Glancing Upstream: Winter 2016 Retrospective and Review

Something something “the winter of our discontent.”

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This is my shortest retrospective to date, thanks to a pretty dismal season in terms of incoming series. Some of that had to do with my own time constraints and self-imposed ranking rules (there are four shows in the “unranked” category this season, three of which I’d happily recommend to others), but some of it had to do with there just not being a lot that caught my eye this time around. Still, the top two were pretty special, and if an anime season can give you even one incredible series, then it’s hard to call it a true disappointment, I s’pose.

If there’s one positive trend to take from this season, it’s that we’ve got some good artists and directors in the business: people able to take into account all elements of a production and elevate the source material, whether that’s from “meh” to “good” or “good” to “great.” So take heart! The blueprints may be rough at times, but at least they’re in the hands of skilled builders.

The Rankings

1. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju

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Streaming On: Crunchyroll (click here for a list of regions)
Episode Count: 13
In a Sentence: This historical fiction follows a young ex-convict as he gets tangled up in the complicated past and relationships surrounding Yakumo, a rakugo master.
Content Warning: The story deals with sexism, emotional abuse, sexual situations, and violence, but most of it is told or implied rather than graphically depicted.

I wrote mini-essays about Showa Genroku pretty much weekly, because it’s one of those series that’s nearly impossible to discuss in a few short paragraphs. It’s historically grounded but also intimately focused, told mostly as a framed, first-person narrative that treads the line between literal realism and emotional realism. It’s extremely well-directed and expertly staged, sparingly animated but with an active camera and an attention to subtle detail that gives each character (all performers, and all wearing various masks to some extent) an internal complexity that goes beyond just their dialogue. It’s really, really, really damn good, gang.

It’s also getting a second season (no release date scheduled yet), which means I don’t have to try to summarize all its themes and ideas just yet. I will say that it deals extensively with the tension between the “traditional” and the “modern” in postwar Japan, showing how the environment shapes and restricts individuals in terms of rigid social hierarchies and heteronormative expectations, and does it all with a great deal of nuance and sympathy. Where it’s going to take all its ideas and characters, I’m not sure just yet. But I am very much looking forward to finding out.

While I think there’s a certain universality to its personal story that makes it accessible even if you’re not familiar with the setting, if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, I do have those episode posts (featuring both analysis and historical context) if you’d like to walk through the show with a friend!

Season Grade: A

2. Snow White with the Red Hair (Akagami no Shirayuki-hime) – Part 2

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Available on: Funimation (U.S./Canada)
Season Episode Count: 12
Series Episode Count: 24
In a Sentence: After herbalist Shirayuki flees her homeland when her rare red hair catches the eye of the kingdom’s prince, a chance encounter with a young man named Zen promises to change both their fates.
Content Warning: Violence (mild)

While SGRS is hands-down the best show on this list, Snow White may very well be my favorite, a comfy fairy tale for the modern age that left me feeling relaxed and happy after pretty much every episode. Director Ando’s graceful production brought the world and characters to life, developing its story at a (mostly) relaxed pace and growing its many relationships–from romantic partners to friends to coworkers–with intelligence and warmth.

There’s a short stretch of episodes that tries to be a standard fantasy adventure and gets away from the show’s strengths, but it comes together for a final act that’s such a pitch-perfect blend of sweetness and humor that I can’t bring myself to fault it much. Its relative lack of drama may not be your cup of tea, but if you’re looking for a gently progressive fairy tale that promotes communication, trust, and personal agency, I can’t recommend this one enough.

You can read my series review for more, or read along with my episode posts.

Series Grade: A

3. Mr. Osomatsu (Osomatsu-san)

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Streaming On: Crunchyroll (worldwide except Asia)
Episode Count: 25
In a Sentence: The sextuplets of the 1960s comedy Osomatsu-kun are all grown up, but modern adult living isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Content Warning: Comic violence; comic sexuality/nudity (mostly male); Episode 10 is a mess of transphobic and sexist stereotypes

Whoa, did Oso-freaking-matsu seriously just crack my Top Three? Huh. Well whadda ya know. There are a lot of series ranked below this one that were better at their very best, but they had dips in quality or flaws in writing (or just flat-out pissed me off enough) that Mr. Osomatsu–barring the unpleasant Episode 10–didn’t really have, at least for me. So, for its comic consistency, cleverness, and sheer brazen zaniness, I’m giving a top spot to this sometimes-brilliant, sometimes-crude, often-irreverent, occasionally-touching sketch comedy. If this surprise hit wants to come back to give me more weekly doses of ridiculous, I sure wouldn’t complain.

Series(?) Grade: B+

4. Haikyuu!! Season 2

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Streaming On: Crunchyroll
Season Episode Count: 25
Series Episode Count: 50 so far (Season 3 coming in Fall 2016)
In a Sentence
: Undersized spiker Hinata Shoyo joins the Karasuno High School volleyball team, where he and a group of lovable dorks must learn to work together in order to return their school’s team to its former glory.

