The Best Anime of 2016
Zac Bertschy and Lynzee Loveridge
This year we're publishing our individual categories each day - click here for the worst anime of 2016!
This year was particularly stand-out with heavy doses of emotional sincerity, from translating teenage angst into bubbling psychic powers, the ugly process of breaking down and rebuilding the human super-ego, to the feeling of helplessness when watching a friend spiral into depression. Anime captured all those things and more this year to create compelling drama. Sure, there was also red-hot sports action and friendships built on the competitive court and magic high schools training their next round of elite fighters. There was definitely something for everyone and I had a hell of a time cutting out series that took thematic risks or were visually unique. In the end, I had to choose the shows that left me excited for the next week.
Still running high off creator ONE and Madhouse's visually stunning and hilarious One-Punch Man, many viewers and myself included had high expectations for ONE's other series, Mob Psycho 100. What I got was a completely different animal but comparing the two is as useful as trying to pick which is most attractive, a tiger or a wolf. BONES' production was uniquely gorgeous in its own way, using minimalist line-art during Mob's emotionally intense moments and making thoughtful use of sand art of all things. The deadpan humor of One-Punch Man is replaced by a more overt wackiness (one of the characters looks like a fart come to life). Mob's rising levels of agitation, intense psychic battles, and characters with sky-high hair made for a one-of-a-kind viewing experience with more than enough to tide me over until One-Punch Man returns.
Usually a perfect protagonist is a mark against a series; “Gary Stu” being an epitaph for lazy writing. Sakamoto certainly is perfect to a level of absurdity, but that's where all the humor and charm of this series lies. Sakamoto surprised me episode after episode with the lengths he went to sidestep out of a precarious situation. I never thought I'd witness, much less write, about a duel between a man and a bee. The enigma surrounding the series' picture perfect protagonist is never solved which is half the fun, really. There is no rational explanation for why a person like Sakamoto exists, leaving endless possibilities for the writers to manipulate him however they need to fulfill each episode's comedic adventure. He'll become a living embodiment of Darwin's evolution of man, talk his way into renting porn while underage, or explore the city with a kid and a roll of toilet paper. He's Sakamoto, don't you know?
In the middle of this year, one anime was having its moment and that was Re:Zero. I wasn't sure I'd stick with this show after writing up my initial impressions in spring preview guide, after all it just seemed like the latest “trapped in a game” entry with the singular twist that its hero, Subaru, respawns if he dies. As the episodes went on the series continued to defy my expectations, leaving me hooked at each ending cliffhanger. Subaru was insufferable, make no doubt about it, but writers even acknowledged that by spending much of a later arc completely tearing apart his self-indulgent hero complex. The show does have its slow stretches, namely the mansion story arc, but the story remains a compelling blend of fantasy action and politics.
2. Yuri!!! on Ice!
Director Sayo Yamamoto's Yuri!!! on Ice! came out of nowhere in October, whipped fans into a frenzy, temporarily broke the Internet (i.e. Crunchyroll and Tumblr) when its finale premiered in December. There was definitely an increase in female-targeted anime this year, specifically fujoshi, but few expected the culmination of that trend to be something as emotionally sincere as Yuri!!! on Ice!! The show starred an adult couple with complex pathos. Neither character filled their expected roles; Yuri shows his potential as a sexual force despite his lack of confidence and Victor aids his growth and shows his own vulnerability despite initially being set up as experienced. Yuri!!! on Ice!! is a unique example in anime romance and its lead couple take steps that few other shows ever reach.
1. Haikyu!! Seasons 2-3
Plenty of shows this year had me counting down the days until the next episode, but none had me staring at calendars as intensely as the second half of season two and the third season of Haikyu!! The former depicted the scrappy underdogs facing off against rival team Aobajosai and its king, Oikawa while the latter was an 10-episode match against powerhouse team Shiratorizawa that determined who would head to Nationals. Haikyu!! has succeeded again and again in the development of Karasuno as a team and showing how each member reaches the height of their individual abilities, whether that's overcoming self-doubt or learning to let go and enjoy the sport. I, for one, am not a sports person outside of watching some occasional college football. The back and forth of most matches rarely gets a physical response from me. The clincher in season two had me tearing holes in my sofa cushions while season three's penultimate episode elicited a huge sense of joyous relief. Following Tsukishima, who really was MVP this season, and the rest of the Karasuno crew along with Production I.G's stellar production continues to make Haikyu!! one of the best sports anime airing right now.
I wound up watching Re:Zero almost exclusively due to the hype – the first episode, featuring a genre-aware, painfully awkward MC-kun wandering around another light novel fantasy playground stocked with potential girlfriends, sent me running in the other direction. As the show went on, though, the community's reaction had that unmistakable smell you only run across every now and then – this show might have something to say, and was connecting, very deeply, with its audience.
