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Mar 31

Sean’s Top 10 Anime of 2016

March Goes Out Like A Boss

It’s been a few years since I last did a top ten for anime. I fell out of anime for a bit, but got back on the horse in 2016. And now that it’s the end of March and the 2-cours that started in October have come to a close, it’s time to look back and celebrate the best of the best.

I covered a whopping 205 first episodes across Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall, with impressions of all available here. Only an eighth, a mere 26 shows, would pass muster and be watched in their entirety. Some of those I really enjoyed. Some… not so much. But rest assured everything on this list is a series I’d recommend checking out, so let us dally no longer and get right to it.

The only sequel in this entire list, Akagami no Shirayukihime, or Snow White with the Red Hair to use its more… confusing title, has a charm and honesty that so many other series lack. The titular Shirayuki (spoiler – she’s the one with the red hair) is this hardworking and motivating girl that brings out the best of everyone around her, and you can really see the impact she has on the nobility she ends up working for.

This second season really hammers that home when you see Prince Raj, a serial womanizer in the first episode, but now thanks to his interactions with our leading lady has turned over a new leaf and is trying to do the best he can for his country and its people. It’s not an overnight change, but you can see the effort he’s putting in, and it all pays off in a great kidnapping plot with multiple factions that lets many characters from both seasons shine.

Sadly that arc ends all too soon and the season goes out on a more muted note, knocking it down a few spots on this list, but as light fantasy shows go, this is a nice and pleasant affair with plenty of sweet moments, interesting characters and a bright and colourful aesthetic. Now if only the manga would get a localisation…

What if there was magic in ye olde times that totally aren’t World War 2. I mean it can’t be, there was no country called Germania. Anyway, with the small country of Eylstadt on its last legs and their princess captured, it would take a miracle for them to resist falling. And a miracle is what they got in the form of the last witch alive, Izetta.

Shuumatsu no Izetta manages to take a look at many of the facets of war and superweapons, such as propaganda and public relations, to espionage and… well, killing people. And the consequences that can have on a person’s psyche, even when it is ostensibly doing the right thing. Most of the cast got some time to shine, and while the ending maybe gets a bit silly and farfetched in places, there is a satisfying conclusion.

I also love how this show handles magic. Izetta has to use leylines to draw her power, meaning her combat effectiveness varies from locale to locale, so they have to come up with some creative solutions to maintain her image as an all-conquering and inspiring force in locations where she can’t do squat.  That interesting writing combined with some solid animation secures it a spot on this year’s list.

Y’know, almost a year after this started airing, and my strongest memory is still that one shot where Yukina won the hearts and minds of many. From the team behind Attack on Titan, presumably bored from waiting to do the second season (which finally starts airing TOMORROW), we got Koutetsujou no Kabaneri, a brand new show where humans are trapped in their settlements from hoards of monsters roaming the wild. Huh.

But if you could look past the B-tier version of Titan’s premise there was a lot to like. I’d argue the first six episodes of this hold up as well as, if not better than AoT, with lead character Ikoma practically choking himself to death to survive the Kabane (zombie) curse, and become a half and half, also known as a Kabaneri. Which essentially allows him and other Kabaneri / lead girl Mumei to run riot. And all they need in return is the odd splash of human blood.

Good actions scenes and a brilliant soundtrack from Sawano Hiroyuki (the guy behind countless amazing scores, from Attack on Titan to Kill la Kill to Guilty Crown) helped this series be one heck of a ride from start to finish, despite the maddening walking plothole that was the unnecessary lead villain Biba. That this show was still as good as it was despite that handicap speaks volumes, and the series is confirmed to return in 2018, so maybe that’ll help this get back on track.

But hey, at least it didn’t go as off the rails as Titan’s second half did. Ha. Train jokes.

Why was this series called Orange? I honestly have no clue.

Kakeru is a kid gripped in the throes of depression, who ends up committing suicide. To prevent this tragedy, the future versions of his friends send letters back in time ten years to their past selves, telling them the events that will unfold and asking them to do their all to reach out to the poor guy and bring him happiness.

It’s a fascinating premise that allows for a story touching on many topics that anime usually steers clear of, and the series managed to do a great job of developing its tight-knit cast of half a dozen characters while throwing in the odd twist and managing two different timelines. Naho learns to step out of her comfort zone, Suwa struggles with his personal feelings and Kakeru is at the centre of it all, fighting depression and suicidal tendencies.

Throw in the usual teenage spectrum of angst and relationships and the second guessing of characters based on forewarned events that have or haven’t happened and it makes for a great experience that I enjoyed watching. I haven’t had a chance to check out the movie yet, which is apparently a “what happened next” affair, but it’s on my to-do list for this year thanks to the strength of this show.

