Alright, here it is. The top 10 best openings. The ones that rise above and go beyond, and change the way we think about anime, art, and life it- Fuck it, we’re swimming in the sky with Mazingo!
10) “Mazinger Z” –English Version– from Mazinger Z:
Yeah, it’s terrible, but I like stupid and cheesy stuff. This is a piece of anime history now. Like, “Here’s the creation of the mecha genre. Try your best not to laugh.” Try this version with auto-generated subtitles on.
Mazinger Z– err, I’m sorry, Our Money The Do’s Engrish openings are just hilariously stupid, and I love them.
Anyone who knows a bit about Teen Titans probably has already guessed why this is here, but for those who don’t know, Teen Titans has two versions of its opening, one in English and the other in Japanese. Both are sung by Japanese rock band Puffy Ami Yumi, and while both sound the same, the lyrics are actually completely different.
The show doesn’t simply alternate between these two with every episode. Instead, the English song plays before serious episodes, and the Japanese song is played before comedic episodes. That is a good use of minor differentiation in theme to represent two very much competing tones within a series. For me, as a viewer, that means that if I am interested in rewatching only the more serious, plot forwarding and character growing episodes of Teen Titans, then I know which episodes to skip over as soon as I hear the Japanese lyrics. Similarly, if I just want to watch a simple, funny one-shot episode to kill 20 minutes, I can easily pick that out as well.
It’s a subtle difference that makes a clear distinction, and it’s yet another thing I wish we could see more of.
8) “Lilium” from Elfen Lied:
Yeah, this is turning into what will probably be a polarizing top ten, because, while “Lilium” is unquestionably beautiful and the Gustav Klimt art is interesting visually, what does this have to do with the show? Not a whole lot. It integrates the characters into the art, but not in ways that really tell us much about them. So it comes down to the song, “Lilium”, and it’s repetition throughout the show in different forms with different meanings.
“Lilium” appears over and over within Elfen Lied, and has as much of an arc to it as any of the characters. It starts off as feelingly like a calm before the story; a gentle tune we hear Lucy humming before some serious shit goes down. It becomes foreboding. But then, as we learn about Lucy’s childhood and where she learned the song, it becomes sad. By that point it encompasses the mixed feelings the viewer should have around Lucy, terror and pity, but it’s hard to understand those together.
By the end of the show, the feeling I get from “Lilium” is a lot harder to place. The sadness and fear are gone from it, and it seems a lot more out of reach, but also even more beautiful. What’s odd is, Elfen Lied doesn’t have any obvious religious themes, but if you ever read the lyrics, “Lilium” is deeply Abrahamic. Maybe I’m reading too much into that, but when you start imposing religious themes on Lucy and the ways “Lilium” is used in the show, a story of faith, redemption and the folly of man comes out of it.
Regardless, it’s a beautiful opening that has changing emotional significance throughout the series.
7) “Guns and Roses” from Baccano:
I gave praise to Clannad for this before, but Baccano is the master of the Character Card. A rundown of characters with their names. There are two reasons I’m giving “Guns and Roses” more credit for it.
First, it does it better. On top of just letting us know what to call them, this OP depicts the key traits of each character, and who their most closely related to, in just a couple seconds each.
Issac and Miria are goofball thieves. Ladd has good aim for bad reason, and no respect for Lua’s safety. Neither, for that matter, does Lua herself. Chane is dangerous with a knife and emotionally stunted. Nice makes things go boom, and Jacuzzi doesn’t like it when Nice makes things go boom, but he’ll still hold her hand while they run for their lives. Eve is the only one you probably don’t have to be scared of, but you don’t have to worry much for her safety either.
Second, it was desperately needed. 17 characters are showcased in this opening! And that’s not even all the ones in the show!. That’s a lot to keep track of, and if it wasn’t for this opening keeping the viewer familiar with all the important ones, it might not have worked. In that way, this is an opening that saves its show from possibly being unwatchable.
Add to that some quality animation and frenzied jazz music that suits the anime’s title, and you have one of the best openings there is.
6) “Tank” from Cowboy Bebop:
Alright, here it is. The one that had to be somewhere. Regardless of your own tastes or what you think my tastes are in anime, everyone knew this was going to be on the list because it’s on every list. But I’m really torn on it because, though it is really really good (and in fact, would be number 1 if it wasn’t for the whole deeper analysis and bringing something unique and creative to the table thing I’m looking for), it’s only really really good. There’s not much else to say on it.
