Modern anime is lucky enough to have some of the greatest talents in the world of animation. With so much talent, Japanese animation has stayed at the forefront of the medium for decades, creating some of the biggest pop culture icons. The stories told through anime are as varied and unique as the people creating them. Whether the series is a combat heavy science fiction thriller or a quieter story about human nature, the medium succeeds in capturing audiences interest and often astounding them with incredible animation.
While art styles vary between studios and projects, many anime create distinct visual languages that resonate with their audiences. These unique stories have excited fans with their stunning visuals, but some are more impressive than others. The 20 anime featured on this list represent some of the best in modern animation. These series showcase brilliant visual storytelling and experiment with traditional animation techniques in interesting ways. These vivid, striking, and highly unique animation styles are incredibly impressive, and they go a long way to making good stories great.
Folklore plays a huge part in Japanese culture, even to the modern day. This is why elements of myth and legend act as the inspiration for so many anime. Mononoke, though, is one of the all-time best. The series follows a man simply known as the Medicine Seller as he travels around Japan battling mononoke, powerful spirits that attach themselves to negative emotions. In order to combat these creatures, he must ascertain their Form, Truth, and Reason. Once these aspects are determined, the Medicine Seller can draw his mystical blade and take the fight to the mononoke.
Mononoke is one of the most brilliantly surreal anime that has ever been made. Every episode is a stunning kaleidoscope of color and shape, with the supernatural taking on a highly distinctive and otherworldly palette. Where the normal world is relatively bland and colorless, the monsters are twisted and bizarre. Given their origin in negativity, this makes a ton of sense, but the bright colors, intense patterning, and extreme perspective shifts can throw a viewer off on the first viewing. Some of the plot lines can be a bit confusing at times, especially given the many symbolic visuals, but for the animation alone, Mononoke is a must-watch series.
Tengan Toppa Gurren Lagann
Tengan Toppa Gurren Lagann has everything we love about anime: larger-than-life characters, a fascinating new world to explore, and the best giant robots since Mobile Suit Gundam. In the far future, Earth is ruled by the malevolent Spiral King, Lordgenome. Through his forces of Beastmen and Gunmen robots, he has subjugated the surface world and forced much of the human population underground. Simon, a miner deep in the subterranean tunnels, discovers a mysterious drill-shaped key. With it, he and his friends Kamina and Yoko gain control of their own robots and take the fight to the Spiral King.
Gurren Lagann was animated by Gainax. The fight scenes are incredibly choreographed, with the giant mecha speeding across the screen faster than their bulky frames would suggest. The studio’s animators play a lot with squash and stretch animation techniques, leading to an incredible showcase of motion and emotion in its characters. Gurren Lagann is by far Gainax’s crowning achievement, and the success of the series launched the careers of Hiroyuki Imaishi and Masahiko Otsuka, the animators who would found Studio Trigger. Much of Trigger’s house style was influenced by Imaishi’s work on Gurren Lagann, showcasing its importance to anime as a whole.
Chainsaw Man is one of the newest anime on this list, but the series and the manga by Tatsuki Fujimoto that inspired it have become an absolute phenomenon. Part of the “Dark Trio” of modern anime (with Jujutsu Kaisen and Hells Paradise), Chainsaw Man takes place on an Earth where devils are a constant threat, and the government employs devil hunters to defend the populace. Denji is a young man who has nothing but his pet devil, Pochita, and a dream to live a normal life. When a local gang betrays him, Denji and Pochita join together, giving Denji the power of the Chainsaw Devil. Now half-man, half-devil, Denji joins the Public Safety Devil Hunters in order to battle the ever-growing threat and realize his dreams.
Chainsaw Man is a brilliant combination of horror and Shonen action, and the animation of the series is absolutely stunning. Bloody, gory, and full of bits and chunks that you’d normally never want to see, but stunning nonetheless. The fight sequences are brilliantly paced, expanding on the shot by shot action of the manga to create fluid, intense carnage. Studio MAPPA is responsible for bringing the entire “Dark Trio” to the screen, and Chainsaw Man is one of their greatest achievements. Some of the animation in this series should be included in the best in the history of the medium, and the realization of Fujimoto’s world is horribly gorgeous.
