2014
09.12

#20. Kyoto (Rurouni Kenshin)

Creator: Nobuhiro Watsuki
Original Years of Publication: 1994-1997
Manga: Chapters #48-151
Anime: (Rurouni Kenshin) Episodes #28-62
Studio: Studio Gallop
Japanese Publisher: Shueisha (Weekly Shonen Jump)
North American Publisher: Viz Media
North American Distributor: Aniplex of America
Streaming: Crunchyroll, Hulu
Recommended Version: Manga

Oh, come on. You can’t tell me you haven’t seen or read this yet? Rurouni Kenshin, known as one of the best manga series out there, and one of the most influential, is a story about a wandering ex-samurai looking for his place in the new world he helped create. He settles in with a group of friends and begins to help them through through tough times as the new era is beginning. However, they wonder about his past as he never seems to talk about no matter how often it comes up. Then an old face comes knocking and everything changes. What is revealed about Kenshin Himura’s past is the catalyst for the Kyoto arc, and when the manga goes from being pretty good to being an outright classic.

Rurouni Kenshin’s main theme is suffering, repentance, and living on, all within nearly the same moment. The characters throughout the story Kenshin encounters are usually either perfectly content (or discontent) with their lives as they live in the present and try to make ends meet, and it is up to him to help them find their place as he feels responsible for their predicament. After these adventures, he attracts attention and a wolf comes knocking at the door to remind him and the world of the past that will not die. The Kyoto arc involves a band of mercenaries of a fading era attempting to regain control of a world that has left them to die . . . in more ways than one. Kenshin, as the vanguard for the new era, and his ragtag group are the only ones that can stop their plans before the world is dragged back into the fire it barely escaped from the first time.

Now, most anyone who reads manga or watches anime has heard of this series, if they have not experienced it. It is well regarded as a classic, and this is the arc that shows why that is. Now, there have been far too many adaptions of this arc (to the exclusion of other top shelf material from the anime, unfortunately) to go through, but the only one worth your time outside of the original manga is the anime series adaption (as long as you stop watching when the arc ends) the rest vary in quality, with one OVA that outright spits right in the face of the themes from the original, so tread wisely.

What else can be said but that this is one of the best and most popular arcs in all of manga and anime? It has earned that popularity for a very good reason, so don’t miss out. ~Spark of Spirit

#19. York New City (Hunter X Hunter)

Creator: Yoshihiro Togashi
Original Years of Publication: 2000-2002
Manga: Chapters #67-128
Anime: Hunter X Hunter (Original) Episodes #48-70, Hunter X Hunter (Reboot) Episodes #39-59
Studio: Nippon Animation (Original), Madhouse (Reboot)
Japanese Publisher: Shueisha (Weekly Shonen Jump)
North American Publisher: Viz Media
North American Distributor: Viz Media
Streaming: Crunchyroll, Netflix
Recommended Version: First Anime

Yoshihiro Togashi has a bit of reputation among fans of anime and manga for being aloof. No, aloof isn’t the right word. Eccentric is a better one. A man as known for his shocking laziness as he is for shocking plot twists, in the world of shonen there is nobody really like him out there. Hunter X Hunter is his current long running epic known as much for its creativity as it surprising story turns, and York New City is the best of them and exemplifies the best aspects of Togashi’s skills.

Explaining the entire story of Hunter X Hunter would require an education in how the hunter license works, how the Phantom Troupe (the enemies of our heroes) operate, and all the various story threads that lead to this point. But we already have a series for that, so let’s just say we’re coming in mid-story with this arc. Kurapika, one of our main characters, is hunting down the criminal group that slaughtered his people and cut out their eyes to make a profit. In his journey he ropes in our other main characters as well as mercenaries who are hired by the mob for a task of their own in his bid for vengeance. What ends up happening is a standoff between multiple groups of characters all looking to off one another, and the plot twists . . . well, let’s just say that you will never see the ending coming.

What you will see a lot of in this arc is wanton death and destruction, so if you have a weak stomach, you should beware. Togashi is not shy about killing characters he introduced moments before or surprising you by killing someone you didn’t expect at the strangest moments. Considering this is an arc dealing with the criminal underworld and one character’s slide into darkness, expect a lot of bad people to do a lot of bad things. Oh yeah, and Gon making friendship speeches. Be sure to expect that.

