These are the anime that made the biggest impact in the industry. The list got long and I tried to keep it down to the most important ones, it was hard but I did my best. I am making this list not based on the quality of the shows or what my favorite shows are, but rather on how much they created trends and influenced other works in the hobby.
Tetsuwan Atom – aka Astroboy. The magnum opus of the God of Manga, Osamu Tezuka, Astroboy not only brainwashed entire generations of kids into loving and later on creating anime, it established many of the artistic standards and animation techniques which are still used in the industry today. It is cited by Go Nagai as his biggest influence in creating anime, and it is the primary influence for Rockman, one of the most popular video game franchises of all time.
Science Ninja Team Gatchaman – this super influential work was the brainchild of Tatsuo Yoshida, who also created Speed Racer. This is the series that created the template for the Super Sentai team that became popular not just in Super Robot shows like Combattler V, but in tokusatsu shows like Power Rangers.
Space Battleship Yamato – this is the show that literally defined the entire industry. Prior to Yamato, anime was called “Terebi Manga” (TV Comics). Yamato was the success story that literally got people talking about anime as a new art form called anime. Its influence goes far and wide with its epic space battles, and has been copied ad nauseam forever in the industry by titles like Gundam, Macross, Legend of Galactic Heroes, Nadesico, etc. and of course Evangelion (Yamato is Hideaki Anno’s favorite anime). To add even more feathers to its illustrious cap, Yamato was the influence for Space Invaders, one of the most influential video games of all time.
Mazinger Z – this was the progenitor of the entire mecha genre. Created by Go Nagai, who had the inspiration to make it after seeing a motorcycle pass by while he was stuck in a traffic jam. While there were mecha before Mazinger Z like Astroboy and Tetsujin, Mazinger Z was the first human-controlled mecha which created an entire genre of super hero robots known as Super Robots. It is one of the three pillars of the mecha genre (alongside Getter Robot and the original Mobile Suit Gundam). Mazinger Z is so popular, there’s even a K-Pop girl band named after his signature weapon.
Getter Robo – Getter Robo was created by Ken Ishikawa, Go Nagai’s student and assistant. This is probably the single most important mecha anime of all time, because of how imaginative it was and how it influenced the entire genre with its concept of combining robots and teen drama. It is cited by legendary seiyuu Seki Tomokazu as his favorite anime. Ken Ishikawa had a gift for creating awesome imaginative things with mechanical designs. Everything awesome that you see in any mecha anime, probably got its ideas from Getter Robo.
Urusei Yatsura – this is the progenitor of moe anime. In a time where anime was mostly kid’s stuff and super robots, Rumiko Takahashi created a perverted comedy of errors centered around a boy who saved the world by seducing the alien invader princess with his misplaced lewdness. The result was the first harem anime, and a proto-moe which emphasized the cuteness of the girls. This would lead to stuff like Bubblegum Crisis, Gunsmith Cats, You’re Under Arrest, and romantic hijinks which would become copied and repeated over and over until today. Rumiko Takahashi herself recycled the formula for four decades in series like Ranma, Inuyasha and Rinne.
Mobile Suit Gundam – Yoshiyuki Tomino’s lifework was a huge paradigm shift in the entire mecha anime genre that dominated anime in the 70s. He made the best use of Leiji Matsumoto’s elements from Yamato and combined it with the mecha genre to create a truly special anime whose popularity and influence extends today, only to be eclipsed by none other than Evangelion itself. Gundam elevated the war story to a new level and created a story that wasn’t just about good vs. evil, but that all conflicts are a gigantic gray area where nobody is the winner. If your anime has some sympathetic villains with a lot of charisma making you feel for them, you probably have Gundam to thank. It also kicked off one of the largest and most enduring merchandising trends in the country and all around the world.
Super Dimensional Fortress Macross – this is probably the most influential mecha anime in the entire world. While not as superbly influential in its home country compared to Gundam or Eva, Macross was a global sensation that brainwashed an entire generation of kinds around the world to love mecha. It also pioneered many concepts that later on became norms in the mecha genre and even outside of it, like idol singers and transforming robots. It gave us the greatest mecha toy in existence of all time. We have Macross to thank for the creation of Transformers and Battletech and pretty much every other popular non-Japanese robot series, in addition to being a strong influence on Japan’s mecha anime. Many people even believe that Hollywood took many cues from Macross; Top Gun supposedly stole many ideas from Macross creator Shoji Kawamori, like the dynamics between Hikaru Ichijo and Misa Hayase, and Maverick and Charlie.
