That fabled time has come once again. With four full seasons of anime on the books, it’s time to mark out the true all-stars, the cream of the crop, the shows we just might remember in spite of our recency-mad fandom culture. I normally preface posts like this with a glib assurance that rankings don’t really matter, art deserves to be engaged with in a manner more meaningful than relative evaluation, and thus this whole ordeal is a hopeless exercise. That all remains true, but at the end of a year that’s offered plenty of things to be cynical about in the real world, I’d rather end this introduction on a note of honest positivity. Rankings aren’t bad things. Not only are they fun to read, but to people who actually haven’t spent countless hours poring over the year’s better and worse selections, rankings can genuinely help point people in useful directions. On top of that, simply celebrating the shows I love is one of my favorite things about criticism, and what’s a better venue for pure celebration than a list of my recent favorites? So let’s put the critical knives aside, and appreciate how good some cartoons can be. Here’s my Top 10 Anime of 2017!
Wait, wait, first I’ve got some honorable mentions. Actually, I’ve got one honorable mention for each season of the year, so starting from winter: Saga of Tanya the Evil turned out to be a far better show than I’d expected, and ultimately rose to be a both entertaining and very angry war drama. In the spring, Tsuki ga Kirei offered a charming romance seemingly designed to directly echo the dramatic priorities of KyoAni’s best character dramas. In summer, Tsuredure Children proved you don’t need full-length episodes to distill the essence of romantic comedy, capturing that “verge of a relationship” moment in tiny, adorable slices. And in fall, Recovery of an MMO Junkie demonstrated that full-length episodes are also pretty good for romantic comedies, while simultaneously offering a refreshingly grown-up perspective on dating, online identities, and social anxiety.
Alright, think that covers the honorable mentions. Now, starting with my actual number ten, here’s…
With 2017 featuring one season’s back half and another season’s front, March comes in like a lion seems determined to flummox any attempts at “of-the-year” categorization. Fortunately, both those season halves are strong enough to earn the show a place on this list. With its originally Rei-focused drama expanding to explore the stories of characters like Shimada and Hina, March has gone from being an incisive, focused exploration of depression to an ensemble story about the difficulty of simply getting by, and the harsh troubles we all face in our own lives. The show marries an often striking visual style to fundamentally terrific character writing, offering a meditative drama that just keeps offering rich new surprises.
I didn’t really expect a show about a maid who’s also a dragon to win my heart, but Dragon Maid’s sturdy combination of stellar comedy and endearing characters made it a real highlight this year. KyoAni shows always tend to offer snappier comedic timing and better visual comedy than their contemporaries, and Dragon Maid’s mix of absurdism, slapstick, and character humor certainly lives up to that legacy. But Dragon Maid’s true secret weapon is its thoughtful illustration of the beauty of found families, and the warmth of family in general. Trust a show about a maid who’s also a dragon to perfectly articulate the anxiety and joy of raising a child.
While I enjoyed My Hero Academia’s first season, my enjoyment there was mostly “this is a very entertaining story and a passable adaptation.” For its second season, My Hero Academia upped the bar considerably, matching the outstanding strength of the school tournament arc with equally outstanding animation and general direction. At a base level, My Hero Academia does little to distinguish itself from the standard shonen shell – instead, it simply embraces that narrative skeleton, and executes on it with incredible distinction at almost all times. My Hero Academia features a great cast buoyed by a wealth of creative powers, terrific fight scenes, and a strong underlying message about the importance of inspiring others. It is a shining beacon of superheroic optimism.
The first season of Rakugo was a top contender among my 2016 anime, and its sequel is no slouch either. I felt this season’s tale of conflict centered on the original series’ descendants couldn’t quite match the narrative cohesion and dramatic heights of the first season, but Rakugo is still a compelling and phenomenally directed experience. It feels almost absurdly foolhardy to center an anime on an art as delicate as rakugo, where the minute subtleties of character acting are the only way to tell a great performance from a bad one. But even though the animation sometimes flagged, Rakugo’s performance peaks were still transcendent, and its cast as strong as ever. Rakugo managed the difficult distinction of feeling like a true, gorgeously illustrated stage performance from start to finish.
#6: Just Because!
