The Best and Worst Anime of Summer 2016by The Anime News Network Editorial Team,
Summer is wrapping up, which means it's time to poll our Daily Streaming Reviews team and find out which shows they loved the most, and which shows they'll try the hardest to forget! Once you're done perusing our critics' picks, head on over to the forums and give us YOUR top 2 (and your pick for the worst)! In the meantime, get ready for the Fall 2016 Anime Preview Guide, beginning September 30th here on Anime News Network!
Best of the season: Handa-kun
While Barakamon was one of my top picks for 2014, it never occurred to me that this heartfelt slice-of-life comedy would spawn a gag-a-second prequel. Seeing Handa Sei devolve from a headstrong 23-year-old prodigy to a hopelessly clueless high school “outcast” was a little jarring at first, but it didn't take long for Handa-kun's simple, comedy-ripe premise to win me over. Whether viewed as a companion piece to the parent series or an independent work, Handa-kun is a consistently amusing comedy of errors.
Fortunately, Handa-kun's connection to Barakamon is tenuous, at best. No knowledge of the sister series is required to appreciate the humor, and aside from a few subtle references, Handa-kun makes no real allusions to its predecessor. While both shows feature the same main character, the Handa Sei who headlines this series is notably different from his older counterpart, with the only significant common link being the character's affinity for calligraphy. The adult Handa was no social butterfly, but he was never as removed from reality and as comically oblivious as his teenage self. The extreme disconnect between Handa's perception of his social standing and the student body's unshakable affection for him pave the way for a litany of hilarious misunderstandings, and despite such a seemingly limited premise, the jokes seldom feel stale. The supporting characters are a little one-note, and the humor has a bit of a mean streak to it, but if pure comedy is what you're after, Handa-kun is compulsory viewing.
Runner-up: The Disastrous Life of Saiki K.
The Disastrous Life of Saiki K. takes the god-among-men high schooler premise to the ultimate extreme by featuring a lead character who is quite literally a god among men. Born with almost every psychic quirk imaginable, superhuman strength, and shape-shifting abilities, 15-year-old Saiki Kusou is a class-A jerk with unlimited power. (At one point, he even admits to rewriting the rules of the universe to make it so his outlandish pink hair color is unnoticeable and commonplace.) Not wanting to draw unwanted attention to himself, Saiki takes tremendous strides to keep his powers in check while juggling his chaotic school life with his (hilariously) dysfunctional home life. Despite wanting nothing more than to be left alone, the sullen young man constantly finds himself at the mercy of his oddball acquaintances and bizarrely affectionate parents.
Instead of watching this series as shorts, I prefer to view it in its half-hour format, since every story leaves me hungry for more. With Saiki's wide array of abilities and such a massive supporting cast, this show's storytelling possibilities are as boundless as its main character's power. Few of the show's characters are purely good; as revealed through Saiki's mind-reading, many of them have dark sides and hidden agendas. Luckily, this makes some of these cartoonishly-overblown figures seem more down-to-earth and imbues this fast-paced gag series with a dry sardonic edge.
Worst: Cheer Boys!!
I wanted to like this one more. The show seemed like it would be the Free! of male cheerleading squads—with twice the exclamation. For the most part, I enjoyed the first half of Cheer Boys!! While outside of the elaborate cheer sequences, the animation and visuals are nothing to write home about, and the show is littered with sports anime clichés, the principal cast is likeable enough, and their interactions are consistently entertaining. Admittedly, the determined-but-clueless Wataru Mizoguchi is what got me to stick around past the first episode. While it's true that the other characters in the initial group grew on me over time, Mizoguchi elicited a laugh every time he appeared onscreen. Unfortunately, after the show exponentially expanded its cast within the course of a single episode, things took a turn for the worse. The show now expects viewers to be invested in a large group of characters who were never given proper introductions and have very little personality outside of their surface quirks. Aside from Haru and Kazu, the show's leads, the characters we spent half the series getting to know have largely been shoved off to the side. In its final weeks, Cheer Boys!! feels like two cours of content crammed into a single season.
