It’s never been a better time to be an anime fan, with the likes of Chainsaw Man, Mob Psycho 100, and more keeping the 2022 momentum going, but the genre has been building up to this crescendo for decades. The 2000s was known for several excellent anime series, defining a generation’s worth of fans’ formative years with the genre.
Unsurprisingly, many shounen series were among the most popular, but enough of them stood out on their own and are fondly remembered by longtime anime fans. One Piece was a significant player during the days of the “Big Three,” but more mature anime like Monster and Samurai Champloo garnered their respective acclaim.
Death Note (2006-2007)
While typical shounen anime like Naruto and Bleach took up a lot of the limelight in the ’00s, Death Note became an impressive anime juggernaut in the mainstream on its own merits. It still targeted the same shounen demographic, but this series took a darker, more complex, and dramatic angle. Following one of the most ruthlessly intelligent anime protagonists in the genre, Light Yagami gains access to the supernatural Death Note that lets him choose who dies and when.
With all the terror and uncertainty that it brings, world-class detective L comes into the mix for what unravels into a thoroughly gripping crime drama and psychological thriller. Death Note was such a tantalizingly unique story, and it was many anime fans’ first foray into the genre in that decade.
Naoki Urasawa’s Monster is a refreshing change of pace from typical action-shounen fanfare. Likewise, veteran animation studio Madhouse’s adaptation still stands as one of the most outstanding seinen anime series ever, let alone in the ’00s. The series follows Kenzo Tenma, a former doctor living in Germany whose life falls apart when he refuses to operate on a high-ranking politician to save the life of a young boy.
However, years later, the boy returns as an elusive serial killer and compels Tenma to put a stop to his atrocities. Monster has been widely acclaimed for its gripping and dark atmosphere, masterfully making the most of its crime-noir genre. It’s a tense 74-episode saga, with the plot evolving into a bloody string of philosophical revelations.
Gurren Lagann (2007)
The mecha genre in anime is one with well-known tropes, but studio Gainax’s Gurren Lagann proved to be an exhilarating rendition of it, becoming one of the most popular anime originals of the time in the process. Considering how the story unfolds, Gurren Lagann is a mecha series mostly in name, with the robot action serving as a vehicle for the impressively resonating emotional themes.
It begins with Simon and Kamina living grueling lives in an underground village, as the Spiral King has ruled all life above ground. Gurren Lagann explodes into a vibrant visual spectacle with themes of how resilient the human spirit can be at its best.
Writer Hiromu Arakawa’s manga had another anime adaptation before this but, while it was fairly well-received, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood became wildly acclaimed for its faithfulness to the source material from start to finish. It’s commonly regarded as a modern classic to this day, thanks in large part to its investing cast of characters and creative fantasy/steampunk world.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood can be emotionally relentless in its storytelling and depiction of tragedy, but that’s why it’s such a rewarding 64-episode journey. It’s an insightful story of dealing with grief, wartime commentary, and morality as it tells the stories of Edward and Alphonse Elric – state-sanctioned Alchemists on a country-wide quest to undo the damage they did when they attempted to resurrect their mother.
One Piece (1999-)
Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece is one of the most enduring manga and anime series in the industry. Toei Animation’s TV adaptation is also one of the most nostalgic anime from the ’90s, but One Piece transcends generations as it’s crossed over 1,032 episodes. The series begins with Monkey D. Luffy as he aspires to follow in his role model’s footsteps to become a world-class pirate, and it evolves into a colorful globetrotting adventure.
Since its inception, the series has been lauded worldwide for its astonishing attention to detail when it comes to worldbuilding, lore, and rewarding character arcs. Every adventure the Straw Hats embark on feels like a meticulously thought-out pirate-themed odyssey.
Samurai Champloo (2004-2005)
Cowboy Bebop easily became one of the highest-rated anime in general among the community, and for those that became deeply immersed in that stylish sci-fi world, Samurai Champloo is the natural next recommendation. Despite the latter being set in an entirely different setting, Champloo feels like a classic within a classic since it captures a similar sense of style and nuance from the ’90s while standing on its own feet in the ’00s.
From the same director as Bebop, Samurai Champloo opts for a historical fiction premise where ronin Mugen and Jim find themselves in an unlikely alliance to help Fuu find the mysterious “samurai who smells of sunflowers.” The animation is slick, the action is exciting, and the series uses hip-hop to influence its tone and aesthetic in a similar way to Bebop‘s use of acid jazz.
Another one of the “Big Three,” Naruto practically became a cultural milestone for anime. Masashi Kishimoto’s ninja manga began publishing at the tail-end of the ’90s, but the TV anime adaptation could arguably be credited in part for propelling the genre’s popularity in the mainstream well into the next decade.
Naruto begins with the titular misfit ninja clawing his way out of social persecution in his quest to become the Hidden Leaf Village’s Hokage, and along the way, it branches out into a myriad of storylines and colorful friends and foes. Though at least in retrospect, Naruto simultaneously represents the “battle shounen’s” best traits and most tired-out tropes, it was undoubtedly an icon of the time.
Similar but to a somewhat lesser degree than Naruto, Tite Kubo’s Bleach was the final member of the anime/manga “Big Three” that helped make a lasting impact in the mainstream. Bleach takes a more modern supernatural approach to its premise, with Ichigo Kurosaki gaining the powers of a Souls Reaper to fend off the threat of demonic Hollows.
The story starts off smaller-scale and eventually expands into a grandiose conspiracy punctuated by high-octane fight scenes. And like Naruto, Bleach‘s narrative for the time as a battle shounen didn’t revolutionize anything and had its fair share of contrivances, but its darker approach, bloody action, and stylish characters made the series synonymous with anime in the ’00s.
Animation studio Sunrise’s adaptation of Inuyasha was a sprawling series from that decade, spanning an impressive 167 episodes (plus the 26 episodes of the sequel series that finished the story). Rumiko Takahashi’s source material was considered a creative blend of eastern fantasy, action, and romance, with the franchise overall being fondly remembered for its diverse cast of characters.
Inuyasha was one of the most memorable shounen of the time and was generally well-received for striking a strong balance of comedic relief with serious subject matter through its Sengoku-era wartime commentary, using time travel as a vehicle for this story. A young Tokyo girl named Kagome is transported to the Sengoku period, where she meets the half-dog Inuyasha as they set out on a quest to prevent the Shikon Jewel fragments from falling into the wrong hands.
It’s certainly far from being the most nuanced or compelling anime of the decade, but Yu-Gi-Oh! easily cemented its case as one of the most influential anime of the ’00s in more ways than one. The story centers around the young Yugi Mutou, who solves an ancient puzzle that awakens his older alter ego.
Yugi and co. then go on various adventures dealing with conflicts through various games, but while the source material had more than the Duel Monsters card game, that game is undoubtedly the one that took the mainstream by storm. It paved the way for an entire media franchise, including the addictive trading card game that carried the series’ fame.