Oops, I watched anime again this year
Most years I struggle to even watch enough new shows to fill out a top 5 list. And then, I frequently feel like many of them don’t leave enough of an impression to even bother being put onto a list. Is it even worth doing a list if something like Berserk (2017) has to end up included by default? Balancing the nonstop deluge of the new with the list of old I haven’t gotten to yet is also an ongoing battle that doesn’t look to be ending any time soon. How do does one comfortably fit a beast like Legend of the Galactic Heroes into their regular weekly routine? But as I sit here at the end of the year casually going over my watch histories I’m finding that, oh wait, it looks like I did actually sit through a surprising amount of current anime. And many of them actually drew a response. Crazy times we’re living in. So here’s an extremely rigid and not at all hastily thrown together breakdown of all 2018 anime I somehow watched in the year that felt like an age.
The Good Stuff
Thunderbolt Fantasy – Sword of Life and Death/Sword Seekers – Gen Urobuchi and Pili’s wildly entertaining violent puppet adventure continued this year with not one but two new entries. In January we got the Sword of Life and Death movie, which offered up a twofer of wuxia shenanigans. The first half delves into the origins of season one standout character, the Screaming Phoenix Killer, and his all-consuming vendetta against that lovable pipe smoking, villain pantsing Enigmatic Gale. The tragic tale gives the slicing obsessed assassin some much-needed dimension and further reinforces the smug trickster’s deranged hobby, along with a healthy body count. The second half is more lighthearted, with an impostor of our always tired hero, Shang, telling an exaggerated version of the first season’s events to bum free drinks at a tavern only to bump into the real thing and some angry sword cult stragglers. Look, Thunderbolt Fantasy‘s first season was fairly wacky, with plenty of sword missiles, exploding puppet heads, and incredible banter. But add in a sword surfing, glitter weaponizing suspiciously perfect hero who finishes off the big bad with a Final Fantasy limit break and you’ve got comedy gold.
Then in October the long-awaited second season gifted us with its presence, offering up a meatier, more intimately focused romp with some stand-out new additions to the cast. The direction was tighter, spending more time on nuanced body language, confident close-ups of the faces, and more of that sweet puppet ultra-violence. The writing was sharper than ever, playing these character’s opposing philosophies off one another brilliantly while never missing an opportunity to drop a scorching passive-aggressive burn into the script. One of the new characters beat a dragon with the power of the show’s own theme song and has Predator vision-style hearing. Honestly, I could go on forever about these puppets and their sword-heavy adventures, and while it might not technically be anime, it was far and away my favorite TV experience of the year and that announced third season cannot come fast enough.
Devilman Crybaby – After diving hard into Masaaki Yuasa’s work with The Tatami Galaxy, Kaiba, The Night is Short, Walk On Girl, and Mind Game, his adaptation of Go Nagai’s 1972 classic was right at the top of my most anticipated list for the year; and it did not disappoint. Crybaby hits fast and hard, burning its world and painfully vulnerable cast teetering at the edge ruin into my mind where they’ve stayed since watching it twice all the way back in January. If you can handle the violence and a truly hollowing look at the ugliness of humanity, Crybaby is an achingly raw trip to the end of the world with a lot to say about sexuality and the desperate need for empathy.
Lupin the Third: Part 5 – The master thief has been having a pretty stellar decade. 2012’s The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is easily the franchise’s most formally daring approach to theme and character we’ll likely ever see. Part IV: The Italian Adventure is an almost perfect Platonic ideal synthesis of the classic 1970’s Lupin, equal parts inspired by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s warmer, more friendly take on the gang and Part II‘s pulpier qualities. But it always felt like Lupin had never fully entered the current world, each entry always looking back to a stylized 1970s for their settings and attitudes, and it seemed like nobody could pull off a contemporary take on this gang of thieves. And then along comes Part 5 to prove me wrong, thoroughly modernizing the conflict with a tech company exploiting metadata and invasion of privacy under the guise of consumer convenience that is so perfectly relevant for the current world. In between longer story arcs, which explore Lupin and the gang’s place in the world and if they even matter anymore, Part 5 found time for fun one-off episodes that stylistically throwback to older entries. It hasn’t been long enough to be sure, but Telecom may have pulled off what will go down as the definitive Lupin show. After decades of lackluster TV specials and movies, seeing a steady feed of amazing back to back Lupin feels like I’m witnessing a miracle and I don’t want it to end.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Golden Wind – This one is a bit of a surprise. If you asked what my least favorite stretch of the manga was, I wouldn’t miss a beat offering up Golden Wind as my answer. I utterly failed to connect with the source material several years ago and largely put it out of my mind since. When it was announced that JoJo’s fifth story arc was being adapted I immediately thought, “well OK, I guess we have to get through this to get to Stone Ocean and Steel Ball Run; I’ll sit through it but I won’t be happy about it”. Maybe it was the low-quality scanlations, maybe I just wasn’t giving it a fair shake at the time, who knows. But David Production’s adaptation has officially won me over. Each season of JoJo’s, while maybe not always better overall than the previous, has constantly been a step up in terms of production quality. Expression, the channeling of Hirohiko Araki’s original artwork, sense of visual clarity, and willingness to experiment. And Golden Wind is no different. They took the torture dance, a bit that spanned only a few panels that I entirely failed to even remember, and turned it into this explosive psychedelic music video showpiece. I’m somewhat in awe of this production. I know we’re only a third of the way through, but my confidence in this season is strong and things are only going to get wilder from here. I can’t wait to see how they tackle King Crimson or Metallica.
