This might be an odd post but I actually had a great time putting it together!
Nostalgia does weird things to us. For instance, it can make us think that everything was better “before”. Like anime! And I’m not entirely sure that’s true. A lot of my favourite series are relatively new (as in they were made this century for what that’s worth) but then again maybe my own perception is a bit skewed as well.
I decided to explore the question in a very simple and surface-level way for my own curiosity. So I went through a couple of aggregator sites and looked up the most popular anime for each 5-year jump since 1980 to see how bad or different things have gotten and I will also tell you my favourite if it applies.
I know it’s a bit of a weird idea for a post but I just wanted to see how much the passage of time, coupled with the explosive popularity of anime internationally, has had an impact on the anime itself. It should be noted though that the popularity measures are imperfect as they measure current compounded popularity rather than popularity at the time. So let’s say a series was largely ignored when it came out but became popular a decade later because it got released internationally or something, I won’t be able to make the distinction so that’s going to falsify the data a lot. Still, it could give us some interesting leads if nothing else.
1980 – 1985
Here are the top 5 anime by popularity for those years
- Nausicaa Valley of the Wind (39,466) – By a landslide! Not surprising since studio Ghibli anime was for a long time the only thing international anime fans had seen and remains increadably popular
- Angel’s Egg (19,230) – This movie had a resurgence a few years ago and I suspect most people watched it fairly recently rather than when it aired
- Fist of the North Star (13,937) – Now that rings classic anime to me! Wouldn’t say it holds up all that well.
- Macross (13,162) – Space operas were the THING in the 80s
- Urusei Yatsura (10,751) – This classic anime recently made it back into Crunchyroll’s library. I’m not sure if that has had an impact.
My favourite of the period is Rose of Versaille!
So the 80s were marked by socially conscious or just fun science fiction epics and some classic action. Also, a sex comedy because we always love those!
- My Neighbour Totoro (91,871): Unsurprising for the same reason as Nausicca but also well earned. This is a great movie with amazing merchandising potential!
- Dragon Ball Z (91,122): almost as popular as Totoro. Now that’s quite a feat!
- Dragon Ball (80,156): The original Dragon Ball came out 4 years before DBZ and it did very well for itself also.
- Akira (78,071): This is the first anime movie I saw so I’m not surprised to see it high. It was readily available and so very 80s
- Grave of the Fireflies (65,683): I can’t deny it’s a great movie.
My favourite is also Totoro but if we take the manga into account then it would be Akira.
So the latter half of the 80s was marked by to continuing reign of Studio Ghibli as well as a penchant for well-made but kind of depressing movies (all three of them). And some good old fashion ridiculous shonen fun! YAY.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion (157,267): as you can see Eva dwarfs previous titles, well above Totoro which surprised me. Whatever else you may feel about it, there’s no denying that Eva helped bring anime to the West.
- Yuyu Hakusho (60,474): I still need to watch this and I really want to
- Ghost in the Shell (59,656): On the other hand, I thought GITS would have been more popular but I think it might be a series a lot of fans know mostly by reputation.
- Sailor Moon (40,360): Aw man, Sailor moon deserves more views!
- Golden Boy (34,559): I really liked Golden Boy but I don’t know that many people who have watched it. I guess it might have gotten more popular in the last few years.
For me, it’s a toss-up between Eva and Sailor Moon but I also haven’t really seen much anime from the early 90s it seems.
I’m not sure if this means anything but 3 of the top 5 on this list are from 1995 which was a bit of a turning year. the other two are from 1992 so generally speaking there wasn’t that much anime that got popular in those years. There is still a strong Science fiction representation and a slightly raunchy comedy.
Damn a lot came out in the late 90s!
- One Piece (187,159): Still the king of shonen. It sort of thought to argue that anime was better in the 90s when it’s literally the same shows with better production value.
- Cowboy Bebop (170,053): Everyone loves Cowboy Bebop, well at least I do. And it’s such a wonderfully directed show. It doesn’t get enough credit for the technical merits.
- Princess Mononoke (106,375): How could I have forgotten, but more than Totoro? Still, Ghibli is a powerhouse and the fact that one of their marquis movies only made it to number 3 tells you how rich these years were for anime.
