How many pieces of fiction can be elevated to the status of a masterpiece? The anime industry has prospered substantially in Japan and worldwide rapidly due to the increasing ease of access, thanks to the internet. Hundreds of TV shows and movies are released each year, each unique in its own way. Some anime caters to teenage boys and girls, while others to children that barely know how to spell their name.
Furthermore, for every anime, there is a generation that is connected to it. For example, people that grew up when Naruto was airing have the show extremely dear to their hearts. Even the genres that have been here since forever have been capturing long-time fans and continue to do so with newly-produced anime.
How, then, do we decide which one is a masterpiece, i.e., a truly outstanding piece of work?
Anime sites such as MAL (MyAnimeList) and AniList assign the status of a masterpiece to any work that has been rated 10 out of 10. This basically means that, as fans, we stick with the anime we like and try to pitch it to others the best we can. A show that both moves us and makes us think is automatically a masterpiece in our eyes.
In this article, we will list down 10 anime that have separated themselves from the pack and are personally considered masterpieces. So, without regard to their popularity and rating in the community, let's get started!
Psycho-Pass is a psychological anime that raises essential questions on morality and justice. The series takes place in the 22nd century in Japan, where a technologically advanced system called Sibyl is used to determine threats towards the country. It does so by examining each citizen's mental state for signs of criminal intent and allowing inspectors to subjugate any that harbor ill-will. As Akane Tsunemori, a young and honest woman, enters the work field alongside veteran Enforcer Shinya Kougami, the Sibyl System's judgments are finally questioned.
Psycho-Pass does in two seasons what has never been done before, at least not in such a unique way. Akane’s struggle with figuring out the true nature of justice and questioning its enforcement through the use of a system that may already be corrupt draws many parallels with reality.
Of course, in addition to rich storytelling, the animation and music in Psycho-Pass are top-tier. The score is varied and plays around with different types of sounds to fit in with the anime's futuristic setting and dark tone. There are some pieces that stand out on the OST, with a lovely and somber piano piece reserved for the quieter moments.
Along with the powerful opening and ending songs, many are written explicitly with some characters in mind, thus enhancing the experience. Accompanied by beautiful animations and an equally fantastic soundtrack, it is not difficult to imagine why many, including us, consider Psycho-Pass a masterpiece.
If you catch yourself wondering ”who decides what is morally correct,” Psycho-Pass is the anime for you.
9. Made in Abyss
Made in Abyss is an anime that will ring throughout time as one of the best classics to come out in recent years.
As the title suggests, the series centers on The Abyss — a gaping chasm stretching down into the depths of the earth. Filled with mysterious creatures and relics from the past, it is the perfect spot for brave adventurers called Divers. However, many mysteries still surround the Abyss. No one knows how it came to be or even what lies at the bottom.
Enter Riko, the daughter of a missing legendary White Whistle member, who aspires to explore the furthest reaches of the Abyss. Despite being only a novice Red Whistle, her chance encounter with a mysterious robot allows her to venture forth beyond the upper layer and deep into the chasm. However, that single step pushes her into a cruel world filled with monsters and scarier realities.
Despite its cutesy art style, in the beginning, Made in Abyss is anything but that. While many anime give off the facade of maturity by integrating gratuitous gore, sadistic villains, and self-serving themes, Made in Abyss doesn’t fall into these trappings. Instead, it is a story of adventure and survival, the simplest motivators of humankind. While violence and disturbing content automatically follow, they never feel unnecessary and only serve to enhance the audience’s experience.
Coming to the soundtrack, it feels as if it has come straight out of a game. The music runs in the best time possible and creates excitement, drama, and makes the plot and characters shine. For example, the background music starts adventurous and gradually becomes more ominous as the story progresses, despite the ending theme remaining almost hilariously light-hearted - even the sound effects are highly organic.