Pop Team Epic – This was tough, as my first time through Pop Team as it aired in the winter would have easily earned its place as a stand out of the year. Coming home on my lunch break every Saturday and screaming in exasperation was certainly an experience worth recognizing. Those Bob Epic Team shorts, in particular, are brilliant and mercifully brief glimpses into a terrifying hellscape. Not merely presenting the original 4-panel bits in animated form, Kamikaze Douga went the extra mile, or in several cases many more, to take the deeply online anti-humor even further, wisely incorporating sound and movement into Pop Team Epic‘s arsenal of mind pulverizing tools. But upon rewatching the series, I found not as many jokes landing, and the repeating B part compounding too many long, unfunny stretches of time. Revisiting the series on Blu-ray months later also revealed that a solid amount of my entertainment came from the communal aspect of watching episodes as they came out and participating in the reactions in real-time. If nothing else, Pop Team Epic seeks to get a rise out of its audience and being a part of a larger group dissecting its many references, sharing in bewilderment, or learning about the unique creative approach the team took to the more outlandish and unexpected shorts occupies a special place in time. It’s not an experience that can be packaged and sold, to be gone through at leisure. That being said, Pop Team is still a wonderful showcase of an amazingly diverse collection of oddities that I don’t see where else they could ever fit in and I will never stop thinking about Hellshake Yano and his legend.
Memorable But Not Quiet Top Shelf
Megalo Box – A modern reimagining of Tomorrow’s Joe, Megalo Box replaces 1960s Japan with a dirty near future and ups the already brutal boxing stakes with powered exoskeleton’s to make those punches hit extra hard. It’s got a great rough-hewn and rusty aesthetic that makes those ugly beats downs all the more painful. It won’t go down as a favorite, but there’s a wonderful sense of stone-cold cool and a lean and mean distillation of the engaging anime sports formula running through its veins.
Castlevania – Season 2 – Another surprise, as I actively disliked 2017’s very short first season. I’m still not a big fan of how everyone talks like you would expect medieval fantasy characters to until someone blurts out “eat shit and die” but using the expanded episode count to explore a bigger world and spending a significant amount of time getting inside the villain’s heads as they plot to unmake humanity was a welcome upgrade. I kind of love that there’s a Castlevania show of all things that is all about depression and bad reactions to trauma. One that spends more time with an emotionally drained Dracula and his complicated henchmen than it does with whipping monsters. That was an unexpected treat. And it is worth noting that when it does come time, season 2 was no slouch and had some of the best action of the year. As with Thunderbolt, yeah it’s not anime, but close enough, right?
Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san – I’m not entirely sure when or how skeletons, particularly anxious ones, became a recognized symbol of Millennial struggles, but Honda-san keenly taps into that, knowingly or not. I’ve never worked in retail, but I am in an adjacent position, having to deal with customers, shipments of product, and the usual stresses of a fast-moving work environment and let me tell you: Honda-san gets it. Taken from the real-life experiences of the author, I found myself laughing at the deep cut jokes about the manga industry and daily workplace problems, and immediately recognizing that oh yeah, that exact awkward thing happened last Wednesday.
