Gather ’round for a flock of faves!
Did you miss out on Part 1? Fear not! You can click here for the bottom half of the Top 10, including honorable mentions. Or, if you’re ready to check out the cream of the crop, hit the jump and read on for more.
As a reminder, all seasons that ended in 2018 are eligible for this list, including sequels, even if they began their run in 2017 or earlier. Ongoing series (like Run with the Wind) will be eligible in 2019.
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. Sirius the Jaeger
Series Episode Count: 12
Studio: P.A. Works
Season Director: Masahiro Ando
In a Sentence: When supernatural hunter Yuliy Jirov travels with his team to track down a murderous vampire in 1930s Tokyo, it sends him on a collision course with his past and the brother he’d long thought dead.
Content Warning: Violence (some graphic); depictions of genocide and slavery; some revealing costumes (though the camera doesn’t leer)
It’s been a week since I finished Sirius the Jaeger and I already want to rewatch it. I also can’t seem to stop thinking about it. That one-two punch is the reason it squeaked into my Top 5—while I enjoyed some shows more and others provoked deeper analysis, few did both with as much flair as this one.
This series is three things rolled into 12 episodes. First, it’s campy paranormal pulp, with thrilling fights, endearing heroes, chortling villains, and a treasure hunt-style plot that feels right out of an Indiana Jones flick. Second, it’s a heartfelt family tale of orphaned brothers torn apart, trying to save each other despite the powerful forces against them. And third, it’s a period piece about the lone survivor(s) of an indigenous tribe fighting back and finding a way forward.
Sirius uses its supernatural metaphors to bluntly reject imperialism and xenophobia, ideologies that were on the rise in its 1930s setting and are all-too-relevant today. Better still, it does so in a way that both pushes for different communities to find common ground and acknowledges that sometimes you have to stab the shit out of a few slave-owning supremacists before you can get there. I wouldn’t say its metaphors are ironclad or wholly successful (and it’s not my place to make that claim anyway), but I personally found it pretty darn satisfying.
Is it messy, simplistic, and overly idealistic? Hell, yes. Does its supporting cast deserve more screen time, especially its very cool female characters who are ultimately sidelined so the wolf brothers can take center stage? Absolutely. Do its silly supernatural elements distract too much from the story it really wants to tell? Maybe so.
Sirius is by no means a perfect anime, and its semi-open ending suggests the creators were either hoping for a sequel or weren’t quite sure how to see their ideals realized (especially for a story set on the eve of WWII). But it’s also wildly entertaining, desperately earnest, and taking a clear stand at a time when we need it. Flaws and all, I still think that’s worth a lot.
Sirius the Jaeger is streaming on Netflix. Check to see if it’s available in your region.
4. Revue Starlight
Series Episode Count: 12
Studio: Kinema Citrus
Season Director: Furukawa Tomohiro
In a Sentence: Karen Aijo, a student at Seisho Music Academy, finds herself diving into a surreal world of musical battles where she and her fellow students duke it out to determine which of them will be the school’s next “top star.”
Content Warning: Theatrical violence
The Revue Starlight premiere flew out of nowhere to gobsmack me with gorgeous cinematography, surreal staging, and beautifully animated Takarazuka-inspired musical battles. While the series as a whole has a few hiccups—the cast was a few members too large for a single-cour series, creating some truncated arcs during the middle act—it’s still a standout lady-led anime, and one of those shows I’ve come to appreciate more over time.
In addition to being an all-around terrific production (every battle is a visual feast), Starlight also offers two layers of narrative for its audience. On one level, it’s a fantastical story of rivalries and relationships between talented, driven female performers. This includes queer romances both implicit and explicit, as well as a central love story that builds in appropriately epic fashion, given the anime’s musical roots.
On another level, Starlight is an exploration and critique of some of the practices of the Takarazuka Revue, particularly the narrowly defined concept of a single, masculine-performing (otokoyaku) “top star.” I highly recommend reading along with Atelier Emily’s weekly writeups as you watch this one, as they provide a lot of valuable information about the Takarazuka theatre and how Starlight interacts with it.
Because of its short length and somewhat clipped pacing, Starlight works best if you’re willing to give in to its musical bombast, allowing choreography and songs to sweep you along in a rush of grand archetypal characters, conflicts, and emotions. If you can’t, this one will likely leave you cold. But if you can, Starlight will prove an ambitious, stylish, and even moving experience well worth your time.
Revue Starlight is streaming on HiDIVE and VRV. Check to see if it’s available in your region.
3. Laid-Back Camp
Season Episode Count: 12 (Season 2 coming soon)
Season Director: Kyougoku Yoshiaki
In a Sentence: Transfer student Nadeshiko learns the joys of camping after she meets solo camper Rin, leading her to join the Outdoor Club and grow closer with her fellow classmates.