Some people will have no clue what this show is. Some will be asking why the heck it’s not at the number one spot. Certainly, a fairly slow-paced show about a Japanese performance art where people sit down and tell stories to a room isn’t for everyone, but those of us who stuck around were rewarded handsomely.

While the first episode leads you to believe it’s about the future generation of rakugo performers, the majority of the season is actually about the previous generation and the rise of Yakumo VII and Sukeroku II, and their intertwining journeys to the top of a performance art where you have to convey a multitude of characters using nothing but body language and vocal tones.

The hurdles they overcome, which often include each other as Yakumo is doing rakugo more by force than choice yet has it together, while Sukeroku is a serial alcoholic and womanizer incapable of holding onto money for any length of time but has all the talent in the world, makes for compelling storytelling, and Deen really bring out the best in character animation when it’s time for the actual story telling. There are few happy endings in rakugo, but give it a chance and you’ll find yourself entranced by the art of storytelling.

I went into detail on Erased before, after it finished airing. I said it probably wouldn’t be Anime of the Year, but that it’d be on a lot of Top Tens, and for once, I was spot on the money. A man with the power to turn back time to save people from disasters ends up going way back into his childhood after his mother is murdered, to try and save several girls from a serial murder kidnapper.

The desperate struggle of child Satoru to reach out to outcast Kayo and ensure she was never alone again, interlaced with trips back to the present where he could see the consequences of his actions, for better or worse, produced a tight and focused narrative as more pieces of Kayo’s life came out into the open. A strong supporting cast of child friends and parents (yes, parents in anime playing an active role, I know right) only helped highlight Satoru’s struggles and internal dilemmas too.

While some were ticked off by the last arc’s expanded focus and resolution, and others the fairly obvious solution to the “whodunit” at the show’s core, it all makes narrative sense and provided a good climax to proceedings. Throw in Asian Kung-Fu Generation performing the opening (which has a very neat twist in one later episode) and you’ve got a classic that everyone was talking about.

There’s usually one oddball choice in these lists, so… tada, I guess. An alternative take on a four minute OVA made by Makoto Shinkai 15 odd years ago, these four short episodes which only total half an hour or so manage a level of charm and emotional engagement most series could only dream of.

We watch college student Tomoka through the perspective of her cat, Daru. We see her struggle to make rent after her roommate leaves and try desperately to get a job, but still have all the time and affection in the world for her pet. You won’t ever see anything taking place beyond the front door of her house, instead getting snippets of life in the early morning or late hours of the day

It’s never trying to be anything complex, Daru makes it clear the intricacies of life are fairly irrelevant to him, but it is raw emotion distilled and a show that will probably make you cry. Add in some charming visuals and audio, and you’ve got an impactful short series that only just misses out on the podium.

3-Gatsu no Lion, or Sangatsu no Lion, or March Comes in Like a Lion… whatever you want to call it, this series has seemingly been destined to be something special, with a second season and live action versions already well into production.

While shogi is the running sport of the series, it’s only there as a backdrop. You’re never going to learn how to be a master watching this series, as the focus is instead on characters and drama rather than duels and games. Rei Kiriyama is a good (but not great) player who was able to go professional while still in school, but with a ton of baggage from growing up, a lot of it tied in with his shogi talent, which has made him a very distant and melancholic guy.

Surrounding him and often going out of their way to try and lift Rei’s spirits is a strong cast of characters, including the three sisters Akari, Hinata and Momo who became friends with Rei after he was essentially forced into drinking with a sore loser and left on the street with alcohol poisoning. Then there’s his self-proclaimed rival Harunobu Hikaidou, who always has his back even if he comes off fanatical at times. And this is before I get to Rei’s stepsister and the chaos she brings.

Showcasing Rei’s emotional maelstrom and struggles to interact outside of playing shogi as he slowly tries to piece his life together and move on from past events, alongside some solid animation work from Shaft and a damn good soundtrack highlighted by two superb opening songs, this is a modern classic that only misses out on the top spot thanks to a fairly non-ending ending. Mainly because there’s a second season in the works, so why force some temporary gibberish resolution. And if that sequel can build upon everything this season brought, I’d lay odds on it being Anime of the Year 2017.

I remember hearing the title of this, and the reason behind it, and going “ha, funny joke, bet it sucks”. Wrong. Oh, so very, very wrong.

One of the most progressive anime series in forever (gay married couple!) this is primarily the story of three ice skaters. Yuri Katsuki, from Japan, made it all the way to the world championships but crashed and burned under the pressure, and is currently going through a slump. But who should arrive at his home one day than the five-time champion, Russian darling Victor Nikiforov, who has to decided to become a coach to try and find a new thrill. And then there’s Yuri Plisetsky, another Russian who had dominated the junior scene and is now preparing for his senior debut.

