Winter 2016 – First Half in Review

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.

Rakugo Shinju

#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.

Dagashi Kashi

#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.

Active Raid

#6: Konosuba

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.

Dimension W

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.

18 thoughts on “Winter 2016 – First Half in Review

  1. Yea pretty much agree with this list, though I dropped everything below Erased. I’m happy that Grimgar is doing good atm, medieval stuff is definitely my kind of thing and I needed something to take W spot. Too bad my sibling dropped Rakugo due to the long performances bits (which I personally enjoy, it’s great to see the characters in actions has they usually just talk about it and those scenes are so well done).

    • Yeah, the performances are a highlight of Rakugo for me. It’s rare that a show can so clearly articulate the artistry its characters talk about.

  2. Your list is pretty much as I expected except the obvious Grimgar and ERASED swap. Personally I still prefer ERASED more, it’s in a genre I thoroughly enjoy. My problem with Grimgar is that it feels a bit too slow for my liking.

    Besides your list (and disregarding S2s) I only watch Phantom World. I know, I know, but I found the latest 2-3 episodes to be reasonable character focussed episodes that were lower on LN shenanigans. It’s far from great but it’s watchable for me.

    Rakugo is something where I found the first episode was good but didn’t grab me too much. I might marathon it once it finishes it run and people seem to be still heads over heels about it.

  3. I have that urge of watching the latest episode with Konosuba, which is far from being the best thing of the season, but to me it presents more high points (Aqua and Megumin) than awful ones (Darkness). And I don’t really have problems with that balance of awful main characters (I find MC character commentary to be funny). I don’t think anything this season, but by far the worst have been Dimension W and Dagashi Kashi to me. The first is just plain stupid sometimes, and I’m currently watching it just for Mira, and Dagashi, well, it’s most of the times not funny at all. Nice list, by the way!

  4. Grimgar has snuck into my top spot this season, with strengths fascinating enough that I don’t mind its weaknesses. Rakugo’s depth and grace is rare and astounding in anime, but it might be a few years before I fully appreciate its maturity. The unpolished adolescence of Grimgar, at its best moments, speaks much closer to me.

    I was actually hoping after preview week that you’d be covering Rakugo, instead of ERASED. It’s focus on art, stories, and performance seemed perfect for you, and I’m probably missing a lot each episode that your writeups could have highlighted.

    Do you have any plans for a piece when the season finishes?

    • Yeah, I’ll definitely be writing a longer piece about Rakugo in some capacity. It is very much my kind of show!

  5. There are some pretty strong shows you’re not watching, it’s just that a lot of them are sequels/ongoing series.

    Lupin III continues to be aesthetically excellent
    Durarara seems to be ending strongly
    Osomatsu-san seems to be well regarded
    Koyomimonogatari is probably the weakest monogatari yet on account of being a series of shorts, but it’s still monogatari
    Gintama is finally ending, through a series of serious arcs. There’s definitely been a lot of effort into making sure it looks great (when it needs to)
    I’ve heard Haikyu continues to entertain.

    And apparently the shorts are pretty strong this season, although I’ve only watched Sekkou Boys, which was just ok.

    My point being that there actually is a lot of good stuff you aren’t watching, it just happens to not be any shows that premiered this winter.

  6. I get what you mean about Dimension W. I watch it and I don’t really like any of the characters because the show hasn’t really cared about them. Not that they won’t have their backstory episodes to cram their entire life stories into, but there’s little nuance to them outside broad character stokes: Kyoma broods and hates coils; Mira’s a moe robot; boss lady is the boss; hacker is the hacker. On top of that, there is no atmosphere making the setting lack character as well. A futuristic world where energy is no longer an obstacle, but it still feels like a normal, uninteresting place. A story of world changing coils that focuses on a character who avoids them at all costs. It all feels like a magic veneer slapped onto modern society rather than its own world.

    That last episode in particular was awful, running down an anime cliche checklist: festival with silly games, fireworks, kimonos, fujoshi, “joke” that consists of an angry look from lady that intimidates man into obeying, relationship misunderstanding, foreigner wanting to experience authentic Japan, and everything to do with the African murderlord. Not one of these things was specific to the show.

    The show has no identity.

    • Jeez, I didn’t even watch that latest episode, but it sounds atrocious. Glad I dropped when I did!

  7. Yes; Grimgar has growed on me and I come to actually care for the whole cast; even Ranta become less annoying now somehow.
    The 2 other solid shows that you hadn’t mentioned here were Bubuki Buranki and Tabi Machi Late show. Tabi Machi was a short 7;8 minutes show per episode with only 4 episodes; which roughly about 30 minutes in total; but it was one of the quietest and warmest show of this season. I’m sure you will enjoy it. Buranki, on the other hand; was shaky in both visual and storytelling; but I honestly don’t mind the CGI characters (not like Ajin) and the last episode writing actually took me by surprise and bring the show to a different direction than I’ve previous thought; which is a welcome sign.
    I’ve just finished Mouryou no Haku and what a show! The ending really tie up all the loose ends. This is the ending that I always wished Everything becomes F had.

    • Man, I definitely need to get to Mourou no Haku. That one’s very high on my backlist, er, list.

  8. Would you really recommend Grimgar? My watch list is similar, save for the inclusion of BBK/BRNK for “corporate reasons”. I have a feeling that you’re banking on Grimgar quite a bit, which is fine and all, but I hope that doesn’t leave you in disappointment should the show fall flat on itself.

    • Yep, at this point I’d definitely recommend Grimgar. Weak first episode, but it’s been consistently strong since then.

  9. Are we really halfway? Woah. Lemme get together what I’m watching.

    -Dragon Ball Super
    -YuGiOh Arc V

    Rakugo – Those shows are spectacular.
    Koyomimonogatari – The condensed Monogatari atmosphere and short length makes it the highlight of the week.
    ERASED – Yeah.
    Dragon Ball Super – Deserves some recognition for the fact that this arc has been quite a bit better than the previous two.
    Durarara!! – A step up in character work from the previous arc.
    YuGiOh – Conversely to my other long-running shonen, these episodes have dragged compared to previous seasons.
    GATE – I am not caught up.

  10. I’m glad someone other than myself sees the value in Grimgar! For the most part, all I have encountered is one sided arguments. I would agree that Grimgar has some obvious flaws, but is restored by the amazing atmosphere and realistic to life details. It’s a winner!

    I agree with your rankings of Erased and Rakugo as well. They are both special in their own way and have something to offer.

    I am with you on your opinions, but might have rated them differently. Nice blog.

  11. WOAh that grimgar #2. That hug scene at the end of episode 5 was one of the most visceral moments ive ever seen in anime.

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