We’re highlighting each anime season with a mini-version of our end of the year awards. We hope this helps cap-off the season with a splash (and helps us remember all of great things by the time the end of the year rolls around). So without further ado, our picks for the best of winter 2016 . . .
Best of the Best
Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju by Studio Deen Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju’s greatest strength it ability to draw the audience into the world of 1940s Japan. The show needs to deal with the complexity of Japan before, during, and after the maelstrom that is was the Second World War. Everything from the clothing, culture, and mood of the country permeates the tale in a seamless manner. Like an Rakugo master you find yourself transported into the past every time an episode begins and jarred back into the present when the episode ends.
At the same time this is not a tale about the war. It is a deeply personal story of two men whose lives intertwined by their art despite being such opposites. We see them grow together, drift apart, and change each other as the story goes on. It is simultaneously intimate and yet filled with artificial barriers as is apropos with anything dealing with the stage. A Rakugo performance can lay the artists’ soul bare for all the audience to see but it can also hide everything and anything under a mask of artifice. Yakumo and Sukeroku both undergo deeply personal journeys as the show progresses while the show also highlights their friendship and rivalry. At the same time Miyokichi inserts herself into their lives and adds a layer of drama and tragedy.
It is also worth noting that Rakugo is a form of theater where one actor must play all the parts. This means that all the voice actors need a wide range to be convincing in their roles. If you want to see some amazing male voice actors really challenge themselves then this is a title for you.
It is worth noting that this is from Studio Deen. Recently they have become nearly synonymous with mediocre adaptations. So it was very surprising when this show turned out as well as it did. It is proof positive that great source material can inspire an equally spectacular adaptation. When the staff has a passion for their work it will be visible in the end product.
ERASED by A-1 Pictures Time travel, a serial murder mystery, and a fantastic sense of atmosphere made ERASED a must-watch show this season. I remember the feeling of watching this first episode, I was engrossed immediately.
Satoru has a strange power that lets him jump back in time to prevent something from going wrong, like an accident from occurring. Problem is he has no control over when it happens and sometimes doesn’t realize its significance. Just such a jump happens which he can’t figure out and results in the death of someone close to him and him being framed for it. When he finally realizes it all connects back to a series of kidnappings during his childhood, he jumps all the way back to the sixth grade. From there Satoru works tirelessly to change the past and hopefully the future.
ERASED’s strong thriller vibe comes from its wonderful direction which knows just how to frame a scene. It can even play tricks on you and make you forget that you probably know the answer to this mystery from almost the beginning. Or maybe that’s because when it came down to it, ERASED actually ended up being a story about human connection, taking an interest in your fellow humans, and not turning away when you notice they are alone.
ERASED gets dark, it gets sad, and yet it also has all of these glimmers of hope that keep you buoyed.
Atra Mixta from Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans At first it seems like Atra is going very firmly settle into the Fraw Bow role that Gundam has set. She will be the supportive childhood friend of the protagonist who mainly acts somewhere as a mixture of a nurse, mother, and confidant. This archetype also exists to pine for the hero and just watch as he goes out with someone else. Fa Yuiry is rare pilot version of this pattern but the problem is that Fa is generally useless. So it was quite a surprise to see Atra brake out of that mold and forge her own path.
It is easy to see Atra as the standard silver medal Gundam girl and at first she lives up to almost every stereotype in the book. She is Mikazuki’s childhood friend who becomes the ship’s chef. The writing is on the wall. But the moment she lets her captors think she is Kudelia she shows some significant spine. When she holds up that feint under torture and laughs in her tormentors faces it is almost impossible to throw her in with similar characters. By the time she is the Jason Statham like wheel-man for Kudelia she has fully become her own character.
She is an excellent example of taking a well worn Gundam character type and breathing new life into it so it feels fresh and exciting. Plus Atra just feels cool. She might not be a Kenshiro level bad ass but she is someone you know you could rely on when the chips are down, even in the middle of a war zone.
Sachiko Fujinuma from ERASED Good fictional parents are hard to find. They are more often than not: dead, obstacles to be overcome, or sir-not-appearing-in-this-film. In ERASED Sachiko is a single mother who is perceptive and nurturing. She stands as a counter to Kayo’s abusive mother. Sachiko confronts Kayo’s mother on more than one occasion, and faces her down even in the face of violence.
In both the future and the past, Sachiko is spurned to action but has a calm way of handling herself that makes her someone you can count on.
Go! Princess PreCure by Toei Animation I think would be slightly remiss if we did not say farewell to Go! Princess PreCure by giving it a proper send off with an award for its finale. It was a powerful ending to one of the best entries in the Precure franchise. It deftly tied together all the themes of the show while bringing almost all of the secondary cast into the final battle. All the best Precure series make sure to remember that the people that the Cures save are important and worth remembering and this show is no exception.
I think the final fight explores Haruka in a way I did not expect at the end but I was glad to see it. This is carried on by being one of the few series to check in on the cure years after the events of the main story, even if very briefly, but that makes perfect sense. For a series about dreams, struggles, and progress in your own life it was the only way the series could have ended.
This is clearly going to be one of the series that future iterations of the show are compared against.
Saint George The leader character of any group has to take on a good deal of the groups burdens. This can often make them a bit stogy and bland as compared to the rest of the team. It is why characters like Cyclops and Leonardo tend to be the least popular characters in comparison to their fellow heroes. Everyone else can be more fun and exciting since all the boring jobs are being done by the leader.
The biggest exception to this rule can be a comedy. In a comedy the team is often a gaggle of goofuses the straight-laced leader is a great vehicle for comedy with the whole group as opposed to the stick in the mud that kills the momentum of the fun.