Best of the Season: Mob Psycho 100
Beat for beat, pound for pound, nothing elicited quite as much unadulterated joy from me this season as Mob Psycho 100. Having been a huge fan of last year's big hit from ONE, One Punch Man, I had no doubts in Mob Psycho 100 potential to entertain and excite. What did surprise me was just how strong and affecting the show's emotional core turned out to be.
Beneath the veneer of this series’ surreal animation and adrenaline pumping action lies a genuine beating heart, one that is almost painfully honest and relatable in regards to the teenage experience. At its core, this is a show about a young boy who just wants to feel ordinary, despite being gifted with the most extraordinary of psychic abilities. Throughout all of his encounters with villainous spirits, powerful psychic rivals, and mysterious and dangerous shadow groups, Mob Psycho 100 never forgets the fact that everything happening in this crazy world is doing so through the perspective of a child who has absolutely no idea how to navigate the minefield of maturity. So many anime use the façade of puberty and school life as a mere backdrop for shonen action shenanigans. Mob Psycho 100 truly feels the anxiety of youthfulness, and it feels it so fully and earnestly that it is impossible for me not to love it.
It's telling that after all of the over-the-top craziness that that preceded it, the final episodes of the season place so much emphasis on the lessons that Mob has learned from his family, his friends, and his rapscallion of a mentor, Reigen. If One Punch Man was a high-concept premise that was eventually populated by characters that existed more or less to push the concept forward, Mob Psycho 100 is its counterpoint. Its core is its cast of eclectic and genuinely characters, around which a wonderfully human and downright thrilling story has been allowed to grow.
Runner-up: 91 Days
On the opposite end of the “Loveable Characters” spectrum is 91 Days, Studio Shuka's loving pastiche to the Godfather, as well as many other famous Western crime flicks of the late 20th century. Everything from the gorgeous art design, to the meticulous recreation of noir and neo-noir film tropes to the slick Prohibition-era setting is simply on point; the series begins with a near perfectly paced premiere episode and hasn't really let up from there, offering visceral and compelling crime drama at each and every turn. While the show lacks the immediate emotional resonance of series like Mob Psycho 100, that isn't what it's really going for: Much like the Godfather films to which the series owes much of its thematic and stylistic debt (not to mention one swanky logo), 91 Days isn't about making you feel good about what's happening to the characters on screen. Angelo Lagusa may be our protagonist, but that doesn't make him a good man. His war against the Vanetti Family might bring justice to the loved ones he lost as a child, but we are constantly being reminded of the cost of that vengeance. Still, the destruction and turmoil is worth it when it means getting such a confidently produced and consistently entertaining crime saga as this.
Worst: Taboo Tattoo
After having the privilege of taking on Big Order least season, I went into the summer bright eyed and bushy tailed, vainly believing that nothing could possibly approach that series’ nearly apocalyptic levels of incompetence. While it wouldn't be fair of me to say that it is equally as terrible as the year's reigning Emperor of Awfulness, I'll be damned if Taboo Tattoo didn't at least give Big Order a run for its money.
It started off well enough, with Seigi and Co. being perfectly acceptable protagonists in a bland but inoffensively watchable shonen story, one that revolves around mysterious powers granted by a mysterious organization with mysterious motives. It was never going to win any awards or anything, but the first four episodes or so of the show were perfectly fine.
And then everything spiraled out of control into an incomprehensible mess of hackneyed plotting, cringe-inducing attempts at both humor and drama, and some of the dumbest dialogue I've seen in years. Top it all off with the ugliest looking CG monster fight this side of 2003, and you've got what is easily the worst anime of Summer 2016.
Best of the Season: Re: Zero
If anything, the second half of the series is even stronger than the first – and since the first half was my pick for the Spring 2016 season, this one topping my Summer 2016 list should be no surprise. If last season expanded the envelope for what could be done with light novel stories and their adaptations then this season pretty much made an entirely new envelope. It applies Evangelion-level introspection and psychological realism to a genre that is definitely not known for it, turning protagonist Subaru from an insert character into a very flawed individual who has to learn the very, very hard way that he is completely out of his depth and his otaku creds won't help him much in offsetting that. Yes, he's won over one girl, but his devastating, difficult-to-watch failure with his #1 girl at the end of episode 13 sets the stage for a brutal but exceptionally high-quality set of episodes which force the protagonist to do some deep soul-searching and learn from his mistakes. And learn he does! Whether or not the series is truly an indictment of otaku wish fulfillment will long be debated, and there are a few flaws, but its mix of deep characterization, great action scenes, pulse-pounding twists, involved plotting, and one of the most disturbing crazy guys that anime has ever seen makes this into a powerhouse that is well-deserving of the attention it's getting. The extra effort the staff has put in (extra-long episodes on some occasions, rare use of openers and closers) has definitely proved worth it.
