I'm also a firm believer that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, so have a Top 15 instead.
Now, just to be clear, I'm using the word "best." That means "most good." Goodness is a value; by definition, any measure of how good something is is inherently going to be subjective. I love these openings, and I'm sharing them because I love them; if your particular favorite opening isn't on here, or you disagree with my order, that doesn't mean I'm saying you are wrong about your favorites, and it doesn't mean I'm wrong about mine. It is the nature of the beast; it's like getting upset because I love my significant other more than I love yours.
Also, I apologize in advance; some of these videos have slightly fuzzy quality, some have the lyrics subtitled in languages other than English or not subtitled at all, and so on. I grabbed what I could off YouTube; I own most of the series that had problems, so when I have time (next weekend, possibly) I may rip better-quality versions to replace them.
I do not own any of these videos and did not make any of these videos.
Now, I specifically picked the English dub of this opening--one of four where I did not use the Japanese version, and I'm sure you can guess at least one of the others--because it is, quite simply, a more energetic and exciting song coupled with action-packed, cool-looking imagery. It is, in another words, the opening to the show Dragonball Z thinks it is: an action-packed science-fantasy adventure serial packed with epic action sequences and some of the most badass characters in history. The Japanese opening, on the other hand, is the opening to the show Dragonball Z actually is: a generic, brainless action-comedy that goes stupidly over the top, made worse by utterly horrendous pacing.
Ultimately, that's why this opening barely scrapes its way onto the list: it's a truly great opening, but it just doesn't fit the show. This is a fun, exciting, fast-paced opening, and to go from it to the twenty-third consecutive episode of Goku charging up to attack Frieza is a huge let-down.
Well, everyone who I didn't piss off with my criticism of Dragonball Z is now pissed at me for picking this opening. Purists are angry because this arc of Robotech is a horrible bastardization of Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, probably the best anime of its era, and Robotech fans are mad because I'm using the 2012 remastered version of the opening, which dares to look different from the show they remember.
I offer an olive branch to both: the original Macross opening would have been Number 16 if the list went that far, and the only reason I used this version of the Robotech opening and not the broadcast version is that it's available in higher quality.
Anyway, what makes this a truly great opening is mostly the music. Almost all anime openings are pop songs, so any exception to that rule is a breath of fresh air, and this is some really good science fiction-y music, similar to the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme but actually predating it by quite some time. The visuals are quite good too, with the fighter plane launching in what looks to be mostly a contemporary military action setting; then, as the fighter transforms into its mech mode, the opening transforms into a science fiction setting. Good stuff, and it fits the show well.
This is all about the song. I freaking love this song; it's creepy, unsettling, and has a great beat. They even managed to use autotune well, which I didn't think was possible! Image-wise, it's pretty good, especially the beginning with the kaleidoscope and the flowers and, most importantly, the lamp with the butterfly. That image--a fragile, beautiful creature, drawn towards the light that will destroy it, but locked out by a cage--goes beyond intriguing and manages to be downright haunting.
Unfortunately, instead of sticking to its guns and depicting similarly haunting images, the opening instead shows all the main characters (with the notable exception of Keiichi, the only male character in the group) sad or in pain. It gives up on being the opening to a smart, highly original, and deeply creepy horror story and is instead the opening to a show about voyeuristically watching cute adolescent (and younger) girls suffer. Unfortunately, both of those are accurate descriptions of the brilliant but deeply problematic Higurashi no Naku Koro ni.
Fucking moe fans ruin everything.
Weren't expecting a German dub, were you? The Japanese and English versions of the Sailor Moon opening are also brilliant, but for me the German just barely edges them out. Visually, it's pretty much the same as the Japanese opening, which is to say very good, with some surreal dreamscapes slightly reminiscent of Windsor McCay scattered amidst fairly standard Main Characters Posing and Zooming Around shots. What makes it stand out is the music, which discards the central theme shared by the Japanese and English openings in favor of a great techno beat coupled with surprisingly gentle vocals and piano.
