Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Anime of 2016

I know I rail a lot on anime these days. What can I say, moe just isn't for me. And I don't watch as much as I used to: heck, I've gone years without watching anything new. That said, 2016 was actually a big change.

Starting in 2015, with the first season of Ushio & Tora and Blood Blockade Battlefront, I began to see a slight change in what was being put out. I had only sought those shows out of curiosity and found myself pleasantly surprised. Sure, there were still plenty of interchangeable moe shows and nihilistic psychological ramblers to go around in 2015, but the change continued into 2016 where I have watched more new anime series in one year than I have in easily a decade. I also watched more anime than I did TV shows or movies, though that is mostly do to Hollywood's continual failing to entertain instead of proselytize.

So what changed in the anime world? I wonder. Apparently the industry has started to reach out again to those it had begun to alienate. For an example of what I mean let me list for you some of the series that came out this year that ended up impressing me a great deal. If you haven't seen these, and they seem like your kinda thing, then go track them down on Crunchyroll or Funimation's site. I promise that they are as good as they look.

This isn't a ranking, but in general release date order. So keep that in mind when reading these.

Studio: A-1 Pictures
Length: 12 episodes
Genre: Thriller
Streaming: Crunchyroll

Erased started 2016 off remarkably strong. What starts as a standard supernatural story of turning back time Groundhog Day style ends up being something much different. Satoru Fujinuma is dissatisfied with modern life and ends up detached from the world. This has happened ever since a murder occurred in his small town neighborhood when he was a boy. He finds he has the involuntary ability to time travel a few minutes back in time in order to prevent something bad from happening. It's up to his quick thinking to figure out the bad thing that is going to happen and how to fix it in time.

What ends up happening is that his ability kicks in at the absolute worst moment of his life, and he is thrown back deep in time to when he was a boy. Now he has to figure out why he was sent back. Hmm, did anyone remember me mentioning that murder that happened when he was a boy? Maybe that's why he was sent there? Or maybe not.

But, of course, there's a lot more going on than he first thought.

My only gripe will be a quick spoiler, so you may want to skip this paragraph. *SPOILER*The killer ends up not being much of a surprise since we didn't spend enough time with all the suspects to really gauge who they are. *SPOILER* It takes away from the mystery element a bit, but in this case its Satoru and the other characters' journey that makes this show so good.

Erased ends up being a series about redemption and second chances, and the ending is easily one of the best I've seen in a long time. Every character's choices are examined and reflected on, and the time travel element shows more sides than you would first think. It's really no wonder this was a huge hit, it was more than earned. If you're a fan of thrillers then this is right up your alley.

Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu
Studio: Studio DEEN
Length: 13 episodes
Genre: Drama
Streaming: Crunchyroll

Rakugo is a strange bird. It's based on a ten volume manga (the anime covers the first five, the second season will cover the rest) based on a recently released convict named Yotaro. A former member of the Yakuza, Yotaro instead decides to devote his life to pursuing the art of Rakugo, which is a traditional comedic form of Japanese storytelling. He strikes up an apprenticeship with Yakumo Yuurakutei, a master storyteller from a bygone age in order to learn the craft. He then learns there is more to this tradition than meets the eye.

What makes the series work is the focus on storytelling and its power to affect lives and inspire. This part of the series focuses mainly on the past of Yakumo and how he got to be so good at what he does. Its a bit hard to go into detail without spoilers, so I'll spare them. Needless to say, its relaxed pacing really sells it as both a drama and a piece of a larger story. The subdued nature of the series sells also Rakugo as an art form.

Of course, most Rakugo performances last an hour, so every episode of the series also lasts an hour to compensate. While this adds to the atmosphere, and to the story, it unfortunately means some, like myself, haven't finished it up yet. It takes a good amount of spare time to set aside to watch one episode. That makes it engrossing as a story, but some will find it off-putting.

There's a good chance you probably haven't heard of this show, and that's a shame. There hasn't been much written about it. Rakugo is easily one of the best of 2016.

My Hero Academia
Studio: BONES
Length: 13 episodes
Genre: Action
Streaming: Funimation

Alright, I'm not gonna spend too much time on this one. You already know that it's my favorite current running manga--I mean I'm writing reviews on every volume that comes out--so I'm not going to bore you with repeating myself.

