It was a difficult thing, but we narrowed down our favorite U.S. anime releases from 2018. Let us know yours!
Best TV Anime
High schoolers Kimari, Shirase, Hinata, and Yuzuki forged an unbreakable bond as they pursued the unlikely dream of going on an expedition to Antarctica. They each had a personal reason for embarking on this mission and each came to find themselves, and a better understanding of each other, along the way.
Friendship was the core of this story. Not only did we see the growth of companionship between our four main characters (who were less than acquaintances before the start of the show), but the series contained the complex relationships of adolescence that formulated who these girls already were. Growing up was tough, but the series remembered that along the way there was also hijinks and laughter, and that a good friend could make the journey a little bit easier.
Rarely have I seen an anime capture a group of friends so perfectly. A story need not be accurate or relatable for it to be good, but The Place Further Than the Universe was both of those things for me which made it the most unexpected and wonderful journey of the year.
Hinamatsuri from feel. This is a series that could have easily gone into the “Best Anime I Unexpectedly Liked” category. When it came out we skipped over it mostly because it looked like a mediocre slice of life comedy and I can’t remember any major hype around the series. But after a few episodes came out I started hearing a few people saying that Hinamatsuri not only had a surprisingly dry wit but it had a little more going on under the hood that you might expect at first glance. It turns out they were not only right but they were more right than anyone probably expected.
As a comedy Hinamatsuri has an almost British or level of dark deadpan humor. You start with an effete high-ranking Yakuza and a very odd psychic girl who are both horrible and you force them to live together. You then throw them in with an equally broken cast and put them in Larry David-esk situations and let the uncomfortable comedy spring forth. This allows a nice mix of simple physical comedy alongside more sophisticated long burn jokes with just a hint of cringe comedy. It is actually far more effective than you would probably first imagine. But that is just the first layer.
The second layer that shocks most people who get into the show is the odd amount of social commentary. When you get long ruminations about the homeless, the Japanese working world, the nature of outsiders, and a surprising critique of modern Japanese culture it catches you off guard. Anzu and Hitomi’s storylines alone have a shocking amount of weight to them. I don’t normally expect to see deep and persistent ruminations about the human condition in my gag comedy series.
The third layer is the combination of comedy and thoughtful narratives adds some major emotional weight to the series that is equally surprising. I have seen a great number of people confessing that certain parts of the series have either made them cry or feel a surprising amount of empathy for the characters. Even a horrible goofadoof like Hina can provoke a surprising amount of pathos in certain parts of the show.
The real power of the series is none of those three layers feels forced or out-of-place. The series knows how to transition from one tone to another organically. It rarely feels like a comedy that hit to breaks to have a REAL MOMENT or forcefully to try to turn on the waterworks. If anything the different parts of the series often have a synergy that lets the different layers have a greater impact then they would on their own.
It is really a series you should give a chance if you dismissed it from the visual designs or the premise alone. I can’t say the show’s somewhat unconventional sense of humor is for everyone but I think there is a lot for anyone who it resonates with it.
March Comes in Like a Lion from Shaft I feel I have heaped so much praise on this series that it should be obvious that I think this show is very special. I could have easily made this show my anime of the year without regrets. I mostly decided that I wanted to give another show the top spot for variety more than anything else. March Comes in Like a Lion is still one of the strongest series on the air for a variety of reasons.
The first part of March Comes in Like a Lion is a fabulously empathetic look at depression that avoids being patronizing, overly simplistic, or trite. Rei’s struggles feel authentic without feeling oppressive. His mixture of hunger, apathy, defeatism, self-imposed isolation, and pride paints an intricate picture of a young man with equal amounts of blessings and curses. His interactions with his acquaintances inside and outside of the shogi world flesh out his struggles while building a wonderfully diverse supporting cast that captures the attention of the audience just as much as the protagonist’s journey does. The show makes sure that there is always enough shogi going on that you remember it is a show about Japanese chess while having enough other material that it can engage a wide variety of viewers.
But when the arc about Hinata being bullied is introduced the show jumps up another level. Hinata always seemed like a much more minor character before this point but when her life turns very ugly she really shines despite the deep darkness she is mired in. It is a messy story that avoids simple and cliche answers or solutions. There are several times where it would be far easier for the story to give a more black and white answer but refuses to do so in favor of realism. It is a powerful story that will surely resonate with anyone who watches it. The most interesting part is it is not fully over because like depression things can get better or worse with bullying but they never simply go away.
March Comes in Like a Lion is a fantastic and beautiful show that gives a loving voice to many people who might otherwise feel overlooked and misunderstood. It is a show filled with the classical Greek idea of catharsis that is the perfect balm for many types of weary or troubled souls. There are few services more valuable than a piece of art can perform and I look forward to March Comes in Like a Lion containing to provide that priceless service in the future.
