Golden Realist’s Top 10 Anime of 2016

anime-2016

There’s an obvious recurring theme here.

The year started and ended on high note, marked by a glut of remarkable shows at both ends. Throughout, we’re entertained by bursts of excitement (the psychic fiesta of Mob Psycho 100,  the volleyball matches of Haikyuu!, the puppet duels of Thunderbolt Fantasy); confusion (I’m still not sure what Mayoiga is supposed to be); and bittersweet contemplation (a bunch of things that show up on this list). Light novel adaptations, military and/or moe fanservice, urban fantasy, idols, and monster girls remain a constant, but the year also saw a noticeable uptick in the kind of fare that appeal to the female demographic. We started and ended 2016 with wild adoration over Osomatsu-san’s sextuplets and Yuri on Ice’s figure skaters respectively, and in general it feels the Cute Anime Boys are now as much an industry staple as their counterparts. It’s well and good, we can all peacefully co-exist in our mutual love for silly Japanese toons.

Using the always ‘dependable’ metric of my personal enjoyment, 2016 feels like a good year for anime. Better than the previous year, at least. Of course, that’s just a subjective impression, probably instigated by the fact that I got much better at identifying shows that suit my taste. I’m also better at dropping shows right and left, freeing up more space in the schedule to watch things I’d actually enjoy.

Let’s have the Honorable Mentions:

The most honorable of my mentions goes to Concrete Revolutio: The Last Song. It really feels like an idiosyncratic show aesthetically and thematically, even if post-modern superhero media isn’t exactly a novel idea these days. It was this close to make the list, but in the end I just can’t overlook its convoluted narrative composition (a key reason why it couldn’t gain more mainstream recognition) and the way that the characters more often than not come off as mere vehicles for the abstract themes. Still a very memorable show that I appreciate a lot.

Speaking of second season, Akagami no Shirayukihime remained an aesthetically pleasing and generally underappreciated show. It is not the kind of show that thrills, but for that I had 91 Days (a solid homage to the mafia crime drama genre) and Thunderbolt Fantasy (a solid homage to cheesy wuxia fare, as well as a brilliantly orchestrated puppet play). I also enjoyed ReLife, the first half of March Comes in like a Lion (which I shall continue to watch in this winter season), some of Haikyuu!! (minus the training camp plotline and the less exciting matches), and some of Erased (minus the hamster torture shenanigan).

In the typically overlooked department of short series, Please Tell Me! Galko-Chan is a definite highlight—a sex-ed comedy that comes off as frank and casual instead of gross and icky, featuring a lovable main character and heart-warming female bonding over dirty talk. Retsuko from the hilarious The Aggressive Retsuko is yet another lovable heroine, a red panda office girl who launches into impromptu death metal karaoke session whenever she reaches boiling point. Finally, Miss Bernard Said is a good one for literature nerds (and nerds in general, really) who spend a lot of our time showing off what we consume to each other.

Now, The List (note: I alternate between official Japanese and English titles basically just on a whim):

cheer-boys

  1. Cheer Boys

Basic Info: A 12-episode adaptation of Ryou Asai’s novel
Studio: Brain’s Base
Key Staff: Ai Yoshimura (Director), Reiko Yoshida (Script & Composition), Hitomi Tsuruta (Character Design & Chief Animation Director)
In a nutshell: A former judoka gets roped into forming a college male-only cheerleader group by his best friend
Licensed English Streaming: Funimation, Anime Lab

It speaks volumes that I still enjoyed this immensely in spite of generally sub-par animation and lack of dynamism in the key cheerleading scenes. While it’s a bit unusual to have a sport/passion series rely almost completely on its practice session and behind-the-stage scenes, it worked out here thanks to a level-headed direction style and extremely good-natured vibe. Armed with refreshing choice of subject matter and college setting, Cheer Boys also benefits from sneaky great writing and composition: showing how it’s done by juggling a large-sized cast and ensuring every single character become a distinct, memorable, and sympathetic individual by the end.

agetaro

  1. Tonkatsu DJ Agetarou

Basic Info: A 12-episode adaptation of Iipyao and Yujirou Koyama’s shounen manga (9-minute long)
Studio: Deen
Key Staff: Akitaro Daichi (Director), Daisuke Fujiwara (Music), Kana Kobayashi (Director of Photography)
In a nutshell: A boy gets a revelation one day that working in a tonkatsu restaurant and being a DJ are essentially the same thing
Licensed English Streaming: Crunchyroll