From one Studio MAPPA gem to another, Jujutsu Kaisen is likely a name you’ve heard before. One of the most popular modern manga and anime, the series follows Yuji Itadori as he learns that the world is infested with curses. These powerful, supernatural entities feed on the negative emotions of humans, but some people have learned to manifest this same power. Known as Jujutsu Sorcerers, these secretive warriors battle against the Curses to protect humanity. Now bearing the power of an ancient evil being known as Ryomen Sukuna, Yuji begins attending Jujutsu High in order to deepen his understanding of his new power and defeat the entity now living within him.
Much like Chainsaw Man, Jujutsu Kaisen is full of slick and fluid animation. Many older fighting anime like Dragonball Z were restricted in their ability to showcase the full extent of their fight sequences, leading to stunted animation that felt somewhat static at times. This isn’t a criticism of any series that came before; it’s just an acknowledgment of how far things have come. Jujutsu Kaisen showcases what modern action anime is capable of, with some of the flashiest and best choreographed battles in the entire medium. With two seasons now available, fans of dark action fantasy need to check this series out.
Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba
While Studio MAPPA is well known for its incredible fight scenes, they definitely don’t hold a monopoly on action anime. Known for their work on the Fate series, Ufotable has made a name for itself as one of the best animation studios for Shonen anime, and Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba showcases exactly what they do best. The story follows Tanjiro Kamado as he joins the Demon Slayer Corps. After his family is killed and his sister is transformed into a demon, Tanjiro hopes that his work with the Corps will help him find a cure to bring his sister back. Until then, he’ll kill as many demons as he can.
Demon Slayer has skyrocketed to popularity, and Ufotable’s stunning animation is largely the reason. Each and every battle in the series is crisp, clean, and visceral, with much of their effort going into crafting intense sword fighting sequences that will make fans of classic samurai films drool. However, Ufotable also excels at the slower, emotional moments. While there’s nothing particularly innovative about these sequences in terms of animation, the company succeeds at building tone and atmosphere. Some of the most beautiful moments in the entire series happen not in the heat of battle, but in the quiet sequences, when Ufotable delves into the natural beauty of Japan.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Most of the series on this list so far present themselves as dark, gritty anime from the first few episodes, but Puella Magi Madoka Magica is famous for its subversion of tropes. The series start out as your typical magical girl anime, with a cute, supernatural entity offering to grant a wish and power to two young women in order to battle witches. However, despite the cutesy aesthetic, true horrors lie at the heart of this series, and Madoka and Sayaka quickly learn that the battle against witches is a deadly game. The series tackles every major trope of the genre and twists them in a way that will make you question everything you thought you knew.
Madoka Magica is an incredibly dark series, but while it is famous for its story and subversions, very few talk about the incredible animation that brings it to life. While many of its sequences rarely transcend typical anime designs and art styles, the way Shaft Animation Studios deviates from the norm is honestly surprising. A number of times throughout the series, especially during battles with witches, the art style changes to reflect the crazy new world that these characters inhabit. The way animators play with style can be incredibly psychedelic and trippy, leading to some truly memorable sequences.
Kill La Kill
Kill La Kill defined many hallmarks that have made Studio Trigger famous. A science-fiction action story that parodies the magical girl genre, Kill La Kill has become an all-time must-see series for anime fans. The story follows Ryuko Matoi as she enrolls in the prestigious, militaristic Honnouji Academy. The students of the academy bond with Goku Uniforms, costumes that use Life Fibers to change shape and give someone powerful abilities. After arriving at the school, Ryuko dons Senketsu, a powerful Life Fiber outfit, in order to defeat the student body president, Satsuki Kiryuin, and avenge her father’s death.
While sometimes criticized for its heavily sexualized character designs, few can deny the massive leaps forward Kill La Kill takes in terms of its animation. This series was Studio Trigger’s debut, and it allowed the company to take a number of chances. Trigger excels at its depiction of movement, especially in its often outlandish combat sequences. Whether Ryuko is going one-on-one with Satsuki or tackling giant robots, there’s a fluidity here that stands head and shoulders above the competition, and the way the company plays with perspective is second to none. While Trigger would only improve in its animation quality, Kill La Kill has to be mentioned for bringing the company to the public eye.
If you want one of the darkest and grittiest anime available, look no further than Hellsing Ultimate. This series is one of the preeminent horror-action anime, defining the genre since its release in 2002. Following the exploits of the titular Hellsing organization, named after Abraham Van Helsing of Dracula fame, the story takes place after World War II. A secret Nazi contingent called Millennium has returned, seeking to level London with their supernaturally empowered forces. Only Integra Hellsing, her deadly butler Walter, the new vampire Seras, and the king of vampires Alucard (read that name backwards) can defeat this new wave of evil.