Best Movie, Short, or OVA
Kase-san and Morning Glories from Zexcs A joyful film about two young women in love. From the color palette to the characters’ smiles, this movie felt like a celebration of being in your first relationship.
Kase-san and Morning Glories started off with the surprising decision to skip “the good stuff,” brought us up to speed on how Yamada and Kase decided to start dating, and plopped us right when Yamada is anxious about what being in a relationship actually entails. We watch Yamada and Kase navigate making time for each other, being alone together for the first time, going on a trip, planning for the future, and biggest of all, how to communicate. Yamada’s anxiety is visible, but Kase is also not as confident as she first appears.
The rewards, like the struggles, are small but meaningful as Yamada and Kase’s relationship deepens over the course of the film. It gets wrapped up with a nice, big romantic bow making for a heart-melting watch.
Kai is lonely after moving from Tokyo to a small island with his father and grandfather. His only refuge is creating music which attracts new friendships including one with a mermaid who loves to dance. But the island is superstitious about mermaids, believing they will harm humans, so when disaster strikes it is a race to see if the town can be saved with the help of those the humans fear most.
I was incredibly impressed that Yuasa pulled off a family-friendly movie, not something I’ve come to expect from him. It was goofy and fun and pulled from classic monster tropes, making this one of my favorite Yuasa works.
The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl from Science SARU As I have stated several times on the blog I have a complex relationship with Masaaki Yuasa. While I admire his unique style and creativity as a director I find him overwhelming and off-putting when he is given total creative freedom. I usually like his works when he has enough room to run wild but has to work inside some defined structure from someone not on his team. That is why I first enjoyed him with his work on The Tatami Galaxy as opposed to Kaiba. So I was very happy to see Masaaki Yuasa was working on another book by Tomihiko Morimi.
Since The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is from the same trilogy of books as The Tatami Galaxy so it only made sense to bring back Yuasa to adapt this novel as well. This time he had to condense the whole book into a single movie as opposed to having 11 episodes to take his time. This meant he changed the story in various ways to fit in the general flow of the narrative. I would have to read the original novel to get a full sense of how well he captured the original but I enjoyed the end result regardless. Also, the fact that it felt very much like The Tatami Galaxy says a lot.
Also if you watched The Tatami Galaxy you will see many little nods to that series in characters, locations, events, and even themes. I would guess there are some Tower of the Sun references as well if you knew where to look. It definitely rewards fans of Tomihiko Morimi but even more importantly none of them are necessary to enjoy the film. The story stands alone and the references are more Easter eggs for the observant than anything else.
Masaaki Yuasa’s energetic animation and Tomihiko Morimi’s pithy writing once again combine together to make a masterpiece.
My Hero Academia the Movie: The Two Heroes from Bones For the longest time Shonen Jump movies were merely mass-produced filler arc stories with a better than average animation budget. While they might have a few well-done action scenes, for the most part, they had the most disposable stories and characters. While there have been a few diamonds hidden in the rough for the most part they were mostly forgettable at best and actually insulting at worst. Even their flagship titles got that same threadbare treatment. The only time you got a decent movie was when the animation team decided to go above and beyond on their own.
But then Strong World came along. Shonen Jump eventually realized that it was no longer in their best interest to just plop out yearly movies of extremely mediocre quality connected to their heavy hitters so they put in some real effort with the 10th One Piece movie. Since then all the Jump movies have been fairly high quality. I won’t say all of them are great or even good but they seem to have a reasonably high degree of effort poured into them. There was a level of polish that had been missing for years. It was no longer a guarantee that the movies would be bland.
The first My Hero Academia movie was released in this era and it shows. It is a fairly self-contained story. It is nowhere near the storytelling of the series at its peak but it easily hangs with some of the more solid arcs. It does explore the superhero world outside of Japan which has mostly gone ignored in the series proper. The new characters are fun and the action was well done. It is pretty much what you should reasonably hope for with an original movie.
The reason it is actually on this list was my enjoyment of the audience reaction to the movie when I saw it in theaters. Since My Hero Academia is pretty much as mainstream as you can get with anime the crowd was a bit on the younger side and filled with more of the standard fandom as opposed to the more scholastic crowd you see at niche titles. That meant the kids went wild whenever their favorite characters appeared on-screen, gasped at the dramatic moments, and howled at the climactic moments. They also went BALLISTIC when their favorite ships were on-screen. It really added an additional layer of enjoyment as I got to watch the audience as well as the movie.
It really proved that My Hero Academia is a series that deserves all the general popularity it has.
