Glancing Upstream: Winter 2015 Retrospective and Review

I’ve never been so sad to see the end of winter.

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Real talk, dear readers: This was the best anime season I’ve experienced since I started regularly watching simulcasts a few years ago, positively jam-packed with not only quality adaptations but also tremendous original works (a relative rarity these days). As a result, creating this list was torture, because there were simply too many great or good series, full of tightly woven plots, provocative themes, and captivating characters. So take the numbers with a grain of salt and, if you’re looking for a new show to watch, pay closer attention to the grades and premises.

I like to talk season trends in these retrospectives, and Winter saw a couple fascinating ones: Well-written female characters, and an exploration of binaries (male/female, life/death, Madonna/whore, geeky/sporty, etc.) and seemingly irreconcilable cultures and social groups. The top seven shows all feature diverse, layered lady protagonists; in five of those shows said protagonists are the main character; and two of them (Yurikuma Arashi and Maria the Virgin Witch) are overtly feminist works, portraying and challenging society’s expectations/treatment of women in both reality and fiction.

There’s a mess of complicated, morally gray, thought-provoking stuff here, but more impressive still, these ideas are generally paired with complex characters and compelling stories, leading to a gripping cocktail of the intellectual and the emotional, a winning combo of Dem Thinks and Dem Feels. In short, Winter was a damn good season, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it. Hit the jump for some spoiler-free mini-reviews, final grades, and Totally Arbitrary Rankings.

The Rankings

1. Yona of the Dawn (Akatsuki no Yona)

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Streaming on: Crunchyroll (worldwide with the exception of Asia); Funimation (U.S./Canada) (listed as “Yona of the Dawn”)
Episode Count: 24
In a Sentence: Yona, pampered princess of the Kouka Kingdom, is forced to flee the palace after a coup disrupts her sixteenth birthday.
Content Warning: Violence (against adults/teens); some implied sexual content, including an arc that deals (sympathetically) with sex trafficking

I admit that Yona wasn’t the most ambitious or complex of the shows this season, but I’d say it was one of the most consistent and by far the most underrated of this season’s gems, so I’m rewarding it with the top spot. Hopefully I can get it a little more exposure along the way.

Epic in scope but intimate in focus, Yona of the Dawn is a worthy edition to any fantasy-lover’s watchlist. Yona’s personal story is one of gradual self-discovery and self-reliance, as she travels the kingdom she used to rule but had never seen. It’s a gradual, realistic process, but Yona is determined to be more than a perpetual damsel in distress, and she works hard to learn how to protect and take responsibility for both herself and others. She’s a great main character, basically, neither a traditional damsel nor an out-of-the-box “badass,” and her growth is the backbone of the series, a through-line that connects each of the (incredibly likable and well-developed) supporting cast’s own stories.

If you’re into dynamic characters, sympathetic protagonists, complex antagonists, well-paced historical fantasies, or even just pretty girls and hot boys kicking ass, then this is a no-brainer.Yona of the Dawn is an excellent series, and even if we never get that second season, it’s still well worth the watch.

And if you need even more reasons to pick up this show, you can read my full series review for more.

Series Grade: A

2. SHIROBAKO

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Streaming on: Crunchyroll (USA, Canada, South Africa, Latin America, United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, The Netherlands, Scandinavia, Turkey, and Australia)
Episode Count: 24
In a Sentence: This workplace sitcom follows Miyamori Aoi as she, her friends, and her coworkers at Musashino Animation navigate the often hectic, sometimes absurd, never-a-dull-moment world of the anime industry.
Content Warning: One episode deals (respectfully) with workplace sexism; occasional fat jokes may upset people (although the penultimate episode kinda makes up for it)

Do you like anime? Shows that provide a behind-the-scenes look at how art is made? Workplace comedies with a wide range of sympathetic, entertaining characters, including a central cast of young women? Imaginary talking stuffed animals? If you checked “yes” to any of the above (and c’mon, which of you didn’t?), then SHIROBAKO may be the show for you!

