Best (Worst) of 2016: Anime

In All, Anime by Keskel

This year I’m chronicling my terrible anime consumption/addiction a little differently from last year. I’m specifically listing “original” or non-sequel shows in one list, and am leaving a separate place for continuations (ie., season 2s or franchises). It’s worth noting that I’m not treating an adaptation of a light novel or manga as a “franchise,” since having a top three list feels kinda pointless.

I’m also going to admit, up front, that I have finished fewer shows this year than I might have liked, and I’m sure at least two or three interesting, engaging or technically impressive shows are missing from the list because I haven’t seen them yet.

Top 10 (original) Shows of 2016

Keijo!!!!!!!!: Searching for gifs for Keijo is hard, because any 10 seconds of any episode is the animation highlight that explains what Keijo is and why it is the Nextwave of anime. This is the logical end point of fan service, sports shows, and anime as a medium by and for anime fans. In case the gifs don’t make it clear, this is a sports show about women in swimsuits trying to knock each other off of floating platforms using only their breasts or butts to do so, but the show and the characters treat this with utter seriousness, which makes the show both hilarious and exciting.

ERASED: I’m thoroughly disappointed by the ending of this show. What could have been a grand show about the decisions people make in life and how to best change the course of a life you’re unhappy with instead ended as a fun little time travel murder mystery with a self assured theme that really does not translate well from Japanese to English. But that aside, ERASED is well-animated, engaging, and surprisingly heartfelt when it’s not stumbling into some culture shock issues.

Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash: It’s hard to talk about Grimgar and what makes it so impressive without spoiling something either intentionally or by accident. But I will say it is an impressive show, not only because of how it portrays the gamified world experience (how it handles the triumph and tragedy of low level life for an adventurer is excellent), but also how it becomes a different show a few episodes in. That’s when Grimgar reveals itself as a slow-moving character study about how realistic characters act within a gamified society. The show also thoroughly passed my test for any fantasy media by making me want to play DnD again.

KonoSuba: God’s Blessing on This Wonderful World!: This is the best deconstruction of the “waking up in a gamified world” show I’ve seen so far. It’s not so much a deconstruction as a profoundly mean-spirited parody of the entire genre, its tropes, and especially its characters. The unremitting tone of mean-spiritedness towards the premise, the world, and the characters is amazing, making KonoSuba  one of the most consistently funny shows of the year for me. Also, the show expresses my complete and total derision for the genre. Hopefully Japan will start to make fewer shows in this genre–except of course for season 2 of this.

Alderamin on the Sky: I know, it’s based on a light novel (I complained about light novels in last year’s post, and at this point, light novel adaptations are something of a default state of anime), but Alderamin consistently lives up to or surpasses expectations, both in the character work and the ever increasing political, tactical and historical moments. Character-wise, the central non-romantic partnership between the two main characters is spectacular to watch, and the underage princess is a much better character than a loli princess with a crush on the MC has any right to be. The ending of the season makes everything that came before an effective prelude to the next light novel, or the next season (but only if you buy enough body pillows).

Yuri!!! on Ice: There are two shows called Yuri on Ice. One show is almost 10 episodes long, and is a fun fujoshi sports show that AniTwitter fell in love with. The second is the full 12-episode show. The post-credits sequence in episode 10 is considered by ANN  to be one of the best plot twists of the year. It absolutely changes the everything that came before, making Yuri on Ice a brilliant, subtle romance.

Bungou Stray Dogs: Bungou had the achievement of airing two blocks of episodes in non-consecutive seasons.  The first part of the second season, an extended flashback explaining the motivation and backstory of the “cheerful, suicidal violent monster” who is fighting for the “good guys,” is a moving tragedy that brings nuance and depth to a character who is initially very cartoonish, and makes the previous work more interesting in retrospect. The rest of Bungou is a fun action show about famous authors re-imagined as anime characters with magic powers. If the idea of F. Scott Fitzgerald with a magic power called “The Great Gatsby” that when activated generates money out of thin air doesn’t do anything for you, your high-school english teacher failed you completely.

Space Patrol Luluco: You can watch the entire season in an hour, but it has as much plot as as your average 26-episode full length series, and it is pure trigger goodness. Trigger being what happens when all of the animators quit to form their own studio where they call the shots: ie., really weird stuff gets made. Luluco is gorgeous, hyperactive and hilarious.