Runner-Up: Alderamin on the Sky
So this was a good season for light novel adaptations! Actually this one only started out as pretty good with occasional, stronger spikes and didn't hit its full stride until past its halfway point. From episode 8 on, though, the series shines consistently. What initially looked like a story that would primarily focus on how a lazy, whip-smart tactician out-maneuvers everyone has gradually shown other merits, too, such as a surprising degree of character development, substantial world-building, and an examination of the way military is used. It also looks deeply at how battlefield tactics have to evolve to matching changing times, situations, and technology and, in a more peripheral way, the conflicts between religion and science. Topping that off is one of the neatest male-female character relationships in recent memory. Tactician Ikta and master swordswoman Yatori may not be a romantic couple, but the deep level of loyalty, trust, and understanding between them nonetheless makes their interactions a joy to watch.
Worst of the Season: Rewrite
To be clear, I don't actually think that Rewrite is anywhere near as bad as something like, say, First Love Monster or Hitorinoshita the Outcast, but I am placing it here because it is by far the most disappointing title of the season. As a Key adaptation expectations were naturally high for it, and it did have some fun moments, but the series never smoothly or cohesively gels, technical merits were shaky, and the message it tries to promote is murky at best. And let's not even get started on the way it ends.
Best of Season: Re: Zero
Every season, or year, has its old war horses in terms of popular plot devices that have been stretched so thin that they're barely holding up anymore. The “transported to a game-like fantasy world” story has been used so many times that it's become the anime equivalent of the old shirt you just can't bear to throw out, even though it's ratty and covered with stains. But there's always that one that has defied expectations, holding up despite itself, and for the past two seasons that has been Re: Zero. While the first season was good, it's really the second that has gone the extra mile to become excellent – not only does Subaru advance as a character, acknowledging his own problems as a person even as he strives to do the best job that he can in his strange new world, but it also gained more emotional resonance as a story. Episode eighteen stands out as the best example of both of these: who would have thought that a fantasy adventure story that has never skimped on the blood would devote an entire episode to two characters standing on a roof talking and make it one of the series’ best? Redolent with character development, Subaru and Rem's conversation sets the tone for the final stretch of the show while still striking powerful emotional notes, something I have rarely seen in any non-book medium, much less in a story that sells itself as the latest incarnation of a hoary trope.
Beyond that, things just really came together for Re: Zero in its second half. One-note characters became fully-realized people, the mystery of Subaru's sudden appearance in his new world is explained, and Emilia originally introducing herself as “Satella” makes much more sense. The story becomes about Subaru living up to a potential that he always had, deciding to use the strange power that he's been given rather than being at its mercy. He stops thinking of himself as being in a game and begins living, and in turn the show stops running like an old Sierra adventure game and takes on more urgency as it approaches its climax. That's a clear advantage that this series has over others in its genre – that it never was a game, and once Subaru comes to fully accept that, and that maybe he's not strictly the hero of a game, his perception of the world changes, as does the flow of the story.
Of course Re: Zero isn't perfect. Subaru's still obnoxious, I never really got why he was so attached to Emilia (choose Rem, you fool!), and that Betegeuse guy was at least as annoying as he was scary. But even without considering its genre, Re: Zero kept me riveted and invested for the entirety of its second half. I honestly can't say that about any other series I watched this season.
Runner Up: Food Wars the Second Plate
I had a really hard time coming up with a runner up this season, not because I didn't follow enough other shows, but because all of them paled in comparison to my number one. I loved B Project, but I also recognize that it wasn't very good, and Sweetness & Lightening dragged a bit for me. The sequel to Food Wars, however, turned out to be something I looked forward to every week without fail.
