The Best Anime of 2016
Theron Martin, Amy McNulty and Paul Jensen
This year we're publishing our individual categories once per day - today's installment? The Best Plot Twist or Moment of 2016!
I don't normally have enough interest in auteur fare to watch it to completion, so you won't see any such titles in my ranking. Most of the titles that I have chosen this year are not what would traditionally be thought of as “quality” shows but nonetheless offer both high entertainment value and performance well beyond the norm for their type. Other titles I seriously considered, and which would probably compose the rest of my Top 10, include Flying Witch, GATE season 2, My Hero Academia, Sound Euphonium 2, and Snow White with the Red Hair season 2.
5. The Ancient Magus's Bride: Those Awaiting a Star
Only one episode of this OVA series is currently available, but what's in it is good enough to warrant consideration here. Sharp artistry and technical merits help convey the senses of both whimsy and deeply-ingrained magical rules inherent in Kore Yamazaki's source manga and the side story being portrayed here shows a lot of promise. While I think you have to be familiar with the manga to fully appreciate it, it delivers its style and tone well enough that many who aren't familiar with the manga have said that they could fully get into it.
I originally had this one in my Honorable Mention list, but its outstanding final episode encouraged me to bump it up. In a year liberally strewn with titles which achieve far beyond initial expectations (see also #3 and #1), this is unquestionably the biggest surprise and overachiever. Its creativity, positive attitude about the spirit of competition, likable cast, and ability to matter-of-factly handle fan service in an inoffensive way all contribute to its amazing feat of successfully taking seriously a ludicrous concept. No new series I saw in 2016 was more consistently great fun to watch.
In stark contrast to the concurrently-airing Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, this ten episode series took a decidedly light-hearted look at the “transported to another world” genre. The result was the year's funniest series, one which used both slapstick humor and parodies which took savage swipes both at its own genre and other otakucentric topics, such as fan service series, RPG games, and chunibyo characters. Not all of the humor worked, but its stabs hit home frequently, conveying a cleverness in both situational humor and character portrayal which went beyond all other comedy titles this season. Despite being less consistent than my #4 pick, I'm putting it higher in the rankings because of its stronger peaks.
2. Alderamin on the Sky
Honestly, this series didn't overly impress me at first, though I could acknowledge its artistry and technical merits from the beginning. As it wore on, though, it gradually got better, especially once it showed that its protagonist and master strategist Ikta wasn't going to just steamroll over everyone and would have to deal with the consequences of decisions he made. Bringing the broader elements of religion and corruption into the picture also made the story richer than it looked like at first, and a stunner of a plot twist near the end of its final episode puts the whole story in a new perspective. Also helping push the series into the #2 position is the neat relationship between Ikta and longtime female friend Yatori, who forms the year's best duo with him. Even though they're not romantic, the level of trust, loyalty, and understanding between them would make them the envy of most romantic couples.
1. Re: Zero
It was the top new series of the Spring season based on the ANN reader polls and the top overall series of the Summer season, and there are strong reasons for that. It took the moribund concept of a NEET who is transported to another world and turned it on its head by making the protagonist Subaru utterly fallible, in the process practically indicting its own genre and the fans who eat it up. Only being able to serve as a catalyst rather than the actual hero eventually wears on Subaru, to the point of causing at least two distinct breakdowns as he confronts threats well beyond his capability to deal with without dying a few times. In stepping into that largely-untread ground the series produced numerous outstanding, envelope-pushing episodes as well as laying out plenty of dramatic battles, intense character development, and entertaining twists. The series may have had its occasional weak points, but I would favorably stack its best episodes against the best episodes of any other series in 2016.
5. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
Going off the first episode, I initially expected this series be set in the 1970s and to focus on Yotaro, the recently-reformed yakuza and up-and-coming rakugo storyteller. While this is an intriguing enough premise in its own right, the show really took off when it shifted the focus to the childhood and young adulthood of Yakumo, Yotaro's surly, elderly mentor. The strict training regimen Yakumo (known as “Kikuhiko” in his youth) and his best friend/rival Shin (later known as Sukeroku) undergo provides interesting insight into the world of rakugo and helps the audience better understand both characters’ life choices. Particularly fascinating is the complex relationship between Yakumo and Sukeroku—sometimes the boys are rivals competing for their master's title; sometimes they're practically brothers; sometimes they appear to share a bond that runs much deeper. Both men possess what the other lacks. Even though Sukeroku is the more genial and beloved performer, he lacks Kikuhiko's technical knowledge of their chosen art. Similarly, Kikuhiko's book smarts and hard work can only go so far against Sukeroku's natural “it” factor.