Kabaneri of the Iron FortressKabaneri looks pretty. The animation is gorgeous. A guy punches a train in an FFVI-style feat of strength. The plot is, well, I’d call it dumb, but that’s not fair to the writers. The plot is designed around finding excuses for things to happen which are fun to animate. This show is to stylish choreographed violence and shonen tropes what Keijo is to fan service. It knows what is is, and by utterly embracing that Kabaneri can focus on being exactly the show it wants to be. This appears to be a smaller scale rebellion by Wit (the studio that’s been adapting big, popular manga for a while, such as Attack on Titan and Seraph of the End), who just wanted to write something that was all about fun things to animate. More on this show below because of it’s unfortunate  roll in the Amazon situation will be mentioned later.

Mob Psycho 100: Any conversation of why I love this show has to start with the Cracked article on how The Karate Kid ruined society by de-emphasizing the importance of hard work. Mob Psycho 100 is an excellent counter-argument to the sense of entitlement (both in terms of gender roles and the larger social sense) that all too much anime pre-supposes. The essential conceit is that the main character is the strongest psychic in history, but that that’s not enough. His lack of charisma and lack of muscles make him invisible to the girl of his dreams, and the show has the courage to say that he should be working out and improving himself to win her over, not that she should “recognize” the value of his psychic powers. It’s very funny, and the actual animation is excellent in terms of bringing movement to the jokes and showing the various psychic powers, ghosts, etc.

Best Continuing Series

Monogatari: It’s not really fair to put this here, as I’m an avowed monogatari fanboy. This year most of the english speaking fans got Kizumonogatari Part 1: Tekketsu, a lucky few got Kizumonogatari Part 2: Nekketsu (I’m one of them), and those who could find it got Koyomimonogatari. While these three are the least accessible (in multiple senses of the word) volumes of the Monogatari series released so far  all three works are impressive. Kizumonogatari 1 and 2 are both stunning. Impressive artistically and technically, they are also an absolutely valid starting point for the series strengths and weaknesses.

Koyomimonogatari, on the other hand, gets the distinction of being the hardest Monogatari to watch in the series’ history. (Due to being technically produced as a Blu-ray extra in partnership with a specific Japanese streaming site, and not being full length episodes, there are no legal ways to watch that show translated into english I am aware of at this time.) It’s frustrating, because the character work is great. Koyomimonogatari is all side stories that take place at established times in the continuity, as indicated by which opening they are using, and reveal things we’ve never seen before–such as showing what Hitagi and Araragi’s romantic relationship is like when not challenged by monsters, or Araragi and Kanbaru paling around). The ending, especially the post credits tag of the last episode, is crucial to the Monogatari larger plot, and was one of the few times an anime made me cry this year.

I’ve talked before about Monogatari being one of most medium and culturally specific works in all of anime. (Among other things, Monogatari is about otaku media, and directly engages with some of the character traits and archetypes present in many otaku works in ways that only an anime could.) Monogatari also stands as a singular counterexample to my exhaustion with adaptations and franchises, being based on a series of Japanese novels, and (depending on how you count) having more than seven seasons so far. Many of the series’ medium-specific elements are brilliant inventions are used to handle the structure of Monogatari‘s arcs, as well as the frequent extensive scenes of characters having long conversations filled with multiple meanings (both thematically and through the use of double entendres and Japanese puns). But the reason that Monogatari keeps making it to my end of year lists is that rather than each new entry just creating more story, it always tries to add more thematic complexity, or character depth, or genuine growth. The series is hard to get into, and often difficult to watch, but ultimately Monogatari is among the most rewarding series in any medium I’ve had the pleasure of encountering.

Mobile Suit Gundam Iron-Blooded Orphans: I loved the first season, and I’m equally impressed with the second. The show demonstrates a continued commitment to reminding the viewers at all times that war has profound effects on those who fight it, and that the pretty Gundam explosions, which are mainly to sell model kits, should be treated with the same gravitas as a drone strike. Also, the commitment to what they have done with and to the main character is staggering. The decision to make increased fighting ability cost the main character the use of first one of his arms, and then both his legs is not new, as Bokurano and others have explored what it means to pilot a giant robot at direct cost to the pilot’s safety. Mikazuki’s responses to this is great, though, leading up to his recent speech to the effect of, “This makes things simple, I’m fighting for a world without conflict, and this loss of limbs means I don’t have to worry about what my place will be in that world, let’s keep going.” It’s an impressive summation of everything the Gundam franchise has often tried to explore but rarely dealt with in favor of selling more model kits.