That works really well with Sailor Moon's place in the history of the genre. Prior to Sailor Moon, most magical girl shows were about celebrating the traditional Japanese feminine virtues; with the exception of some of Go Nagai's work (which was years ahead of its time), most magical girls were gentle and sweet young adolescents who used magical powers based on their feminine virtue to overcome evil from a safe distance. That's all still present in Sailor Moon, and the piano and vocals reflect that. The brilliance of Sailor Moon, however, was to combine that formula with elements of the sentai genre (most familiar to Westerners by way of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers). In Sailor Moon, the traditional magical girl main character is part of a team of similarly-empowered girls, and they have to fight the monster's minions--often physically and hand-to-hand--before they can use their magic to save the day. This much-needed injection of physical action and energy revitalized a flagging genre and made Sailor Moon the template for a new subgenre, magical girl sentai teams, that continues to this day--and only the German version, with its driving techno beat underlying soft piano and vocals, does something similar with the opening.
The third opening is by far the worst, bordering on being actually a bad opening. The music is utterly wrong in every conceivable way; funk does not belong anywhere within a million miles of FMA. Visually, however, it's a tour de force; in particular, the transitions from shot to shot are among the smoothest and most natural I've seen in an opening. It doesn't feel like a clip show or a trailer the way most openings do, but rather like something intentionally produced as a work in itself. Unfortunately, the song just drags it down.
Finally, the fourth opening isn't the best, but it feels more mature than the others--the singer sounds like a grown-up, the tone of the song is a little bit more reflective, and the imagery is much more symbolically charged. I particularly like Ed and Al running through each other and turning respectively red and blue, and the two of them rising up the Tree of Life together followed by the glaring Eye of Truth just as they reach the top. (The opening succession of black, yellow, and red alchemy circles would have been brilliant if they'd just added in a white one as well, but more on that in a moment). After the song picks up and the action sequences kick in, we get a lot of great, short action scenes that fit well with the frenetic Day of the Eclipse arc that this opening corresponds to; the fight scenes with Pride are particularly brilliant.
But none of the openings are Top 15 material, so why are we talking about them at all? Basically, because I'm cheating. No one of these openings is truly great, but taken together they do something completely brilliant that even justifies that terrible, terrible third opening song. Consider them in sequence. The first opening song is a child in crisis, and visually it's dominated by images of disintegration and flame. The second opening is extremely generic and has a lot of pale, washed-out or monochrome images. The third opening is visually brilliant, but has a crippling flaw in its music. And the fourth opening is fully mature and more symbolically and spiritually resonant than the others.
Put another way, the sequence of openings is crisis/decomposition/burning, blankness/lack of identity/paleness, glowing-but-imperfect, and mature/spiritually awakened. Nigredo, albedo, citrinitas, rubedo: the stages of creating a Philosopher's Stone.
Well, I thought it was awesome.
Also, you should read Fushigi Yuugi Genbu Kaiden. It's like Fushigi Yuugi, only instead of being a wimpy moron who depends on her reverse harem to protect her, the Miaka-equivalent's immediate response to finding herself stranded in mytho-medieval China is to invent the naginata. Also the Tamahome-equivalent is magically transsexual. Fun stuff!
I've only just started watching Vision of Escaflowne (yes, I know, I'm decades behind, but there's a LOT of animation out there to watch, and sometimes I have to do things like eat, or sleep, or go to work, or acknowledge the existence of friends and family...), and I already know I freaking love this opening. It's just beautiful. The song is absolutely wonderful, one of the very few on this list I will happily listen to just for the sake of listening to it, and while I don't much care for the character designs in the show, the framing of the shots is perfect.
What I mean is that this is a very wistful song, and virtually every shot is a character alone in a wide space. Despite that, it's a hopeful song, too, and subtle relationships between successive shots (for example, having a character on the right side of the screen facing left, followed by a character on the left side of the screen facing right) create a feeling of connectedness, implying that all of these isolated individuals are meant to be together and will find one another. Nonetheless, the only characters we see interacting are fighting one another; this will not be an easy road.
Basically, the song and the visuals tell a story together, and it's a story compelling enough to make you want to stay and watch the show. That's everything a good opening should do.
This is one of those ones that you just have to have on the list. I suspect I put it a bit lower than a lot of people would, but frankly, while a very, very good opening, it's not the best ever. It's not even the best opening of 1995-6; that first aired a month after Neon Genesis Evangelion ended (we'll get to it).
But it is still a very good opening. The song is iconic, and another one I can listen to outside of watching the show. Listening to the music and looking at the lyrics, it's an upbeat song exhorting a young man to come of age and ascend to heroism in a classic Campbell-style hero's journey, which goes well with the Qabbalistic imagery early in the opening, particularly the Tree of Life. As the song goes on, however, we see a lot of quick cuts between images of bloody violence, the three main women being sad when they're not reduced to sexualized one-dimensional monochrome sillhouettes, and a whole lot of contextless information flung at the viewer very fast.