To tie it up, the voice actors do a phenomenal job, as for once, the kids sound like kids, and the old adults sound like old adults. All of this maintains the sense of adventure created by the story and animation. For all intents and purposes, Made in Abyss is a masterpiece that everyone can enjoy!
8. Run with the Wind
A sports anime on this list? How audacious! Sports anime are not usually deemed masterpieces. Even the ones that do mostly deal with sports such as baseball or basketball. However, anomalies are always destined to occur.
Simply put, Run with the Wind is an anime based on running. The story revolves around Kakeru, a former track runner whose shoddy life takes a turn when he runs into Haiji Kiyose, a student from his university. Impressed by Kakeru's running form and agility, Haiji tricks him into joining the Kansei University Track Club.
Haiji's ultimate goal is to participate in the Hakone Ekiden, one of Japan's most prominent university marathon relay races. With the first hiccup in his plan now solved due to Kakeru's participation, what can go wrong? Well, as it turns out, other than being uninterested in running, the eight other students of the track club are complete novices. With only months before the deadline, they realize this elusive dream is no simple task.
Run with the Wind has one of the most brilliant narratives in sports anime. Every single character is focused upon equally, and confrontations are built up and solved naturally. Due to this, the audience can empathize with Kakeru and other character's deep-buried motivations and insecurities. Furthermore, all the characters are genuine, with real-life problems.
Despite being a sports anime, it doesn’t fall short in any area. The animation is fluid and clean, while the sound design is nuanced and emotionally gripping. Run with the Wind is truly a masterpiece contained within one season.
7. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Okay, with a show of hands, tell us who did NOT expect this anime to be here?
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is notorious for occupying the first rank on MyAnimeList for time immemorial, and no, that’s not an exaggeration. Despite Attack on Titan’s valiant efforts, no anime has been able to budge FMAB from this spot, and with good reason.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is an adaptation of Hiromu Arakawa's manga of the same name. By remaining faithful to the source material, it has achieved the status of a masterpiece.
The story revolves around the Elric brothers, who pay a terrible price for attempting human transmutation: the one forbidden act of alchemy. The older brother, Edward, loses his left leg, while the younger, his physical body. However, the former's sacrifice of his right arm affixes Alphonse's soul to a suit of armor.
Now a state alchemist, Edward seeks the Philosopher's Stone, a mythical relic that allows an alchemist to overcome the Law of Equivalent Exchange with his younger brother. But, unfortunately, while they come closer to realizing the true nature of the elusive Philosopher's Stone, the Elric brothers get caught up in a nationwide conspiracy with their humanity at stake.
Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood is excellent in every aspect and has very little, if anything, that can be called a flaw. The pacing is perfect, with just enough drama, action, and comedy. Some moments leave you smiling, laughing, sad, or simply amazed. Along with the brilliant story, the animation definitely does it justice.
The voice acting, too, is of high quality, both consistent and deeply personalized. The openings and ending are a pleasure to watch and listen to due to their fantastic scores and animated sequences. In addition, they tell small stories of their own and set the tone for the episode and arc as a whole. All of this plays an essential part in FMAB's booming popularity!
It may take as much as three tries to get past the first two episodes of Steins;Gate, and once you do, a masterpiece awaits.
Steins;Gate tells the story of Okabe Rintaro, a self-proclaimed mad scientist, and his colleagues at the Future Gadget Laboratory, Hashida Itaru and Shiina Mayuri. Okabe spends his days indulging in his habit of inventing prospective "future gadgets," the strangest of which is a "Phone Microwave" — a device that does nothing more than turn bananas into a green, jelly-like substance.
At least, that is what the trio thinks until they are spurred into action by a string of mysterious happenings. Their saving grace? The Phone Microwave can send emails to the past, altering the flow of history.
Steins;Gate takes Okabe through the depths of scientific theory and practicality. Now forced across the past and present, he must shoulder the burdens that come with holding the key to the realm of time.