Setting you up for a new episode/introducing you to the series: C-
Sorry, but do you really know the first thing about the characters or story from this? Not really. But it still gives you a sense for the particular tone of this space western.
It scores really well on paper, but that’s where it ends.
5) “Fool the World” from episodes 1-13 of Nobunaga the Fool:
Thankfully I still have the barricades up from the “Cruel Angel’s Thesis” section. Yeah, we’re following up Bebop with this CG’d mecha mess, but in terms of OP, I think that’s just the way it should be.
Here’s where the intro disclaimer about me not knowing anything about music comes into play, so anyone who knows better, tell me where I’m wrong, but “Fool the World” sounds to me to have a mix of Western and Eastern musical influences. It’s vertically complex, but doesn’t have much harmony or perceptible melody. Likewise, the underlying drum beat is very Western, but the more prevalent sounds are distinctly Eastern.
Now, why does my horribly under-informed musical analysis matter? Because, in Nobunaga the Fool there are two planets, the Western Planet and Eastern Planet. Characters Oda Nobunaga, Akechi Mitsuhide, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Ichihime and Himiko are from the Eastern Planet. And characters Leonardo da Vinci, Arthur Pendragon, Julius Caesar, Joan d’Arc (don’t give me that Jeanne crap; it’s Joan of Arc) are from the Western Planet. It’s not exactly subtle in the Western Planet being Europe (aka, the West prior to the New World), and the Eastern Planet being Japan.
While Nobunaga the Fool isn’t exactly about cultural difference, it is a topic that the show can’t really avoid, and the opening song “Fool the World” actually tackled that topic really well in its own way. The visuals also covered pretty much everything that was good about the anime, that being Nobunaga himself, and Leonardo’s fabulous blue hair.
4) “Perfect” from Trigun:
That name sets a high bar, and the opening does its damnedest to reach it. Trigun’s greatest feature, bar none, is the humanoid typhoon himself, Vash the Stampede. People love this guy. And when they’re first getting into Trigun, they’re intrigued by him. Who is he? Is he really the man everyone’s always talking about? The man who leaves destruction in his wake and has been deemed a “natural disaster” by insurance companies? These are the exact questions the show itself asks, so then how the hfil do you do an intro without ruining that mystique? You do it “Perfect”ly.
Rather than shy away for the man we all watch this show to see (well, one of the men; Wolfwood’s great, too), “Perfect” hardly looks at anything but him. We see him brooding. We see him wandering. We see him being the best damn gunslinger in anime, wielding his .45 Long Colt that can hold a candle to even Alucard’s Jackal. And we see him being a total goofball, dodging bullets with a sandwich in his mouth. Basically, before we even start the first episode, we know just enough about this man to be unsure of exactly who he is. When he appears to be a goofball, is he really? And how can that goofball survive a hostile desert world like this one? How can he have those sharp and beautiful damn blue eyes?! I freakin’ love Vash’s eyes!
It’s the same experience you get throughout the early episodes of Trigun, and not only is this OP worth watching during those to help bring out the experience of meeting this wonderful character, it also has some nice little shots for fans who already know the series.
Combine that with perfect audio-visual sync for certain shots, and the music, which simultaneously gets you hyped with the cool electric guitar chords and makes you just slightly unsettled by the alien feel to some of the sounds, and you have something that’s not just a cool track, but an excellent lead in for this Christian sci-fi character study.
3) “Disarm Dreamer” from Genshiken 2:
While Genshiken is an honest look at otaku culture, Genshiken 2 is an honest look at the characters of Genshiken, that is, otaku themselves. And these characters have to grow up. Harunobu gets an office job and stops showing up at the club. Kugayama has to give up drawing manga to start working. And a large part of Sasahara’s character arc is about struggling to move into professional life, rather than becoming a stereotypical adult otaku. And then there’s Saki and Souichirou, adorable otaku love! Everyone’s growing up. Sure it’s in the stupid Japanese mode of “Give up your passions and get hired by a company”, but considering the culture anime comes from, that’s an effective shorthand for the transition into adulthood.
So, how does the opening reflect this? The only possible Genshiken way; with Mechs, Magical Girls, and a perfect understanding of anime! While generally used to represent male and female adolescence, mecha and magic girls are almost always symbolic of characters growing up. Genshiken pushes that growing up back about a decade, into the characters’ early 20s, but the meaning still shines through, and it shows that the lessons a good anime or manga teaches us, like any form of art, will continue to grow with us.