In other words, the song is ironic and this opening is a deconstruction of the super robot genre as much as the show is. That's actually a pretty neat trick, to deconstruct an entire genre in what amounts to a ninety-second music video. Also, you might notice as we run down this list that I'm a sucker for shows that hide subtle spoilers in the opening credits, where they're invisible until you've watched the events spoiled. So, of course, I love the sly placement of a countdown timer starting just past the halfway point of the opening. Evangelion was thus always going to end apocalyptically; that was inevitable from the opening credits of the first episode.
(Note: This video defaults to 480p even though it's available in 720p. I highly recommend you fullscreen the video or click the link to open it in YouTube so that you can watch it in the higher resolution, it makes a big difference.)
Another of my all-time favorite anime, Revolutionary Girl Utena is quite possibly the most symbolically dense, richly packed idea-feast in all of anime. (Yes, more than Evangelion. Much, much more than Evangelion.)
The opening is no different, bursting with yonic and phallic imagery, suggestive poses for Utena and Anthy interspersed with swordfights, showing them as dress-clad maidens (well, Anthy anyway) and knights on horseback. It's all about colliding gender roles, a sleeping prince who needs to be woken, the essentially wrong fairy tale fantasy (its wrongness is why the castle's upside-down) crumbling as Utena and Anthy rise... and yet at the end of it Utena is alone and asleep and Anthy has been replaced by a hollow space.
It's another of those openings that is absolutely chock-full of spoilers if you know how to read it right, but the only way to know how to read it is to watch the entire show. And it's one of those openings where I can and do listen to the song on its own; seeing Masami Okui perform it live was one of the surprise highlights of my 2012. And it's an opening where the visuals match up perfectly with the lyrics of the song, about pride and love and loss.
The only flaw in this otherwise brilliant opening isn't really a flaw in the opening itself, so much as a flaw in the show: the horses. The horseback-riding scene in the opening is awesome, and it's tragic that we get no such scene in the show. We get an equivalent with the whole "car" arc, but horses are always cooler than cars.
Still, a great opening to a great show, and we're only at number 7. Life is good.
The only ending on the list, and the reason I included endings at all. I couldn't not put this in; the ending sequence of Puella Magi Madoka Magica is one of the great credit sequences of all time, anime or otherwise. There's a reason this is the film clip I use in my Analyzing Anime 101 panel.
Like many of my favorite openings, it's a subtle retelling of the story of one of my favorite anime. There's a code to all of it--the different positions of the figures around Madoka in the first part correspond to their roles in the story, as does the fact that only one of them moves. The brief transition from cold to hot colors just as Madoka starts running, the way the light fades and she becomes more and more isolated as she progresses... it all tracks brilliantly to the show, as does her fetal position in the eye of the mask at the end--a mask worn by the actor playing Mephistopheles in a German stage production of Faust in the early 1940s.
If you've seen the show, that's all deeply significant, a symbolic retelling (well, except the part about it being specifically a Nazi production of Faust; I have yet to encounter anyone able to put together a convincing theory about that); if you haven't, it's meaningless, but still interesting to watch. The song works exactly the same way; it's a great song, and it's likely that you'll be near the end of the series or even on your second or third viewing before you realize that it's specifically being sung about the protagonist by the deuteragonist.
Dark, distressing, and strangely energizing, this ending is the condensed essence of Madoka Magica, and that's a pretty awesome thing to be.
Prepare for extensive mood whiplash in the next couple of videos, we're going to be all over the emotional map.
This is Phoenix, the magnum opus of Osamu Tezuka, the God of Manga, the primary creative influence through whom all modern Japanese comics and animation descend, and my fellow Carl Barks fanboy. (No, seriously. Look at the Good Duck Artist's work, and then look at Tezuka's. Heck, read some of the things Tezuka had to say about Disney and Barks. All manga is descended from Scrooge McDuck.)
While there are other anime openings I like better (four, to be precise), this is by far the most beautiful on this list. It's the only word to describe it. That orchestral score (courtesy of the Czech Symphony Orchestra) that blends Western and Eastern sounds is heartbreaking on its own, but combined with those visuals... the only word for it is "wow."
