Summer 2016 – First Half in Review

It may be mid-August, but the summer anime season is convinced we still have half a summer to go. I appreciate that kind of optimism, and appreciate even more just how sunny this season has been in general. While this summer has lacked a character drama with the poignancy of Rakugo Shinju or a message show with the complexity and spirit of Concrete Revolutio, it’s made up for that by being stacked with shows that are just damn good entertainment. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and Thunderbolt Fantasy are both excellent camp-action spectacles, Mob Psycho 100 is consistently elevated by solid writing and terrific execution, Love Live Sunshine is consolidating everything that is fun about Love Live, and Sweetness & Lightning is a consistent dose of heartwarming family moments. It seems silly to rank a set like that – they’re all so different, and all such positive experiences, that classifying them as “better or worse” than each other seems pointless and inherently jaded.

Of course, I’m gonna do it anyway. That’s what traditions are for! As usual, I’ll be ranking the summer’s shows for the first and only time here at the halfway point, where it should be inescapably obvious that any sort of ranking is an entirely meaningless gesture. Like a series that makes its point in the first season and then just sort of staggers on through mediocre renewals for a while, the halfway point season rankings will proudly continue. Let’s start at the top and RUN ‘EM DOWN!

#1: Love Live Sunshine

I didn’t really expect Sunshine to be my favorite show of the season. In the absence of a clear favorite like Concrete Revolutio, I was betting on something like Orange or Battery, one of those understated character dramas I tend to gravitate to. But when I think back on the episodes I’ve watched, or forward on the week to come, I can’t deny that Sunshine is bringing me significantly more entertainment and straight-up happiness than anything else I’m watching.

Love Live was always an entertaining sitcom, but Sunshine has consolidated and emphasized all of the best elements of the original series, making for a show that’s fast-paced, charming, and regularly hilarious. Love Live seems to almost occupy its own genre within anime; it’s not focused on performance or careers in the ways most idol anime are, and instead it hews closer to stuff like 80s teen movies about saving the swimming team or getting the band back together. It’s built not on some unique core idea, but relentlessly solid fundamentals – great pacing, efficient character work, and so many tiny jokes. The show embraces its own camp style, which results in some occasional comic clunkers, but also means every member of the cast gets to be simultaneously ridiculous and legitimately charming. There are strong physical gags, great incidental background jokes, and snappy/absurd repartee across the whole cast. I’m rarely impressed by a dedicated anime comedy, but Love Live Sunshine is doing basically everything right.

Love Live Sunshine

#2: Mob Psycho 100

Considering my eventual disappointment with One Punch Man, I didn’t actually have high hopes for this one heading into the season – but so far, Mob Psycho is answering my complaints about that show and then some. Mob Psycho may not possess the consistent action animation highlights of OPM, but I’m actually more impressed with its very consistent aesthetic flourishes. There’s still plenty of fantastic animation, and beyond that, the creative visual tricks here all contribute to a compelling, coherent world, as opposed to a series of disjointed setpieces. Mob Psycho’s writing has also been solid so far – there are still some lame jokes here and there, but the overall series is grounded in some very compelling character space. Strong character writing plus brilliant visual execution are a pretty great combo, making each episode of Mob Psycho a unique reward.

Mob Psycho 100

#3: Thunderbolt Fantasy

I kinda figured Thunderbolt Fantasy’s appeal would wear off after a while – after all, one of the show’s premiere hooks is the simple fact that it’s wuxia-style puppet theater layered over Urobuchi storytelling, and that’s more of an immediate conceptual gag than something which would necessarily stay entertaining for the long haul. But Thunderbolt Fantasy is just so earnestly committed to everything it’s doing that it’s actually out-JoJoing JoJo. From the absurdly darkbad location names to the snarky conversations and remarkably expressive gestures, Thunderbolt Fantasy is an action-camp treat of the first order.

Thunderbolt Fantasy

#4: Orange

Orange is definitely messier than the shows higher on this list – frankly, it’s messier than most of the shows below it, too. The show’s editing feels somewhat disjointed at times, and there’s a layer of distance created by the show’s framing that robs it of some emotional intimacy, as well. It’s not a perfect articulation of the story it’s telling, but it’s still telling a fine story, and there are still many moments of sharp emotional honesty every single episode. And while the direction is inconsistent, some of its inconsistencies are actually quite compelling – this definitely feels like a director who’s not entirely comfortable with material like this experimenting in a new place. I can appreciate that, even if I don’t think the end results are totally successful.


#5: Sweetness & Lightning

Sweetness & Lightning is just honest joy from start to finish. It’s one of those shows that seems sneakily dedicated to convincing me children are actually good; from her great voice acting and expressive character acting to her very human and believable worries, Tsumugi is a treasure of a character. And while letting Tsumugi be herself is probably this show’s best trick, the show they’ve constructed around her is endearing and consistent, a fine venue to explore cooking and the perils of parenting. A charming slice of life is a great thing.

Sweetness & Lightning

#6: Planetarian

I feel a little guilty putting Planetarian down here, because I can’t really point to any specific thing the show did wrong. It was a well-constructed tragedy from start to finish; it established a compelling scenario, textured its characters through a variety of engaging conversations, and ended on a strong thematic punchline. The show simply lacked the polish in all areas to truly ascend beyond “fine story” – from the aesthetic execution to the individual character lines, everything could have used a bit more refinement and personality. But at five episodes, Planetarian offers a very solid box of sads.


#7: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable

I feel even more guilty putting JoJo down here, because hey, it’s JoJo. And Diamond is Unbreakable is fast establishing itself as JoJo’s best season yet – better characters, better execution, and more confident overall storytelling. But this whole list is a strong collection, and a few weaker episodes have put Diamond is Unbreakable’s second cour down a step or two from its early heights. Consider this a wakeup grade – JoJo is still solid, but I’d love to see it pull off more episodes as strong as the rat fight or Koichi’s love affair. Diamond is Unbreakable has established a fantastic platform, and I’m still excited to see where it goes from here.

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure

And that’s it! As you can see, I’m basically enjoying everything this season too much to really be hard on any of them. I generally like having at least one “pure fun” show a season, but I really don’t mind this summer being a season of fun from top to bottom. Love Live is incredible, Thunderbolt Fantasy is terrific, Mob Psycho is regularly kicking my ass. Keep it up anime, you’re doing fine.