I’m docking Haikyuu ever-so-slightly this time around because the show’s greatest strength is its sincere, excitable energy coupled with its ability to draw the audience into its volleyball matches as if they’re watching real ones, and it lost some of its bounce during portions of the early-to-mid-season. That was partly intentional (the growing pains/training arc being an important part of the sports formula, after all), but it still caused the season to drag here and there.

Even so, an expanded cast, a renewed focus on supporting players, and especially the character arc around Yamaguchi helped flesh out the team and build greater emotional attachment between audience and cast. The final round of episodes were a fabulously animated edge-of-your-seat series of games, exactly what you’d hope for from a season finale. Haikyuu is still loads of straightforward fun, no question about that, and I’ll certainly be tuning in when it comes back in the fall.

Season Grade: B

5. Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash (Hai to Gensou no Grimgar)

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Available On: Funimation (U.S./Canada)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: A group of young adults who wake up in an MMO-like fantasy world with no memory of their pasts must learn how to work together to survive the all-too-real dangers of their new lives.
Content Warning: Violence (against teens/adults); fanservice; one of the characters is a sexist jackass

I wanted to rank Grimgar higher than this, but then I thought of all the times (particularly in the early episodes) when it made me want to throw rocks at my TV and I couldn’t quite manage it. Which is a pretty harsh opening sentence, but I genuinely loved Grimgar about 80% of the time. At its best, it’s a slow-paced, down-to-earth character study that (despite its gorgeous storybook backgrounds) paints the realities of living in an MMO-style fantasy world in all their unromantic glory. The series understands the emotional repercussions of warfare and loss and gives its characters time to grieve and work through trauma, even going so far as to depict a realistic near-panic attack.

But then it keeps interrupting all its smart writing, quiet characterization, and atmospheric fantasy with stock anime cliches, a sporadic male gaze-y camera that’s particularly obsessed with one female character’s butt, and a sexist, entitled ass whose dialogue and actions (while realistic in terms of “jerk teenagers” and while frequently condemned by the rest of the cast) serve as irritating tonal whiplash.

And, again, I liked Grimgar. A lot. I think it does a lot of things really well, and in terms of “shows I most looked forward to each week” it was behind only Snow White and Showa Genroku. I’d love it if it got a second season. But I also know it’s a strange, uneven creature, too slow-paced for some and too vexing for others, so it’s hard to know who even to recommend it to. Do you like slice-of-life stories about forming communities and dealing with grief and trauma, and also butt shots, and also goblin-slaying? H’oh boy. I’m really not selling this one well at all, am I?

Series Grade: B

6. ERASED (Boku Dake ga Inai Machi)

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Available On: Crunchyroll
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: Struggling manga artist Satoru’s ability to (accidentally) jump backwards in time may help him solve a half-forgotten mystery from his past.
Content Warning: Violence (sometimes graphic); child abuse (fairly graphic)

Erased sparked a lot of debate and some dramatically fluctuating opinions this season (from “best of the winter” to “frustrating disappointment”), and I think whether or not it works for you will hinge on two primary factors: How much you want it to be a riveting mystery/thriller, and how attached you find yourself to the characters. On the mystery side, Erased is pretty lackluster, with a culprit telegraphed from roughly five miles away and a penchant for overwrought staging to try to make its predictable twists seem shocking. There are also a lot of “gals in trouble” in the early going, although that balances out a little as the story goes.

That said, as a character drama about the importance of trust and community, as a critique of look-the-other-way culture, and as a musing on what it means to be a hero, Erased pulled its story together in remarkable and surprising ways in its last two episodes, building to an emotionally satisfying conclusion that avoided the majority of the cliches I feared it was heading towards. I mentioned in my mid-season review that Erased had the framework of “guy saves girl in order to fix his own life,” but it tweaks that formula enough in the later episodes to suggest it’s much more a story about the bonds of family/friendship and how true altruism is about giving others the chance to make their own choices and being happy for them (rather than making choices for them or expecting a reward for one’s actions).

It’s a little low on this list because I spent most of the episodes between 3 and 10 underwhelmed (and occasionally outright laughing at the melodramatics), but it comes together nicely in the end. Taken as a complete work, Erased gets an “uneven but worthwhile” recommendation and a solid overall grade.

Series Grade: B

7. Prince of Stride: Alternative

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Available On: Funimation (U.S./Canada)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: The once-famous Honan Academy “Stride” parkour-style racing team looks to get their name back on the map thanks to some passionate incoming freshmen.
Content Warning:
 Fanservice (male)

The only thing PoSA really had going for it in the first few episodes was pleasing art design and a talented director (Ishizuka Atsuko, definitely a name to watch) who knew how to keep the stride races entertaining, but it got me to hang around long enough for the characters to become endearing and the straightforward story–about building a team and having the support of others when fighting to achieve one’s goals–to take shape. It struggled with its comedy and never tried for anything ambitious, but I think it did exactly what it set out to do with playful, cheesy sincerity. I won’t be putting it on any “best of” lists, but I enjoyed it even so.