Content Warning: Mild nudity (not sexualized)
When I reviewed the Laid-Back Camp premiere, I described it as “the anime equivalent of sipping tea under a fuzzy blanket. It cured my headache and dropped my blood pressure 10 points. I wouldn’t be surprised if my doctor starts prescribing it to me.” That first impression held true for the entire series, developing into the year’s best comfort food.
While Laid-Back Camp is first-and-foremost an iyashikei (healing/soothing) series, it’s also a delightfully off-beat comedy, featuring a cast of girls whose good-natured teasing feels natural instead of mean-spirited or cloying. It’s a “cute girls do cute things” show, to be sure, but one that doesn’t fall into the trap of fetishizing or infantilizing its characters. In fact, it actively promotes independence and adventure, depicting its female cast striking out into nature both individually and as a group.
This is the pinnacle of the Nice Comedy, right up there with personal darling Tanaka-kun is Always Listless. Fortunately I’m not the only one who thinks so, as Laid-Back Camp has earned itself a second season. I can’t wait to cuddle up with it for another cour.
Laid-Back Camp is streaming on Crunchyroll and VRV. Check to see if it’s available in your region.
2. Bloom Into You
Series Episode Count: 12
Season Director: Kato Makoto
In a Sentence: Feeling isolated from her peers because she’s never felt “love” the way everyone else does, Yuu thinks she’s found a kindred spirit in upperclassmate Touko—at least, until Touko confesses that she’s falling in love with Yuu.
Content Warning: Mild sexual content; depictions of homophobia
Real talk, dear readers: I was totally lukewarm on Bloom Into You at the three-episode mark. I only stuck with it because nobody else on AniFem was watching it and it felt like a show we should be following. Thank goodness for occupational obligations, because holy cow did this build into an impressive series.
Strikingly storyboarded and gracefully narrated, Bloom Into You follows its cast of queer teens as they grapple with their sexualities, identities, and shifting relationships with one another. It would be notable for that alone, but Bloom also directly engages with cultural norms, acknowledging harmful “just a phase” ideology and actively rejecting it by including a healthy adult lesbian couple. Much like Yuu’s relationship with Touko, each week I fell for this series a little more.
If there’s one caveat I need to mention here, it’s that there’s a fine line in stories about teenagers between “late-bloomer/repressed” and”ace/aro,” and while Bloom initially feels like the latter, it eventually turns into the former. It wound up not bothering me because (1) the series does a fantastic job depicting Yuu’s arc and (2) there’s a supporting character who actually is ace/aro, so it’s not “erasure” so much as “showing a variety of experiences.” That said, I know there are folks who’ve felt hurt by that shift, so it’s worth mentioning for incoming viewers.
If you go in knowing what to expect, though, Bloom Into You is an exquisitely directed, beautifully animated slow-burn yuri romance that engages with queerness in a way that’s sometimes devastating, often comforting, and always thoughtful. Even if you’re hesitant at first, I urge you to give it a try. Your patience will be well-rewarded.
Bloom Into You is streaming on HiDIVE and VRV. Check to see if it’s available in your region.
1. A Place Further than the Universe
Series Episode Count: 13
Season Director: Ishizuka Atsuko
In a Sentence: Four teens with very different goals make it their mission to travel to Antarctica, spurred on by one girl’s desire to find her missing mother.
Content Warning: Bereavement; an isolated joke about a parent threatening to hit their child; mild nudity (bathing scenes; not sexualized); discussions of bullying (not shown)
What is it about the Winter season constantly providing the best anime of the year? You’d think they’d wanna build up to it ‘stead of spending the rest of the year futilely trying to match it…
Anyway, A Place Further than the Universe is making everybody’s “best of” lists, even publications that barely know anime exists, and I’m more than happy to jump on that bandwagon. Expressively animated and skillfully written, Place Further weaves together four separate coming-of-age stories into one travelogue that packs a heck of an emotional wallop. I think I laughed out loud and teared up at basically every episode.
Similar to Laid-Back Camp, this is a series wearing the veneer of a “cute girl” show that’s not about typically “cute” qualities. These gals are messy, goofy, brash, and blunt, and much of the series is devoted to nudging them towards independence and self-actualization. Through a production that relies on dynamic character animation and spoken dialogue, they feel realer and more fleshed-out than most characters who get whole scenes dedicated to their internal monologues.
One-part adventure story, one-part character drama, Place Further is a triumph of visual storytelling, sincere and heartbreaking and hopeful in equal turns. It’s the kind of series I’d happily show to just about anyone, even people who have no interest in anime. Keep your eyes on director Atsuko Ishizuka, folks—I have a feeling this won’t be the last time she impresses us.
A Place Further than the Universe is streaming on Crunchyroll and VRV. Check to see if it’s available in your region.
And that’s the end of 2018! Thanks to everyone who’s stuck with me these past 12 months! My own writing has taken a bit of a backseat to AniFem editorial duties, but I still want to keep talking about anime and manga as much as I can, and I hope you’ll be back to chat with me about it, too!
Here’s to 2019: may it be full of great anime and greater news! Nowhere to go but up, right?