The Best Anime of 2016
Mike Toole, Rebecca Silverman and Rose Bridges
This year we're publishing our individual categories each day - click here for the best openings of 2016!.
There are too many anime shows these days. Please eliminate three. In all seriousness, the sheer quantity of new anime makes it really hard to pick a top 5; I could've just as easily chose a backup top 5, because I really liked more than ten shows this season, or a top 5 made up entirely of shorts, action shows, or sports anime. But I had to narrow it down somehow, so here are my picks.
5. Thunderbolt Fantasy
I'd describe this show as 2016's surprise package, but I feel like we all kinda had a feeling it was going to be really interesting when the senses-smashing trailer dropped in the winter. Still, Thunderbolt Fantasy seemed to exceed expectations, drawing fans from all over the globe towards its fusion of Taiwanese martial-arts puppetry and Japanese storytelling flair. I often recall Werner Herzog's quote about how viewers are surrounded by worn out images and deserve new ones, and Thunderbolt Fantasy is packed with new images - images of sleek, stylish martial arts heroes erecting Byzantine plots against another, bantering with their foes, and then exploding in at least one absurd, jaw-dropping fight scene per episode. The way the show romanizes character names makes it a bit tough to keep track of the good guys and bad guys, but don't worry - you'll be won over by Thunderbolt Fantasy's sheer audacity.
4. Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable
This is another long-running series that has gradually made its way onto my appointment TV list. It isn't just the weird humor and crazy bad guys that makes this installment of Jojo's particularly fun, but the fundamental goodness of the heroes. Josuke and company are deeply decent people, from Josuke's impetuous coolness to Okuyasu's blustering loyalty and Koichi's overt kindness. Backing the central trio, there's a grounded, perceptive adult in Jotaro, a lovably befuddled grandpa figure in Joseph, and lots of caring, if slightly off-kilter friends. These characters are good people, plain and simple, and it feels good to watch such good characters, especially when they're squaring off against a truly diabolical villain, a sociopath named Kira who sincerely believes he deserves to be left alone to do his killing. This action, comedy ,and nutty Hitchcockian suspense plays out against the candy-colored backdrop of Morioh, a weirdly prescient depiction of late-90s Japan straight out of creator Hirohiko Araki's early-90s consciousness. Even in the face of dread and doom, this is a series that just laughs for joy, and you can't help but laugh with it.
We've actually gotten three seasons of Haikyu!!, but a crowded field has kept the prior ones off my favorites list. Not anymore-- this latest story arc is a pure, 100% winner, with barely a single dull moment. You expect sports anime to be about a couple of central characters and a rivalry, but Haikyu!!’s greatest strength is the sheer breadth of its story. This is a series that makes time not just for its two heroes and their biggest rivals, but for every character, even the coaches, audience members, and the perennial benchwarmer whose only real weapon on the court is his floaty serve. The show tells compelling, humanizing, and fun stories about the opposing team, too. My favorite from this season? Tendou, the “guess monster” blocker who taunts, glares, twitches, but most of all, loves to play and be challenged. What puts Haikyu!! over the net is also its technical proficiency - it's a great-looking series that explains the sport of volleyball in an engaging, entertaining manner. I've seen a lot of good sports anime, but it's hard to think of another that so expertly captures the appeal of its sport and the sheer joy of competition.
2. Yuri on Ice
It seems like every four years, Sayo Yamamoto emerges to break the mold of what we expect from TV anime. She started the streak way back in 2004, directing several of the best Samurai Champloo episodes, and followed in 2008 (Michiko & Hatchin), 2012 (Lupin the 3rd: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine) and 2016, with Yuri On Ice. This show excels on many levels: it's a deeply personal story about a talented underdog trying to make one last run at the gold before he ages out of the sport. It's also a witty, globe-trotting tale of friendship, rivalry, and personal drama. It's also a star-crossed romance. It's also a thrilling technical exercise, artfully (albeit sometimes clumsily) depicting the sport of ice dancing. A charming side-effect of Yuri on Ice's excellence has been seeing the narrow, ultra-competitive field of real-life figure skating dance for joy over the show - on social media, everyone from reigning world champ Evgenia Medvedeva to legendary gadfly Johnny Weir have been singing its praises. If the pros endorse it, you know the creators are on to something.