Series Grade: C

Unranked

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She and Her Cat -Everything Flows-

I almost broke my rule about not ranking “shorts” this season, because She and Her Cat is a wonderful four-part story (available on Crunchyroll), heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal turns, and it deserves to be getting lots and lots of attention. Had I ranked it, it would’ve easily cleared my Top Three. I’d like to do a longer write-up about it at some point (including the production history behind it), but for now, if you’re a young professional, and especially if you’re a cat owner, I can’t recommend this beautiful little tale enough. Make sure you sit through the final ending credits!

Sekkou Boys

The story of a young female manager trying to wrangle the four-man pop idol group “Sekkou Boys,” who are not “men” so much as “talking stone busts of Saint Giorgio, Medici, Hermes, and Mars.” Yes, really. Rides the line between dumb and clever thanks to a combination of goofy statue sight gags and mythological references, with good comedic timing and just a dash of vinegar. Watch it if you like kinda-stupid concepts that go gleefully all-in with their premises.

Lupin III – Part 4

Technically not a “winter anime” (it aired in 2015; Crunchyroll just finally got the streaming rights this season) so technically not eligible for ranking. I did enjoy it, although based on others’ reactions I’d have liked it a lot more if I was a long-time Lupin fan. (That said, it’s a newbie-friendly series, so you can jump into this one even if you aren’t a Lupin expert.) It’s a mostly episodic series, so some stories are great while others are forgettable, and the finale focused a little too much on damsels and surreal story lines to leave me totally satisfied. Overall, though, thanks to likable characters and some standout one-offs, I’d still give it a “B.” Stylish spy caper goodness, and a fun way to spend 25 minutes a week.

Durarara!! x2 – Part Three (Series Finale)

Unranked because, despite my earlier promises, I still haven’t finished it. I haven’t dropped it, mind you, but I have limited free time, and I had to make a choice between watching Daredevil Season 2 and watching the final season of Durarara. I do not regret the choices I made. I’ll get to this one eventually.

Dropped

Divine Gate

I was defending my love for this “bad but actually good” series at the midway point, so I figured I should pop in and let everyone know that immediately after said midway point, everything fell apart and continued to do so week after unrelenting week, totally losing sight of the angsty-but-sincere emotional core that gave the show its dumb charm. Divine Gate didn’t even have the courtesy to be nonsensically entertaining; instead, the story became so convoluted that I gave up and stopped caring altogether. I’ve never given up on a series two episodes from the end, but I physically could not force myself to watch another episode. And thus: Dropped.

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3 thoughts on “Glancing Upstream: Winter 2016 Retrospective and Review

  1. I keep telling myself I need to watch Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju. Between your reviews and basically everyone whose watched it deeming it a masterpiece I really have no excuse except that, lately, I can’t really handle shows that have a lot of tragedy in them because I am weak. (School Live! a couple of seasons back destroyed me ;_;). I’m glad its getting a second season though. Maybe someday I’ll grow a spine and watch it.

    I actually really loved Prince of Stride: Alternative but in a lot of ways the final episode felt like a huge letdown. We didn’t get to see anyone cross the finish line and Nana’s story arc wasn’t really resolved at all beyond some throwaway dialogue. Like, I know they compressed/changed stuff to shake off some of the otome elements, but it was really a disservice. Episode 12 should have ended with Riku and his brother running, with a thirteenth episode showing the end of the race and tying everything up, even if it had 10 minutes of filler character-banter. Instead we find out at the very end that they won the race through a photograph with very little fanfare and it just felt FLAT.

    Osomatsu-san is probably one of my favorite anime of all time and I hope that Crunchyroll gets the streaming rights to the earlier -kun series, since they seem pretty fun from what little I’ve seen of them.

    (As an aside, have you seen any of the materials for the new season of Sailor Moon Crystal? The animation and the pacing is a lot better and even people who did not like the first two seasons seem to like this new one a lot so far based off the first episode.)

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  2. I came here to see how well you got along with Divine Gate since your midterm review, but I guess the relationship fell apart as soon as you said ‘I don’t hate…’. Too bad DG thought it could get away with a lot more :D
    There wasn’t much to watch in winter, but the few good titles were really good. I think it’s the first season since summer 2014 (when we had Nozaki-kun, HxH and Haikyu) that I didn’t want to end. I wanted Showa Rokugo and Osomatsu-san to just continue indefinitely (my prayers are answered as there IS A SECOND SEASON OF ROKUGO GOODNESS!). I also enjoyed Erased for what it was (I’m a die-hard fan of the manga in that it focuses on all the characters Satoru wanted to save, male and female, but in the anime I feel the focus was so heavily geared towards the female cast that it feels really troupey as you said). Haikyu was also fine even though it wasn’t the Haikyu I so looked forward to at the start of the cour.

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