Despite a somewhat shaky start (there are a lot of characters and it can take a few episodes to get properly settled into the story), SHIROBAKO continued to build on itself from start to finish, gradually becoming an engaging character drama as well as a solid representation of the joy, insecurity, frustration, and tedium that accompany even the dreamiest of jobs. The women at the center of the story are all capable, hardworking young professionals who deal with struggles and insecurities unique to their jobs, and the extensive cast surrounding them prove to be equally engaging. At its core, SHIROBAKO is an optimistic, warmhearted, and frequently funny series that loves both its characters and the anime they’re producing, and that affection is infectious. It takes a little while, but if you stick with it, it’s mighty hard not to fall in love with this series.

You can check out my series review for more.

Series Grade: A

3. Yurikuma Arashi

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Streaming On: Funimation (US/Canada), Crunchyroll (here’s a link to the list of regions)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: The long-running battle between humans and bears takes a surprising turn when two bears disguise themselves as humans and infiltrate sixteen-year-old Kureha’s high school, disrupting both her and her girlfriend’s lives—and WOW, this show is really impossible to describe in a sentence.
Content Warning: Violence (teens/adults); sexuality/nudity (female); assault; graphic depictions of bullying

I’ve written enough about YKA at this point that you could compile it into a decent-sized book, so you’ll forgive me if I’m brief here. Despite my early concerns about the show’s bizarre narrative and seemingly weak character development (simply put, there’s a lot of WTF-ery in the first three episodes), YKA built on itself in masterful fashion, progressively fleshing out both its characters and central ideas, and culminating in a finale that was emotionally fulfilling and thematically satisfying. It juggled a mess of difficult topics (society’s treatment of lesbians, groupthink and exclusion, the idealization of female innocence, and religious zealotry, just to name a few) and at the end of the day handled them all with thoughtful, sympathetic nuance. Ikuhara, you magnificent bastard, never stop making anime.

My last Recap begins with a spoiler-free Review, so you can check that out for more.

Series Grade: A

4. Death Parade

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Streaming On: Funimation (US/Canada)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: Two people arrive at a strange bar with no memory of how they got there, only to be told by the bartender that they must play a game in order to leave—and that they must play with their lives on the line.
Content Warning: Violence (adults/teens); deals with a lot of difficult topics such as suicide, sexual violence, infidelity, and the afterlife (I think it’s all handled fairly well, but it’s still there)

This is the trickiest review for me to write this season, because it’s so hard to discuss without giving away major plot or character reveals. Suffice to say Death Parade is a fully realized project that understands its world and how to manipulate it, and if you feel like there’s something wrong with the judgment system it presents, rest assured that the creators are aware of that, too. It’s a smart series, one that encourages its audience to think critically, implicating us in the events playing out on-screen. It also succeeds in evoking a wide range of emotions over the course of its run, and of provoking different reactions from different people.

Death Parade is kind of the perfect show to discuss with your friends, as well as a surprisingly moving character study, handling both its recurring cast and “guest stars” with a lot of thought and sympathy. There were a few weak spots, to be sure, but it came together to form a thought-provoking, touching, and cohesive whole, and regardless of whether or not you agree with its final statement, I think you’d be hard-pressed to say it didn’t do exactly what it set out to do.

Series Grade: A

5. Maria the Virgin Witch (Junketsu no Maria)

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Streaming On: Funimation (US/Canada)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: In this fantasy reimagining of the Hundred Years’ War, the witch Maria seeks to stop the endless fighting, despite her status as an outcast and heretic.
Content Warning: Violence (adults/teens); nudity/sexuality; deals (very tastefully and respectfully) with rape and sexual abuse

No, wait, don’t scroll down! I know the title and the online summaries make it sound terrible, but they’re liars, I swear! In fact Maria is one of the best-written shows of the season and one of a handful of genuinely feminist anime titles out there. The art is bright and memorable (and, in the case of the owls, freaking adorable); the characters are all nuanced (if not always likable), with very human motivations and desires; and the story comes together in a way that is simultaneously easy to follow and deceptively complex, full of moral gray areas that all but beg you to consider it’s characters’ differing stances and ideals.

Maria spends time considering Christian theology, humanity’s relationship with godly/supernatural forces, the ethics of war, gender roles, the expectations society places on women, and how it treats (and seeks to subdue or control) those who go against those expectations (i.e., witches). Mostly, though, Maria is a celebration of personal agency, and especially female agency, as portrayed through all the witches but especially our titular heroine, a sometimes naive, often stubborn, frequently passionate and charismatic young woman who rejects the strict binaries placed on the world.