1. Mob Psycho 100
At first glance, Mob Psycho 100 appears to be a charmingly weird return to a perennial favorite subgenre of Japanese science fiction: the ESPer. From Locke the Superman to ESPY to Mai the Psychic Girl, Japan loves stories of powerful, mysterious psychics. But this show's eye-popping story of battling ESPers artfully conceals better, more personal stories-- stories about an awkward kid trying to find his own crowd, about a brother grappling with a stifling sense of inadequacy, about a flawed mentor trying to live up to his protege's image of him. It's also a blockbuster action cartoon, a relentlessly exciting, hilarious visual spectacle.
Despite the fact that its ending is somewhat lacking, Erased was one of the most fascinating shows I watched in 2016. I love a mystery and time travel is another favorite genre of mine, so a time travel mystery about saving someone's life was absolutely up my alley. Having the past be the late 1980s was also something I appreciated, not for any nostalgic reasons, but because it eliminated the possibility of easy information access while still making the setting suitably modern, a combination that contributed to Satoru attempting to solve the mystery of who killed Kayo (or rather, who would kill Kayo) in that he didn't have the tools that his adult consciousness was used to. Add in that Satoru's mom is easily one of the best parents in a medium where “negligent” or “absent” is the order of the day and Kayo's haunting essay about a town without her, and this hit more right notes than wrong. It choked in the end, but the rest of it kept me glued to the screen each week.
4. Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash
Honestly, I'm not sure if this whole show was technically one of the best, but it is the one I kept returning to over the course of the year. Not to rewatch (I really have no desire to do that), but to think about. As you may have noticed, 2016 was a tough year, and for me that included more family and friends dying than I've ever experienced before, including two to whom I was very close. That made Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash’s handling of Manato's death really striking for me. Not only was it unusual in terms of how anime and manga typically handle death and the grieving process, but it was also very true to my own experience. It was a touchstone I found myself returning to with each subsequent loss, and that suggests that as a series (because really, Manato's death was the point on which the show turned) Grimgar really did something right. The best shows of a given year don't necessarily have to impress you with their stellar production values, brilliant edge-of-your-seat storytelling, and iconic music. Sometimes they just have to touch something inside of you to make their mark.
3. Tanaka-kun is Always Listless
If Grimgar was the series that haunted me, Tanaka-kun was the one I thought about when I needed a laugh. Comedy is a really subjective genre, but this show just nailed it with a combination of different types of jokes, ranging from situational to slapstick to verbal. I cannot drink a milkshake without picturing Tanaka trying to suck his up through a narrow straw and Ohta has set a new standard for what I want in a best friend. That Ohta, Tanaka, and the rest of the gang also felt like real people (albeit exaggerated for comedic effect) helps to make this one of the stand-outs of the season for me. They were more than just weird guys who only exist in their high school setting; they have homes, creepy little sisters, and lives outside of school that aren't important to the show, so we don't see them. And we don't need to see them either – watching Ohta drag Tanaka around or seeing Tanaka figure out the path of absolute least resistance is plenty of fun all on its own, especially when you throw in the appearance-switching Shiraishi and the relationship between Miyano and Echizen. Tanaka-kun is Always Listless is just good fun, and gets bonus points for reminding me that judging based on just the first episode can make me miss out on some really great stuff.
2. Haikyu season 3
I've already raved about this series in weekly episode reviews and my best of the season for winter of 2016, so I'll try not to repeat myself. Haikyu’s third season is awesome. Like, edge-of-your-seat, swearing-at-the-screen awesome. At some points I had to switch to Yiddish to express myself, because no language is quite as satisfying to scream in. Yes, in large part it's the actual volleyball that's being played that is amazing, but it's also the way the characters interact and continue to evolve through playing, and playing together, that makes the show. You watch because you desperately want them to win, because you've been there for the previous seasons and you know what it would mean to them. It's less about “our team” and more about cheering for people you genuinely care for. I look forward to marathoning this when it comes out on disc.