Just in the first thirty seconds we have something that is simultaneously an annular eclipse (that ancient symbol of celestial perfection, the sun-moon, the union of yin and yang), an egg, and an eye, before we realize it is the Cosmic Egg of myth, from which the stars erupt, until out of the chaotic fires of creation emerges the elegant figure of the Phoenix, and all of this then becomes the wheel of dharma--fate--shining down upon a statue of the Buddha.
In the rest of the opening, the Phoenix then flies through Buddha's eye into an ultramodern, borderline futuristic cityscape that gives way to an army of robots that become the dream of an ancient Japanese haniwa statuette (a symbol of death, and an implication that the proto-Shinto grave marker and the Buddhist idol are in some sense one and the same); soon after we are treated to the Pioneer plaque or something similar and young flowers growing, blooming, dying. An endless stream of animals march in the circle of life, and once again we return to the eclipse.
A perfect eternal circle that embraces past, present, and future; a song of life and death and rebirth; a unification of all cultures and ultimately all life; Phoenix.
Also, it's not a j-pop song and it doesn't show any of the characters (unless you count the Phoenix itself; I see it as closer to a plot device, personally). That's major originality points.
I did warn you about the whiplash.
Why is this here? The song, mostly. Admit it: If you are less than 30 years old, and possibly even if you are older, the instant you heard the song you wanted to sing along. It's a damn catchy song, and in a fun, rather than ear-wormy, way.
Also, the first season of Pokemon is, unquestionably, the single most-improved English dub over the Japanese original of any anime, and the song is a huge part of that. (Most of the rest is Team Rocket.)
The other thing I like about this opening is that, while the human characters (especially Ash) do appear in it, the focus is undeniably on the Pokemon, many of which appear to have been selected at random rather than chosen for significance to the show. I mean, Dratini? Sandshrew? Not exactly big-name mons. The reason they're here is because this opening is all about celebrating the variety of Pokemon, the breadth of this world rather than its depth (which is good, because it has no depth to speak of). That's the essence of "Gotta catch 'em all"; Ash cannot and will not ever come anywhere close to catching 'em all--if I recall correctly, he peaks at less than twenty percent, and falls further behind with each new generation--but that's not what's important. What's important is seeing 'em all, and acknowledging that they exist.
But mostly I just like singing along. There's not many openings that can get me to do that.
(Note: The small size messes up the annotations the person who made this video used to transcribe and translate the lyrics. Open in YouTube or fullscreen it if you want to read the lyrics.)
Like a lot of my favorites, this is another opening that serves as an encapsulation of its series, but it is more like Phoenix or Utena than the Madoka Magica example; it does not state the plot (even in a coded way) but presents the themes and characters of the show. In this case, we see people of all ages and all different walks of life happily laughing, apparently blissfully unaware of the doom that surrounds them or the way the world is racing toward destruction. That's... pretty much Paranoia Agent in a nutshell. The only other thing that would make it perfect is some clear indicator that this is a criticism of the viewer as much as the characters--and then it ends with Shonen Bat smacking the viewer over the head, so that's taken care of.
This is a brilliant song, too. Deeply weird and unsettling, but fun and energetic, rather than creepy. It's a wrong sort of fun, a fun that isn't quite going how its supposed to go, and thus fits well with the maniacally laughing characters and apocalyptic imagery.
The lyrics are great, too--utter nonsense about birds and sunlight and happiness. There's a mushroom cloud on the horizon, by the way, but the important thing is to be happy and enjoy life.
This opening is a work of genius, and Paranoia Agent is an even greater work of genius, arguably the greatest work of the sadly late Satoshi Kon, snatched from us at the peak of his skills and career by a blend of cancer, alternative medicine, and painful irony--if he'd only sought treatment that stood a chance of working instead of treatment that did nothing but felt good, he might have lived. Probably not, though; it was a nasty cancer.
Regardless, this is a brilliant opening. It's not at number one for a single reason: Irony. Specifically, the fact that it (like the rest of Paranoia Agent) is bitterly sarcastic, a hateful jibe at a society depicted as unsalvageable and not worth salvaging. It's not 1990 anymore; it's time to get over the fact that we were supposed to have a nuclear apocalypse by now, quit whining about how terrible everything is, roll up our sleeves and embrace and expand the good. I'm sick of irony; give me some sincerity.