While animation has only improved since the release of Hellsing Ultimate, none can deny that this series still holds up today. Especially compared to the 2001 original Hellsing series, Hellsing Ultimate has some of the best animation of the early 2000s. While the combat and character designs stand out as truly memorable, one of the most interesting elements of the series is its effects. Magic takes center stage in Hellsing Ultimate‘s many fight scenes, and the rendering of these effects has clearly influenced everything that has come after. Combining elements of 2D and 3D animation, the rivers of blood, magical barriers, and violent explosions still stand as some of the best and goriest animated moments in the history of the medium.
Ping Pong the Animation
You wouldn’t think a sports anime would get very experimental, but Ping Pong the Animation has been proving people wrong since its release in 2014. Ping Pong follows Smile and Peco, two high school students that have become the stars of their school’s table tennis team. After losing to a particularly talented Chinese student, Peco loses his motivation to play. Smile, meanwhile, was always considered the lesser of the two players, but through his coach’s training, he may be able to overcome his own mental obstacles and rise to take Peco’s place. Perhaps, he can even convince his friend to take up the sport again.
Ping Pong is bizarre in its execution. Tatsunoko Productions leaned into manga-ka Taiyo Matsumoto’s sketchy, twisting illustrations to create one of the most surreal and interesting animated sports series ever made. Matsumoto’s creation played with intense foreshortening and perspective shifts, twisting his characters into bizarre poses with an insane level of energy. The animation takes that unique art style and brings it to life, amplifying the already masterful story moments to chaotic, frenetic levels. This series isn’t afraid to get weird in story, tone, and animation, and from the very first moment, Ping Pong stands out as an impressive example of anime’s possibilities.
BNA: Brand New Animal
More recently, Studio Trigger has begun releasing series through Netflix, and while BNA: Brand New Animal doesn’t have the same following as many of its massive hits, the series is still noteworthy for its incredible animation. On a future Earth, people around the world have started to develop BNA, a mutation that allows them to transform into anthropomorphic Beastmen. Those with BNA have been ostracized, forced to live in Anima City. Michiru Kagemori has recently turned into a Tanuki Beastman, seeking asylum in Anima City. Alongside Shirou Ogami, a wolf, the pair work to stop a series of crimes in the city as Michiru learns more and more about her new abilities.
BNA is an incredible tour de force for Studio Trigger, even if the lighter story and kookier characters aren’t for every fan. The series brought the studio to more mainstream audiences, and because of that, Trigger put everything into its animation. From the stretched proportions to the flashy action sequences, BNA’s animation does an incredible job with its storytelling. Michiru’s many different transformations throughout the series are a particular highlight, as her Tanuki shapeshifting abilities allow the company to take a number of chances with her design. While the series may not be for everyone, take this as encouragement to at least give it a chance.
Going from light action comedy to serious science-fiction drama, Gankutsuou is one of the lesser-known titles on this list. Only receiving a Japanese language release, many viewers have slept on this futuristic adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. The series introduces former sailor Edmund Dantes as he is betrayed by his former friends. Wrongfully imprisoned, Dantes bonds with a mysterious force called Gankutsuou, which allows him to make his escape. Seeking his revenge, Dantes fashions himself into the Count, a mysterious member of the high society, a position that gives him access to everyone that has wronged him.
Simply put, Gakutsuou is beautiful. Taking influences from famous Ukiyo-e prints and artists like Gustav Klimt, the series looks nothing like any anime you have ever seen. The intense texturing and patterning throughout are stunning, with animation studio Gonzo filling every single frame of the series with intense detail. One of the coolest elements of the art is how the Count stands out among the other peoples of this world. He is rendered in a completely unique art style, with many of the patterning elements infused into his character specifically. This unique take on classic literature could not be missed.
Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre
Junji Ito has become the biggest name in Japanese horror literature, becoming something of his country’s Stephen King. Producing a number of manga and short stories, Ito has been scaring audiences for almost 40 years. Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre is the second anime series to adapt his many stories, and it is just as bizarre and terrifying as the source material. Whether the stories follow giant floating heads, bewitched ice cream trucks, twisted families, or adaptations of Ito’s beloved series Tomie, one thing is certain when you turn on this Netflix original: you are in for a scary good time.