It all makes for a story with many compelling elements at play. Yuri (Russian) is jealous of Yuri (Japanese) because Victor had once promised he’d help him with his senior debut, but despite his constant desire to show both Yuri and Victor up, by the end of the series any childish arrogance has been burned away into a deadset determination to be the best.

As for Katsuki, he’s fighting a career of never being able to step it up to the next level, while working with a brand new coach who doesn’t always have the answers. And Victor, having retired the unbeaten king of the rink, now has the scorn of many of his old rivals wondering just what he’s doing with his life. The show keeps up a tight pace but still manages to realise pretty much its entire cast, showing why they chose a specific piece of music or what inspired them to skate in the first place.

Mappa went all out for the visuals too. There’s the odd jerky motion in the first few episodes when characters are skating, but by the end performances are captivating to watch. And listen to. The music is top-notch, with some superb original pieces amongst the more classical ones, such as Theme of King JJ. And the opening. It might just be the greatest anime opening of all time. I’ve sold non-anime fans on watching this show off that alone.

I’ve gushed a lot, but this is a truly brilliant show, hence why it dominated social media and broke out of the usual anime circle while it was airing. A must-see, whether you’re a fan of the genre or not.

Ah yes, this good old tradition. Proof that I don’t always get it right with my first episode judgements, its the “worst show of the year I watched” award, and this year Dimension W takes it home.

I initially got Darker than Black vibes from the first few episodes, with a hint of Ghost in the Shell from the so-real-is-she-really-a-robot Mira, but the show never lived up to that. Within a few episodes the writing had fallen off a cliff, becoming this bizarre overcomplicated mess fusing time travel, multiple dimensions, spirits and ghosts, natural disasters and a whole bunch more. They threw everything at the wall, and hoped viewers could desperately cling on.

Throw in a bunch of fake-out deaths, a reluctance to truly explore the robotics element they had developed and some attempts at environmental messaging that never really went anywhere, and, er, yeah. The show was a mess. Maybe the manga does it better. But somehow I doubt it.

A few years back I called Makoto Shinkai and Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children, Summer Wars, The Boy and The Beast) the future of animated films. In hindsight, that feels a little off. Even back then they were the here and now of anime directors, and while it took Shinkai a little longer to reach his peak, oh boy was it worth the wait.

Kimi no Na wa, literally “Your Name”, has many familiar themes for long-term fans of Shinkai’s work. It examines love and relationships that should never work out because of the distance between individuals. It has drop dead gorgeous visuals and vistas. And it has musical montages that have no transition into them so start off way too loud. Never change Shinkai.

The plot involves Mitsuha and Taki, one a girl from the country, one a guy from the city. Mitsuha wants a break from her restrained village life, and Taki is going through the motions of his. So the two get a shock one day when they wake up in the other’s body, with no idea of where or even who they are. And then more of a shock when they leap back and find out the consequences the other had on their life. Cue a stream of body swapping between the two for a few months before it all just… stops.

So begins the two’s journey to try and find each other. But there are a lot of twists and turns along the way, some of which left me agape. In terms of crafting a narrative, I’d say Shinkai has never done better, keeping viewer interest strong from start to finish. There’s one or two times where a cut might leave you a bit confused as they’ve timeskipped a week or so, but the film quickly gets you back on your feet.

There’s a lot more praise I could give, but that would involve spoiling the film, and this is one experience I could not do that for. You need to check this out yourself when it arrives on BluRay later this year. There’s a reason it’s not only Number One on MyAnimeList right now, but also the most successful anime film OF ALL TIME, dethroning Spirited Away after 15 years. If that’s not an achievement, I don’t know what is.

Which I guess brings us to the end. My only real regret is not getting to see A Silent Voice or In This Corner Of The World before writing this, as they’ve both gotten plenty of praise. Now to hand out a few bonus awards.

Best Non-Animated J-Thing – Kamen Rider Amazons

The best tokusatsu thing since Gaim and Kyouryuger. While the gore got a bit silly at times as they were running wild with a more adult rating, the story managed a lot more depth and analysis than you usually see, especially with cannibalism as a running theme.

Best Soundtrack – Yuri!!! On Ice

We had some really strong OSTs this year, including March and Kabaneri, but YoI took the cake for the best all around, from beginning to background to montage to ending. All three are worth listening to though.

Most Surprising First Episode – Keijo!!!!!!!!

A fanservice show. That I liked. Does. Not. Compute.

Best Western – Steven Universe

Why aren’t you watching lesbian space rocks yet. Unless you are, in which case, Ruuuuuuuubyyyyyy!!!

Okay we’re done now.

Feels good to do one of these again after a few years off. As for what’s next, stay tuned throughout April for first episode opinions on everything in the Spring season, and I’ll see ya around~