Surprise! No, it's not surprising that this is on the list. It's on everybody's list. Odds are pretty high that if you are the appropriate age and physical location to have watched late-night American television within a two-year radius of 2000, this is your favorite anime opening ever. I most definitely was, so it's actually pretty odd that this is "only" at second place on my list.
It's a great opening. The visuals--lots of sillhouetes, strong contrasts, people smoking, typing, firing guns--combine with the jazzy music to powerfully evoke the film noir aesthetic and era, but with spaceships. At first the visuals are straightforward, static geometric elements overlapping with moving images of characters and ships. However, as the song picks up, the images jazz it up with slow glides to one side of the screen (usually the right or bottom), and then the frame/figure binary erodes with a ship exhaust that becomes the frame of the next shot. (According to the series' creator quoted in the art book, this is a world where ships travel faster than light by moving between loops of film on the reel, instead of being forced to move frame-to-frame along the film. The opening is hardly the only place this binary is played with, is what I'm saying.)
Most of all, despite seeing them throughout the opening, its rigid, geometric framing prevents us from getting any sense of the context of the characters' movements, and thus the opening gives us basically no idea of who they are. It's almost like they are enigmas, constrained by their world to act in ways that do not reflect their inner natures--a major, albeit frequently subtle, theme of the show.
So... I've done Cowboy Bebop. I've done Evangelion, Pokemon... what could possibly be left for first place? What opening claims my heart and owns my eternal allegiance as the greatest anime opening of all time?
I've already given you a clue, way back in Number 8: April 1996. Specifically, Friday, April 5, 1996, the first broadcast of this:
Yep. Slayers Next, the second season of the animated adaptation of Hajime Kanzaka's cute, fun, funny, but ultimately frothy light fantasy novels. And, as far as I'm concerned, it has the best opening of any anime ever.
First of all, the song. It's Megumi Hayashibara's best song, which is the rough j-pop equivalent of being the most athletic Olympian: it's not automatically equivalent to being the best in history, but it is automatically in the running. It's fun, energetic, adventurous, everything a good shonen theme should be, and it's pretty obviously being sung by Lina herself, given that Hayashibara voiced the character and how well the lyrics describe her motivations, which of course are also the motivations of every shonen main character ever: to grow, to unleash the power inside them, and to find their purpose.
That's what makes this the best anime opening ever, above far more original and, for lack of a better term, artistic openings like Phoenix, Paranoia Agent, or Cowboy Bebop. This is in many ways an ISO 9000 standard anime opening. Where other shows seek to redefine what an anime opening can be, and by so doing become less like an anime opening and more like some other, unnamed-yet-awesome thing, the Slayers Next opening hits all the standard notes of an anime opening and does them perfectly.
J-pop song sung by the female lead, who has a dual voice acting/singing career? Slayers Next has the best song by the best dual voice actress/j-pop idol.
Quick vignettes of the characters wandering the world or facing off with their enemies? Done, with some jokes worked in, like Lina pulling out some weird kabob-thing instead of a spell, Xellos doing his signature "That... is a secret" gesture just as the song mentions seeking for "the answer.
In-jokes for the fans and hidden spoilers? Luna, the best character never to appear outside of credit sequences. Also, the main villain shows up in the intro, but until episode 22 or so you won't notice him, and possibly not even after. We also get to see Lina casting Ragna Blade and the Sword of Light disappearing into darkness, both of which look like they're just symbolic until they happen in the show.
Evangelion-style mystical diagrams? A quick flash of a diagram from the Ars Goetia, which actually means something within the context of the show! Although you'd have to be a seriously hard-core fan to know that, even if you recognized the diagram.
Basically, this opening is a solid j-pop song with appealing images of the characters posing in a way that suggests their personalities and roles and hints at what the show is about. It's a bog-standard opening, but a bog-standard opening that no other bog-standard opening has ever surpassed. It is to anime openings what Chronotrigger is to JRPGs, and that 's a darn good place to stand.
Also, Lina has a realistic figure for someone in her late teens with a very active lifestyle. Let me reiterate: A female anime character has a realistic figure in a show intended for male viewers. And she's the main character, to boot! Okay, that's praise for the show, but it carries over into the opening, and it's rare enough to be awesome.
So that's my top picks. What are yours? Strenuously disagree with my opinions or justifications? Leave a comment, let me know, we'll have a conversation!