- FLCL (80,643): I’m sure this got popular after the fact. I remember watching it a few years after it was released mind you, and no one at all had even heard of it!
- End of Eva (80,224): Despite the troubled end and the fact that this is just a tacked-on movie, the Evangelion name still managed to draw in the audiences!
This is probably where my nostalgia lies for anime and I have trouble picking between Lain, Perfect Blue and the original Berserk, all of which are real close to my heart.
These years were also when Pokemon first came out as well as GTO, Kenshin and Trigun!
As we can see there is still a very strong Science Fiction vibe going through the popular titles but One Piece trumps all!
Ok so maybe early 2000s were even better for anime releases…
- Naruto (242,323): Yup, Naruto came out after One Piece and look at that. I watched Naruto so I get it. It’s quintessential!
- Spirited Away (167,039): Possibly Ghibli’s most-watched movie, I remember it mesmerized all my friends!
- Bleach (135,923): I haven’t watched Bleah and although I knew it was popular, I didn’t know it was this popular!
- Elfen Lied (111,751): I can’t quite explain this one. I’ve watched and read Elfen Lied and I can’t quite explain why so many people gravitated to it.
- Howl’s Moving Castle: A second Ghibli movie makes it into the top 5. By the way, I really liked the book, if you haven’t read it, it’s great.
For my part, I would say either Hajime no Ippo or Haibane Renmei but there were a lot of great titles that came out in the early 2000s.
For example Samurai Shamploo and Fullmetal Alchemist came out during these years.
There seems to be a shift towards anime for younger audiences. And I don’t mean that in a bad way but there aren’t those mature slow-burn psychological titles of previous years in this particular list. With one exception these are optimistic and joyful shows you can watch with your kids!
Every time I take another 5 year bracket, it’s another golden time for anime…
- Death Note (323,128): The so far biggest draw ever. I haven’t seen the anime but I love the manga. It’s witty but not too smart to follow, quick-paced and engrossing. I’m glad so many people have watched it.
- Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood (270,530): yeah that one! Everyone’s favourite show and I got nothing bad to say.
- Toradora! (219,507) No wonder everyone uses this show as an example of romance anime, it’s the only one everybody has seen…
- Naruto Shippuden (203,591): When you consider the episode counts it’s extremely impressive that Naruto has managed to get such a huge audience for two iterations.
- Angel Beats (198,574): Unexpectedly higher than Clannad. I haven’t watched either but I did play both and, they were ok.
Although so many great anime came out during those years, as far as I was concerned, it was all over once Natsume started airing. Still, one of my very favourite anime and I can’t see it getting beaten anytime soon. I will say, Gurren Lagann also came out in those years and I love it dearly as well.
And a lot more came out. Bakemonogatori, Spice and Wolf, Black Butler, Gintama, K-On, Durarara, Haruhi… the list goes on. These were impressive anime years.
I really love the spread. These genres and demographics are all over the place and they are all pretty good anime. There’s really something for everyone.
I have a feeling that a lot of people’s favourite anime actually aired in this bracket.
- Attack on Titan (356,471): It helps that it’s still airing so new people are picking up season 1 regularly but it also did a great job both in advertising and sustained tension.
- Hunter x Hunter 2011 (297,605): Look it’s my favourite shounen as well so I get it.
- Sword Art Online (285,566): I gotta say, I have no feelings about this show but I have rarely seen a series spark so much debate simply by existing.
- One-Punch Man (281,889): So many heavy hitters are making this list and the numbers aren’t too far apart!
- Tokyo Ghoul (271,381): I recently said this had to be the most popular zombie anime of all time, I guess I was right.
You now what didn’t make the list, my and a lot of other people’s favourite, Steins;Gate. Also Haikyu!! started in the early 2010s another favourite of mine. From the New World, Humanity has declined, Kuroko, not to mention Penguindrum which is a masterpiece and the first Eccentric Family. As well as Noragami, NGNL, Your Lie in April, Assassination Classroom… just so much great anime!
If I had to be stuck in one of my brackets, this might be it. It also had the best Natsume seasons. Sure the most popular shows were high-action violentish shounen but there was a wide array of anime being made and a LOT of them were great.
