I didn’t plan for this list to contain nothing but anime, but I couldn’t actually think of a western animated series I’ve watched which beats those featured on this list. I guess I’m just a sucker for subtitles. Please note that I can’t voice an opinion on the dubbed versions – I haven’t watched them.
1. Berserk (Golden Age Arc I-III)
This pseudo-Medieval anime is an adaption of Kentaro Miura’s manga of the same name. There are several versions, including one which is ongoing. I think that the Golden Age trilogy is the best in terms of quality and loyalty to the source material, however.
Berserk is essentially the violent story of a titanic struggle between good and evil, and features one of the biggest, gut-wrenching, you-stabbed-my-heart betrayals of all time. For an animated show it is gritty in the extreme, barring no holds on blood and suffering. In places it is truly disturbing, but the depth is fantastic.
Essentially, what I love about Berserk is its daring, and interesting characters (Griffith and Casca are my favourites). It goes to some really dark places, and rather than just shining a light on them it gets down in the dirt. In places Berserk is a little OTT (especially the fight scenes), but in terms of boldness this is probably my all-time favourite.
Another highly violent, testosterone-charged pseudo-Medieval bloodfest, but wait! This series features a pretty much all-female cast. A brief summary would be: blonde half-monster women fight full-on monsters. Some of them go too far and become monsters themselves. There’s also some philosophy about revenge, and again the old good/evil dynamic is heavily featured.
Claymore is less full-on than Berserk, but it is a good story, and its portrayal of sisterhood, sacrifice, and the price of power is excellent.
The protagonist, Clare, is a quiet character, but her determination is the galvanising force of the series. I wouldn’t recommend this if you’re looking for something to make you weep, since Clare is rather stoic, but it is full of action, and I think the plot is strong.
3. Elfen Lied
If you don’t like things which are intense, this one isn’t for you. Elfen Lied is also highly violent, and in places very explicit. It is the primary tearjerker on this list.
The protagonist, Lucy, is a diclonius, an almost-human species with red hair and two horns. She is depicted as extremely dangerous, with the ability to slice flesh apart using her invisible extra limbs. In the anime the diclonii are an all-female species who reproduce by means of ‘infecting’ human males.
Lucy is essentially a woman who has been through hell, and takes things into her own hands by escaping the containment facility in which she is imprisoned. The anime follows her interactions with a young human she knew as a child, as well as the lives of several others of her kind. I’m warning you, bring tissues.
4. Tokyo Ghoul
Another dark anime, Tokyo Ghoul is set in alternate world inhabited by human beings and vampiric creatures, ghouls, who must feed on human flesh in order to survive. The protagonist is a teenager who gets his DNA melded with that of a ghoul, turning him into hybrid. Shy and bookish, he isn’t really cut out for the challenges of his new existence, which puts him with one foot in each world.
This series excels on the character development front. It also asks some deep philosophical questions about conflict and the right to life.
There is only one season at the moment, but a second is in the wings. I am really looking forward to seeing where the story will go next.
5. (Shingeki no Kyojin) Attack on Titan
A friend recommended me this one with a vague description that went something like ‘kids in a walled city. Outside there are giants who eat everyone. The kids fight the giants. The giants usually win.’
The weird thing is they weren’t even lying.
Simple though the premise may be, AoT has a fantastic overarching plot. I must warn you that the manga on which it is based has a peculiar art style, but the anime is well-animated, and has hands down the best anime soundtrack I’ve ever heard.
And that’s the list, but before I go, here are some honorable mentions:
Death Note – everyone knows it, and it deserves its success.
Free! – swimming anime which is gay but never 100% admits that. Very different to everything above, but very enjoyable.
Koutetsujou no Kabaneri (Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress) – a sort-of-steampunk love child between AoT and Tokyo Ghoul. It’s not quite as exceptional as either, in my opinion, but still good, and if you like those two and want more of the same, this is the place to go.