The first few episodes are a little uneven and some of the humor doesn’t always land, but I encourage you to stick with it, because the further you go the more sophisticated the story gets, and the more you’ll come to realize just how smart this series is, and just how much it manages to expertly pack into 12 short episodes.

Series Grade: A-

6. Tokyo Ghoul √A

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Streaming On: Funimation (US/Canada)
Season Episode Count: 12 (sequel to “Tokyo Ghoul”)
Series Episode Count: 24
In a Sentence: College student Kaneki Ken finds himself pulled into the world of ghouls: powerful humanoid creatures who feast on human flesh.
Content Warning: Violence (graphic; against adults/teens and children)

Tokyo Ghoul was an uneven, bumpy ride, rife with tonal inconsistency in its first season (it fluctuates between being a fascinating character study and an over-the-top ultraviolent horror show) and some bizarre narrative choices its second, as the focus shifted away from the main character almost entirely and a bunch of characters were introduced only to basically disappear for the finale. The central cast was well-developed enough, the central themes engaging enough, and the direction (and, my goodness, the music) skilled enough to turn these moments into hiccups instead of train wrecks, but there are stretches in TG that are decidedly rough, and all the more frustrating because of the glimmers of brilliance shown at other points.

And all of that matters, but at the same time it kind of doesn’t, because despite some fumbles during the performance, TG nailed the landing. The series was punctuated throughout with strong moments of character development and complex questions with no clear or easy answer, and the finale was one of the most beautiful, devastating works of art in recent anime memory. Despite some loose narrative threads, the series tied up its major character arc and formed a powerful thematic whole. It may have been inconsistent, but when it was good, it could hold its own with (and even surpass) the best shows this season, and those high points make it well worth the watch.

You can read my first season review or my (spoiler-tastic) series essay for more.

Series Grade: B+

7. Yowapeda (Yowamushi Pedal: Grande Road)

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Streaming on: Crunchyroll (United States, Canada, Caribbean, South Africa, and Central and South America) (listed as “Yowapeda”)
Season Episode Count: 24
Series Episode Count:  62
In a Sentence: High school freshman (and total otaku) Sakamichi Onoda finds himself drawn into the world of road racing when his climbing skills catch the eye of the school’s competitive cycling team.
Content Warning: Mild fanservice (male and female)

You know it’s a strong season when one of my consistently Top 5 Series gets bumped to 7th flippin’ place. In its final, crazy arc, Yowapeda showed once again why it’s a sports series unlike any other, blending competitive cycling with classic anime themes and tropes (the final push of the Interhigh plays just like the Big Climactic Battle of an action series, complete with “noble sacrifices” and “final forms”) in a cocktail of geeky and sporty, gleefully (and only half-seriously) dancing across the line between the two.

This series is near and dear to my heart not just for its earnest MC and cast full of lovable oddballs, but because it shows how two things we think of as disparate can not only happily coexist, but are actually not that different in the first place. Sports are a narrative, as intense and unpredictable as the best works of fiction, full of unique individuals and compelling stories, and Yowapedaunderstands that and embraces it. The (season? series?) finale was a little too predictable to propel the series out of its happy B-range, but don’t take this final rank as a knock against it: I love this series, and look forward to hearing about a season three announcement somewhere down the road.

Series Grade: B+

8. Kamisama Kiss Season 2 (Kamisama Hajimemashita ◎)

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Streaming On: Funimation (US/Canada), Crunchyroll (here’s a link to the list of regions)
Season Episode Count: 12
Series Episode Count: 25 (note that S01 is not on Crunchyroll)
In a Sentence: After homeless high schooler Nanami Momozono accidentally becomes a “land god” at the local rundown shrine, she must work with the shrine’s spirits—including temperamental familiar, Tomoe—to develop her burgeoning powers.
Content Warning: Child abuse/neglect; violence (teens/kami); trans stereotyping (Otohiko’s likable as hell, but still); occasionally aggressive advances are played as romantic

The second season of KamiKiss levels up the series in a lot of small but important ways, forwarding the relationships of the main protagonists, expanding  the back stories of many supernatural characters, developing a firmer plot, and—most importantly—allowing Nanami to come into her own as a young kami, no longer just “spunky” but a force to be reckoned with. The series does occasionally slide back into damseling and Big Romantic Gestures of Protection, but given that she’s a teenager surrounded by centuries-old spirits, it at least sorta makes sense in context.