- My Hero Academia (329,949): We were all expecting it right. I mean if it hadn’t made a list yet it would have to be here.
- Demon Slayer (291,727): I still really like Demon Slayer and I hope it gets another season. I haven’t seen the movie yet mind you.
- My Hero Academia 2 (257,658): One of the advantages of releasing season close to one another is that you get to keep a lot of your audience.
- Attack on Titan 2 (248,776): See, even though Attack on Titan has a more popular season 1 than MHA, it went down more in season 2.
- Your Name (246,651): Did you know that Your Name and A Silent Voice came out the same year to very similar numbers. Your name wins out overall.
Ok, so I will admit, the last 5 years do seem a bit less exciting than the previous 5 to me. For the first time on this list. Not that I didn’t like these shows but they are very similar in many ways and there are two seasons of MHA. Also sentimental movies are not my favourite thing in the world.
But there were also shows like Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, To be Hero, Drifters, Tanya the Evil, Acca-13, Sarazanmai, Dorohedoro and Beastars, to name a few, that are all very unique and new.
So what did this little experience teach me? Well, it seems that for me personally the first half of the 2010s was my favourite time in anime because of the variety, but then again, every 5 years was just getting better before that and I don’t hate these last 5 years either. It’s entirely possible that the next five will become my new favourite time in anime.
I personally don’t see much difference. Trends change and we went from gritty space opera to gritty crime to gritty urban fiction but it’s essentially the same idea. A good slightly lewd comedy does well no matter the era and the big shonens are always on top. There really hasn’t been much change at all other than Ghibli is less present. But we still have movies like Your Name that bring the spirit of these types of movies to the table.
I found this little walk down memory lane very interesting and I hope you guys did as well. Do you have a favourite time in anime? Do you know why?
24 thoughts on “Most Popular Anime by Year of Release”
hi, I really like your site, now I will visit it more often and read your beautiful content.
So many anime to watch.
I still haven’t even seen Sailor Moon yet, and I really want to.
I try not to be like this, but I am easily provoked by things likes fluorescent lights, or the booming voices and the static pops of old propaganda films.
Because of this, I have always avoided malls as much as possible. The only safe zone seems to be Hot Topic due to lighting…. their soundtrack helps as well. It is ironic that in these small spaces I suddenly feel so much less claustrophobic- like I had been holding my breath before I escaped.
As a child, I remember my family going to a few casinos for a lunch or breakfast buffet. Normally, I have a gut of iron. But during these meals, I always felt seasick- as if the carpet was rising under my feet. I would grip the edge of the table as if by doing so I could nail my mind through the carpet and tether myself to the cemented floor.
I would try to wash my mind in nothingness to keep it from spinning with the wandering lights- and lugging my stomach along with it.
Where am I going with this? Hahah! Oh yeah…. when I first saw anime as a kid, it was when flipping through channels. The content was not exactly E for everyone, and without consciously thinking of it, I determined that anime was for people who wanted a girlfriend but couldn’t have one. Strange when I look back on it now, but it kind of makes sense.
Although I watched plenty of anime films, for some reason I never really thought of them as anime.
Later in my late teens, I housesat for a friend who had a ton of Terry Prachett audio books as well as an eclectic collection of DVDs. Like her pillars of books, and her floppy albums of audio books, her films were strewn together by genre. So, my interest was piqued when I saw “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” sandwiched between “The Minority Report” and the original “Blade Runner.”
As much as I loved “Ghost in the Shell,” it was her three season collection of “Naruto” that began my craze for anime. Despite its presentation of being colourful and cheery, it held a lot of depth and made me reevaluate the way I viewed people, and from that point on, anime in general.
I tend to go in circles, but I finally am making my way back, honest. 😉
The reason why I think it was so easy to dive into these anime was because the DVDs were automatically setup to play with the original Japanese language with English subtitles. For some reason, just watching a film with subs already prepares my mind to expect something different- to not assume it is going to be a regular Hollywood film.
One of the first films I remember watching with subtitles as a child was “The Joy Luck Club”
Although it is practical that there are subs only when another language was spoken, I had assumed that it also marked a passage of the ‘ordinary life’ we are accustomed to in the West, versus another place and time… which in Joy Luck Club meant China.
