This year’s Top Five is so strong, it’s actually a Top Six.
Did you miss out on Part 1? Fear not! You can click here for the year in review and the bottom half of the Top 10, including honorable mentions. Or, if you’re ready to check out the cream of the crop, you can hit the jump and read on for more.
As a reminder, all seasons that ended in 2016 are eligible for this list, including sequels, even if they began their run in 2015 or earlier. Ongoing series (like ClassicaLoid) will be eligible in 2017.
So here we go, my five top (read: favorite) shows of the year! Drums rolled? Fingers crossed? Angry comments about the series I didn’t include typed and at the ready? Perfect. Let’s do this thing.
5. Tanaka-kun is Always Listless (Tanaka-kun wa Itsumo Kedaruge)
Studio: Silver Link
Episode Count: 12
In a sentence: Perpetually sleepy Tanaka, his best friend Ohta, and their classmates navigate the day-to-day absurdities of high school in this offbeat YA comedy.
Content Warning: One of the characters has a slightly creepy crush on her brother; possible queerbaiting
This laid-back sitcom about a lazy boy and his friends came out of nowhere to be my #1 pick from the Spring season and earn a spot on my all-time favorite anime comedies list. Its understated, slowly escalating humor is as unassuming as its protagonist, rarely calling attention to itself but picking up steam over the course of a scene, sneaking up on its audience with a burst of ridiculousness or a sudden deadpan joke.
Better still, Tanaka-kun is as smart and warm as it is funny. Using its charming cast of oddballs, the series presents a Zen-like, optimistic outlook on adolescence, showing how people can come to understand their own strengths and weaknesses and figure out the best way to grow. It cheerfully challenges gender norms and encourages its characters to be comfortable in their own skins while also wisely understanding that sometimes people want to change, and that’s okay, too. It’s an accepting and supportive little comedy, my go-to rewatch any time I’m having a bad day at work. Tanaka-kun is always listlessly cheering me up, and that’s a very good thing.
4. Tie: Flip Flappers and Yuri!!! on ICE
Studio: Studio 3Hz (Flip Flappers) and MAPPA (Yuri on Ice)
Series Episode Count: 13 (Flip Flappers) and 12 (Yuri on Ice)
Flip Flappers In a Sentence: This magical coming-of-age tale follows uncertain Cocona and impulsive Papika as they explore the surreal world(s) of “Pure Illusion,” uncovering its mysteries and their own along the way.
Content Warning: Magical violence; teen sexuality; some leering and invasive camera angles (they’re pretty rare, but really jarring when they happen)
Yuri on Ice In a Sentence: Struggling figure skater Yuri returns to his hometown in Japan to regroup– until a viral video brings the world of pro skating right back to his doorstep.
Content Warning: Fanservice (male); sexual innuendo
I joked once that my favorite anime of the Fall was “Flip Flappers and Yuri on Ice competing to be the gayest show of the season,” and it turns out that, much like the adorable queer couples at the heart of both series, I ‘shipped them together so hard I just couldn’t bear to tear them apart. So we get two #4 series! (Hey, I told you this list didn’t make any sense.)
I wrote about these shows just last week for my Fall Retrospective, so right now there’s not much to add. I consider them flawed (Flip Flappers with its occasional fanservice and leering camera angles; Yuri on Ice with its fragmented narratives and too-open ending) but nevertheless ambitious passion projects, the kinds of shows you can appreciate technically, intellectually, and emotionally.
I gaped at ice skating animation. I drooled over imaginative alternate worlds. I dissected the way Yuri on Ice explored gender performance and admired its subtle subversiveness. I researched Flip Flappers‘s allusions and analyzed (weekly, in fact!) how it explored female adolescence and awakening queer sexuality. I rooted for Yuri and Victor (and Yurio). I cheered for Cocona and Papika (and Yayaka). Maybe they’re flawed, and maybe they’re a bit lower on this list because of it. But warts and all, I am still so incredibly grateful we got these two earnest, optimistic, uplifting little love stories. With as rough as the year has been, we definitely needed them.
3. 91 Days
Series Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: Seven years after the murder of his family, Angelo receives a letter with the names of their killers and begins to hatch a plot for revenge.
Content Warning: Violence (some graphic; against adults/teens and kids)
For my money the second-best directed series of the year, 91 Days excelled at three main areas: Creating suspense and dread using angles and framing; developing complex, morally gray characters almost entirely through actions and visual cues; and constantly subverting narrative expectations.
