And suddenly, six weeks have passed. Fortunately for me, it’s actually hard to pretend the winter season has rushed by; not because the shows themselves have proceeded slowly, but because I live in goddamn New England, and so every day is an interminable march of suffering through sub-arctic temperatures and mocking snow. I hate winter, and I’d rather live in a place where it doesn’t exist, but for the moment I’m stuck here. As far as anime goes, this has actually been a perfectly reasonable season.
This seems like one of those seasons where, to an even greater degree than normally, the show quality just drops off a cliff after the second tier. In an ordinary season, there are a decent number of shows I’m not watching that people in a general sense are still enjoying – things that don’t appeal to me genre-wise, or whose writing or art style don’t gel with me, or some other quirk of preference. But this time, it seems like nearly everyone I know is watching the same shortlist of anime, and then there’s just a vast desert of nothing. But this actually doesn’t affect my viewing habits at all – I never tend to find more than half a dozen or so shows watchable, and as far as that small crop goes, as long as I have two to three shows that seem genuinely good, I’m satisfied. But it’d be far too mature of me to just say “I’m enjoying a fair number of shows for a variety of reasons,” and besides, we’ve got traditions to uphold. So let’s start at the top and ruthlessly rank this season’s claimants to the throne!
#1: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
I’m sure this doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Rakugo Shinju is just playing in a different league compared to everything else – in terms of both storytelling and execution, it is a graceful drama that already feels like a classic in the making. Its underlying story of art and friendship makes great use of its period setting, and is full of rich characters who all make each other more compelling for their presence. And the execution lifts that fundamentally strong story in so many brilliant ways. There are the beautiful everyday shots, alternately framed like theater, to hang on motif, or to convey intimacy and trust. There are the standout performances, where the clever direction gives each character a distinctive on-stage personality. There’s the very purposeful sound design, equally strong in its jazzy music and its smart incidental noises. Rakugo Shinju is a great story told to perfection, a slow-boiling drama that really makes the most of the anime medium. It is a mighty achievement.
#2: Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash
I had a bit of a mental debate over whether Grimgar or ERASED belonged in this spot. ERASED is a more consistent show, and a more reliable example of its genre – but I find Grimgar far more creatively interesting, and actually look forward to the show more than anything else this season. The show has obvious, glaring weaknesses, from its offputting fanservice and light novel moments to the imbalanced skills of its director, but it’s also extremely strong in ways that make it somewhat unique among anime. Grimgar appends the mastery of atmosphere and close character reading you’d generally see in a slice of life show to a fantasy adventure, resulting in a show with an incredibly strong sense of place and consequence. It is full of conversations that proceed in the rambling fashion and slow pace of actual human dialogue, and its fights all feel like muddy, believable conflicts. It has beautiful backgrounds, strong character animation, and excellent music, and always seems like a place you want to visit. Grimgar is unfortunate in obvious ways but excellent in very unusual ones, and I’m really enjoying my time with it.
It’s kinda nice to enjoy the crossover hit for once! ERASED is just a very propulsive show, and when that sense of momentum is crossed with its usual excellent direction and sound design, it can be something pretty special. The show’s biggest weaknesses seem reflective more of its genre space than any show-specific failings; it’s an unabashed murder-thriller, and so you get stuff like arbitrary cliffhangers and shocking murder-twists and glowing red eyes, all of which weaken the underlying material through a seeming lack of confidence in viewer investment. But in spite of that stuff, the show has an engaging core narrative, a strong atmosphere, and some serious aesthetic chops. It’s not a show I’m in love with, but it’s an easy show to enjoy.
#4: Dagashi Kashi
So before I go on, I should clarify that yeah, there is a steep drop from those first three shows. The top three are all obvious – the rest of the list is just a close mix of “kinda watchable.” And in contrast to Grimgar’s victory over ERASED, here in the second tier, I’m going to give the crown to Dagashi Kashi’s consistency. The show is almost never great, but it’s also rarely outright bad – outside of maybe one truly weak episode, it’s largely been a pleasant, occasionally chuckle-worthy time with some likable characters. It’s another show I find myself looking forward to every week, purely because spending time with these characters is a warm and relaxing experience. Its jokes are hit-or-miss and it’s not anything more than a fluffy slice of life/comedy, but sometimes that’s just what you need.
#5: Active Raid
Unfortunately for Active Raid, it does not exist in a genre where “fluffy and inoffensive” is enough to make a show watchable. Active Raid can’t ride on atmosphere, because Active Raid is trying to tell procedural crime dramas that the audience can theoretically care about. Occasionally, the show succeeds in this – episodes like its second and most recent are legitimately engaging, using the show’s near-future setting and grounded dynamic to nicely reflect on the perils and compromises of adulthood. But more often than not, it just tells boilerplate crime vignettes with no real dramatic or emotional impact. The show is serviceable, but not much more.
I feel a little awkward putting Konosuba down here, because its highs can be better than Active Raid or Dagashi Kashi, but a show can’t just be evaluated on the basis of its highs. Konosuba’s great moments are few and far between, sharp jabs of humor and relatability stranded between long stretches of light novel humor and plainly unlikable character beats. Comedies that are focused on overtly awful people can’t ride on atmosphere in the way Dagashi Kashi can – they have to be funny, and funny on a consistent enough basis that they essentially pay for their own abrasiveness. Konosuba rarely balances those scales, and exists on the perpetual edge of being dropped.
#7: Dimension W
I made it a whole five episodes into Dimension W, so I figure it’s earned a place on this list. But Dimension W is just not a good show. It rode on genre-space expectations for a little while, offering that classically salable mix of action, style, and self-seriousness that essentially embodies the Toonami brand. But the writing is bad, the characters are shallow, the story is archetypal, and even the action scenes aren’t very compelling. Dimension W is a shell of a show, a collection of marketing bullet points that offer no real reason to watch it.
And that’s it! I don’t really think I’m sleeping on anything this time in the way I missed Conrevo last season, so I’m guessing this’ll be the lineup to the end. As I said, that’s fine by me – the top three are great, the next three are watchable, and that’s about all I need. And there’s always, always backlog.