Agetaro isn’t going to win any award for most sophisticated animation or plot, but dagnabbit, I love this show’s personality. It’s a familiar formula of a boy discovering newfound passion and pursuing it with all his heart, spiced up with layers of zaniness and fun rendition of the Shibuya club scene. The music and overall sound design lend this show a buoyant vibe, as headlined by Age’s signature ‘tonkatsu chill-out’ mix.

grimgar

  1. Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash

Basic Info: A 12-episode adaptation of Ao Juumonji’s light novel series
Studio: A-1 Pictures
Key Staff: Ryosuke Nakamura (Director, Script, Series Composition, Sound Director), Kenichi Shimizu (Storyboard), Hidetoshi Kanako (Art Director)
In a nutshell: A group of youths form a party in a hostile land, where they need to beat up kobolds to afford new underwear and stuff
Licensed English Streaming: Funimation, Anime Lab

Among anime narrative that modeled itself after traditional RPG and/or dungeon crawler game mechanic, Grimgar is the first one I’ve encountered that truly nailed the sense of ‘grit and grind’ that characterize those games. It’s not one for those who crave fast-paced action or escapist fantasy with overpowered protagonist, and it may also disappoint you if you’re looking for more clarity in its ‘trapped in fantasy world’ premise (which is borderline irrelevant in this particular adaptation). Instead, it’s an affecting tale of underdogs learning to work together and scrapping through, whose main character’s organic development into a leader is something I find genuinely inspiring.

poco-udon

  1. Poco’s Udon World

Basic Info: A 12-episode adaptation of Nodoka Shinomaru’s seinen manga
Studio: Lidenfilms
Key Staff: Yoshihide Ibata (Director), Eriko Itou (Character Design & Chief Animation Director), Yukie Inose (Setting), Hiroshi Gouroku (Art Director), Yukari Hashimoto (Music)
In a nutshell: A graphic designer returns to his hometown following his father’s death, runs into a not-so-normal boy
Licensed English Streaming: Crunchyroll

This is a blatant promotion campaign for the Kagawa prefecture, but who cares when it lends the show such a strong sense of place? The budding relationship between main character Shota and his adopted tanuki boy Poco forms the emotional backbone of the series, and there are many endearing details that make the show sings: wonderfully soothing aesthetic, powerful and bittersweet themes, and delightful after show segment. It’s also one of those rare adaptations of ongoing manga that managed to end with a strong closure and become a fully-formed product of its own.

natsume-go

  1. Natsume Yuujinchou Go

Basic Info: An 11-episode adaptation of Yuki Midorikawa’s shoujo manga (fifth season)
Studio: Shuka
Key Staff: Takahiro Omori (Director), Makoto Yoshimori (Music), Hiromi Miyawaki (Color Design), Sadayuki Murai (Composition), Hiroshi Kamiya (VA of Natsume), Kazuhiko Inoue (VA of Madara/Nyanko-sensei)
In a nutshell: Another season of adventure and contemplation for Natsume, who has come to terms with his power to interact with youkai
Licensed English Streaming: Crunchyroll

This isn’t the strongest season of Natsume (that designation belongs to either the first or third one), but it’s still a wonderful show that’s a cut above your typical ‘healing’ shows. In terms of continuity, Go contributed vital backstory to some of its most important supporting characters (the episode with Touko and Shigeru instantly became one of my all-time favorite), while continued to offer the mix of creepy lore, Nyanko-humor, and deeply poignant contemplation the series is renowned for. It’s a package where the voice actors have settled even more into their roles, the musical cues are as potent as ever, and Natsume’s relationships and self-understanding continue to evolve in the most beautiful of ways.

mob-psycho-100

  1. Mob Psycho 100

Basic Info: A 12-episode adaptation of ONE’s shounen manga
Studio: Bones
Key Staff: Yuzuru Tachikawa (Director, Storyboard), Yoshimichi Kameda (Animation Director, Key Animation, Character Design), Kenji Kawai (Music)
In a nutshell: A guileless boy tries to live peacefully despite his fraud of a boss, secretly envious brother, and unfriendly acquaintances drawn to his extremely potent ESP power.
Licensed English Streaming: Funimation, Anime Limited