I went into my weekly analyses expecting a simple, tense gangster flick, but as the story progresses it becomes less about gangsters and more about kids playing at gangsters, trying to be cold-blooded killers to make their fathers (living and deceased) proud. Through its well-paced plots and layered, balanced character work (and with a hearty helping of Shakespearean allusion for good measure), 91 Days slowly sheds its genre trappings and dismantles the revenge narrative, showing how the aggressive expectations of the older generation can destroy the younger one and questioning whether the chain of violence can ever be broken.
Despite some two-dimensional supporting characters and early story arcs that revel a bit too much in genre pulp (although I admittedly had a lot of fun with the pulpy bits, too), 91 Days builds to a finale that’s arguably the strongest of any series this year, confident and surprising and powerful and unique. It doesn’t offer any easy answers and often makes its audience work to glean meaning through shot selection or dialogue, but that’s also what made the experience so fulfilling. If you’re willing to put in the effort, 91 Days makes for not just a twisty crime drama, but also one of the best character studies of the year. Three months later and my heart still aches a little for these felonious scamps.
2. Snow White with the Red Hair (Akagami no Shirayuki-hime)
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)
I rewatched Part One recently to see if the magic was still there, and yep—Snow White remains My Favorite Thing, the coziest of modern fairy tales and the fluffiest of romances. After six months examining its perceptive story and superb visuals, I feel confident calling it a near-flawless production, from its whimsical score to its lush backgrounds to its pensive character arcs and conflicts. Every element feeds into the next to create a complete work that wraps around its audience like a warm blanket on a cold winter day.
Perhaps the fact that it’s low on drama should be counted as a mark against it, but why punish a show for not doing something it never intended to do? Right from the start it’s clear that Snow White is an idyllic fantasy, more interested in showing us how the world could be rather than the way it is. Determined, independent, compassionate, and capable, Shirayuki is a worthy role model for young girls (heck, she’s my role model, too); and her relationship with Zen is the sort of trusting, communicative romance we need more of (in fiction and reality alike).
Snow White encourages female agency and equality, considers mutual respect to be the ultimate romantic gesture, avoids tired love triangles in favor of exploring a variety of interpersonal relationships, and manages to be sweet and amusing and inspiring (and totally melt me into a puddle of feels) along the way. It has admirable, progressive goals and accomplishes them with intelligence and grace. For all that, I’ll happily give it the year’s silver medal.
1. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
Season Episode Count: 13 (Season 2 is airing Winter 2017)
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.
As strong as 2016 was, nothing holds a candle to Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju. Director Hatekeyama and his creative team put together a masterful production here, bringing the post-war world of rakugo and its players to life through exuberant performances, evocative music, a keen eye for small expressions and gestures, and gorgeous cinematography that danced elegantly between literal realism and emotional realism, depicting the story as our narrator both saw and felt it. I said 91 Days was the second-best directed series of the year, and Showa Genroku still blows it out of the water. I was frequently left reeling after an episode and usually needed a couple days before I could talk about it, otherwise I’d have just spent 1000 words gushing incoherently each week.
In addition to being a magnificently staged series, Rakugo Shinju is also thoughtfully written, featuring a cast of complicated, nuanced, painfully real characters. The narrative deftly navigates Kikuhiko’s limited perspective, offering us glimpses into the lives of the people around him so that we learn of their strengths, flaws, and fears as he does, shifting our interpretation of the characters as we go (even if we, like Kikuhiko, can never fully understand everyone). Kikuhiko himself has climbed onto my All-Time Favorite Fictional Characters List as a reticent, insecure, grouchy, fiercely protective and lonely caretaker whose relationship with gender and sexuality are as compelling as his relationships with rakugo and the people he loves.
I’ve watched this show three times already and I pick up some new character detail or bit of cinematographic nuance each time. No matter how many words I write about it (and boy have I written a lot) I still feel like I’m not quite doing it justice. It’s good. It’s so good. It’s just so damn good. And now I get to bask in its brilliance again with Season 2. Who knows? Maybe this time next year I’ll be back gushing about how Showa Genroku is the best anime of 2017, too. With as often as that first season impressed me, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit.
And that’s the end of 2016! Cheers to great anime, and thanks as always for your kind likes, reblogs, and comments. Let’s keep chatting in the new year, too! Hopefully it’ll be another good one for anime and a better one for the world in general. 2017, here we come.