We may already be halfway through August, but fortunately, it appears the anime season shares my overwhelming fear of death, and is dealing with that by denying the summer is ending altogether. I respect that, and will honor the season’s wishes by today placing all of the shows I’m watching in a reductive, nigh-meaningless hierarchy of Objective Worthiness. Unfortunately, it turns out I got tired of most shows’ shit even more efficiently than usual this season… so to pad out my list, I’ll also include the unlucky casualties of the first several weeks. Let’s run them down!
#1: Zankyou no Terror
Extraordinarily easy top pick this season – Zankyou is just miles away the best thing airing, and the only show aiming at that “instant classic” bracket occupied by shows like Ping Pong and Kyousogiga. Its aesthetic qualities are the easiest strengths to highlight, such as its wonderful shot framing, purposeful and arresting lighting design, and distinctive, well-used soundtrack. Zankyou looks truly filmic in a way few anime, even actual film anime, can match, and demonstrates an acuity of aesthetic control that’s just leagues past what we reasonably expect from shows. But Zankyou’s actual narrative is also no slouch – it’s using a classic crime thriller shell to explore questions of alienation and voicelessness in the modern world, illustrated through a collection of simultaneously relatable and understated characters. It’s essentially “Born to Run” reframed as a story about digital vigilantes and the nature of modern unrest, with its protagonists crying out against an institution that has forgotten them using the only language that institution seems to understand – violence. It’s a bold and heartfelt statement, and I’m excited to see where it goes.
#2: Hunter x Hunter 2011
Hunter x Hunter has downshifted from “one of the greatest dramatic narratives in anime history” to “just a really goddamn fun adventure series,” and I’m perfectly okay with that. Each new episode of the Election arc seems to last for roughly three to four minutes, featuring a couple exciting highlights, likely some great silly faces, and then somehow disappearing as soon as you’ve sat down. This is pretty much classic Hunter x Hunter material – instead of being a traditional series of fights, it’s segmented into a variety of puzzle-conflicts, bouncing between the political games of the election and the assassin-maneuvering of Killua’s journey. It’s confident, nicely paced, and brimming with characters I’ve already developed some serious affection for. It’s about as high quality as comfort food can get.
Considering Barakamon didn’t even show up on my season preview, I suppose it’s fair to say it’s the “surprise of the season.” Anime slice of life normally don’t appeal to me – they don’t actually imitate life, they sit within a single nostalgic frame, and their jokes often squeeze five minutes of running time out of one minute of humor. But Barakamon is a goddamn gem. Both its protagonists are stars – Sensei’s a well-illustrated and endearingly self-doubting actual adult, and Naru is a lovable and sharply observed actual child. There are occasional lazy jokes, but most of the humor emerges directly from the fundamental nature of the characters, and the various self-effacing reflections on the process of art creation and the “artistic temperament” add a welcome focus and flavor to the narrative. It’s an incredibly warm and likable show, one I’d recommend to just about anyone.
Contrary to my perhaps unjustified expectations, Aldnoah has unfortunately not summoned angels from the aether and redefined what it means to be a war story. Instead, it’s mainly been a viscerally enjoyable action series. It’s a little too beholden to monster-of-the-week mech fights, but it’s fortunately elevated by both its generally engaging execution of those fights and its reasonable character work and aesthetics. The cast bounces well off each other, and outside of the bombastic fight sequences, there’s often a nicely understated quality to its visual storytelling. There are also some ideas there, but they’re still kind of forming at this point – overall, neither the narrative nor themes are exactly racing forward, but they’ve still got three-quarters of a series to get there. It’s not really wowing me, but I’m enjoying every episode, and this seems like the kind of show that will hopefully build over time.
#5: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders
Frankly, I kind of wish I were watching more shows, so I could demonstrate my disappointment with JoJo by placing it lower. JoJo has not been up to snuff this second season – it’s attempted to ameliorate its lack of actual narrative momentum with an uptick in ridiculous gags, and this is only somewhat pleasing to me. There are still highlights, of course – JoJo is never a bad show, and elements like Enyaba and Polnareff’s whirlwind romance, or Kakyoin’s need to convince his compatriots to kill a baby, keep JoJo from ever becoming truly disappointing. But there’s no denying it lacks both the propulsion and constant inventiveness of the first season – it’s now a collection of episodic, hit-or-miss shounen battles, and its inherent silliness can only carry it so far. I’ll certainly ride out this dry spell, but I’ll be very disappointed if Stardust Crusaders’ blunders mean we never get to see Stands truly come into their own.
#6: Sword Art Online II
Sword Art Online II has proven itself to be a far stranger experience than I thought it’d be. The first season was fairly simple – its characters were self-insert ciphers, its themes were counteracted by the actual events of the story, and its narrative was a wandering and tensionless mess. On top of that, it basically reduced all its non-Kirito characters to devices intended to make him look powerful, culminating in some absurdly awful, sexist bullshit. There was almost nothing good about it, and plenty that was terrible about it.
With season two, I’m finding the worst thing about this show is the previous show. Taken as a whole, they cannot work – the Kirito who’s currently grappling with crippling memories of his time in SAO is incompatible with the Kirito who triumphantly tortured his enemies in Alfheim. You just can’t engage with it that way.
And yet, the show is trying. Many of the first series’ issues are actually being addressed. The fights have more weight, the narrative is more focused, the (newly defined) characters have clear arcs, and the theme of the ambiguous validity of digital worlds is actually being explored, and even highlighted against the specific character arcs. Taken by itself, season two is certainly a far better show, in spite of the mediocre writing and still-present, still-debilitating Kirito-love.
It’s a weird thing to evaluate. It only really works if you divorce it from its predecessor. It’s still very flawed in all sorts of ways. But it’s also actually something I can talk about, and even enjoy as entertainment. It’s quite a step up!
Well, that covers everything I’m actually watching. I don’t really have informed opinions on anything else, but I suppose I can run them down anyway. Continuing!
#7: Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun
Time Survived: 2.5 Episodes
Verdict: One of those comedies that, as I mentioned regarding Barakamon, seems to stretch thirty seconds of joke into five minutes of anime. I really don’t have anything against this one, but it’s definitely not for me.
#8: Tokyo Ghoul
Time Survived: 3 Episodes
Verdict: A fair enough camp-shounen thing with some light horror seasoning, but also not my thing.
Time Survived: 2 Episodes
Verdict: A much worse NagiAsu that obligingly failed to trick me with misleading thematic hooks in the way NagiAsu did. Thank you for that, Glasslip!
#10: Sailor Moon Crystal
Time Survived: 1.2 Episodes
Verdict: The production of this seems really, really sterile, and considering how often I see people on twitter talking about the great direction of the original series, it seems silly to suffer through an inferior version.
#11: Tokyo ESP
Time Survived: 1.5 Episodes
Verdict: An action show with poor action and nothing else to speak of. Whoops!
#12: Akame ga Kill
Time Survived: 0.85 Episodes
Verdict: A mean, gross, tone-deaf shounen for boys who incinerate ants.
And that’s it for this season! Show’s over folks. See you all next time.