Think of them as delicious s’mores roasting on this fire of a year!
We can pretty much all agree that 2016 was, er, not the greatest. But there were a few bright spots, at least, and one of them was definitely the anime. Each season had its standout hits and surprise treasures, filled with compelling characters, stylish animation, striking cinematography, and stories that ran the gamut from clever silliness to sincere enthusiasm to gripping tension to wrenching drama. I watched about 30 shows to completion (yeah, that scares me, too) and would recommend almost all of them to someone, depending on what kind of genres they enjoyed.
Problem is, this makes it nigh impossible to pick just 10 series to highlight as The Best Of The Best. How can I bear to ignore this hidden gem or snub that enjoyable blockbuster? The answer, it turns out, is to just straight-up abandon any pretense of critical distance. Or any modicum of Serious Blogger Professionalism whatsoever, really. That’s why this list has a whole slew of Honorable Mentions before even getting to the Top 10, and why the Top 10 is really just “the 10 shows I liked the best.”
It’s also why there is no #6. Instead, my Top 5 will have 6 shows in it. My blog, my rules, suckas!
There are two previous rules I am going to keep this year, at least: (1) Shorts aren’t eligible for the Top 10, and (2) while shows with 2017 sequels (like Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju) are eligible for the list, carryovers and split-cours that are scheduled to finish in 2017 are not. This pretty much only excludes ClassicaLoid, but still. Worth mentioning. And now that we’ve gotten the boring explanations out of the way…
A quick rundown of shows not in the Top 10 that I still wanted to call out:
Best Short: She and Her Cat -everything flows-, a beautiful four-episode miniseries that perfectly captures the poignant relationship between pets and their owners as well as presenting a female coming-of-age story that focuses on the importance of bonds between women. Also the only show this year that turned me into a puddle of tears. That always earns bonus points.
Best Anime That Wasn’t Technically an Anime: Thunderbolt Fantasy. This campy Chinese martial arts epic written by Urobochi Gen (of Madoka Magica and Psycho-Pass fame) hit just the right balance between exciting action sequences, witty banter, genuine tension, and tongue-in-cheek silliness. It’s ineligible for the Top 10 because PUPPETS, but it totally deserves a mention here. Because PUPPETS, y’all. Puppets.
Best Trash: The Lost Village (Mayoiga), the horror(?) comedy(?) series that tore the anime blogging community apart. Was it good? Bad? Intentionally bad? Unintentionally good? No one knows! I still don’t! That’s part of what made it so entertaining, as was its ridiculous (but still coherent) story line, hilariously one-note cast of thousands, and the way it always undercut any tension or seriousness with anticlimaxes and absurd shot selection. Of all the series grades I’ve doled out, the one I gave The Lost Village is my favorite. And heck, maybe it was Bad Actually. But I’d happily watch it again even so.
Best Shows That Aren’t On This List Because My Taste Is Bad And I Should Feel Bad: This category gets shared by a pair of BONES series: Concrete Revolutio and Mob Psycho 100. One was a complicated exploration of the superhero genre and post-war Japanese culture and history. The other was a quietly smart paranormal action series about anxiety, power, and the importance of compassion. Both featured some of the most striking, dynamic animation of the year. And yet here they are, outside looking in.
ConRevo struggled to make a cogent point in its finale and lost a lot of good will due to flat female characters. The relentless misery and cynicism in Mob Psycho‘s early episodes caused me to briefly drop it; while it did ease off as it went and eventually turned into an at-times moving story of loneliness and kindness, that intense anxiety and faint whiff of misanthropy always kept me at arm’s length. Both were undeniably made by talented, passionate people who had something to say and said it pretty darn well. But they’re not shows I’ll likely come back to at any point, which is why they’ve earned the backhanded compliment of being The Best Shows I Didn’t Like All That Much. Make of that what you will.
“But Dee,” you may be thinking, “if neither ConRevo NOR Mob Psycho made your Top 10, then what in the world did?!” Buckle up, kiddos: It’s about to get rull subjective in here.
10. flying witch
Studio: J.C. Staff
Series Episode Count: 12
In a sentence: A down-to-earth, fantastical slice-of-life about a witch who goes to live in a small town with her cousins while she attends high school.