Long story short is that BONES, the original author, Kohei Horikoshi, and anime writer, Yousuke Kuroda (writer of the Trigun anime and a ton of great shows) have put out one of the best superhero shows there has ever been. It's bursting with energy and hope. Listen to the track from the soundtrack posted above and you'll understand. My Hero Academia is a show about heroism, the fight against evil, the push to reach new heights, and that transcendent quality that pushes a man to fight the ever encroaching darkness of an imperfect world.

The only fault is really that there are currently only 13 episodes. Season 2 starts in April 2017 and covers material that will dwarf what season 1 offered in quality, and there is an OVA (made for video) episode not yet released, but it doesn't change the fact that season 1 was much too brief. Some might have written it off already. But that's a shame. Forget any shonen series you've ever seen: this is one of the best.

I suspect if I do this next year, season 2 will be listed here. There really isn't much else to say. My Hero Academia is a must-watch.

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable
Studio: David Productions
Length: 39 episodes
Genre: Action Comedy
Streaming: Crunchyroll

This is a franchise that is love it or hate it. I personally like it, but it's hard to recommend. It's incredibly silly and over the top, but it doesn't wink at the audience or think its above what it is. It's a genuine action comedy and embraces what it is, and that's what saves it. The first three parts of the series were basically a Gothic Horror action series, a jet-setting fantasy adventure, and a globe-spanning episodic fighting show, respectively. Diamond is Unbreakable, Part 4, is about a small town which harbors a super powered serial killer and the hunt our heroes go to find them. It's part slice of life and part mystery.

The series stars normal teenager, Josuke Higashikata, as he puts the pieces together (literally!) on this mystery while his town becomes flooded with super-powered freaks disrupting his quiet life. There are carryovers from previous parts in the franchise, but they aren't necessary to understand to enjoy this one. You can watch this completely standalone to see if the franchise is for you.

The only real problem is that sometimes the violence can get overly graphic in uncomfortable ways, though it is at least usually used to establish villains as evil. Just be wary if you're squeamish. The silliness might not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you can engage and wrap your head around what is going on, you'll find an extremely fun series. The action sequences and fights are some of the best you'll probably ever see on television. Every piece is effectively used.

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure's ongoing manga is still running, though the original timeline is six parts long and finished, so there is still material to adapt after this. However, if you only were to watch one part, I recommend this as both the best starting point and overall best part on an execution level. Just make sure it's your cup of tea before you dive in.

Ushio & Tora Season 2
Studio: MAPPA / VOLN
Length: 39 total episodes (13 in season 2)
Genre: Action Fantasy
Streaming: Crunchyroll

Another show I've gone on about, Ushio & Tora aired its second season this year after a break at the end of 2015, and it only got better this year. See that video above? The entire remaining 13 episodes are like that. Ending off the story with one of the best climactic battles in recent memory, Ushio & Tora cemented itself as one of my favorites.

What makes the series work so well is its age. Ushio & Tora ran as a manga in weekly serialization between 1990 and 1996 which means it came along before modern unbreakable cliches were set in stone. This means Ushio is more of a naive ignorant kid instead of overwhelmingly stupid, and Tora has a reason for his anger beyond the surface level "tough guy" stereotype. The plot is allowed to spin out and expand and doesn't get locked down to stagnant stories of school troubles or characters that exist only to try to hook a bigger audience. It isn't restricted by the where the industry is now.

What Ushio & Tora does is remind you of how different manga and anime storytelling was before the '00s, and, in my opinion, how much more potential it offered before it was dumped. Satoshi Nishimura (director of the Trigun anime) knows how to tell a story, and keeps everything that made that era so different than what we have nowadays. Watch it for that if nothing else.

It also helps that the series is really good at what it does. You won't see anything like it being made in the industry now.

However, the early episodes tend to turn some off because they're seemingly episodic. I say "seemingly", because they're actually not. Every encounter ends up adding to a story where every piece matters. Some might also be turned off because of it being old. But hey, if you don't like old stuff, I can't imagine why you'd be reading this blog. Tradition exists because it works.