Saint George is just as quirky as the rest of the Rockies but since he is the leader dump all their responsibilities on him while making fun of him at the same time. It gives him a moe charm that invites you to root for him because of how awkward he is in the role as the head of the idol group.
Mars Passionate but pretty dumb, Mars is sort of the jock of the group. He is the kind of guy who wants to solve things with his manly chest, hence why he is the Rockie not wearing a shirt. His level of dumb just makes me laugh every time.
Best Couple (Real or Imagined)
Hotaru Shidare and Saya Endou from Dagashi Kashi Technically both of them are in love with Kokonotsu. Ok, Saya is in love with Kokonotsu. Hotaru loves dagashi but will probably end up having a relationship with Kokonotsu because she can’t marry a candy mascot. But overall Hotaru Shidare and Saya Endou have a legitimate friendship. They both might not fully understand the passions of the other one but they clearly respect that intense excitement. Hotaru very earnestly calls Saya a master and Saya can’t help but admire Hotaru’s encyclopedic knowledge and dedication to everything candy related. It is always far more important to respect your partner’s passions than to share them. Plus they just look cute together as the ending of the show proves.
It is hardly anything close to an official ship but it is also clear that the show is aware that people like them together and gives the fans a little service from time to time in that regard as well.
Kayo Hinazuki and Satoru Fujinuma from ERASED Doing everything in your power to save someone, even if they don’t realize it, that’s real love. Satoru doesn’t start in love with Kayo, it isn’t why he goes back in time, but that love is almost inevitable as he becomes more and more sure he can save her. Kayo has already accepted a really low place in the world, but she is young and her resilience is huge when she is given just a little belief to work with. This simple, young love is the hope in an otherwise dark series.
Best Continuing Show
Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans by Sunrise I have seen the criticisms that the first half of is either to bright and shiny for a show about child soldiers as well as it being far too grim. That seeming paradox says a good deal about the actual tone of the show if indirectly. The fact of the matter is that Iron-Blooded Orphans is actually a fairly grim show that slowly eases the audience into the darkness in the show without ever voyeuristically dwelling on that. Shows like Valvrave the Liberator or Cross Ange also try tackling dark topics and situations but always came off as vulgar and exploitative. Iron-Blooded Orphans wise just shows enough scenes of the main characters executing people or engaging in extreme militarism without dwelling on it or fetishizing it. The shows realizes that more is less in the regard. Too little and dismisses the horror of child soldiers. Too much and it quickly loses impact. The thing is that you have to let the show breath for that to become clear. Since Iron-Blooded Orphans slowly rolls this out it can be easy to miss it.
But beyond that Iron-Blooded Orphans is just a solid new Gundam series. It has fascinating charters like the Turbine crew, the complicated camaraderie of the members of Tekkadan, and the subtle machinations McGillis Fareed. They show just feels very meaty and satisfying. It all goes back to treating the mecha as a solid selling point but not be all and end all of the series. There are lots of fighting robot scenes so the mecha look cool (which in turns helps sell model kits) but the heart is always the characters and their struggles. That focus makes the narrative and characters feel fuller and more robust.
I really hope this show is doing well so Sunrise does not feel the need to tinker with it before the second season. If they can keep up this momentum into the next half this could be one of the best entries in the franchise.
Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju by Studio Deen Not the show any of us was expecting to get another season, but a welcome surprise no doubt! Easily one of most compelling character dramas in recent memory, Rakugo is a beautifully told story of friendship, family, love, and theater. Now that we’ve returned from the story down memory lane, I can’t wait to see what’s next for Yotaro.
ERASED OP “Re:Re:” by Asian Kung-Fu Generation Of all the aspects that have been praised about Erased the one that consistently get the most enthusiastic applause is the masterful direction. The framing and composition show that Tomohiko Itou is constantly layering meaning on every shot so that it all builds into something greater. The opening is no exception. Re:Re: is like a well made puzzle box. It is aesthetically pleasing but its design keeps the meaning hidden within from the audience. As the audience receives more information as the show goes the box slowly opens and you learn that the container for the secrets in part of the answer as well. I love when Kunihiko Ikuhara does that with his show and am always glad to see other shows do the same.
The Asian Kung-Fu Generation song ties it all together with an energy that reflects Satoru’s need to find the monster that not only lies in his past but threatens his present.
Durarara!!x2 the Third Arc OP “Steppin’ Out” by FLOW DRRR!! has a strong catalog of openings and endings. FLOW’s song for the finale caps ensures this legacy and made it impossible to skip past. It builds up momentum and hits really hard with the chorus after the recap portion.
Dagashi Kashi ED “Hey! Calorie Queen” by Ayana Taketatsu Sometimes I will wax poetic about how the synergy of animation, music, and direction all tie in together to make thematically resonant ending that can’t help but win this category. Other times I just pick and ending because I think it is cute. I clearly picked this ending more for the second reason than the first.
There is something rather charming about Hotaru and Saya running around Wonderland. Also it makes perfect sense that Saya would be Alice whereas Hotaru is all the crazy inhabitants in turn. It very much sums up their relationship to a T. But they also make sure this is a candy themed Wonderland otherwise it would just be utterly superfluous.
There is also something amusing about the amount of the chemistry of candy they were able to fit into the ending song. That is an accomplishment worth applauding. You not going to get a song every season talking about serotonin and amylase.
As a side note: I know Kate has mentioned this before but Japan really is obsessed with Alice in Wonderland.
Lupin III Part 4 ED “Chanto Iwanakya Ai Sanai” by Sayuri Ishikawa A wonderful bygone era, speakeasy vibe accompanies this Fujiko-centric ending. Sung by famous enka singer Sayuri Ishikawa, she perfectly captures Fujiko’s spirit.