Well, we’ve arrived at the halfway point again. 2017 feels likely to be remembered as a key year in humanity’s overall decline, but at least this fall season’s Japanese cartoons were pretty good. As usual, I’ll be doing my pointless mid-season rankings today, and jotting down some overall thoughts on the shows I’m watching so far. These rankings are always meaningless, but given there are a fair number of admittedly great shows I’m already not watching purely because of time constraints, you can rest assured that I’m solidly enjoying everything that actually makes this list. Side M, Girls’ Last Tour, Ancient Magus’ Bride… I’d be happy to keep up with any of those shows in a lighter season, and will hopefully find the time to swing back and pick them up later. As for now, I’ll try to be at least a little ruthless in breaking down where I think my active contenders stumble and soar. Let’s get right to the list!
#1: Just Because!
There are certainly shows this season I look forward to more than Just Because! Every episode of Juni Taisen leaves me desperate for the next one, and my MMO Junkie/Love Live Saturday mornings are the comfiest part of my week. But when it comes to how I’d appraise them overall, nothing else this season beats Just Because!’s extremely sharp and consistently poignant portrait of the edge of adolescence. Though the generous character acting of the first few episodes has largely dried up, the show is still just as piercing in its dialogue as it originally was in its animation, and subtler choices like its understanding of high school as a tangible, relentlessly public space set it well above most similar dramas. The show is thoughtful and atmospheric, its small dramas conjuring natural character parallels, its overarching thrust presenting a richly melancholic image of the end of youth. It’s a shame the show’s run into such serious production issues, but its strengths persevere.
#2: Juni Taisen
Frankly, I don’t really know where Juni Taisen will go from here. The show’s first half successfully killed off every single character I cared about, and with its closest thing to a heroine now serving as rabbit food, I’m not sure how the show will pick up the emotional pieces. But that first half also demonstrated a remarkable ability to make me care about all these doomed characters, offering satisfying narratives for Boar, Chicken, Sheep, and Monkey even within the space of single episodes. Nisioisin’s take on a battle royale is as dialogue-heavy and character-focused as you’d expect, leaving me with a show where I’d happily watch a spinoff focusing on at least half of this show’s characters. Couple that with its dynamite overall aesthetic and fundamentally intriguing narrative mechanics, and you’ve got a show I’m thoroughly enjoying even as I question how I’ll keep enjoying it. Juni Taisen has broken my heart a lot of times already, but I’m still very on board with this suffering.
#3: Land of the Lustrous
At last, we’ve got a show that actually sells its CG look. I’ve tolerated CG in shows like Girls und Panzer (where it genuinely facilitates strong visual storytelling) and Knights of Sidonia, but Land of the Lustrous might be the first show I’ve seen to actually make CG look good. The show’s characters are expressive and layouts often quite beautiful, and this groundbreaking execution is applied to a story that’s distinctive, alluringly mysterious, and consistently charming. The cast is strong, their world is compelling, and the narrative has twisted and turned through directions that felt strange at the time, but all build to a consistently engaging whole. I actually don’t really have complaints about Lustrous – it’s not my favorite show I’m watching, but it might be the most all-around solid thing that’s airing.
#4: Recovery of an MMO Junkie
Not all of MMO Junkie’s jokes land, but the show’s cast is easily strong enough to smooth the rougher patches. Moriko herself is MMO Junkie’s strongest feature, carrying the drama through her relatable presence and consistently tossing off almost too-sharp reflections on lonely adulthood in modern times. I’m also solidly invested in the show’s romance, though I do wish the show would just drop Kowai altogether. While Sakurai certainly treads a questionable line in his behavior towards Moriko, Kowai is just straight-up predatory, and I’m not at all thrilled to see him played up as a potential love triangle participant. But Kowai aside, MMO Junkie balances its character-focused charms and pointed comedy with grace, making it my favorite comfort watch of the season.
#5: March comes in like a lion
The new season of March’s first couple episodes contained some serious stumbles, but the show has since rallied with a pair of episodes so strong they’ve reminded me why I loved March in the first place. Hina’s story of bullying, and how that tale has reflected on both Rei and Akari, have returned March to its deeply personal, emotionally insightful, and often quite beautiful comfort zone. It’s gratifying seeing Rei actually act on all the growth he’s experienced over this show, and an inherent pleasure to spend more time with this found family. Weak one-offs and awkward adaptation structure aside, March is still a great show.
#6: Love Live! Sunshine!! 2
Sunshine’s second season hasn’t really been the most ostentatious performer, but it’s held onto all the things that make the show enjoyable, while also methodically expanding its array of specialties. The show’s overt conflict is still pretty much nonsense, and focusing yet another season on “save our school” feels incredibly tedious, but the overarching conflict has never been what made Love Live fun. The show excels in its goofy visual comedy, charming ensemble scenes, and one-off episodic vignettes, and those have all been as satisfying as ever. On top of that, Love Live has finally arrived at the point where its performance scenes are genuine highlights, and not just obligatory CG embarrassments. It’s not the flashiest show of the season, but it’s still Love Live.
#7: Kino’s Journey
Poor, poor Kino’s Journey. I know I said these rankings aren’t really meaningful, but it still feels sad to put the successor to a show I love so much at the bottom of my active list. This new season’s focus on Kino as an active participant in various countries’ drama feels like it misunderstands the fundamental strength and appeal of Kino as a character and Kino’s Journey as a narrative. There are still episodic highlights, and the show’s execution is perfectly reasonable, but they just did not pick the best stories to capitalize on Kino’s strengths. This Kino’s Journey is still a reasonable show, but it is many miles from a classic.