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 the great things we watched by the time the end of the year rolls around). So without further ado, our picks for the best of winter 2018 . . .
Best New Show
Pop Team Epic from Kamikaze Douga Comedy that put comedy above characters or consistency. The show was broken into many different skits, made by different creators, so every episode I never knew what I was going to get. Plus, the voice actors also changed twice an episode.
Sometimes it was an incredible piece of nonsense (“Let’s Pop Together” music video using stop-motion and yarn dolls based on the Earth, Wind, and Fire music video for “Let’s Groove”) and sometimes it was impenetrably weird (anything done by Bob Team except their high-level Hellshake Yano bit). There were a lot of references, and I think few of us caught all of them, but that didn’t really matter because the humor still came through to me. Of course, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I did enjoy catching a nod or looking up some things later, especially the voice actors, to better understand the episodes.
Pop Team Epic wasn’t always great, but I always greatly anticipated whatever they were going to do next. I could go for another couple of season of this.
A Place Further Than The Universe from Madhouse There was a time when parts of fandom were thoroughly convinced that the dread specter of moe would destroy the anime industry. While moe is still present in modern shows it is not the all-encompassing juggernaut it once was and the trend had died down to a dull roar. That said you will still see a good deal of old timers be skittish around any show that has four high school girls doing ANYTHING. I will admit even Kate and I who were never down with the moe witch hunters still have a moment of hesitation whenever a show seems to be about cute girls doing some activity. Like a fear of ghosts you rationally understand it is unfounded but you feel it anyway. So I think Kate and I went into A Place Further Than The Universe with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. Much like Shirobako, we were presently surprised in the end. It not only met our expectations but surpassed them.
I admit that four girls going on a research expedition to Antarctica is hardly is the standard template for the cute girls doing stuff shows there are some more unusual shows that fall squarely in that genre. What really raises the show beyond its trappings is two-fold. The first is that they take the premise very seriously. The journey to Antarctica is just as important as any of the characters. It is more than mere window dressing. That lets their expedition effect them in profound and subtle ways. The other strength is the characters. All four girls don’t feel like archetypes. While you could classify Hinata as the genki girl or Shirase as the serious leader there are far more layers to them. Right out of the gate they feel more complex than that and their trip to Antarctica only adds layers to them. The whole experience enriches the viewer as much as it changes its protagonists.
The show spends a good deal of time setting up the story. The girls don’t actually step foot on Antarctica until the ninth episode. But it does not feel drawn out. The transition of Mari from listless slacker to someone with a distinct purpose in life only works if you see the transition. The moment she arrives in Antarctica is emotional because you have seen how much work went into that single step. Shirase’s hardships are apparent so her arrival is instantly rewarding but you need to get to know the other three girls to have even a similar impact. The show wisely knows how long to spend with each part of their travel so that you feel you wish you could see a little more to each part but not be found wanting for any leg of their journey.
On a personal noteYuzuki’s paranoia about her friendship hit me in a very personal spot. Anyone who knows me well will hardly be surprised by that but I thought it was worth noting. Our circumstances might be different but I perfectly understood her mindset no matter how warped it was.
It is a show the definitely would appeal to the crowd that just wants to watch High School girls participating in some activity. It might actually appeal more to them because it is a little outside the musical, sports, and cultural club grooves that are so crowded with titles. But it has enough meat on the bone to appeal beyond the stereotypical target audience.
The show is also just visually stunning. If the girls go on a trip to a boring Antarctica the audience is going to be equally bored. Thankfully the backgrounds are captivating and awe-inspiring. Even the scenes in Japan and Australia were extremely well done so it was no surprise that the nature shots of the South Pole were up to snuff. The character animation is also very well done but a show like this lives and dies by its background art.
Look. I know some of you are skeptical whenever you see the main characters of any show are a quartet of girls. You might have been burnt in the past. This is the show that will help you heal and believe in cute girl shows again. (I mean don’t be an idiot and watch every show with four high school girls. The genre has a reputation for a reason.)
Touji Souya from March Comes in Like a Lion Touji Souya is a fascinating “final boss” of March Comes in Like a Lion. In the show, you see all the standard archetypes for Rei’s opponents like the nasty bastard, hot-blooded rival, the annoying competitor, and the wizened veteran. But the character at the top of the pyramid is usually a good indicator of the type of show you are watching. Touji Souya is not your typical final opponent. You never get the sense that Rei defeating Souya will be the emotional climax of March Comes in Like a Lion. If for some reason the final match of March Comes in Like a Lion is Rei playing against Souya the outcome of the match will hardly be important. In fact, this season Rei plays Souya in a casual match and is beaten rather easily. What makes Touji Souya interesting is not because of his godlike shogi skills but as a warning to Rei.
Touji Souya is considered this once in a lifetime prodigy who is seemly untouchable. His skills are unmatched and his play style is well-rounded and deep. He went pro in middle school and has been a champion ever since. He seems immensely enviable but when we get to know him we see he is a sad man. He is extremely isolated and awkward. He does not seem to have any close friends or family. It is not clear if his intermittent deafness is an extremely rare condition or psychosomatic. Either way, it further isolates him from other people. At times he barely seems to function outside of playing shogi. He is at the top of his game but utterly alone.