Steins;Gate is a very entertaining series that isn't afraid to play around with various scientific concepts. However, at the same time, it clearly avoids tackling specific significant issues related to time travel, which is acceptable considering its fictional status. Since it doesn’t get too bogged down in technicalities, Steins;Gate focuses the better part of its energy on the characters and story, making it one of the best science fiction anime to appear in the last few years.
It is hard to identify any series quite similar to Mushishi, even with the uncountable number of anime already out there.
Mushishi is essentially a series of short stories styled after East Asian legends and folktales. However, instead of gods, demons, and spirits, here we deal with "Mushi": the most basic life forms in the world. They exist without any goals or purposes and are beyond the shackles of the words "good" and "evil." It is the work of Ginko, a "Mushishi," to deal with these lifeforms. He wanders from town to town, looking for interesting cases, and lends a helping hand to the ones affected by mushi.
Mushishi is episodic in nature and is not bound by an overarching plot. The self-contained stories vary in theme but are always skillfully crafted and connected with Ginko at the center. The episodes deal with human drama and familiar emotions infused with an element of the natural and alien world. Despite each story's briefness, the tales are original, powerful, and gripping.
The series is able to experiment with various concepts and human relationships with every story in an unpredictable manner. Moreover, other than Ginko, the supporting characters whose time under the spotlight is short are not shoved into stereotypes that plague most anime.
The visuals, too, remain spare yet aesthetically pleasing. Rather than filling up the screen with action and fanservice at every possible moment, natural beauty such as dew on leaves is focused on instead. The scenes with mushi are fantastically animated, showing both their natural and surreal characteristics. Even the character designs are relatively plain but engaging and realistic.
Likewise, the soundtrack is composed of simple melodies which manage to evoke various thoughts and emotions. Everything from haunting scores to heart-rending and hopeful music can be heard in Mushishi. The phenomenal and experienced voice acting ties it all up perfectly.
With its rich writing, enchanting audio, and visuals, Mushishi truly is a masterpiece.
4. Space Brothers
Space Brothers starts with two brothers, Mutta and Hibito Nanba, witnessing what they believe to be a UFO flying towards the Moon. This leads to both siblings vowing to become astronauts, with the younger aiming for the Moon and the older for Mars.
While Space Brothers seems to be just an anime about space at first glance, it is so much more than that. It is a realistic journey of finding your purpose in life, getting lost, and rediscovering the passion you once had. The anime beautifully delves into the lives of the Nanba brothers as they find a way to fulfill their dream no matter how many detours they have to take along the way.
What makes Space Brothers more fascinating is the immense detail put into making it as realistic as possible. The mangaka’s research is evident in every scene and setting, leaving the viewers in awe. While the anime remains a comedy at its core, serious themes related to the occupation and its effects on families are thoroughly explored.
The anime does not fall short in its animation either. The movements are fluid, and expressions are believable, to say the least. In addition, the art style in Space Brothers is an interesting blend of intrinsic genetic anime features along with the natural proportions and appearances of real life. For example, characters of the same family tend to look like each other or their parents, which is relatively uncommon in anime.
The soundtrack, too, is phenomenal. Music is used to enforce and empower the displayed emotions and manages to elicit the intended feelings from the viewer. Furthermore, by the end, the anime gets better at diversifying its scores. While the anime reuses the same songs, it is bearable and even turns into nostalgia after a while.
Space Brothers is a masterpiece that will make you laugh, cry, and most importantly, google questions such as “is the Moon's sand as sharp as a shard of glass?"
3. Code Geass
Code Geass is set in an alternate reality in which Britain conquered the rest of America. Thus, the Holy Britannian Empire became the world's largest superpower, covering 1/3 of the world. The story follows Lelouch Lamperouge, the eleventh prince of the Empire, who develops a hatred for the emperor of Britannia and the entire imperial establishment.
After an encounter with a mysterious young woman named C.C., Lelouch gains the power of Geass, granting him the ability to force anyone to do what he wishes. With this ability, Lelouch finally has enough power to begin his battle against the Britannian Empire.