KamiKiss is so effortlessly and consistently charming that it’s easy to overlook it in favor of flashier shows, but I still found myself invested start-to-finish and surprisingly moved by the finale. This second season was a pleasant surprise, and if TMS decided to give us another one at some point, I certainly wouldn’t complain about it.

Series Grade: B+

9. Durarara!! x2

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Streaming On: Crunchyroll (North America, Central America, South America, Ireland, and the United Kingdom)
Season Episode Count: 12
Series Episode Count: 36 (ongoing—the next season airs this summer)
In a Sentence: A diverse cast populates this fantastical reimagining of Ikebukuro, where headless riders roam the streets, “color gangs” vie for power, and no one is who they say they are.
Content Warning: Violence (adults/teens); fanservice; mild nudity/sexuality

Durarara may have changed studios but (barring some animation hiccups in the middle act) it’s the same show as ever, guiding us through the wild, seemingly disparate stories of a dozen (at least) individuals and always finding ways to tie them together, creating meaning, connections, and valuable character development out of apparent chaos or aimlessness.

Due to the large, rotating cast, Durarara’s appeal can fluctuate wildly based on who it chooses to follow (for my money, the Celty and/or Shizuo episodes are by far the best, but others may feel differently). It’s also generally better when it’s being frenetic and a little tongue-in-cheek than when it’s going for quiet introspection (although, as with everything, there are exceptions), all of which leads to a slight inconsistency in quality that prevents it from rocketing into that top tier of series. Even so, the season ends on a memorable note, making me excited for the next one. It’s nice to know I have at least one show to look forward to this summer.

Season Grade: B

10. Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE! (Binan Koukou Chikyuu Bouei-bu Love)

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Streaming On: Funimation (US/Canada), Crunchyroll (regions not specified)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence:
A pink talking wombat drops from the sky and conscripts five high school boys into becoming his pretty guardians who fight for love and justice (yes, really).
Content Warning:
Magical violence (teens); nudity/sexuality (male); fanservice (male); some of the characters are kinda homophobic, but the series makes it pretty clear we’re supposed to think they’re being dumb, so I don’t think the series itself is homophobic

Boueibu is tough to discuss in a few sentences, largely because my own feelings about it are conflicted. I was never quite sure if it was a dumb comedy pretending to be smart or a smart comedy pretending to be dumb. I think it’s kind of both, which is why the humor can be a little inconsistent, and why it sometimes seems like it’s making a pointed critique and sometimes like it’s just being silly. It also could have stood to have some more developed characters, as they’re likable but pretty flat, and it makes the middle part of the series drag.

That said, when Boueibu is on, it’s really damn funny, mapping magical girl and “cute girl” genre tropes onto an all-male cast to create a story that looks like an absurd marriage between Sailor Moon and Free, and clearly had a lot of fun doing it. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but if it sounds like the kind of humor you’d enjoy, then I say give it a try. It may tickle your funny bone even more than it did mine. And, if nothing else, you’ll get to experience that damn talking green hedgehog and the insane, stupid, magical finale. Those two things alone may just make the entire series worthwhile.

I go into a little more detail about my strange relationship with Boueibu in my series review, so you’re welcome to check that out, too.

Series Grade: B

11. Parasyte -the maxim- (Kiseijuu: Sei no Kakuritsu)

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Streaming on: Crunchyroll (USA, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Latin America [Central and South America], Europe, Middle East, and North Africa)
Episode Count: 24
In a Sentence: High school senior Izumi Shinichi finds himself host to a sentient but merciless parasite as a number of snake-like creatures appear in Japan and begin infecting the populace.
Content Warning: Graphic violence (against teens/adults); some nudity/sexual content (male and female)

It’s amazing how quickly Parasyte went from being “one of my favorite shows of the season” to “a show I watched this season.” I could talk about its inability to write good female characters, or how it felt the need to beat you over the head with its themes (did we really need an entire finale spelling out what we saw happen in the far superior penultimate ep?), or how the static, uninspired direction had a tendency to kill any possible tension, particularly in the second cour. And those were all problems I had, but really, what it comes down to is, I just didn’t care. I tried, but over the course of 24 episodes, the series failed to get me to give any kind of damn about its characters. There weren’t enough sympathetic qualities on either side of the human-parasite divide to make it a compelling conflict, so while some of the ideas were quite interesting, the individuals espousing them meant nothing to me. It’s not that Parasyte was bad, not really. It was just kind of unremarkable.