While it's true that it really doesn't hold a candle to its first season, Food Wars still managed to be ridiculously intense in the best shounen style. For a show about cooking, something I do every day with very little enthusiasm, it raised the stakes with each successive battle, pitting hero Soma against foes with different specialties, skills, and personalities that all tested and expanded his own repertoire. More importantly, Soma was able to synthesize what he learned from each round of the Autumn Elections (even those he wasn't in) into something he could use in his own cooking, culminating in his quail dish in the final episode. Even though the Autumn Elections arc dragged (while still somehow going by quickly), it did all build to the end of the Stagiaire storyline, making the season better in retrospect than it was when I was watching it week-to-week. It also avoided formulaic battles, which is relatively uncommon in tournament-style series, and the nature of the cook-offs made the old fight narration trope make more sense, since knowing exactly how someone was seasoning a cut of meat was integral to the outcome. I do wish that we'd gotten more character interactions (and more Megumi!), but given that there was never a week when I grumbled about having to watch this and the amazing Power of Hindsight, Food Wars’ second season really did hold its own and rise to the top, like a good matzoh ball dropped in a pot of soup.
Worst of the Season: Bananya
Okay, I love cats as much as the next single woman (maybe a little more), but Bananya has to be the dumbest cat-related thing I've seen. The premise is cute enough – cats living in bananas! – but there's nothing more to this show beyond that. Yes, it's a short, but that doesn't mean that it can't have an ongoing plot or character development; just look at Senyu or Bonjour Sweet Love Patisserie. But Bananya was content to rest on its supposedly adorable premise of banana-cats and never move beyond that. Not that I'm sure what else you could do with it, but surely there's something more than watching TV or looking in the fridge. That's what normal cats do – banana cats must be able to do something else, right? Right?!
Sadly the answer appears to be no. Bananya is cute for cuteness’ sake, and whether you're a banana-cat or a big-eyed little girl, that's no excuse not to have a plot. Maybe I'm moe-deficient or just a storytelling snob, but either way, I couldn't help but feel that this show has no real reason to exist – and that's coming from someone who watched all of Poyopoyo.
Best of the season:Mob Psycho 100
Mob Psycho 100 showed a lot of creative ambition right out of the gate. Its visual style and character designs don't have the polished, easy to market look that most titles go with, opting instead for something a little more artsy. The writing and direction follow suit, presenting the kind of world and story that promises to say something clever and interesting. It's the kind of bold approach that makes a series interesting to follow, whether it fulfills its potential or fails in spectacular fashion. It took a while to really get going, but the latter half of the series managed to deliver quite nicely on its promises.
Perhaps even more than the story and themes, I found myself impressed with Mob Psycho 100's ability to develop its characters. Both Mob and Reigen were points of concern for me in the early going; Mob seemed like too much of a blank slate and Reigen played the irredeemable con artist a little too well. By the end, though, I really liked both of them. Their flaws, worries, and shortcomings make them feel very human, and that made them far more compelling than the bland, hyper-competent heroes we see so often in anime. Mob and Reigen, like the series itself, are messy and imperfect in a very endearing way.
Runner-up: Love Live!! Sunshine
I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this new generation of the Love Live franchise at the beginning of the season. At worst, I feared it'd be a botched attempt at pushing a successful property past its expiration date. At best, I hoped it'd bring a new and entertaining group of characters into the crowded field of idol anime. I certainly didn't expect the new series to come right out and ponder the meaning of its own existence. As the girls of Aqours struggled to break out of the shadow of their predecessors, Love Live Sunshine made a case for itself as a story that could draw inspiration from the original series without following blindly in its footsteps. Even if it took some clunky plot points and heavy-handed metaphors to make its case, that's still a very interesting route for a sequel to take.
Even if you take it out of the context of the franchise, Love Live Sunshine is a well-made and enjoyable genre piece. The characters are likable, and the writing offers the kind of goofy, heart-on-sleeve enthusiasm that makes this genre work. Sure, it's partly here to sell music and merchandise, but this series just seems so darn happy to be here that it's possible to just sit back and enjoy it. I'm not sure what sort of creative witchcraft Love Live runs on, but I'll be the first to admit that it works.