So I think watching anime in subtitles helped me to have an open mind to expect the unexpected. Plus, it is just so much more pleasant to listen to Japanese.
When I went to search for anime later, I was immediately put off by “Bleach” because everything sounded so loud and overacted. But then I discovered that “Naruto” was exactly the same when I found it on television. Suddenly it felt like another 2D Saturday morning cartoon- not the sleek intriguing kinds, but the ones that made me feel like I was getting brainwashed in leftover Fruit Loops milk.
I am not entirely opposed to Saturday morning cartoons… to me One Punch Man, Attack on Titan and One Piece all have that vibe- but in a really fun way.
But I am kicking myself that I probably missed a lot of incredible anime just because I was introduced to it dubbed. I really want to go back and give alot of these anime another chance. They may turn out like Evangelion and SAO for me- ones that I tried to watch multiple times but just disliked it (finished SAO and confidently say I dislike, never finished Evangelion… I kind of view it like Isaac Asminov novels. I tried a few times, but I am not going to force myself to try it yet again when there are just too many good things out there that I actually enjoy eating). But they may turn out to be one of those magic moments that had been there all along just waiting for me to realize how amazing it is!
I really detest bullying and snobbery, yet at times I have unwittingly sunk into becoming both of these things. All the anime I missed just because I was so put off by the sound presentation- aaaaaah!
Annnnd, I rambled a novel again. Irina, you don’t have to respond to any of this. Sometimes it is just so nice for me to think of something else rather than work to be done or assignments due. Thanks for this!
I really want to watch “Rose of Versailles,” “Akira,” and “Sailor Moon!”
I like your Novels Maica. They’re fun. I have never been to a Hot Topic (we don’t have them here) so I am curious about the lighting!
I think Sailor Moon, Akir and Rose of Versaille are fine choices! But heck, if this post thought me anything is that there is a HUGE amount of great anime out there!
Aw, thanks Irina!
Hot Topic’s walls are all painted black, and it is cocooned in clothing all pressed together… kind of like being in a gigantic closet. They blast punk or rock music, and somehow it is so soothing.
Alot of their clothing is cheap- like cheaply made. But some is beautiful! A lot of goth-Disney, DeviantArt designed kind of stuff, complete with striped stockings, nerdy suspenders and perhaps a poorly made Lolita skirt here and there.
My most favourite chain was a place called Hastings. They went out of business, but it was amazing! It was set up kind of like a Barnes and Nobles, but without the brand new book smell, and a friendly worn in used bookstore vibe.
They specialized in video games (complete with some arcade games in different locations- like a 6 person Pacman station), Cosplay, figure collectibles, musical instruments (light up drumsticks and guitars you could try out), anime, manga and books- WITH a coffee bar. It was THE most amazing place. I could easily have stayed in that place all day with friends- and we would have all had a great time.
The problem was probably too much of a selection, but that was the full beauty of it.
That and the fact that so much of it you could actually try on or try out. It was like a comic book store- but the kind that has couches and allows you to take all day flipping through before you buy (Like Isotope Comics in San Francisco)
I am not really into shopping, but that place I will dearly miss
Fun to see which series are still widely around today (the usual SJ fair, Sailor Moon, etc.) and which ones haven’t kept up the hype or is widely considered a standard classic (Elfen Lied, Angel Beats).
Some of these really have had greatstaying power
Ahh so many great titles that I’ve been blessed to see, making it on this list! (Evangelion, Angel’s Egg, My Neighbor Totoro, Attack on Titan season 1, BNHA, Your Name, One Punch Man, SAO, etc…)
It’s great how available anime has become
Truesay, it shows in places like theatres, anime conventions, and even in the workplace too haha 😁
Angel’s Egg is a huge surprise on a Top 5 list. I would’ve never guessed in a million years that would happen.
Really, I remember everyone talking about it for a while there.
That really is surprising as I didn’t think it would be talked about that much. I wonder what could have sparked that kind of discussion?
WingKing mentioned it was uploaded to YouTube a while ago, I bet that had at least something to do with it.
Gotcha. I wondered how that could happen with this discussion on this movie.
An interesting topic and a fun read!
Now for comparison’s sake, here’s a list that was published back in 2005 where Japanese fans voted on their top 100 anime of all time.