1. Re: Zero
There are certainly plenty of other stories about ordinary people (guys, usually) being transported to fantasy game-like worlds in order to save the day or the girl, which are typically one and the same in the end. While Re: Zero does acknowledge, and in some cases use, those tropes, it also moves beyond them, not just in its conceit that hero Subaru can return to a “save point” before he screws up and dies like in an old King's Quest game, but also in that we don't know that Emilia is actually the best choice for queen – or even that her remaining alive will help the world. (In fact, I have my doubts given who her mother apparently is.) Instead it's all about Subaru's drive to do better and to save not just Emilia, but all of the people he cares about, and to above all get it right. In that respect it's a little like a fantasy version of Erased, but one that goes deeper into its protagonist's life by giving him not just one moment, but a series of them. When you add to that the vague suspicion that maybe Subaru's being manipulated into his feelings, which in turn prompt his actions – because come on, Rem has much more personality than Emilia does and is clearly the better choice – it also takes on a differently sinister tone, which in turn is almost lost within Subaru's self-awareness. I'm naming Re: Zero my best series of 2016 because it was not only fun (and at times gross) to watch, but because it gave me a lot to (over)think about as well. From genre tropes to underlying plot devices to arguments about “best girl,” this series is one I keep going back to and enjoying both as entertainment and discussion fodder.
Dokyusei is pretty light, but it makes up for that with its stunning, unusual, flowy art style, unlike anything I've seen in anime before or since. It also has a heavily female production staff, from director Shouko Nakamura through to the writers and animators—still an unfortunately rare feat in the industry. What's especially nice about Doukyusei is how accessible to anyone (including non-otaku) looking for good LGBTQ media or even just a nice high school romance. It eschews nearly all of the yaoi genre's unsavory tropes, making for a sweet same-sex love story that's still grounded in realism. I dragged an anime newbie friend to see it with me, and she loved it as much as I did.
4. Mob Psycho 100
I'm not really sure which one I prefer between this and the previous ONE adaptation, One-Punch Man. I just know I thoroughly enjoyed both. Mob Psycho 100 also has a terrific, hilarious set of characters, and strong core relationships in Mob's odd parental bond with Reigen and unknowing sibling rivalry with Ritsu. Overall, though, it's far less commentative than its predecessor. It's just a lot of fun psychic action, and that's helped along by Studio BONES' top-notch animation. My favorite was how the art style changed, taking on 3D textures, when the monsters Mob fought would show their true forms. There are few animation studios that could handle that so well. I'm glad Mob Psycho 100 was in the best of hands, because the material was too good not to be.
3. Lupin III Part IV
My heart belongs forever to Yuri!!! on Ice director Sayo Yamamoto's The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. But if someone asked me to pick the most "perfect" Lupin series, I would reach for this one. Blue Jacket uses similar character designs to Yamamoto's revisionist prequel, but reminds us of the franchise's original goofy heart. There are darker, mind-bending capers, but also silly one-off episodes focusing on everything from the usual Zenigata-Lupin tension, to a lesbian dog chasing women at the beach. It also finally introduced a second female main character in the form of Rebecca Rossellini, Lupin's new wife. She is sassy and confident, but has enough of her own qualities (like a bratty streak) to not just be a Fujiko clone. The overall result is a new Lupin that perfectly blends the franchise's many moods: it's funny and lighthearted, but adult, and knows how to get serious when it must. That, plus it all takes place in Italy and San Marino, against gorgeous cityscapes and rolling hills. What more could you want from Lupin?
2. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu
This series stands out among the queer-oriented anime on my list, as the only one with a more tragic, brutally realistic bent. That's fitting, though, for its historical context, set during and after World War II—not a time when it was easy to be a gay man. Anime doesn't deliver straightforward historical dramas very often; we're more likely to get magical alternate histories like this season's Izetta: The Last Witch. Rarely ever are they given this attention to historical detail, and with such memorable, rich characters. Their different personalities even come out in their different styles of rakugo. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is a powerful story about how art both reflects and consumes life, making it an interesting counterpart to my top choice.
1. Yuri!!! on Ice
I already dumped my feelings about Yuri!!! on Ice into the "best of the fall season" article, so for this I'll focus on how it works so well as a counterpart to my previous top choice, Yurikuma Arashi. The latter is a show that rages at societal homophobia and misogyny, and focuses on its characters overcoming them—possibly tragically, depending on how you read its ending. Yuri!!! on Ice takes place in a world where homophobia doesn't exist, and two men can show their love without anyone batting an eye. That's not to say that Yuuri and Victor don't have issues in their relationship, but they aren't based around them both being guys. Their story is achingly realistic, but focuses its angst on anxiety (which it portrays very well). This has been a year full of discourse about the right and wrong ways to write queer storylines and characters, both within anime fandom and in broader pop culture. I love these shows for how they fulfill two very different needs so perfectly. Sometimes you want to shake your first at the world, but sometimes you'd rather lose yourself in a better one. Yuri!!! on Ice is a thrilling vision of what the world could be.
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