What do we want? Meditative character studies. How do we want them? Drawn out as slowly as possible. Just Because! is an absurdly Me show, focusing almost solely on the smallest nuances of character development and emotional engagement. Like Tsuredure Children, its understanding of its cast’s fleeting developmental moment helps inform its larger truths, and its focus on these kids’ town as a tangible, living place gives it an unparalleled sense of atmosphere. Sensations like the awkwardness of being in an unspoken feud with someone you now have to avoid at school, or realizing an emotion you thought was love was only ever nostalgia, are illustrated with thought and care through the slow motions of Just Because!’s very believable cast. If you like your drama slow-burning and your shows melancholic, Just Because! is a gem.
The Eccentric Family strikes a particular combination of realistic character drama and magical realism that is utterly sublime in action, like a Miyazaki film for the terminally underemployed young adult. Like with Rakugo, this second season unfortunately lacks some of the narrative cohesion that made the first season such a treasure, but it’s still full of beautiful setpieces and packed with quirky, endearing characters. Yasaburou is a delightful scoundrel, Benten is a tempest of pride and self-doubt, and the story spun around them ranges from the skies of Kyoto to the bowels of hell itself. The original Eccentric Family was a masterpiece, but its sequel will have to settle for simply being a really good show.
You remember when Return of the King won Best Picture even though it was kinda overlong and super indulgent and there was that one scene where Legolas did kickflips on a giant elephant? Placing Owari up here is basically my version of that: a nod to all that the Monogatari franchise has accomplished over the years, in spite of its final bow clearly not being the series’ peak. That said, while Owari S2 isn’t Hitagi End or Suruga Devil, its own accomplishments are still pretty remarkable in their own way. Owari pulls together over half a decade of continuous new releases into one concise statement of purpose, an emphatic declaration in favor of loving our fractured, messy, mixed-up selves. The show ended in the only way it could have, bringing a satisfying close to a series that has nearly come to define precisely what I seek in anime. Regularly beautiful, wildly creative, often infuriating, and resoundingly human, Monogatari collapsed into one empathic chorus, urging us to love ourselves enough to discover how to love others. Regardless of what new odds and ends may be adapted, this was the ending Monogatari deserved.
#3: Made in Abyss
I’m guessing there will be no greater top show consensus this year than on Made in Abyss, a show that precisely captures the unique appeal of exploration and adventure. Bolstered by the strong central pillars of its phenomenal art design, meticulous worldbuilding, and gorgeous soundtrack, the show is adventure incarnate, a wild and sometimes chilling love letter to the great beyond. Few shows possess the art assets necessary to ride purely on “I can’t wait to see where they go next,” but Abyss managed that and then some, smartly tempering its wide-eyed love of exploration with harsh evocations of the danger of the abyss. I can only hope we’ll get to revisit Rico and Reg soon.
#2: Kemono Friends
And on the other end of the art asset spectrum, Kemono Friends managed to triumph in spite of its low-detail CG models and often comically amateurish animation. Well, “in spite” isn’t entirely true – Kemono Friends’ scrappiness is clearly part of its appeal, and its overall look is quite endearing and often very intentionally funny. But visuals aside, Kemono Friends is simultaneously an incredibly warm slice of life and a legitimately well-constructed narrative, a show that slowly doles out its big dramatic secrets while consistently delighting through funny, endearing episodic escapades. Kemono Friends is a testament to the fact that resources and results aren’t always the same; that sometimes, inspired and passionate creators can make something great out of the humblest means.
Of course, while Kemono Friends was demonstrating that you don’t need great CG to make a great anime, Land of the Lustrous demonstrates just how far the cutting edge of CG animation has actually come. Not only is Land of the Lustrous blessed with dynamic fight scenes that’d be utterly impossible in traditional animation, its unique art style is elevated through consistently striking overall compositions, making it one of the most beautiful shows of the year. And that visual execution is applied to a story that combines the psychological impact of a dedicated character drama, the thrill of an action spectacle, and the intrigue of a worldbuilding-heavy scifi tableau. The painful trials Phosphophillyte undergoes make literal the process of emotional scarring that turns all of us into who we are, make visible the strange, wounded amalgams that are our emotional selves. Land of the Lustrous is beautiful and thrilling and charming and devastating. It is my top anime of 2017.