While Maniac doesn’t stray too far from other anime series, the series is noteworthy for the way it brings Ito’s horrors to life. The animation is very well done, but while the series itself doesn’t take all that many chances, it does an incredible job scaring its audiences. Studio Deen has done an incredible job bringing the worst of Ito’s imagination to life, and there are plenty of gross out moments in every episode. While some of Netflix’s original anime don’t necessarily live up to expectations, Maniac is definitely one of the streaming giant’s highlights.
Knights of Sidonia
One of the current trends in modern anime is the switch to 3D, computer-generated animation, and while some of these series can feel stilted and uninteresting compared to their 2D counterparts, Knights of Sidonia was one of the first to really nail the aesthetic. The series takes place on a space colony known as the Sidonia, a vessel that has fled Earth after its destruction by an alien race known as the Gauna. In order to defend the Sidonia, pilots are trained in the utilization of powerful Garde mechas and in the eradication of the Gauna threat. With the Gauna evolving and developing new weapons, though, the pilots have their work cut out for them.
Knights of Sidonia doesn’t tell the perfect anime story. It feels rushed at times, and the narrative loses some of its emotional impact because of this. Nevertheless, this show’s animation is incredible, one of the best examples of 3D anime. While it has its moments of stilted movement and odd character interactions, the animation truly shines when showcasing the larger-than-life space battles and mecha designs. The way Polygon Pictures manages to capture the intense combat and visual distinction between the mechanical Garde and the meaty Gauana is incredible to see and leads to some amazing battles.
Mob Psycho 100
Studio Bones has made a name for itself with its massively popular Shonen Anime series like My Hero Academia, Soul Eater, and Fullmetal Alchemist. One of their more recent hits, though, is Mob Psycho 100. Following Mob, a young man with powerful psychic abilities, the series sees the boy attempting to learn how to control his powers. Mob lives his life constantly suppressing his emotions for fear that he will lose control and destroy everything around him. Realizing that this is no way to live, he joins forces with a fake medium named Arataka Reigen, who uses the boy to help him battle supernatural entities.
On the surface, Mob Psycho 100 is incredibly simplistic in its design. The story was written and drawn by ONE, the writer behind the pop culture icon One Punch Man, and it captures much of ONE’s very simplistic art style in terms of character design and basic situations. However, when the series begins delving into the supernatural, that is where the animation quality skyrockets. Mob’s powers alone are visually incredible, allowing Bones’ animators to go crazy with effects and motion. Any time the supernatural makes an appearance in this series, you know you’re in for a spectacle, and this leads to some crazy moments from the first episode.
While most of the series on this list are very action-oriented, NANA is more on the slow side. A realistic drama focused around two women with the same name, the series follows them as they move into the same apartment building in Tokyo. Nana Komatsu has moved to Tokyo to live with her boyfriend, though they suffer a sudden break-up when he cheats on her. Nana Osaki has come to the big city to help her band, Black Stones, rise to the top of the charts. Over the course of the series, the two women get closer as friends and face several major challenges in their love lives, their connection to one another, and their dreams.
NANA is an incredible Shojo anime, but it doesn’t stray too far outside the realm of normal animation. It isn’t particularly experimental, and there aren’t any sequences in particular that stand out. However, NANA makes this list for its simplicity. The animation never once overshadows the storytelling, instead feeding into it with unique nudges that amplify the emotions. It is a masterclass of visual storytelling. One of the best details is how the art style shifts subtly depending on each Nana. There are more monochromes and washed-out colors used when Osaki is on the screen, while Komatsu’s palette is far more pastel and bright. It’s art amplifying character in the best way.
Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt
The name alone should signal that Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt is not a cartoon for children. It may look like a rip-off of Powerpuff Girls, but this sexually-charged, hyper-violent comedy is one of the most outlandish animes to ever be produced by Gurren Lagann animators Gainax. The story follows a pair of angels that have been kicked out of heaven due to their behavior. Trapped in Daten City, on the border between heaven and hell, the pair must work to earn their way back into heaven by defeating Ghosts. The only thing holding them back are their own vices.
Hilarious and unlike anything else in modern anime, Panty & Stocking is one-of-a-kind, and it is this unique nature that earns it a spot on this list. At first glance, the show looks nothing at all like any modern anime. The art style is completely unique, with a far more Western cartoon influence in its designs. What helps the series stand out is that this art style shifts, getting more and less complex as the story demands. One example of this comes from the lead characters’ angelic transformations. When they access their angel powers, they take on an entirely different animation style, looking much more like traditional anime. Lewd, rude, and an incredible time, Panty & Stocking is a must-watch comedy.