When this first aired in the spring I was hesitant to admit how much I loved it. “A laid-back, essentially plot-less magical slice-of-life about a teenage witch and her family casting simple spells, meeting friendly supernatural beings, and going on casual adventures? No, no, I like goofy comedies, fluffy romances, thrilling action! This should bore me to tears! …Well, maybe I’ll watch just one more episode…”
flying witch (so chill it doesn’t even use capital letters) hits all the notes of a iyashikei (healing) anime without the out-of-place fanservice, overwrought cuteness, or cloying sentimentality so often found in the genre. It’s kind, cozy, and just the right amount of weird, using the contrast between its lazy tone and at-times bizarre magical world to solid comedic effect. It’s a show about the magic of the everyday, and from its art to its music to its story it succeeds in infusing every scene with a sense of unhurried wonder. Nothing really happens. And this year, for the first time, I understood the appeal of that.
9. My Hero Academia (Boku no Hero Academia)
Season Episode Count: 12 (Season 2 airs Spring 2017)
In a sentence: Deku is a regular human in a world where almost everyone has developed some kind of supernatural power (called “quirks”), but he’s still determined to become a Hero–and with a little help and support from an unlikely source, he just might manage it.
Content Warning: Violence (against adults/teens); mild fanservice (and an annoying kid who calls attention to it)
My Hero Academia is so heart-on-its-sleeve straightforward that I never have much to say about it, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of my favorite series of the year. It’s just so darned sincere, the quintessential shounen action series, with an upbeat message of altruism and a protagonist so cheek-pinchingly earnest I want to root for him and protect him all at once.
After one of the best premieres of the year, the first season takes its time establishing characters and winding its way through introductory arcs, so the story is more premise than plot, which does lead to some episodes where we’re spinning our wheels. (Even the BONES team seems to be pacing themselves, as the animation is competent but rarely outstanding.) Normally that’s the part where I lose interest in a long-running action series, but MHA excels at writing lovable (or at least interesting) characters, filling its cast with people I’m dying to hang out with and learn more about. Lucky for me Season 2 airs this spring and I’ll get my chance to do just that!
Studio: TMS Entertainment
Series Episode Count: 13
In a Sentence: There are two surprises waiting for second-year student Naho on her first day of class: A transfer student named Kakeru, and a letter from her future self, offering her advice so she doesn’t make the same mistakes twice.
Content Warning: Deals with depression and suicide
At times heartbreaking, at other times heartwarming, orange is a character-driven tale of trauma and healing, of the weight of guilt and the importance of communication and community. The series uses time travel as a way to discuss both the regrets of the past and the possibilities for the future, but despite its light science fiction elements it’s a story fully grounded in realism, with complex characters who hope and doubt and screw up and try again. orange also does a remarkable job handling the difficult topics of anxiety, depression, and especially suicide with sympathy and nuance, showing the devastating impact it can have on others without vilifying the person who commits it.
I wish I could push orange further up this list, as the acting, direction, and narrative are all top-tier. Unfortunately, a too-long run time (the story would have been more comfortable at 11-ish episodes) and a collapse in the production schedule lead to a middle act with poor pacing, stiff animation, and noticeably off-model designs. It’s a frustrating flaw in an otherwise powerful series. Nevertheless, orange is still an honest, hopeful, achingly true-to-life show, well worth your time even with its production problems. Just make sure you have a box of tissues handy when you’re watching it.
I covered this one for Anime Evo, so you can click here for extended episodic analysis as well as a full-length series review.
7. Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE! LOVE!
Season Episode Count: 12
Series Episode Count: 24
In a Sentence: A pink talking wombat grants five high schoolers the power to turn into the Battle Lovers, magical boys who fight for love and justice.
Content Warning: Partial nudity/fanservice (male); magical violence
My initial notes for why this one made my Top 10 were just “LOOK THIS SHOW IS GENIUS OK” and that’s, er, pretty much where I still stand. Marking the first time a Season 2 has made my Top 10 without Season 1 making a previous one, Cute High upped its comedy game from “mildly amusing magical girl parody and manservice show” to “consistently hilarious and sneakily smart depiction of adolescence.” I even wrote an essay about it!
I stubbornly maintain that its inspired idiocy featured some of the best dialogue of the year (writer Michiko Yokote is a genuine gift) and that absolutely no creative team had as much fun working on a show as these guys did. That gleeful stupidity—a blend of sincere love for the product and refusal to take any of it seriously—is infectious. Add to that some stellar Sailor Moon homages and an insightful understanding of the absurdity inherent in high school life, and you’ve got the recipe for a sequel that not only trounces the original, but gets to nestle comfortably among The Josei’s 2016 favorites.
…Look, this show is genius, okay?