Durarara!!: While the middle arc drag, in large part because of the frustrating pacing (too few episodes per light novel makes too many episodes feel like rushed plot summaries without any of the characterization or goodnatured charm of the first season), the ending shines, as they tie up more threads and continue to add to the wacky hijinks, while finally resolving the central love triangle from Season 1, and more making a grand thematic statement about the “urban fantasy” or “magical realism” present in all of the seasons so far..

Assassination Classroom: As I’ve said before, both on the podcast and on the blog, Classroom might not be the show Japan wants, but it is the show Japan needs. A show set in high school that is about education, the role of education in society, and society’s obligations to its youngest members, it’s also really fun and well animated. This show really stuck the landing with its final arcs and the ending was both emotionally moving and thematically complete.

Concrete Revolutio: The Last Song: I know I’m in the minority, but Concrete Revolutio season 2 deserves way more respect than it got. I love it the same way I love Monogatari in part for its embrace and engagement with all the tropes of ’60 and ’70s Japanese media and what those tropes meant, along with the resulting social and political consequences of the failure of the student revolts. Impressive technical aspects (great animation and use of color, plus the already great designs from season 1), mean I hope this show ends up with the Shinsekai Yori status of gaining acclaim as time goes on.

Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya 3rei!!: This show functions brilliantly on two levels. On one level it is a straightforward, unashamed, “These are the things we are putting in an anime, so there will be cute young girls in costumes, magic powers, strange fight sequences, and lots of implied and stated lesbianism.” Although I love deconstructions and shows that engage with the medium, sometimes it’s a lot of fun to watch a show that reminds me why the tropes of trash anime exist, and what purpose they can serve when the show is well made. But the liner Prisma Illya series also serves as a hilarious sendup of both the laws and the characters from the Fate universe (otherwise known as the Nasuverse). The introduction of the 10-year-old version of Gilgamesh, who exists among other reasons to be a gender-flipped joke about the sexualization of young girls in Fate (and other anime), makes the most recent season a blast, as every single Gil scene and joke works (especially if you’re familiar with his adult form from the VN, or one of the earlier anime adaptations.)

Bad, Bad, Bad

Re:ZERO: The rest of AniTwitter is wrong. If Re:ZERO ended at episode 13 (or a few other places), it may have deserved it’s recognition for subverting the “trapped in another world” genre tropes. But the ending third of the series (everything from the Rem heart to heart to the end) breaks what comes before it. While the first part of the show is about the main character realizing that he’s not the main character (and that he should step out of the way of the real heroes), and the midpoint has an effective, “You, the anime fan, are very likely an entitled prick for liking shit like this” moment, the ending of the show has Subaru becoming a main character, outwitting and learning from his mistakes, and eventually getting rewarded for grinding out reality like a gamer. Two years ago, this show would’ve ended up in my top 10 of the year, sexual entitlement included. But I’m fucking done with waking up in another world shows (and so are the light novel publishers looking for new material). Instead of watching Re:ZERO, watch this for six hours:

and then this for six hours:

And then call it a day.

ReLIFE: I don’t read nearly as much manga as some of our other contributors, but when you adapt a story like this with so few visuals, you end up with a pacing disaster, made all the worse by the fact that I have read this manga.

Kiss him, not me!: See ReLIFE, but this time with a core concept that has nothing to say.

Berserk: If Jojo’s is the greatest story ever told, Berserk is Dante’s Inferno: a book the church will try to suppress because they are concerned about its influence on its readers. Not only is the framing and movement awful, but Berserk is a challenging, difficult manga. It involves character arcs that take 10+ real time years to complete, as well as being “about” (for lack of a better term) an explicit perversion of the standard “chosen Christ child” myth, and utterly inseparable thematically from medieval sadomasochistic sexual perversion.  The only parts of the story that really can be adapted all that well to broadcast television already were, in 1996.

I Haven’t Finished It Yet, But…

Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable: I know it’s the greatest story ever told, but I’m not caught up.

Haikyuu!!: I’m still on season 2. People I respect are in universal agreement about its quality. Look, at least I finally finished Kuroko no Basket this year, and I’m still working on Yowapeda.

91 Days: I started it, and while I’m impressed with the anime as an art form for adults, I’ve seen a lot of revenge stories, and Japanese pastiches of other culture’s media is a miss as often as it is a hit (see Gangsta.).

Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto: Holy shit, the animation is bad. It’s funny. It’s really funny, but the animation is just awful, and I can’t really forgive an anime that fails at every aesthetic aspect of the medium just because it has good writing.