While there were two prominent “coolest kid in school” comedies this year, Handa-kun stood out because unlike Sakamoto, the titular character isn't nearly as cool as his peers seemed to think. His extreme social anxiety and belief that he was actively hated by the kids who worship the ground he walks on set the stage for a variety of hilarious misunderstandings. The immense disconnect between Handa's outlook and that of the student body is a clever running gag that seldom wears thin. Rarely does a spinoff come along that's able to stand on its own so adeptly.
Time travel shows have always fascinated me, especially when they're focused on small windows of time or changing the lives of just a few people. Satoru's Revival powers, the origins of which are never explained, pave the way for a fascinating story about children murdered during his childhood, a mystery rife with suspense, intrigue, and heart-wrenching human drama. While the true identity of the murderer isn't quite as shocking as the producers likely intended and the ending feels rushed, the main characters are likeable and the tension is oftentimes palpable—and I loved the core message of reaching out to people who are suffering in silence.
2. Magical Girl Raising Project
This series quickly drops any pretense of being about magical girls training one another and working together and pits an assortment of mahou shojo against one another in a brutal death game. Not only is the juxtaposition of the primal brutality with the cutesy art style fascinating, it's also fun to watch each girl's unique approach to the grim situation at hand. Although the girls initially try to stay alive through doing good deeds and earning special candies, it isn't long before they resort to killing one another, sometimes even turning on their own friends. While the series largely gets by on spectacle and shock value, many of its key players—good and bad—are flawed, complex, and sympathetic, and their respective backstories and motivations run the gamut from “downright silly” to “genuinely moving.”
1. Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto
If ever a show seemed destined to be a one-trick pony, this was it. While it's true that the titular character's perfection is the show's most prominent running gag, this joke seldom gets old, thanks to the series constantly finding fun new ways to exploit this character trait. In addition to the eerily flawless Sakamoto, the show plays host to a cadre of quirky supporting players, many of whom fluctuate between functioning as Sakamoto's allies and villains-of-the-day. Although Sakamoto frequently uses his powers to help his peers, his actions sometimes constitute weirdness for no apparent reason, creating the impression that he might be an alien or guardian spirit. Regardless of who he's up against, though, he can always be counted on to come out ahead and make us laugh in the process.
5. Assassination Classroom
Assassination Classroom had its share of hits and misses, but I give it a lot of credit for trying new things on a regular basis instead of merely leaning on its established strengths. Slowly but surely, the show's second season improved upon its ability to tell more serious stories and increased the strength of its supporting cast. Perhaps most importantly, the series avoided the temptation to stretch its main storyline out indefinitely. By coming to a concrete and final conclusion, Assassination Classroom was able to find the kind of dramatic impact that so often eludes long-running action shows.
4. Flying Witch
I liked Flying Witch from the beginning, but I wasn't able to fully articulate why until much later in the series. As befits a slice of life title, it possesses a kind of quiet charm that's difficult to pin down. What ultimately made this show special for me was the way in which it blended its fantasy elements with its more ordinary side in a way that felt natural and convincing. It put just as much care into depicting its characters’ everyday lives as it did with their more magical experiences, and that consistent approach allowed it to move between the two seamlessly. In terms of creating a believable and immersive world, it stacks up well against some of the best entries in the genre.
3. Yuri on Ice
Out of all of the titles on my list, I think Yuri on Ice might have the broadest appeal. It boasts a compelling sports story, a charming and nuanced central relationship, impressive animation, and a healthy dose of comedy. Other shows impressed me more in individual areas, but none of them came close to matching its level of energetic, accessible fun. Underneath all that exuberance, it also delivered consistently strong character development, which allowed the supporting cast to have some emotionally compelling moments in the spotlight alongside the protagonists. No matter what you look for in an A-list series, you'll find it somewhere in Yuri on Ice.
2. Mob Psycho 100
Mob Psycho 100 called its shot early on with a first episode full of fantastic visuals and vague hints at its main character's impending “explosion.” It was an opening that promised a special and creative story to follow, and the show eventually made good on its ambitions. Along with a distinctive visual style and a compelling story, it crafted characters who were likable not in spite of their flaws, but because of them. Throw in some thoughtful meditations on what it means to grow up and you've got a series that's as clever as it is entertaining.
1. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
This year was full of strong titles from a variety of genres, and so my pick for the top spot is as much a personal choice as it is a critical one. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju hit at several of my soft spots while piecing together a genuinely enthralling narrative. Between deep character development and diligent world-building, it produced a time and place that felt very much alive. Strong writing and vocal performances helped to make its subject matter accessible, and its story posed meaningful questions about the struggle to keep an artistic tradition relevant in a changing society. It made me smile, it made me think, and it broke my heart in the best possible way.
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