Kaze no Tani no Nausicaa – this was the magnum opus of Hayao Miyazaki, who needs no introduction. It’s the cornerstone of his work and was the foundation upon which Studio Ghibli was launched, creating an anime movie empire which would dominate the Japanese box office for the next three decades, and later on giving birth to the next superstar Makoto Shinkai. This was also the first showcase of Hideaki Anno’s talents in animating and directing the God Soldier Seven Days of Fire scene. Without Nausicaa there would have been no Studio Ghibli, and probably no Evangelion. That’s how important this work was to the industry.
Akira – this anime is important and influential but often is cited as such for all the wrong reasons. It had the biggest budget for any anime ever made when adjusted for inflation, and this hasn’t been topped since the 80s. This however is not what makes Akira important (in fact that’s one of the things Japan learned not to do ever again) what makes Akira so important is that it became such a sensation in the West that it created an entire cult phenomenon for mature anime in the US. That was important because prior to Akira the biggest exposure the West got to anime were “kiddy” shows like Voltron, Speed Racer, Robotech, Starblazers and Starvengers (Just so you know the last two are also on this list as Yamato and Getter Robo). It differentiated anime from “cartoons” in the West and this was a big deal in getting more support from American companies looking to partner with Japanese animators, leading to more funding for Japanese animators and manga artists to grow the industry.
Dragon Ball – this is the global phenomenon that pretty much put anime on the map for everyone. Entire generations of children all around the world grew up on this anime. It is the battle shounen and remains the template for pretty much every battle shounen to come since. It wasn’t the first, but it was the biggest. No other anime left such an indelible mark on the entire world like Dragon Ball did, before or since.
Sailor Moon – probably the most influential shoujo series of all time, edging out classics like Glass Mask and Rose of Versailles, and contemporaries like Magic Knight Ray Earth. It’s the only one that really became big enough to make a mark in an industry often dominated by a male-watching crowd. It combined the aesthetics of magical girl shows and super sentai, and popularized the “battle shoujo” format. It spawned countless imitations and made magical girl into a shounen genre, something even the boys could get into, which is why we had stuff like Pretty Cure and Madoka Magicka later on.
Neon Genesis Evangelion – probably the biggest turning point in the entire history of anime, and undoubtedly the most popular mecha anime of all time. Evangelion represents a gigantic paradigm shift where anime started being produced en masse for mature audiences instead of as mainly primetime children’s shows and family shows. Evangelion created the noitaminA block which aired lots of josei and other maturity anime meant for otaku, and caused the entire industry of anime merchandising to explode beyond even what Gunpla ever managed. You grew up watching Adult Swim in America? You got Evangelion to thank for that. You have a chillax emotionless girl with a secretly sweet smile staring into space in your anime? You got Eva to thank for that.
Mononoke Hime –this is the movie that put Studio Ghibli on the international map. While it would later be eclipsed by the global success of Spirited Away, it was Mononoke Hime that made Studio Ghibli an international name, and garner kudos and renown for Hayao Miyazaki outside of the cult of anime. It also refined many of the themes in Nausicaa and created a visual language that would be influential not just in anime but in video games like Shadow of the Colossus andGenshin Impact.
One Piece – this is the next big battle shounen turning point that redefined the entire genre. Pretty much every battle shounen after One Piece was influenced by it to some degree. One Piece was that popular and influential. Everything from Naruto to Gash Bell to Ueki to Hero Academia to Fairy Tail and Edens Zero was influenced by One Piece. It’s a manga/anime dynasty that the likes of which has never been seen since Dragon Ball.
Azumanga Daioh – this is the great grandfather of 4-Koma which popularized 4-koma manga adaptations into anime. Without a doubt the most influential 4-koma anime ever, it carved out a market for an entire genre of daily life anime, allowing later series like Nichijou, K-On and Minami-Ke to find an audience. It is also the series that created one of the most enduring memes of our time, the waifu, catapulted the love of moeblobs into the mainstream and allowed the late KyoAni to ride its coattails.
