And somehow, another year has come to a close. This has been a strange year for me – as my first full year of wholly anime-related employment, it’s been often terrifying, sometimes uplifting, and always exciting. I’m not sure it means anything that my move to freelance coincided with the world catching fire, but hey, things happen. At least I also write for Crunchyroll now!
As far as anime itself goes, this has been a very solid year in general. The industry is currently at a somewhat unsustainable level of production, and though foreign streaming and other forms of revenue are putting the industry in a more stable place financially, that still hasn’t adjusted the workflow mechanisms that keep animators so terribly underpaid. That will have to change eventually, but as far as the actual shows go, there were plenty of anime I had a great time with this year, and solid hits in a wide variety of genres. In fact, this year’s crop was so good that I even have some honorable mentions! That’s honestly kind of unusual for me – I generally struggle getting to ten shows without including stuff I’m not totally sold on. So let’s start right there, and run down the shows that just barely missed the list before we count off the final ten!
Starting with the winter season, both Grimgar and ERASED didn’t quite make the cutoff. Well, ERASED wasn’t actually anywhere close, but the interesting thing about that show is it was two-thirds of a show that would easily make the top ten welded to one-third of a show I’d have dropped in ten minutes. Basically everything related to ERASED’s serial killer was hackneyed schlock – but the show’s early focus on nostalgia, childhood neglect, and the suburbs was powerful and beautifully articulated stuff. Like many shows, ERASED mainly makes me hope that its director eventually gets a project worthy of his talents.
Grimgar, on the other hand, was pretty much exactly reflective of its director. Ryousuke Nakamura is largely acclaimed for two things: his strong grasp of slice of life fundamentals, and his overpowering obsession with girls’ thighs. That first thing made Grimgar a uniquely compelling fantasy series, as it took a far closer look at the day-to-day realities of living in a hostile world than most similar shows, and centered itself more on topics like grief and unity than beating up monsters. Its fights were messy and the thigh thing really hurt its character work, but it was still a very interesting show.
Moving on to spring, My Hero Academia wasn’t precisely the adaptation I wanted, but it was still a fine adaptation of an extremely strong manga. MHA was reflective of classic shounen adaptation issues – too much loyalty to the original panels, combined with a fear of gobbling up too much source material, made it feel like a slow but ultimately still satisfying echo of its source material.
As for summer, Love Live! Sunshine!! largely embraced the best elements of its predecessor, while also offering a far more compelling thematic platform than the original. Love Live works best when it acts like a goofy but propulsive sitcom, and Sunshine generally stuck to that formula. There were dramatic hiccups here and there (Love Live always, always takes itself too seriously at the finish line), but it was overall pretty stellar entertainment.
And moving to fall, Girlish Number was pretty much all I could hope for from “Wataru Watari takes on the anime industry.” Watari’s Oregairu is one of my all-time favorites, and though Girlish Number wasn’t as moving or incisive as that show, its cast was still rich, endearing, and burdened by the weight of real human problems. Few shows are willing to tackle conflicts like “our shifting relationship with our parents as they move into old age” or “the fear that we’ve grown up to be someone we can’t be proud of,” and Girlish Number handled those issues with an unflinching gaze and sensitive hand. It was a very solid show all around.
Alright, I think that covers the honorable mentions. Let’s get right to the list!
#10: Flying Witch
Flying Witch was easily my top slice of life show of the year, contrasting lovely glimpses of a low-key magical world with genuine wonder at the existing Japanese countryside. The show’s sense of restraint was perhaps its greatest asset, which the title itself exemplified – even though the show was called “Flying Witch,” the moments where Makoto actually took flight were very rare, and each imbued with a sense of offhand magic. Much of the humor came from how things like making magic potions and digging a garden were each approached with the same degree of enthusiasm, which naturally facilitated the “there’s magic in everything” theme that permeates so much slice of life. Complement that with the show’s universally charming cast, and you have a show that’s always easy to sink into and wile away the afternoon.
Alright, I’ll admit, Thunderbolt Fantasy isn’t even necessarily “anime” – it’s Taiwanese puppet theater, complemented with a script courtesy of Gen Urobuchi. BUT DOESN’T THAT ALREADY SOUND AWESOME??? Thunderbolt Fantasy was a rip-roaring adventure of epic proportions, starring heroes with names like the Screaming Phoenix Killer and the Enigmatic Gale, offering challenges like “we must play this sacred flute to guide our path through the labyrinth of madness.” The show was not only in full control of its own over-the-top action appeal, it was also just legitimately well-written, offering one more clear example of Urobuchi’s keen grasp of plotting, character, and dialogue. And the visual style was great too! The puppets looked terrific, the scenery was lovely, and the overall effect greatly facilitated the show’s general camp leanings. Thunderbolt Fantasy is a hell of a time.
As a show that’s continuing into the winter, I can only judge March’s first half, but the show’s demonstrated enough consistency so far that I’m not really worried. March is built on a few sturdy key ingredients: a sensitive and beautifully portrayed evocation of protagonist Rei’s depression, a legitimate concern for the emotional realities of its secondary cast, a smart juggling of character drama and slice of life, and a consistently intelligent use of shogi as a monolith in Rei’s life. Some episodes focus on Rei’s malaise as he wanders the city, offering beautiful backgrounds and thoughtful articulations of his mental state. Others warm your heart with intimate family scenes, or make a certain shogi match’s tension utterly palpable. March comes in like a lion is rich and confident – it’s not the happiest of shows, but the sensitivity with which it treats its cast makes it feel very inviting all the same.