Of course you have plenty of shows that were hot at the time like Pani Poni Dash and Air that I doubt would make the list if you reran this poll today, but more interesting to me are some of the ones that were still holding up even back then. Like Touch at #7 was a baseball/romance anime that premiered in 1985. Very few overseas anime fans have ever watched it because it’s never been licensed or exported so pirate/fansub is the only option, but it was absolutely massive in Japan, with some of the highest TV ratings ever for any anime, and obviously was still fondly remembered to be ranked that high 20 years later. Or Saint Seiya at #11, which bombed in North America but was tremendously popular pretty much everywhere else, especially in Latin America. If you polled Spanish-speaking anime fans on the top five anime from 86-90 instead of English-speaking fans, Saint Seiya might very well make their top five.
Angel’s Egg is also an interesting case; I suspect that one snuck onto the list because – unlike most anime films – it’s freely available on YouTube. The video has 1.5 million views in five years, which is probably about 1.4 million more people than had watched it in the 30 years before it got uploaded. Availability is important, especially with these older titles.
These aren’t the popular titles as in best rated but simply as most watched. So I’m not sure how it compares but that’s a very interesting list.
I was under the impression that Saint Seiya was really popular here but then again, we barely count as America.
I didn’t know Angel’s Egg was on YouTube. That definitely explains why so many people have seen it!
True, it’s not an exact comparison, but presumably to have made that list in the first place a lot of people would have watched those shows, regardless of order, and that’s kinda what I was more interested in, especially those older titles that never found big audiences on this side of the pond (if they ever had a chance to).
I think the biggest surprise for me was how high Angel’s Egg placed. Th
Thee second biggest surprise was the lack of Madoka in the 2011+ bracket. I certainly hear people talk about it a lot more than, say, Tokyo Ghoul (in the top 5? I underestimated that show’s popularity).
I wasn’t surprised by Elfen Lied. It came out at a time where otaku anime started to break out of the niche in the west. For many, this was the first show to acquaint them with the contrasts of ultr-cuteness and ultra-violence, and then there’s all the nudity, which we’re used to by now, and which wasn’t anything new to the tiny fansub crowd, but the growing general audience hadn’t really seen anything like it at the time. Instead you had show’s like Hellsing that had a decidedly less moe aesthetic. (I think, though I’m going by memory – my faulty one that is – that Elfen Lied didn’t really take off until around 2006/2007).
By the way, if that weren’t cumulative popularity, you’d be almost guaranteed to get Haruhi Suzumiya in the 2006 bracket. It was *the* anime during the time. But it’s popularity has dropped off sharply since, to the extent that I’m sometimes meeting people who don’t know what it is. That would have been nearly impossible back then.
I definitely hear people talk about Angel Beats more than about Clannad. I found it an incredibly dull show, though.
2011 -2015 was definitely a great time for anime, but as it happens, I started watching simulcasts in late 2009, early 2010, so that’s probably part of it. I don’t really have the same feel for when a show came out before 2009, so I can’t really talk about favourites. Shows like Eva or Haruhi are an exception, because they basically set the anime calender back in the days.
I, too, haven’t seen Yuyu Hakusho, yet (though I suspect that line may no longer be true for you, judging by a recent sidebar?).
Good eye! Since writing this post I have indeed finished Yu Yu Hakusho. It was fun. I think my review is scheduled for July.
I am also suprised so few people actually saw Madoka. It is aimed at a less general demographic I guess and the fanbase can be a bitmore intimidating which is a surprisingly big factor. Fortunately I have almost no knowledge of any fanbase before I start a series.
Great to see Hajime no Ippo get a mention, in my opinion it’s the best sports anime, sorry to Haikyu fans. NGL Though I love AOT i’m a little salty it beat of Hunter x Hunter which is legendary for me and I am surpised death note beat out FMA brotherhood. Though I guess if you compare them as an overall I think most people prefer FMA because of death notes contraversial ending
I love both Hajime and Haikyuu!
I just went by the number ofpeople that reported seeing the anime.
I’m also surprised to see how popular Elfen Lied was. I haven’t seen the anime, but I tried to read the manga and couldn’t get very far into it.
I guess it’s an early mainstream ecchi maybe?