SSSS.Gridman – Like many, I imagine, I went in expecting Trigger’s usual loud manic energy and overwhelmingly enthusiastic nerd reverence. Their Japan Animator Expo short from 2015, boys invent great hero, was a 10-minute highlight reel of transforming and attack animations, set to the opening and ending themes of the original tokusatsu show after all. So in what ended up being yet another pleasant surprise, Gridman turned out to be the studio’s quietest, most introspective series to date. Not to mention their slickest directed effort yet from Inferno Cop‘s Akira Amemiya. Fully embracing the studio’s Gainax roots and taking many overt cues from Evangelion for much of the emotional heft, it’s also a huge love letter to the original Gridman and packed full of references for tokusatsu fans. For the uninitiated like myself, those can thankfully function as a window dressing for the main throughline about having the courage to face the world. However, I do wish the series had more to say about why tokusatsu stories and stylistic flourishes clearly resonant, instead of simply presenting them as in the know winks.
Planet With – This one of those shows with no recognizable pedigree that just sort of showed up over the summer with little fuss and steadily grew through word of mouth. Planet With is something of an abnormality, essentially a hyper-condensed robot story about the cost of revenge and alien invasion but at no point feeling like it was commercially motivated to push toys, and all wrapped up in an endearingly warm and pleasant atmosphere. Like a chilled out, speedy Gurren Lagann, Planet With starts small and ends with a grand, sweeping scale about universal hope and friendship without ever losing sight of personal connections. As with Gridman, it was a show I think I respected and appreciated more than I was actually engrossed by.
Batman Ninja – I feel like we haven’t fully digested the length and breadth of Batman Ninja‘s weirdness yet. Maybe we never will. This a movie in which Batman and his rogues gallery are tossed back in time to feudal Japan, an extremely turned on Gorilla Grodd attempts to seduce the Caped Crusader at a hot spring, and has Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots-style transforming castles in the first 30 minutes of its run time – and it keeps going at this pace for another hour. I don’t know where this came from creatively, as Warner Bros. promoted it as just another direct-to-video DC movie, but there’s a kind of off the wall, crazy in all the right ways energy here. Best described as something of a hybrid between JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure‘s colorful pageantry and an experimental Saturday morning cartoon, Batman Ninja needs to be seen to be believed.
Sure, Fine, Whatever
FLCL Progressive – The idea of making more FLCL years after the fact with a mostly new staff sounds like a dangerous gamble. The original OVA was a lightning in a bottle situation, coming out of the collaboration of many talented creatives at a very specific point in time in their careers and the industry at large. It’s not something that can simply be recreated by buying up the rights and ordering a bunch more. Even if you managed to pack the original staff back into one room, you would get very different results today. But I try to remain open to sequels and updates to singular works. After all Mad Max and Blade Runner were both unmistakably products of their time and the idea of making more decades later didn’t look good on paper. But Fury Road and 2049 are some of my favorite anythings of the last few years; it’s possible to pull these off! So it’s too bad that the first sequel season not only fails to introduce much new, it fails to even properly channel the energy the original had to spare. It became clear early on Progressive intended to stick to established iconography and visual language but couldn’t handle it. The fifth episode is the closest it comes to recapturing the spirit of the original, but it’s a lone outlier in an otherwise unfortunately dull show. I dropped out of Alternative after 2 episodes, so I can’t say much about how it pans out but I did appreciate the writing and direction seemingly coming at FLCL‘s adolescent angst from a different angle.
B: The Beginning – I don’t really know where to put B, which was in turns one of the most batshit entertainingly weird shows I saw in 2018 and the most boring. It almost defies any formal categorization with its murder-mystery-but-also-super-natural-battle-for-the-throne-of-God story. There are debatably three main characters each seeming like they were pulled from a different show. A gang of gold drinking failed God clones that dress up like clowns being used as government assassins. A blimp in space. The “B” in the title is revealed to not even be a letter only a few episodes in. It’s a wild disaster of a thing with surprisingly high production values. When it was full-on, skateboarding-down-a-building crazy, B was one of my favorite dumb shows of the year, but when the bird boy story showed up, it was like watching paint dry. I’ve long suspected B was actually 3 or 4 different pitches that got shuffled together in a fated elevator ride to the meeting and the producers bluffed their way into funding. Who really knows, but what I do know is that there was only one show this year where a major crack in the mystery was solved using pastries and I respect that. Somehow we’re getting a sequel and I’m down.