Kiznaiver: So pretty, but the core concept is super bad. At a party in film school once, someone muted the film Across the Universe and played it on loop as visual art. At a gathering of anime fans, this show could fulfill that same purpose. The color is great, the character desgins are great, the movement is beautiful. But the writing and story are meh, and the core concept (especially the thematics) are just so stupid, it’s hard to take the show seriously. The plot consists of a bizarre conspiracy to link several teenagers together through shared pain (the Kiz in the title being the Japanese word for wound), because sharing pain would make them understand each other…? It’s an idea that doesn’t work for me because the ability to recognize in other people their capacity for feeling pain and to empathize with others as part of forming relationships is something that most people above the age of seven can already do. Then the entire final third of this show consists of the characters coming to realizations to which the appropriate response is to yell at the screen, “Duh!”

Overall thoughts on the state of anime as a medium, 2016:

We are at the moment of peak anime. There are too many shows per season. Anime is being released faster than I can watch it, and I barely consume non-anime media anymore.

But besides how inconvenient that is for me, there is a limit to how many shows any anime fan can (or at least should) be watching a year.

On the Japanese side of this equation, the lifestyle for people making anime continues to be inhumane, which has and will continue to have negative consequences for the medium. Not only will we lose great creative and technical talent to burnout, but the medium has the risk of creative stagnation, as the only people writing and making anime have spent their entire lives, every waking hour, consuming and making anime.

On the American side, several huge developments happened this year that I have yet to discuss on the blog. While one of those developments is abjectly terrible, the others are more complicated.

The terrible is, of course, the Battery situation. To make a long story short in the absence of official notices from all of the players, here is what occurred:

  • Amazon purchased the rights to air shows from the Japanese anime programming block noitaminA (which included Kabaneri).
  • This complicated the viewing experience for law-abiding anime fans, as it meant that watching all new anime from Japan now required four subscriptions to online video services (Amazon Prime, Crunchyroll, Funimation, and Netflix, as this was before the VRV launch)
  • Kabaneri was one of the best shows of the season (and made it to my top 10 in this post), due to its strong visuals and Attack on Titan-inspired aesthetics and pedigree.
  • The following show on this programming block, Battery, was universally panned with a MyAnimeList score below 6, which is impressive given that MAL scores appear to follow a normal distribution.
  • The next show slated for this animation block (to which Amazon therefore had the rights, and claimed they would stream) was The Great Passage.
  • As of the writing of this post, The Great Passage cannot be watched streaming on Amazon.

Amazon has posted no public explanation on this behavior that I can find, but it appears that after the creative and viewership failures of Battery, Amazon re-evaluated whether it wanted to be simulcasting a show every season, regardless of what that show was. My personal theory is that Amazon bought into the idea that the noitaminA block was a mark of quality, because it is the block that had Psycho-Pass, ERASED, and Terror in Resonance. Amazon was unprepared for the fact that this is a timeslot, not a creative team, so something average (Punch Line, Game of Laplace), or something genuinely terrible (Psycho-pass‘ second season, Battery) can air in that slot. It is important to note here that historically, noitaminA has had few misses as poor as BatteryGuilty Crown was directed by the director of Death Note and Highschool of the Dead(He did another show you might have heard of  called Attack on Titan),  and while deeply flawed at the structural and thematic level, was engaging enough to earn it a 7.8 on MAL. Psycho-Pass Season 2 had the pedigree of the excellent Psycho-Pass Season 1, and the rest of the internet is wrong and thinks the show has a score higher than 7. So if Amazon was concerned about quality, they may have let one bad apple spoil the bunch.

The other possibility is that Amazon was unprepared for the reality of entering the simulcast sub market, which combines intense schedules, low viewership numbers due to rampant piracy, and the fact that they have a mature platform on the technical level, but not on the social level of Netflix.

Either way, Amazon’s apparent decision not to stream The Great Passage (and the next show in the block, Scum’s Wish) leaves both shows in limbo. Neither appears to have any legal simul-sub release, thanks to whatever happened behind the scenes at Amazon (who still controls the rights, so that nobody else can legally release them either). While dedicated anime fans can (and will) stream fansubs of these shows, this makes the monetization of anime more difficult, and leads to less money being sent to Japan.