“Disarm Dreamer” is a bit of anime that really understands anime.
2) “Tabi No Tochu” from episodes 1-13 of Spice and Wolf:
If this were just based on what openings are my favourite, this would be number one. I love Spice and Wolf, and this opening conveys so much of it. We may be here a while.
It starts with Holo waking up, alone, in snowy mountains. There’s a conflicting message here. On the one hand a cold environment is generally a pathetic fallacy of loneliness, but on the other hand we know Holo’s home, where she hopes to return to, is the northern mountains of Yoitsu. This starts to come together later in the series when it’s foreshadowed that Yoitsu is gone, and even Holo’s home has become a place of loneliness for her.
Holo’s nakedness here is dual purpose. First it accentuates the feeling of cold in the scene in general. Second it shows us the Holo is comfortable being naked when no one is around, a theme that should feel familiar to any Kill la Kill fans. This can be interpreted as further evidence of Yoitsu, a place she would naturally feel comfortable in, even if it has become cold. This sets us up for later.
Following that, we see Lawrence, the young traveling merchant, walking alone. He’s also lonely. By the end of his shot, he is standing left of center frame, while Holo was standing right in hers. This is consistent throughout the opening, though is often reversed in the show itself, particularly when the two are in private.
Cut to the moon, and the two of them standing below it.
“A dock in the country to the east; the western sea;
a southern town in a dark forest; a golden tower;
a hill in the south, shaken by water; above all, the same moon.”
We quickly cut across Holo’s pouch of wheat, Lawrence’s coin rolling across a table. The two items are significant for our main characters, but also significant items in trade. It is these items that characterize Holo and Lawrence’s relationship; it is a type of trade agreement. They give each other something they each want, their companionship. Cut again to Holo and Lawrence riding together in his horse-drawn cart.
Two lonely people from completely different worlds. Quick money transactions. And the companionship of Holo and Lawrence. In just a few shots everything crucial to Spice and Wolf is expressed with powerful empathetic imagery. Throw in a few shots of Holo teasing Lawrence, some of their economic competitor antagonists, and wolves, and you’ve got the show pretty much ironed out. All that’s left is to seal the deal with a handshake.
And note that Holo is again naked, obviously in a place that’s comfortable to her, but by this point we’re well aware that she generally wears clothes in public. The distinction is, here there is only one other person around to see her, and it’s someone she’s willing to show her true self to.
But that’s not all “Tabi No Tochu” has going for it. There’s also the lyrics. I’ve ignored these pretty much everywhere else because most opening songs are actually just licensed music, and their lyrics don’t really have much to do with the anime. But “Tabi no Tochu”… I’m just share with you a few lines.
on a journey, I lost my way;
as I stood still, my heart alone wandered.
But now I can walk again,
as far as I need to;
yes, ever since I met you
on this road.”
Pretty spot-on description of Holo, prior to meeting Lawrence, being stuck in Pasloe, alone and forgotten, not able to leave though her heart had begun to wander away.
“If the world we dreamed of
let’s go look for it,
let’s go see what’s at their end.
“Your eyes, which
know loneliness well,
blink, and that colour
And yet even beyond the lyrics, the pacing of the music, its accelerando and adagio, convey the quick dark turns, and slow and confident returns to ease of the arcs of the show. Simply put, it took something really special to beat this.
Honourable Mentions: (sorry, but I gotta build that tension)
Several from Bubblegum Crisis: Across the board these look stunning, sound interesting, and present something that I can understand still being a big part of anime today. I just haven’t actually watched any of it, so I can’t say a whole lot.
“Moonlight Densetsu” from Sailor Moon: Again, never watched (wow, I am just destroying my credentials here), and while I never got into Sailor Moon, I can very much respect its place in the Magical Girl genre, and classic anime as a whole. This opening is artistically creative and heavily engaging. If the terrible English dub hadn’t spoiled me on the franchise, this opening alone would have kept me interested.
“Hit in the USA” from Beck: Yeah, I just love stupid Engrish.
The Legend of Korra Opening Monologue: Why is it that opening always have to be accompanied by a music track? Why can’t a show have some other mode of communicative lead in? I think Avatar does a great job of communicating its concept and setting here, and J.K. Simmons in-character performance as Tenzin is pleasant to listen to, especially as you gain a greater respect for the character. In fact, his voice is part of why I chose this series opening, and not Last Airbender, along with the longer bending display, efficient way it writes in basically all the story fans need between to the two series, and the way the animation brings the viewer towards Republic City, then turns back away, to the statue of Aang.