That painfully awkward MC-kun wound up saving the whole show for me, and turned it into something special. Something about Subaru's particular pathos, his dorky pedantry, his totally f*cked-up, self-hating decision making process, all the way down to the way he speaks – it's a lived-in, authentic character. Someone you know, someone who reminds you of you a little bit, and that makes an incredible difference when you're trying to stand out in a genre as overcrowded as this one. Because Subaru is such a fully-realized, carefully written character, the light novel fantasy he's on is imbued with this sense that even though what's happening on screen is just as surreal as what goes on in any other light novel, the emotions on display, the way Subaru handles things, it all feels real – emotionally real. That's thrilling. And it doesn't happen very often.
This is only 6 minutes long, so if you haven't seen it yet, click play. I'll wait.
EDM magician Porter Robinson (listen to his entire catalog, he is an ethereal genius) wrote a beautiful song, dreamed up a story, then hooked up with A-1 Pictures through his pals at Crunchyroll and made this gorgeous and heartbreaking short film. Shelter represents a lot to me. It's the inspiring story of an artist I love pulling the dreams out of his head and sharing them with the world in a way that really touches people. It's living proof of the mind-blowing art we can get when passionate, inspired artists in America and Japan collaborate on something they believe in together. It also managed to pull in over 11 million views on YouTube, which I hope means a new era of totally kickass anime EDM videos, which definitely should've already been a thing by now.
3. Girlish Number
Girlish Number is by far the most cynical story I've ever watched about the anime industry; it's part of a multi-tentacled media project with novels and whatnot, and this show, written by the same guy who brought us SNAFU, feels like something he's getting away with. It splits its time between Chitose and the daily hustle (Chitose and the Hustle is a better name for this show) and the production staff, and it doesn't matter who they're focusing on - the result is the most trenchant, sometimes downright angry commentary on the anime industry I've ever seen in a professional production. It feels honest. Not in the sense that “this is the way the anime industry really is” – it's a dramatization, just like Shirobako – but the feelings on display, the warts-and-warts-and-warts-and-warts-and-all presentation, what the author is saying – there's so much fire behind it. This is what he really wants to say. I totally loved it.
I'm going to be honest with you - I couldn't stop rooting for Chitose. I called her “Cheetos” and would yell “YOU GET YOURS, CHEETOS” every time she said something horrible or stepped on someone to climb the voice actress ladder. I'll be here, cheering for you, Cheetos.
2. Yuri!!! on Ice
Surely you must be sick of hearing about how great this show is by now. I agree with all that stuff, and you've read it a few times now, so instead I'll tell you what the show meant to me personally.
Victor and Yuri kiss, and the entire world celebrates – the crowd goes wild, people can't believe it. Not because it's two dudes - we're not having a collective aneurysm because two men are kissing and that's either enraging or an enormous turn-on. People go nuts because – solely because - their love is dramatic and touching and everyone is rooting for them, because they seem like they belong together and their story is pretty incredible. None of that other shit matters – nobody cares. It's just two people in love.
I married my husband in October – thousands of couples like us got married this year. Our stories aren't as incredible as Victor and Yuri's, and I doubt many of us are ice skaters but let me tell you, it was real nice having a story like this to watch. Real nice.
1. your name.
Alright, it isn't fair for me to put this here – it opens in more US theaters next year, we'll have it on our “Best of 2017” user poll and you'll probably see it on more “Best of” lists next year – but I saw it last month in Los Angeles during its Oscar qualifying run and it's probably the best film I've seen this year period. It had to go here.
Makoto Shinkai's new movie made $300 million dollars at the box office because he managed to somehow reach inside the collective grief of an entire nation and pull out an entertaining masterpiece that rivals the best work of his peers. It really is that good. This guy – who started out as “the guy who made Voices of a Distant Star on his iMac”, already a celebrity - has been honing his technical craft and wallowing in his story obsessions for the last decade. With this movie, according to him, he set out to make something that would connect with a wider audience than his enchanted diehards who show up reliably for cicadas and country railroad crossings. It worked.
I think the thing that stands out to me most is the script. I couldn't help but wonder how much time Shinkai must've spent thinking about grief – unwinding it, digging in beneath it and trying to understand it from angles rarely considered in film. The story builds to such an effective emotional crescendo – one that simultaneously reveals how deeply the author thought about loss – it's a little unbelievable. But then, so is the global response to this movie.
If you haven't seen it yet, you'll see it soon, and we'll argue about it then, but it is absolutely the best anime - and maybe the best film, period – I've seen in 2016.
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