It is hardly any coincidence that he looks a lot like Rei. He is supposed to be what Rei could become if he were to continue on his path free from the healthy support of the Kawamoto family and Nikaidou. His shogi skills would improve exponentially but his human skills would atrophy. Rei would become an unbeatable shogi robot. Perfect at his skill but miserable in every other way.
A villainous final opponent could be fun for a show like March Comes in Like a Lion but would miss the mark when it comes to theme. Rei’s greatest enemy is losing his passion for life which would lead him to drown in depression. The Rei at the beginning of the series is in serious danger of going down this road. His personal growth and growth of his support network have greatly lessened this possibility. Touji Souya is an excellent example of what could have happened. Souya works infinitely better as a sympathetic dead-end of personal growth than a looming threat. He is a great choice in that respect and is a fascinating character study thanks to that.
A quick shout out to Tomoyo from Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card. She is always the amazing person you wish you could be when you grow up. All other characters strive to be her. But we can’t just have her win everything so we give awards to other lesser characters out of consideration to interesting choices.
Still reeling from the loss of her mother, Shirase wants to see with her own eyes the place her mother described so beautifully. Nicknamed “Antarctica” for her blinding, single-minded pursuit of going on an expedition to the South Pole, Shirase suffered and saved and believed, and she made it happen. It was clear from the beginning that Shirase faced peers who saw her as a weird dreamer who wasn’t worth their time. Luckily, on her journey not only does she prove things to others and herself, she meets friends to share her dream with.
Two things about her personality really stood out to me personally 1) Shirase is timid unless defending herself or her friends, and 2) she had to learn to prioritize friendship over sticking closely to her plan. Oh, and wait, one more thing: IN YO FACE I MADE IT TO ANTARCTICA, BITCHES! (OK, maybe she doesn’t say that exactly, but close enough.)
My brother from another mother.
The Ancient Magus’ Bride from Wit Studio This was a series that I liked, but it also made me nervous. There were a lot of things I wanted to be addressed about Chise’s situation and mindset. Chise started the series not respecting herself or her life, she was content to go along and not question what Elias was all about. Over the course of the series, there was consistent, slow progress and growth on the part of Chise, and to a lesser extent Elias. It was an incredibly rewarding journey, and one that felt well-earned. And despite the manga still running, the end of the anime felt satisfying and complete.
March Comes in Like a Lion from Shaft If we just base finales based what they eat in the final two episodes then March Comes in Like a Lion makes sure no one else even shows up to the award ceremony. The delicious spread for Hinata’s celebration with a mountain of fried chicken along with so much other tasty food is a slam dunk on its own. The goodbye dinner for Takahashi just cements its untouchable lead. So much good food always leaves the audience with a positive feeling.
The real bulk of the closure of this season is seeing the growth of Rei and Hinata via her attempt to get into the high school Rei is currently attending. Both of them have gone through quite a lot this season. Rei’s whole attitude towards his career and life has changed. He definitely has gained a greater appreciation for what he has and seems far more interested in investing in his future rather than just maintaining his present. Hina seems equally focused on what she is going to do with her life after surviving her bullying. Neither of them is anything close to being the person they wish to be. They are still the soft clay versions of their future selves. But after this season they have some idea of who they want to be in a decade or two.
Everything around Hina has really brought her to the forefront as the main character when she originally seems much more like a supporting character. After this season she has risen to one of the most important people in Rei’s life and just has a compelling story that could easily stand on its own free from the story of shogi matches and depression. Her ultimate triumph at the end of the season really brings everything home. It simultaneously makes the arc feel complete while also making you wonder what is next for her. Her dream of taking over the sweets shop seems like a real goal as opposed to a childhood dream but it is also clear that there will still be many obstacles she has to overcome before that is a reality.
Rei’s climax with shogi is mostly passed by the time the finale comes around. Even his graduation to a higher rank is mostly a footnote. His simple exhibition match with Touji Souya was far more important. What the finale really deals with is Rei as a human outside of shogi. His growing relationship with Hina seems like something that neither Rei or the audience could imagine at the beginning of the series. His interaction with both of his adoptive parents shows an amazing amount of growth. He is now actually looking forward to playing his father. But he also no longer has the conflicted feeling about that match. He has neither fear or guilt about such a match. His conversation with his mother shows how much he has changed from the begging of the show.
There was a good deal of darkness and sadness in this season but in the end, the series always felt warm and inviting. I always looked forward to catching up with these characters during their highest highs and lowest lows. The end of this season reminded me of that perfectly. I can’t wait for the announcement of season 3.
Favorite Voices for Popuko and Pipimi
Rikiya Koyama and Wataru Tagaki from Episode 10 Let the Detective Conan-ness flow. In “Ginza Hostess Detective” Wataru Takagi and Rikiya Koyama provide the voices. Wataru Takagi plays Genta and Detective Wataru Takagi, that’s right he plays a character with his same name, and Rikiya Koyama plays famous detective Mouri Kogoro in Detective Conan.
