Trying to choose the best anime of all time is an impossible task. Much like trying to pick the best movie ever made, there are too many masterpieces to choose from. But trying to pick the best anime theme songs? That’s much easier. Through the years there are certain opening and ending themes from TV series and songs from feature-length anime that have won iconic status in Japanese culture and in many cases, international culture.
We love anime, but some of us love J-pop even more, so this list was a no-brainer. In creating it, we decided to include more than just anime opening themes, because so many landmark moments in Japanese animation have included music, from Hayao Miyazaki‘s collaboration with Joe Hisaishi, to the enduring works of renowned female composers like Yoko Kanno and Maaya Sakamoto. Some of our favorites are ending themes that blew our minds.
We also considered how well a song and its accompanying animated sequence fit together, and how well the song represents the themes of the story. For instance, all of the songs from the Full Metal Alchemist soundtrack have become cultural icons, including Porno Graffitti’s “Melissa,” the first song to open the series. But it’s the show’s final opening theme that really synthesizes the show’s themes of rebirth and transformation with a powerful opening credits sequence that still gives us chills over a decade later.
So here are our top picks for the greatest anime themes ever. How’d we do?
Speed Racer, aka Mach GoGoGo, is a series that lives vividly in the hearts and minds of millions of anime fans across generations, and it’s in no small part to this incredible song. Released in 1967, Speed Racer is a rock-and-roll racing/spy thriller about brilliant drivers controlling supercharged cars full of weapons. But even before the explosions and death-defying races got your heart pumping, there was the theme song, a perfect encapsulation of the show’s ability to make you laugh while your heart was in your throat.
Re:Creatorshas an ingenious premise that tugs the imagination of any real anime fan. Characters from anime, manga, and video games have somehow entered the real world, leaving it up to a group of high schoolers to do battle with their beloved icons. Full of blistering stylized action, it’s a series in need of a great theme, which is why SawanoHiroyuki[nZk]:Tielle & Gemie’s “gravityWall” is so fitting. This emo rager builds like an action sequence, exploding during the chorus and recharging during the verses. “gravityWall” wouldn’t be out of place at the Warped Tour.
Yuri on Ice immediately won over anime fans when it debuted in October 2016, and its music is no small part of the magic. In the show, 23-year-old Japanese ice skater Yuri Katsuki finds new confidence and motivation when champion Russian skater Victor Nikiforov quits to become Yuri’s coach. The show oozes with charm, romantic tension, and the heat of competition—all things evoked in the show’s opening theme “History Maker” by Dean Fujioka. If his intent was to make us all feel like we’re soaring on ice into the arms of new love, well, it worked.
The Pillows produced several songs for the brief genius of FLCL, and the two were intertwined in the minds of anime fans permanently thereafter. The Pillows also found a whole fanbase thanks to doing the show’s themes. We can’t help but hope Production I.G. summons them back for the recently announced FLCL 2.
For people discovering anime in the ’90s, the opening song from Ghost in the Shell brought shivers. It still does to this day. Based on Japanese folk songs, the haunting music made for the perfect backdrop to watch the birth of one of the most memorable women in anime history.
Susumu Hirasawa’s brilliant music and Satoshi Kon’s films paired so well that it seemed they were made for one another. Hirasawa’s opening theme for the Paranoia Agent series was a standout— it captured the sense of shifting realities that Kon was so fond of and wove them throughout a joyous melody.
You might not expect that an anime opening that features a character on a toilet could also manage to be one of the most original and stylish in recent memory, but then Durarara constantly defied our expectations. This opening is no exception.
Death Note hit such massive popularity after its 2006 release that the theme songs engraved themselves on anime fans. “The World” remained the theme song until episode 19, and then was replaced with “What’s up, people?!” by Maximum the Hormone from episode 20-37, which fit the tone of the second half of the show very well.
It’s impossible to think about harem anime without thinking of this song. The upbeat, ridiculously happy melody and chorus remains a classic to this day, and it’s hard to listen to it without getting up to dance. Just makes you want to punch Keitaro across the room, doesn’t it?
We don’t care that some of the lyrics are incomprehensible. This irrepressibly peppy beat is everything we love about J-pop, and it tells you everything you need to know about Beck in 90 of the happiest seconds of your life. We were all made to hit in America, so grab a friend and sing along.
Although plenty of songs from the popular Fairy Tail soundtrack could have made this list (“Strike Back” by Back-On was another contender), the combination of the enjoyable theme song plus this action-packed opening put “Ft” over the top for us.
The creators of One Piece loved their opening theme so much they’ve reworked it numerous times throughout the show’s history for various special episodes—including with the whole cast singing. And we can’t really blame them. It’s a great introduction to the buoyant spirit of Japan’s most popular anime, and the singalong-ready chorus is almost anthemic.
It would have been extremely difficult to capture the feel of this eerie, complicated series about psychology, metaphysics, and cyberspace, but this much-admired opening by the British band Boa manages to capture the plot and the atmosphere of Lain while delivering a haunting, beautiful theme song.
Gankutsuou is a dazzling, futuristic retelling of the Count of Monte Cristo featuring space vampires. It says a lot that the most sumptuous part of this anime’s visual feast comes in the closing credits, a kaleidoscopic whirl of color and badassery.
Macross is a story about the power of pop music to literally destroy the universe. This song isn’t just a soundtrack centerpiece—it’s a plot spoiler. At the climax of this 1984 film, this well-known song reverses the course of an arc of music-fueled war and destruction. Why? It’s a simple love ballad.
The follow up to Shinichiro Watanabe’s masterpiece Cowboy Bebop, Champloo had as much riding on its musical shoulders as its animated ones. With this deceptively chill opening, the series showed exactly how deft its fusion of classic samurai war themes with modern hip-hop—both “sons of a battlecry”—would be.
One of the most memorable anime themes in the last decade, this adorable ending theme became an instant Internet meme, so instantly recognizable and widely parodied that it was itself parodied by one of its successors, Lucky Star, another anime whose catchy dance theme was reified all over the Internet. When other Internet memes are paying your Internet meme homage, you’ve got something special.
While every song on the Full Metal Alchemist soundtrack is justly famous, it’s the fourth and final opening sequence that reaches the level of brilliance. An award-winning chart-topper that made it into a book of 1,001 songs you must hear before you die, Ajikan’s classic joins a fantastic animated sequence to help put the show on everyone’s list of favorites.
Even if you’ve never seen Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved children’s film, there’s a good chance you know the ending theme. Eminently singable (“To-to-ro To-tor-ro!”) and full of whimsy, it’s the perfect ending for a magical, lyrical animated masterpiece. No wonder it’s sung by kids the world over.
“OK, 3-2-1, let’s jam.” The most instantly recognizable and iconic opening in anime history, “Tank” made Yoko Kanno into a household name even overseas, and set the bar for nearly two decades of anime openings
By now, practically every nook and cranny of Akira has been homaged, parodied, and reworked endlessly into a thousand anime and dystopic science fiction narratives that have followed in its wake. But there’s one thing that no one can really emulate, and that’s the moment two minutes into the opening scene when Yamashiro’s monumental score kicks up in the background, the perfect smooth adrenaline rush of a world about to crash.
So famous is this particular opening sequence and its merging of music, editing, and visual composition, that it’s been remade countless times with fans attempting to use different audio tracks to effect the same result. Not happening. A better approach is this fan project that attempts to use the famous opening theme to create credits for the film.
But really, when you have music this good, used this effectively, your film needs no introduction.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.