This throwback to the old days of ‘esper boom’ media, as filtered through ONE’s unique sensibilities, is such a great marriage between style and substance. It’s not hard to find a pretty or well-animated show, or one with good soundtrack, or one that’s well-written, but it takes a special thing to use and combine all of these building blocks in idiosyncratic ways, resulting in a show that simultaneously entertained, unnerved, and moved me. Certainly this year’s most technically accomplished show as far as I’m concerned,  complemented by a big heart and strong emotional anchor.

osomatsu-san

  1. Osomatsu-san

Basic Info: Third anime adaptation of Fujio Akatsuka’s shounen comedy series, 25 episodes
Studio: Pierrot
Key Staff: Yoichi Fujita (Director), Naoyuki Asano (Chief Animation Director, Character Designer), Yukari Hashimoto (Music), Shuu Matsubara (Composer)
In a nutshell: Matsuno sextuplet navigate the perils and hardships of adulthood through the power of love, brotherhood, and competitive spirit to outdoes each other as thrash human beings
Licensed English Streaming: Crunchyroll

This show already impressed me a lot in 2015, and the second cour that came out in the winter hit an even higher level in terms of ingenuity, animation, and general insanity. So many stand-out segments here, whether it’s the dark shocker of Sanematsu-san, the insightful self-awareness of Iyami Teaching Comedy, the sakuga fireworks of Wacky Races/Osomatsu Kart, the insane surrealism of Dayonland, and the astounding heart-breaker of Letter. A roaring success of a show, whose staggering versatility in ideas and tone never ceased to amaze me.

fune-amu

  1. The Great Passage

Basic Info: A 11-episode adaptation of Shion Miura’s novel
Studio: Zexcs
Key Staff: Toshimasa Kuroyanagi (Director), Takuya Sato (Composition), Hiroyuki Aoyama (Character Design)
In a nutshell: The world’s biggest pedant joins a dictionary editing team, writes a 19-page love letter along the way
Licensed English Streaming: Amazon

Pure class from beginning to end. The show did a beautiful job illustrating the main character’s relationship with his occupation, co-worker, and lover, as accentuated by the splendid OP and ED. As someone whose line of work also primarily deals with language, the romanticization of this career choice really struck a chord with me, and it doesn’t hurt that the show ticked nearly all the boxes that matter to me (unique subject matter, grounded but cohesive visual, and understated character drama). Some stylish directorial touches here and there too, and the best use of ellipsis that I’ve ever seen in an anime.

shouwa-rakugo

  1. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu

Basic Info: A 13-episode adaptation of Haruko Kumota’s josei manga
Studio: Deen
Key Staff: Mamoru Hatakeyama (Director, Writer, Composer), Hidetoshi Namura (Storyboard, Animation Director), Kana Shibue (Music), Shigemitsu Hamao (Director of Photography), Akira Ishida (Voice Actor of Yakumo), Kouichi Yamadera (Voice Actor of Sukeroku), Megumi Hayashibara (OP Song Performance, Voice Actor of Miyokichi)
In a nutshell:  Story-within-a-story about two very different performers practicing rakugo, the art of Japanese comedic storytelling
Licensed English Streaming: Crunchyroll, Anime Limited

The year’s most impeccably staged anime is blessed with a rich narrative, one that transcended the specificity of its subject matter. Even if you don’t care one bit for rakugo in real life, there’s a lot of things that make this experience worthwhile: intense and layered interpersonal drama, strong thematic, and haunting soundtrack. Meanwhile, the rakugo scenes themselves are the most outstanding performance scenes I’ve seen in the year, always smartly framed and brimming with joy, wit, and even playfully nasty edge. Shouwa Rakugo is a love letter to the art of verbal storytelling, and a spellbinding experience to me, both as someone who loves to tell a story and to be told one.

shin-ata

  1. Shin Atashin’chi

Basic Info: Second anime adaptation of Eiko Kera’s manga, 26 episodes
Studio: Shin-Ei Animation
Key Staff: Ogura Hirofumi (Director), Eiko Kera (Script), Kumiko Watanabe (Voice Actor of Mother)
In a nutshell: Mother, father, daughter, and son live together
Licensed English Streaming: Crunchyroll

