Lady Leads & Sidekick Lads: Flipping the script in Team Rocket’s “Training Daze”

The lovely, charming origin story.

The Team Rocket trio stand together, wearing red training uniforms. Jessie clenches a fist and looks at James, who looks back at her with a determined smile. Meowth stands between them, grinning wide.

The Team Rocket trio have never been your typical villains. With a tenacity only matched by their incompetence, an enduring love for one another, a closet full of exquisite crossplay, and enough puns to sink the St. Anne, they’re about as charming as “bad guys” can get.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that their special backstory episode defies as many conventions as they do, taking the classic team origin story and turning familiar gendered archetypes cleverly on their heads.

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All Folks Bright and Beautiful: The casual gender diversity of Heaven’s Design Team

How to succeed at inclusivity without really trying.

A group of people sitting around a meeting room table. A man and woman face each other in the foreground.

The Heaven’s Design Team manga follows God’s R&D Department as they take requests from on high (literally) to populate the earth with new animals. Similar to Cells at Work!, it’s an edutainment series that balances comical interactions between coworkers with mini-lessons about some of the world’s most unique, clever, or just plain terrifying critters.

As the kid who devoured Zoobooks and the adult who’d rather visit a new city’s aquarium than its art museum, the series sounded like my jam, but it wasn’t exactly waving its arms and shouting “I’ll make great AniFem content!” either. Which was part of what made it such a pleasant surprise. I may have come for the neat animal facts, but I stayed for the charming cast breezily ignoring gender norms.

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Emma’s Choice: The gender-norm nightmare at the heart of The Promised Neverland

Some monsters aren’t just under our beds.

A sketch of two girls, Emma and Isabella. Emma is crouched and facing the left, looking determined. Isabella is standing and facing the right, looking sorrowful.

Since it began serialization in Viz’s Shonen JUMP, The Promised Neverland has garnered well-deserved praise for its twisting narrative, tense story beats, and compelling characters. But this series is more than a page-turning thriller. What begins as a sharply crafted horror story soon reveals itself to be a sophisticated critique on restrictive social practices—including the hellishly limited roles expected of girls.

CONTENT WARNING: Discussions of sexism and violence against children; disturbing imagery. SPOILERS for The Promised Neverland, Volumes 1-5 (Chapters 1-38).

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After the Rain, Ristorante Paradiso, and the delicate art of the age-gap romance

Power, perspective, and how little decisions can make a big difference.Two side-by-side shots of a young woman with short hair (Nicoletta) and a teen girl with long dark hair (Akira). Reflected in both of their eyes is a different middle-aged man.

At first glance, Ristorante Paradiso and After the Rain bear remarkable similarities. Both are anime adaptations of manga series written by women that center around a May-September romance. Both star a young woman and a middle-aged divorcee. Both even feature characters who work at a restaurant together! So why does Ristorante Paradiso leave me with the warm fuzzies, while After the Rain just leaves me feeling vaguely skeevy?

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Life After Failure in Sakura Quest

Roadblocks and scenic detours on the winding career path.

Since its very first promo video, Sakura Quest has been drawing comparisons to SHIROBAKO, and it’s easy to understand the impulse. Both are produced by P.A. Works, have similar character designs by Sekiguchi Kanami, and focus on five young women in the workplace. In a way, they’re also both about what happens after the credits roll on a typical high school anime, providing a refreshingly honest portrayal of the sometimes harsh realities of adulthood while still maintaining a relatively upbeat, optimistic tone.

Those “harsh realities” are where the two series diverge, though, because while SHIROBAKO focuses on what happens after people land their dream jobs, Sakura Quest is attempting something a bit trickier: what happens if they don’t? Can you still find happiness even if you don’t fulfill your childhood dream? What does life look like on the other side of failure?

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Know When to Fold ‘Em: Princess Principal and the feel-good feminism of “Loudly Laundry”

Working girls working together? Works for me!

In case you missed me heaping praise on it in my midseason review, I’m pretty fond of Princess Principal. It’s an entertaining spy caper with an unexpectedly progressive core, not just because of its cast of capable, complex female leads and light yuri undertones (although all of that is pretty great), but also because of its central focus on tearing down barriers. Some of those barriers are literal, like the wall that splits alternate-history London into two warring nation-states, but most of them are figurative, dealing with the sharp social and economic divisions present in this world.

Many of Princess Principal’s stories discuss the hardships inherent in these divisions, such as the poverty that’s influenced many characters’ lives or the walls that prevented our two protagonists from being together. All of that is valuable, as it both shows how these barriers negatively impact individuals and helps explain why Princess Charlotte is so determined to change things. But it’s the upbeat and inspiring Episode 7, “Loudly Laundry,” that offers perhaps the show’s most nuanced depiction of inequality to date, asking our central cast to acknowledge their own privilege—and encouraging them to find a better way forward.

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