Best Anime Woman
Shirase Kobuchizawa from A Place Further Than the Universe The last time Shirase saw her mother, her mom was heading to Antarctica. Now Shirase is determined to see the place that so fascinated her mom. Shirase’s classmates mock her dream and write her off, but she boldly purses her goals believing that she’ll have the last laugh.
Shirase works hard and doesn’t bother with those who doubt her. She can be meticulous and obstinate, but as her journey becomes a less lonely one she grows to value people more than a perfectly executed plan.
Anzu from Hinamatsuri When Anzu is first introduced she seems like a simple foil and rival for Hina. She comes to capture Hina, Hina beats her, they call a truce. Anzu tries to get back home but her teleporter is broken so she is forced to live on the streets. Everything up to that point seems fairly bog standard.
Then we see her actually struggling with being homeless. Then she gets taken in by the homeless community that sees she desperately needs help. They teach her how to survive and maybe even find a little hope. When a major development comes along and forces the community to move they even find a family to take Anzu in. It is an unexpectedly powerful story that surprises you in how much it shapes Anzu’s character. Her time on the street never just vanishes. It makes her who she is as the series goes on in countless ways.
But the even more shocking thing is they are able to keep the story funny and lively despite the social commentary going on. Anzu never feels like the Debbie Downer who shows up to bring up REAL ISSUES in the middle of the comedy bits you actually want. She is just as hysterical as the rest of the cast and feels an organic part of the story.
Anzu gives a sympathetic and endearing face to the homeless while still letting you enjoy the rest of the goodadoof comedy. Maybe she even lets you enjoy it a little bit more.
Best Anime Man
Haiji from Run With the Wind Haiji spent the first episode of Run With the Wind recruiting (read: tricking) people to live in the dorms of their college which were reserved for the track team. His dream is to run the Hakone Ekiden, a two-day team race held in January every year. Once everyone relented and agreed to give it a shot, Haiji then becomes the most supportive, dedicated, positive, unstoppable captain ever.
He also loves his dog and has just a hint of melancholy from a leg injury that he is still recovering from. So basically, I love him forever.
Arsene Lupin III from Lupin III: Part 5 Since the manga started in 1967 Lupin has been running in one form or another for over 50 years. In that time a wide variety of authors, directors, and creators have had their own take on the character of Arsene Lupin III. While the core of his character is always a dashing antihero where he falls on the antihero spectrum depends greatly on which version of him you are experiencing. Sometimes he is a merely a rouge with a bit of a mischievous side but other times he is full on dirty noir thief who is far more merely the protagonist than anything even resembling a hero. Every iteration has to determine where on that continuum they wish to place their version of Lupin.
Lupin III: Part 5’s has to main goals. One is to pay tribute to each iteration of Lupin in one series while also telling a new and unique tale. The other is to ask the question, “Is Lupin still relevant 50 years later?” It is obvious that the answer the question is going to be “yes” but the success of the series depends on how well they answer that question.
Throughout Part 5 there are blue jacket episodes that explore this show’s version of Lupin and are part of the main plot. Throughout the season there are episodes with Lupin wearing his old jackets that are distinctly done in the style of that Lupin. Most of these episodes are done as flashbacks but at the same time, they are somewhat nebulous on when exactly take place. This lets all the versions of Lupin coexist without messy continuity issues.
Lupin III: Part 5 shows how Lupin has always been changing over the years. Every time he comes back he is adapting to what he needs to be for a new audience while still retaining the vital essence that has made him a fixture of Japanese entertainment. It is clear the current staff understands how Lupin works and how he will continue to propser even in the future.
Best Sequel or Ongoing Anime
Attack on Titan from Wit Studio It feels like the love for this series has dropped off a lot, but I am enjoying it more than ever! As the story delves more into the past of its characters and world things get increasingly complex. I’m not 100% convinced it can deliver on all of its promise, but I remain optimistic and curious about where it will go next.
Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online from Studio 3Hz If you asked me if Sword Art Online could be saved as a franchise in 2017 I would have said it would take a small miracle. It turns out that Keiichi Sigsawa is a miracle worker.
Sword Art Online uses Karen Kohiruimaki’s journey to explore online identity, player communities, and toxic players. Karen uses Gun Gale Online to explore the person she wants to be in real life and slowly gains more confidence in the game and reality. She also meets many other players who explore different parts of themselves via their online personas. But it is not all personal growth and comradery. She also meets a good deal of people who have had their pre-existing problems exasperated and amplified by being online and some of them are even her friends.
Sword Art Online was a world that had a fascinating premise that hooked people with its first episode and then became the gold standard for lame Isekai power trip fantasy series. It had some real potential to explore both online spaces and people under duress but it never really examined either of those in any meaningful way. But when the author of Kino’s Journey wrote a series of side stories in the same universe he actually decided to visit those neglected ideas in a fun and thought-provoking way.