Mob Psycho 100
Studio: BONES
Length: 13 episodes
Genre: Supernatural Action
Streaming: Crunchyroll

From the author of One Punch Man (one of 2015's best anime series) comes Mob Psycho 100, about a normal boy with psychic powers who fights restless spirits and psychics. Mob, the main character, is a good kid who wants to do the right thing, and only wants to be normal. But if his psychic abilities are pushed too far . . .

Another series I haven't gotten around to finishing, Mob Psycho 100 is as bizarre with its animation as its character designs.  ONE, the author, has this strange habit of creating an over the top premise that he treats lightly, yet never disrespects or subverts. One Punch Man was about a superhero who could effortlessly beat anyone with a single punch, yet ONE never once disrespects the concept of heroes or belittles his characters (except those who are not honorable or attempting good) in his story, and Mob Psycho 100 is exactly the same with the supernatural here.

This clash of old school sensibilities and modern indie art is what makes ONE the good writer that he is. Mob's journey as an extremely powerful psychic might have plenty of jokes, but it is never taken as something to be mocked. That is a rarity in the modern world, and yet, this is his appeal as a writer and artist.

Honestly, the only people who might hate this are those who hate the art style. It isn't as good as One Punch Man since that's drawn by a different artist, but this is very underground and gritty, and BONES' animation suits the style perfectly. Still, that might not be your thing at the end of the day.

But you will probably not see another series like this for a long time.

The Disastrous Life of Saiki K.
Studio: J.C. Staff / Egg Firm
Length: 24 episodes
Genre: Comedy
Streaming: Funimation

From one show about a psychic to another, The Disastrous Life of Saiki K. is about a boy who has extraordinary psychic powers which should make the world simple for him, and yet he hates everything about his life. His powers are over the top and overpowered, his classmates, family, and friends constantly bother him with their insane quirks, and he can't quite reign his powers in. Only his parents know the truth of his abilities, but that doesn't stop some crazy stuff from happening. Saiki tries to lead a normal life while holding back his powers, staying out of the spotlight, and avoiding the crazy schemes his family and friends try to rope him into.

I'll be honest, this show is incredibly stupid. And that's why it's so funny. You just never know what direction the comedy will go in next. The show works by taking a situation with normal comedic potential (school, shopping, work, vacations, days off) and adds Saiki's incredible powers into the mix which ends up blowing every situation up to insane levels. Most anime comedy leaves me flat these days, being about obscure otaku references, boring visual gags, or "anti-humor", but Saiki always keeps me laughing by sticking to its guns of keeping true to the comedy and the characters.

What helps it work is that even though Saiki is incredibly cranky and irritable, he still clearly loves his family and friends and will help them out . . . even when they do something really stupid. It would be very easy to make this a misanthropic show, but its wacky humor and over the top situations, as well puncturing cliches with so many pinpricks that they become total Swiss Cheese, make it a delight to sit down and watch week to week. Comedy is a very subjective thing, I get it, but I haven't laughed this hard at anime comedy in a long time.

It isn't perfect. There are some dirty jokes (not as many as most anime, mind) which go against the grain of the show, though Saiki always points them out as unacceptable and they are treated as such. One of the characters is a major pervert, but his schemes always backfire, and Saiki is usually the one to deal him damage in return. Also, each episode is actually 5 shorts pasted into a single episode. This makes them really fast (I recommend watching in English since the voice actors don't have to talk so fast to deliver certain lines) and therefore might be hard for some to digest while reading subtitles.

But it's still a funny show. Thankfully, season 2 is coming next year, so hopefully it will pick up in popularity. It really deserves it.

Studio: Production I.G.
Length: 25 episodes (season 2), 10 episodes (season 3)
Genre: Sports Drama
Streaming: Crunchyroll

Alright, so this is an odd inclusion. Season 2 started in 2015, but finished at the beginning of 2016, while season 3 ran at the end of this year. So I'll just count it here as a whole since it book-ended 2016 so perfectly.