Consciously Aware of Every Moment Taken from My Finite Lifespan
Banana Fish – In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have stuck with Banana Fish for its entire run. What started out as a problematic series with the potential for an interesting story about overcoming trauma set in the complex New York City underworld had squandered most if not all of my hope by the halfway point. At once feeling like it was rushing through major plot points by resolving what had been established moments earlier as large-scale obstacles with a few sentences and an anemic action sequence, and then dragging out physical and emotional torture scenes for nearly entire episodes, while framing many with a voyeuristic lens. Banana Fish equally bored me, made me laugh at its comically overblown sense of seriousness in the face its pulpy content (it’s very hard to take the stakes of this story seriously when Ash solves so many of the problems by single-handedly killing 40 mobsters with his infinite ammo pistol), and grossed me out with how it leveraged very intimate violence as a currency in building up the legend of Ash, the coolest/smartest/sexiest/hardest living gang boss/hacker/abuse victim/amateur chemist/foreign policy advisor/biggest brain-haver to ever live.
Gundam Build Divers – The Build neighborhood of the massive Gundam franchise was once a shining example of a kid-friendly, but perfectly entertaining series for anyone that wasn’t burdened by the usual Gundamisms; either continuity or adherence to formula. Build Fighters was a fun, lighthearted, easy to pick up sports story with a metric ton of cute but not derailing Gundam shout outs. But the years haven’t been kind, and each new entry has drained more and more of that energy until we arrived at Divers, which ditched the real model toy fight gimmick for a virtual reality MMORPG. Initially, the move made the robot fights more immersive, they can explore classic Gundam locations and see the full-scale mobile suits! Yet Build Divers never fully grappled with the disconnect of its stakes and world, which sees the game being threatened by glitches but frequently has to dodge that at the end of the day, it’s just a game. As a giant Gundam fan, I can’t recommend Divers to even the hardest core series enthusiasts, because beyond charming nods to Turn A‘s Harry Ord’s wonderful fashion sense or an Armored Trooper Votoms inspired color scheme, there is little fun to had.
Last Hope – After seeing the extremely wacky and unabashedly anime trailer at Otakon, my hopes were high. Shoji Kawamori and Satelight have a special touch when it comes to goofy cartoons that aren’t afraid to run with their already silly premises. After all, I finally watched Aquarion Evol this year, and that show goes places with its worn-out premise. So it’s a shame that Last Hope decides to take a far too serious approach to its post-apocalyptic setup of animal/machine hybrid monsters being multidimensionally punched by the heroes’ transforming robots. Admittedly I haven’t finished the series, as Netflix only released the second half a few days ago, but my willingness to give this slog anymore of my time is very low.
Digimon Adventure tri.: Future – Very few works from my childhood still hold up in my heart like Digimon Adventure and while I’ve long known the tri. series wasn’t going to substantially add any worthwhile or tap into what made the original so endearing, it still managed to add an extra-long sigh in the finale. Low production values, dreary direction, unearned melodrama, and drawn out run times on all the movies, oddly re-edited into a TV format on Crunchyroll, was more than enough to dismiss the endeavor as a misfire. But adding a “this was just a taste of the battle come!” stinger after 6 movies and a nearly 3-year production length was an extra middle finger. That summer vacation ended long ago.
Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters/City on the Edge of Battle – Looks like I’m ending this just as I started: with a Gen Urobuchi penned effort, but with very different results. Somehow it took over 50 years for Godzilla to headline an anime project and if these 2 movies, with a third looming on the horizon, are any indication, maybe we should shelve the idea for another few decades. You know that there’s a problem when 10 minutes into the first movie, it’s already rerunning footage. A baby Godzilla explodes in the finale of Planet and the effect looks like they stuffed TNT into an old barn. For some reason, in City, someone determined that the traditional design for Mechagodzilla wasn’t cool enough so now it’s an oil refinery instead. There are just so many decisions that prompt the question, “who is this for?”. Urobuchi, embracing his worst tendencies as a writer, piles these films high with technobabble that largely amounts to a complex way of saying “Godzilla is extra large now, and we’re going to blow him up but in the meantime, lets talk about utilitarianism”, dry world-building, and surprisingly little monster action given the title. Add all that on top of the low expression CGI at the same time as Land of the Lustrous was airing and there’s no reason to struggle through these.
And that’s a wrap on 2018, maybe in the coming year I’ll manage to get to all the stuff I missed like Aggretsuko, that third season of Attack on Titan, A Place Further Than the Universe, all those interesting-looking movies that ran in theaters nowhere near me, and more. Seriously, there’s a lot of good anime coming out, pretty much all the time – it’s hard to keep up.