“THE HERO !!” from One-Punch Man: One Puuuuuuunch!!!
But I haven’t seen it yet.
1) “Sorairo Days” from Gurren Lagann:
So Eva was a big deal. And that wasn’t entirely a good thing. Part of Evangelion’s legacy was that, for a long time, anime creators seemed to think being smart or being fun was a choice any new series had to make. It led to mildly clever series being way too serious and needlessly depressing sometimes, and upbeat entertaining shows being downright stupid. In some ways, Eva is to blame for the rise of the moe genre, and dumb ecchi fanservice anime becoming almost mainstream. Other genres weren’t hurt quite as badly as mecha, and some of the greats of the late 90s and early 00s were able to overcome this, but I still feel that even Trigun of all things had an awkward dissonance between its drama and comedy.
So, when Gainax finally steps back into the mecha arena over a decade later, what do they do? They get writer who grew up on classic mecha. They take where mecha anime was prior to Eva, and refine it meet the harsher demands of a more experienced industry. With Gurren Lagann, Gainax reinvented the wheel, again, and created something that was as smart as anything post-Eva, but wasn’t afraid to look like pure dumb fun.
So, the opening. It gives a quick rundown of the characters, the theme of rising through the earth and into the sky, and it’s the most efficient opening I’ve seen at giving the viewer a sense for the tone and type of story.
Let me run through the thought process of watching it for the first time, back when anime sorely needed this:
‘Drills. Sunglasses. The colour green is good, probably. Cool looking mech. Good guys are the two blue haired dudes and the one red haired girl. I guess their sort of a ragtag bunch just sleeping out under the stars in the rocky wasteland place, maybe that means there’s not much civilization.
‘Close up of the younger blue haired guy, so he must be the main character. Oh, he uses a drill and has a smaller mech. Oh, and flying and blue skies and stuff; I’m feeling a little whimsified! Who knew mecha anime could do that?
‘So the older blue haired guy is standing in fire, almost like a metaphor for burning passion or something. He looks like a pretty loud and optimistic guy. But he has that cape. What, is he trying to be cool or something? Everyone knows the only way to be cool in anime is to never smile like that or be happy, like Light Yagmi, Kyon, everyone in Black Lagoon, or that hunky Oji Karasuma. Oh well, hot girl with a sniper riffle!
‘Hey, I wonder if there’s any significance to her being the only character not in a mech. Like, maybe she represents a more organic side of humanity, willing to fight but not taking on such an identity forming weapon because she has other goals instead of being a dedicated lifelong soldier. I wonder if a theme like that might run through the entire series and still be getting reinterpreted in a decade from now?
‘Wait, no time for that! We got mechs, and rainbows, and did that one mech just attach itself to that other mech to make a completely new mech?! And now it’s fighting like, a billion other mechs?! And DRILLS?! Drills everywhere! This is completely unrealistic and stupid… and I’m fucking HYPED! –wait, were they just standing in space?’
This opening is special because it’s about an anime that’s special. An anime created by people who clearly understood anime and the genre they were working in, but were willing to defy everything that genre had been for over a decade. And “Sorairo Days” sets you up for that anime wonderfully.
Some might criticize this choice as being irrelevant now to modern fans. After all, most Western anime fans today got into it just before, or since, Gurren Lagann released, and that decade between it and Eva doesn’t matter to them because they didn’t live through it. But Gurren isn’t just the answer to that decade. This divide between smart anime and fun anime still exists today, and has probably gotten even worse; dark, confusing and emo has replaced “smart”, and vapid, pandering junk has replaced “fun”. A lot more stuff escapes this these days than used to (all hail One-Punch Man), but when joyless torture porn like Attack on Titan is anime’s biggest hit in years, and the feel-good charm of the long since bereft of substance Dragon Ball franchise has suddenly renewed its license to print money (but I do love Dragon Ball Super), I do think the now two decades old legacy of Evangelion rings louder than the nine-year-old message of Gurren Lagann.
Nothing since has been so smart while willing to look so dumb. So I think “Sorairo Days” is still relevant today. I’m almost sad that I have to put this 2007 opening in the number 1 spot still. By the end of Gurren Lagann, Simon was taller than Kamina. He learned from the older warrior, then surpassed him. Someone, please learn the lessons here and surpass this.
Don’t Lose Your Way