I’m so friggin’ happy to see JoJo here again. Stardust Crusaders was easily the show’s weakest arc, but Diamond is Unbreakable was a tremendous rally, returning to the glamorous style and compelling battles of the first season’s best material. Diamond is Unbreakable tightens JoJo’s focus to one suburban Japanese town, and makes virtually all of its fights some sort of riff on classic “there’s something lurking beneath this cheery facade” horror staples. Nearly every individual component of this arc is JoJo at its best: the cast is the strongest it’s ever been, the visual style is dynamite, and original mangaka Hirohiko Araki has finally discovered the wild creative potential of Stands as a fight mechanism. If you like hot-blooded action with a real sense of fun, JoJo is where it’s at.
#6: The Lost Village
It’s a rare anime comedy that really, truly speaks to my own sense of humor. There are a few out there – Nichijou’s phenomenal understanding of comedy craft needs to be seen to be believed, and Humanity Has Declined’s black-hearted satire is pretty great too. But The Lost Village is something else entirely – a cabin in the woods story that pretty much constantly undermines itself, setting up seemingly incoherent running jokes and eternally deflating its own dramatic tension. It’s the show that would be lost entirely if anyone were ever “in on the joke,” but because they’re not, things like Lovepon’s obsession with executions and theoretical protagonist Mitsumune’s utter uselessness just become funnier and funnier over time. The Lost Village is a deadpan takedown of horror altogether, using our expectations of surprise to facilitate its own contradictory surprises all along the way. More a piece of insane concept art than a coherent narrative, I’m more than a little surprised it exists at all.
#5: Mob Psycho 100
I was originally a little sceptical of Mob Psycho, since the author ONE’s One Punch Man didn’t really do much for me, but this one turned out to answer all my complaints there and then some. Not only did Mob Psycho actually have a great cast and some compelling thematic throughlines, but director Yuzuru Tachikawa turned it into a gorgeous showcase for all manner of diverse visual setpieces, elevating fundamental questions of self-worth and societal value through beautiful fight scenes and smartly constructed character moments. The show’s sense of humor was still hit or miss, but in the context of a show with so much visual creativity and heart, it was hard to fault it for that. ONE and Tachikawa make for a terrific team.
I’m frankly not even sure how this show exists. A thoughtful, melancholy period piece based on a niche Japanese theater style doesn’t really seem like it’d play well to the usual anime crowd – but Rakugo was all that and then some. Its first double-length episode introduced a whole cast of characters only to jump into flashback for the entire season. And yet, somehow, it exists, and is wonderful. Rakugo’s director Shinichi Omata has been a rising star for a while now, and this show’s sensitive storytelling was a perfect match for his already stage-oriented talents. Offering vivid characters, beautiful compositions, and performances that instantly brought the magic of rakugo to life, Rakugo was an easy highlight of the year. We are very lucky to have a sequel right around the corner.
Euphonium’s sequel was messier than its predecessor, a fact that largely came down to this season adopting some clear “oh crap, we need a sequel” source material. But in spite of its narrative issues, the show still demonstrated all the gorgeous execution and thoughtful characterization of the original. In fact, some of the peaks here even outdid that first season – from the beautifully understated premiere to the performance highlights and Asuka arc, this season demonstrated a confidence of execution that can match basically anything out there. Euphonium’s careful approach to character drama is only made possible by the show’s phenomenal direction and animation – it’s a clear embodiment of animation as storytelling, with character moods expressed through color and framing, and subtle emotional shifts conveyed only through body language. That precision and visual focus imbues it with a kind of visceral emotional truth, demonstrating that the strongest of feelings can come from the smallest of gestures.
This one almost feels like cheating, because The Last Song banks so heavily on the world, themes, and characters established by the phenomenal first season. On top of that, this isn’t even a totally consistent season – there are a couple weaker episodes here and there, and the conclusion doesn’t truly satisfy all that I’d hoped for from it. But all of that ultimately goes to show what an astonishing and powerful show Conrevo really is. The very first episode of this season offered a character study of a man whose desire to seek some sort of “true justice” leads him to ultimately lobotomize himself, just so his understanding of the world’s complexities doesn’t sabotage his ability to fight for what he believes in. And Conrevo’s exploration of the maddening contradictions of justice and politics only spiral outwards from there, as it offers ever more glimpses of a fascinating alternate history where superheroes are real, powerful, and just one more tool caught between the public’s shifting desires and the government’s oppressive hands. Conrevo is simultaneously a celebration of pop culture history and an interrogation of how culture makes history, full of vivid characters and devastating episodic vignettes. It is a fiery and remarkable achievement.
#1: Flip Flappers
It’s a little surprising even to me to find Flip Flappers up here, right at the top of the list. When the show started, I already loved its creative worlds and fairy tale adventures, but it felt a little too slight to become a real favorite. But as more episodic fantasies offered more and more truths about Cocona’s feelings and the world around her, it became clear that all of these adventures were far more than they appeared. Flip Flappers ultimately sculpts a deeply personal tale of family, identity, and love through a gorgeous cornucopia of vivid worlds, with each new journey commenting on and furthering the precise and thoughtfully told story of Cocona’s journey towards self-love and happiness. It’s simultaneously a tightly composed psychological narrative and a gleeful, indulgent celebration of the exact kind of storytelling only anime can do. It offers copious new visual ideas while also drawing inspiration from titans like Evangelion and Penguindrum. It revels in fantasy while steadily constructing an argument for fantasy’s validity as a real kind of emotional truth. It’s messy and joyous and heartfelt and gorgeous. It’s my favorite anime of the year.