While the plot seems generic enough, we are given something out of the ordinary through this alternate reality setting. Code Geass brings new spice to an old genre. As the story hops along with an arc to arc system, a sense of mystery slowly develops. There are enough twists and turns involved to keep you on the edge of your seat. The pacing and the progression up to the conclusion are exceptionally brilliant.
When it comes to character designs, CLAMP's work is pretty unusual. They are tall, lanky in the beginning but gradually grow on the audience. Of course, as a mecha anime, the designs for the Knightmare Frames are beautiful and paid very close attention to. All in all, the animation is fluid and smooth for the most part, and very few things, if at all, stand out as being bad.
Like the animation, the soundtrack for Code Geass is pretty unique. ALI PROJECT does a wonderful job using violins to convey the high status of Britannia and the intensity of the emotions in the series. The theme songs are thoughtful, poignant, and fitting, while the background music remains pretty generic. However, some neat opera scores used throughout the anime give it a classical and royal feel.
Code Geass has everything required to elevate it to a masterpiece with great characters, blood-pumping soundtracks, political intrigue, action, drama, and strong moral themes.
2. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu
- Number of seasons: 2
- Year: 2016
- Watch it here: Crunchyroll, Amazon Prime Video, Anime Digital Network
Set some time after WWII, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu takes place during Japan's rapidly changing social landscape. The series follows a freshly-released prisoner who is fixated on learning the ways of Rakugo, a traditional Japanese form of comedic storytelling. But, inspired by the performance of Yakumo Yuurakutei, he manages to get taken under his wing.
As Yotarou eagerly begins his training, he meets Konatsu, a young woman who has been under Yakumo's care ever since her father, Sukeroku Yuurakutei, passed away. Through her passion, Yotarou is drawn to Sukeroku's unique style of Rakugo. The story often changes focus from the present tale of the apprentice to a narrative of the past concerning Yakumo and his deceased friend Sukeroku.
At its core, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is a story about the art of Rakugo, of friendship and family, and of sacrificing everything to reach one's potential. Still, notably, it is a story about life — the lives of two talented, troubled, and yet ordinary men.
While the premise may seem a little daunting and tedious, nothing is farther from the truth. Despite lacking flashy fights, gratuitous fanservice, and overpowered heroes, the anime offers a compelling, evocative experience that has a laudable handle on its ambitions. The pacing is well-balanced, and everything progresses with clear direction. It is truly a masterpiece.
However, when asked what makes this anime so unique, words don't seem to do it justice. So much of the series' appeal is in what it leaves unsaid. Greater comfort is found in showing its story rather than telling it. It is challenging to pull off something like that, and yet, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu does it masterfully.
The characters in Gintama themselves call their anime mediocre, which is precisely what makes it a masterpiece.
Gintama takes place in a quasi-historical Edo that has been invaded by the Amanto, aliens from outer space. Unfortunately, the nation's strongest warriors are no match for the alien technology, and in an effort to prevent another uprising, humans have been banned from carrying swords.
Enter Sakata Gintoki, a former samurai with silver hair who runs Yorozuya (odd jobs) from his rented second-floor apartment. Accompanying Gintoki in his jack-of-all-trades line of work are Shinpachi Shimura, a boy with glasses as his identity, and Kagura, a member of the strongest race in the world. With frequent run-ins with the police, joui rebels, and masochistic assassins, Gintama will never fail to make you laugh, cry, and everything in between.
Unlike most anime, Gintama's story is extremely haphazard. However, Gintama is nothing if not consistent in its approach. The underlying story of Gintoki and his "friends" going through their days doing odd jobs for people remains. In fact, Ginatama's ability to turn the seemingly ordinary into something completely different is what attracts people.
At its core, Gintama is a comedy series. Even in its serious and dramatic arcs, the anime never once loses its sense of fun. Much of the humor comes from the characters themselves, and with impeccable delivery, Gintama is undoubtedly the best comedy series and a masterpiece.