Worst of the Season: Hitori no Shita the outcast
Working on this season's preview guide allowed me to sample many more shows than I otherwise would. As a result, I got to see some fantastic first episodes and some truly awful ones. Out of that group, no series embodied the phrase “dead on arrival” more than Hitori no Shita the outcast. Generic characters, predictable plot points, and thoroughly underwhelming visuals worked in harmony to crush any desire I might have had to give the series a second chance. When the first episode of an action-horror series fails to elicit any reaction apart from boredom, it's time to cut your losses, drop it from your streaming queue, and never look back.
Best of the Season: Mob Psycho 100
A lot of shows have great story and a lot of shows have a unique style, but there aren't too many out there with both. Mob Psycho 100 is a rare exception that tells a story that's as vibrant and engaging as its art and animation style.
First One Punch Man and now this—what makes ONE's stories so captivating is that he's an industry outsider, a webcomic artist who rose to popularity the grassroots way. Nobody is telling stories like these. ONE's protagonists are anything but ordinary, and somehow still deeply relatable. Take Mob who, despite his extraordinary powers, suffers from the same self-doubt and drive for self improvement that afflict all of us. His story is so human that it's hard not to deeply care—or even cringe—at how close to home it hits. As Mob faces up against more and more powerful enemies, the suspense doesn't come from whether or not he'll win. It comes from whether or not he'll find some self-confidence in his victory.
Just like this story is unlike any other I'm watching, so is its appearance. Mob Psycho 100's visuals have an immense range, from a goofy cartoony look that retains ONE's original style, to a labor-intensive oil-painting-on-glass wash that's evocative of the show's occasional delvings into Mob's psyche. Its original look is a refreshing contrast from this year's many interchangeable, overly glossy anime and makes it so I can't take my eyes off the screen.
Runner-up: Sweetness + Lightning
I have always loved cooking shows. There's something so comforting about watching somebody prepare a hot, homemade meal that I don't mind that I don't get to eat it afterwards. Sweetness + Lightning, with its twin focuses on family and food, brings the warm fuzzies up to 11.
One of the issues I sometimes have with children in anime is that they are simply too easy. They're often perfectly-behaved mini versions of adults. But raising kids is tough, and being a kid has its own kind of logic that adults don't always understand. This is summarized perfectly in Kohei and Tsumugi's relationship. Tsumugi is very concerned with being a good girl, but she is still only a kindergartener, prone to restaurant tantrums and fights with her friends at school. Meanwhile, Kohei isn't always on the same page as his daughter and sometimes gets angry for things Tsumugi finds unjust (but which all the adults watching at home will totally get). These moments of discord balance out the saccharine ones for a father-daughter relationship that isn't just adorable to watch, it's believable, too.
Even if she's not a perfect child, this show revolves around Tsumugi and how the adults in her life can make her admittedly tough life (losing Mom so young is rough) a little more delicious. The way Sweetness + Lighting portrays the eclectic blended “family” of Tsumugi, Kohei, Kohei's student, Kotori, and some of their friends is quirky and full of personality. (It's also no simple feat that it's somehow not creepy to have a male teacher hanging out with his female student.) Recipes are portrayed in a rustic, no-pressure, make-it-yourself-at-home way that's relaxing to watch. Every episode ends with the viewer getting a seat at table, so it's like we get to attend these tasty family gatherings as well.
Worst of the Season: Cheer Boys!!
There are very few anime out there with sixteen main characters, and far fewer that are just one season long. Cheer Boys!! is the perfect case study for exactly why that might be. Based on an award-winning novel of the same name, Cheer Boys!! has a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time. To compensate, it often shortcuts storytelling with tired clichés. Don't you think it's hilarious that the only cheerleader to have a girlfriend is also the team's portliest member? Cheer Boys!! sure does and won't let you forget it. Gay panic also abounds. Cheerleading is a sport with typically feminine connotations, so to compensate for that, the show treats homosexuality like a disease that can be caught if you get too close.