A show so barely in public recognition, it makes Agetarou looks like a smash hit. This is an extremely hard sell in an over-populated anime landscape, and yet, there is absolutely no doubt that I have the most love for the show over everything else this year. As a humble slice-of-life wrapped in  old-school 2-in-1 episodic format, SA grew terrifyingly fast on me through the immense charm of its characters. It doesn’t have a notable hook or attention-grabbing gimmick because it doesn’t need one; there’s instead a sneakily brilliant and observant mind behind this, capable of transforming mundane everyday moments into hilarious gags and strangely compelling banter-fest.

You might have noticed that this list is mostly populated by a certain theme—story about biological and surrogate family,  between parents and children, and between siblings. That’s probably not a coincidence… rather than cyberpunk, ultraviolence, mechs, idols, or moe, ‘story about family’ constitutes my earliest exposure to anime. As unfashionable as it is in 2016, something like Shin Atashin’chi defines anime for me, and it’s such a wonderfully refined version of that kind of show; a timeless gem with humble comedic sensibilities and well-measured moments of warmth that reminds me of why I fell in love with Japanese media in general.

(also, as we all know, one of the biggest joys as an anime fan is when you’ve successfully converted someone into a believer of your favorite show)

Notes and Observation

-Just for fun, I tracked down My Anime List ratings for these ten shows. The mean score for them is 7.88, with Cheer Boys (6.97) being the lowest-rated and Natsume Go the highest-rated (8.66). I was a bit surprised that Natsume outranked both Mob Psycho and Shouwa Rakugo (at not so shabby 8.55 and  8.61 respectively), but it makes a perfect sense once I think about it; those who watch the fifth season of a given show must be a big fan already and very likely to react very favorably barring some unmitigated disaster. In general, I would hazard a guess that sequels are more likely to earn favorable score and has much lower standard deviation compared to shows that are debuting.

-Whoa, this list is dominated by adaptations. Five from manga (two shounen, and one seinen, shoujo, and josei each), two from regular novel, and one from light novel—the other two are re-boot of old property. Obviously doesn’t signify the  lackluster quality of original production, though; there are many stand-out original shows that you’ll find in many people’s lists, but aren’t quite my speed. Speaking of which…

-Notable shows that I dropped/suspended, but may get back to in the future (though unlikely to ever become a personal favorite): Yuri on Ice, Sound Euphonium Season 2, My Hero Academia, Flip Flappers

Notable shows that I haven’t checked out at all: Ajin, Jojo: Diamond is Unbreakable, Re:Zero, Listless Tanaka

-Shows that broke my heart: Ace Attorney, Battery, Handa-kun

By the way,  I’m going to do away with my semi-regular seasonal anticipation/impression/recap post and make some sort of monthly digest post that will cover both seasonal and non-seasonal stuff. Feels much more fitting for my watching/writing schedule, so we’ll see how it goes. On to the next year and new adventure…

ritsuko-new-year

 

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8 thoughts on “Golden Realist’s Top 10 Anime of 2016

  1. Cheer Boys is wildly underrated. As you point out, the visuals are at best completely average and at worst… well, barely there at all, but I think the show more than made up for this in terms of writing. A pity more people never tried it out – I assume because they expected a cliche and fanservicey bishounen-fest, when in reality that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

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    • Yeah, my first impression from just the preview chart was ‘generic fujobait’ too before I took a closer look. Love the dialogue and chemistry in this show, I think it would’ve been more popular if the cheerleading scenes have any oomph.

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      • Yeah, the lack of budget was a real detriment to viewership, I think, and that’s such a shame given the high quality of the rest of the show.

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  2. The best part of Grimgar is the ‘Ghibli-esque’ aspect of it. The animation has a dreamy feeling which is very unlike most of this genre, and the voice acting is very Ghibli in the fact that the characters sound like *real* people.

    Jason over at Blogsuki also recommended The Great Passage, now I really have to watch it.

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    • Interesting point of comparison, I haven’t thought of that. The atmosphere is a key part of the show, for sure.

      The Great Passage is indeed, erm, great. If you have a taste for very down to earth slice-of-office-life type of show, definitely go for it.

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