Of course I would be back. With the end of the year comes my turn to declare what was worth remembering from another year of anime streaming. In my opinion, of course.
I will aim to keep this writeup spoiler-free for the most part.
Show of the Year
2017 and 2018 were two of the strongest years in recent memory for quality output. There was both quality and diversity in terms of the kinds of shows that caught my attention. Sadly, 2019 took a step backward in that regard. There were a lot of good shows, shows that would earn a solid B+ and even maybe an A- if I were being generous. But few were the productions where I look at them and can say “Okay, this one is a serious contender for Show of the Year.”
There were only four shows this year that I seriously thought to be on a tier above the rest. They were not all even ones that were my personal favorites. What they shared in common was either inventive creativity on a level higher than the vast majority of shows or solid narrative foundations that prove, once and for all, that pretty pictures absent good writing are just mirages: wondrous to see, but empty of substance.
One show stood above most others for visual creativity and the deliberate wandering of its narrative, TATSUKI’s Kemurikusa. Another show placed the audience at the edge of their seat for almost the entire run thanks to its heartless and soul-crushing story, with only small breadcrumbs of hope thrown in to keep the audience hooked: The Promised Neverland. A third one was Mari Okada’s searing look into the inner lives of girls trying to navigate their path to adulthood, O Maidens In Your Savage Season. The final entrant was a latecomer to this list and very different in its setting, but one that also showed some interesting narrative construction: the Ascendance of a Bookworm.
Show of the Year: Kemurikusa
Out of those four, I think I will go with the one that may have gotten the least attention here Stateside, being buried in Amazon’s massive streaming platform which has abandoned its (largely poorly though-out) attempt to become a serious anime streaming service. But not just because it did not get as much attention. Those familiar with TATSUKI’s earlier work will also know that he has a knack for producing interesting and intriguing content that not only entertains, but spurs your brain to think further on what you just saw. In a world that appears to be near death, we see a small group of survivors still putting up the good fight, but against increasingly impossible odds just to keep living. Is it a parable about climate destruction? Is this the future of the Earth on display? Or is it just a post-apocalyptic fiction, merely a setting for the story that TATSUKI wanted to tell this time? These are all good questions I have no firm answers to, even after an ending that both provides clarity while also introducing yet more elements to ponder. All four of these shows made me think a bit, but Kemurikusa made me think just a little bit more.
Episode of the Year: Kaguya-sama: Love is War Episode 12 “I Can’t Hear the Fireworks, Part 2/Kaguya Doesn’t Want to Avoid Him”
You might wondering “Why did you pick an episode from a show you didn’t consider Show of the Year-worthy as your choice for Episode of the Year?” Why do the two have to be so strongly connected? Kaguya-sama was a great show that is perhaps just a notch below what I considered SOTY-worthy. It is certainly one of the best comedies of this year without question (more on that in a second). But it also provided perhaps the most heartwarming moment of the year in its final episode. For those unfamiliar with the show, Kaguya Shinomiya and Miyuki Shirogane, the two top students at an elite high school, are in love with each other…but both are far too proud to attempt to confess their love to the other. No…the other must get down on their knees and profess their adoration first. While many a moment is spent in seeing the silly plans one or the other uses to get this result (which never happens), there is far more to the show that than simplistic premise. In addition to much else I won’t talk about, we can see how the two feel towards each other from the actions they are willing to take for one another. Kaguya, a sheltered rich girl with a domineering father, has never been allowed to go and see a simple municipal fireworks display (a staple of the Japanese summer). Miyuki and their other friends work to see that she gets the chance finally. I will not say how it works out, but the moment it happens, was a moment of magic.
Immediately followed by pure comedy zaniness. The strengths of this show in a nutshell.
There Were Some Really Entertaining Comedies This Year
Speaking of comedy, in addition to Kaguya-sama, there were a number of good, solid comedies that each hit their marks in different ways. While Kaguya-sama dominated the regular high school romcom slot, We Never Learn: Bokuben was an entertaining ecchi comedy about perhaps the luckiest nerdy tutor ever; Isekai Quartet, a cross-over parody of a group of Kadokawa isekai LNs, all of which have had anime made for them in recent years, hit the parody part of the comic spectrum; How Heavy Are the Dumbells You Lift? was something in its own niche as it was a Cute Girls Doing Something or Other comedy (what they were doing was weight training) combined with some rather serious weight lifting instruction and over the top slapstick, with quirky characters to round it out; and finally, Wasteful Days of High School Girls was not a Cute Girls Doing Nothing comedy, but instead a class of stereotypes in an all-girls school who did wild and wacky things, reminding me a bit of last year’s surprisingly nutty Asobi Asobase.
Traditional Shounen Anime of the Year: Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba
I am not really much of a fan of shounen storytelling. Obviously, since I left boyhood a long, long time ago. But I can still recognize when a show makes good use of the traditional conventions, setups, character arcs and narrative progression commonly used by shounen manga authors. And Demon Slayer is a rather nice example of making the best use of a pretty conventional revenge tale, where young Tanjirou Kamado comes back one day to find his family murdered, no one surviving except his younger sister Nezuko, who has been turned into a demon. After meeting a Demon Slayer, a member of corps of humans dedicated to killing demons, Tanjirou resolves to become one of the hunters himself, especially if by learning more about demons, he might discover a means of turning his sister back into a full human, a not-impossible task perhaps as Nezuko herself has retained elements of her human side. What makes this a better than average shounen story as well is that the writing keeps the forward progression moving at a steady clip, not pausing for seemingly endless battles or throwing in massive filler because the anime gets too close to the front edge of the manga.
Two properties that had a bit of a hiatus returned, one far longer than the other of course. Chihayafuru had its initial season in 2011, with a followup in 2013, but it had to wait for this year finally to bring us the third season. It has not lost any of its dramatic tension combined with the love polygon that continues to draw us to the characters (even if Chihaya herself really is……”special”). Another manga adaptation, however, had to wait far longer for what turned out not to be a sequel but a complete reboot from the beginning, with the intention of carrying on until the end of the source (which ended in 2006): Fruits Basket. The original anime version was produced in 2001 and did not cover the entire story as the manga was still ongoing at the time. Now, with the complete story told, we are getting a full re-adaptation that removes some of the quirks of the earlier adapting director’s style and instead gives us a more “authentic” approach that has the original manga author’s seal of approval.
Pleasant Surprise: The Helpful Fox: Senko-san
While the initial premise made me scratch my head a bit, when it actually came to seeing the show, Senko-san was pure iyashikei goodness. That’s not to say that otaku culture has not done its level best to try to add creepy and unwanted elements to the entire thing, but even in the face of the regular otaku fetishes that make me shiver at times, Senko-san herself, her kindness, her gentleness, her really large and fluffy tail that I could see a grown man wanting to snuggle up to in a totally non-sexual way, won me over.
Since I’m still recovering from a cold, I’ll be keeping this short and simple this year. So, what did you think of 2019?