What's more, I've never watched a sports anime with fewer examples of the title sport in it. If you weren't looking at the name, you might not have realized this is a cheerleading anime at all. Very few episodes show any animated cheerleading, instead focusing on what the characters do before and after these blacked out routines. The drama, which has to be dispersed among many different characters into subplots, is hit or miss. Honestly, there is a lot of potential in Cheer Boys!! and many of the main characters (the ones we actually get to know) deserve their own spin-offs—dorky goofball Wataru in particular. These characters can be charming, though they are often sloppily drawn. These narratives can be promising, though they are often rushed. Cheer Boys!! contains all the aspects I look for in an anime, but the execution doesn't pan out.
Best of the Season: Love Live!! Sunshine
This has been a very entertaining season for me, and I mean that in a pretty specific sense. In contrast to shows like Concrete Revolutio or Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, which possess a bit more of an arthouse appeal, this has been a season of shows dedicated to having a good time. And while I've thoroughly enjoyed shows like Diamond is Unbreakable and Sweetness & Lightning, my clear pick for most entertaining show of the season is definitely Love Live Sunshine.
I was a solid fan of Love Live's first two seasons, but Sunshine has simultaneously doubled down on the goofiness that makes the show work and also sharpened its ability to pull off a legitimate character story. I legitimately care about characters like Chika and Hanamaru, even as they're setting off on one more farcical, slapstick adventure. And Sunshine's pitch-perfect mastery of timing and comedic framing mean that nearly every episode has me laughing all the way through. Love Live Sunshine just makes my week brighter, and I'll really miss it when it's gone.
Runner-Up: Mob Psycho 100
I didn't have the highest hopes for Mob Psycho going into this season, given my mixed feelings on the original mangaka's earlier One Punch Man. But Mob Psycho has easily scattered my misgivings through a mixture of gorgeous execution and actually compelling character writing. The show's thoughts on the ills of society are a little broad, but the feelings of characters like Mob and Ritsu feel absolutely real. Action shows need to make me care about their characters before I'll care about their action, and Mob Psycho has a very likable cast.
And of course, the show's visual execution is just phenomenal. Every episode of Mob Psycho dances gleefully between a variety of visual styles, letting the looseness of the original designs and a diverse crew of animators come together to make something truly unique. And the show's actual peaks are some of the most impressive visual displays I've seen in anime, lending substance and magic to the show's wide array of psychic powers. Mob Psycho is a thrilling ride.
Worst of the Season: Orange
I actually have a pretty wide variety of “worst” shows to choose from, given how many premieres I watch for the preview guide, but it seems unfair to pick a show that I only started watching. And so I'm sad to say that, among the shows I'm actually following through, Orange gets the nod. I really wanted to like Orange - being a melancholy personal drama with a noteworthy director, it seemed like exactly my sort of thing. But a combination of the show's quickly faltering production and clear padding has turned it into a bit of a slog. There's enough material in Orange to make for a very solid anime film, but by stretching it out to full series length, drama that might otherwise pass as graceful and gripping has become drawn-out and tedious. And the show's dire lack of animation means even its most important scenes often lack the character acting necessary to bring its characters’ feelings home. Orange feels like an unfortunate victim of circumstance.
Best of the Season: Thunderbolt Fantasy
Sometimes when it comes to anime, you just want a party, and Thunderbolt Fantasy was hands-down the biggest, noisiest, most eye-popping party of the Summer season. No, I don't care at all that it isn't "technically" anime. This Taiwanese puppet theater hybrid production with Nitroplus has anime-style storytelling, editing, action sensibilities, anime voice actors, and an anime composer who wrote a ridiculously amazing anime-style opening for the whole shebang. The only difference is that instead of moving drawings, we had incredibly elaborate puppets blended with digital effects to create an adventure unlike anything I'd ever seen before. The action choreography in Thunderbolt Fantasy is second to none, with at least one edge-of-your-seat setpiece per episode to applaud (and usually more). If you want to see uniquely talented artists put on a show, this wuxia/sentai mashup saga will find new ways to impress you in every single episode.