Here’s a story with more twists and turns than any shonen this side of Death Note, and one that will keep you glued to the screen (or the pages) throughout. Hunter X Hunter might have a bit of mixed reception as a whole, but that doesn’t stop this arc from being one of the best arcs out there. Be wary that the first anime series tapers off into OVAs, so to finish the arc you will have to venture a bit further, but it is worth the time. ~Spark of Spirit

#18. Namek (Dragon Ball)

Creator: Akira Toriyama
Original Years of Publication: 1990-1991
Manga: Volumes #21-28, Chapters #242-329
Anime: Dragon Ball Z Episodes #36-107, Dragon Ball Kai Episodes #18-54
Studio: Toei Animation
Japanese Publisher: Shueisha (Weekly Shonen Jump)
North American Publisher: Viz Media
North American Distributor: FUNimation
Streaming: Daisuki, FUNimation, Hulu
Recommended Version: Manga

Perhaps the most famous arc of the Dragon Ball series, the Namek arc took the intensity of the previous Saiyan arc and ratcheted the stakes up to even greater proportions. An impressive feat, since the fight against the Saiyans was one of increasing desperation, showing many of the series’ strongest fighters fall one by one in futility against the alien invaders. Yet, as fierce as that situation was, the Namek arc finds our heroes against even greater peril. Not only is their archenemy Vegeta recovered, vengeful, and searching for the dragon balls that they need to bring their dead friends back to life, but his ex-employer, the intergalactic overlord Freeza, has learned of the dragon balls’ existence and now seeks them for himself. Soon the two begin a bloody power-struggle on the planet Namek, slaughtering hordes of it’s powerless population in their wake, with Goku’s son Gohan and his friends caught helplessly in the middle.

Though typically most remembered for it’s impressively long final fight, the Namek arc boasts a much deeper plot than it is often given credit for. Whereas Goku and friends never backed down to a fight in previous arcs, the insane difference in power between them and their foes force them to stay under the radar and concoct plans designed not to defeat their enemies but set them back enough to buy time in order to get the dragon balls for themselves and make their wish before either Freeza or Vegeta can. This ultimately leads to a lot of stealth and strategy, as the characters go through great lengths to avoid encountering Vegeta or Freeza’s minions. Instead, much of the conflict early on follows Vegeta, who takes the role of an anti-villain, with his encounters with Freeza and his men and his maneuvers to steal the dragon balls from him front and center. Dragon Ball is famous for having many of it’s villains team up with the heroes after their introductory arc, but Vegeta is notable for never truly becoming a “good guy” at any point in this arc. Rather, he is as violent and villainous as before, but is still presented as a protagonist, and we see new sides to his character that make him worth rooting for even before he allies with Goku and friends. For the first half of the Namek arc the conflict is strictly villain against villain as Vegeta takes out Freeza’s goons while slowly collecting the dragon balls, while Gohan and Krillin lurk around taking whatever chance they can to get stronger and set back their enemies’ plans.

It’s a situation that at once hearkens to the both the adventure-driven element of the early arcs and the serious power-fights introduced in it’s recent ones, while presenting a new and original structure to the series’ formula. It’s hard to think of many other arcs in a battle shonen series where the heroes and even the villains try their best to avoid fighting each other, which not only serves to increase the suspense that permeates the arc, but makes each battle that occurs intense and engrossing. Adding to the tension is the sheer magnitude of what’s on the line. In the Saiyan arc the fate of the earth and everyone on it was at stake. Here? Freeza threatens not only to wipe out Namek but to crush the entire galaxy under his three-toed claw. If he gets the dragon balls and becomes immortal, he will continue to wipe out and destroy innocent lives across the universe. Combine this threat with the mystery behind his immeasurable power, his chillingly aggressive politeness, and the cool confidence of an intelligent businessman (fun fact: Akira Toriyama based his character on real estate speculators, which he considered to be “the worst sort of people”), and you have what is the most terrifying villain in the series, and the threat he posses feels real in a way that was simply unrivaled by those before him, and quite frankly, those after. And it’s one of the biggest things that sets this arc apart. The story that began as the comedic adventures of a monkey-tailed country bumpkin became a story about a fated hero fighting against the reach of the most powerful evil in all the galaxy, to avenge fallen innocents including his own people, and save others from his reign of terror. Later arcs in the series boasted even stronger villains, but with much less ambitious motives and hence far less at stake. There is no equal to the moment where Goku finally meets Freeza face to face, being the only one left who can defeat an enemy that had to be stopped at all costs.