Also, while not playing Popuko or Pipimi, I’m pretty sure Chafurin the voice of Inspector Megure is also in this episode.
Show Hayami and Jouji Nakata from Episode 12 Look. Show Hayami was Tokiomi in Fate/Zero and Jouji Nakata is the voice of several villains in multiple Type-Moon titles including the ever-present Kotomine from so many Fate titles including Fate/Zero. It is worth noting that Tokiomi and Kotomine start Fate/Zero as allies so there is an extra level of amusement to see them paired up again. Since the male and female actors in each episode get to ad lib when they do their half of the same story you will often see the actors make some personal jokes when their time comes around. The last episode was filled with little winks and nods to Type-Moon material thanks to Show Hayami and Jouji Nakata.
Best Couple (Real or Imagined)
Sakura Kinomoto and Syaoran Li from Card Captor Sakura: Clear Card This was kind of a no-brainer. It is really delightful to see these two young people back together and continuing their relationship. (And it’s not Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles, hallelujah!) Although there is a melancholy feel to Syaoran at the beginning of this series, I have faith they will work it out.
Cú Chulainn and Taiga from Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family These two goodadoofs would actually make a perfect pair. Due to the nature of the main Fate/Stay Night storyline these characters don’t really have any major opportunities to interact but thanks to the relaxed nature of Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family they can hang out, eat, and drink until the cows come home. Seeing them spend time together you realize that both of them have a very gregarious approach to life. They really enjoy each other’s company and seem to have a lot in common. All it would take would take is one drunken night and some happy convenience and these two could easily hook up. But I think they might actually make a good couple after a one night stand. I don’t think either of them would feel obliged to be serious after sleeping together but I think it could work if they tried it out.
Such is the wonder of such laid back alternate universes. They open up some pairings that would otherwise be impossible.
Pop Team Epic, “POP TEAM EPIC” by Sumire Uesaka I had to make the Hoshiiro Girldrop joke. It was too perfect. Although as several people have said the Hoshiiro Girldrop opening is surprisingly well done for what is little more than a throw away gag.
I find it interesting that there is this constant refrain that people “don’t get Pop Team Epic.” Or if they claim to understand the show they say it is a shitposting anime. I don’t understand any of that. Individual sketches might be completely absurdist or trolling but they don’t characterize the series. It is actually really simple to get what Pop Team Epic is about. Watch the opening and everything becomes clear.
Pop Team Epic has two primary foundations. The first is simply throw anything at the wall and see what sticks. I’m sure Bkub Okawa crafts his ideas for comics once he has them but he works with whatever he comes up with without any filters. The second is everything is self-aware. Pop Team Epic is ultra aware of what fans think about the show, about each other, and fandom in general. If other comedy shows break the fourth wall than Pop Team Epic never had any walls to break in the first place.
The Pop Team Epic opening just sprawls out showing exactly what type of show this is. Popuko and Pipimi don’t have set forms or roles. They just go wherever the comedy is. Right out of the gate the imagery bombards you as the two girls transform throughout the opening. Sometimes they are part of a carpet another time one of them is in the washing machine. Sometimes they are just walking through various meme filled backgrounds other times they are in space. It is an opening that reveals a new layer or little detail every time you watch it.
This is surely going to be one of those titles that will grace Best Anime Openings panels for years to come.
A quick shout out to the opening of The Ancient Magus’ Bride. “You” by May’n is an amazing song but the opening is little more than a very well done anime AMV. It is just very well picked reused clips set to a fantastic song. If that helped the animation in the show itself be less rushed then I have no complainants but it sort of keeps it out of the Best Opening spot.
Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family, “Collage” by Sangatsu no Phantasia I’m sure someone could easily make an argument why some other ending is technically superior to the ending for Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family. The Card Captor Sakura ending is good enough that it feels like the opening to most other shows. (Actually, the reason I did not choose Jewelry is that Kate already picked it but you get my point.) I picked Collage because it undoubtedly gave me the warmest feeling.
If you have seen a good deal of Fate series you are used to bloodshed, betrayals, and tragedy. Even the comedic series is filled with those themes. So it is nice to see the characters you have grown fond of just chilling out and enjoying the delicious food they make. Plus is cashes in on the old joke that Fate/Stay Night is a cooking anime that keeps getting interrupted by supernatural battles.
The ending sums up that whole vibe in this wonderful watercolor picture book of happiness. Seeing Sakura and Rider just enjoy each other’s company or Illya be a delightful little imp should fill even the most hardened Fate fan with glee.
Card Captor Sakura: Clear Card, “Jewelry” by Saori Hayami It has been a while since I looked forward to the ending of a show each week, but that’s what I’ve been doing with the return of CCS. A delightfully upbeat song accompanies the characters on a day off. Key frame animator Norimitsu Suzuki infuses the ending with saturated colors, a fine line quality, and lively, unique animation.