While this crazy entertainment experiment could probably have been my favorite of the season on style and spectacle alone, the writing turned out to be pretty great too, courtesy of tongue-in-cheek tragedian Gen Urobuchi applying his skills to an unusually light-hearted story. While the plot still dabbles in the cruel twists that put The Booch on the map, Thunderbolt Fantasy is much more interested in being clever than deep, using its unexpected turns and two-faced characters to comment on role-playing clichés in a more playful way than usual. From the colorful battles of puppet wits to the explosive battles of puppet swordsmanship, Thunderbolt Fantasy was the anime that demanded my attention more than any other this season.
If you avoided this the first time around because "Taiwanese puppet theater" sounds boring to you, give it another shot, because boring is the very last word I would use to describe the sincerely magical experience. If nothing else, those Hiroyuki Sawano ballads are badass ear candy.
Runner-up: Sweetness & Lightning
It's strangely hard for me to put what I found so moving about Sweetness & Lightning into words, but after thinking about it for a while and trying to suss out what made this iyashikei gem so different for me from the half-dozen we get every season or so, I think it was the series' unexpected subtlety more than anything. The premise all by itself, "teacher and single father raises precocious daughter after the death of his wife, taking cooking lessons from one of his students and gradually forming a new sense of family," could have turned out to be the most cloying and cheesy thing in the world. But for Tsumugi and her dad, there are never any band-aid platitudes or artificial monologues structured to let us know how we should be feeling about all of this. (Lookin' at you, Amanchu!, the real overcooked cornball of the season for me in that regard.)
Sweetness & Lightning allows its characters to process complex emotions (even Tsumugi!) without ever spelling out how the cast is feeling. It trusts the audience to recognize the little tells in their everyday interactions, which makes their slowly growing bonds and understanding of one another more powerful. Tsumugi's dad learns to convey his love through the careful preparation of good food for his daughter, and his student/cooking teacher learns to invite others into her vulnerable spaces without becoming immobilized by her fear of abandonment. Of course, all Tsumugi needs to do is grow at her own adorable kindergartner pace.
Of course, the show is mostly just adorable in general, which is the main draw along with the uniquely newbie-friendly cooking lessons. There are tons of "food anime" out there, but Sweetness & Lightning is the food anime for ordinary viewers who want to play along at home, alongside an extremely relatable family whose lives are always enriched by making these simple dishes together.
Worst of the Season: First Love Monster
Well, I'll say this for First Love Monster: I haven't seen anything this uniquely bad in a long time. While I didn't have the stomach to watch it through to the end, every new episode in the first half brought with it a new barrage of "why," yet not enough "why" to bring a trash heap of this magnitude around to being "so bad it's good." In fact, First Love Monster is mostly defined by being extremely lazy. Half of every episode is taken up with the same cringey jokes over and over, like the elementary-school-boys-in-teenage-bodies finding any meager excuse to jam "wiener" or "poop" into as many sentences as possible. The other half introduces new failed attempts at shock humor, most notoriously the heroine's dorm-mate's boyfriend who's using her as a beard to hide his actual attraction to little boys in women's clothing. (Yep, it's that kind of comedy.)
The thing that really sets First Love Monster apart from its weird fujoshi-aimed grossout comedy cousins like Gugure! Kokkuri-san or Cuticle Detective Inaba is how committed it is to being cynical without compromising the fetishism that forms its entire premise. The show seems to actively detest its own heroine, humiliating her constantly at the drop of a hat as an extension of the viewing audience, who it also assumes want to be demeaned for being shotacons, for the sake of a shame-boner alongside "ironic" laughs. I can't see this being made for anybody except girls who completely no-joking embrace the idea that they hate themselves for their extremely specific fetishes, and then try to turn that into a big ironic-yet-lazy joke that just isn't funny at all. So hey, at least First Love Monster is terrible in ways I'll admit I've never seen before!
It also looks like it was animated on an elementary schooler's lunch money allowance, so that's just insult to injury right there. (The ED is literally shaky zooms and pans over one still image. Madre de Dios.)
Best of the Season: Mob Psycho 100
I did not expect to like this series quite as much as I do. The first few episodes, while gorgeously animated, felt too derivative and slowly paced. By episode 3, though, when the series used Mob's first "explosion" to explore his inner desires and insecurities, I was hooked. Mob Psycho 100 clearly had something to say, and while it's often sacrificed that for entertainment value, it's so great at either that I rarely care.
