interesting conversationalist than K.I.T.T.) journey across a vaguely European continent and witness various aspects of humanity in all of its sad beauty. Slow-moving and introspective, but gorgeous on every level—visually, thematically and spiritually. It’s been adapted from a series of light novels, only the first of which was ever published in English by Tokyopop.
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