Based on the manga series Devilman by Go Nagai, Devilman Crybaby is one of the bloodiest and most intense anime on this list. It has earned its R-rating in nearly every single respect. Akira Fudo is just your average high school student until his best friend Ryo Asuka returns from a trip to the Amazon Rainforest. Ryo discovered the existence of demons, and in an attempt to prove their existence to the world, he takes Akira to a nightclub and summons a horde. During the summoning, Akira is possessed by Amon, but due to his incredible will, Akira takes the demon’s powers. Now, with demons running amok, Akira must prepare for bloody battle after bloody battle with the threat.
Devilman Crybaby is intensely dark and violent, showcasing Science Saru’s best animation to date. The co-producer for Ping-Pong the Animation, Saru’s pedigree and experimental mindset show through with every second of this series. The intensity of the character movement is unmatched, with squash-and-stretch pushed to its absolute breaking point in some incredibly horrifying and action-packed sequences. The fights in the show are bloody and often disgusting, but the animation quality is second to none in this series. One of the newer entries on this list and one that hasn’t quite gotten the following of some of the others, Devilman Crybaby deserves your attention.
While the video game Cyberpunk 2077 faced plenty of infamy during its release, its spin-off anime, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners has received nothing but positive reviews. After the sudden death of his mother due to gang conflict, David is lost and alone in Night City with nothing but a rare piece of military cybernetics to his name. After having the Sandevistan hardware equipped to his spine, David becomes a mercenary known as an Edgerunner. Doing jobs for the corporations isn’t easy, but alongside his new squad, David finds new purpose and new hope, but also discovers the dangers of unchecked cybernetics use.
Cyberpunk: Edgerunners is a slick, stylish science-fiction thrill ride with lovable characters and incredible world-building, but this isn’t a list about the greatest anime stories. This list is about the animation, and Studio Trigger knocks it out of the park again with this smash hit series. Every moment of this series is gorgeously animated, from the quiet conversations on the moon to the hellish gun fights and cybernetic brawls. This series is one of Trigger’s all-time great animated endeavors, with their trademarks working brilliantly with CD Projekt Red’s tech-enhanced world, and while the story is heartbreaking, the action set pieces and iconic characters will have you coming back over and over again.
There aren’t many anime that can claim Samuel L. Jackson as a lead voice actor, but Afro Samurai is one such anime. Inspired by manga-ka Takashi Okazaki’s love for Hip-Hop and soul music, the story follows Afro, a samurai seeking revenge for the death of his father at the hands of the world’s number two warrior. Later, as an adult, Afro has earned the title of number two, battling threats from all sides that seek to take his place. However, until Afro can kill Justice, the gunslinger who slew his father, Afro will never give up his position. So he fights mercenaries, bandits, and warriors of all stripes in gorgeously bloody duels.
Afro Samurai is an incredible love letter to both Eastern and Western animation. There really is no animated series quite like this gem. From the artistic style to the stunning animation, Gonzo Studio went above and beyond with the adaptation of Okazaki’s manga. The series is full of beautifully choreographed fight scenes, and the way the series plays with perspective is masterful. Not only that, but every frame feels like it was ripped straight out of a comic book, with big, chunky black shadows over every surface and powerful, dynamic characters taking over the screen.
One Punch Man
One of the biggest hits of modern animation, One Punch Man is an incredible action comedy with plenty of satire for the superhero genre. Following Saitama, a man with incredible power who became a superhero for the fun of it, the series explores a world where superheroes are the norm. They work for the government in opposition to evil monsters. Due to his massive power, Saitama has a problem: he beats every single one of his opponents in one punch (does the title make sense yet?). Always on the lookout for more and more powerful enemies, Saitama joins forces with the official superheroes.
Another hit series adapted from the work of ONE, One Punch Man’s art style is inspired by the incredible work of artist Yusuke Murata. Murata’s work on the manga is already so cinematic, with the artist experimenting with the point-of-view “camera” and perspective to create intense movement and combat alongside the simpler, comedic moments that mirror ONE’s original art for the series. The anime, produced by Madhouse, does an incredible job of taking this gorgeous art and translating it to the screen. The visuals are some of the all-time best in modern anime, with a great sense of power and motion coupled with some great comedy and simplicity.