Series Grade: C+

12. Aldnoah.Zero Season 2

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Streaming On: Crunchyroll (North America, Central and South America, Australia, New Zealand, UK, Ireland, Europe excluding German-speaking territories
Season Episode Count: 12
Series Episode Count: 24
In a Sentence: Fifteen years after a brutal battle between Earth and the Vers Empire that left the moon in ruins, tensions build and finally explode after a Vers Princess arrives on Earth.
Content Warning: Violence (against adults/teens); brief nudity; mild fanservice; is cartoonishly sexist at times

Ohhh, Aldnoah.Zero. You were nothing if not true to yourself: An interstellar soap opera full of end-of-episode plot twists, scheming nobility, bombastic mecha fights, and characters who ran the gamut from unrealistically skilled (one of the MCs is basically a robot) to unrealistically incompetent (I still can’t get over the doctor offering booze to the alcoholic to celebrate his recovery, because, um, what?). I can’t in good conscience say A/Z is a great anime, but I can say I had a lot of fun watching it, once I realized I should in no way take it seriously and just let the ride wash over me in a sequence of snazzily animated fight sequences, dramatic character monologues, and “aww, snap!” reveals and betrayals. A/Z was my guilty pleasure of the season, and even though the finale rang a little hollow, I enjoyed watching it play out.

Series Grade: C+

13. The Rolling Girls

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Streaming On: Funimation (US/Canada)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: In a future Japan broken up into multiple city-states, roaming gangs led by “Bests” (including the masked Maccha Green) fight for territory and power.
Content Warning: Violence (adults/teens, and very cartoonish)

You could tell pretty much from Day One that Rolling Girls wasn’t a well-written story, but for a while there it had enough energy, visual panache, and bouncy music to make up for the clumsy plotting and flat main characters. The middle episodes (5-8) were particularly strong, introducing guest characters with just enough depth to be interesting and creating the closest thing to thematic unity we got throughout the series. At its best, Rolling Girls was a wild celebration and merger of the traditional and the modern (Shachihoko art coexisting with motorcycle racing, geisha entertainment standing side-by-side with rock music), all of which culminated in an exhilarating explosion of color and music that made me just plain happy to be alive.

Unfortunately, that culmination happened in Episode 8, and the final four episodes spiraled into convoluted, half-baked story lines, characters who spun through so quickly we could barely find the time to learn their names (never mind care about them), and—most damning of all—clunky, sometimes laughably stilted animation. A shame, really. But hey, at least we’ll always have that concert scene.

Series Grade: C

14. Yatterman Night (Yoru no Yatterman)

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Streaming On: Funimation (US/Canada)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: Exiled for crimes committed generations ago, nine-year-old Leopard decides to take on the mantle of her infamous, thieving ancestor, Doronjo, in order to take revenge on the “Yatter Kingdom” who abandoned her family.
Content Warning: Violence (adults/teens/kids); comic nudity (male and female); fanservice

Maybe it’s unfair of me to rank Yatterman all the way down here (it was probably better thanRolling Girls, at least), but, much like with Parasyte, sometimes failure to meet expectations earns you a lower spot. I was singing this show’s praises around the midway point, which was about when it decided to stop being a wacky lady-led dystopia and started being a (not nearly as charming) blend of classic anime references and “hero’s journey” tale—for a completely different character, no less. The story got back on track at the end, but the final episode was a mess of reused animation, and I found the conclusion unsatisfying. YN could have been a great underdog story and exploration of how society labels its “heroes” and “villains,” but it gave that up for a far more standard and less interesting narrative. I am disappoint.

Series Grade: C-

Unranked

Sailor Moon Crystal

I’m only popping in long enough to say that I finally gave up on it. While the new story line showed some potential in its first few episodes (character development! coherent storytelling! some halfway energetic direction, even if the animation was still atrocious!), the last couple fell back into the dull, uninspired pattern of the first season, and I found myself so bored that I couldn’t even finish the most recent one. There are better anime for me to spend my time on, so I’m going to watch those instead. If you’re feeling the same, may I interest you in Rose of Versailles, the classic historical shoujo now streaming on Hulu? I’m 15 episodes in. We can watch it together and put this whole Crystal thing behind us.

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