There is this rumor that exists among fans that Akira Toriyama planned to stop the series after the Namek arc. This has always been an unconfirmed and exaggerated claim that is simply not true. Yet, reading this arc for the first time, you might very well think it was. The Namek arc feels like a culmination of everything in Dragon Ball. It is the last time the dragon balls are integral to the series’ plot, it elevates the scale of the central conflict to previously unimaginable proportions, and it incorporates several elements that present a sense of finality. Some might feel the battle with Freeza goes on too long, and indeed, it is in fact the longest fight in the entire manga, and even disregarding the filler added to it in the anime adaption. But considering everything this arc is about, and the entire saga of Dragon Ball up to this point, it feels only natural that it is so. The Namek arc might not be the best in the series, but it takes it to places in it’s story and character development that no other arc ever had or ever did later on, and remains one of the most iconic and influential arcs in anime or manga history. It’s placement on this list is more than well-deserved. ~Cartoon X

#17. Rikiishi Tooru (Ashita no Joe)

Creators: Asaki Takamori, Tetsuya Chiba
Original Years of Publication: 1969-1970
Manga: Volumes #7-9
Anime: Episodes #40-53
Studio: Mushi Production
Japanese Publisher: Kodansha (Weekly Shonen Magazine)
Recommended Version: Manga

Rivals. Whether born out of hate or respect, they push each other to become better than they can possibly be, each one gunning to prove themselves to the other in an eventual showdown, to see which of them is truly the best. There is no lack of examples in anime or manga, as pretty much every battle-shonen series and sports series have them. A truly great rivalry is a rare occurrence, but the best rivalries leave a lasting impact, as they can lead to some truly strong character development, and some powerful moments in a story, earning it iconic status. Perhaps the greatest rivalry in the medium is found in one of the greatest and most influential series there ever was: Ashita no Joe. And that rivalry is none other than the one between titular protagonist Joe Yabuki and this arc’s titular character, Rikiishi Tooru.

Though AnJ is virtually unknown among most anime/manga fans in the west, Ashita no Joe is fondly remembered in Japan to this day, and the rivalry between Joe and Rikiishi is as iconic and it was influential. It’s not hard to see why, as both characters found in each other someone who could motivate them to become better boxers like no other, creating a profound relationship unlike any other rivalry in the medium. It fundamentally drives the entire first act of the series. It was only through his desire to beat Rikiishi in a fight that Joe started taking boxing seriously, fully embracing the sport and resolving to become a professional boxer. Rikiishi, though already a high-ranked pro-boxer of considerable reputation and skill, was nonetheless impressed by Joe’s potential and tenacity, and found in him a true challenge worthy of him. And so Joe set out to become a successful professional boxer, one worthy to fight Rikiishi in a professional match. It was a tough road, the odds set against Joe from the start, just to get in the ring, and even beyond that, to win fights against veteran opponents filled with ambition and experience. But Joe’s ambition to fight Rikiishi kept him going, and made the impossible happen. And after a tough match, where Joe proved his mettle, Rikiishi was more than impressed, he was awed by Joe’s skill. He was the real deal, and opponent that would truly challenge him like none other in his boxing career. And so, the fight between the two was arranged, which leads to this arc.

Up until this point, Joe was the one taking the initiative in the rivalry, with Rikiishi providing inspiration and encouragement. But the Rikiishi Tooru arc is aptly named, for a large amount of focus is on Rikiishi’s preparations for the match. Most rivalries have the two characters just try to get stronger than each other, but Rikiishi would be grateful to have that problem. The world of boxing is a harsh one, where weak wills do not survive, and sacrifices must be made. In this profession, people can become crippled for life, or even die. And in order to simply be able to fight Joe, Rikiishi must go through a fasting like no other. It’s one thing to simply lose a little weight, but with Rikiishi’s body type, he has to become a bantamweight, three whole weight classes below his own. Rikiishi pushes his body to his absolute breaking points, and his fast and harsh training conditions puts him through a true living hell, with Chiba’s brilliant artwork capturing every pained expression on his face and every minute detail on his thin, bony body.

As anyone who has tried to lose a little weight can tell you, it’s hard, very hard. Contrasting Rikiishi’s plight in the story is a short sub-plot featuring Joe’s friend Nishii, who finds himself unable to endure his diet, and ultimately resorts to sneaking out for a bite in the middle of the night. Rikiishi is way leaner than Nishi as it is, though. He was perfectly healthy for his weight class. Losing more pounds requires him to eat and drink virtually nothing, training in bulky, heavy clothes in a hot room. Even in this living hell, Rikiishi does not ease up on his training, working tirelessly in these conditions each day to lose weight and prepare for the match. Unlike Nishi, Rikiishi’s will and determination is strong, and he resists all temptations put before him, and ignores the pleas of the Shiraki’s, who fear his training is endangering his life. But Rikiishi knows that Joe worked hard to become a professional boxer, and he desires to return the favor. His rival is not slouching off either. Seeing Rikiishi work himself half-to-death, single-minded in honing his strategy to seal Joe’s fighting techniques, makes the normally brash, overconfident Joe worried about if he’s truly a match for him. But determined to give the greatest fight of his life, Joe works himself doubly hard, his body beaten to a mash of bloody and sweat in his training sessions, all to be able to match Rikiishi’s skills in the ring.