Note: Amazon just announced a new anime streaming service called Anime Strike, going a long way toward solving this mystery. What this development means for anime as a whole is unclear as of yet, but Keskel is currently researching and will write a new article about Anime Strike and its significance for the medium. – Ed

Another interesting thing to occur this year was Netflix’s decision to stream Kuromukuro sub-only. Unlike previous shows that Netflix has purchased (Knights of Sidonia, Ajin: Demi-Human, Seven Deadly Sins), Kuromukuro arrived in our Netflix queues without the usual English dub. This is interesting for several reasons. It may simply be that Netflix’s insight (big data or human) told them that people who would watch and enjoy this type of show would all prefer a sub (read that as, only the true otakus could get through a trashy “high school girl does high school slice of life comedy when she’s not piloting a robot” show, and true otakus avoid dubs). Or it might be that Netflix is simply running an experiment to see how many people would watch a show without a dub. Netflix’s acquisition of shows (roughly one per season) is still small enough that I won’t truly know what this means until they start licensing shows that would otherwise not get a license, expanding the number of shows they acquire per season to become a more major player, or going for  non-exclusive licenses.

The last thing that occurred this year is the Crunchyroll/Funimation partnership. In short, both of those companies have begun to share catalogs, with Funimation-licensed, subtitled shows coming to Crunchyroll, and Crunchyroll-held shows coming to Funimation to be dubbed. This is certainly more convenient for anime fans; if we want to introduce any muggles to anime, it’s important to be able to easily stream dubbed shows.

The other important implication of this shift is that it’s likely now that bidding between Funimation and Crunchyroll (the two primary players in the simulcast streaming market) will result in lower offers being sent to Japan for all but the biggest shows. This will likely cause there to be less streaming money going back to Japan, unless the viewership numbers increase radically, something that I think will be difficult without some form of partnership with Netflix or Hulu. This reduction in expected overseas investment will eventually change (or possibly already has changed) the calculus for which shows get made. Likely fewer shows will be produced overall.

We are therefore probably at the actual peak of peak anime. There should be less anime being made in the next two years, and I’m glad for that.

I’ve been an anime fan a long time, and the medium used to be a common shared culture. Anime fans would often have all seen the same shows, and some larger shows (Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop, Trigun) were watched in their entirety by entire audiences at anime conventions. But anime is no longer that way. It has become a bunch of highly specific genres (do you watch sports shows? Otome shows? Slice of life shows? Shonen-action shows?) with some common visual and storytelling tropes that are shared and used in cross-pollination.

For me, 2016 was the year that I admitted to myself that I simply cannot watch the amount of anime I did when I was younger, and I’m not sure I should be trying to. I know the shows I like–well done mecha, seinen, the occasional trash action show–and I can use MAL and the rest of AniTwitter to find out if there’s any other shows that I shouldn’t miss. I’m going to do my best to stop watching shows that I’m not enjoying in a misguided effort to cover the entire output of the medium, which means I’ll likely finish fewer shows in 2017 than I did in 2016.

I recommend all of our readers do the same.


David’s Extra Thoughts

Keskel did a really great overview of the highs and lows of anime for 2016, so I don’t have much more to add about anything he has already talked about. I will say that Sakamoto‘s awesomeness transcends petty concerns like bad animation, Space Patrol Luluco is everything great about anime in an hour, and Erased‘s ending, while a let down compared to the rest of the series, is not as disappointing as Keskel makes it out to be. Also there is the fact that Keskel’s hatred for “trapped in another world” shows has blinded him about Re:ZERO. AniTwitter does overrate this show and gives it too much credit, but Keskel doesn’t give it anywhere near enough, as the show is a lot closer to going against the “trapped in another world” tropes than giving into them like Keskel suggests. The show is a mess, but it’s a mess that’s still entertaining as hell.

As for shows worth highlighting, the only one that Keskel didn’t talk about is Magical Girl Raising Project. The whole deconstruction of magical girl shows has been done quite well already by Madoka and Yuuki Yuuna, so there really wasn’t much more to be done except for one final idea–combing the genre with Battle Royale. Magical Girl Raising Project starts slow, but figures out very quickly how to ramp up the tension and properly tread the dark line the show has walk. Things gradually get darker and darker, and the show manages to end in a way that actually works and isn’t a cop out (like Yuuki Yuuna‘s ending kind of is). The show isn’t perfect, and like many shows with so many characters it could have used more time for character development, but that doesn’t change that Raising Project proved to be a great companion to both Madoka and Yuuki Yuna.

Also, I’ll just leave you with this to watch and listen to forever.