Haikyu!! is a sports series about high school volleyball players striving to be the best and bring back the former reputation of their rural school. The characters all have different quirks, but they all strive for the same goal. Watching them coalesce as a team is a treat. The first season set up all the characters and showed how they grew, but season 2 upped the stakes and put more on the line. Season 3 was even better, leading to an ending that has me wanting even more. And this is after 60 total episodes so far.

The show has some phenomenal animation and music, as well as voice actors that know their characters inside out, but there's always been something appealing about sports series where teams grow both in ability and camaraderie that always gets to me. I suppose there's a reason this show is so obscenely popular in Japan (and growing in popularity here), and that probably has to do with how well executed it is. There have been a lot of sports series out there (my personal favorite is Slam Dunk) but this is one of the few that manages to hit all the marks, even if you don't care for the sport. Haikyu!! is great at what is does. You'll be on the edge of your seat at the end of every episode.

Of course sometimes events can feel dragged out due to how much can happen in one game, and there isn't as much downtime drama between games as I'd like at times, but that's really nitpicking. Unless you absolutely hate sports as a concept, I can't see you not enjoying this on some level. It really does get better as it goes, just like the characters.

It's all about perseverance, really.

Next year has a few shows that interest me, but I can't see 2017 hitting the mark like 2016 did. Blood Blockade Battlefront and My Hero Academia's second seasons are high on my "To Watch" list, and One Punch Man, Full Metal Panic, and Saiki's new seasons should also prove fruitful whenever they run. Heck, maybe we'll finally get season 2 of Tiger & Bunny! I just don't think 2017 will quite hit the heights of this year.

That said, I know there are a lot of old school anime fans who gave up in recent years. I can't really blame them. Around the mid-00s things changed in the industry so abruptly that most ex-fans still aren't even aware of the reason they stopped watching. It just sort of happened.

But there are some gems buried in the stuff you don't like, and they've become far more pronounced than they have been in near a decade. Ignore the endless light novel adaptions, and check out the shows on my list. If there isn't a single show on there that interests you then I don't know what else to do. Maybe we just don't have matching tastes.

Still, things are changing. The growing realization that the industry needs to cater to the larger fanbase lead to a year that had more to offer an old school fan like me than I've seen in years. If you like the weird storytelling Japan offered through anime and manga years ago then there is stuff out there for you. Hey, there's stuff I didn't even list that I'm sure is more up your alley than mine. Point is, there are options now.

Hopefully that will only improve in the years to come.


  1. I loved Erased too. The last episode in particular is one of the best conclusions I've ever seen, in any media.

    There's also that scene where Satoru is explaining how he wants to be a superhero - that was me as a kid (and still, really). Something about how the Japanese depict childhood hits really close to home for me.

    "That said, I know there are a lot of old school anime fans who gave up in recent years. I can't really blame them. Around the mid-00s things changed in the industry so abruptly that most ex-fans still aren't even aware of the reason they stopped watching. It just sort of happened."

    For me the shift from cel to digital was jarring - a lot of anime from the early/mid 00s just isn't visually appealing to me, like they didn't know how to make digital animation look good yet. Then there was Azumanga Daioh's success and the moe boom in its wake, but you've already covered that in detail.

    1. There was a real sea change in the mid-00s. The transition from cell to digital, the sudden appeal to hardcore otaku, and the shift to more insular storytelling, all kind of happened at once.

      It also took a while for the industry to get used to CG and using digital colors. Watch any anime from that time and it's pretty hard to look at now.

      There's also the elephant in the room of perversion, sex-obsession. As someone who finds sex the single least interesting topic in the world, I fell out of anime for a long time because of it.*

      But given the contracting state (and shrinking userbase), some companies have realize they need to broaden their appeal again in order to reach a core audience instead of a tiny niche. All the shows I mentioned above are successes because they are story and character focused first, and none of them are as insular and closed as the series of the last decade.

      I'd easily say that 2016 was the best year for anime in over a decade. If things can continue down this road then hopefully the industry can get back on track again.

      *On a side note, have you seen Gokudo? It's one of the last cell shows which also used the first computer animation. It's a kind of jarring show to look at at times, and I've never seen more than a few episodes, but it does well to show the difference of how good cell animation looked versus how early computer graphics.