For both characters, this fight is the most important event of their lives, taking precedence above anything else. Rikiishi feels he cannot aim for the championship without settling things with Joe once and for all, while for Joe, Rikiishi is his goal, beating him his purpose for becoming a boxer in the first place. They are willing to go through any lengths in order to defeat the other, and this conflict proves as awe-inspiring and gripping as their battle itself. What Rikiishi puts himself through is painful to see, and leads to some memorable scenes, including a brilliant moment where he nearly breaks down and sacrifices everything he worked for just for a glass of water. The fight itself is just as incredible as the set-up, both fighters pushing themselves to their limits, struggling to adapt to the other’s fighting strategy, ultimately culminating in an intense battle of wills, where the first one to make a move is sure to be the one to lose. These characters have undergone tough struggles, and have come a long way as both people and boxers since their first encounter, each other’s influence bettering the other, and the Rikiishi Tooru arc provides a gripping conclusion to the inspiring rivalry between them.

But perhaps even more remarkable than the core of the arc is the aftermath. As stated before, the boxing world is a harsh one, and after what these characters went through, there had to be consequences. And these consequences devastate the characters, and forces Joe into his lowest point, ending the first part of this series on a tearful, solemn note, and leaving a lasting impact that affects the remainder of the series as well. I hesitate to say more, but I will tell you that the reaction to this arc was so powerful when it was first published in Japan that it led to a real-life event honoring one of the series’ characters. That’s just how much that character, and this series, meant to readers in it’s day, a reaction that really hasn’t been quite rivaled by anything else since. The rivalry between Joe and Rikiishi is just that strong. And this arc is it’s definitive moment. The Rikiishi Tooru arc is an iconic, influential, and important arc in anime/manga history; an unforgettable piece of storytelling that helped make Ashita no Joe into the masterpiece it is, and will be forever lauded as. ~Cartoon X

#16. D-Reaper (Digimon Tamers)

Series Creator: Chiaki J. Konaka
Originally Aired: 2001-2002
Anime: (Digimon Tamers) Episodes #38-51
Studio: Toei Animation
North American Distributor: Saban Entertainment
Streaming: Netflix

Yes, there is a kid show on this list. Get over it. Anyone who has ever seen this show or arc know why it’s here. You see, Digimon made its name from a digital game that was seen as the competitor for Pokemon back in the late-90s, not really succeeding taking a piece of the pie, except in one area. It’s generally agreed upon that the anime for Digimon has almost always, outside of stray exceptions, been the superior of the two. The first three seasons in particular are well known for their adventure-filled plots, character dynamics, and inventive transformations, but also in the knowledge that they are really well crafted. The first season of Digimon (Digimon Adventure) was a surprise hit that lead to a somewhat rushed second season that didn’t quite satisfy, but opened the door to what is regularly considered the franchise peak. That would be third season, Digimon Tamers.

Digimon’s heavy character focus is usually sharp, but even more so in this season. The events of the series thus far has lead our heroes, villains, and supporting cast to the final threat against their world, a being that exists only to destroy, the D-Reaper. It escaped from the Digital World where the virus was most prevalent, attaching itself to those in despair who the enemy can manipulate for its own ends. When it arrives in the real world, it is up to everybody in the world to fight back, and fight back they do. From heroic sacrifices, to self-discovery, to forging new bonds, the D-Reaper storyline encompasses all the best of children’s entertainment while still being deep enough to interest the older crowd. One second you’ll be seeing a discussion on the importance of life and trust and the next there will be a climactic battle with a venomous parasite that ends in buildings being destroyed. Digimon, and children’s cartoons, rarely get better than this.

Sure, okay, it’s a tie-in for a video game series. So what? That doesn’t preclude bad writing or a show worth ignoring. Digimon has frequently astounded anime fans with its surprising level of entertainment since day one. If you haven’t been watching it because of the dollar signs and advertisements for other products clouding your judgement, you’re missing out. Digimon Tamers is well worth your time, and the D-Reaper story is the peak of the entire franchise that it will most likely never match. ~Spark of Spirit

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