Fate/Stay Night – Fate Stay Night is probably the single most successful Visual Novel of all time. While Key and a few other companies like Nitroplus had a small niche industry churning out Visual Novels, it was Nasu’s Type Moon and Fate Stay Night that really brought the genre to the anime scene. FSN created a market for Visual Novel anime conversions and never looked back, heading on to dominate the mobile game gacha industry with Fate Grand Order, and shocking the box office with Ufotable’s adaptations of Heaven’s Feel. Without Fate Stay Night, we probably would never have gotten other adaptations like Steins;Gate, Higurashi, Utawarerumono and even stuff like Angel Beats and Charlotte. And without Ufotable picking up the slack from JC Staff, Ufotable would never have achieved the notoriety that directly led to the explosion of popularity of Kimetsu no Yaiba. It even influenced many of the video game style isekai light novels that came after it like the next entry in this list.
Sword Art Online – should require no introduction for newer fans, SAO was the isekai series. There have been tons of isekai series before and since, but none of them captured the mind of the public like Sword Art Online did, with its clever virtual reality setting, ever-impending sense of death and mortality and self-insert harem hijinks. No other isekai was quite as influential as SAO and it spawned an entire library full of wannabes. The explosion of cheap isekai light novels that followed in the wake of Sword Art Online was enough to make any literary professor have a heart attack with the sheer amount of trash being created by weaboo’s hopes and dreams all over the internet.
Mushoku Tensei – Following in the wake of Sword Art Online was one of the most influential isekai following it: Mushoku Tensei. The great father of tensei isekai, Mushoku Tensei was consistently the most popular series on http://syosetsu.comand influenced every wannabe light novel that came after it. This was the series that popularized the self-insert geek dying and being reincarnated in another world. It gave us Truck-kun! Everytime Truck-kun sends another weaboo into the dream life, you have Mushoku-tensei to thank.
Re: Monster – developing on an alternate branch from Mushoku Tensei is the Grand Daddy of all Monster RPG Isekai. Your Slime Tenseis and your Spider Tenseis and your Sword Tenseis and your Vending Machine Tenseis, all of them draw their inspiration from Re: Monster. Re: Monster made it cool to die, be reborn in a fantasy world as a lowly monster, and then conquer the world with haxx, a codified video game RPG system HUD and gratuitous self-insertion.
Your Name – as Studio Ghibli’s star waned a new one took its place. That was, fittingly, the star of Makoto Shinkai, who almost two decades prior created the anime Voices of a Distance Star single-handedly all by himself. His then latest starstruck tale of destiny and separation, Kimi no Na wa didn’t quite overthrow Spirited Away’s global box office, but it did hearken the gigantic shift in the anime film industry that would be felt in the years to come as the old guard retired to be replaced by the new, and we began to see more and more film makers try their hand at the box office trying to fill in the void left behind by Studio Ghibli, following Makoto Shinkai’s blueprint.
Kimetsu no Yaiba – and finally, we have the biggest thing in modern times to hit the scene, Kimetsu no Yaiba. This series was a phenome in Japan, and broke all records, even managing to overthrow One Piece from the Oricon top spot for a year. It then against all odds dominated the Japanese box office during Covid-19 lockdownsand became the highest grossing film of all time in Japan, beating out both Your Name and Spirited Away, and sunk the Titanic while it was at it, proving to Japan that real life really is inferior to 2D. Those stupid otaku had it right all along.
At this point in time it’s hard to gauge the total impact Kimetsu will have on the industry, as its adaptations aren’t done yet and we’re still fresh in its run. But there is no doubt that Kimetsu will leave a great legacy in the industry in the next decade.
There are still a lot of strong movements going on in the hobby today including the shift to a darker tone in shounen manga as evidenced by series like Jujutsu Kaisen, Chainsaw Man and Toman (which might have been influenced by Death Note and Attack on Titan), the rise of the Villainess Otome in the isekai genre, and a lot of other things. It’s hard to hedge bets and make predictions, we’ll have a clearer picture in the years to come, but at this time this is as good a view of the largest turning points and influential movements in the hobby for the past four decades as I can make, having been immersed in the hobby all this time.