Best Mascot Character
Kakka from Planet With Imagine an alien dog generalissimo voiced by Norio Wakamoto that pilots a giant spaceship that is shaped like him. His role changes in the series several times from shadowy conspirator, to a major antagonist, to the voice of the philosophical opposition, and finally to a reluctant ally. I would be hard pressed to find a cooler mascot this year even if he were not voiced by Norio Wakamoto. Being voiced by the man himself seals the deal.
Best Ensemble Cast
Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku from A-1 Pictures Having a fun, bright series about slightly older otaku, when I myself am now a slightly older otaku, is great. Balancing job responsibilities with relationships and never-ceasing fandom is a delight to behold when it is these particular dumb but lovable nerds.
Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family from ufotable Look. I love the cast of Fate/Stay Night. They are one of the main reasons I fell in love with the Type-Moon universe in the first place. Now take away the pesky Holy Grail War and just have them make and eat delicious food. There were already several major cooking scenes in the original novel so it is not entirely out-of-place for the characters. But now you can see Medea and Shiro converse about cooking technique. Might this be the moment that Witch of Colchis finally gains a fandom? Probably not but it is still fun.
Is this for everyone? No. It is like someone took the cast of the A Song of Ice and Fire series and removed all the high fantasy politics and just had the story revolve around the delicious banquets. To some, this would be an abomination. To my friends, this would be the series they always wanted.
Saber is a woman who is happiest surrounded by friends while eating mouth-watering food. This is a series about Saber being ridiculously happy. What more could I ask for?
Best Anime I Unexpectedly Liked
Revue Starlight from Kinema Citrus I know nothing about idols and don’t have a lot of interest, despite that I checked out this show. After a compelling first episode, the series dropped so many questions, themes, and ideas that I kept wondering if it could pull it off. Why a giraffe? What was the play’s significance? Which wish would be granted and why? WHAT DID IT ALL MEAN??? Revue Starlight kept me engaged and did end up at a satisfying conclusion with a lot meaning.
Zombie Land Saga from MAPPA It seemed there was a time when media is sickeningly saturated with zombie media. It was the genre du jour for a while and really over saturated the market. While zombie titles still have a robust fandom the rise and subsequent backlash have thankfully reduce the omnipresent nature of the genre. Idols in anime were exactly the same thing. I remember when it seemed like idol shows were popping up like daisies but that trend has actually gone through several iterations and is now far more manageable. But then MAPPA decided to dig up both of these old warhorses and sew them together into a strange new beast.
You could easily call Zombie Land Saga a satire or parody of the idol genre, and in many ways it is, but it feels more to me like someone’s bizarre thought experiment. Take a super by the book idol show and then logically think out what strange complications would come from making all of the members of the group secretly undead. Don’t get me wrong the show is basically a very loud comedy but at its core, it seems more interested in playing with the absurdity of the combination than taking the piss out of its origins. The show takes a very standard step up from an idol show and slowly lets it go out of control.
Thanks to certain people I know I’m sort of burnt out on zombie stuff even if I was never into it in the first place but I really find this show entertaining. The sheer commitment to the absurdity of the premise is commendable.
Pop Team Epic OP “POP TEAM EPIC” by Sumire Uesaka For a show that is very simplistic in its actual episodes, this opening is a high-level production. It captures the absurdity in sound and visuals and even goes so far as to smash a TV in real life to get a lovely shot.
Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku OP “Fiction” by Sumika It makes sense that a show for working otaku would have an appropriately nerdy opening. The opening does a great job of showing the working lives and private lives of the four main characters. We see them both how they are as professionals and as geeks. The splendid animation shows their loves of anime, manga, games, and cosplay with an emphasis on showing each character in their niche. The parts with the pixel art and the hand dancing are tremendously charming as well.
The song ties it all together nicely with an effervescent pop that is a signature of the series. The whole opening tells you this is a fun little story about falling in love while balancing it with being an adult. As a working adult, it is a wonderful balm for a weary soul beleaguered by the monotony of the rat race.
Card Captor Sakura: Clear Card, “Jewelry” by Saori Hayami Every week I looked forward to watching this ending. A charming upbeat song follows Sakura, Syaoran, Tomoyo, and Kero on a day off. The key frame animator Norimitsu Suzuki embues the ending with vibrant colors and a delicate line quality to create animation that is as lively as the song and characters within.
Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family, “Collage” by Sangatsu no Phantasia If you have ever come back after a strenuous day of activity and sat down to a good meal you can easily recall the warm feeling that envelops you as the food pushes away any misery that you had before that point. The ending to Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family embodies that feeling. The pleasant tone of the music mixed with the everyday tasks of the cast in comforting watercolor art style recalls a transcendent tranquility. It the essence of the show in a single ending montage. Even if just for a single moment peace is obtained.