Worldbuilding is the creation of the setting; it’s being able to dive in to a fictional world and fleshing it out, making it immersive. Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki have mastered this art, their able to create worlds not settings, movies that strike a balance between realism and fantasy not just pictures. To animate is to bring something to life and world building is essential in ensuring that happens. Disney is another great example, they took one of the most unknown super heroes of that time (Iron Man) and expanded his setting much further; creating characters and plots each in the same world and culminating them into a big build up and eventually creating not a world or a set of loosely connected movies/plots but a whole universe.
When it comes to anime, however, few come as close to worldbuilding as Kentaro Miura’s Berserk and, like it or not, Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece. The unique, grim, and gritty setting of Berserk is a perfect example of excellent worldbuilding. The protagonist of the story, Guts, is a wandering vagabond with a scarred backstory, but really, he is a rather plain character that emits only one or two emotions (rage and anger) and who the audience cannot really connect to (I don’t think anyone was born out of their dead mother’s stomach). There is complexity and backstory, yes, but what heightens Guts and makes the audience root for him – and this is where the worldbuilding comes in – is the setting he is put in: a living hell. There are wars and bloodshed, demons, gods, and demon gods, and most importantly they are not told their shown, it’s the brooding landscape of Midland that creates the antagonist and scars Guts, and when he decides to react, it really gives a sense of one man quite literally taking on the entire world. But it’s not just the setting being used a plot device, it’s also the depth of each setting; each place presented in Berserk has its own politics, culture, and maybe even some history; it may not be real, but adding those things emits atmosphere and mood, which Miura has mastered.
Out of all the manga that has come out of Japan, none so far has surpassed the juggernaut that is One Piece, the most successful manga to date. Personally, I’m not such a huge fan of the manga, the story uses the same old formulae as other Shonen Jump manga but I think it’s almost universally agreed as having some of the best world building. Each island presented in One Piece has its own culture, politics, style, ethnicity and emits a different tone, while, like Berserk, there is a rich backstory, one that is full of devil fruits, void centuries, and a plethora of factions. Oda makes the world wide and expansive, giving the audience a sense of immersion. Once again, he is not creating just a setting or village; he is creating a world that feels genuine and incredibly well constructed and rich. With themes, elements, and story arcs to offer, Oda’s story has a limitless amount of ideas and messages it can pull out, and though the story has its ups and downs, it has, without a doubt, a treasure trove (get it?) of settings and characters.
That is not to say that only these two mangas/animes have the best worldbuilding; there are plenty more out there, and here are a few more I would recommend: Full Metal Alchemist has amazing worldbuilding that deals with a plethora of issues (ex. Government corruption and racism), Hunter X Hunter has a great amount of unique settings and is very detailed in terms of the world’s society, and I really like Soul Eater’s divisive art style and shape of the setting (although I would not count it as great worldbuilding).