For a series as goofy and all-over-the-place as Mob Psycho 100 started out as, I was surprised by how great the character writing was. This is especially true with the relationships between the characters. Mob and Ritsu's sibling relationship reminded me a lot of my relationship with my younger sister, and rang really true for the mix of love and resentment between two very different siblings who are close in age. ONE, the mangaka behind Mob Psycho 100 and One-Punch Man, really has a knack for writing strong character relationships in the middle of goofy genre parody. He's also good at using that to explore the struggles of growing up, whether that's a quarter-life crisis (One-Punch Man) or the identity formation of the early adolescent years (Mob Psycho 100).
Plus, it's just fantastic to look at, using bold colors and fluid, top-shelf animation (thanks, Studio BONES) as well as striking, unusual textures, such as paintbrush strokes. Summer 2016 had a lot of shows with great writing that struggled with production problems (I'm looking at you, Orange and 91 Days) so it's nice that this one had it all.
Runner-up: Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable
Jojo was my third place choice for Spring 2016, and in retrospect, I wish I had picked it as runner-up. I've loved every season of Jojo's Bizarre Adventure so far, but Diamond is Unbreakable might be the best one yet. It's such goofy fun, and yet it knows how to turn up the horror when it needs it.
A lot of Jojo's parts are silly take-offs on genres that were common either about or during the time periods they depict, and Diamond is Unbreakable is no exception. In its case, it captures the "suburbia is secretly weird/dangerous" idea that was super common in, at least, American media during the 1990s. I grew up in exactly the sort of dull, picture-perfect suburb this media tries to skewer, and I have to say, I think Jojo's "gets" that experience better than any other media I've seen, certainly compared to the stuff it's playing off. Suburbia is mostly just boring and strange, and therefore the kind of place where teenagers have to make their own fun in unexpected ways. In the case of Josuke and his friends, it's using their Stands to do stuff like collect lottery tickets and coupons as a cheap, easy way to make money. Or getting overexcited about and exploring every weird new attraction that shows up in their town, from a celebrated Italian restaurant to a manga artist's creepy mansion.
Diamond is Unbreakable also knows that suburbia's aggressive, stifling dullness actually makes it pretty easy for the weird to hide in plain sight, including the scary kind of weird. That's where its villain, Kira, comes in, as the show has just started to shift away from the boys' teen hijinks into its real story. I'm always impressed by how well an aggressively zany show can add gravitas to its darker turns, such as character deaths. Diamond is Unbreakable took a long, wild, fun breather; now it's time to get back to business, and make it clear that this baddie is more serious than the others. It says a lot about Jojo's that it can nail that turn without sacrificing any of its entertainment value. That's largely due to David Production's great art, animation and music, but also that the original material is just so wild and, yes, bizarre, beyond anything else out there.
Worst of the Season: The Heroic Legend of Arslan: Dust Storm Dance
The only outright bad show I watched at all was The High School Life of a Fudanshi, but I didn't watch quite enough of this short to write about it. I saw the homophobic undertones coming from a mile away and I noped right out of there. So instead, my pick for the worst series I watched this season is a merely mediocre one: The Heroic Legend of Arslan: Dust Storm Dance.
The current installment of The Heroic Legend of Arslan, as I noted in my reviews, is a marked improvement over the last series. I was so bored to tears by the first season last year that it would have easily been my pick for this last summer. The new series does improve its production values, and put some real momentum in the story's and character arcs' sails. Unfortunately, it's still not enough, and its shaky conclusion just made it clear how much further we still have to go in this story.
This show frustrates me, because it's clear that the franchise is an incredibly popular one in Japan. There's a lot of love there for this story, and desire for it to get a complete adaptation (since the 1990s OVAs never finished the story). So it's grating that this adaptation of it is so phoned-in and passionless. It assumes so much investment in a story that should be far more accessible, because the raw material is. I've read some of Hiromu Arakawa's manga version, and I know they could be doing better. This time around, there is at least more care—but when you're adding that to a negative number, that's still not much in the long run. I hope that if this series gets yet another season, it will be with a new creative team and studio that can give it the TLC it deserves.
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